Monday, March 20, 2017

How Successful Managers Reconcile Cognitive Dissonance

One unique way successful managers help people achieve their goals is to help them reconcile cognitive dissonance, i.e. the disconnect between what they believe and what they experience or see in reality. Right now, many people in the work place are experiencing cognitive dissonance. This is especially true, notes Marshall Goldsmith in his book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful, Hyperion, 2007, because the more we are committed to believing that something is true, the less likely we are to believe that the opposite is true, even in the face of clear evidence that shows we are wrong. As he explains, “people will do something - including changing their behaviors - only if it can be demonstrated that doing so is in their own best interests as defined by their own values.”

One way successful managers deal with the above is to help people close the gap between understanding and doing. From my vantage point, I have seen this happen when managers do not tell you what to do or think, but instead help you to learn how to think through your own challenges and problems. As we all recognize, people and organizations have very specific needs when they are outside their comfort zone, especially when working on stretch goals. We, as leaders and managers, can help them by making sure that the following things are in place, i.e the support of a team, a clear strategic perspective, and a psychological safety zone for strategic dialogue. When this is consistently generated over time, then people do a better job of achieving their goals.

However, there are days when we as leaders and manager have to work with extremely challenging people. Years ago, in the middle of an executive coaching session over the phone, a young woman told me her boss was drunk on power. Every day, there were multiple missed communication opportunities with her boss, and many work-arounds given her boss’s behavior. Her boss often was a micro manager and got “way down into the weeds.” Furthermore, she reported that every one was trying to get on the boss’s good side. When she visited with an outside consultant, he told her that her boss just churns and burns people out. As he explained to her, “learn to live with it or move on.” 

As she shared about working with such a challenging person, I thought of the following line from Jim Collin’s book,  How The Mighty Fall and Why Some Companies Never Give In, HarperCollins, 2009, where he shared the first line of Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” 

Everyday, we meet challenging people. In the beginning we need to remember that people at work need to cooperate with each other, be reliable,  accountable, honest and effective. What successful people realize is that in order to be all of these elements at work we must have healthy levels of collaboration, respect and understanding with each other. We also need to remember that we are not going to change our basic personality structure or that of the person who is challenging. Awareness of this can make a world of difference.

First, after significant amount of reflection, I have come to the conclusion that successful people understand how others learn. While no one has a better learning style than anyone else, there are three basic types of learning, namely analyzing learners, doing learners and watching learners. Knowing this basic information helps tremendously when dealing with difficult people. Often they are difficult because they are just different than our preferred manner of learning. As one young supervisor shared with me recently, “I realized that I am a doer leading a group of analyzers. No wonder they have been so difficult to work with.” Another supervisor in this same training event shared with me that “I realized that I am a watcher leading a batch of doers.”

For those struggling with their boss, Peter Drucker reminded us to divide bosses into “listeners” and “readers.” The later likes to read before they discuss. The former likes to discuss and ask questions before they read the full report. In short, knowing how people learn and process information is critical to dealing with them effectively.

Second, successful people understand the difference between what others need to know, and what they do know. Successful people understand that their boss or any other challenging person is constantly dealing with stakeholders who have differing agendas and opinions. We, at times, forget that politics are normal in the work place. However, successful people recognize that their boss and others who are difficult to deal with are often managing at the edge of chaos. Successful people know that challenging people can only tolerate so much chaos before they try to shut it or someone down.

The key is to understand the context of the challenging person’s work experience. They may just be coping with things that are not on your radar screen. Furthermore, your assumptions often are the one source of why the person you are working with is challenging. In a world of such economic and political turbulence, we must understand that the boss does not just represent themselves in the community but often are an integral part of the brand identity for many stakeholders. With this in mind, I have come to the conclusion that when dealing with challenging people we need to see the world through their eyes in order to better understand why they are speaking and acting in the manner they are.  As Stephen Covey taught us so many years ago, seek first to understand, second to be understood. It is still applicable today when dealing with difficult people.

This week, remember that cognitive dissonance happens and that challenging people are often challenging because they do not learn and work like you. Therefore, work on the one person you can change, namely yourself. The rest will follow.

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Importance of Deep Work

Every once in a while a book shows up that, using an old Quaker phrase, speaks to your condition. This month, I have been doing a lot of thinking about all of the different leaders and organizations that I get to meet on a regular basis. In particular, I have been interested in why some thrive and others do not during the challenging times that we are living through right now. Having read this book, I discovered a new perspective.

In his book, Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World, Grand Central Publishing, 2016, author Cal Newport describes deep work in the following manner: “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.” Newport notes that “… if you study the lives of … influential figures from both distant and recent history, you’ll find that a commitment to deep work is a common theme.” From my recent reflections and work with a diversity of leaders, I realized that some of the best leaders I know have a regular thinking space clearly defined in their life, where they can step back and look at the bigger picture and work on the organization rather than in it.

In Deep Work, the author explains the following: “The reason knowledge workers are losing their familiarity with deep work is well established: network tools…. In aggregate, the rise of these tools, combined with ubiquitous access to them through smart phones and networked office computers, has fragmented most knowledge workers’ attention into slivers.” As he continues, “A 2012 McKinsey study found that the average knowledge worker now spends more than 60 percent of the workweek engaged in electronic communication and Internet searching, with close to 30 percent of a workers’ time dedicated to reading and answering e-mail alone.”

This lack of deep work generates “shallow work” which Newport defines in the following manner: “Non cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”

Now before we go any further on this subject, I agree with Cal Newport when he wrote, “Deep work is not some nostalgic affection of writers and early-twentieth-century philosophers. It’s instead a skill that has great value today.” As he further explains, “the ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”

In this book, the author notes that “Current economic thinking … argues that the unprecedented growth and impact of technology is creating a massive restructuring of our economy. In this new economy, three groups will have a particular advantage: those who can work well and creatively with intelligent machines, those who are the best at what they do, and those with access to capital.” Therefore , the two core abilities for thriving in the new economy are the following:

“1. The ability to quickly master hard things.
2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.”

As he concludes, “If you want to become a superstar, mastering the relevant skills is necessary, but not sufficient. You must then transform that latent potential into tangible results that people value…. The two core abilities just described depend on your ability to perform deep work.”

There are many more insights and good information in this book. I hope the above provides you with enough information so you are interested to go and check out this new excellent resource. I found it very helpful and highly recommend it to others who are wanting to guide their team and their organization through the patterns of uncertainty, change and turbulence. Happy Reading!

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Talk Less; Question More.

Each week, I do a great deal of reading. I am constantly scanning for new ideas, insights or perspectives. Sometimes, all I discover is repackaged material from the 80’s or 90’s. Other days, I discover something that is good food for thought.

Recently in the March-April 2017 issue of the Harvard Business Review, I thoroughly enjoyed reading the article called “Bursting The CEO Bubble: Why Executives Should Talk Less And Ask More Questions” by Hal Gregersen, the executive director of the MIT Leadership Center and a senior lecturer in leadership and innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

As he writes, “Although CEOs are charged with recognizing when their firms need a major change in direction, their power and privilege often insulate them from information that would help them perceive looming opportunities or threats. No one wants to tell the CEO of problems much less that he or she is mistaken.”

Based on interviews of 200 executives, Gregerson found that senior executives acknowledge this problem and yet are unsure of how to solve it.  Still, the author found a few executives who had developed creative solutions to living in the “good-news cocoon.”

Some of these solutions ranged from seeking out honest feedback from a diversity of constituents to participating in situations “off the beaten path” where they are “unusually uncomfortable.” This then requires them to ask better questions and discover new insights which ultimately may help them to “detect early weak signals of impending market shifts.”

For me, there was one section in the article that was very interesting, namely the author’s suggestion that CEOs and, from my advantage point, all senior executives need to learn to be quiet. As he writes, “This is not typical behavior for CEOs, who are generally expected to be in broadcast mode, delivering words of inspiration, explanation, and unambiguous direction. A.G. Lafley, two-time chairman and CEO of Procter & Gamble, likes to say that his job is to keep repeating for people what the mission is and to keep it “Sesame Street simple. That is the default setting for CEOs for sound reasons.” This reminds me of a Fast Company magazine interview of Ron Heifetz back in the 90’s where he said that “leaders often die with their mouths wide open.”

Gregersen argues that leaders have to switch from transmitting messages to receiving them. As he continues, “No surprise, then, that each week Lafley asks himself, “What am I going to be curious about?” as a reminder that strategic insight demands deep listening born of equally deep curiosity.”

Being quiet does not equal being checked out. Being quiet means being focused enough to receive new insights and perspectives from a diversity of people. This will not only take leaders outside their comfort zone but also outside the “isolating bubble fueled by position and power.”  When we are quiet and when this quiet is based on the desire to seek new insights and perspectives, then it is a most productive opportunity.

So, this week, I encourage you to read this good, new article and to start asking yourself the fabulous question “What am I going to be curious about?” Being quiet and curious can open you up to whole, new worlds of opportunity.

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Caught Between What Was and What Will Be

March is an unusual time of the year in the midwest. Winter is not officially over and Spring has not officially arrived. It is the time between what was and what will be.  And as a result, it just ends up being mud season.

If you live in rural American, all of the gravel roads have thawed and ruts appear everywhere. Driving is a challenge. The lovely snows of December, January and February give way to the slush of March depending on where you live. Every car is covered in grime and this will be present until the first good spring rain washes everything, people, animals, cars and plants clean. 

With a touch of grey cloudy skies and constant wind, people can get pretty depressed and frustrated during this time of year. Cabin fever is a real thing in rural America. We are desperate to look forward to something.

If you are following into this category of feeling worn by the pace and complexity of it all plus tired of coping with March weather, then now is the time to consider participating in the Spring 2017 From Vision to Action Executive Roundtable on April 5 - 6, 2017. 

We will not be meeting in sunny Florida or on a Caribbean Island with white sand beaches and sparkling blue water. Instead, we will be meeting at the Courtyard by Marriott in Ankeny, Iowa which is quite a bit easier to get to and a lot less expensive than most typical spring break locations.

What will be helpful is the opportunity to sit down with a great group of leaders who are thoughtful, inquisitive and open to learning and sharing new ideas and perspectives. To date, we have 15 different organizations from 6 states showing up to engage in an in-depth dialogue about today’s pressing problems and tomorrow’s adaptive challenges.

Here is the link to the registration form if you are interested in coming:


If you are tired of being caught between what was and what will be, please join us at the Spring 2017 Roundtable. It will be a practical and helpful time as you continue to plan and to execute those plans through out the rest of 2017.

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Monday, March 13, 2017

How Successful Managers Help People Achieve Their Goals

In the beginning, let us remember the following:

- business is personal.

- people commit to people first, not just plans, goals or objectives.

- on-line communication and collaboration works better once there has been extensive face-to-face communications.

- small leadership actions send big signals, especially when they relate to core principles and values.

One problem I see routinely now is that too many people are forgetting the above fundamentals when it comes to helping people achieve their goals. We must remember that successful managers recognize that real achievements require real effort. They also understand where this effort comes from. 

First, we all know we can not change people. Instead, we can only change the environment around people, and then they change themselves. The key from my vantage point is that the best and most successful managers help people achieve their goals by creating psychological safety. Then real effort follows.

Psychological safety begins when managers ensure “that no one is penalized if they ask for help or admit a mistake,” notes Amy C. Edmondson in her article called “The Competitive Imperative of Learning,”July-August 2008, Harvard Business Review. As she continues, “Psychological safety is crucial, especially in organizations where knowledge constantly changes, where workers need to collaborate, and where those workers must make wise decisions without management intervention.... It is built on the premise that no one can perform perfectly in every situation when knowledge and best practice are moving targets.”

She further explains that “Psychological safety is not about being nice - or about lowering performance standards. Quite the opposite: It’s about recognizing that high performance requires the openness, flexibility, and interdependence that can only develop in a psychologically safe environment, especially when the situation is changing or complex.... Psychological safety makes it possible to give tough feedback and have difficult conversations - which demand trust and respect - without the need to tiptoe around the truth.”

Yet many managers wonder how to actually create this level of safety. As Edmondson explains successful managers do two specific things. First, they “explicitly acknowledge the lack of answers to the tough problems groups face.” Second, they “ask questions - real questions, not leading or rhetorical ones.”

Remember: be more aware of the importance of psychological safety and create work environments where safety and trust are the foundation for all we do.

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Monday, March 6, 2017

How Successful Companies Institutionalize Culture

When you visit successful companies or work within one, they all have a special feel to them. It is unique and very noticeable. One element that makes this take place, from my perspective, is that successful companies institutionalize their culture without bureaucratizing it.

Struggling companies always have a system of administration marked by bureaucracy and red tape. They lack flexibility and initiative due to excessive adherence to regulations. This is particularly visible in the behavior of those in management and leadership positions, and how they interact with key systems.

Patrick Lencioni in his delightful book, The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business, Jossey-Bass, 2012, writes “Human systems are tools for reinforcement of clarity. They give an organization a structure for tying its operations, culture, and management together, even when leaders aren’t around to remind people.” Lencioni notes that this level of clarity takes place when leaders engage in the following activities:

- creating collective focus and clarity through out the organization

- cascading clarity 

- reinforcing clarity through human systems, i.e. performance management

- developing cultural consistency

As to performance management, he explains it this way: “Essentially performance management is the series of activities that ensures that managers provide employees with clarity about what is expected of them, as well as regular feedback about whether or not they are adequately meeting those expectations.”

From my vantage point as a consultant and executive coach, I observe that successful companies practice what they preach. They also constantly reinforce it on a day-to-day basis. For them, the brand promise is a set of core behaviors rather than just words. While we all recognize that the culture is the strategy in successful companies, the key is to not let the dark side of bureaucracy to slip in and take over, thus neutralizing the strategic advantage of a clear and focused culture.

In short, successful companies stay focused on their strategic nexus, the union of their mission, vision and values plus their strategic plan. This depth of clarity and attention allows them to handle the normal internal and external challenges that surface in any business day without having to resort to developing a bureaucracy that tramples creativity, commitment and effectiveness. 

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Monday, February 27, 2017

Casseroles and Questions

As a child born in the 50’s, I grew up in a world of casseroles. With both my parents working, it was common to have a casserole appear on the table at dinner time. I saw them regularly at church suppers, and once on a family vacation we even stopped and went to a church supper just because there were going to be casseroles and home-made pie.

My question is the following: “What hot dish is your company bringing to the table?” Inspired by an article by Cynthia A. Montgomery called “Putting Leadership Back into Strategy,” Harvard Business Review, January 2008, I think it is time we ask a series of excellent questions from the article to make us think:

- What kind of company do you want to be?

- What would the world be like without your organization?

- If your company were shuttered, to whom would it matter and why?

- Which of your customers would miss you and why?

- How long would it take for another firm to step into that void?

As she writes, “Purpose is at the heart of strategy. It should give direction to every part of the firm - from the corporate office to the loading dock - and define the nature of the work that must be done.”

When I reflect on all the different successful organizations I have worked with over many decades, I have come to the conclusion that successful companies have a “living” strategy. This happens because it is a purpose driven strategy. It  is more than a plan; it is a way of life for the organization. Their living strategy defines who they are and what they want to become. It is integrated into the very soul of the company and defines that daily experiences for employees, customers and the community in which they live and serve.

Successful companies create this living strategy by consciously engaging in the following activities: 

- strategic reflection, analysis and review

- strategic decision-making and delegation

- in-depth communication and definition which means communicating context, core philosophy and direction

- proactive listening and dialogue

- routine coaching and talent development

- implementing regular strategic dialogues which become the platform for real time strategic planning

When it comes to strategic dialogues, successful companies create them by developing a level of intimacy to the process, i.e. the time feels personal and direct rather corporate and impersonal. They also make sure these strategic dialogues are an interactive sharing rather than a time to be talked at. Next, these interactions are inclusive by relinquishing control over content and involving others, and they are intentional because strategy emerges better when there is a cross-organizational conversation.  

Remember: everyone brings a hot dish to the market place. Those who are successful know how to make one that employees are proud to share and customers will enjoy eating. 

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257