Year: 2012

Unforgivable Power?

The Center for Creative Leadership studied 21 derailed executives, who were expected to go higher in the organization, but had reached a plateau in their careers and were fired or forced to retire early. They were compared with 20 managers who made it all the way to the top. The researchers found the two groups astonishingly alike.

Every one of the 41 executives possessed remarkable strengths, and everyone was flawed by one or more significant weaknesses. So a person can make a lot of mistakes and have certain weaknesses and still rise to success. But a close study of the derailed executives showed there was one fatal flaw, when committed, always led to their downfall. The CCL researchers called it “the unforgivable sin “.

Immoral or unethical behavior is not what the researchers meant. We have all observed upstanding employees grieve over the loss of their leader who was a proven crook. The CCL fatal sin is sweepingly subtle. You may have seen this flaw when a management team agrees on a direction and the next thing everyone knows the team leader has headed off on a totally different track. Or a manager assigns someone a project and then secretly starts doing portions of the project himself. Or there is a certain employee who seems to have a special power to switch the leader’s thinking and often does so. At first these antics are the office joke. Now no one is laughing.

A child might describe this “unforgiveable sin” as being sneaky. In consultant speak; it would be called betraying a trust due to being consistently unpredictable. Specifically, this fatal flaw is a blatant disregard for the unwritten promised we depend on from teammates, but especially of our leaders, which are, ” I will do exactly what I say I will do when I say I will do that. If I change my mind I will tell you well in advance so you will not be harmed by my actions.”

Of course there are occasional exceptions. All of us will slip up and miss a promise, and there are desperate situations when a unilateral decision must be made. But if this unprofessional behavior begins to be known as the leader’s “management style”, their team members will get the message that the team’s input is redundant and will act accordingly.

Journal Entry: People who report to a manager with this flaw generally take one of three actions: 1) Quit – seldom a wise idea since this manager will, given time, either self-destruct or change 2) Stay stuck in the drama – complain, whine and pull the people around them down and off mission or 3) Stop trying to fix this person – decide to forgive the unforgivable behavior, focus on an inspiring goal and make a plan. Note: The folks who add a prayer for wisdom to action #3 often experience an added benefit of more peace and power in their leadership and life.

It is mutual trust, even more than mutual interest that holds human associations together. -H.L. Mencken

Better to trust the man who is frequently in error than the one who is never in doubt. -Eric Sevareid

If a man’s associates find him guilty of being phony, if they find that he lacks forthright integrity, he will fail. His teachings and actions must square with each other. The first great need, therefore, is integrity and high purpose. – Dwight D. Eisenhower

Few things help an individual more than to place responsibility upon him, and to let him know that you trust him. – Booker T. Washington

When a gifted team dedicates itself to unselfish trust and combines instinct with boldness and effort, it is ready to climb. – Patanjali, Ancient Yoga Master

A  leader without any followers is a real bummer.”  M. A.Tate

Advocating Inquiry

Gavin is my youngest grandson. Like many healthy children at age three, he is captivated by the sound of his voice and zealously curious…his mouth runs like an outboard motor. Last week, my wife and I ate dinner with Gavin and family. During the meal, everyone was engaged in a debate about a local community issue, except Gavin. He sat intensely silent, politely waiting for a chance to jump into the conversation.

Finally, someone took a breath. And he got his motor running…rattling off a litany of brilliantly ordered, utterly random (and pretty compelling) questions in record time:

“Why is your head so much smaller than your body?”
“Why are dogs not like cats?”
“Why do people die?”

And the list went on and on. More impressed with his speed than frustrated with his interruption, his father asked, “Gavin, why do you ask so many questions?” Gavin responded simply, “Because I don’t know everything.”

Dr. Chris Argyris, a Harvard professor, introduced the concept that there are two primary ways that team members communicate: Advocacy and Inquiry. Dr. Argyris says that Advocacy, i.e. stating your case or making your point, is the kind of communication that most people are accustom to. The intention of Advocacy is to persuade, found in statements like:

“I think we should…”
“We ought to take this route..”
“Based on research, I recommend…”

Inquiry is rare and more valuable than Advocacy. The intention of Inquiry is to seek insight or clarity, found in questions such as:

“Why do you think…?”
” How can we make that idea even better…?”
“What evidence do you have that might help us understand …?”
“Which aspects are you referring to…?”

When a leader has lost their way and their team is bordering on disengagement, they will often begin to advocate solutions; attempting to personally generate a renewed vision or a better plan for the team instead of with them. In the midst of this type scenario, people begin to think or say things like “he just doesn’t listen” or “this guy must not care what we think “. In reality, the temporarily off- track leader is leaning too heavily on this innate bent to advocate. Sincerely pushing for the best solution, but oblivious of his or her imposing approach.

Recognizing the value of Inquiry is priceless, especially in trying times. When we find ourselves in tense predicaments, we need the to seek the humility to assume a child like mindset and sincerely inquire for answers from the perspective of those around us. We’ll then see a renewed zeal for discovery and creativity that will captivate our teams and ourselves. Why?

Because we had to courage to act like we don’t know everything.

Working Journal Entry: Do you ever feel the energy beings sucked out of the room during your decisions making meetings at work, discussions with your civic group or debates at your dinner table? May I advocate a bit more inquiry as you deal with important matters and people in your leadership and life?

My greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and ask a few questions. – Peter Drucker

Do you see a man who speaks in haste? There is more hope for a fool than for him. – Proverbs 29:20

Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.” – Pablo Picasso

When we have arrived at the question, the answer is already near. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

A prudent question is one-half of wisdom. – Francis Bacon

In school, we’re rewarded for having the answer, not for asking a good question. – Richard Saul Wurman

It is not good to have zeal without knowledge, nor to be hasty and miss the way. – Proverbs 19:2

Retention – Who Will Go First?

Family Matters
A mid -size family business, run by a father and his two sons, was having trouble retaining their part-time employees. We met for a compression planning session to get a solution to this problem. As we began the session, a few questions came to mind. “What’s an example of a company that’s world-class at retaining part -time employees?” I asked.

They thought together for a bit and agreed that “Chik-fil-A” was a good example of a company great at employee retention. “Why do you think “Chik-fil-A” is so effective?” The two sons started rattling off reasons, “good pay, great benefits, flexible schedules–” Their father added, “They really care for their employees…in fact I think you could say that they love them.” Everyone nodded in agreement. The practical positives of pay, benefits, and scheduling were helpful, even essential in some cases…but not central.

I pinned a index card on my storyboard, labeled “Ways to show our employees that we care for them” , and asked for their ideas. They generated 10 ideas in just a few minutes. Then they selected their top three actionable ideas, balancing cost and importance, and created a plan around each of them. The family team was fired up and ready to roll out these simple strategies. “There is one step you need to take before you’ll get the results you want from your staff, ” I said. They listened eagerly. “For the next 90 days, you need to practice applying these three principles to each other.” They stared at me, then back at one another.

Too Many Keys
What is the key to retaining employees? Hundreds of surveys and books have attempted to answer this costly problem. In the end everyone winds up with the same top five or six keys: challenging work, appreciation from the boss, more money, life-work balance, healthy peer relationships and purposeful career paths. That seems like a fragile list of interdependent items as it is, but to complicate matters even more, is one more important than another? And for which generation? Gen X, Gen Y, Baby Boomers, etc? Sounds like a prime opportunity for a consultant to develop a retention matrix and solve this thing.

Relax, I don’t have a matrix, but I do have one more story. Between these two stories, it’s possible that we’ll find a central key to employee retention that spans all generations and methodology fads.

Turning Things Around
A few years ago I recognized a key retention principle. I was working with a newly hired commercial real estate executive. We’ll call the executive “Joe”. Joe was recruited from a competitor and was assigned to turn around a failing division. This division was entrenched in a classic “culture of fear” as described in Tom Demarco’s book, Slack – Getting Past Burnout, Busywork And the Myth of Total Efficiency:

Characteristics of a Culture of Fear

  • It is not safe to voice doubts
  • Goals are so aggressive that there is virtually no chance of achieving them
  • Power trumps common sense
  • The consequence for not “knuckling under” aggressive schedules is ridicule and abuse
  • Those who are fired are generally more competent than the people who aren’t
  • Everyone is terrified of confronting his or her manager

Motivation by fear never works in the long run, and it had been a very long run in a culture of fear for this struggling team that Joe had inherited. However, in just 9 months Joe orchestrated a 180-degree turn-around. The department improved to the point of having the lowest turnover and highest internal customer satisfaction rating in the company! This change endured. Two years later this division was listed as a key strength on the company’s strategic plan (instead of a glaring weakness) and still maintains one of the highest employee retention rates in the industry.

Vision and Appreciation
How did this happen? Little did Joe’s team members know that when he took over the department, his professional career and personal spirit was in the proverbial ditch, right alongside theirs. He had just resigned from a “Culture of Fear” organization himself. So, before he threw himself into creating innovative plans to fix his new team, he chose first to yield himself to healing and change. He renewed his life and career plan, which effectively restored his personal and professional vision. In the process, he grasped a guiding principle that served to support his leadership success in retaining and growing people forever: “it’s much easier to lead people up a new road if you have walked that road as well.”

To evaluate his progress, Joe requested some formal feedback from his all employees. He received a lengthy report from HR. As he began to go through the many pages of his report, he noted high marks on the objective scoring portion. He was pleased. Then he turned to the “Additional Comments” section. There it was. His unrealized strategy for retention in nine simple words: “Joe, thank you for giving us our lives back.”

Joe was humbled, overwhelmed and realized all the more clearly that his sincere care and visionary leadership (fueled by personal insight) had enabled this departmental change, and inspired those heartfelt words. The family business team of the first story had a similar opportunity to embrace these relational principles, as do you and I. It may be worth a try.

Working Journal Entry: Love or Fear – which will you choose to help you hold on to the people you value in your leadership and your life? Who will go first?

What I need is someone who will make me do what I can. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Characteristics of Love:

Love is patient, love is kind.

It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.

It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.

Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.

It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. – 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

Do not argue with an idiot. He will drag you down to his level and beat you with experience. -#1 favorite quote on the Internet June 2012

Affection is responsible for nine-tenths of whatever solid and durable happiness there is in our lives. – C. S. Lewis

What is it about me that is getting in the way of my achieving what I desire for my business, career and life?

Leadership, Hardship & Fine Wine

“What does it take to produce the finest wines?” I asked. Keenly aware of my limited knowledge, the wine connoisseur answered in this elementary way,

“Grapes that grow on lush rolling hills are plump and larger, but don’t make the best wines, because they are mainly water. Smaller grapes will have less water and more of the ‘good stuff’. For example, on the steep ,inclement Italian hillsides grape vines struggle to survive. In this harsh terrain, rainwater has little time to slow down and get to the roots of vines, is where the best Italian grapes are found. They are very small, but nutrient-dense and full of beautiful arrays of flavors and they produce some of the finest wines in the world.”

Great wines and great leaders seem to share similar living conditions. A cursory study of the lives of world-renowned leaders will reveal that the majority did not have a smooth, easy path to success. Rather their lives were fraught with a series of disappointments, professional failures and personal struggles.

A path of perils and problems appears to be common with leaders of all kinds – in all times.

  • 20 years ago, the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) conducted a study of key events that successful executives said were instrumental to their development as leaders. At that time, the executives most often cited challenging assignments, such as starting a project from scratch or managing a turnaround. Only 20 percent of respondents said they learned significant lessons from hardships, such as job loss, career setbacks, mistakes and failures, and personal trauma.
  • When CCL repeated the original research in the last few years, it showed that 34 percent of executives said hardships were their key learning experience.

It appears that today’s leaders are getting more honest, more challenged or both. As we have all observed ; hardship is a core part of the human experience. The question is: why do some people sink in their suffering and never surface, while others sink but come up swimming stronger?

The Center for Creative Leadership research found that executives who are able to recover, learn, and grow from hardships share four other characteristics:

  1. A Sense of Purpose and Meaning – moreimportant than what happens to you is how you think about what happens to you and how you derive meaning from it.
  2. Social Support – When people have gone through difficult times, relationships mattered. Some people rely on an understanding spouse or close friend, while others maintain large networks of relationships.
  3. Use of Positive Cognitive Strategies – Rather than blame others and lash out with anger and frustration, resilient people take personal responsibility for their own response to a setback.
  4. Flexibility – Think of this as the ability to improvise-that is, to make the best choices or take the best actions with whatever resources are at hand. One metaphor for flexibility is a twig that has a fresh, green, living core. When you bend it, it springs back.

Journal Entry: Are these four characteristics evolving in the up-and-coming people in your organization ….in your children … in yourself? Let me be clear, no one should set anyone up to suffer or manipulate hardship in order to see growth and development.

However, I challenge all of us to consider ceasing from our well-intended impulse to over-protect, rescue or avoid worthy conflict. Instead purpose to allow those natural, stressful challenges and inevitable ego-shattering events, the chance to develop the “good stuff” in each of us, so we can lift a glass to the success of the important people in our leadership and life.

Looking Both Ways

Small cutthroat trout scurried about the shallows of the gin clear mountain stream fighting for their next meal. At the edge of an eddy sat a very large trout. She rose, at her rhythm, sipping a grasshopper here or a beetle there. I lifted my fly rod to cast my terrestrial fly upstream of the big fish. Suddenly my line was tight, but it was not attached to my quested fish. It was tangled in the mass of reeds behind me. Had I looked back before I cast, I would have realized I needed to move only one step more into the stream and my cast would have missed the reeds and could have landed nearer my target and, with some luck, a trophy trout on my line. Instead I watched this opportunity slip away as the big fish faded into the deep pool.

Leaders cast visions. There are many things a leader can and should delegate, but vision casting is not one of those things. Depending on your level of responsibility you are expected to cast bigger or smaller visions, but cast you must. Effective vision casters are constantly looking backward, attending to the products and processes of the past and present, while also looking forward to hook and land the opportunities that will define the future.

Vision casting is not about you. Vision casters are not be confused with idea pitchers. Those loud pontificators who dominate conversations with an unending supply of tangled up thoughts that divert the attention to their personal agenda rather than the benefit of the team. They also tend to take themselves way too seriously.

Vision casting is challenging. It is not surprising that smart people with well thought out ideas often stand on the edge of effective leadership , their toes barely in the stream of success as they imagine the terrible tangles that might happen if they made a bold move. All they need to remember is to not get hooked into the needy reeds of the idea pitchers, present a smooth cast and wish for luck. The big one might not be landed on the first cast, but no fish was ever caught without a line in the water. The best anglers and leaders practice their casting a plenty, make looking both ways a habit and set the hook when the time is right.

Journal Entry: If you have been hesitant to cast your big goal or vision for your business, career or family ? This month’s name is symbolic of the time to make this kind of wise move.

January was named by the early Romans, after Janus, the god of doors and gates. This Roman god had two sets of eyes-one pair focusing on what lay behind, the other on what lay ahead.

What vision do you need to cast now to make the future better for the people in your leadership and life?

To succeed in life, you need three things: a wishbone. a backbone and a funny bone. – Reba Mcentire

The job of leadership today is not just to make money. it is to make meaning. – John Seely Brown

It is not good to have zeal without knowledge, or to be hasty and miss the way. – Proverbs 19:2

Scroll to top