Overcoming Inaction Epilogue

While I hope everybody picked up one gem from the blog series, I hope even harder that people will see the benefits of acting. It is not uncommon for the Return on Investment for projects I take on to be in “the triple digits” over a one year period. For example:

  • Simply giving sales people a structured process can boost results 30% or much better
  • Writing down a business case wins financing to expand
  • Developing a young leadership team that paves the way for that succession plan you’re itching to execute

These are all straight forward tactics, but they all require a leader to change and lead the change. We all have some instinct to squash personal change, when presented.  My parents came from the Greatest Generation and placed an enormous value on self-reliance. I choose an engineering profession that rewards individual innovation. I wrestled to overcome this modeling and accept that these values are not optimal in a management environment.

There are three major themes that describe resistance to change:

  • Lack of confidence: lacking confidence in skill, process, or market
  • Over-managing: relinquishing control of details undermines authority and creates vulnerability to failure
  • Too much confidence: A belief that current results will continue forever

But amazingly, I find motivation to make a change is even more significant than resistance to change. People need to believe that they can create the future they long for. They also need to cope with objectives that are 100% self-directed. There are no deadlines in creating success.

I would like to end the series with an invitation to speak with me about how you are creating success and the challenges that come with it. I don’t assume that scheduling a talk with me in any way suggests you would want to work with me. And you can pick phone, zoom conference, in-person, or whatever format suits as a platform.  If interested, click the link in the email.

Is Anybody Listening?

ConversationIt’s only July, and most everyone I meet is sick, if not distraught, with this campaign season. While I have seen glimpses of positive persuasion and leadership, most of the current news stories illustrate what we should not do as leaders. Personal attacks and political spin invariably make me stop listening. To be a great orator, you have to be a great listener, first.  The candidates have me asking myself the question, “Is anybody listening??” As listening is quintessential to all leadership positions, it is worth reflect on your own listening skills. Here are the three steps you can take to be a better a listener.

Stop Talking – This may seem obvious. But if you are speaking more than 25% of the time during a conversation, you’re at best doing a marginal job of listening.  I sometimes find myself thinking that sharing my experiences, suggestions, or reactions will be helpful to a person seeking to be listened to, when I know that it’s not. In business, executives, sales people, and service professionals all need healthy egos to be successful and the ability to restrain their egos to be exceptional.

Discern the consequences and possibilities a speaker is focused on – By simply noting whether a speaker is focused on possibilities or consequences, the quality of communication will greatly improve.  Discovering sources of excitement or concern will deepen connections and build trust.  Attentive listening is required to make these discoveries; as speakers are often not aware of the true root of these emotions.  We all have habits of thought and a good listener is required to disrupt those patterns so situations can be seen in a new light.  

Make it personal During the course of a good conversation, you will discover hopes, goals, and fears. There is a temptation to take these conversational gems at their face value; when asking one more question might change the course of the conversation. The question is, “What does realizing (or failing to realize) this goal mean to you personally?”  Even though most of us appreciate being asked such a question, our social conditioning can make us reluctant to ask a personal question.  Ask yourself, “What does completing my goals mean to me personally?” If this question doesn’t give you pause, think about setting a goal you are really excited about.

Effective leaders know that meaningful conversations with collaborators are a source of creativity, innovation, and unity. Engage in a conversation today and try it out!


Dangerous Circumstances

dangerI enjoy speaking with teenagers about their ideas of career and success. In this sluggish economy where it is difficult for young people to find work, I often hear teenagers complain that success is a product of circumstance or luck. These young people perceive acceptance to a top school or an exciting job requires a “parting of the Heavens and the appearance of a guiding light.” Adults associate these attitudes with teenagers who have yet to discover their worth and take responsibility for their lives. Adults, however, are not immune to resigning to circumstances at times and can pay dearly for the relapse. These are my three warning signs that you might be in danger of missing the next turn on your road to success.

Mid-life complacency: When starting out in life or business, the key goals are starkly obvious and centered on survival. But once you get to the point where you can cover the car payment and mortgage and have a little left over, setting new goals can be trickier. Climbing Masloff’s Hierarchy of Needs requires us to clearly understand what will bring us satisfaction and fulfillment while setting goals. And, more important, to believe we are worthy of such success.  When people avoid introspection and hope that life will continue just the way it is, they often get a surprise.

Ignoring our environment: Whether considering business, family, or ecology, it all changes daily. We can either accept change or change. Staying connected to the people and customers around you and understanding their evolving needs is critical to mastering change. By actively negotiating how to serve others’ needs and your own, you lower the risk of encountering new circumstances.  The key word is “actively.” It is a delusion that people can solve this complex problem in their head.  Only clear communication, deliberation and writing down identified goals will clearly guide successful change.

Yielding to unreal obstacles:  There are two types of obstacles: real and unreal. When people think about being hindered by circumstances, they usually think of real obstacles like money, education, and discrimination.  However, the more crippling obstacles are the unreal obstacles rooted in habits of thought.  Self-defeating attitudes and unwillingness to explore new possibilities are far more limiting. Simply put, you have to play to win.

A good coach can help clients discover possibilities and overcome circumstances. Please reply if you want to learn more or argue about circumstances.

Management Case Study: State of CT

EnpowermentExcessive employee turnover undermines the growth of companies. I am struck by a statistic that over half of the residents of Connecticut would leave the state if they had the means to do so.  That measurement occurred prior to passing of a $1.8B tax increase. Living in Connecticut has become a lot like working for a poorly managed company.  Here are a few of the skills I wish that Connecticut government would master:

Long-term vision and proactive decision making: Employees are motivated by understanding the purpose and intention of the company and seeing how goals influence decision making. Vision can maintain stability in tough times and protect against crisis-driven decision making. Nobody likes to pay more taxes. I believe the greater dissatisfaction in Connecticut comes from the lack of understanding for how the State will get out of this mess. The strategy rests on the economy turning around while enacting fiscal policy that will slow the economy.  Hmmm……..

Leadership Integrity: The true test of leaders is whether anybody wants to follow them. Engagement requires that leaders do what they say and demonstrate they can bring results. Since 2010, the majority party has run on a platform of “No new taxes.” Yet, over the last five years we have had two of largest tax increases in State history and, even with these taxes, we are projected to have an $800M deficit two years from now.  Four more years?

Decision Transparency: Strong companies find a way to bring the thoughts and opinions of all effected parties into the decision making process.  People need to feel like they matter. The tax package described has been enacted with no public hearings and minimal floor debate.  I grew up outside Chicago during the Mayor Daley years where public policy was crafted in small, smoke-filled rooms and dead people voted.  Opposing the machine was literally dangerous. It feels a little that way in Connecticut. The major difference being that Chicago ran like a well-oiled clock.

Innovative thinking: Companies that succeed are driven to provide new and exciting products for their customers. The esteem in an organization rises when they prove they can solve difficult problems by “thinking outside the box.” This legislative session did have some traces of innovation with SB 1 addressing the notion of regional municipalities. However, the divisive choice between more taxes or discontinuing services to people in need permeated the budget discussion. That’s a lot like asking an employee whether they want an unpaid sabbatical or to lose all their benefits. It’s not a choice one can live with.

I find the Governor’s willingness to negotiate with corporations after the budget has passed disturbing.  (See Integrity) The fact that the negotiation is occurring signals that trust between the two entities has dissolved and it assures that a greater burden will be thrown on small business. A majority of employees who receive a raise in response to a threat to quit the company are no longer with the organization after one year.

Stay involved.

Election 2014: Not a Time to Be Complacent

I’m a firm believer that people get the government they deserve. I’m not sure what we were thinking when we created the crisis-driven, short-sighted leadership we have today, but now is the time to contemplate change. As a state, Connecticut faces structural changes that will require big changes to fix. Unless we take the time to get informed and involved, we will continue to get what we deserve.

Webster Bank has sponsored a forum titled, “Fiscal Sustainability: Critical to Connecticut’s Growth.” This forum has been presented in a number of locations and I caught the presentation in New Haven last week (see http://statebudgetcrisis.org ). I define a structural problem as a condition when the available processes and resources no longer are able to satisfy the obligations and objectives of the organization. It’s all too common for businesses to run into sustainability issues; but seeing a state veer into that territory is new ground for me. Some of the key points addressed in the discussion are:

  • 28% of the General Operating Fund are used to service debt and entitlement obligations
  • In 2016, Connecticut must begin repaying additional bonded debt
  • Medicaid expenses have surpassed K-12 education expenses
  • Federal sequester will constrict funding that has been available to municipal government
  • The electorate needs to spend less time worrying about new taxes and more time reviewing how government funds are actually spent

Harry Browne said, “Security…it’s simply the recognition that changes will take place and the knowledge that you’re willing to deal with whatever comes.” The message I took from the presentation is that education and healthcare are going to be delivered very differently in the future and we had best be ready to guide the change.

I find it ironic that while economic projections show that Connecticut will not recover all the jobs lost in 2008 until 2017, there are a significant number of high-paying jobs in manufacturing that go unfilled due to a lack of skilled labor. I hear educators complain that with current policies and regulations, it is difficult to target new programs to address the STEM and vocational skills issue. This fall, plan some time to understand the issues and your local candidates’ views. This is a time when we all need to vote smart.

Let me know what you think is important and what you’d like to see in our future.  

Boosting Productivity with Strategy

Last month, I discussed how too narrow a focus on metrics and results can have unintended consequences that impact management’s anticipated outcomes. Employee disengagement, customer complaints, and material shortages can impede results if management does not take a broad enough view of the organization.

Enterprise management is a system. Often, managers think they can treat functional areas as independent systems. Organizations that subscribe to LEAN operations can easily fall into this trap if they are not careful. Telltale warning signs are holding department managers accountable to measures that are only influenced by their department or isolating front office operations from the production floor.

Keeping a balance between how employees are directed and developed and process management is a simple model for broadening management perspective. Organizations that place too much focus on their employees can become locked in “fire-fighting mode”, develop reactive management unable to address longer-term goals, and display difficulty in predicting cost and cash flow. Companies that focus too heavily on process can experience variance problems due to lack of inter-department communication, lack focus on strategy and are unresponsive to supporting broader goals, and lose their ability to innovate in the marketplace.

Strategy and leadership are the levers that balance these two domains. Many of companies’ top performers are pragmatists that wince at the mere mention of “strategic plan.”  Strategic planning often draws a negative response because so many companies do it poorly or not at all. A good strategic plan sets investment levels between people, process, and assets. A good plan checks for employee skill deficiencies and assures that incentives and measures are aligned with the strategy. How many times have you seen a company announce a new initiative and not update their management scorecard? The key measurement for the quality of a strategy is how successfully it affects change. 

Is There Really a Choice?

I recently witnessed a discussion panel with two venture capitalists arguing whether identifying an attractive market or assembling a credible executive team was more important in gaining funding for a new venture. Both parties agreed that both elements are mandatory for entrepreneurial success. Yet, both had it in their mind to pick one over the other.  Similarly, I’ve seen managers argue about whether to improve process or personnel. Sadly, many executives fail when they pick one path when there really isn’t a choice being presented.

Having too narrowed a focus is usually the culprit for leaders acting on these faux choices. A business is system that includes people, structure, process, strategies, and incentives. What managers sometimes forget is that acting on any one of these elements will have an impact on all the other elements. In a down economy, managers can obsess on cost and cash flow. Enacting cost reductions without accounting for employees’ reaction will have undesirable consequences. A leader’s insensitivity to employee attitudes or belief that they lack the time and resources to manage all the proper elements can lead an organization down the same rat hole. Studies estimate that only 16% of employees are engaged. This means that in a 20-person company, only three people understand the organizational goal, understand their role, and are enthusiastic about achieving the goal.

Managers can avoid these pitfalls with a complete strategy that addresses not only markets and products, but organizational needs as well. Please share your comments if you’ve witnessed a business strategy that had unintended consequences.

In Pursuit of a Follower

Some of the most vexing management challenges I’ve faced involve leading enduring cultural change. Anyone who has attempted to change a complacent, hostile, or defeated culture will understand the difficulty of this endeavor. I was recently treated to a viewing of Derek Sivers’ video, First Follower: Leadership Lessons from a Dancing Guy. The video illustrates the dynamics of creating a movement by showing a young man dancing away from a crowd at a concert. After a time, the dancer is joined by first one dancer and then a second. Upon seeing three people enjoying a dance, a crowd of people join in and the movement is launched. As the title of Sivers’ video suggests, the key player in any movement is not the initiator. Rather it is the first follower who must take the greatest risk and exercise the courage to follow.

Sivers makes two key points: the leader must be easy to follow and the leader must accept the first follower as a peer. The non-verbal elements of dancing clearly illustrate the movement concept. Leading in a workplace environment can be far less obvious and predictable. Before the ease of following a change can even be considered, one needs to be certain the lines of authority affected by the change and the performance incentives of the organization are supportive of the change. Either of these elements can thwart an organization’s ability to change. The ease of following a change can be broken down into how the organization perceives the change and the confidence those followers have in being able to execute the change.

The ability of followers to perceive value is closely tied to the clarity of shared goals, strategy, and system understanding. Even if an organization has a formal strategy, executives are often so pressed to create the strategy that they fail to give adequate attention to communicating the strategy. The messiest perception issue is whether the organizational values are compatible with what the individuals of the organization value and want. Organizations need to mitigate value differences as they often dilute the capability of the organization or lead to a top-down decision to replace members of the organization. Either consequence will diminish short-term results.  

Followers’ confidence in being able to perform the change is more often about trust rather than knowledge and skills. Sivers commented that the initiator needs to accept the first follower as a peer. In a business, a manager must grant followers time and attention to align expectations and collaborate on implementation. My experience is that patience is essential and that the desired change must be communicated over and over before followers will grasp the change. And most important, the manager must recognize and appreciate the courage of the first follower.

These are just some of the approaches to bringing about change. Please comment on your experiences with leading change. 

The Yin and Yang of a Down Economy

Times of diminished product demand are a test of management and leadership prowess. The sustainability of a business relies on both identifying new market opportunities and establishing a cost structure that maintains liquidity. Too often, urgency and a distorted sense of time scarcity create an opposing duality that Chinese Zen Buddhists called Yin and Yang. Organizations often view consideration and planning in direct opposition to initiative and action. Yet in business, the two are inseparable.

A mistake that management teams can make is to not scale the investment in planning to the investment in capital and labor. Sometimes “the plan” need be no more than checking a project’s alignment with longer-term strategy, quantifying both the reward of success and consequence of failure, and identifying possible obstacles. The essential, and often forgotten, step is communicating the plan to the organization and listening for feedback. The costs of overlooking a plan are large:

  • A lack of coordination leading to project failure
  • Breakdown in trust and communication between individuals and departments
  • Loss of leadership credibility and employee engagement
  • Frequent  changes in direction threaten the core business and lead to employee burnout
  • Stiffened organizational resistance to future change

Repairing the damage from poor planning can entail restatement of organizational goals, mediation of grievances between management and employees, and stronger focus on teambuilding and enforcing values. Speak to me if you would like more information. 

Where Do You Aim??

As the warmer weather slowly approaches, spring fever lets our thoughts drift to a return outdoors. I recently recalled a time as a youngster on the verge of adolescence at a Wisconsin summer camp. I remember straining under the critical eye of a counselor on the archery range with my mind wildly pleading with the “archery gods” to just let the arrow hit the target and not end up in the dirt. It’s amazing how often we’re willing to settle for writing off the bull’s eye and just hitting the target. I was reminded of the incident while on a walking tour of New Haven’s fabulous, new Gateway Community College facility. On a wall they have inscribed a paraphrased quote from Benjamin E. Mays, a noted educator, minister, and civil rights advocate, reading: “It isn’t a tragedy to fail reaching a goal; it’s failing to have a goal to reach.” I looked up the full quote online and saw that the quote ends with, “Not failure, but low aim is sin.”

Whether you’re a child or a business professional, deciding to “aim for the bull’s eye” is a bold, transforming decision. It requires a vision and confidence that you can hit the mark and the courage to risk trying. For a business leader, it requires frank, market-based assessment of how well the organization is positioned to reach the goal. I recall a conversation with a COO of a highly-respected manufacturing company when I asked, “Where does your company have unrealized potential?” He gave me a quizzical look and replied, “No one’s ever asked me that question before. I’d have to think about it.” His company has hit plenty of “bull’s eyes”, but the exchange makes me wonder what the future holds. I continually run across small business owners who pour time and money into untargeted advertising and are content to service whoever walks through the door. So often, they do this without any thought of where they would like to steer the business.

Thought for the day: “Aim high!”