ENGAGING HUMAN PERFORMANCE TO DRAMATICALLY IMPROVE STRATEGIC BUSINESS RESULTS
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April 2009

LEADERSHIP INSIGHTS

It’s not every month when a conflation of events almost begs to be captured and codified in a set of simple yet impactful points. All of these key insights that follow have been winnowed from client interactions, coaching sessions, or senior leadership consulting sessions. I’m convinced that if these are understood, taken to heart, and applied to any extent…your team, your organization, your business results, and your own mettle as a leader will ALL benefit!

Not All Costs Are Created Equal

A blizzard of cost-cutting has taken place since the beginning of the year. But there has been scant imagination or discernment applied towards differentiating “good costs” versus “bad costs”.

So companies have eliminated daily newspapers and fruit deliveries, hacked away at travel, frozen salaries and variable pay, decided ‘learning’ of all kinds can wait a year (or so), shed Conferences like unwanted scabs (one wonders why some of these mindlessly take place each year if they can be so readily jettisoned) and more.

Some problems first relative to this type of cost cutting: First, some people should travel in tough times, others shouldn’t. This has to be assessed on a value basis, not via an indiscriminate chainsaw. Some should possibly travel more (key account representatives for accounts you want to safeguard at all costs, salespeople with historically higher closing ratios than the average, leaders who in lieu of a Conference have to travel out to engage their global teams in various geographical hubs). Second, certain types of breakthrough achievement, should get recognized. Either variable pay was being doled out irresponsibly in the past, otherwise I can’t fathom why truly raising the bar during this exceptionally difficult period should not merit a financial ‘thank you’ (even if somewhat muted). Third, certain types of critical development may only happen this year, because there’s some slack. Indeed ‘nice to have’, non-strategic, non business outcome advancing sessions can be postponed. But again this requires judgment, not an across-the-board axe. And arguably if there is a new leader for example, or a truly dispersed team that needs to align budgets, efforts, priorities and energies, a Conference may be critical. It may not need all the bells and whistles, it needn’t take place at a Balinese resort…but again this requires thought, and balancing of costs on the one hand and value on the other, along with some creativity to assess how to make necessary engagement happen.

Another raft of problems exists however relative to costs we tend NOT to confront and tackle. What about conflict and turf wars at the top? Is that an acceptable cost at this time? Or should we take that on before the fruit delivery? What about turnover of top talent, fleeing as they are told to do more with less and given no good reason to care? What about the cost of customers lost as we cut corners, lose our service spirit, spend less time with them (as it might involve a plane trip), or dull the edge of our innovation (unwilling to take potentially expensive risks)? What about all the meetings that still take place siphoning off time, energy and credibility, with virtually no tracking of commitments made? What about opportunities to win we’re not seeing because we’re in a reactive, retreating posture?

There are costs and there are opportunity costs and we cannot afford to forego value at this time — particularly not high strategic impact value — something which tends to happen as much by what we don’t do.

Soft is Hard

Anybody who has been in the leadership game for awhile knows that strategies are abundant across the corporate landscape. Failed companies have elaborate analytics and five year plans as well as flourishing ones. What the mere presence of plans doesn’t reveal is the quality of insight.

Leaving even that aside any veteran leader will say that execution matters almost more than the strategy, and the saw is that great execution of an average strategy will trump listless or unfocused execution of a world-class strategy.

No company became great because of a strategy or a vision statement. Leadership can be almost defined as enabling people collectively and individually to fulfill their potential while producing strategically significant (to the organization and the market) value.

The “soft” elements are supposed to be people, teams, communication, attitudes, behaviors, emotions, focus, passionate engagement. Yet as you list these things you realize these are really “hard”. Not only are they “hard” to generate, calibrate, catalyze, coach, inspire, track, sustain, mobilize, much less synergize; but they are probably the difference that makes the difference between exceptional results and pedestrian ones. These aspects cannot be ordered into existence…they have to be nurtured. In fact a mismatch between the strategic agenda and the behavioral realities as we alluded to last month, is probably, other than a disconnect between the collective goals and individual agendas of leaders, the biggest reason that surprisingly good strategies deliver shockingly bad results. Sins of omission loom larger here than sins of commission.

Dealing with human beings as we are, and seeking to produce results through them, and ideally wanting them to volunteer their passion, we can see how inescapable, fundamental and critical such soft/hard engagement is.

Tis the Season…to Apologize?

Tom Peters mentions in his award-winning Blog two books on the importance of apologizing and how to do it well. It’s fascinating because I’ve noted that this is an aptitude that has suddenly come of age.

In the aftermath of catastrophic financial meltdown when allegedly intelligent people were either on a thorough reality-avoidance crusade or resolutely asleep at the wheel, it seems that genuine remorse, and graceful apologies at the very least are called for. Giving back some bonuses, not paying stratospheric amounts to people on the grounds that we won’t be able to keep “the best people” without “breaking the bank” (metaphorically), would also be welcome. This last leads one to ponder if this is the mess “the best people” got us into, could we have some dullards for awhile and see how we fare? Banking was once a staid profession and whole economies didn’t rise and fall based on financial engineering. You feel almost nostalgic for those times…

Robert Bolt who penned the immortal play MAN FOR ALL SEASONS (about the life and convictions of Sir Thomas More) also wrote THE MISSION (converted into a rather compelling movie starring Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro). The book has a fascinating exchange between the protagonists, a Jesuit Priest and a bounty hunter who in a fit of passion has killed his own brother and is now wracked with remorse. And the Priest in helping this traumatized ex-killer towards redemption, differentiates between ‘regret’ (wishing you hadn’t been caught, wishing you could have avoided the consequences you’ll have to face) and ‘remorse’ (a genuine sense of shame, a deep acknowledgement that something was wrong, the inability to conceive of doing anything like that again, a redefinition therefore to some extent of yourself).

Leaders show their character by disarming criticism and cynicism not by evading a situation, but by stating it without distortion, accepting responsibility, apologizing appropriately when need be, and leading the organization (through their behavior as much as by anything else) decisively in a new direction.

I dealt with a service provider who wanted me to try out their new car service. The day they offered me a complimentary ride wasn’t convenient for me, I had confirmed to a long time friend who was providing the car transfer service for us that day (this gentleman is a ‘trusted advisor’ for me when it comes to ground transportation at home in New York). I suggested an alternative day when I would be happy to preview their service. They bristled and asked how I could possibly refuse this service on the day they wanted to offer it. I pointed out it was an unsolicited, unsought “benefit”. Clearly they were trying to motivate trial…something companies around the world seek to do through their marketing and advertising.

They said they probably couldn’t get it approved for another time and then had the audacity to say I should have been more appreciative of the offer! When I pointed out the absurdity of this, they eventually got back to me and agreed to offer it another day (by this time I was utterly uninterested in the offer), but never once thought to apologize for their horrible handling or their patronizing belief that this was a “favor” to me (at a time when I don’t particularly have any reason to value their new service and wasn’t angling for a free ride to the airport, and would accept it on a day convenient to ME, not to THEM). That service provider has switched account managers for me, they’ve done everything BUT the one thing that would put all this behind us…a simple, gracious apology.

Proactive apology, rather than rampant militant denial, keeps disaffection from becoming active dissatisfaction, much less anger or worse customer defection. This applies also with colleagues and partners. Apologize first and fast and move on. You don’t have to be an apology junkie, but it’s hardly an area we are likely to overdo it in. Do it when and where needed. It’s the fastest ‘reset’ button that exists.

Communicate Across the Board (this is an excerpt from my Blog, www.theglobalconsultant.net)

Human beings will as a last resort, having exhausted every other contrivance, dodge or option, possibly at last ‘consider’ communicating!

I recently booked into a bastion of fine dining in New York City, for my wife and I, and a special guest. I love the place, so I’m holding off on naming it. Also, because they’re not unique in this disability…not by a long shot.

We had spoken to the Manager. A special menu with wine pairings had been ordered. Numerous communications had gone back and forth to fine tune all the arrangements. The day before the planned dinner, we got the typical call asking us to “reconfirm” our booking. I asked a colleague to remind the Manager he knew full well we were coming and to make sure everything was in order.

The day of the dinner, another message was left on my voice mail! “Please call us as soon as possible, before noon, to confirm this booking.” Ye gads! How much reassurance did they need? Surely after meticulously aligning on the menu and wine choices, it would be more than quixotic to just not show up. And we had called the Manager again the day before!

Then the penny dropped. My colleague said the Manager probably hadn’t told reservations! The Manager apparently has no idea that reservations staff are maniacally drilled to call, no matter what. To relieve them of their palpitations, I called again. They confirmed the booking but had no idea we had a “special menu”. It would have been nice if they had known and without my asking had said casually, “Of course we’re looking forward to welcoming you, the special menu and wine pairing are all in order.” Another black hole of information! I had to cough up the name of the specific manager so they could ensure there was no further misunderstanding. Even then, the gentleman said, “If there’s a problem, I’ll call you back.” How reassuring! On the day itself, if there’s a problem…”

I recalled that at another fabled restaurant, I again had made arrangements directly with the Manager who knows us well. Despite that, there were a number of zealous, persistent, unrelenting calls insisting we call and confirm, even though the Manager and I had exchanged emails about the occasion just a few hours back! So this isn’t an isolated anomaly. It’s an epidemic!

And it’s endemic to organizations at large, not just restaurants. Systems are set up and administered, absent any common sense. Information is received in one location and not shared elsewhere, so that colleagues cannot offer a seamless service rather than pestering the same person to pledge once more their resolute intention to appear!

During the heyday of the Total Quality movement, and then the Business Process Re-engineering movement, and frankly every day since then, gurus and researchers alike continue to report that one of the greatest sources of waste in organizations is interdepartmental conflict. Dig deeper, and an alarming percentage of that just comes down to inadequate sharing of information, poor consultation between functions, no attempt to co-create rather than to ‘territorialize’ things. Why? It’s easier to hoard than to share. It’s easier to believe that if I know, others can find out. It is organizational service narcissism.

Do everyone a favor. We have IT, therefore it’s potentially easier than ever to share information. If not, we’re just automating stupidity and inefficiency…and we can now perpetrate THOSE at the speed of light! So let people know what you learn that is of relevance, and make sure there’s a feedback loop from the leader to those on the front line.

Communicate avidly and proactively (rather than reactively and truculently) with those who are a critical part of the value and experience you deliver…as a first instinct, rather than as a last resort. Do that consistently, astutely, insightfully, rather than hanging out in your own functional bunker. Make that the way things happen in your business and then watch out for the avalanche of delighted, profitable business that increasingly comes your way!

How To Keep Change Attempts From Being Sabotaged

Leaders realize that the most visible part of the iceberg of change is behaviors. That’s how we signal over time where we are coming from. These behaviors are certainly far more credible than our pronouncements, press releases, or other varietals of personal spin.

That said, if we dive too fast from behaviors into sponsoring emotions we can agitate a veritable hornet’s nest. Then we’ll elicit denial, anger, confusion, feet-dragging, evasion and all their kissing cousins. But if we can bridge from behaviors into intellectual processing, by getting people to think clearly about the potential mismatch between their aims and goals and how they are behaving, we can create a solid intellectual basis for change. When that provides the scaffolding, we can then investigate emotions.

Emotions then can be managed as self-interest becomes a referee, and behaviors over time remain the litmus test.

Smart leaders therefore move from how we behave, to improvements in how we process the world and an expansion of our paradigms in line with what we wish to achieve (utilizing results produced and evident evidence as a way to keep denial at bay), to then finally the fossil fuel of all real change — our emotions.

We can then share our emotions, find their positive intent, and focus their energy productively. Leaders will challenge and support in equal measure to help their colleagues stay true to this journey, blending unromantic confrontation and compassionate empathy, each in their place.

Scenarios May Matter More Than Strategies

When the story of our current global economic travails is written, it will demonstrate the fact that it wasn’t those with the best strategies that survived or thrived, it was those with the best responsiveness.

It may be that being fit for change, evolution, adaptation, and ready with the appropriate corporate, team and individual resources is the height of strategic capability.

It may be important therefore to look at various scenarios of the future, assign probabilities, be clear what would be early warning signs of a particular scenario coming to pass, have some provisional responses and hypotheses ready, but then move fast, to fail fast if need be, accumulating evidence and experience as new realities are experienced.

Being stuck in a strategic rut with outmoded reflexes and attachments is not a demonstration of how resolute you are, but how dogmatically, tragically blinkered you might be.

The field of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) had as one of its core intellectual founders, the systems theorist Gregory Bateson. One of Bateson’s seminal observations was that the most successful system will inevitably be the most adaptable one. In fact, the lineage of the thought may be more venerable still. Charles Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’, is essentially survival of the most adaptable.

It’s true in corporate biology no less than biology at large.

In Defense of Deviants

Research shows that teams that keep a relatively consistent membership tend to outperform over time those that have constant changes in their make-up.

There are exceptions. You may inherit a team that is inbred, incompetent and full of people who can’t hack it. Or you may find good people producing a bad team, because their chemistry is appalling and their willingness to evolve is absent.

But then, once you make the shifts, continuity works. Because then team-members have time to build on the familiarity and trust established and focus on the result they are together as a team to produce. Otherwise, the team has to ‘re-form’ over and over, and undue energy goes into team maintenance, transition or transformation, rather than performance.

The danger with continuity on the other hand is complacency. One of the key antidotes is to welcome, honor and even nurture some deviants, some devil’s advocates, some contrarians. As long as they are committed to the team and its members, and aren’t cynical about the team’s aims, then their divergent take on what makes sense, how to move forward, their challenging of collective assumptions, their desire to forge a different path, is a way to keep the team sharp, animated, alert, and vital.

As the saying goes, “Blessed are the cracked, for they let in the light.” And if we let them, rather than trying to homogenize them, the light they let in, will shine on our team and the results we’re together to deliver.

Leaders produce leaders, not just followers. And part of being a leader is being an original and looking at the same thing with new eyes. Honor this in yourself and others, and you’ll cultivate it (Plato’s insight a millennia ago on this is still the standard-bearer on this front).

Waste of Coaching

As a coach I say this with some care. Many companies opt to provide individual coaches for team-members. Alas, tracking of actual results for the team or the business shows uncertain results from this approach.

This isn’t hard to understand. People tend to use coaching as a private venting exercise, or select areas of improvement they themselves value. At times PDP’s or 360 degree assessments are also employed, and these can provide some ballast. Nevertheless if the coaching is in no way wired back to the performance management of the business, or to the leadership or team accountabilities of the person, and is just provided as a ‘facility’ like a car or a PA, it’s really suboptimal.

Most people deliver their work in a context. They are a part of a team, or lead a primary team, or operate as part of a network. The best coaching results have been demonstrated when there is some concerted coaching that takes place across such a network or team, is validated in the crucible of real interaction and achievement by stakeholders who truly have a ‘stake’ in that person’s improvement in these dimensions, and in a way that is reciprocal — i.e. there is an enveloping attempt to coach growth in tandem, not just in terms of isolated and possibly excessively individualized dimensions.

Nothing says an aspect of the coaching can’t still be very personal and intimate — but if provided by a company, it should provide value to organizational performance, and therefore it needs the right context and transmission belt to really make a difference.

Three Questions to Master

You can save some money on what I’ll call ‘discretionary’ consulting by mastering three key questions. Whenever anyone tells you of a problem ask ‘how do you know?’ You’ll be astonished at the gossamer web of innuendo, assumption and factual confusion you’ll often be met with. Just getting that clear will help you ensure your leadership energies go to tackling real issues with real value.

The second question is, ‘Why are we sure this is the best way to tackle this?” People fall in love with their proposals and lose sight of the business impact they are meant to be furthering. By doing this with an eye to exploration (not cross examination), you’ll get people to look at various scenarios, do some downside planning, perhaps consult others, brainstorm new options, perhaps prototype rather than being infatuated with what first occurred to them. All of this will pay rich dividends. You’ll have coached them, mentored them, and arguably enabled them to deliver far better results.

Third question, “What impact are we after here?” This forces us to make sure we’re aligned as to ends, that those ends are the right ones, have the right degree of relevance, are going to be assessed and measured in ways we agree on and understand, and hopefully will advance our strategic goal-posts. There is sometimes such a rush to activity that we forget to investigate what the aim is. This brings us right back to the issue of cutting costs as a prime example. Is the aim to be more competitive, to use this time to shed excess and liberate more value, or is it just to spend less in a corporate anorexia initiative? Once that’s understood, choices can be made more insightfully and with more impact.

ROUNDING UP

These observations aren’t linked by anything in particular, other than being distinctions that key leaders and their teams have found to be highly valuable in making a difference to their businesses, their customers, their teams, and themselves.

Collecting a week’s worth of insights of your own personal list of “leadership lessons” or “team insights” mined from that week, would be a wonderful idea. Not only will you build on what you experience, you’ll extrapolate from it to create the beginnings of your own leadership philosophy, a basis for your own “point of view” and leadership wisdom.

As an exercise, with your team, start a new week, or conclude an old one, with a round-up of what we have each learned and how we’re going to make next week more successful as a result. Then encourage and coach each other accordingly, course-correcting along the way.

The trajectory of your growth and progress as a result will be increasingly exciting! And the benefit will be not only yours, but also that of those you deliver with and contribute alongside. That’s leadership!