Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Problem With Corporate Success - part #1

More and more people in senior leadership positions are struggling. After the stress and uncertainty that started in September 2008 through to the spring of 2011, being stretched and busy does not capture half of what they are feeling. Most are just worn to the core of their being by the endless amount of work, constant complications and continual complexities that are surfacing each day and each week. Most would just be satisfied with some old fashion success.

In the dictionary, success is defined as “a favorable or desired outcome,” “the attainment of wealth, favor or eminence,” or “a position of prominence or superiority.” In the world of business, corporate success in simple terms can be defined as fulfilling the mission of the organization, living up to the organization’s core values, and accomplishing the goals as outlined in the strategic plan.

What many people do not understand is that there is a dark side to corporate success. First, it can be addictive and blinding. I have witnessed many times a Board or senior team fall in love with bricks and mortar. They just want to keep building new buildings, and keep cutting ribbons even when it does not make sense or is strategically wise.

Second, corporate success can lead to overcommitment and goal obsession. Some executives believe that if they can do one thing well, then they and the company should attempt to do 50 things at once. The assumption is that they can multiple their accomplishments.

Third, corporate success can generate an entitlement mentality. Some believe that “we will win because I have always won.” These leaders focus on how their contribution made all the difference. The result of this entitlement mentality, notes Marshall Goldsmith in his excellent book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful, Hyperion, 2007, can cause people at work to not clearly communicate a vision, treat people with respect, solicit contrary opinions, encourage other people’s ideas or listen to other people in meetings. In the words of Bill Gates, “Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.”

Fourth, corporate success can create cognitive dissonance, another term found in the above book. Cognitive dissonance reflects a disconnect between what we believe in our minds and what we experience or see in reality. Furthermore, 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.

Fifth, corporate success does not always translate into personal success. Right now, many are feeling that the company is winning at their expense. For them, it is a win - lose relationship and the losers are burning out. From my experience, our issues with corporate success become more of a problem when you walk through the door at home. It is hard to remember that a family is not a corporation. Our flaws at work don’t vanish when we walk through the front door at home. At times they are magnified by home dynamics, especially if we dump on the people we love. We forget that most days they are worn too.

In the beginning, when we choose to deal with the dark sides of corporate success, we need to listen carefully to truths that are shared with us. For example, late last fall I went in for my annual physical. During a review of my blood work, my doctor told me my cholesterol count was moving in the wrong direction. As a result, he wanted me to exercise every day. Now I could have blown this off as I was in good condition and other than a number moving toward the upper numbers, it was not in the dangerous category.

But from experience and listening to others, I knew that the best time to change is now rather than later. As a good friend said to me many years ago when I was dealing with another health issue, “What are you waiting for? Do you want it to get worse before you deal with it?” I knew she was exactly correct. The movement from worse back to healthy was a greater journey than from having a problem back to healthy.

For us here today, we must recognize that there is a dark side to corporate success and we each have important choices to make when confronting it.

Geery Howe, M.A.Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer inLeadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational ChangeMorning Star Associates319 - 643 - 2257

Monday, May 23, 2011

Consensus and Decision-making

We sat around their kitchen table, tea cups in hand, a small bowl of nuts and home grown, dried apples plus dishes in the sink, and sun coming in through the windows. It was a Saturday morning and I had come to ask a question.

Both were retired and successful, former senior executives who were now in their 70’s. Both I had known since I had first come to Iowa, and both, in two different organizations, had used consensus successfully to make major strategic decisions. My question was a simple one: “What can you tell me about consensus from your years of experience?”

This subject was on my mind because during the Fall 2010 From Vision to Action Executive Roundtable, one group of people at a table I was sitting with got into a vigorous and interesting discussion about the role of consensus in leadership and change. When they turned to me, and asked for my perspective about when to use it, how to do it, and what assumptions are contained within it, I didn’t know what to actually share. Therefore, I began reading and seeking out new perspectives on this subject. Recognizing that experienced people offer greater insights than books, I turned to these two retired executives for fresh perspective.

First, they noted that consensus in a business setting is quite different than in a religious setting. In a religious setting, the most common setting for where consensus is used, everyone has an equal voice. The group is working in accord with God’s will and they agree with God more than each other. This kind of consensus comes out of a shared experience of worship.

In a business setting, this is not the case. Positional leadership gives people different levels of control and power. This power differential is present from the very beginning of the consensus process. For many, they struggle with consensus in a business setting because they have to let go of power and thus they feel more vulnerable

In the beginning, they also shared that for consensus to work in a business setting, those involved need to respect each other and all work with the same accurate and timely data and figures. Starting from a shared understanding of the business and a willingness to agree or step aside, those gathered must have knowledge of the issues before the consensus process starts. Otherwise, they will not know know why they are seeking consensus on an issue.

Next, from their experience, they pointed out that for the conversations and dialogue related to consensus to work, all must show up, pay attention, listen, and let the disagreements get expressed. They noted that from their experience consensus may take longer, but implementation will go faster and better, and with less resistance and/or sabotage. They also noted that those involved need to be honest, but not mean, and not to hold on to preconceived end results/outcomes

That morning they explained to me that those who struggle with consensus are the ones who are sure they are right, have differences of expectations, lack respect for others, and hang on to an agenda or outcome. I know there is more to learn and explore when it comes to consensus but this is what I have discovered so far.

Geery Howe, M.A.Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer inLeadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational ChangeMorning Star Associates319 - 643 - 2257

Monday, May 16, 2011

Breaking Down Silos & Building Bridges

In preparation for the roll-out of a new strategic plan, the CEO asked me to meet with them and each of their direct reports to make sure they were all on the same page. To get each conversation started, I asked the following three questions: What is changing now that we have a new strategic plan? What will actually be different because of the new strategic plan? Who's going to lose what when we implement the new strategic plan?

Half way through these meetings, one person responded, “Nothing much will change. This is just like one of the new systems that we rolled out last month. It’s just more, not different.” There was a profound silence in the room and one could almost hear the CEO’s mouth hit the floor, it dropped open so quickly. I just smiled because we had run into a classic case of what I like to call “strategic blindness,” i.e we don’t see our strategy as a whole organization, and we just see the parts we like. We also had encountered a potential silo.

We forget some days that “... status quo functions elegantly to solve a stream of problems and opportunities for which it has already evolved.” As Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, and Marty Linsky write in their book, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World, Harvard Business Press, 2009, “Yesterday’s adaptive pressures, problems, and opportunities generated creative and successful responses in the organization that evolved through trial and error into refined structures, cultural norms, and default process and mind-sets.... In other words, yesterday’s adaptations are today’s routines.”

Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky in the aforementioned book explain that “Overtime, the structures, culture, and defaults that make up an organizational system becomes deeply ingrained, self-reinforcing and very difficult to reshape.” When things are going well, having a self-reinforcing culture, structure and systems is beneficial. When something important changes, e.g. the financial crisis that started in 2008, an organization or a system’s tenacity can prevent it from adapting, and from learning to thrive in a new context.

The reason this happens is that the organization is trapped by it’s current ways of doing things, simply because these ways worked in the past. The thinking and acting in a particular manner produced success for the organization. It also produced success for individuals who embraced the “new” way of doing things. It even produced leaders who reinforced the “new” way of doing things. These “new” leaders reinforced what was working and do not challenge new structures, culture or systems. The end result is that the organization becomes blind to the ever shifting competitive landscape.

When encountering a silo, first, as recommended in the book, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World, diagnosis whether or not you have a silo or an individual who is acting like a silo. If it is an individual, then coach in or coach out. If it is a silo, diagnosis the subsystems within it like structure including who reports to who, culture including behavioral norms, meeting protocols, ways of problem solving, decision-making, and what reinforces the culture, e.g. a certain incentive program, and systems including default systems and processes. The goal is to understand how the silo got to where it is a silo and what keeps it from evolving into something else.

Second, with the above in mind, analyze the competitive environment. What are the new adaptive pressures, challenges and opportunities that are surfacing? Distill them into specific trends, demographics, and economic indicators. Recognize you are going to have to “sell the problems” before you find the solution.

Third, reflect on this quote by Stephen Covey from his book, The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness, Free Press, 2004: “If you want to make minor changes and improvements, work on practices, behavior and attitude, but if you want to make significant, quantum improvement, work on paradigms.” From my perspective, the power of an accurate strategic nexus helps guide all involved when working with a silo. When breaking down silos, we need to have something to replace it with otherwise people, systems and culture will default to the old way of doing things. Remember: the culture is tenacious.

If you want to explore this subject in greater depth, I would encourage you to read the comprehensive and in-depth aforementioned book, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World, Harvard Business Press, 2009. It is very good. I also would encourage you to read John Kotter’s recent blog post on the Forbes website on “Breaking Down Silos.” Here is the link: http://blogs.forbes.com/johnkotter/2011/05/03/breaking-down-silos/.

Geery Howe, M.A.Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer inLeadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational ChangeMorning Star Associates319 - 643 - 2257

Monday, May 9, 2011

Positioning For the Future Growth - Part #2

Picking up where we left off last Monday, 5-2-11, there are more key steps to positioning an organization for future growth.

First, evaluate your key people and deal with your problem ones. To this day, it continues to surprise me how many leaders are not willing to deal with their problem people. They love to complain about them, but few have the fortitude to actually deal with their problem people.

When they ask me what to do about these people, I always ask them the same questions: Do you have confidence in them? Do you have confidence in the way they make decisions? Do you have confidence in the way they role model? The answer is either “yes” or “no.” A “maybe” is always a “no.” Dion Williams, Executive Director of Systems Unlimited told me he asks one additional question: Do you have confidence in the way they learn? Key people must make decisions, role model and learn. If there is any question in these three areas, then it is time to sit down with an HR professional and discuss how to proceed.

Second, implement more rigorous coaching. Too many times, coaching sessions end up being a waste of time and mostly focused on random gossip or a place where problems are managed up to be fixed. As I politely reminded a CEO earlier this winter, during coaching sessions you need to remember to ask yourself this question: “Who owns the monkey?” A coaching session is not a time for a direct report to transfer ownership of issues or challenges and put it on your back.

Third, better define your cascading messages. At the end of every meeting, ask the simple but powerful question: “What do we want people to remember and share with others after this meeting?” Remember: everything you say will be corrupted when it is cascaded. Therefore, make sure you clearly define the essence of your core message so others share it in a timely and accurate manner.

There are days we get so busy that we forget that people need to be lead and they need to be managed. Right now so many executives are under leading their organizations. They do not describe the future vividly and precisely, and they do create enough clarity about what should be cascaded and when.

Furthermore, we also are experiencing very poor management in many organizations. Let us remember that all leadership without healthy management is a disaster in the making. Successful organizations have both great strategic leadership and exceptional operational management.

This week, if you want to position your organization for the future, consider firing yourself on Friday and then rehiring yourself on Monday. Then, look at everything with fresh eyes. You may be surprised by what you discover.

Geery Howe, M.A.Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer inLeadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational ChangeMorning Star Associates319 - 643 - 2257

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Chaos, Complexity and Change

There are days as leaders when we are surrounded with complexity. Events happen that do not have any clear pattern. They seem like random occurrences. But, when complexity starts to feel chaotic, I know from experience, lots of strategic dialogues with very smart and talented people, plus a ton of reading that more likely we have encountered a complex adaptive situation.

Richard T. Pascale, Mark Millemann and Linda Gioja, in their superb book,. Surfing The Edge of Chaos: The Laws of Nature and the New Laws of Business, Three Rivers Press, 2000, note that humans tend to regard chaotic situations as those which they can not control. However, based on their study, “Nature is at its innovative best near the edge of chaos.” As they explain, “the edge of chaos is a condition, not a location.” It creates upheaval but not dissolution. It is not the abyss, but instead a sweet spot for productive change. As they point out, “innovations rarely emerge from systems high in order and stability.”

Andy Grove, retired chairman of the board at Intel explains it this way: “First, you must experiment and let chaos reign. That’s important because you’re not likely to successfully stumble on the answer at the first sign of trouble. Rather, you have to let the business units struggle and watch the dissonance grow in the company. As this unfolds, you enter the second phase of change, which I describe as the Valley of Death. Doing away with established practice and established people - tearing apart before you can put together something new - is not fun. Talking prematurely about changes that disrupt people’s lives and are not truly believed can undermine efforts before you really know what you’re doing. But once they are in place, it is essential for leadership to speak clearly about what to do. At this point, you are on the other side of of the Valley of Death and you can describe the future that lies ahead.”

As the aforementioned authors note and my own experience with clients confirms, “the trick is to navigate close to the edge of chaos without falling into it.” But to do this, we have to understand chaos better. The best place to start is to explore chaos theory.

Chaos theory is a field of study in applied mathematics with applications in several disciplines including physics, economics, biology and philosophy. Chaos theory studies the behavior of dynamic systems that are apparently disordered or unpredictable. But chaos theory is really about finding the underlying order in the apparently random elements of a system.

This came clear to me many years ago. When our children were younger and just getting into middle school band, we took them to a performance of the University of Iowa jazz band, concert band and marching band at Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City, Iowa. The place was packed and the jazz bands and concert bands were nice. But we were all focused on the marching band performance given both sons were into drums and drumming.

Finally after the intermission, the drum line of the University of Iowa’s marching band came into the back of the auditorium and set the initial rhythm, the cadence. Then different groups of instruments came streaming in from all different parts of the stage. In the end, the place was filled with sound, rhythm and music. Over the course of their performance, different groups like the trombones or the tubas would spontaneously get up and do little dances of some sort of hand gestures while maintaining the song they were performing. One never knew who was going to do what next. I don’t think they even knew when they were going to do it. It just happened, often appearing randomly and not planned. The music was fantastic and for two young sons who were beginning drummers it was awe inspiring.

As we walked outside the auditorium, the UI marching band showed up again, and started an informal pep rally with the students and parents who had come to see them perform. After listening for a bit, we headed to our car to start the drive home. I turned to my oldest son during the walk and commented that it was a great concert, “total chaos but very delightful.”

He stopped in his tracks, turned to me and said, “It wasn’t total chaos, Dad. Just organized pandaemonium.” I smiled because he was completely right.

With experience and careful discernment, we as leaders can discover that there is order in chaos. Goals, a mission statement, core values and vision can create continuity in the midst of chaos. They can focus all involved in the bigger picture and the end goal. Culture, key people and clarity about expectations and roles can also help. In essence, chaos can be transformed into organized pandaemonium with the right elements in place.

Geery Howe, M.A.Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer inLeadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational ChangeMorning Star Associates319 - 643 - 2257

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Recommended Reading and Viewing

“Whom the gods wish to destroy, they send 40 years of success” - an old proverb

Recently, I have been thinking about this old proverb which I read many years ago in a book. Too many times, as people and organizations become successful, they limit the scope of what they are learning and instead focus more on doing the same thing repeatedly. Over time, they become blind to their surroundings and blind to the problems that are surfacing internally. They tell themselves that what has worked in the past will continue to work in the future. Perfection and doing becomes more important than progress and learning.

For those of us who want sustainable success, there are many opportunities to gain new perspectives and insights this spring. Here is a sampling of some excellent reading and on-line videos that I have discovered and enjoyed recently.

First, there is an wonderful article in the May 2011 issue of the Harvard Business Review called “Being More Productive” which is an interview of David Allen, author of Getting Things Done and Tony Schwartz, author of The Power of Full Engagement and Be Excellent at Anything. Both authors have been discussed at past From Vision to Action Executive Roundtables so I was delighted to read this interview of them. Given both authors are two of the world’s foremost authorities on increasing personal efficiency, it was great to read this edited conversation with the HBR, particular the way they discuss their own approaches and what they’ve learned from each other’s work.

As the article explains, “Allen has developed a system of time management that encourages workers to regularly make to-do lists - and helps them blast through the items on them. Breaking down big tasks into smaller “next actions” can help people stay focused and productive, he argues, and multi-tasking is avoided at all costs.”

Schwartz, on the other hand, “focuses on workers’ attitudes and how organizations can help them achieve a mental state that keeps their energy high. People should work for 90 minutes and then take a break to recover...”

Overall, it is a good article. Here is a link to the on-line version: http://hbr.org//2011/05/being-more-productive/ar/1

Second, I enjoyed a great on-line article called “Leadership begins with an inner journey” by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, authors of numerous books including, A Leader’s Legacy. Jossey-Bass, 2006, from the Spring 2011 issue of Leader To Leader magazine published by the Leader to Leader Institute. The title of this article says it all and the article is marvelous and thought-provoking. Here is the link and happy reading: http://www.leadertoleader.org/knowledgecenter/journal.aspx?ArticleID=864

Third, for those of you who are fans of the work of John Kotter and his 8 Step model of organizational change, I encourage you to check out his blog at the Forbes magazine web site. Here is the link: http://blogs.forbes.com/johnkotter/. His April 27th entry called “The Biggest Mistake I see: Strategy First, Urgency Second” is well worth the time to read and discuss with your team. There even is a video post if you would like to hear him speak!

Fourth, there is a great video post called “How Top CEOs Cope with Constant Change” on the Harvard Business Review website of an interview with Justin Menkes, author of Better Under Pressure, about how today’s leaders need realistic optimism, subservience to purpose and the ability to find order in chaos. If you are not a CEO, it is still worth the time to watch this video post. Good thinking about a very important topic.

Finally, on Jim Collin’s website is a delightful video post about the concept of “Preserve the Core - Stimulate Progress” from his first book that he co-authored with Jerry Porras called Built To Last. If you have not heard him speak, this is a great way to learn his material. Click on the following link and you will find multiple video and audio options for your review: http://www.jimcollins.com/media_topics/all.html

Enjoy the above learning opportunities and keep seeking a sustainable definition of success.

Geery Howe, M.A.Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer inLeadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational ChangeMorning Star Associates319 - 643 - 2257

Monday, May 2, 2011

Positioning For the Future Growth - Part #1

I had not heard from this client in many months since I had helped them create their most recent strategic plan. It was a good plan, but one with training wheels because so much capacity building needed to take place. If the organization worked through the plan, they would be well-positioned for a more exact and focused second strategic plan.

Therefore, I was a bit surprised when they called and said, “Can we visit in person?” So a while later the top two people and I meet in their well appointed conference room. They shared with me about the progress they had made once the plan had been “engaged.” Then CEO shared the following challenges: “First, I am getting sucked into problem solving and problem management. People are managing too much up to me. Second, we do not reference our mission and core values enough. Nice but absent from consideration when the work shows up. Third, I don’t have the right people on the right seats on the bus. In particular, I have realized that two out of the top six will not get us to the next level of performance. Furthermore, five at the next level down are not the right people either.”

As the CEO elaborated in more detail on her challenges, I remembered an article that I referenced in the fall on this blog by Robert Simons called “Stress-Test Your Strategy: The 7 Questions to Ask,” Harvard Business Review, November 2010. In this excellent article, the author had seven questions to help leaders understand where there is confusion and inefficiencies. The seven questions are as follows:

- Who is your primary customer?

- How do your core values prioritize shareholders, employees, and customers?

- What critical performance variables are you tracking?

- What strategic boundaries have you set?

- How are you generating creative tension?

- How committed are your employees to helping each other?

- What strategic uncertainties keep you awake at night?

With the CEO’s aforementioned challenges, she and her organization might never get to these important questions so I asked her a simple but direct question myself: “Which one of your senior people worries you the most?” Her response was quick. Then she paused and said to me and her COO, “once I hear myself talk about what is happening and what this person is doing and the feedback I am getting, it is pretty clear about what I need to do. Is this normal?”

“Unfortunately,” I replied, “yes.”

When we seek to position our organization for sustainable growth, we need to remember Jim Collin’s advice in his book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap. . . and Others Don't. HarperBusiness, 2001. As he notes, “First Who... Then What?” requires each of us as leaders to change how we lead. As he writes, “The key point of this chapter is not just the idea of getting the right people on the team. The key point is that "who" questions come before "what" decisions - before vision, before strategy, before organization structure, before tactics. First who, then what - as a rigorous discipline, consistently applied.”

From my years of experience I have observed that in the beginning of successful organizational change it is more about us as leaders (what we are doing) and less about the “who.” It is more about our rigorous discipline and less about others’ choices. The best executives ask themselves the following questions: Am I the right person on the right seat on the bus? We all need to aspire to level 5 leadership, a Jim Collins concept, and less to the default model of a “genius with a thousand helpers.”

To initiate this level of rigorous discipline, we need to take the following two action steps. First, eliminate people managing up their problems. As A.G. Lafley wrote in his article, “What Only the CEO Can Do,”, May 2009, Harvard Business Review. Combining his nine years of experience as a CEO and the last writings of the management scholar Peter Drucker, Lafley explores the question “What is the work of the CEO?” He explains that the CEO is responsible for linking the outside to the inside. He suggests that this work consists of four fundamental tasks:

- Defining the meaningful outside. Focus on making the consumer the focus of all that is done, and build win-win partnerships with customers and suppliers.

- Deciding what business you are in (or not in). Where to compete and where not to compete is an ongoing question that the CEO must constantly explore. As he writes, “Determining which businesses we should not be in... calls for continual pruning and weeding. Disposing of assets is not sexy as acquiring them, but it’s just as important.”

- Balancing present and future. The short, middle and long game are always in play. They key is realistic goal setting and flexible budgeting in order to capitalize on opportunity.

- Shaping values and standards. As he writes, “The CEO must interpret the organization’s values in the context of change and competition and define the standards that will guide decisions.”

People who manage their work up interfere with these vital actions and disrupt the ability of the organization to grow in a sustainable manner.

Second, differentiate between planning and doing. Too many organizations and too many leaders have a “get’er done” mentality when it comes to planning. They forget that in the analysis and development stages of a strategic plan, we are building ownership of the plan not just a document that will sit on a shelf. When leaders have the patience to let others figure out the action steps, they are strengthening the capacity of the organization for today and the future.

As Thomas A. Stewart, Editor of the Harvard Business Review wrote, “You cannot manage for the long term unless you can make room in your head, and your company's collective head, to think, plan, and execute over a multiyear time span, even while tending to inevitable (and important) distractions.”

This spring make more room in your organization for the future.

Geery Howe, M.A.Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer inLeadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational ChangeMorning Star Associates319 - 643 - 2257