That Vision Thing

The name Tony Dungy may ring a bell for many of you, but his name may not be readily paired with the following quote:

“The first step toward creating an improved future is developing the ability to envision it. Vision will ignite the fire of passion that fuels our commitment to do whatever it takes to achieve excellence. Only vision allows us to transform dreams of greatness into the reality of achievement through human action. Vision has no boundaries and knows no limits. Our vision is what we become in life”

While Tony may not be recognized by most as a leader of organizational transformation, I’ll bet that most of the players he coached along the way might disagree. The lesson in Tony’s words is summed up as “vision is where transformation begins; it provides both the destination and the inspiration needed for successful transformation.”

So what is this vision thing? In simplest terms vision can be defined as a “unique image of the future.” It is imaging what is possible–and then telling others. It begins in the mind’s eye–it is visual, not verbal—and it uses imagination (something many of us haven’t used for a while in our daily work).

Walt Disney was a great example. He died shortly before Disney World Florida was opened. The president of Disney introduced Walt’s widow Lillian Disney at the official opening with the words “I only wish Walt could have seen this.” Mrs. Disney walked to the podium and uttered just two words “He did.” The clarity of Walt’s vision for what could be is what inspired Walt’s brother Roy, to ensure that Disneyland ended up as more than just a vision.

Some belittle the concept and refer to it as the “vision thing.” Interestingly enough Bennis and Nanus discovered in their research that “attention through vision” was a key strategy in their study of the top 90 business leaders. So there must be something  to that “vision thing.”

Here are some things to know about the power of vision as the cornerstone of transformation efforts.

  • It differentiates your organization from others
  • It helps in attracting, inspiring and retaining employees and creates a uniqueness that fosters pride
  • Vision works the same way with customers as it does employees
  • Vision is a powerful tool for giving investors something to believe in as the future is created

Effective leaders don’t simply impose their vision on others; they recruit others to a share vision. Especially in our digital age, when power tends to coalesce around ideas, not position. Selling and engaging others with a vision that contrasts the present with the possibility of a different future provides hope and it is hope that drives people to behave differently and to take action to help the vision become a reality. Discretionary effort ensues.

So how then does a leader access this “vision thing”? It starts with a word: Neoteny. Defined as “the retention of youthful qualities by adults,” it is actually much more. Neoteny is a Greek word that literally means the retention of those wonderful qualities that we associate with youth. Qualities like curiosity, eagerness, warmth, and energy. People are attracted to realistic optimism–it gives a leader the power to recruit others to buy into what they see.

By the way, this “vision thing” is not about words on a wall in the reception area. This is about the pictures that employees carry in their heads, pictures that inspire, direct and drive them as part of something bigger than themselves.

With a clear vision in place the only other things needed are the commitment and determination to continually reach toward the vision when it would be easier to go back to the way it was. So spend some time thinking about the vision that you carry in your head, articulate it and then spread it. Leading transformation starts with the leader seeing that “what is”  is no longer an option, and then developing clarity about what is to be and then communicating the heck out of it. That is how championship teams and businesses are created.

Organizational Transformation

Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over yet expecting different results. Organizational Transformation breaks through that insanity. It’s not about working harder—I remember working with several clients during the economic challenges of recent years, and helping them realize that working harder can only “fix” problems when not working hard caused the problems in the first place.

And who was going to admit they weren’t already working hard?

Transforming an organization is not simply improving results, no matter how significant. Organizational Transformation is about being a different organization, not just a better one. It’s change on steroids… that “step-change” that leapfrogs an organization into an entirely different—and better—place.

Organizations wanting to adapt, change, or transform cannot force such change through simple technical modifications like reorganization, re-engineering, or the like. You certainly cannot “save” your way there, nor create a budget or forecasting model that will do it. No, you can’t “spreadsheet” into transforming an organization.

This isn’t a quantitative exercise. If it were, I’d develop a do-all Excel spreadsheet for “Transforming Your Organization.” You would simply plug in your numbers, hit “calculate,” and out would come your winning formula for successfully transforming your organization. I would charge a bazillion dollars, have a private island in Tahiti, and wouldn’t invite any of you to come visit.

Don’t we wish…

To fundamentally transform an organization, you must first embrace a new way of leadership performance to better understand and address challenges and interpret business movements.

How does that happen? In my view, Organizational Transformation needs three elements to succeed:

  1. A clear direction, with equally clear expectations and specific goals. If you don’t know—or can’t clearly articulate—where you’re going, don’t expect to see a throng behind you;
  2. An engaged workforce; we’ll need massive quantities of discretionary effort, and the ability to discern positive directions without incessant oversight. That only comes from a workforce willing to do the right thing for the organization, with or without your immediate presence;
  3. Changed leadership. To change a culture—we must start with leaders. That’s just the reality. Leaders capable of moving the proverbial needle closer to transformation must first transform themselves, focusing less on operational leadership and more on focusing on flexibility, collaboration, and “collective” leadership.

There’s nothing inherently simple about Organizational Transformation, but neither is it beyond the reach of any organization. It takes vision, fortitude, and resolve. In other words, you’ve got to want it—really want it—to get it. Start there, move forward.

Coming Together — The people side of merger integration

One big, happy family… right?

Bain Capital. McKinsey. Deloitte… don’t take just my word for it; the single biggest reason for merger or acquisition failure is NOT costs, lack of synergy, incompatible strategy, etc.

It’s people. Failure to integrate cultures, directions, leadership and communities within an organization result in more failures than any market disapproval could muster.

Pay attention here: you’re paying big bucks for – usually – more than a simple asset. Realistically, even simple “asset purchases” are hoping for more than a simple Return on Asset; we’re always hoping for bigger, better returns that can only happen through the newly combined workforce talent. Again, “people.”

Let’s get right to it. I’m assuming you’ve competently determined that the merger or acquisition is a logical addition to your business. The technical part is fairly simple… a bunch of spreadsheets, a month or two of due diligence to verify the lofty promises, assurances, and statements from management. Now, let’s work on the more fickle side…

The most important thing to remember is communication.

Frequent, informative, helpful communications. The initial merger time is the most critical, since many of the employees in the acquired company will “overthink” the event, and may believe they will be summarily replaced.

Or, more important to key performers, that they’ll lose their “key performer” status.

Frankly, you may actually WANT to lose some of them, but don’t you want the opportunity, at least, to have some input to who stays and who goes?

If you intend to make cuts, announce them and do them quickly. The longer it takes, the worse the retention results. Be sure, if staff cuts will occur, that they occur on both “sides” of the merger equation, if you really want a successful post-merger story.

Read this closely: the longer you take to make the “who stays and goes” determination, the more high performers you lose. It really is that simple. Mediocre and poor performers simply fret endlessly, duck for cover, and hope to go unnoticed.

High performers don’t look at life – or their careers – that way.

And they have no intention of waiting around to see if you’ll give them a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. These people are infinitely employable, have probably got feelers out already, and in the absence of anyone helping them do differently, will look out for their own well-being.

Even to your detriment.

Next, assess the acquired company’s culture and strengths, and make the determination on what “works” for you, and what doesn’t. Once you determine what the “combined” culture will look like, no compromise — on either “side.”

Read that again. No Compromise. On the bus or off the bus. No one rides along for sightseeing. If someone – particular if influential and/or in leadership – gets to publicly buck the “new deal.” Like the three musketeers, it’s “All for One!.”

Remember — and this is ultra-important — there can only be ONE culture. Anything else will lead to fragmented actions, loyalties, and lack of direction.

Finally, be frank and open with the process. The worst thing that could happen is that the acquired employees lose trust in your integration process – they already ‘suspect’ you may not have their best interests at heart.

If my concepts above aren’t specific enough, here’s some detail on crafting a successful integration:

  1. Create an employee integration plan immediately. It takes hours, not days, don’t dilly-dally. Communicate that plan to others (both ‘”sides”).
  2. Execute to that plan immediately, quickly, and strongly. Patton was correct: “A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.”
    Time is not on your side here. The longer it takes, the worse the outcome… guaranteed.
  3. Decide where you’ll compromise — and where not — and hold firm.
  4. Communicate, communicate, and over-communicate. Rinse and repeat. Even “nothing new to report” is better than silence.
    People fill ‘unknowns’ with their own “knowns,” and they are generally not the information you’d prefer them using to make decisions.
  5. Clearly define roles, accountabilities, reporting relationships, and performance expectations. It’s the very core of the employee agreement.
  6. “It ain’t over ’till it’s over.” Don’t declare integration ‘victory’ too soon.

Prematurely hailing success has killed many an integration, as a couple of key people/groups look around and say “not from where I sit, bubba.”

Good luck. Fun but challenging stuff…

But that’s just me…

Rewards for Doing Your Job — Why would I do that?

But, Kevin, that’s his job!

An exasperated client exclaimed this to me after hearing—again—that she should get better at recognizing her folks, and to consider using regular accomplishments as the impetus, versus waiting for the one-off spectacular event.

She disagreed strongly, obviously. She felt that if people were just doing their job, they weren’t doing anything exceptional, ergo no recognition warranted or expected. “Their paycheck is a reward for satisfactory behavior,” she said. I’m sure no one reading this has ever uttered those words.

“Wrong,” I told her. “That’s just flat wrong.”

Since she is a football fan (assuming you actually consider the Jacksonville Jaguars “football,”), I used a football analogy…

I started playing school football in 8th grade. Mine was a small school, so most of us played both ways; I played right-side offensive guard and defensive linebacker. This is Texas school football, so believe me, they took it as serious then as they did through later years in high school.

Our starting quarterback was a guy named Gordon Williams, the son of our football coach (I’m sure that was just a coincidence). Gordon and I were friends before football came along, as we lived about 8 houses apart in a town of 4,500 people.

Anyway, we were playing La Grange, Texas (yes, the home of the famed “Chicken Ranch”), and we were trailing by a good margin. Gordon called a running play, handing the ball off to Albert Cubit (at the time, the fastest human being I’d ever seen), who headed straight for my right leg. My job was to pick up the middle linebacker who had been coming across unscathed most of the game.

And pick him up I did. Nailed him in the chest, likely surprising the daylights out of him, since I’d been something of a slug the whole game until then. Ended up laying squarely on top of him, while Albert pranced merrily into the end zone. Touchdown, Luling Eagles.

Now we were all happy, jumping up and down, slapping each other’s helmets (this was well before chest bumps and man-hugs), but Gordon cut through the crowd and the noise to reach me, grabbed me by both shoulders and said — yelled, actually—”Great job! Your block made this happen!” I beamed, I’m sure, like some stupid-looking 8th grader.

It wasn’t that I didn’t know I blocked, because I did. It wasn’t that I didn’t know we scored, because of course I knew. It was because I didn’t know how what I did actually affected the outcome.

You see, I was face down on top of that linebacker, and just assumed that Albert had done whatever magic he did when he had the ball. I didn’t realize that the team’s success at that moment was a direct result of my efforts. And all I had done was what I was supposed to do. I didn’t block two or three people, or chase down some errant interceptor. I simply blocked the one person I was tasked to block for that play.

And the team’s leader made me feel damned good about it. It’s been over 40 years since that game; I don’t remember any other play, game, or conversation. Heck, I have no idea of whether we won or lost to La Grange that afternoon. What I do remember, like it was yesterday, was Gordon Williams grabbing my shoulders, looking me in the eye, and saying “Great job!”

For “just” doing exactly what I was supposed to do.

“That which is rewarded is repeated.” It’s a basic tenet of compensation, and the foundation in changing human behavior. Don’t delay or save recognition in hopes of rewarding some heroic, superhuman event. Remember that blocking and tackling—the business kind, not the football kind—is what makes organizations and their leaders successful today. Show ’em some love.

But that’s just me…

(…and thanks, Gordon)

Am I Developing, Training, or Coaching? — Who makes up all these words??

Sometimes definitions can help. In improving leadership talent, it really does matter.

In the classic movie “Princess Bride,” Vizzini was fond of saying “Inconceivable!” every time something occurred that surprised him. Not once, but three of four times before Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinton of Criminal Minds fame) finally said, “You keep using that word—I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Great word, sounded neat, not used correctly. The same frequently holds true when we use words like “Training,” “Coaching,” and “Development” interchangeably. They don’t mean the same thing, and their differences matter.

Training is foundational. It’s providing information, processes and methodology, in a controlled setting. It makes someone qualified to learn the job. Note I didn’t say “qualified to do the job,” but “qualified to learn the job.” Too often we like to think that Training = Qualified. It doesn’t. After training, people need relevant application and experience to actually master the skills trained. And they’ll need Coaching.

Coaching speeds up the experiential process, ensuring that an employee is gaining applicable skills as quickly as possible, and avoiding undue distractions in their growth. Sometimes remedial in nature, other times aimed at making good performance even better, coaching is always skill-specific, connecting the knowledge gained from Training to the relevance and proficiency acquired through practice and experience.

Development is preparation for growth and further success. It’s not about honing skills required currently, nor is it Coaching for improved performance, even for high performers. Development is providing new experiences and understandings in areas, topics, and focus not specific to an employee’s current job. Those last seven words are important: … not specific to an employee’s current job. (admit it, you went back and counted those words, didn’t you?). And unlike Training and Coaching —both specific, finite efforts—Development is programmatic, an ongoing process. Empowering to do part of a supervisor’s job could be development, as could be rotational assignments, higher-level skills training (leadership for non-leaders, for example), and most real mentoring efforts.

Development gets a lot more press than its brethren mentioned above, since most true empowerment effort are a form of development, and those frequently create that holy grail, “Discretionary Effort,” simply defined as those added efforts that employees are not required to give.

Now you get to say, “I do not think it means what you think it means.” And of course, you can carry a cool sword.

Trust… Do you Really Need It?

When it comes to leadership development strategies, in most circles, trust gets a bad rap- particularly with quantitative or technical people. Why is this the case? Simply because people tend to think trust is a soft and fluffy topic, with an impact that’s really more minimal than crazy consultants like myself make it.

Trust is the Driver Behind Discretionary Effort

When I discuss executive development issues with clients, I tell them there’s a pretty good reason for worrying about trust and its connection to discretionary effort.  Discretionary effort is that extra element that your people don’t have to give you, but do. It’s above and beyond the requirements for keeping a job and anything greater than that minimum is solely the purview of the employee. The bottom line is they’re either going to give it to you or they’re not and that is almost entirely based on whether or not they trust you. (more…)

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