Monday, March 31, 2014

Could you stay the course?

Stay the course: an idiom of the English language that means to persevere in the face of difficulty when the desired outcome is determined to be worth obstacles met along the way.

This past week provided me with several reminders that effective leaders stay the course.  I'm not a movie buff so I tend to be sufficiently behind on movie watching.  True to form, I just watched Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom, and what a reminder that leaders stay the course.  The series of decisions that led Mandela to prison was a result of his "staying the course."  I thought his decision after his release was even bolder and demonstrated to an even greater extent what it means to stay the course.

The people of South Africa were angry, and rightly so.  They had turned to violence because they believed it was their only defense and only opportunity for freedom.  After Mandela's release from prison, he publicly denounced violence and stated that they would "never win a war, but they could win an election."  He asked the people of South Africa to stop fighting and to seek peace.  Mandela had been in prison for 27 years; the people of South Africa had been fighting for 27 years; the people believed that they had a right not only to freedom but to revenge.

When Mandela went to prison, it was what the people expected.  When Mandela asked them to stop fighting and to seek peace, that was not what the people expected.  It was a very bold move, but Mandela continued to stay the course, because what Mandela was seeking (and always had been) was freedom, and revenge was not a route to freedom.

Another example.  This past week a leader of a large non-profit with a national and international platform made a bold move, then two days later rescinded that bold move.  Of course there were numerous factors involved in this decision, many of which I'm certainly not aware.  The initial decision resulted in upheaval in one direction, the decision to rescind then created upheaval in the other direction.  It has consequently become a no-win situation with constituents upset on all sides.  I've pondered this scenario every day this week, asking myself, what lessons in leadership can be gleaned from this somewhat chaotic and unfortunate situation.  Here are a few of my thoughts.

  • Bold moves are good; they demonstrate strong leadership.
  • Bold moves will have opponents.  Don’t expect everyone to enthusiastically support the decision.
  • If you're going to make a bold move, be certain of that decision.  Ask enough questions from enough people so you can anticipate the aftershock of that decision so you'll be prepared to respond and not react.
  • If you're going to make a bold move, be prepared to stay the course.  As Nelson Mandela said, "When the water starts boiling it is foolish to turn off the heat."

I would guess that most leaders make less than a handful of bold moves in their careers.  So select them carefully, judiciously, and courageously.  Effective leaders make bold moves and they stay the course, because it's a long walk to freedom.  

Monday, March 24, 2014

What's your habit?

The key to reaching your goals is not to visualize the end, but to turn these goals into actionable habits.  ~Senia Maymin & Margaret Greenberg

We probably all have them; goals that cause us to visualize a different future.  These goals come in many shapes and sizes: financial goals, home location goals, travel goals, accomplishment goals, etc.  While visualizing the end can be an enjoyable journey on its own, we don't start to actually realize those goals until we begin to change or create some actionable habits.

To put this in the perspective of organizations, many organizations create a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal, coined by Jim Collins), or a vision statement for the future.  What happens next is the key indicator as to whether or not they have a chance at reaching their BHAG.  Does the leadership team get excited, psyched, and hyped up; and then everyone retreats back to their offices and returns to work as usual?  Or, do they plunge into identifying actionable habits that they will each need to commit to as well as hold one another accountable to in order to move toward their goal?

This past week while driving, I started listening to the book Crucial Conversations.  Following is a quote that really caught my attention.  I see organizations frequently trying to tweak systems, revise processes and come up with a new structure, believing this will allow them to achieve their goals.  The authors argue that more times than not, the real problem is behavior (i.e., actionable habits).
Most leaders get it wrong.  They think that organizational productivity and performance are simply about policies, processes, structures, or systems.  So when their software product doesn't ship on time, they benchmark others' development processes.  Or when productivity flags, they tweak their performance management system.  When teams aren't cooperating, they restructure. 
Our research shows that these types of nonhuman changes fail more often than they succeed.  That's because the real problem never was in the process, system, or structure—it was in employee behavior.  The key to real change lies not in implementing a new process, but in getting people to hold one another accountable to the process.
Human behavior is a significant part of organizations that is all too frequently overlooked.  Or worse yet, we think that it's the fluffy, touchy-feely things that have little impact on productivity and financial outcomes.  However, at the end of the day, I think we'd all be hard-pressed to come up with something other than "actionable habits" that will move us closer to our goals.  And, actionable habits = human behavior with accountability.

But don't take my word for it; try it for yourself.  Dust off that BHAG or vision, and identify a few actionable habits (behaviors) that will move you in the direction of your goal and commit to those habits for a few months and see what happens.  Or, get your entire leadership team to join in the effort and hold one another accountable to those new habits.  Position it as a team building exercise, something that will not only help the organization but will also contribute to leadership development.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Francis Effect

You can’t govern without loving the people and without humility.  ~Pope Francis

This past week marked Pope Francis' first anniversary.  Just over a year ago, I would dare say that the vast majority of the world would not have recognized the name Jorge Mario Bergoglio.  One year later, Jorge, who we now know as Pope Francis, has nearly single-handedly started a revolution not only for the Catholic Church but for all of Christendom. 

What fascinates me most is that his effect on us has not been because of his title, his title has merely introduced us to the man.  It's the man who has taken us by storm.  Borrowing from Chris Lowney, author of Pope Francis: Why He Leads the Way He Leads, quoted in the Chicago Tribune, said, "In Bergogilo's first days as pope, we were not watching someone trying to act like a pope.  We were watching a person unafraid to be who he was."

Lowney describes a Jesuits' years long training: "much of which revolves around self-examination and working among the people they seek to lead.  It's 'dirty-footed leadership' with a focus on understanding other people and their circumstances and putting their needs ahead of one's own."

Tribune journalist, Rex Huppke, said, "The issue here is not one of religion or faith, but of encouraging people to look outside themselves.  I would argue that's the right thing to do on a moral basis, but in the workplace, it's also the right thing to do pragmatically."

Lowney boils down Pope Francis' leadership to this: "Commit to yourself deeply, including your frailties, and come to some peaceful acceptance of yourself and your calling to lead.  Then, commit to 'get over yourself' to serve a purpose greater than self."

Shane Claiborne, visionary leader of The Simple Way, a faith community in inner city Philadelphia, recently said this about Pope Francis.  "The most remarkable thing about the Pope is that what he is doing should not be remarkable.  He is simply doing what Popes and Christians should do – care for the poor, critique inequity, interrupt injustice, surprise the world with grace, include the excluded and challenge the entitled."

I agree with Shane, we shouldn't view what he's doing as remarkable, but it is simply what we all should be doing.  So why don't we?  Why don't more leaders follow Pope Francis' example of leadership?  It's clearly getting everyone's attention and creating a movement within the Catholic Church in a very short time. 

I think we don’t model his leadership style because like it or not, we don't want to admit just how ego-driven we really are.  We have not "come to some peaceful acceptance of ourselves, including our frailties."  We don't really look outside ourselves.  And maybe most significantly, we're not practicing 'dirty-footed leadership.'  We don't focus (and that takes intentional time and effort) on understanding other people and their circumstances.  

We can't lead without loving the people.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Time for an organizational oil change?

Trust is the lubricant for transactions.  ~Don Peppers

Growing up with three older brothers on a farm, I was more than encouraged to learn a thing or two about auto mechanics.  Of course I needed to know how to check my oil, change a tire, but I was also given a thorough course in how to change my own oil (which I never actually opted to do).  Understanding the importance of well maintained lubricants so engines run efficiently is something I've been familiar with for quite some time.

For decades our business curriculum and organizational practices have focused heavily on transactions – systems, production, processes, policies, project management, etc.  All of those transactions represent the metal parts of an engine, necessary yes, but without any grease, oil, or lubricant it's just metal rubbing against metal, not efficient, and a really good chance the engine won't even run.  Don Peppers, with thoughts by Faisal Hoque, describe the new era of organizations.
Trust is a lubricant for transactions.  We no longer work in an era in which we try to make everything as efficient as possible; rather, we're trying to be more agile and more innovative, to move more quickly with our iterations.  Relationships are the bandwidth within an organization, which means we need to be deliberate in forming them.
I spend a great deal of time working with organizations on strategic planning.  I've learned, maybe the hard way, that effective strategic planning is supported by deliberate and intentional leadership development and coaching.  Or, said another way, forming the relationships (i.e., bandwidth) so the strategic plan can gain traction and move the organization forward.

It's still very common for individuals with innate strategic thinking and analytical skills to move into leadership positions within organizations.  Strategy is still critical.  However, strategy without attention to relationships and culture—the lubricant that builds trust and enables the transactions to take hold—is short-lived with only minimal success.  It's like metal rubbing against metal, inefficient and many times painful. 

Trust is the lubricant for transactions and relationships are the bandwidth within organizations.  Trust is the lubricant for transactions and relationships are the bandwidth organizations.  That's not a typo; I intended to repeat myself because I think it's worth repeating. 

I frequently watch executives pore over numbers, charts, and data in an effort to create a business strategy to turnaround or re-invigorate their organization.  They do this with the belief that if they can make the numbers make sense, then everything will easily fall into place.  And the numbers are important; I'm not intending to discount sound financial management.  However, that's simply not enough, not today.   The real bandwidth of today's organization is not balance sheets and cash flow statements. 

Just in case you missed the point I was trying to emphasize: Trust is the lubricant for transactions and relationships are the bandwidth within organizations.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Time to spring clean our assumptions!

Reevaluation need not be a reaction to actual or imagined failure but can be a kind of organizational hygiene, a spring cleaning of assumptions.  ~Faisal Hoque with Drake Baer

It is approaching that time of year when we begin to think about spring cleaning.  Living in an urban environment there is another phenomenon that also reminds me spring is just around the corner, and I am desperately in need of those reminders this year. 

In the city, snow is pushed off the sidewalks to the edge of the street and from the street to the edge of the sidewalks.  This mound of snow continuously builds throughout the winter then begins to turn to an icy, mucky mess and finally begins to melt (a sign of spring!).  As it melts, it's fascinating to see what's revealed.  All of the cans, fast food containers, junk mail, etc. people have tossed thinking it would be hidden in the snow.  Along with items that have gotten caught up in the winter winds and of course what's left behind from pets that pet owners believed it was okay not to pick up since it would be buried in the snow.  Yes, it's quite a sight.  All of winter's messes revealed as spring begins to emerge.  All of what we assumed would be out of sight is now exposed.  A sure sign it might be time to spring clean our assumptions.

I think that's how we treat assumptions in organizations.  Because we haven't had a failure, imagined or real, we don't take the time to stop and reevaluate, we don't practice some highly needed organizational hygiene.  We assume we can keep tossing our unwanted items into the snow banks because they will remain hidden.

Assumption means hypothesis, guess, theory, conjecture.  We all like to think that we assume very little because we make decisions based on "fact" and "truth."  The reality is we can never know every facet and variable that might touch a situation, especially today.  We live in a more dynamic world than any time in history; something, or maybe everything, around us is constantly changing. 

We're coming out of decades where leadership success was measured by the ability to create sustainability through stabilization—living in a world of facts and truth.  Leadership success today, however, is and will be measured by the ability to create sustainability through learning and adaptation—constantly questioning our assumptions.

Here's an example in my world of consulting.  Management consulting has been the standard or typical assumed best approach for many years.  This means that an outside consultant comes into the organization, studies it, and then as the outside expert makes specific recommendations to be imposed upon the organization.  I believe that much of management consulting is going to be replaced by business coaching.  This means that the client is now the expert and the coach helps to create a safe but challenging space for both individuals and the organization to move from where they are to where they want to be.  The business coach approach aligns more with a learning and adaptation view of the world, while a management consulting approach aligns more with a world view of facts and truth.

This shift in thinking around how my work is defined was a result of some challenging spring cleaning of my assumptions about both what I do and what organizations really need. 

I love this idea of spring cleaning our assumptions.  It can be applied to our professions, our organizations, our relationships, and even our daily and mundane decisions.  Let the spring cleaning commence!