Monday, April 30, 2012

The Decline of Positional Leadership

Over the last couple of weeks, I have been exploring the theme of how to navigate through periods of prolonged uncertainty. Today, I want to examine a growing trend, namely the declining power of positional leadership and the rise of collaborative leadership in order to solve adaptive problems.
Over the last six months, I have gotten a lot of questions during 1/1 executive coaching sessions by people who have the title but not the power or ability to make change happen. They are deeply frustrated that the positional power that comes with their title does not generate the outcomes they are wanting to take place. 
On the other hand, I meet positional leaders in other companies who are making things happen. Here, buy-in is taking place. Ownership is on the rise, and strategy is not being trumped by tactics. When it is the same job title and yet two different companies, then I wonder what is the difference. 
My conclusion so far is that in many circumstances one person choose positional leadership, which can only make so much happen within a company while the more successful executives choose collaborative leadership. And with collaborative leadership, they access the power of the whole, i.e. the whole strategic nexus and the whole team.
Former From Vision to Action Leadership Training participants often talk with me about the importance of shared language and shared understanding. They tell me that having this is the unifying element to the work of making change happen successfully. Some call it their competitive advantage. The other thing they share with me is the importance of building shared commitment. To get this shared commitment, they have realized that positional leadership’s major tool is the power they have in their position. Collaborative leaders, on the other hand, activate the power of stakeholder enrollment.
Dan Cohen in his book, The Heart of Change Field Guide: Tools and Tactics for Leading Change in Your Organization (Harvard Business School Press, 2005), describes the stakeholder enrollment process as the movement from unaware to aware to understand to collaborate to commitment to advocate. From my observations over the last six months, I have seen a great many collaborative leaders consciously move people from unaware to commit. They do this by focusing on culture and results. Positional leaders, on the other hand, only focus on results, not recognizing the impact that day to day culture has on results. While this may seem pretty simplistic of an explanation, I believe it is a key to figuring out why positional leaders are in decline and collaborative leaders are on the rise.
Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Invisible Obvious

As I noted last Monday, when we reflect on the proverbial big picture, many people come to the conclusion that we will be navigating a prolonged period of instability and uncertainty.  The vital question today is “How do we do this?”
My first answer is simple and yet complex: Learn to confront and combat the invisible obvious. There are days as a leader when everything is totally clear to us and yet totally unclear to our direct reports. I call this the “invisible obvious,” referencing the work of Richard Farson in his book, Management of the Absurd. The first step in this process is to identify and define the “invisible obvious” for all involved. For many, this will require a greater depth of analysis and reflection before action.
In the beginning, the challenge is to name the invisible obvious. It could be a problem with people, structure, systems, or culture. It also could be a problem with goals and planning.  I have observed recently that when something obvious becomes invisible there often is fear and uncertainty about the future which clouds one’s perspective. There also could be grief and a loss of there no longer being a “normal” which so many people count on. As frustration and exhaustion with the constant adaptation and the pace of change takes place, that which is obvious to executives may become more invisible to others. 
Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky in their book, Leadership On The Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading (Harvard Business School Press, 2002), note that we often forget that “to lead is to live dangerously because when leadership counts, when you lead people through difficult change, you challenge what they hold dear...” We forget that most people do not resist change, per se.  People resist loss. And we as leaders “appear dangerous to people when you question their values, beliefs, or habits of a lifetime. You place yourself on the line when you tell people what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear.” When we get busy, we forget that being a leader means being able to disturb people and systems at a rate they can absorb.
Like Heifetz and Linsky, I believe that loss is one the biggest challenges of helping people through change.  As habits, values, and attitudes, even dysfunctional ones, all of which are part of one's identity, become transformed, we as leaders are, at the heart of it, changing the way people see and do things on a daily basis. We are, in essence, challenging how they define themselves. Heifetz and Linsky in the above book note that the result of this action will result in four normal but difficult responses by followers:
- Marginalization: the keeping of the whole organization from confronting an issue.
- Diversion: to divert their attention by broadening their agenda or by overwhelming your agenda with seemingly logical reasons for disrupting your game plan.
- Attack: attacking you personally in order to neutralize your message.
- Seduction: loose your sense of purpose and are taken out of the action by an initiative likely to success because it has a special appeal to you.
As the authors note, “All four of these reduce disequilibrium that would be generated were the people needing to address the issues brought up by change.... all four restore order and protect people from the pains of adaptive work.”
When learning to confront and combat the invisible obvious, I believe we need to be more proactive in performance planning, management and coaching. We always talk about problems when planning, management and coaching, but, in my opinion, we do not spend enough time helping people to better define the problems.  Hieftz and Linksy tell leaders to help their people to get up on “the balcony” so they can see the bigger picture. Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen in their book, Great By Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck - Why Some Thrive Despite Them All (HarperCollins, 2011), tell people that great leaders and companies zoom out rather than zoom in when dealing with problems. What ever the author and the research, the key for me is to help people to step back from SOP and see what is happening to them as it is happening. With practice and time, all involved will become better at seeing the invisible obvious. And the more we can do this together, the better we will manage in the world of change.
Let me close today with this Persian proverb: “Thinking well is wise; planning well, wiser; but doing well is the wisest and best of all.”
Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Big Picture

“We live in a VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) which makes it impossible to know the future.” notes Bob MCDonald, CEO of P&G. This spring when we step back from our day to day complexities, we see that instability is chronic in our society, uncertainty is permanent, change is accelerating, and disruption is common. And for those of us who hold on to this big picture, we know we can neither predict nor govern most events. As Jim Collins and Morten Hansen pointed out in their book, Great By Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck - Why Some Thrive Despite Them All (HarperCollins, 2011), “Given this rise of complexity, globalization, and technology, all of which are accelerating change and increase volatility we must come to accept that there is no “new normal.” There will only be a continuous series of “not normal” times.”

When I step back from my day to day work, I notice the following:

First, as I noted earlier in this blog, there are three technological tsunami’s hitting the shores of business during the coming years. They are 1) mobile phones becoming smart phones, 2) the increased use of social networking to solve problems, and 3) the subtle but powerful shift to cloud computing. These three huge waves will impact us for many years to come. While I can not predict the true impact of them, I know they are coming and to a degree are already impacting us. For those of you who are interested in all of this, I again recommend reading the following article: “CEOs Tackle Technology” by Jennifer Pellet from the January/February 2012 issue of Chief Executive magazine. Here is the link:

Second, in the area of strategy, I continue to be intrigued by how many companies are talking about growth, mergers and acquisitions. It is now a regular part of all strategic planning cycles and yet I do have some concerns as we enter this new round of growth. First, very few of these organizations are considering their “hinge assumptions” or the strategic variables that could cause their core assumptions to be misaligned. For example, in the world of non-profits, the fundamental questions are simple: Will the state continue to pay for this service? Will new funding sources become available to support it? And finally, will this new service growth result in a greater degree of quality? Talking about these assumptions are vital to success.

Next in the area of strategy, more people need to explore whether or not they have the capacity to plan well and then whether or not this is matched by the capacity to execute well. More times than not the capacity does not match the strategy. Great plans need great people, and great people deserve great planning.

Also in the area of strategy, I am particularly concerned that many for-profit and non-profit Boards are not configured for growth. In the non-profit world, the paradigm shift at the Board level from one of focusing on fiduciary oversight to a more strategic and philanthropic role, i.e. one of generating significant financial support over time, and the development of financial relationships as in friend raising to generate a new and sustainable financial foundation, is rarely present. Furthermore, both in the for-profit worlds and the non-profit world, few Board members are experienced in the strategic oversight of a growing company and thus default to fiduciary oversight instead of strategic counsel.

Furthermore, in the world of strategy, I continue to be concerned about the lack of awareness of the importance of branding and marketing when it comes to growth. I believe many people are coming to the world of growth assuming that “if they build it, people will come.” While this may work in the movie, “Field of Dreams,” experienced leaders know that a well thought out branding and marketing strategy are important to long term success.

At the same time, all of us know that growing companies need a strong infrastructure. The investment and development of core operational systems and people to support what is being considered must be included in the strategic planning process and implementation. For example, the following areas need more investment and consideration: technology, performance management, financial management, and as mentioned earlier brand management.

Finally, in the area of strategy, everyone needs to spend more time discussing metrics. The question of “How do we measure the success of a new strategic direction?” needs to be more thoughtfully explored. Many companies are not exploring this in great depth and thus defaulting to old metrics which may or may not provide accurate information for improved decision making.

Third, when looking at the bigger picture, I see more and more people within companies being put on performance management plans. As all of these PIPs, i.e. performance improvement plans, are happening, there is a lot of firing and hiring taking place plus very talented people are starting to quit their dysfunctional companies and move to better opportunities. Leaders have a “show me the results” mentality now and do not have the time or energy to suffer fools. As these executives push for results, they also want cultural alignment, and brand clarity. When they encounter poorly designed systems, as noted above, especially ones not designed for growth, these same leaders are struggling greatly.

Fourth, it would be foolish not to mention when looking at the bigger picture that the Millennials are transforming the work place. The Millennials, the generation of workers born roughly between 1980 and 2000, are entering the workforce in droves. An estimated 44 million are already working and 46 million more are to become a part of the workforce in the years ahead. Many experts now say that this generation will come to dominate the workforce in both number and attitude—and in the process reshape the work experience of all employees.

The big question this spring when it comes to Milleanials is the following: What is important to this generation and how can employers best tap into the potential they have to offer at work? Given that 75 percent of this generation reports planning to find a new job as the economy improves, it is worth our investment of time and energy to see how best we can attract, motivate, and retain them in our organizations today.

Last year at the Fall 2011 From Vision to Action Executive Roundtable, I told participants we needed to focus less on control, compliance and compensation, and more on strategy, talent and execution. When I review the aforementioned bigger picture, this spring I believe we need to focus more on the following: develop or continuing to develop a strategic mindset, hold a focus on operational excellence, and continue to improve personal performance.

Looking at the bigger picture is important. It also may be a bit overwhelming. Still, we need to remember that change in one part influences and changes all other parts. Time looking at the whole helps us better understand the interconnection between the parts.

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

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Buddy System

When I was young, I went to a lot of summer camp. Some were day camps and others were overnight camps. No matter what kind, one of my most favorite activities was going swimming. I was born with a love for water.

When ever we went to the pool at camp, we had to find a buddy. Once we were swimming, we always had to know where our buddy was in the pool. Routinely the life guards would blow their whistles and yell “Buddy Check!”

Then, we would stop what ever we were doing and find our buddy. Once we were standing next to each other, we would clasp hands and rise them up in the air, shouting “Here!” After all the buddies had checked in, the life guards would blow their whistles and shout “All clear; time to swim.” And then we dived back into the water.

Right now, given the complexities of this economy, I wish the life guards would blow their whistles and call for a “Buddy Check!” Then, leaders, young and old around this globe, would pause, find their buddies and check in.

Given the dynamic pace of change, we also need to expand our buddy systems to include more people. We need people who support us unconditionally and people who will give us sound advice and counsel. We need more colleagues who look out for each other and more colleagues who are willing to share at a deeper level. I know this will not happen overnight, but I also know this is a powerful resource when dealing with change.

This spring I recommend everyone go out and make new friends within and outside of their organizations. I will be doing this on Thursday and Friday of this week at the Spring 2012 From Vision to Action Executive Roundtable. If you have the time and energy, I hope you will join me there. I may even bring a whistle and call out “Buddy Check!” in the middle of it.

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

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Steve Jobs and Leadership

For those of you who did not read Walter Isaacson’s biography called Steve Jobs, I would encourage you to read his most recent article in the April 2012 issue of the Harvard Business Review called “The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs.” Six months after Job’s death, Isaacson identifies fourteen practices that every CEO and their leadership team should embrace. In this thoughtful and excellent essay, the author outlines fourteen imperatives behind Job’s approach: focus; simplify; take responsibility end to end; when behind, leapfrog; put products before profits; don’t be a slave to focus groups; bend reality; impute; push for perfection; know both the big picture and the details; tolerate only “A” players; engage face-to-face; combine the humanities with the sciences; and “stay hungry, stay foolish.”

While many people have focused on the rough edges of Job’s personality, it is good to read an article which focuses on what he actually accomplished, namely the transformation of the following industries: personal computing, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing, retail stores, and digital publishing. I hope that many senior teams will read and discuss together this article during the coming weeks. Many of the core concepts will generate great debate and dialogue. Given Job’s impact, his aforementioned fourteen key concepts are worth exploring.

Here is a link to the on-line version for those of you who do not have a subscription:

I hope you find this article thought-provoking and helpful as you think about and plan for the future.

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

Monday, April 2, 2012

Excellence and Culture

Oil and water do not mix.

Texting and driving also does not mix.

And at times excellence and culture do not mix well.

As Robert E. Quinn wrote many years ago, “Excellence is a form of deviance. If you perform beyond the norms, you disrupt all the existing control systems. Those systems will then alter and begin to work to routinize your efforts. That is, the systems will adjust to try to make you normal.”

Young leaders forget that all organizations have a macro level culture and a micro level culture. The micro culture always trumps the macro culture in the battle of change. Furthermore, organizational systems will always want to bring you back in a alignment with status quo.

As Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, and Marty Linsky point out in their book, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World, Harvard Business Press, 2009, “status quo functions elegantly to solve a stream of problems and opportunities for which it has already evolved.” Overtime, the micro culture becomes deeply ingrained, self-reinforcing and very difficult to reshape.

So when something excellent happens, something beyond status quo, the self-reinforcing nature of an organization’s culture and systems will try to reshape it. Thus, when coaching young leaders we need to help them understand this situation and then explore effective ways to support excellence. The first step is for them to support the people who are working to make this happen. As I often point out, what you feed, grows.

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