Monday, April 30, 2012

Leaders can see "enough."

If you ever had enough, could you recognize it?  Leaders can.  ~inspired by a bumper sticker

A phrase I hear repeated frequently is you’re either growing or your dying.  I’d like to go on record as respectfully disagreeing with that concept.  I believe that our culture has taught us that "more" is a sign of success, that growing has not only become a symbol of competence but of respect and admiration, and anything less is failure.  Where has this culture of continuous and infinite growth gotten us?  More Americans now declare bankruptcy than graduate from college.  The self-storage industry (where we store all our "growth" that we can no longer fit in our homes) is bigger than the motion picture industry.  According to the Ecological Footprint, humanity’s consumption of natural resources first exceeded the planet’s stores in 1985, and by early in this century we were consuming over 25 percent more than our supply.

By now I’m sure some of you are asking: what’s that got to do with organizational growth?  Well, I think a lot.  As a society, we seem to have lost our ability to recognize "enough."  As a result, we’ve all seen organizations grow themselves right out of business and individuals grow themselves into utter ruin.  They couldn't recognize "enough."

In my academic career I’ve had my share of statistics and economics courses.  Sometimes I think I’ve studied a bell curve from every possible perspective.  Whether it’s the law of diminishing returns, the product life cycle, or plotting a standard deviation, there’s always a common pattern – an incline, a peak and a decline.  I would like to suggest that the peak of that bell curve represents "enough."

Imagine a leader who can recognize when his/her organization has reached that peak, and instead of continuing to press on with yet more growth, they focus on adapting and sustaining that peak as long as possible. They can recognize "enough."  I’m certainly not suggesting that they become complacent, to the contrary.  Sustaining a peak is a balancing act incorporating discipline and adaptability.  Being at the point of "enough" doesn’t mean you’re not changing; in fact, you may be doing a great deal of changing and adapting in order to stay at that peak.  The key is that you’ve recognized "enough."

In Jim Collins’ book, How the Mighty Fall, he describes this phenomenon as the "unsustainable quest for growth."  "Success creates pressure for more growth, setting up a vicious cycle of expectations; this strains people, the culture, and systems to the breaking point; unable to deliver consistent tactical excellence, the institution frays at the edges."

Collins adds to the idea of growth with what he calls "undisciplined discontinuous leaps."  He defines these leaps as, "dramatic moves that fail at least one of the following tests: 1. Do they ignite passion and fit with the company’s core values?  2. Can the organization be the best in the world at these activities or in these arenas?  3. Will these activities help drive the organization’s economic or resource engine?"

Are we growing or are we dying?  Maybe, we simply have "enough."

Monday, April 23, 2012

Leaders live their values. Every day. All the time.

If you have to agonize over determining your values then maybe they aren’t really your values at all.  ~Kathryn Scanland

If values are the guiding principles for how people behave, interact, and function in your organization, then it should describe how they are currently acting, not how you wish they would act.  One of the best descriptions I’ve come across to determine personal values is to look at your calendar and your checkbook.  How you spend your time and your money is a real indicator of what you value.

I've found leaders who struggle to identify their organization’s values are struggling because what they are really listing are principles they wish were their values.  Unfortunately, the reality is, if you aren’t currently doing it, then it’s not something you value.  It’s something you want to value.  For example, on a personal level, I might say that I value generosity, but a quick glance at my checkbook might tell a very different story.  Maybe generosity is something I admire, but until I actually do it, it’s not something I really value.

Here’s another example from a young CEO featured in Fast Company.
Everyone knows culture is critical to a company's success. Think Google. What is less obvious is that leadership has to consciously create that very culture.

When we first started Okta, we tried to "manage" culture. We wrote down our company values, we often reiterated them in meetings and thought long and hard about how we could build a company culture that reflected them. 
And while all of that is well and good, over the past three years, I've found that what really matters in creating company culture is how I conduct myself. Every day. All the time. It comes down to which actions and attitudes that I validate and reward, and which behavior I discourage, as well as the kind of people I choose to hire.
If I came to visit your organization, what would I experience in the first ten minutes of my visit and what would that tell me about your real values?  One specific organization comes to mind whenever I pose this question.  They’re a publisher and when I walk through the main entrance I hear the sound of a crowd of people cheering and applauding.  Do I have to even wonder if one of their values is to have a friendly and fun environment?  No, I don’t, because I experienced it first-hand.  It’s who they are, not who they want to be.

Culture and leadership duo Argyris and Schon as well as Edgar Schein make the distinction by calling espoused values those values that people say are their values but may be out of line with what they actually do.   Without delving into too much academic mumbo-jumbo, Schein says that leadership is the source of the beliefs and values that get a group moving in a direction to solve a problem.  These values are built not on what is said to be valued, but on what is valued, in action.  And the values that a group assumes by action are very difficult to change, regardless of what we say we’d like our values to be.  As the young CEO at Okta said, “It’s how I conduct myself. Every day. All the time.”

Monday, April 16, 2012

Leaders humble themselves.

Relax as we face this fact together: When those who report to you disappoint you, it’s probably your fault.  ~Pat Lencioni

Several weeks ago I read an article by Pat Lencioni entitled Humble Yourself at Work.  It’s one of those articles that stays in the back of your mind and kind of nags you during specific instances when you realize the author was right about their assessment.  Pat points out that we all like to say that we aspire to be humble leaders, but unfortunately, aspiring to be humble usually doesn’t get us there.  As I’ve learned over the last number of years, humility isn’t something you can aspire to; it’s something you have to go through.  In other words, there’s usually a little (or a lot) of pain that accompanies the journey to humility.

Pat provides a wonderful, and probably hard to accept (that’s the humility part), illustration.
I don’t really teach my sons to misbehave. It’s not as though I sit down and give them instructions on how to provoke their brothers, break dining room chairs, or talk back to their parents. But I must have done something to give them the idea that it would be okay to do those things—or more likely, that the consequences for doing so wouldn’t be significant. 
In that moment of realization, I have a choice: I can either humble myself enough to acknowledge that the first person I need to address if I want to change my son’s behavior is me, or I can go on venting about how ornery he is and watch the orneriness continue. 
The same thing happens to me—and to all leaders—at work. On a bad day, we often find ourselves complaining about something people in our organizations are doing. We turn to our colleagues on the leadership team (or our spouses) and vent. “The mid-level managers in this company are terrible at giving constructive feedback to their employees.” That’s just one of the common complaints I hear from executives. 
Now, if we’re lucky enough to have a colleague on the management team, a consultant, or a spouse who is upfront with us—or if we are somehow struck with a blinding ray of humility in that moment—we will realize that we’re ultimately complaining about ourselves. As a consultant, my favorite way to remind leadership teams of this inescapable conclusion is to ask them: “How many of the people you’re complaining about report to someone outside of this room?” 
Many times when I think of being a humble leader, the first example that comes to mind is admitting when we’re wrong, which does require a dose of humility.  But I think Pat’s example of owning the fact that when our reports disappoint us, it’s our fault, takes humility to an entirely new level of character building.  As leaders, are we willing to address ourselves (and our behaviors) first, when others disappoint us?

Monday, April 9, 2012

Leaders are disciplined dreamers.

Through disciplined dreaming, effective leaders move forward with boldness and thoughtfulness, with urgency and passion and with a renewed sense of purpose and wonder.  ~Josh Linkner

Linkner says that “Businesses have systems and processes for everything, from answering the phone to taking out the trash. Remarkably, most companies have no such system for the one thing that matters most: developing and growing creative capacity.”    

You may be thinking that the idea of disciplined and dreaming is an oxymoron.  But Josh lays out a series of steps and disciplines that really can expand your creative vision.  His suggested Four Most Powerful Techniques to Ignite Sparks of Creativity are especially effective.  Below are two examples:

·         EdgeStorming
o   Toss out an idea and then take it to its furthest extreme.  To make the list ideas must be outrageously big or small, loud or soft, expensive or cheap.  By forcing yourself to the edges you’ll uncover countless fresh and new ideas.
·         The Long List
o   The title explains the idea.  Identify the problem or challenge and then just begin making a list (as long as possible) of any idea that comes to mind.  The key is to not evaluate or assess ideas.  Just let them flow and keep going.  In Linkner’s description of this technique he suggests (as a group) coming up with 200 possibilities.  Two hundred is quite ambitious.  However, you will be surprised what you’ll find if your list includes 25-30 ideas.  There will no doubt be ideas on your list you never would have thought of had you not tried this method for disciplined dreaming.

Last week I was sitting on an airplane and decided to put some of Josh’s suggested techniques to the test.  With nothing other than the ordinary airplane commotion to distract me, I chose the long list technique.  I started with the first couple of ideas, which were probably obvious, but then suddenly, to my surprise, other ideas started to come out of nowhere.  I continued on and one idea simply kept leading to another.  I now have several of these ideas on my to-do list; and they never would have existed had I not tried this technique.

I must admit, I was inspired by a client to pursue this exercise.  I had just come from meeting with a firm in DC that develops strategy for policy change at the Federal and State levels.  They are ridiculously smart and I was encouraged to hear them talk about the need to schedule thinking time.  After all, that’s really what their clients are paying them for – thinking – coming up with innovative and creative strategies for advocacy and policy change.  But it’s so rare to hear anyone talk about prioritizing and scheduling time to just think, to be creative.

We are disciplined about so many things: responding to emails, returning calls, scheduling meetings.  Yet, the things that actually move us forward, like planning and dreaming, get put on the back burner as secondary activities.  Imagine what we could accomplish if we became just as disciplined about dreaming?  

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Leaders apply the 80/20 rule to communication.

Communication is 80% listening & inquiring and 20% speaking.  The former must guide the latter.  ~Gary Burnison

In my experience, when the topic of leadership and communication comes up, it’s very frequently assumed that by communicating we mean speaking.  Actually, speaking is speaking, not necessarily communicating, and according to Gary Burnison, author of The 12 Absolutes of Leadership, speaking comprises only 20% of actual communication.

I recently viewed a speech given by Charles Handy (British management guru) in honor of Peter Drucker and Charles said that he wanted to give the speech so he could learn what he really thought about some of Peter’s theories.  Charles said that we learn the most by talking and listening to ourselves.  He said that the audience will remember very little of what he said; but he would not only remember what he said, he would learn what he really thinks.  So again, why do we think that as leaders, people will learn so much more from us if we talk a lot?

I’ll add one last example from another well-known leadership expert, Jim Collins, author of Good to Great and several other books on leadership.  I heard Jim speak a couple of years ago and he provided the audience with Ten To-Do’s to increase our leadership effectiveness.  One of the ten was to double our ratio of questions to statements.  He said we should “invest more in being interested and less in trying to be interesting.”  In other words, ask more and talk less.

Another consultant, Lainie Heneghan, Europe Managing Director for JMW Worldwide (UK) Ltd., provides an example of the impact of listening more and talking less.
Consider this example from the leadership team of a worldwide pharmaceutical company.  As they were about to roll out a controversial initiative, they sought help in dealing with the expected employee backlash. They knew from experience that in the face of unpopular change, employees tended to leave their concerns or objections unspoken at first – only to surface later in the form of dissension.
The guidance they were given was simple: to present the plan to a group of key managers and influencers, and to listen to what they had to say until those managers and influencers had nothing further to say.  The leadership team members were advised to look at each objection as if it were a ball being thrown at them.  Listening was like catching the ball.  Throwing it back, or responding, represented not listening. 
They held the meeting and stayed true to this listening approach – and emerged with the support of all but one participant.  In addition, they gained a better understanding of how they could work with their teams to improve the plan and make it work for everyone.  The meeting took a little longer than the typical initiative launch – but it ultimately saved far more time and created much greater possibilities for the initiative’s success.
Imagine if as leaders, we were able to harness our felt need to talk and replaced it with listening and inquiring.  For every hour, we listened and inquired for 48 minutes and talked for 12 minutes.