Top 10 Client Lessons from 2019

Another year in the books (or the cloud, or wherever we store history these days). In 2019, we worked with executives in healthcare, technology, contact centers, financial services, higher education and more, and we’ve helped them become better leaders who developed more leaders. Along the way, we had the privilege to help their organizations grow, transform and improve, and in doing so, we saw some noteworthy trends we thought we’d share with you. If any of these sound familiar, learn vicariously from the collective and use this as a catalyst for improvement.

We’re all people first. Relationships before processes. Relationships instead of processes. It’s intuitive that employees do better when change is their idea; we’ve learned that the same thing holds true for the consultant-client relationship. More shut-up, more listen.

Leadership is a contact sport. We’re all busy with a host of really important organizational and administrative tasks, but if you’re in a leadership position, leading is your primary job and not an additional duty. It’s not that idiotic term “soft-skill” if it’s the one you need to do your basic job. You can keep busy staying in your office, but you can’t develop authentic, trusting relationships with those you lead from there. Don’t let busyness become an excuse for half-hearted leadership.  

Even the best need help. Michael Jordan had a coach. Tiger Woods had a coach (back when he was good; now… who knows? ???? ). Tom Brady and LeBron James have coaches. Sheryl Sandberg, Jeff Bezos and Sundar Pichai have coaches — even Oprah Winfrey has one. 40% of Fortune 500 CEOs fail within 18 months; 82% of them because of relationships. This isn’t a push for our executive coaching services; it’s a reminder (from our clients) that even those we consider superstars “need someone.” They need help to grow, develop, and continue their superstar status. Leading at the top is hard stuff, and having someone to advise and counsel — and just listen sometimes — is crucial.

Leadership development isn’t an event; it’s a process. If your leadership development program is solely an HR-led, one-and-done training seminar, you’re doing it wrong. It’s just not effective. Top leadership support for development is essential, and only individuals at the highest organizational levels can create a climate that encourages a continuous learning environment.

Often, you have to choose sides. Leadership—and consulting—has risks. In this profession, too many try to be all things to all people, tripping over non-committal PC verbiage. We must stop. Sometimes we have to tell the CEO that the SVP of Operations has the better plan to consider. It’s what’s best for the client that must always drive our actions, advice and counsel.

We can do two things at once. No, no one is advocating individual multi-tasking, but organizational multi-tasking is a must. We simply cannot focus on just one strategy, direction or objective. We must have the leadership bandwidth to move multiple objectives forward while still dealing with the occasional organizational fire.

Process cannot overcome culture. There is no single 12-page Guide to Leadership; if there were, I’d have written it, become a kazillionaire with my own island and you wouldn’t be invited. If an outfit’s culture is not conducive to, say, empowered decision-making, then for Pete’s sake don’t allow some outside consultant to teach or coach on empowerment or high-level delegation. Work on the culture first, then use leadership “pull” instead of consultant “push” to marshal through necessary objectives and behavior changes.

Talk’s cheap; meaningful conversations are priceless. Most senior leadership teams declare themselves to be great communicators… and they’re usually not. Not with each other or their employees. Think about the conversations you have around the conference room table. Are they about hard things, or are they guarded to ensure everyone “gets along?” Trust is never built hiding behind the thin veneer of playing nice; it requires authentic and meaningful conversations. Collaboration and deference look a lot alike. They aren’t.

Don’t stop doing what works. We saw this so many times in 2019 that we felt compelled to remind you. If you’ve changed a process (or put a new one into place) to correct a problem, don’t quit following it when the problem goes away. That’s like stopping your blood pressure medicine because your blood pressure isn’t high anymore. It’s hard enough to implement a new process and get it to stick; having to do it twice is self-induced suffering.

Check your ego at the door. When leaders let their ego influence decisions, they become deaf to the messages their behavior conveys, and blind to how others perceive those messages. Ego is the major culprit behind leaders who won’t admit they might have been wrong or refuse to show vulnerability. When the little green monster keeps us from making good objective decisions, we lose trust not only from those affected but also from those who watched – and don’t even think no one was watching.  

I can only imagine what I’ll learn from my clients in 2020.

Be Brazen.

A physicist, a preacher and an Iman walk into this bar…

Though that has all the makings of a great joke (appropriate apologies to those easily offended), I just wanted to highlight the diverse uses of today’s topic.

The three characters mentioned above are the most frequent users–or at least, most frequently referenced–of the Principle of Before, also referred to as the Empirical Priority Principle. Seems physicists thrive on making complexity from the simple… but I digress. Defined, The Before Principle “…asserts that within the circle of the world, what comes before determines what comes after without exception.”

Lots of examples for this. Battles before victories. Sweat before gains. Planning before execution. Investment before returns. If you want to win the lottery, you buy a ticket first.

So, let me add Management Consultant to the list of characters above (luckily, consultants are not easily offended). And let me better, more simply define The Before Principle: “You’ve gotta do this first.” And this applies to Leadership in a big way. For example…

Feedback–you’ve got to give it first to others, before others may be willing to give it to you. And I don’t mean just criticism; positive feedback is information provided solely to help someone grow and improve. Are you doing that today? If not, don’t expect to receive valuable feedback for yourself.

Respect–You receive respect from others, above or below you in the organizational food chain, after you first give them that respect. Listen. Show you care about them. Be courteous. Include when appropriate–or even close to appropriate. Give credit where due, and recognition frequently. Show gratitude, always. Keep your promises. Be on time. Respect isn’t tolerance, nor does it mean you like someone. It’s a positive, ongoing behavior acknowledging someone’s abilities, accomplishments and worth. You don’t deserve respect because of your position, you are afforded the opportunity to show respect for others. Don’t screw that up.

Trust–The holy grail of leadership. We need lots of things to be good at leading; we need trust to lead at all. Frequently called “The currency of leadership,” never is the “Investment before returns” more true. You want folks to trust you? Trust them first. My close friend Richard Fagerlin (author of Trustology) likes to say that trust must be given, never earned. I believe that to be true, but I also believe that trust given freely is usually returned. No, I don’t live in a Pollyanna world, and yes, there are some people simply not trustworthy. For those few, we steal from Ronald Reagan: Trust, but verify. But we still must trust first.

Empower people to do their jobs. Understand that well-thought mistakes are learning events, not cause for a beating. Focus more on outcomes. Realize that more often than not, employees want to do a good job. Our job, then, is to let them. Get better at saying yes. Don’t expect someone to trust you if you haven’t shown them trust first. Ain’t gonna happen.

So, this Principle of Before may not have its roots in leadership vernacular, but it’s pretty darned pertinent for those wanting to lead. It’s actually the very basis of leadership, when you think about it:

Lead first, then others will follow.

Be Brazen.

How’d you do last year?

Did you get the things accomplished that you set out to do at the beginning of the year? Most of them? Some of them? Any of them??

If so, great. If not, why not? Now–right now–is the best time to answer the following questions:

  1. Regarding those things successful last year, what made them so? Was it because of me and my leadership, or in spite of? For those I lead, have I appropriately recognized their successes?
  2. If we failed to accomplish some of our plans, goals, or objectives… why? Was it because we failed to do something we could have done, or were there really—really–circumstances beyond our control (honesty is important on this one)? For those I lead who performed less than satisfactorily, am I addressing that performance appropriately?

While you’re asking questions, how have you performed as a leader? Have you asked anyone… like those you lead? If not, now’s the perfect time. And I don’t mean just “hey, Jane, how am I doing as a leader?” Strangely enough, that might not actually elicit a meaningful response.

Consider a 360 survey if you haven’t had one, or haven’t had one recently. I’ve had lots of clients asking for them of late, so something good must be in the water.

Alternatively, you can DIY with something simple, like Start, Stop, Continue.

Sit down, one on one, with those you lead directly. Tell them you want—need–their feedback to improve, and to make their jobs better (and likely easier). Tell them you’ll be asking three questions, and you would like at least one input or response for each question. Then ask…

What should I Start doing that I’m not doing now?

What should I Stop doing that doesn’t seem to help you or others?

What should I Continue doing that you feel is positive?

Ask the questions, then shut up while they answer. No defensive drilling down, no “but what about…?” comments, nothing but “thank you for that input.”

If you’d like a simple worksheet for this, you can download by clicking on the image to the left.

And don’t forget to follow up with them in a few months to see how you’re doing with their inputs.

Be Brazen.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Does Leadership Development

Leadership development that worksDADT

This is always an interesting and pertinent topic to me, as the beginning stages – creation, if you will – of leadership development efforts are where success/failure is determined. Implementation is simple, as is (generally) curriculum development.

“How” and “Why,” then, are easy; the tough part is “What?” I’ve got leaders, I’ve got the resources to apply, what skills, then, do we “develop?” My take:

  1. It’s not the economy, stupid. Yes, current events and environments matter, to some degree. But don’t let a full development plan be overly influenced by current, uncontrollable events, or fads created by some renegade consultant or academic hawking a new book.

The only things that matter are those that directly and specifically impact your organization.

  1. Don’t ask, don’t tell. Don’t ask potential participants “what do you think you need?” They don’t know, from an organizational perspective. Speak to and interview those leaders’ boss if you want to know what behaviors work. Those folks feel the pain of under-developed leaders.

Discover what behaviors they wish their subordinates had, and why it would make a difference.

A major hospital system client had “challenges” within their senior team. Recent acquisitions and expansions left them with the “old” guard and the “new,” and determining – and supporting – what was really important to that group took multiple conversations with stakeholders above and beyond those directly affected. We can be too close to the forest…

  1. Line ’em up! This is crucial: make sure that any leadership development efforts align closely with business goals and objectives. If we missed some last year, what behaviors caused us to do so? If we have big, honkin’ goals for the future, what skills and behavior will our leaders need to reach them?

These are the things that matter.

And don’t forget – any effort like this requires some metrics in place to determine success. Before and after snapshots can help show “change,” as well as available business measurements.

Leadership development is crucial, though not necessarily difficult. Stay focused on what matters, avoid hype and fluff, and showcase the results. Everyone wins…

Be Brazen.

3 Key Strategies for Effective Training (of any kind)

Training is essential for success—always has been, always will be. But like everything else, not all training is created equally. Nor is there a one-size fits all when it comes to teaching employees. And that’s true for leadership – technical, interpersonal or whatever it may be. But there are tried and true strategies for success that can lead to more effective employees, a happier workforce and a better organization. Here are 3 key strategies for training employees that can make the process more endearing for all those involved. (more…)