Monday, July 30, 2012

Accountability: answerability & responsibility.

Leaders hold themselves accountable for finding potential in people and processes.  ~Brene Brown

Brene Brown is one of those people who could honestly be characterized as “having gone viral.”  Her TED Talk, entitled The Power of Vulnerability was posted online in December 2010 and has amassed well over five million views.  It’s one of the top-viewed TED Talks right up there with Steve Jobs and Elizabeth Gilbert.  

This past week I listened to a recent webinar Brene recorded and I like her definition of leadership: holding myself accountable for finding potential in people and processes.  Note: it’s not about holding others accountable, it’s about holding yourself accountable.  And it’s not about accountability for results, but accountability for finding potential.  Results are a consequence but the means is finding potential

I’m personally struggling with finding potential.  I certainly don’t disagree with it; I’m struggling with doing it.  I have one particular client that is challenging me.  I knew from the beginning that it likely wouldn’t be an easy ride.  They are a highly successful start-up that’s matured enough that they now need to move from the kitchen table to the conference table.  They need to become more like an organization with some structures and processes that will support their continued growth.  Said another way, they’ve outgrown being a start-up.  The change from kitchen table to conference table is a significant transition and like many organizational transitions it can be uncomfortable.  It leaves people asking, “If what got us here has worked, why won’t it get us there?”

This client is challenging for me because it seems much of what I suggest isn’t coming out right or being received in the way I intended.  I feel like I keep fumbling the ball and I’d like at least a few good plays to move the ball down the field.  So I’ve turned to Brene’s definition of leadership for inspiration and guidance.  Since I’m a person who likes to make lists, I’ve come up with a list of five specific things I could do to find potential in people and processes with this client.

1. List what I believe to be the strengths for each of the leaders and use that as the lens for changes I might suggest.

2. List the strengths of the organization and use that as the perspective or lens for suggested changes.

3. Ask more questions.  As Jim Collins suggests, I should double my ratio of questions to statements.  How can I find potential if I’m not asking questions?

4.  Be patient.  Whenever I’m trying to find something, it’s rare that I find it immediately.  Uncovering potential takes time. 

5.  Hold myself accountable by putting steps 1-4 in writing.  Create an outline of what I intend to do and then through follow-up memos (or even journaling) report back to myself what I’ve learned, what’s been accomplished, and identify the next steps.  In other words, create a feedback loop and recycle the process.

Finding potential in people and processes is not a one-time event.  It’s a commitment to a way of thinking and behaving that makes others, not us, our top priority.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Leaders guard against the enemy of experience.

In times of rapid change, experience could be your worst enemy.  ~Jean Paul Getty

I came across this quote and it reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend this week.  More than 15 years ago we both worked for the same organization, which is how we met.  At the time, that organization was thriving, a leader in the industry, and we both gained some professional prestige for having worked there.  But times have changed; the industry this organization is in has changed dramatically over the past decade; if we add to that a completely different economy, all their years of experience truly might be disabling them from adapting to rapid change.  They are half the size they were a decade ago and struggling to stay alive.  Nearly all of the current leaders have been there for more than 15 years.  Has all their years of experience become their worst enemy?

In that same conversation my friend asked about some other organizations I’ve worked with over the years.  One, in particular, has been around for more than 130 years, that’s lots of experience, to say the least.  I commented that I was no longer working with them and most likely didn’t envision working with them in the near future.  One of the market segments they used to dominate they have now completely abandoned.  The market changed, other competitors entered the market and through their influence moved the market; and the 130 year-old organization just simply couldn’t keep up.  All their years of experience were holding them back.

Does the law of diminishing returns apply to experience?  Is there a point when not just an organization’s, but a leader’s experience could be more of a hindrance than a help?  Could we identify when experience slows the ability to change and adapt to a dynamic environment?  All questions I’ve been pondering lately.

I came across a study in a completely unrelated field – ophthalmology and psychology – that focused on adaptation and aftereffects in high level vision.  Of course the obvious question is what’s that got to do with leadership?!  Good question.  A section entitled “adaption and response normalization” got my attention.  Do years of experience lead to response normalization?  We’ve adapted and adjusted so many times that our response has been normalized; we simply do what’s become “normal.” 

Experience can lead to a treasure trove of wisdom and insight, but it can also lead to unforeseen quicksand that stops us in our tracks and hinders our ability to see more than a few feet in front of us.  Is our experience broadening our vision as if we’re looking at the world through both a telescope and a microscope or has it gradually become blinders that narrowed our vision?

How might we know the difference?  We could ask a few questions.  When was the last time we tried a new approach to a common problem or challenge, instead of what we’ve always done?  When was the last time we learned to do something new?  When was the last time we really listened to someone just entering our field?  When was the last time we really studied our competition?  When was the last time we asked what our business (or department) would look like if we were starting our business today?

Experience is one of those things that happen over time, gradually, and when things happen gradually we don’t always recognize the affect it has on us.  Is our experience creating a normalized response, or is it creating a sense of curiosity to continue to explore, ask questions and remain nimble for whatever change comes our way?  

Monday, July 16, 2012

You are dinner table conversation.

Leaders are conversation at the dinner table; try not to spoil everyone’s appetite.  At the end of the day, try to make certain that no one is going home wishing that you weren’t the boss or worse, wishing that they were employed elsewhere.  ~Sony Singh

I remember about 20 years ago I was supervising someone and I have no doubt I was dinner table conversation.  It didn’t help that we could not have been more different from each other.  I was a young woman in a white collar position; he was a man approaching retirement in a blue collar position; I put a high value on productivity over loyalty or longevity; he put a high value on loyalty over productivity.  And that’s just the start of the list.  After I had been supervising him for several months, one of the VPs at the organization was kind enough to tell me the high level of stress I was creating in this man’s life.  He would literally get tense and upset just at the sight of me.  I had no idea; but what a learning moment.

I’m not advocating that leaders should become close friends with everyone following them.  However, if your followers are going home and spending time at the dinner table venting their frustration with you, especially to the extent that they wished they were employed somewhere else, then that really should give you pause.

In my scenario, I certainly did pause.  I tried to see things through his lens or his worldview.  It was hard, really hard.  We were of two different generations, genders and genes (i.e., values).  I tried to assure him that he was truly appreciated, something I hadn’t done nearly enough.  I tried to be very sensitive to how I was coming across.  But in all honesty, I don’t think his anxiety decreased until I moved on to another organization.  I’d like to think that 20+ years of experience and having failed a few more times would enable me to handle this same scenario much differently today.

A client also comes to mind.  This particular leader viewed herself as the one person in the organization who was willing to make tough decisions.  In reality, most everyone viewed her as controlling, unwilling to listen and I suppose rude.  She too was likely dinner conversation. 

Thinking about several examples, including my own, I believe that leaders become dinner conversation (in the negative sense) when they are least self-aware.  It may even be when we have the best intentions, but at the end of the day and at the dinner table, what matters is how our intentions were both perceived and received.  Sometimes we’re distracted, preoccupied or just simply out of touch.  We forget to stop and think about how we’re coming across. 

Warren Bennis, author of leadership classic, On Becoming a Leader, said, “The essence of leaders is placed firmly in issues of character, on who we are, on self-awareness.”  Other bloggers have noted and I’ll join them in saying that self-awareness is not a one-time event, or some exercise or courses we engaged in when we first accepted a leadership position.  Self-awareness is an ongoing learning process that never ends.  It’s those who choose to keep working at it who become truly effective leaders.  After all, if we’re going to be dinner conversation, we might as well be adding to the enjoyment of the meal and not spoiling anyone’s appetite.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Who's following you?

Followers have a very clear picture of what they want and need from the influential leaders in their lives: trust, compassion, stability, and hope.  ~Tom Rath & Barry Conchie

Many of the quotes I choose focus on leaders and leadership but few have focused on what it ultimately takes to lead – followers.  What do followers really need from their leaders?  The Gallup organization asked thousands of followers that question and the results were clear: trust, compassion, stability, and hope.    

Rath and Conchie highlight a finding from their research that might be a little unexpected when we think about trust in organizations.  We tend to think of being honest, having integrity, etc. in order to establish trust.  But what they discovered is truly at the core of trust is relationship.  The word relationship implies a connection, rapport, a bond.  If you have a connection and rapport with someone you likely talk about trust very little, you don’t need to.  But if the relationship has never been established or is becoming strained, trust becomes more difficult.  The researchers discovered that successful teams talk about trust very little; while trust dominates the discussion of struggling teams.  Those struggling teams lack relationship.

It’s ironic, but great managers tend to really care about each of their employees.  That willingness to show genuine compassion for people gets lost from manager to leader.  When you’re leading a large number of people, of course it’s difficult, if not next to impossible to show every person, individually, that you care for them.  However, showing compassion can be accomplished even when leading many people.  Compassion can be reflected in how decisions are made and how people are valued.

People will follow someone who can provide a solid foundation or stability.  These leaders are people who can be counted on when circumstances become uncertain.  Followers want to know that your core values aren’t going to waiver in adversity.  Think about what we hear right now in the midst of an election, about how decisions will be made from core values or fundamental beliefs, and who can really bring our entire nation stability.  Where do opposing sides poke holes in their opponent’s arguments?  Their ability to be perceived as being transparent, because nothing creates stability like transparency, and nothing can threaten stability like a lack of transparency.

Followers want it all – they want stability for the present and hope for the future.  Gallup made another interesting discovery about hope.  They learned that leaders tend to spend almost all of their time reacting to the needs of the day instead of initiating for the future.  When leaders are initiating they are creating hope for the future.  Solving problems is certainly a critical part of leadership, but identifying opportunities for the future plays a more important role in creating hope and optimism. 

We’ve probably all heard the statement, “How do you know if you’re leading?  Look behind you and see if anyone is following.”  Building relationships, showing genuine care for people, remaining transparent, and initiating for the future all lead to trust, compassion, stability and hope –what we all want to follow.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Leaders know: culture trumps strategy.

You can’t trade your company’s culture in as if it were a used car.  For all its benefits and blemishes, it’s a legacy that remains uniquely yours.  Cultures evolve over time—sometimes slipping backward, sometimes progressing—and the best you can do is work with and within them, rather than fight them. ~Jon R. Katzenbach, Ilona Steffen, Caroline Kronley

I've read a number of articles and studies about why strategic plans fail and have attempted to steer clients clear of those obstacles.  I find it interesting that I don’t recall much of an emphasis on strategy aligning with culture, until now.  I’ve come across numerous articles in recent months that are not only highlighting, but emphasizing the critical nature of a strategy aligning with a culture in order to have that strategy be embraced by an organization.

Authors Katzenbach, Steffen and Kronley wrote a thought-provoking article in the recent issue of HBR entitled, “Cultural Change that Sticks: Start with What’s Already Working.”  There are many great takeaways from this article, but I'm going to highlight the nuggets that really stood out to me.  The author trio said…
Too often a company's strategy, imposed from above, is at odds with the ingrained practices and attitudes of its culture.  Executives may underestimate how much a strategy’s effectiveness depends on culture alignment.  Culture trumps strategy every time. 
Studies show that only 10% of people who have had heart bypass surgery or an angioplasty make major modifications to their diets and lifestyles afterward.  We don't alter our behavior even in the face of overwhelming evidence that we should.  Change is hard.  So you need to choose your battles. 
Observe the behavior prevalent in your organization now, and imagine how people would act if your company were at its best, especially if their behavior supported your business objectives.  Ask the people in your leadership groups, “If we had the kind of culture we aspire to, in pursuit of the strategy we have chosen, what kinds of new behaviors would be common?  And what ingrained behaviors would be gone?” 
It's tempting to dwell on the negative traits of your culture, but any corporate culture is a product of good intentions that evolved in unexpected ways and will have many strengths.  If you can find ways to demonstrate the relevance of the original values and share stories that illustrate why people believe in them, they can still serve your company well.  Acknowledging the existing culture's assets will also make major change feel less like a top-down imposition and more like a shared evolution.
I've watched numerous organizations struggle to implement their strategic plan.  In retrospect, in several cases I can see where the strategy was asking the organization to make a cultural leap that probably felt like they were trying to straddle the Grand Canyon.  I would argue that it's always good to challenge yourself in a strategic plan, but starting with what's working within your culture as a launching pad certainly makes all kinds of sense.  It's kind of like choosing to swim downstream and throwing in a new stroke every so often to continue to evolve over time—gradually, intentionally, and gently.