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.

Weaknesses aren’t Kryptonite, they just aren’t strengths…

Not too long ago, I worked with a group of executives for a fast-growing client.

Two things struck me as interesting, and somewhat of a paradox: First, they were all reasonably successful in their jobs (and their jobs were substantially the same, just different geographic regions). Second, they were all incredibly different. Yes, they each had similar core characteristics, such as intelligence and work ethic. In other areas, such as sales, marketing, people management, organizational skills, strategy, planning, and so forth, they were all over the charts.

So what? Well, I’ll tell you “so what.” You hear a lot about understanding your “strengths and weaknesses,” then you’re supposed to work on your weaknesses, right?? Sort of like the big Superdude combating kryptonite, right??


Let’s look at it differently. Let’s assume that succeeding in a position can be done in any of several different ways, using a variety of skills. With that reasoning, you don’t have strengths and weaknesses; you have learned skills and skills you have yet to learn.


So, then, we should then simply “learn more skills,” right??

No, no, no…

We should, instead, clearly identify our skills, since we know that we can succeed with them, and work on improving our strengths! That’s right, improve our strengths, since we already know that they work for us. Learning new skills is time consuming, and depending on application, may or may not work for us the way they work for others.

Now, this logic assumes current success, so don’t confuse this with those managers who are clearly unsuccessful, though I would argue this could help them with their improvement also. In other words, as Bum Phillips (retired Houston Oilers coach) would say, “Dance with who brung you.”

Use the skills you have — improve and hone them to a razor’s edge — and continue your increasing levels of success. Over time, identify some additional skills you would like to pick up, and develop a plan to learn them in a reasonable time and fashion.

But don’t break what works…

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.

Some Coaching Advice – Gratis

I coach several individuals; most at a fairly senior level, some in mid-management.

Some are remedial efforts; in other words, we’re trying to get an otherwise-valuable employee to step it up a bit in performance. These are challenging, but it’s positively great to watch the progress.

The rest are for those already operating near the top of their game. Those folks for whom we’re trying to give them that “extra” edge. That 1% improvement for which, in their hands, makes a significant difference in the success of the business.

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…)

Just thinkin’ out loud here…

There clearly are several significant workplace trends looming in front of us that we would do well to recognize. I’ve mentioned many of them here in this blog. Additionally, other authors, consultants, and practitioners have also done a good job of trying to predict the future.


As with all pseudo-science, however, some of it is pure bunk.

For instance:

Baby-boomer retirement, and its purported “sucking sound” on available talent, is quite possibly much ado about nothing. Let’s look at it logically: The definition of a baby-boomer is someone born between 1947 and 1963 – spanning almost 2 decades. Couple that with the current trend of later retirement, and you have a group of people born over a 20-year timeframe, retiring individually 55-75 years later at various ages. At best, it’s a non-event; at worst, it’s generational in nature, and very specific to population demographics — for instance, it’s clearly more prevalent in the midwest than in either coast, or in the top 10 most populated metroplitan areas.

Organizations are realizing that generational issues are not materializing as expected. No big surprise, really. We’ve been dealing with diverse workforces for a hundred years, including race, gender, and age — “generational” differences aren’t any more significant, and merely require purposeful thought to overcome. Workers do not have to view society, the world, and the workplace equally to be productive. Frankly, I believe we’ll see more of employees just “coming to work to work,” and less senseless attention on those things that don’t directly effect their ability to be productive.

So, when futurists write columns and books, and read the tea leaves to determine where we’re headed, use your noodle and some common sense before blindly drinking the Kool-aid.

A big trend that does needs attention – there is clearly a growing dearth of leadership talent available. This isn’t as much a function of baby-boomers leaving as it is our desire for new, fresh leadership at a time when the leadership “bench strength” is at its weakest. Many hyper-performing employees don’t necessarily view management as a logical progression from their current assignment, and we haven’t done a good job of painting a favorable picture of becoming a leader (think SOX requirements, jail terms, bad publicity for poor performance, etc.). Further, many of those extended-career boomers don’t necessarily want to work that “extension” as a high-stress leader. We better start growing managers and leaders – and fast!

In short, many real trends, contrary to those consistently broadcast like chicken little’s falling sky, are as much a “movement” in the workplace as they are trends.

Changes – they are a’comin’…