Monday, September 24, 2012

How Successful Leaders Think - part #1

I have been reflecting this morning on the following quote by Bill Taylor, co-founder of Fast Company magazine: “Leaders who change the game recognize that success is not just about thinking differently from other companies. It is also about caring more than other companies - about customers, about colleagues, about how the organization conducts itself in a world with endless opportunities to cut corners and compromise values. You can't be special, distinctive, compelling in the marketplace unless you create something special, distinctive, compelling in the workplace. Your strategy is your culture." 

I agree with this quote on so many levels. Given all my travels since the Spring 2012 From Vision to Action Executive Roundtable and given what was shared last week at the Fall 2012 From Vision to Action Executive Roundtable, clearly success is about caring more than other companies about customers, partners, colleagues and the organization as a whole. Furthermore, I fundamentally agree with the idea that “your strategy is your culture.”

Over the last 6+ months, I have been thinking and reflecting a great deal about successful leaders and  successful companies. When I step back from the day to day hustle and bustle of work and look at the bigger picture, I notice the following.

First, we live in an era of nonstop disruptions. Right now, there are continual external disruptions to the established order of how things get done. The impact of this constant lack of continuity from quarter to quarter, year to year in systems, service and production has yielded a high level of burnout and cynicism amongst many employees, plus a general decline in a disciplined commitment to the pursuit of excellence.

Second, we live in a world filled with me-too thinkers, and fast followers. With strategy and competitive advantage being so transparent, any and every idea, service or product is constantly being copied, tweaked and/or slightly customized by the competition. There is very little originality in the world of product or service delivery, and there are very few people who want to take the risks associated with being original or unique.

Third, we live in a period where tunnel vision is epidemic. As many organizations rush to solve pressing operational problems and preserve market share in an unstable or deteriorating market, they often experience a loss of peripheral vision, i.e. strategic awareness and understanding, causing them to loose sight of the true underlying factors that created their success in the first place. Using a Jim Collin’s metaphor, they zoom in rather than zoom out most of the time.

Fourth, we still live in time of arrogant leaders and naive managers. The actions of these difficult people breed false intensity and emotions because they are addicted to the artificial. Their lives revolve around situational ethics and are filled with vanity and ego blended in with biases and prejudices. These individuals waste relationships and resources while simultaneously focusing on uniformity and conformity to their whims. In short, they believe they are above others.

Furthermore, after all we have experienced since September 2008, there still are leaders who believe that they are entitled to success given all they have achieved to date, and how hard they have worked. To them, success is viewed as “deserved,” rather than fortuitous, fleeting, or even hard earned.  These individuals believe that their success will continue no matter what the organization decides to do, or not to do. As Jim Collins wrote in his book,  How The Mighty Fall and Why Some Companies Never Give In, HarperCollins, 2009, these individuals role model an “Undisciplined Pursuit of More.”

So, given this context, how do successful leaders think?

As Reed Hammans noted at the Spring 2012 From Vision to Action Executive Roundtable, successful leaders understand that “information is not knowledge” and knowing is not doing. From my vantage point, I see more and more people are on bended knee worshiping technology as the solution to all problems. And more and more people are blaming technology for not providing for them the solutions they want. Finally more and more people complain about having too many e-mail and text messages than ever before. But we must understand that being successful is less about technology and more about psychology. Human beings are human beings with all of our frailties and strengths. 

The first step in understanding how successful leaders think is to recognize that they see problems and the future in a holistic manner, and they examine how different elements impact or interact with each other from a holistic vantage point. Successful leaders do not, by default, break down all problems into pieces and work on them separately or sequentially. As Roger Martin in his wonderful article called, “How Successful Leaders Think”, Harvard Business Review, June 2007, notes “Opposable thumbs- opposable minds.” Successful leaders are able to see the same problem from different vantage points.

From what I observe and understand, when successful leaders see problems in a holistic manner and understand the dynamic nature of problem solving, they begin by defining the problem, issue or challenge. The key to this process is that they determine the salience of all the factors related to the problem even if it is not in line with their department or organization doctrine, e.g. a head of finance department that considers a qualitative measure to be as important as a quantitative measure.

Next, rather than discard factors to simplify a problem, they embrace the diversity of factors in a problem, recognizing that not all information is accurate and not all knowledge is current.

With the above in mind, successful leaders also analyze the context, people, the variables, and the language around the problem, exploring linear vs. non-linear causality. For example, direct or linear causality is a straight line and sequential development or cause in a certain situation. On the other hand, in-direct or non-linear causality comes from the examination or exploration into non-linear elements impacting what is taking place, e.g. two people in the work place that are struggling to communicate well, each being impacted by external events like the health of an aging parent or a son getting involved in a prank at school.

Once the above has been done well, successful leaders determine the decision architecture related to a problem or challenge. After better understanding a problem and figuring out the variables involved, they then look to what are the decision-making variables, e.g. who?, what?, when? and how?. Then, they methodically examine the decision-making variables and make a decision. After the decision has been made, successful leaders mobilize people and resources to implement the decision.

We live in tough economical and political times. Understanding how successful people think and work through these tough times gives us a road map to a better way. Now is the time to strengthen our culture and our strategy by thinking better and more effectively.  

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

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Performance Anxiety

With the end of the third quarter just around the corner, everyone is wanting to position their company well during the fourth quarter of 2012 so they can start 2013 off on a strong footing. As a result, there is a tremendous amount of performance anxiety in offices across this country. Some people are worried sick that they will not be able to meet their numbers or the expectations of their manager. The difficulty from my vantage point is that many leaders are not truly prepared to do something about this situation. They want to hit the numbers yet they also do not want to burn out their best people. What typically happens is some kind of superficial change that really does not help. The more difficult decisions are not easy and thus are avoided. I learned this many years ago.

I was working with an executive on a strategic plan when he shared with me the following story about his daughter and a problem she was having at work. Being this was her first job post college, she had called her Dad and told him that she could not keep up with the work load. He reported to me that he had given her the classic “work harder” speech. He told her to put in an extra effort and work more hours. She received this feedback well and worked 12 hours a day to manage all that was expected of her.

He continued this story by telling me that about 30 days later his daughter had called back and reported that she was on average working 60-70 hours a week and still could not keep up. So, he gave her the “work smarter” speech. He told her to prioritize her work, focus on short term wins, and to delegate her work better if possible. He encouraged her to analyze her weekly calendar and to put the “big rocks in first.” Again, she appreciated this feedback.

Finally, he explained to me that she had called back after 30 days in tears. She had worked harder and had worked smarter. She had even gotten a new calendar and had organized her life down to 15 minute, prioritized segments in order to do what was important and not always what was urgent. She had eliminated time with family and friends, plus most of her exercise time in an attempt keep on top of her work load. Still, she was behind.

He turned to me and said, “Geery - after giving her the work harder and work smarter speeches, I only had one more speech to give her. It was the ‘work different’ speech. I told her that if she worked harder and worked smarter and still could not keep up that more likely she was working in a poorly designed system. Then her options were limited unless she could change that system. Given she could not, I told her that when harder and smarter do not work, then it was time to work for a different company.”  He ended this story by telling me that she had changed jobs and found a company where hard work and smart work were paying off.

I think of this story during this time of the year and know that some will have to work harder and others will have to work smarter. However, if we as leaders do not confront poorly designed systems, then some will have to work differently.  The choice is ours to make.

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

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Working On, Not Just In

One of the defining characteristics of a good leader is their ability to work on the organization, not just in the organization. While this may sound simplistic, it often is much more difficult than it appears.

Michael Watkins in his recent article “The Big Shift: How Managers Become Leaders” in the June 2012 issue of the Harvard Business Review, explains that becoming a leader involves navigating “a tricky set of changes.”  He calls these the “seven seismic shifts.”  As he writes, “New enterprise leaders must move from being a specialist to a generalist; from analyzing data to integrating knowledge from multiple sources; and from implementing tactics to developing strategies. They also need to transform themselves from bricklayers into organizational architects; from problem solvers to agenda setters; and from warriors intent on beating the competition into diplomats who engage with a full range of stakeholders. Finally, leaders must move out from the wings and get used to living on center stage in the full spotlight.” 

From my experience, to make this kind of transition, managers need to acquire many new competencies, particularly in the area of new knowledge and skills required to execute the business strategy in a holistic manner. One way to do this is to participate in the 2013 From Vision to Action Leadership Training. This year long course is designed to help people become better in the areas of leadership, strategic planning and execution, and organizational change. Through a challenging, interactive curriculum which blends lectures, selected readings, small and large group discussions, and how to skill-building exercises, participants gain critical knowledge and skills which improve their ability to work on the whole of the organization rather than just within the organization. 

For more information on how to enroll in the 2013 From Vision to Action Leadership Training please click on the following link:

Navigating tricky changes may not be easy but with the right set of knowledge and skills it can be doable, resulting in greater outcomes for all involved.

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

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Organization of the Future

With the end of 2012 just over the horizon and the awareness of 2013 on the rise, everyone is starting to create special task forces and committees to envision the future. Furthermore, most senior executives are waking up to the need for their company to be more customer centric and more innovative. They know they need to compete better externally and collaborate better internally. The result of all this work is the development of many in-depth concept papers which will redesign the entire business from the supply chain straight through to the product and service delivery. 

Whenever one of my clients comes to me and talks about creating a future oriented team which will completely redesign the business, I always recommend we have a good long visit to review some key points.

First, I point out that the desire to change has to be matched by the capacity to change. Improving current execution and transforming the business are not the same thing. They require completely different skill sets and different time frames.

Second, I explain that everything begins and ends with the customer. Many businesses do not know their current customers, e.g. are they a one time buyer, repeat buyer, or loyal user? Furthermore, some companies assume that their customers are not making the right choices. Some do not even know if the relationship with the customer is healthy and whether or not it creates value in the eyes of the customer. 

Third, I remind them of something that A.G. Lafley and Ram Charan wrote about in their book, The Game-Changer: How You Can Drive Revenue and Profit Growth With Innovation (Crown Business, 2008). As they note, “...doing innovation right means developing a repeatable, scalable, and consistent way of converting ideas into results. It requires a degree of standardization so that others can imitate the model and improve on it.” As I have learned over time, most new models for the future are neither scalable or consistent.  Many do not have a degree of standardization.

Building a committee to envision the future is very exciting and noteworthy. And now is a good time to begin. The key this week is to design the process in such a manner that it is successful over time and will result in sustainable organic growth.  This is not easy but it is important.

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

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Pressure to Get It Right

Go, go, go!

Hurry, hurry, hurry!

Leaders, left, right and center, are racing hither and yon to make things happen.  

Overwhelmed by an extreme sense of urgency, they are desperate to hit their numbers and meet expectations.

Quarter by quarter they are pressed to get it right.

The result?  A high level of burnout. A growing depth of cynicism. 

Occasionally, these individuals do achieve their goals but at a cost that is way too high.

However, successful leaders think differently. Successful companies work differently.

During the Fall 2012 From Vision to Action Executive Roundtable, we will be examining how successful leaders think, how successful companies work, how successful managers help people achieve their goals, and how successful people manage life.

For more Information, please click on the following link:

I hope you can join us. It is going to be a dynamic and enlightening Roundtable.

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

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

An Epidemic of Micro-management

Routinely now, I am encountering the same problem over and over. Like a family physician during flu season, the symptoms are all the same. The prescription does not vary much from person to person or organization to organization.

In a nutshell, here is the problem. From the leader’s point of view, the organization is not moving fast enough strategically and their teams are being consumed by operational minutia. From the followers’ point of view, their boss is controlling or micro-managing every thing down to the last detail. Anger and frustration are rampant. Trust is on the decline and cynicism is on the rise. Every one believes that the other person needs to be fixed.

As a consultant and executive coach, I am reminded of something that Michel Godet shared in the May-June 2012 issue of The Futurist magazine when he wrote, “... everything that pleases us is correct and what bothers us is wrong.” So many people in management positions right now aspire to this leadership philosophy. They approach their organization, strategic change and their staff from a correct vs. wrong, black vs. white perspective. All that pleases us as leaders is good and all that disrupts us or bugs us is wrong.

This line of thinking or philosophical approach to people and organizational change is dangerous from my perspective. It reminds me of an old saying: “for the hammer every problem resembles a nail.” Yet, we must recognize that the same tool does not work for all problems. The same goes with a black and white perspective on people and change. All of us are way more complex and dynamic to flourish in such a simplistic world view.

The first solution on the leadership side is to teach people new and better ways to lead. Micro-management has killed creativity and excellence in so many situations. On the other hand, lack of strategic perspective also has yielded poor decisions on a regular basis.

So when encountering this kind of situation as a consultant and executive coach, I take out my proverbial prescription pad and write the following: “engage in more and regular strategic dialogues until a larger perspective is shared by all.”  When we explore a broader strategic perspective, i.e. the environment around the organization and the environment within the organization, we yield fresh insights and new understanding. When we routinely see wide, far, deep, different and together, we strengthen the capacity for all to make better decisions.

This week step back from micro-management and put down the hammer. Share more and listen better. The future starts today.

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