ENGAGING HUMAN PERFORMANCE TO DRAMATICALLY IMPROVE STRATEGIC BUSINESS RESULTS
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March 2008

A MONTH OF GLOBAL LESSONS

Leaving home in New York early March we’ve had a cornucopia of fascinating client engagements each of which have taught or involved critical leadership lessons. So travel with us over a month of learning and let’s apply these to making your living leadership more robust, more vital and more powerful

LONDON

The first lesson is about personal vitality. We land from an overnight flight and I have an engagement that evening. A 7 kilometer “power walk” through Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, a good lunch, a brief nap, and we’re ready to go.

I’m coaching members of a team who are grappling with silos, the need to consult early and to convert insights into results. These are all critical aspects of the leadership challenge.

When we are defined into silos, that’s how we operate. We splinter visions and derail value propositions that invariably cut across such contrived boundaries. Moreover, then all that can happen is that the senior leader has one on one exchanges with each direct report, making themselves indispensable. It also concentrates power unhelpfully in one person. The opposite problem would be holding a referendum on everything, which is clearly also not helpful. There is a level of appropriate dialogue that allows for engagement, joint creativity and ownership and which still focuses accountability where it belongs. This must be discerned and evolved, it is a key leadership skill and undertaking.

Many companies and operating units have grand, relevant, transforming ideas. But bringing ideas down from the mountain tops of creativity into the valleys of execution is a rarer skill by far. Bridging from vision to actuality is so rare that usually we have the pragmatists who keep executing away on yesterday’s vision or business model, or the wide-eyed visionaries who rail against an imperfect world for being messier than their private fantasy life. Ideas transformed into vital and imaginative action IS what leadership in one of its key facets is all about!

HONG KONG

I’ve long been an advocate of building in small pleasures wherever you go as a way to keep your own energies and spirits up. So upon landing, I nab our team and head straight to a favorite steakhouse where we’re welcomed like returning family and chided for our long absence. A martini, steak dinner, and bottle of wine later, I’m feeling no pain and Morpheus beckons invitingly.

This client is facing the latest in a spate of unrelenting restructuring. The key message I have to help deliver is that they need more strategy and less constant restructuring. A “structure” by itself is NOT a strategy. A strategy may mandate a new structure, but if so, restructuring being strategy-led is the right way around. It’s fascinating how the elementals of strategy, namely that it is about being different in a way that makes you sustainably (for some time at least) competitive (where your capabilities and the prospects of ample profits intersect), and requires both intentional visioning (committing to a compelling strategic direction) and emergent adaptation (antennae up and ready to respond to changes out there in the real world), are so rarely understood. So often even top tier clients will confuse “strategy” with a plan. The act of planning is not the same as deciding how and where you think you can distinctively win. As with so much else, Peter Drucker said it with disarming simplicity: “The real purpose of a business is to create a customer.” Amen. And then, arguably to create behavior, systems, processes and ‘Wow’ experiences that allow you to keep them.

PHUKET

A quarantined hour to catch up with work and a bracing swim are both invigorating. As is catching up with countless friends who are also clients at this global conference for a major client.

There is a leadership handover taking place. And one of the key elements is how can you establish a new leadership style without undermining your predecessor. And the key lies in the concept of a “Teachable Point of View” or TPOV made famous by Noel Tichy who sculpted this at GE in the Welch era.

A TPOV is simply what a leader most excels at, their predominant point of view, what they are best at teaching by example. The silliest thing we can do is judge all leaders to see if they are “perfect” (usually defined as their being the way I want them to be). Of course, they’re not and they won’t be. However, if I instead focus on learning from each leader what they are best at teaching, then each leader can become a stepping stone on my own growth journey.

The new leader of this group has a TPOV around driving execution and engaging teams to perform. His predecessor’s TPOV was in coming up with game-changing innovation. They collaborated well and were very aligned as they had complementary TPOV’s. Once this was understood and appreciated by the global audience, they relaxed. They were entering a new phase and the strategy now had to be brought to decisive, well executed life. And they needed to tap the collective intelligence and drive of everyone to make it so. Therefore, in order to truly fulfill the potential of the past, a new TPOV was needed. Everyone internalized it, “got” it, and responded with genuine enthusiasm.

We have to carefully be aware of our own TPOV and that of other leaders on our team. We don’t need a perfect balance, but we need enough healthy diversity and complementarity to create the caliber of results we are after. TPOV’s are usually a blend of our talent, our experience and our emotional predispositions. We can therefore influence it by working on and to some extent adapting the latter two elements and leveraging passionately on the first.

DUBAI

While living in New York, we also maintain a place in Dubai. After the above, it’s nice to be able to bum around for a few days in shorts, eat at a home, get some personal things done, etc.

However, we have a client engagement as well. A Middle-East based senior Board is re-evaluating their strategy. They’ve got the essence right they believe, but in their first attempt they didn’t go far enough. They now realize they have to be more customer based (right now they’ve been investing their primary shareholder’s wealth and doing it very ably), create a market proposition, attract the kind of talent that can interact with external customers, and build a real brand for regional if not global wealth management.

The building of a brand has to be the key plank of any business that wants to differentiate itself. Moreover, understanding that a brand is essentially a promise, we have to consciously choose what to promise, promise it in a way we can come through on, and communicate consistently enough to associate ourselves with the benefits of that promise in the minds of our customers and consumers.

What we can’t do is engage in attention-grabbing PR replete with self-congratulation that isn’t in any way validated in the experience of the consumer or relevant to the issues and challenges faced by the target market. “Awareness” and “trust” are very different things. We need to excel at both.

And then there’s another dimension. Brand gurus now speak of “lovemarks” being what brands need to become. Few brands consider if they are communicating that which could make them a true “lovemark”, much less prioritizing and innovating in that way.

Finally let’s remember, the real brand ambassadors are our team, and very critically we also have to ensure they understand the behavioral implications of what their brand signifies. It so often lives or dies right there.

PENANG

A Leadership Journey is always a fascinating challenge. We take leaders out of their comfort zones, into fresh and hopefully invigorating cultural contexts. We landed a day before and went to a local and quite excellent Chinese restaurant where we dined on excellent fish bladder among more prosaic delicacies (duck, beef with black pepper, Chinese broccoli, spicy fried prawns and more). We had two naturalists with us on the team, who live together in the mountains, they hunt for and grow much of their own food, and have a wonderful and occasionally mischievous sense of humor. They also recently had a pet python, who shared their bed (nothing kinky, it was just in the same way a dog may leap onto your bed to snuggle), and told us about their experiences connecting with a python as a pet! Talk about new paradigms!

During the Journey this team looked at many things, one of them was inspiring “discretionary effort” which has been written about in leadership literature as an excellent measure of how engaged people are. How much do they do beyond what they have to? What is the level and caliber of their initiative? And one key thing we learn is that you can’t recognize or motivate people through “one size fits all” approaches. Certainly in HR terms you need fairness, transparency, common policies and processes. But leaders have to be able to customize how they recognize and thank people and even develop them. If someone feels you truly want them to win, and that you will be their talent scout, success coach and put them into development crucibles they will grow and gain from, they will step up the plate in ways we can’t command and don’t expect.

In order however to adapt ways of recognizing people and of enthusing them, we have to get to know them. You can’t lead, team with, inspire, encourage or meaningfully catalyze, someone you don’t know. If “know thyself” is the first commandment of self-improvement, “know thy team” is it’s team leadership counterpart.

In the words of the tribal greeting: “I am here to be seen.” A leader must convincingly convey the appropriate reply to that greeting: “I see you.” How else can I ask you to follow me?

BANGKOK

The Oriental in Bangkok is a soothing, sensual, sybaritic oasis, nepenthe for battered nerves. We were there imbibing some of its many pleasures in the aftermath of the Penang Journey which was a kaleidoscope of cultural, physical and emotional stimuli. Enlivening but also something mandating a recharge in the aftermath.

While in Bangkok I have a number of coaching conversations. One key theme that emerged which was to be a recurring theme of many subsequent sessions is that leaders produce impact. Yet often we are unaware of the impact we produce. Or rather we assume the impact will be the same as our intent. Yet others are not us (and so have different responses and reflexes), they don’t know our intent, and evaluate us on our actions. Ironically, we judge others on their actions and pooh-pooh any suggestion they had a different intent from the way they’ve behaved. But we believe that WE deserve to be evaluated on our good intentions!

When I can make my peace with the fact that my impact is often quite different from my intent, or that I affect people in ways that are either more extreme or frequently very different than I realize, I then become conscious of my leadership communication and the need to re-jig aspects of how I connect and relate.

Feedback is usually a painful thing, it’s better administered by those who also acknowledge our gifts and contributions. They have more credibility because they are willing to be in a balanced relationship with us. Yet Marshall Goldsmith’s point about going more often for “feedforward” in the sense of future-creating and future-based requests that allow us to put our energies into what we can change rather than what we can’t (the past) is an excellent compass.

I have to learn the impact I have on numerous others. Those I report to, peers, those who report to me, customers, other partners and stakeholders. One or more of these relationship dimensions could be seriously imbalanced, or else I may discover I have a pervasive pathology (for example cutting people off, not listening well, nitpicking faults, over-delegating, not following through, etc) that extends to everyone at home and at work.

If I can ask a variety of people for proactive “feedforward” by highlighting an area where I experience frequent inadvertent friction with others, or feel often misunderstood, I can discover how I come across and elicit multiple suggestions. Whether you buy the specific suggestions or not, awareness is more than half the cure. As Carl Jung has said, “You can’t change what you won’t first accept.”

Facing reality fast about our organizational challenges as well as our own personal leadership challenges is the high road to excellence.

ON THE ROAD AGAIN

We’re in Singapore heading off to Hanoi, then Athens, Dubai again, and then back home to New York.

New lessons doubtless await and many past learnings will doubtless be reaffirmed. As leaders we have to realize that when we meet with our teams or gather together our key stakeholders…both all the problems, and all the solutions are inevitably right there in that room or in that gathering.

That means we can create change…but we can only ask for change, if we are willing to be changed ourselves as well. We can’t demand progress without the will for personal adaptation. And as I say in my recent book (more on that next month), if you have to ask for change, for evolution, for candor, for communication, ask yourself first. When you do, and you respond visibly and emphatically to that request, then others will respond in kind when you then turn to them asking them to join you.

You will then be really leading. And your team and colleagues will then very likely help you help them and their organization WIN!