Monday, October 20, 2014

Growing Capacity All Year Round

When it comes to the subject of how to grow capacity, the standard answer and the one we have explored in great detail during past From Vision to Action Executive Roundtables and in the From Vision to Action Leadership Training is that leaders grow capacity through growing clarity. Given the pace and speed of change in so many organizations this fall, a more in-depth answer is now needed.

As we all know, awareness turns into understanding when someone has a picture inside their head of optimal performance or what the goal looks like once achieved. Next, collaboration, which is critical to growing capacity, begins with the relationship someone has with others and their boss. Finally, commitment  starts when people understand how their job makes a difference and they feel a part of something that is purposeful.

My two recent insights about growing capacity come from rereading James  Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner’s book called A Leader’s Legacy. Jossey-Bass, 2006. As they note, the “single best predictor of career success [for an individual] is the relationship they had with their very first supervisor.” They also note that “... the most important leader is any organization is not the CEO or the head honcho; its the leader we see most often, the one we turn to when we need guidance and support.” As Kouzes and Posner remind us, the foundation for growing capacity start with healthy work relationships. 

This week, pause and evaluate your key relationships at work. It may be time to move them to a new level and depth of interaction.

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

Monday, October 13, 2014

How do leaders change systems? - part #2

Continuing with last week’s subject, some days we forget that there are four understandings when it comes to any system. First, there is the boss’s understanding of how the system works. Next, there is an employee’s understanding of how the system works. Third, there is other peoples’ understanding of how the system works, and finally there is the reality of how the system actually works. Often, these four levels of perception are in conflict and can be the source of why a system is not functioning properly and why it is difficult to change.

Many years ago, I worked with an organization that wanted to improve it’s systems. Their goal was to be a High Reliability Organization or HRO. An HRO is an organization that has succeeded in avoiding catastrophes in an environment where normal accidents can be expected due to risk factors and complexity.

The best resource on this subject is the work of Karl Weick , and Kathleen M. Sutcliffe in their book,  Managing The Unexpected: Resilient Performance in an Age of Uncertainty. John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 2007. As the authors write, “Our basic message is that expectations can get you in trouble unless you create a mindful infrastructure that continually does all of the following: tracks small failures, resists oversimplification, remains sensitive to operations, maintains capabilities for resilience, and takes advantage of shifting locations of expertise.”  As they continue, “Moving toward a mindful infrastructure is harder than it looks because it means that people have to forgo the “pleasures” of attending to success, simplicities, strategy, planning, and superiors.... The ability to deal with a crisis situation is largely dependent on the structures that have been developed before chaos arrives.”

There are five key HRO principles as outlined in the aforementioned book. They are as follows:

- # 1: Preoccupation with Failure. HROs are distinctive because they are preoccupied with failure. They treat any lapse as a symptom that something may be wrong with the system, something that could have severe consequences.

- # 2: Reluctance to Simplify. Another way HROs manage for the unexpected is by being reluctant to accept simplifications. It is certainly true that success in any coordinated activity requires that people simplify in order to stay focused on a handful of key issues and key indicators. Knowing that the world is complex, unstable, unknowable, and unpredictable, HROs position themselves to see as much as possible. 

- # 3: Sensitivity to Operations. HROs are sensitive to operations. They are attentive to the front line, where the real work gets done. The “big picture” in HROs is less strategic and more situational than is true of most organizations. When people have well-developed situational awareness, they can make the continuous adjustments that prevent errors from accumulating and enlarging.

- #4: Commitment to Resilience. No system is perfect. The essence of resilience is therefore the intrinsic ability of an organization or system to maintain or regain a dynamically stable state, which allows it to continue operations after a major mishap and/or in the presence of a continuous stress. The hallmark of an HRO is not that it is error-free but that errors don’t disable it. Resilience is a combination of keeping errors small and of improving workarounds that allow the system to keep functioning. They image worst-case conditions and practice their own equivalent of fire drills. 

- # 5: Deference to Expertise. HROs cultivate diversity, not just because it helps them notice more in complex environments, but also because it helps them do more with the complexities they do spot. Rigid hierarchies have their own special vulnerability to error. Errors at higher levels tend to pick-up and combine with errors at lower levels, thereby making the resulting problem bigger, harder to comprehend, and more prone to escalation. To prevent this deadly scenario, HRO’s push decision making down and around. Decisions are made on the front line and authority migrates to the people with the most expertise, regardless of rank. 

When seeking to become an HRO, there are three critical questions according to the previously mentioned authors. First is the “hands on” question: What activities involve the most direct human contact with the system and thus offer the greatest opportunity for human decisions or actions to have an immediate, direct, adverse effect upon the system? Second is the “criticality” question: What activities, if performed less than adequately, pose the greatest risks to the well-being of the system? Third is the “frequency” question: How often are these activities performed in the day-to-day operation of the system as a whole?

This week, think about becoming an HRO and consider reading Karl Weick and Kathleen M. Sutcliffe’s book,  Managing The Unexpected: Resilient Performance in an Age of Uncertainty. John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 2007. It is full of good insights.

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

Monday, October 6, 2014

How do leaders change systems? - part #1

Recently, over a long lunch meeting, those gathered began discussing how leaders change systems. We agreed that most systems are designed for predictability and consistent outcomes. They also are designed to solve problems that may only be clear from a historical perspective rather than a current perspective.

Often when discussing this topic with executives, I point out that many people and even organizations suffer from a normal problem, namely spatial blindness. Barry Oshry in his book, Seeing Systems: Unlocking the Mysteries of Organizational Life, Berrett-Koehler, 1995, defined spatial blindness as seeing the “parts of the system but not the whole system.” The problem is that the skills of perceiving and analyzing the world in terms of systems to many of us. They must be learned, because, for the most part, we are born blind to systems. Rarely can we clearly perceive ourselves in space, time or relationship to what appear to be remote objects, forces, people and events.

Furthermore, spatial blindness is a failure to grasp "big picture" connections. For example, many of us are almost totally unaware of what is happening elsewhere that can indirectly but powerfully affect our lives. Like the legendary blind group of people describing an elephant as they each grasp a different part of its anatomy, we routinely mistake the parts for the whole. In short, we lose perspective and miss the context in which seemingly isolated events occur. 

One unique aspect of spatial blindness is scale blindness. Since it is easy to miss the big picture when concentrating on details, it also is difficult to up-scale or down-scale a set of conditions by linear extrapolation. It can be a recipe for serious error. Yet with improved understanding and perspective, we can begin to overcome scale blindness.

This week keep your eyes open for spatial blindness and scale blindness. It is rampant in the work place.

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

Monday, September 29, 2014

Winning Hearts and Minds

Last week, I wrote about the importance of communicating purpose on a daily basis. The goal of which is to win the hearts and minds of all employees. The first step to achieving this outcome is to treat others with respect. By treating others with genuine respect, you, as the leader, create a relationship with people where they are more likely to listen carefully and sympathetically to your message. But the key is to realize that treating people with respect needs to happens before you start speaking not just when you start speaking.

Second, it is important to keep your messages short and concise so they can be cascaded. Corruption of your message is a given as it cascades into the organization. Remember: simplicity of the message + action + alignment = clarity. So, what is the action that the follower is suppose to take upon hearing and understanding your message?

Third. be self-confident and yet humble. John  Kotter and Lorne A. Whitehead in their book, Buy-In: Saving Your Good Idea From Getting Shot Down, Harvard Business Review Press, 2010, remind us not to try to wing it, even if you know all the facts thoroughly, even if the idea seems bulletproof, and even if you expect a friendly audience. Instead, constantly monitor the people whose hearts and minds you need: the broad audience, not the few who may attack your message. 

Fourth, to win peoples’ hearts and minds, constantly ask yourself this question: What can I teach here today? The key is to remember that purpose is best learned through stories. Therefore, choose stories which teach.

If you want to be a better leader this fall, then now is the time tell more and new stories. It is time to weave more people into the stories we tell, and it is time we build or rebuild a sense of pride, progress and perspective through the stories we tell.

In short, my challenge to you this week is a simple: What are the new and old stories you can tell that will illustrate the purpose of your company’s work?

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

Monday, September 22, 2014

Communicate Purpose Daily

We were sitting in a small conference room when I asked the senior team what their core message related to the strategic plan was for the coming quarter. The first person gave me her to do list, and second person talked for four minutes but her message was lost in the color commentary. The next person talked about other peoples’ messages, and one person could not come up with a message. The last person stated that his message was “get it done.” I listened and thought to myself that the results of these messages will be confusion and complacency.

The world of leadership is complex and the problems we face are complex. However, the solutions do not have to be complex. The more complex the solution, then the more complex it is to communicate them.

James Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner in their book, A Leader’s Legacy. Jossey-Bass, 2006, remind us that “The purpose of leaders is to mobilize others to serve a purpose.” As they note, purpose is passed on through the stories we share with others.

I know today that companies all over the globe want to achieve buy-in. They want to capture peoples’ attention and to create urgency, not fear. Then, with people paying attention, these same companies want to win over the minds and the hearts of those who work at that company.

But, it all begins with a clear message.  So, what is your message this quarter? And how does it connect with the core purpose or mission of your organization plus the strategic plan?

Finding the answer is the first step in becoming a better leader.

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

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Where Is The Next Generation of Leaders?

Highly effective people in the right positions within a company can make a profound difference. They can generate focus, momentum and commitment. They can be the determining factor that makes people want to improve and to innovate when challenges arise. However, identifying and developing these current and future leaders has itself become the new challenge for everyone these days.  

Claudio Fernandez-Araoz in his June 2014 Harvard Business Review article called “21st Century Talent Spotting: Why potential now trumps brains, experience, and competencies” writes that “the sweet spot for rising senior executives is the 35-to-44-year-old age bracket, but the percentage of people in that range is shrinking dramatically. In our 2006 study, we calculated that a projected 30% decline in the ranks of young leaders combined with anticipated business growth, would cut in half the pool of senior leader candidates in that critical age group. Whereas a decade ago this demographic shift was affecting mostly the United States and Europe, by 2020 many other countries, including Russia, Canada, South Korea, and China, will have more people at retirement age than entering the workforce.”  

With the impact of the above demographics and the continued rise of globalization within the work force, it is imperative that companies, who seek to be successful on an ongoing basis, have a well developed and effect pipeline of future leaders. Yet as reported in the above article, the author notes the following: “In PriceWaterhouseCooper’s 2014 survey of CEOs in 68 countries, 63% of respondents said they were concerned about the future availability of key skills at all levels. The Boston Consulting Group cites proprietary research showing that 56% of executives see critical gaps in their ability to fill senior managerial roles in the coming years.” Clearly, the need for leadership is great but the ability to meet this need is struggling. With the pace of change accelerating, we also can not predict the key skill sets needed just a few years out.

Within Fernandez-Araoz’s research reported in the above mentioned article, he points out the following “five markers of potential” for people who could be 21st century leaders: “a strong motivation to excel in the pursuit of challenging goals combined with the humility to put the group ahead of individual needs; an insatiable curiosity to explore new ideas and avenues; keen insight into connections that others don’t see; a strong engagement with work and people; and the determination to overcome obstacles.” Once we have hired the right people and identified them as people with potential, then we need to retain them and develop them for the future. They need to grow in the depth and scope of their understanding of leadership, strategy and organizational change.

Here is where the 2015 From Vision to Action Leadership Training fits into this picture. Through a challenging, interactive curriculum which blends lectures, selected readings, small and large group discussions, and how to skill-building exercises, participants in this four part leadership training gain critical knowledge and skills which improve their ability to lead people to generate short and long term success. For more information on how to register for the 2015 From Vision to Action Leadership Training, please click on the following link: 

Finding and developing the next generation of leaders is a top priority during the coming months and years. One solution is the 2015 From Vision to Action Leadership Training. I look forward to you participation!

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

Monday, September 15, 2014

No Longer Living a One Dimensional Life

It was after a long meeting when he paused and shared, “All I do is work or sleep. Between the e-mail, the phone calls, meetings and travel, I have realized that I live a one dimensional life. Work is my life. I am obsessed, and compulsive about keeping up. And you know what, I never seem to get caught up, especially with the e-mail. I am constantly about 250-300 e-mails behind. It is draining and deeply frustrating.”

The best strategic leaders I have met do not have just a work life. They spend considerable time and energy building and maintaining a very satisfying personal and home life. In reality, they focus on maintaining clear boundaries with work and having realistic expectations about what can get done. They recognize the importance of having de-acceleration zones in their life where they can unplug from work and connect back in with themselves and their loved ones.

This kind of multi-dimensional life requires great discipline. It is not the big choices but all of the little choices that make the major difference. For example, it would be easy to answer texts, e-mails and phone calls during a family dinner. But it sends the message to their family that they come second, and this can back fire over time, especially when raising teenagers. It would be easy to skip an hour of sleep and to start answering e-mail late at night while the family is all asleep. The challenge is that once the e-mails have been sent the mind can not slow down and sleep. It instead focuses on all of the other issues and problems in the company. What ends up being an extra hour turns into two-three hours of tossing and turning in bed as the mind slowly attempts to unwind. Short on sleep the next day, it does not get any better. It becomes a long unbroken cycle of less sleep and diminished capacity to cope, a downward spiral.  

This week, pause and review your life. Is it the one you want to be living? If not, rethink your expectations and set clear boundaries between work and home. One dimensional living does not have to be the new normal in the world of leadership.

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