Hey, this stuff works! — Whouldathunkit??

Apologies for the length. We recently received an email from a junior executive we had worked with for several years. He left the client company about a year ago, and decided it was time to let us know what he thought of us. For those who know us well, you know this could have gone several ways… 🙂

Ed. The tuna reference will just have to remain a mystery… feel free to ask one of us if it’s bothering you to untoward proportions.

2017 Survey of Senior Leadership (SSL)

>We just completed the survey in late November 2017. Not too many surprises from other years, or from our general expectations. Some of the results can act as a decent reminder for us all.


The top five business challenges began with Operating Cost Management. This remains consistent as #1 or #2, year after year. After speaking with many of you participating, it’s become clear to us that frequently this is mentioned as the result of challenges elsewhere. You may be concerned about operating costs, for example, because your management team is missing productivity or effectiveness targets…

…which is a great segue into the #2-ranked business challenge: Management and Leadership Performance.

Something near and dear to our hearts, obviously, and it seems to be a priority in your world as well. A couple of things stand out, particularly after a few follow-up conversations:

  1. Succession planning is still like the pea in Princess and the Pea; a continued challenge obscured by twenty layers of present-day priorities. We have to get better. Naming a potential replacement at the last moment is not “announcing a succession plan,” it’s replacement planning, and frankly, shows a lack of planning in general.
  2. Leadership pipeline development, the next-level from succession planning, is on many minds. Consider constant aging and retirement of boomers coupled with developmental shortfalls with our younger generations, and we’re headed toward a perfect storm. Someone must lead the rabble.

Individually (personally), your top challenge was managing change while maintaining focus. Gone are the days where each change gets summarily vetted through the organization prior to implementing, ensuring wide swaths of buy-in. No, we’re discovering what it’s like to change the oil in a car while driving down the road. At 80mph. In the rain. With our mother-in-law sitting in the back seat telling us to slow down.

It won’t get easier, though I do hope we can get better at it. Leading change is a learned skill, and though generalizing a bit, appears to be a key characteristic of some of the younger generations. Maybe join forces?

Staffing challenges will not lessen any in 2018, it seems. 36% see a slight increase in staffing for 2018, almost 10% see a significant increase with 44% staying the same. That leaves only 10% looking at reducing staff size in 2018. The war for talent rages on.

We’ll provide more detail from the survey throughout the year. Please download and utilize as you see fit and let us know if we can answer any questions. We’re here to help.

Don’t Care What You Call It, Just Choose it & Do it!

Political leaders (I uses those two words together with great caution) claim that “the buck stops here” and “they are ultimately accountable.” Corporate chiefs claim they are “ultimately responsible.” So which is it and what do they mean?

I’ve spent the better part of the last two weeks scouring the internet for some definitive distinction between the two words–accountable & responsible–and how to use them correctly. Through reading volumes of contradictory articles and papers (written by people who, given the confidence of their opinions must be much smarter than I am), I have reached a profound conclusion–people should use the word they are most comfortable with, and regardless of the one they choose, do something other than just say it!

A prime “non-political” example of what I am saying came during the recent NFL flap involving Ray Rice, when Commissioner Roger Goodell stepped up to the microphone and proclaimed, “Unfortunately, over the past several weeks, we have seen all too much of the NFL doing wrong, that starts with me.” “I got it wrong in the handling of the Ray Rice matter, and I’m sorry for that, but now I will get it right.” He went on to say what he was going to do. I’m glad he’s working on getting it right, but he still got it wrong.

In the end, he will or won’t “get it right,” but I take issue with people (political or otherwise) who take “responsibility” only after being forced to do so. This, in my humble opinion, is a perfect example of the problem as I see it; too many people find those words easy to say but don’t give them the meaning or weight they deserve.

So what does “accountability” really mean?

First and foremost, I believe it means that you accept personal responsibility for what’s expected of you. When things don’t go as planned, don’t blame others or an external environment. Own up to the outcomes regardless of whether or not your actions specifically caused the problem. Demonstrating accountability is acknowledgment that there are things you could have done (even if you don’t know what they are), or still can do to change the outcome, and commitment to doing them.

When we fail to take ownership, we yield control (victim status), and being a victim is the exact opposite of being a leader. Victims blame, point fingers, deflect attention and make excuses. Leaders focus on what they should have done, can do or should do, and take action by seizing the initiative to influence the right outcomes.

I had a client a while back that wanted help shifting the mindset of their field management team to one that was more “accountability” oriented. To do that, I started with a very simple graphic (which by the way is one of my favorite coaching tools) and explained that good leaders take ownership of and focus on what they can control and refuse to waste energy and time on the things that they can’t.

Prior to the session I asked all of the managers to identify one or two barriers to meeting the business objectives. The range of answers I received was as varied as the people that provided them, but with rare exception they pointed to things other than themselves as the barriers. Not what I expected, but it actually played perfectly into my meme. I’ll speak to some of the types of barriers related to difficulty in hiring to make my point. I heard all kinds of reasons for their difficulties–poor candidate pools in their markets, poor service from their third party advertising firm (low applicant flow), even poor screening by their pre-hire assessment system.

When I mapped out their responses in the appropriate circle (based on their paradigm), the consistent theme was that they were victims of circumstances beyond their control. After I brought that to their attention, I asked, “So what part of that situation do you own?” The initial looks I received were interesting, and as they processed the question and their answers, I saw light bulbs starting to go on. Finally one of the managers raised her hand and said, “I can’t control the labor pool in my immediate market, but I can look in other markets.” Then another raised his hand and said, “I can’t do my own job advertising but I can work with our third-party vendor and give them feedback with regard to the low applicant flow.” The managers were beginning to “get it.”

Demonstrating ownership/accountability/responsibility is about focusing on what you can control or what you can influence, not succumbing to victim status by living in the “no control” circle.

Let’s circle back to Goodell for a moment and dissect the situation to see how well he owned the situation. Goodell missed a huge opportunity, in my opinion, by stepping out in defense against calls for his resignation–rather than immediately admitting his (not the NFL’s) mistake. The opportunity he missed was in giving his words weight and meaning. Had Goodell (you can substitute any name) immediately said what he said and then added, “I am taking ownership of this, and if I can’t resolve it, I’ll step down” then and only then he would have been taking responsibility and demonstrating true accountability and ownership.

The same goes for any leader. We have to get past the lip service we give to the topic of “accountability” and demonstrate it by pointing at ourselves and taking action – not making excuses and remaining the victim.

One example that stands out in history is James Burke, Chairman of the Board for Johnson & Johnson during the Tylenol tampering disaster that occurred back in 1982. Burke’s ownership of something that was outside of his control (for the moment) was a life lesson for leaders. He immediately went to the media and took ownership (buck stops here): this is what we are doing and what we are going to do–and then he went and did it. When they discovered the root cause of the problem, they didn’t find it by looking for blame, they found it by looking for how their actions allowed it to occur and took action accordingly.

The impact of those actions were huge. The costs was pulling over 31 million bottles off the shelves in stores everywhere and offering free replacement to any customer that requested it; on top of that came a Tylenol re-launch (well over $100 million in direct costs). The benefits were what mattered, and they were tenfold (or more) the costs, as Johnson & Johnson’s stock price initially dropped (based on the ensuing panic) but fully recovered within two months. I offer that example, not just because it is a great one for demonstrating real ownership (proper circle management), but also its impact. People have much more confidence in those that take and demonstrate accountability than in those that abdicate it. Had Burke not taken ownership and instead blamed the person that did it, or minimized the risk to anyone outside of Chicago, consumer confidence likely would have worked against the brand and, subsequently, the share price and shareholder value.

Burke shows that accountable leaders do four very distinct things when taking responsibility:

  1. Make heavy use of the pronoun “I.”
  2. They are specific about the decisions they make and the results achieved, and about when their decisions do not make the expected results.
  3. They are NOT victims and refuse to wallow in remorse or self-pity.
  4. They spend their energy taking actions to correct the problem, not blaming others or their environment.

We all probably remember far more examples of organizational managers not taking ownership than we do those who took real accountability. Far fewer people become infamous for falling on their sword than for spearing others. It’s a fairly simple idea, but because it takes a special person to do it, it’s not always easy.

So which circle are you living in?

Indecision Kills-And you’re holding the murder weapon.

Leaders need to engage periodically in some serious introspection and decide whether or not their decision-making style or the culture they’ve created is mortally wounding organizational performance.

I learned that lesson as a by-product of a traumatic experience over three decades ago. Early in my flying career, in close proximity to another airplane also traveling at 400+ mph, I heard a magical phrase from my instructor that’s stuck with me ever since: indecision kills.

First, though, he said, “I have the stick.”

That meant he was going be in control of the airplane for a few minutes while giving me instruction and advice, and in this case, saving my life. It was clear to him (but not to me) that if I didn’t hurry and decide which course correction to make, my indecision would result in a catastrophic mid-air collision.

While not normally fatal in the corporate world, leadership and management indecision still kills. Among other things, it kills employee morale and motivation, productivity and project momentum, and causes our customers to lose confidence that we can be responsive to their needs.

Indecisiveness is caused by a number of factors, primarily fear of failure. Much has been written about decision-making processes and steps that those who have trouble being decisive can take. But I’ve yet to find a magic pill that managers can take that makes them less hesitant to make a “good enough” decision in an environment where imperfect decisions are frowned upon.

I have the stick for a minute.

Several years ago, our director called his senior managers together and boldly announced, “We take too long to make decisions. We’re going to start making decisions faster so we can make more decisions, and if we make a bad decision, at least we’ll have time to make a better one.” Heresy in a bureaucratic institution with an entrenched, hierarchical decision making process. But he was a leader, and we did start making better decisions without getting bogged down in staff morass.

I’m not suggesting all decisions need to be made quickly and neither was he. What I am suggesting is that leaders need to continually evaluate the effect their decision-making style is having on the organization, and the decision-making culture they’ve created for their managers. When leaders create an environment where employees feel empowered and decision-making has been appropriately delegated, managers are more willing to make timely, good decisions without waiting for perfect information.

And that reduces the mortality rate for employee morale, keeps promising projects from getting bogged down, and increases customer responsiveness.

Leadership is an activity, not a position. That activity includes making sure you foster an environment where the decision-making process doesn’t paralyze the organization and mistakes aren’t always professionally fatal.

Back to you, leaders…

You have the stick.

Leading Today… looks eerily like leading yesterday– What’s up with that?

Tom Peters is a smart guy. Most know him as the über-consultant, detailing how leadership should really work in the pages of In Search of Excellence, one of the best books written (way ahead of its time) on empowerment, employee engagement, and real leadership impact.

What many don’t know, is that Peters is a former McKinsey-ite, a 4-square model practitioner from way back. His previous employer recently invited him back for an interview—sort of a “how do things look now?” The article, you can read it here, is typical Peters—irreverent, direct, almost “in-your-face.” I loved every word, and I’ll tell you why: This guy gets it. Like no other author on leadership, Tom Peters gets it.

Here’s my take-aways from the article:

  1. Confusion is here. And it’s ok. Tom recently took 18 months off (if “off” is the right word) to read up on nearly all recent business and leadership tomes. His conclusion? “I’m more confused than when I started,” he said. Leading business is hard work. It’s holistic in nature, and needs a constant, complicated barrage of consistency, innovation, congruent behaviors and kick-butt changes. There’s no 12-page guide to this stuff; you try, you fail, you blow something up… you get some stitches and you get better.
  2. To continue that theme, there’s no experts, only those who try, succeed, then go try again. Even the best experience failure; the difference is, to paraphrase Einstein, knowing that failure has clearly identified one more way that won’t work. In that way, failure is a success. If you look at it with a long-term lens. Peters thinks that no one really knows what they’re doing, so success means trying, succeeding, trying, failing, and then trying again. All the time. I think he’s right.
  3. You’re in a fast group—you’ll need to study. Development is non-stop. Read, listen, learn. Get a coach (ok, that was a veiled marketing thingy), attend training (another thingy), stay on top of your game—it’s evolving, folks, at a pace we can barely keep up with even if we try earnestly. To even think status quo is to rapidly fall behind. I’ve been studying, practicing, and teaching leadership for more than 30 years; I learn something—no kidding—with every new session or client, whether first-line supervisor or top-of-the-food-chain CEO.
  4. It’s the people, stupid. Culture drives organization success, and people drive culture. No office building has ever invented a breakthrough drug or cutting-edge chip. No stock ticker has ever convinced a customer to stick around even though we tried mightily to drive them away (are you listening, United Airlines?). It’s about the people. It’s only about the people. Says Peters, “You’re in the people-development business. If you take a leadership job, you do people. Period.”

I happen to think he’s right.

Organizations don’t succeed because of strategy—any company can buy a strategy from McKinsey, Bain, or even me. They succeed (or not) because of leadership. It’s that simple. And it simply hasn’t changed much in a couple thousand years.

Leadership is dead; long live leadership.

Leadership and the Health of Conflict– Why can’t we all just get along??

Healthy conflict: Good. Unhealthy conflict: Bad. There endeth the lesson…

The key, of course, is knowing the difference.

I frequently say that when reasonably intelligent, well-intentioned people disagree, the organization is better served. By reasonably intelligent, I don’t mean an IQ number—just that the person communicating has enough mental snap to understand and discuss the issues at hand. And by well-intentioned, I’m simply referring to those without some boneheaded personal agenda.

So, we’re working on a complex project. Opinions are buzzing around like mosquitoes during an August Houston evening. We’re cussing, discussing, arguing, persuading, etc. Generally a good time being had by all… and then it happens:

Unhealthy conflict rears its ugly head.

How do we know? Simple… conflict bridges from healthy to unhealthy when those involved in a difference are no longer willing or able to consider others’ views and alternatives, and thereby set up a win-lose confrontation.

No longer willing or able to consider others’ views and alternatives. Even if baked in truth, simmered in fact, and stewed in verifiable data. In other words, we’ve begun using emotions alone to decide the fate of the discussion. Logic has left the building…

You know how you can tell? You hear phrases like, “Yea, well, I just don’t agree…” or “I hear you, I just believe you’re wrong (or whatever emotional outcome is desired).” These, and phrases/words like them, mean we’ve entered the unhealthy zone of conflict, and we’ve got to find some ways to get back on track. For some methods and tools, see my blog post, same subject.

So, who cares? Why bother? What does it matter? Why should we spend one whit of effort on addressing unhealthy conflict? Well, besides the fact I just successfully used “whit” in a sentence (my grandmother would be proud), there are three significant reasons we should be concerned about unhealthy conflicts in an organization:

  1. Most conflict is born of miscommunications. That’s right—the vast majority of conflicts we see and enjoy are driven by communications missteps, rather than an argument of facts.

    That’s why the “Logic has left the building…” comment above. Factual arguments seldom lead to unhealthy conflict. Disagreements, yes. Arguments, maybe. Near-violent discussions, sometimes. But unhealthy conflict? Rarely, since the very basis of unhealthy conflict is an emotional attachment to a position. That attachment was probably solidified when someone challenged the position with opinion, not fact.

  2. Understanding needs versus wants is the key to resolution. Most of the time, conflicts occur when we focus on our wants instead of our actual needs. If both parties (or however many are involved) would instead determine and focus on their needs, we could make immediate headway.

    “I need all deliveries to be on time” is likely a want. “It’s important that deliveries be made with enough time for me to inventory and prepare the parts for installation—about 45 minutes—prior to forwarding to manufacturing” is an underlying need that drives more timely deliveries. “On time” is a position taken that doesn’t necessarily represent a factual need—a want. “In time to inventory…” is a need based on demonstrable fact. See the difference?

  3. Unresolved conflicts degrade trust. Always.

    Sometimes we “get over” a conflict, meaning that we force civility, feign acceptance, and disguise acquiescence as agreement. But the conflict, yet unresolved, still exists. And as long as it exists between people, the level of trust will decline. Since trust is the very currency of leadership, and since enhanced levels of trust allow and encourage discretionary effort, these unresolved conflicts are damaging—to both the leader involved as well as the organization as whole.

When you see a conflict go to the dark side—unhealthy conflict—recognize it for what it is, and address as soon as humanly possible. You’ll be better for it, as will others. Exemplary efforts are what we do, as leaders. Critical here when dealing with unhealthy conflict.

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