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March 2009

WE FOLLOW BEHAVIORS

I read a startling truism some time back. Namely, that in companies (and arguably no less in life), we tend to follow behaviors not strategies.

There are numerous twists to this observation. At one level you can say strategies show up in behaviors, so the reason we follow behaviors is they broadcast the REAL strategies. A strategy document or a business plan is a statement of intentions, it isn’t necessarily a living manifesto or a real call to action. Arguably they should be…but very often, they’re not.

Another aspect of this is that strategies are often seemingly arcane and abstruse, complex and multi-layered, at least to the perception of people on the front-line who have to take action in the immediacy of the moment. Hence they use as their compass, the expressed priorities, the mode of behavior, and the evident focus of key leaders. These are the people they know they have to impress, who often hold the keys of the bonus/increment/promotion kingdom, and more. Viscerally, this matters a lot more to people who have to execute than the lofty proclamations that emerge from the latest senior leader ‘summit’ with its Power Point orgy and flip chart frenzy. Most team-members know that amnesia attends most of the so called ‘commitments’ that come out of these exchanges.

Therefore, very simplistically, if leaders wish to make a maximum impact with minimum cost and wear and tear, behaviors and calendars will do. Our calendars proclaim our values, our priorities and where we feel we should invest most of our energy. As a leader, inspect your calendar, and those of your direct reports, and you’ll get far more stark, gritty and real feedback on what matters than by inspecting a drop down menu of stated corporate goals.

In addition to the calendar, use consistent behaviors as an ongoing print-out of both culture and strategic priorities and you’ve pretty much got a complete bag (allowing for and forgiving occasional melt downs, blow ups, or moments when we’re temporarily deflated and not ourselves).

Following this logic, and using this lense, let me share a smattering of experiences and observations and let’s see what the behavior evidenced, the actions almost reflexively taken, tell us about the ethos and imperatives that animate these situations and organizations.

AIRLINE IDIOCY

BA X 1 and Virgin X 2

Somewhere in some bit of airline conventional wisdom, someone has concluded that it is hazardous for passengers to wear ear plugs during descent. Having sinus troubles and a deviated septum, I resolutely ignore them. For me, ear plugs make the 10-15 landings I go through each month bearable. I’ve been advised to use them by my ENT specialist. And given airlines trying to save fuel costs by depressurizing faster than ever, and planes therefore plummeting as fast as they can, I feel it’s needed now more than ever.

An offficious BA person finally revealed the alleged ‘rationale’. According to her, this was to ensure I could hear a safety announcement if there was one! She told me this while I had earplugs in my ears! As I could hear her over the drone of the airplane, why did she suspect I couldn’t hear a broadcast?

“What if we had to ask you to evacuate the plane?” she said as if this settled everything. “While in flight?” I asked incredulously. She went away muttering. Perhaps she meant if we had an emergency landing. But surely I would realize if that happened — even with ear plugs! Her opening line will be with me always, “You’re not allowed to have anything in your ears when we’re descending.” Anything? What are the various options? A cucumber, a pet, a popsicle?

I leave it to you to ferret out what this behavior, after I explained my medical condition in particular, communicates, especially when the rationale is on the fringes of lunacy.

Not to be outdone, I was then treated to two marvelous examples from Virgin Atlantic.

We were flying back from London on a redemption ticket for Upper Class (the highest class of service that Virgin provides). When you fly Upper Class on Virgin, that comes with a complimentary Chauffeur Drive service. I requested this. They told me since mine was a redemption ticket, it meant I could fly in Upper Class, but there would be no Chauffeur service.

I asked why if this was a ‘thank you’ for having flown a gazillion miles, they would want to treat premium customers to a less than complete ‘Upper Class’ experience. The agent bristled at my suggestion that I would be getting a substandard experience, pointing out that I was getting the full service as outlined in the small print in their ‘Flying Club’ pamphlet relative to redemption tickets. Therefore they were exonerated!

I suggested that legally they were indeed off the hook, and if enshrining pettiness in small print weasel clauses is what served to endear the hearts of customers to you, indeed it was a coup. However, promising you’ll provide a substandard experience doesn’t make the experience any less substandard!!! Amazing that companies feel that stating an internal ‘policy’ is a magic wand you can wave to transform stupidity into lucidity.

Not content with this, when we actually were trying to fly out, the Virgin check-in lady said my wife’s surname was shown in her passport as ‘Freeby Khan’ — which is her married name (Khan) preceded by her maiden name (Freeby). My wife’s full name is ‘Leslie Carol Freeby Khan’, so the US Passport authorities spread the four names out in that fashion. But on the ticket, originally issued by Singapore Airlines (a far saner service provider), it showed ‘Leslie Carol Freeby’ as the first name and just ‘Khan’ as the last name. I kept waiting for the issue. All the same names, photograph, frequent flyer card (with again all the same names). But this bureaucratic dunce said the US authorities would give us grief if there was any anomaly. Security personnel in Heathrow were called, who said it was a non-issue. Singapore Airlines personnel got involved, said it was the same set of names, how they were allocated by various authorities was irrelevant. A Virgin supervisor had to finally pry a boarding card from the manic clutches of this nutcase, this after I pointed out we’re both Americans, land home about 10 times a month minimum, and no US Immigration Officer, despite their bad press, is nearly daft enough to squander time on where one of the middle names is filled in, as long as it’s the same overall name! We made our flight with barely minutes to spare.

If this lady was doing what she was supposed to, then Heathrow security personnel, Singapore Airlines and US Immigration don’t know what they’re doing. If she is the one bastion of rectitude in this narrative, then a massive retraining effort world-wide is needed post-haste. Otherwise, Virgin attempting to explain her obstinacy as they did as some type of virtuous attention to detail, while we were having a horrendously grim time getting on board on our bloody redemption ‘thank you but no thank you’ ticket, underscores again an infatuation with internal face-saving rather than any measure of customer care.

I’m sure it is nowhere written in Virgin’s strategies or values to make Upper Class passengers feel cheated by their redemption tickets or feel truly vexed beyond measure at check-in — but nothing in demeanor, or handling, or empathy, or responsiveness, suggests that those aren’t the actual expressed priorities on the ground. Until that is addressed, all the PR fluff in the world, all the standing bars in creation airbrushed in glossy magazines, won’t make a lick of difference.

HOTEL NONSENSE

En route to one of our Leadership Journeys (check out ‘Leadership Quest’ under ‘How We Can Help’ on our website, or see some of the photos of the most recent one on my Blog, www.theglobalconsultant.net under ‘Journeying’), we had to overnight at a hotel on the outskirts of Oxford.

As it was a quick overnight, we said we’d stay anywhere nearby. And ‘anywhere’ alas is what we got. The Barcelo Oxford, part of a group that also has glossy pamphlets of their allegedly ‘luxe’ properties and splashy pictures (contrived via distortingly positive camera angles), was our overnight abode.

Our colleague booked into a regular room, my wife and I into what is dubbed a ‘Premier Room’. These ‘Premier Rooms’ even have a special sign on them, emblazoning them as the choice digs in the property. The regular rooms were 45 British Pounds, the Premier 75 British Pounds.

As my wife went to check in, she tried to clarify which of us were in which type of room. The check-in clerk cut her off, saying incredibly, “The rooms are exactly the same, no matter what they’re called.’ My wife asked why they had a different designation and why we were paying 30 pounds extra then. He said something as opaque as, “That’s how you booked, so I have to charge you accordingly.” In short: ‘You drew the short straw, we tricked you, and even knowing that you’d probably never find out, because you’re unlikely to go and survey each other’s rooms, I’ll confess, rather than have to actually allocate you to a specific room!”

We insisted however, that the right people end up in the right category of room. Somehow I trusted the web descriptions more than Mr. Mule. Though there were others at the desk, they looked on with bored apathy as we trudged through an extraordinary check-in experience. There were three of us, two sharing a room (my wife and I), two rooms each with an appropriate rate. As if this were the most challenging of Sudoku puzzles, three attempts later, he still had the wrong people rooming together, in the wrong room with the wrong rate. We took over, filled it in ourselves, read it to him so he could input it into his system, and made it to our rooms, to discover upon sharing experiences the next morning, that the ‘regular’ room was even more avidly claustrophobic than the ‘Premier’. Mission accomplished Barcelo!

At the end of our Journey we ended in one of Barcelo’s ‘luxury properties’, the once superb Lygon Arms in Broadway. We stayed in their top suite and the shower water reeked as if it were a chemistry experiment gone wrong, no one could get an Internet connection unless standing halfway between the door and the courtyard in a Yogi posture, our heating was erratic and inadequate in the suite though temperatures were in the low 30′s at night and the wind whistled eerily if atmospherically through more than one aperture…

Again, reflexive behaviors, lack of room maintenance, general apathy and haplessness. How much do you want to bet none of these are in the vision statement, strategic priorities or annual goals of Barcelo Hotels? And yet as the leaders behave, as they tolerate and possibly also underwrite all this with their own lackluster responsiveness, so does this get inculcated and established. And all the rhetorical blandishments in the world won’t move the needle in the right direction then at all.

CORPORATE NONSENSE

Let’s leave the teetering worlds of indifferent hotels and vainglorious airlines and go to companies with global gravitas and international heft.

I’m thinking of a specific client that has turnover in the tens of billions of Euros and owns some of the best known brands in the world. They have a project management discipline that is supposed to guide how projects are led and executed throughout their global network.

However, in five of the last six leadership exchanges I’ve facilitated for them around the world, this project management discipline has been raised as being erratically applied, improperly understood and often so excessively bureaucratized that it blurs rather than makes vivid any line of sight to real business gains or goals.

This is a company that needs to improve margin, accelerate growth, battle for share in one of the toughest economic climates in memory against some of the world’s best and most savvy competitors. And yet it hasn’t bothered to crack something as fundamental as the way it manages and delivers projects — the very mainstay of their business activity.

And the solution is NOT another course in project management. The tools are known, they are just treated either as spurious, or as straitjackets, or just outright mangled.

We supported one of their project teams on a project that could deliver tens of millions of Euros in profit, a project critical for one of their major brands and overall portfolio. The team had some of their leading talents.

Yet the project brief was a vague list of intentions, and not co-created by all the members of the project team as it should have been. The critical element of having a stakeholder map as required by their project management process hadn’t been done with any rigor, and this was leading to all kinds of delays as various people raised concerns after the fact, or clearly weren’t on board or were ambivalent about the project strategies. The project team had confused milestones (key achievements in the life of a project) and action plans (specific actions to deliver each milestone), and the team was politically polarized and seemingly in tatters. This last is what we should have been helping them with, as it is an adaptive issue that no amount of ‘methodology’ will necessarily address.

However, much of the team division and fragmentation was heightened by the fact that they had only ‘ticked the boxes’ relative to their project management process without really using the tools for what they were designed to deliver.

And in each of the subsequent leadership team sessions it was mentioned that either people were slavishly following the bureaucracy of the project management process or being so negligent relative to it, that the real business purpose and market opportunity that launched the projects in the first place were either obscured or even eclipsed. Hence untold time, money, energy was being wasted. These projects should have delivered business breakthroughs, but were coming unraveled because senior leaders were clearly signaling that they wanted outputs and didn’t care about the quality of process by which they were being produced. The fact that this made the outputs suspect, or potentially unsustainable (lacking the widespread support the proper process was meant to engender), kept being ignored. Arguably in value terms, addressing this would be more important and far more urgent as well than say stopping fruit and newspaper deliveries to their offices in the downturn (which has happened!).

Again, if leaders had zero tolerance for this, and insisted on a consistent culture of project execution assessed ongoingly on the basis of value-creation (not methodology compliance), this wouldn’t happen. And I’m utterly sure, wasting money and not delivering project aims while estranging swathes of stakeholders is nowhere in the stated strategic priorities of this currently stumbling global powerhouse.

FOREIGN POLICY NONSENSE

An ‘expert’ on Afghanistan opined that President Karzai of Afghanistan loved his country. This was a statement made with considerable solemnity. It’s odd because the only people I would want reassurance from relative to their love of country are those whose behaviors could be construed the other way. President Karzai runs what is alleged to be one of the most corrupt governments on the planet, acts in ways to benefit his ethnic affiliates, and thereby undermines any argument we may make to Afghanistan-at-large relative to the benefits of abiding by the writ of his government and staying away from the malignant advances of the Taliban. But if you came from a Pashtun background (those found in the Northwest Frontier of Pakistan and quite a bit of Afghanistan, many of whom are Talibanized), this would hardly be a very inviting proposition from a leader who has no credibility as a statesman or as an exemplar of even moderately just and impartial laws.

Nevertheless, we are attempting to stamp down the extremists by putting more troops into Afghanistan. We cannot once more abandon Afghanistan is what we’re told. Agreed. But just ‘more’ isn’t enough, it has to be ‘smart’ as well surely.

This expert explained that US Military bases are bulging with soldiers, only 15% of which ever leave the bases! If true, this is scandalously stupid. What are these soldiers there for? These proliferating bases then waste resources, personnel and make us look like a permanently occupying power. The suggestion is that we need more special operations troops perhaps, but not more bases.

Happily we hear non-military aid is going to increase significantly in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Hopefully we will actually engage our partners to ensure that aid is deployed optimally — not local largesse for their cronies (the history of much of the aid given to developing countries alas), but actually going towards the real well being and sustainable development of communities in those two countries.

If we dole out aid and don’t hold our partners responsible for its use or impact, our behavior-in-action says we are interested only in appearances not reality. Then you can be corrupt, or a dictator, or a national leech, and as long as you appear coiffed on CNN and dispense the appropriate pro-Western platitudes, we’ll be swayed. In other words, we’re so insecure, that anyone who butters us up, will do. Widescale national degeneration of your country on our dime is a relative afterthought.

Again wasting military resources and aid money so as to make issues worse or to win at best a Pyrrhic victory is nowhere stated by any US Administration as a national security strategy. That it is not so stated, will not however keep it from being so.

CONCLUSIONS AND ACTIONS

We need to stop our fascination with high sounding rhetoric decoupled from pragmatic action.

I’ve argued continuously that if you don’t define the metrics you haven’t defined the mission.

Ask the average global citizen if they have any kind of scorecard in their mind for what national or international progress would look like, whether they understand any intelligible milestones en route, and what key actions are being taken for which leaders will be accountable.

In corporate settings, look for where the greatest hypocrisy exists, where the greatest gap between our self-congratulatory chest pounding and the spirit-depleting reality on the ground is, and work to shift behaviors, visible leadership and team behaviors, and therefore leadership and team rewards as well, there.

In the service that we offer, beware of thinking that our private intentions are what we will be judged by, rather than our public impact.

If people are behaving in ways that shock you or disappoint you, look no further than the behaviors of key leaders or stakeholders. People follow the demonstrated priorities of those who matter to their success.

So those of us who are followers, our leaders know we matter to their success. Demonstrate the priorities you want from your leaders. Those who are leaders (and we are all both leaders and followers in different contexts), act and behave in a way you would be proud to have others emulate. Citizens, let’s not cheer until we see a real connection between actual plans and stated aims from our governments, and let’s insist on transparent tracking throughout.

Only through behaviors, being accountable for our own and by holding others accountable for theirs, can we influence, impact, or change our own worlds — and perhaps through our concerted focus, at least a part of the world at large!

Let’s Behave Our Way To Our Future!