Smart Pill for Leaders

September 20, 2014

Smart Pill croppedOne of my leadership students laments that some of the decisions the leaders in his organization make relative to policies and size of workforce are not smart.

These decisions reflect a misunderstanding of their impact, so the leaders end up doing things that are at cross purposes to what they want to accomplish.

I told the student to buy some “smart” pills for the leaders to take, which will let them know when they do things that take them in the wrong direction.

Then I realized that I already had discovered the “smart” pill several years ago and have taught leaders how to administer this magic potion for quite a while.

Leaders need a way to determine the impact of their decisions on the organization at the time of making those decisions. This knowledge will reduce the number of wrong-headed actions.

Picture a leader of 90 individuals. There are exactly 90 people who are capable of telling her the truth about the impact of poor decisions before she makes them. They would gladly do this if the leader had established an environment where it is safe to challenge an idea generated in her mind. How would a leader go about creating such an environment?

If a leader makes people glad when they tell her things she was really not eager to hear, those people will eventually learn it is safe to do it. They have the freedom to level with the leader when she is contemplating something really dumb.

It does not mean that all dumb things the leader wants to do need to be squashed. It simply means that if the leader establishes a safe culture, she will be tipped off in advance that a specific decision might not be smart.

Sometimes, due to a leader’s perspective, what may seem dumb to underlings may, in fact, be the smart thing to do. In this case the leader needs to educate the doubting underling on why the decision really does make sense. Here is an eight-step formula that constitutes a “smart” pill.

1. As much as possible, let people know in advance the decisions you are contemplating, and state your likely action.

2. Invite dialog, either public or private. People should feel free to express their opinions about the outcomes.

3. Treat people like adults, and listen to them carefully when they express concerns.

4. Factor their thoughts into your final decision process. This does not mean you always reverse your decision, but do consciously consider the input.

5. Make your final decision about the issue and announce it.

6. State that there were several opinions that were considered when making your decision.

7. Thank people for sharing their thoughts in a mature way.

8. Ask for everyone’s help to implement your decision whether or not they fully agree with the course of action.

Of course, it is important for people to share their concerns with the leader in a proper way at the proper time. Calling her a jerk in a staff meeting would not qualify as helpful information and would normally be a problem.

The leader not only needs to encourage people to speak up but give coaching as to how and when to do it effectively. Often this means encouraging people to give their concern in private and with helpful intent for the organization rather than an effort to embarrass the boss.

The leader will still make some dumb decisions, but they will be fewer, and be made recognizing the risks. Also, realize that history may reveal some decisions thought to be dumb at the time to be actually brilliant.

Understanding the risks allows some mitigating actions to remove much of the sting of making risky decisions. The action here is incumbent on the leader.

It is critical to have a response pattern that praises and reinforces people when they speak the truth, even if it flies in the face of what the leader wants to do. People then become open and more willing to confront the leader when her judgment seems wrong.

A leader needs to be consistent with this philosophy, although no one can be 100%. That would be impossible. Once in a while, any leader will push back on some unwanted “reality” statements, especially if they are accusatory or given in the wrong forum.

Most leaders are capable of making people who challenge them happy about it only a tiny fraction of the time, let’s say 5%. If we increase the odds to something like 80%, people will be more comfortable pointing out a potential blooper. That is enough momentum to change the culture.

It is important to recognize that making people glad they brought up a concern does not always mean a leader must acquiesce. All that is required is for the leader to treat the individual as someone with important information, listen to the person carefully, consider the veracity of the input, and honestly take the concern into account in deciding what to do.

In many situations, the leader will elect to go ahead with the original action, but she will now understand the potential ramifications better.

By sincerely thanking the person who pointed out the possible pitfall, the leader makes that individual happy she brought it up. Other people will take the risk in the future. That changes everything, and the leader now has an effective “smart” pill.



Falling in Love With a Merger

September 6, 2014

two padlocks as concept for eternal loveWhen executives consider doing a merger, acquisition, or major reorganization, it is a time of great peril for their organizations. Reason: many of these efforts result in eventual loss of value and failure to reach the goals envisioned at the start.

There have been many studies that present a variety of statistics on failure rates all the way from 50% to 80%. The precise number depends on the parameters of the study and how performance is measured. I do not want to debate the statistic, just recognize that the failure rate is way too high given that these decisions are choices consciously made, and they sometimes turn out to be disastrous for the organization.

In this article, I want to highlight what I believe is one root cause of the problem.

Executives become obsessed with the idea of the merger or acquisition and become blinded like a motorist driving east at 7AM. At the precise moment the sun comes up over the horizon, even if you have your visor down, it becomes extremely difficult to see the dangers around you.
The benefits of the merger are easy to see clearly upfront, but the problems and hassles are foggy.

For example, it is easy to quantify how much more market share will result from a merger. By inheriting a whole new product line and sales territory, the benefits of scope can be very tempting.

Working with a larger base will allow efficiencies due to staff reductions. Consolidation of equipment and inventory will also benefit the merged entity. All these factors, plus many more, are easy to identify and calculate with reasonable accuracy.

As the executives focus in on the benefits, some of them begin to act like people in love. Reality about the dangers gets swept aside as the potential benefits become the topic of most conversations. If there is a dissenting voice in the management ranks, it is quickly extinguished as the euphoria builds. “This is going to be wonderful!”

On the negative side, there are going to be costs and negative impacts for sure, and it is going to take time and energy to accomplish the merger. The problem here is that the specific costs and amount of time to resolve problems are extremely hard to quantify.

Overzealous executives can easily wave away the hassles with a statement like,  “This is no place for the faint at heart; we will just have to tough it out and figure out how to operate as we go along.”

One problem often under estimated is the impact of a merger on customers. Before the merger you have two organizations focusing on two sets of customers and set up to serve them rather well. Eventually, you will have one entity serving a larger pool of customers, with perhaps even better service.

The problem occurs in the middle when all the chaos happens. IT systems will be in limbo for some time as the customer service teams integrate. Phone numbers of who to call will be changing. People will have evolving roles and may not even know who is covering a particular customer.

When you consider that the integration of two corporate entities can take years to accomplish, the impact on customers is often devastating.

Reason: customers do not care about the merger.

They see very little benefit. All they see is a bunch of hassles, confusion, and lower service than they had before. During the integration period, it is easy to lose the valuable customer base that made the merger attractive in the first place.

Another huge issue is the lack of worker engagement in every part of both entities. During the integration, the majority of people lose motivation for a variety of reasons and often act in uncooperative ways as they wrestle with how things are going to sort out. Both quality and productivity take huge hits when this happens, and trust in management is usually a casualty.

In this environment, the most talented people become so disillusioned that they seek employment elsewhere. Thus, during the transition it is common to see the people who are most needed in the organization quit and leave, while the people who are the deadwood quit and stay. The impact of this on costs is devastating.

These are just a few of the consequences of going into a merger or acquisition without some ballast to bring reality into the ROI equation. In my book Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change, I address these symptoms as well as others and offer antidotes to reduce the sun glare and make the trip safer.


Dealing With Discouragement

August 30, 2014

Investment concept, close up of female hand holding stack of golOne of my favorite authors is Napoleon Hill. I have studied his work for many years, because my observation is that nearly all of the self improvement philosophers in modern times owe the basis of their techniques to fundamental truths uncovered by Hill back in the 1920s.

In 1908, Napoleon was commissioned by the great Andrew Carnegie to spend the bulk of his adult life working for him for a salary of zero. What Carnegie did offer to Napoleon Hill was to introduce to him all of the great leaders of that period for the purpose of learning and capturing their philosophies of life and leadership so that they could be made available to the common man.

The resulting book by Napoleon Hill in 1937 was Think and Grow Rich. Actually, Napoleon wrote a total of 11 books and did several audio tapes of his ideas. My favorite program is The Science of Personal Achievement: Follow in the Footsteps of the Giants of Success, available through Amazon and Nightingale Conant.

I have received infinite benefits from studying and applying Napoleon’s ideas in my life. One of the most useful is how to deal with discouragement. He wrote that when you have a time of great failure or disappointment, there is always a seed of equivalent benefit involved.

He said that our job is to find that seed of equivalent benefit and focus on that because soon our disappointment will turn to gratitude and joy.

What an amazing gift to have a specific process for turning our darkest moments into victories in our lives.

I continue to apply this technique, and while not yet perfect at it, I have found it works well in nearly every case thus far.

One example is when I wanted a particular job. The opportunity occurred after the completion of my main career, and I was doing some consulting and writing. The job was to work in a large organization helping to teach leadership to developing executives.

I really liked that idea and felt it was right for me to pursue the job. I worked hard at the application process, but in the end was not selected for the position. I felt deflated and depressed. Not only did I lose some welcome income, there was no opportunity to influence the leaders in that organization. I was miserable, but set out to find an equivalent benefit.

Reflecting carefully on the opportunity, it became apparent that I would have been extremely unhappy with the job. It would have required me to be away from home for about 30% of the time (which causes me great stress), and I would be forced to teach leadership from someone else’s script with firm orders to stick to the material.

I am an excellent teacher of leadership, according to my former students, and the reason is that I speak from my own experience and in my own tongue. In the past when I was forced to teach the materials provided by others, my performance was acceptable but not excellent. The inspiration was missing.

Shortly after my rejection, my elderly father needed to move out of his own apartment into an assisted living situation. It took me about 4 months working hard to accomplish the move and get dad situated for the rest of his life.

If I had gotten the teaching job, I would have been unable to serve my father’s needs and would have likely died trying to accomplish both tasks.

Looking back, it really was a blessing that I did not get the job. There were many benefits from not getting the position. The passage of time revealed them to me.

The tricky part of applying Napoleon Hill’s advice is to focus energy on the seed of an equivalent benefit at the time when we are down. That can be hard to do.

The genius of his advice is that by having faith that there is a benefit yet to be revealed, it takes our focus away from the depression and greatly accelerates the pathway toward feeling great again. It really works, and if you will just try this technique, you will find the quality of your life is significantly enhanced.

This method will not prevent unhappy things from happening in your life. The cosmos has a few curve-balls to throw at each of us every year. That is just the way things are.

When you follow Napoleon Hill’s prescription and look for the seed of an equivalent benefit, you vastly increase the chances of coming through the low times with less pain and more joy. What a blessing that is.


Political Wisdom

August 24, 2014

RakeThere is an old saying “Too soon old – too late smart.” During my long career in a large organization, I somehow managed to do some pretty bonehead things politically.

I will never be someone who is politically brilliant because I am far too outspoken. But I have learned some things and want to pass on an idea to others.

In some training sessions, we learn about how people have their own unique learning style. Some of us learn only by doing, some by hearing , some by visualizing, etc. I remember one class where we all had to reveal our most useful learning style.

When it got to my turn, I said, “My style of learning is the rake.” Everyone in the class looked a little puzzled, so I explained. If I step on a rake and the handle comes up and thwapps me in the face, I have learned something that I will never forget.

That is a pretty accurate description of how I learned my horse sense on political mistakes to avoid. It is not to say I have found all the potential rakes out there. I still get konked from time to time, but hopefully each new learning is from a rake I have not seen before.

I will share my own list below only as an example. It is more helpful if you make up your own list based on your personality and situation or the mistakes you have already made.

Start with just one or two key things and build your list over time. It is a simple matter of keeping a computer file and remembering to add to it every time a rake handle hits you in the face.

Whipple’s 14 Rules for Political Survival (soon to be 15)

1. Know who butters your bread – and act that way
2. Act consistent with your values and spiritual rightness
3. Make 20 positive remarks for every negative one
4. Don’t grandstand – practice humility – no cheap shots
5. Understand the intentions and motivation of others
6. Follow up on everything – be alert & reliable
7. Do the dirty work cheerfully – not too good for it
8. Agree to disagree – walk away with respect
9. Don’t beat dead horses – repetition is a rat hole
10. Be aggressive, but not a pest – it’s a fine line
11. Constantly read people’s intentions & desires
12. Administrative people have real power – cultivate it
13. Keep an active social life with work associates
14. Always, Always be considerate and gracious

I often wonder how long my list will be when I take my last breath in the nursing home. We tend to learn political lessons in all areas of our life, not just at work.


Book Released This Week

August 22, 2014

Trust in Transition Cover060To my friends and associates:

I announced the existence of my new book on this blog a couple months ago and have written a few posts about some of the key points since then. This week was the official launch of the book. YEA!

Info at www.astd.org/transition

When organizations go through major changes such as mergers, acquisitions, or other large-scale reorganizations, trust is often lost, and as a result most transitions do not live up to expectations. My book offers a multitude of ideas to prevent the problems or repair the fragile trust that has been damaged. It is the result of five years of writing and extensive research coupled with my 40+ years of practical experience

Here is a link to a brief (two minute) video about the book. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PDf6UTafrO8&feature=youtu.be

If you are involved in a transition of any kind — or are likely to experience change — you will find this book quite useful, regardless of your position in the organization. I will be doing international programs, keynotes, and workshops on the ideas over the next few years, so if you are interested, just contact me.


Your “Stop Doing” List

August 16, 2014

BankruptFrom time to time, we all get overwhelmed with activities, and most of us turn to a “To Do” list to manage the priorities. There are several systems that help keep people organized and assist them on making the most of their time.

In this article, I suggest that having a specific “Stop Doing” list can be just as helpful at managing time as having a “To Do” list.

Time is Precious

Time is the most precious commodity we have. What makes something precious is comprised of two factors.

The thing must be of intrinsic value to us and it must be scarce. Diamonds and coal are chemically identical and both have intrinsic value to us, but diamonds are very difficult to find, so their value is infinitely higher.

Time has value to us because it is all we have to live with, and nobody can get more than 24/7 each day. Therefore, time has extremely high value: it is both important and scarce.

Numbers Game

Most professionals are in a perpetual state of overload. That is because in the pressure cooker of day to day activities, more items come onto the plate than can possibly be accomplished.

If you doubt that, just take a look at your e-mail inbox. In every meeting there are new action items to be accomplished and precious little time to do them. It is a habitual problem that leads to burnout and even death due to stress.

People watch the incoming texts and activities closely trying to manage the load. The common refrain is “I have no time to deal with that now.” They often forget to cull out the non-essential things that take up their time. Anything taken off the plate is a reason to celebrate.

Modeling Prioritization

Individuals who focus on stopping things show others that time utilization needs to be managed from both ends. Leaders are used to making tough decisions with budgets and other resources, but they sometimes fail to see how their most precious resource (their own time) is being squandered.

Those who manage time actively and vocally send a clear message to the entire organization that seconds really do count.

10 Tips to manage your “Stop Doing” List

1. Keep track of what you are doing.

If you have a mechanism to actually see how your time is being spent, you can manage it better. I like to think of colors.

When I am doing “green” things, it means I am using my time wisely. “Yellow” things have marginal value, and “red” items are really wasting my precious time. Just keep looking for the color. It can be a kind of game as you sit in a meeting and watch the air turn from green to red before your eyes.

2. Delegate more!

This has a dual benefit because often people are eager to help out if only given the chance. There is always some risk when delegating, but the benefits far outweigh the risks.

Learn the skill of good delegation and press yourself to apply it more than you currently do.

3. Finish things.

Don’t dabble in work. Be crisp with completing assignments so your inbox is clear for new items.

When something is completed, celebrate for a second because you now have that off the plate.

4. Brainstorm

Spend some brainstorming time with your inner circle cleaning house of useless activities.

5. Create a “Sacred Cow Pasture.”

This is a visual board where you post paradigms that have been broken where you no longer have to do what used to take up your time. It is refreshing to fill up a “Sacred Cow Pasture.”

Everybody benefits! For example it takes courage to admit we no longer need the quality report because our systems have reached a higher standard.

How about doing away with the “cost” meeting and substitute an efficient dashboard? The possibilities are endless.

6. Challenge everything.

Try a zero based approach to your day where you come in as if you were a new employee. Ask “why am I doing this and what could be done to eliminate the need for it.”

7. Handle your time like a budget.

Think of your task list as a fixed number of things – like say 50 things. In order to make room for a new activity, you must take at least one old activity off your prior list.

8. Reward people who bring up ideas for your “Stop Doing” list.

If you reinforce this behavior, you not only help yourself, you help the entire organization because everyone will get the bug to eliminate marginal activities.

9. Go on a “Safari”

Hunt down and kill at least 3 unnecessary activities. It can be a fun activity once you get into it.

10. Go away!

If you are not there to do things, they will get done just fine most of the time. Go out and visit some customers or attend a seminar for your own development.

While you are away, have an administrative person keep track of the things that you would have done if you were there. These are all items you can challenge in the future.

Your “Stop Doing” list is as important as your “To Do” list. Don’t neglect it.


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