Monday, October 28, 2013

Finding The Right Match between Talent and Outcomes

In the past, I have written often about the importance of matching talent with outcomes. For many leaders in key positions, the work of Marcus Buckingham, and Curt Coffman in their book, First, Break All The Rules: What The World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently, Simon & Schuster, 1999, is the foundation for this entire subject. Yet, it has been fourteen years since the original work was published and it would be good to review the fundamentals in order to be successful during the coming 1-2 years.

Most people start in two places on this subject. First, they focus on discovering what is unique about each person and then attempt to capitalize on it. This is the core of building on talents and strengths. The second area they focus on comes from the Q12 questions, particularly the first one which states “Do I know what is expected of me?” The combination of the two is very important when finding the right match between talent and outcomes.

However, we need to examine the subject of clarifying expectations in greater detail. Here, Buckingham and Coffman tell us to keep the focus on the outcomes, to value world-class performance in every role, and to study your best people. In subsequent writing, Buckingham continues this subject by telling us to define clear expectations. He says the key to doing this is to become a manager who will recognize excellence immediately and praise it, to celebrate incremental improvements, and to show you care for your people.

For me, the critical element this morning to begin the entire process of finding the right match between talent and outcomes starts with a clear definition of what is operational excellence. Tom Peters defines excellence as a workplace philosophy where problem solving, teamwork and leadership results in on-going improvements or continuos improvements in the organization. He says that this takes place when we as leaders focus on the needs of the customer, continually evaluate and optimize our current work place activities, and develop an engaged work force, i.e. one that is positive and empowered.

I believe the critical component to unlocking this process is for all involved to understand the union between excellence and outcomes. From my vantage point, it all comes down to routine performance management and coaching. When this simple, focused, and self-tracking process happens on a regular basis, then we achieve a greater depth of understanding. Here are some questions to help you as a coach make the connection between these two key concepts:

- What actions have you taken to promote excellence and improve outcomes?

- What discoveries have you made about the connection between excellence and outcomes?

- What partnerships have you built to improve excellence and outcomes?

Nevertheless, many leaders, managers and supervisors consider routine coaching and performance management as nothing more than the optimization of status quo. “Many leaders try to optimize what they are already doing in their current business” writes A.G. Lafley and Roger L. Marten in their book, Playing To Win: How Strategy Really Works, 2013 Harvard Business Review Press. As they continue, “This can create efficiency and drive some value.... The optimization of current practices does not address the very real possibility that the firm could be exhausting its assets and resources by optimizing the wrong activities, while more-strategic competitors pass it by.”

Another line of thinking is to make sure performance management is only focused on best practices. However the above authors note that “Every industry has tools and practices that become widespread and generic. Some organizations define performance management as bench-marking against competition and then doing the same set of activities but more effectively.  Sameness isn’t performance management. It is a recipe for mediocrity.”

The key here today is for us as leaders, managers and supervisors to continually define excellence and to continually clarify the desired outcomes. Then, during regular and frequent coaching sessions help all involved understand why these two issues are mission critical to the organization’s success and how we all can make this take place on a regular basis.

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

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Building Capacity For The Future

Nearly every strategic plan I have reviewed or helped write in the last 12 months has had a section on building capacity for the future. For some, this is based on the realization that key leaders have been, and will continue to retire. For others who are wanting to grow and expand their business, they have realized that they do not have the bench strength in place to support their strategic initiatives. Finally, some companies have realized that they can not continue to offer excellent service because they are loosing key people due to poor leadership. What ever the starting place, nearly every one wants more and better leaders. The difficulty is that few are willing to holistically understand the implications of such a commitment to the future.

First, wanting more and better leaders means that we have to understand that every organization has two operating systems running at the same time. The first is focused on operational excellence and the continual improvement of what already exists. The second operating system is about the on-going development, communication and implementation of strategy. It is the combination of both systems that makes a company viable over time.

However, the greatest challenge in the world of leadership training is that some people want leaders who will make the first operating system run better while others want leaders who can make the second one operate better.  A rare few want leaders who can work to improve both systems. The difficulty when building capacity for the future is that each form of leadership, operational and strategic, requires a very different skill set.  

For example, in the world of operational excellence, an individual who leads needs to be able to focus on short tern results, manage day to day details related to implementation, conserve company resources while being able to prioritize, plus maintain a certain level of consistency when it comes to systems and process discipline. In the later, strategic development and implementation, an individual who leads needs to position the organization for the future. Here, the leader needs to take the long view and maintain a big picture perspective. They need to seek ways to grow the business and expand the organization’s capabilities. They also must know how to question status quo and encourage new ways of thinking and working. In short, an operational leader needs to create an environment where people want to contribute while a strategic leader must paint a picture of the future and how to get there in a vivid and precise manner.

Second, if we are truly committed to building capacity for the future, then we must invest our time, energy and attention to doing this work. However, countless leaders report to me that they are overwhelmed by all they are doing. Time for things like mentoring, coaching and dialogue are taking a back seat to more pressing problems. They may desire doing more capacity building but often find they are simply too busy solving more pressing operational issues related to service delivery. Still, the problem is present and does not go away.

Nevertheless, there is a solution, namely the 2014 From Vision to Action Leadership Training. 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 be better operational and strategic leaders. Now is the time to sign people up for this unique and in-depth learning experience.  For more information on how to register for the 2014 From Vision to Action Leadership Training, please click on the following link: 

At this time period, building capacity for the future is mission critical to success. Having more and better leaders is vital. The 2014 From Vision to Action Leadership Training is an important first step to developing a whole new way of doing business. I look forward to you and your team participating in this special training opportunity in 2014.

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

Monday, October 21, 2013

Building and Maintaining Healthy Work Relationships

Recently, I have been in a lot of meeting where the subject of resistance has surfaced. Too many times, I have to point out that the people who are resisting change often care about the organization and that resistance is simply a normal form of communication and feedback. The hard part about these conversations is that I often have to end up asking a difficult, and unnerving for some, but still important question: What is a healthy work relationship for someone in a leadership or management position? Most answers revolve around creating role clarity and making sure all involved are clear about expectations, goals and priorities. These are good answers but I like to go deeper than this when exploring this question.

First, Patrick Lencioni, in a book called The Five Temptations of a CEO: A Leadership Fable, Jossey-Bass, 1998, wrote that there are a series of temptations for those in leadership positions:

- Temptation #1: Choosing status over results

- Temptation #2: Choosing popularity over accountability

- Temptation #3: Choosing certainty over clarity

- Temptation #4: Choosing harmony over productive conflict

- Temptation #5: Choosing invulnerability over trust

Right now, I see more and more young leaders and even some more experienced and older leaders getting sucked into work relationships based on status, popularity and certainty.  I do not fault the young leaders and hope they can read more and receive better coaching over time to correct these missteps in judgement and perspective, but I am disturbed when older and more experienced leaders do not role model a healthier and more grounded understanding of leadership relationships.

There are days now when I wish I could greet each person who is new to the world of supervision and hand them a copy of the above book. I would then say, “please read this in the next 24 hours and then we will start your one to one coaching sessions.” Maybe then we can start off on the right foot.

Next, I would review the core concepts in the book, Crucial Conversations: Tools For Talking When Stakes Are High, McGraw-Hill, 2002, by Kerry Patterson, Kerry, Joseph Grenny, and Ron McMillan. As they point out, crucial conversations are normal to the work world and happen when opinions vary, stakes are high, and emotions run strong.  “When two or more of us enter crucial conversations, by definition we don’t share the same pool,” i.e. the pool of shared meaning which is a measure of a group’s IQ, and is the birthplace of synergy. 

First, the authors say to “start with heart” and work on yourself. “Remember that the only person you can directly control is yourself.” Next, “focus on what you really want.” As they explain, when you find yourself moving toward silence or anger, stop and pay attention to your motives. Ask yourself: What does my behavior tell me about what my motives are? Then clarify what you really want. Ask yourself: What do I want for myself? For others? For the relationship? And finally ask: How would I behave if this were what I really wanted?

They continue this line of thinking by refusing the “Sucker’s Choice,” i.e. that you must choose between peace and honesty, between winning and losing, and so on. Instead, they share with us the following term, CRIB. It stands for:

- Commit to seek mutual purpose.
- Recognize the purpose behind the strategy.
- Invent a mutual purpose.
- Brainstorm new strategies.

If more leaders were to commit to a CRIB perspective, we would have healthier work relationships. As David Cottrell in his book, Monday Morning Leadership: 8 Mentoring Sessions You Can’t Afford to Miss, reminds us: “Your job is not to lower the bottom by adjusting and accommodating the falling stars. You should be raising the top by recognizing and rewarding superstar behaviors.” It is time for all people to be super stars by avoiding the temptations of a leader and to commit to mutual purpose.

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

Monday, October 14, 2013

Focusing on Collaboration Rather than Heroics

The senior management team and I were sitting around a table discussing a variety of new strategies for coping with the impact of the Affordable Care Act, when I commented that I did not think the organization was well positioned for long term success. In particular, it had to stop focusing on only trying to fix all of the immediate problems and instead began defining and then solving the more pressing adaptive problems. The COO’s head popped up from his folder full of charts and graphs, and said, “Our major problem is that our leaders are mostly focused on counting things. They have a ‘just tell me what to do and then I will do it’ mentality.  We need to change this first before we can move forward.”

So many organizations today are suffering from the hubris born of success, to refer to a phrase from Jim Collin’s writing.  As Arie de Geus, the former head of Shell Oil Company’s strategic planning group, wrote: “The signals of threat are always abundant and recognized by many. Yet somehow they fail to penetrate the corporate immune system response to reject the unfamiliar.” 

Jim Collins in his book, How The Mighty Fall and Why Some Companies Never Give In, HarperCollins, 2009, wrote, “Great enterprises can become insulated by success; accumulated momentum can carry an enterprise forward, for a while, even if leaders make poor decisions or lose discipline. Stage 1 [of organizational decline] kicks in when people become arrogant, regarding success virtually as an entitlement, and they loose sight of the true underlying factors that created success in the first place.” He points out that when an organization neglects it’s primary flywheel, i.e. when the “what” replaces the “why”, then the rhetoric of success replaces understanding why. This results in a decline of the learning orientation within the organization. As Collins explains, “leaders lose the inquisitiveness and learning orientation that mark those truly great individuals who, no matter how successful they become, maintain a learning curve as steep as when they first began their careers.”

Therefore, we as leaders must have the capacity to work with complexity and uncertainty. It will all come down to improving the decision-making process throughout the organization. Noel M. Tichy and Warren Bennis in their excellent article called “Making Judgment Calls: The Ultimate Act of Leadership” in the October 2007 issue of the Harvard Business Review, note that there are three stages to effective decision making. In Stage #1, the Preparation Phase, effective leaders  sense what is happening in the internal and external environment and identify the problems. Next, they frame up the issue that will demand a judgment call, and then align their team members so that everyone understands why the call is important. From my vantage point, this is the stage in which most leaders are doing a very poor job. Rarely do they frame up the issue and then mobilize and align people well before the call.

In Stage #2, the Call Phase, the moment of decision has arrived. While many think of this as a single moment of rational analysis based on knowable and quantifiable variables, in reality it is a “dynamic process influenced by multiple variables which are often outside of a leader’s direct circle of control or influence.” However, “the best leaders make decisions that influence now but also set up a framework for others to make successful decisions.” I wish more people grasped the depth of the authors’ insights and realized that setting up a framework for making a decision is as important, if not more important than making the actual decision.

In Stage #3, the Execution Phase, once a decision has been made, a leader needs to mobilize resources, people, information, and technology to support the decision. Furthermore, they need to make it happen while learning and adjusting along the way.

I believe there is a critical Stage #4, the Evaluation Phase. Here we routinely evaluating our strategic choices and decisions as a large group and during 1/1 coaching sessions. This strengthens the level of understanding and improves the overall framework for strategic and operational decision-making. 

For us here today, I end this morning’s thoughts with a wonderful question written by Jon R. Katzenbach, Ilona Steffen and Caroline Kronley in their great article called “Cultural Change That Sticks” in the July-August 2012 issue of the  Harvard Business Review: “If we had the kind of culture we aspire to, in pursuit of the strategy we have chosen, what kinds of new behaviors would be common? And what ingrained behaviors would be gone?” It is time we answer this question so we will have greater collaboration and less heroics.

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

Monday, October 7, 2013

When Change is the Only Constant - part #2

Given change is the constant now and people are reacting in a normal and dynamic manner to it, leaders at all levels need to routinely engage in strategic level dialogues with their people in order to create the continuous clarity and focus they desire. The challenge is that few people understand what is a strategic level dialogue and why it is important. 

In the beginning, think of a strategic level dialogue as a free flowing conversation about context, strategy and operational excellence. The goal is to help people improve their capacity to build, define, share, and engage at more strategic and holistic levels. When employees better understand the why and how elements rather than just the what to do next elements of their job, they can then make new and better strategic choices and transform those choices into consistent communication and action at both the strategic and operational levels.

Nevertheless, many executives and leaders say they are too busy to spend time visiting with people about such topics. Now I know that many of them are getting caught in the trap that things are more important than people, but few recognize that the time spent visiting with people in a strategic level dialogue allows their colleagues and partners to better transform awareness and understanding into commitment and responsibility.

Still, I can hear someone in a management and supervisory position telling me that it would just be easier to simply tell people the strategy rather to engage in a dialogue about it. Here, I refer them back to the work of James Belasco and Ralph Stayer from their book, Flight of the Buffalo: Soaring to Excellence, Learning to Let Employees Lead. As they wrote, "The primary purpose of strategic planning is not to strategically plan for the future, although that's an important purpose of the exercise.  It is primarily to develop the strategic management mind-set in each and every individual in the organization. The purpose of the process is not only to produce a plan. It is to produce a plan that will be owned and understood by the people who have to execute it."

We as leaders have to recognize that in most companies there are two operating systems functioning every day, i.e. one for day to day business and one for the design and implementation of strategy. It is the second one that is focused on the continual development and communication of strategy. This is the one that will create a strategic mindset, the unification of understanding about context, strategy and operational excellence. When this takes place, we have the potential for creating more strategic ownership.

So, how do we actually do a strategic level dialogue? First, it can happen any time and any where. Over coffee or over food, the key is to start with some excellent questions. I like the following slightly modified ones from Robert Simons’ article called “Stress-Test Your Strategy: The 7 Questions to Ask,” the November 2010 issue of the Harvard Business Review. As he wrote:

- Who is our primary customer?

- What critical performance variables are we tracking? 

- Are they making a difference in the quality of our actions?

- How committed are our employees to helping each other?

- What strategic uncertainties keep you awake at night?

Once you have asked the questions, listen carefully to the answers. As the late Stephen Covey reminded us, “seek first to understand and second to be understood.” Build a common ground and perspective, and remember to connect everything back to the strategic nexus.

Given constant change is the new normal, now is the time to hold more strategic dialogues. Remember: you need to have more clarity rather than less clarity in your organization at this time period.

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

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Taking The Long View

The sun was low on the western horizon as I walked out our basement back door with a bucket of kitchen scraps to take to the compost pile. With my shovel in hand, our neighbor’s horses saw me coming their way, and ambled over to the fence to see what was happening. As I approached the two big Belgian breeding mares with their spring born, young ones, they hung their heads way over the fence, hopping that I had brought them a treat as well. 

Given their attention, I stopped by our apple tree and picked up the drops to share with the horses before putting the bucket of scraps on the compost pile. After a couple of shovel loads of dirt to cover the kitchen scraps, I headed back to the house. Pausing before going in, I watched the last rays of the setting sun tickle the tops of the tall trees east of our home, a reminder that another day was coming to a close on the prairie.

Once inside, I wiped the dirt off my favorite shovel and thought to myself, “It is just about time to wrap up this gardening season. Soon, I will need to thoroughly clean, sharpen and oil this shovel for winter storage.”

When I bought my first shovel and my first hand trowel, I thought very carefully about it. In particular, I wanted to have a shovel and a trowel that would last a life time. I wanted them to be the kind of tool that could even be passed on to my children or my children’s children.

For example, when my Iowa gardening mentor passed away, I went to her estate auction and purchased one of her shovels. It is a beauty with years of hard work that have resulted in a very smooth handle. Stamped into the metal on the shovel head are the dates when it was manufactured, April 27, 1886.  I do not use it too often, mostly for splitting woody perennials like ornamental grasses in the spring. Yet every time I do, I marvel at the history in my hands.

During my many years of gardening, I have learned three key lessons, namely one needs to respect the tool, respect the body, and fully understand the job.  Not all shovels can do all things.  Different shovels are made for different jobs.  My rounded point shovel is best for moving dirt and digging holes. My former gardening mentor’s shovel is a trenching shovel and best for splitting things and making sharp cuts for certain types of holes. My hand trowel is only good for small holes.

Doing routine shovel work with a clean and sharp tool is not the work of the digital economy. One can learn about shovel work in a YouTube video but knowing about it is not the same as doing it. Real shovel work and real work with a hand trowel such as the planting of the spring bulbs that I do every fall are whole body experiences, shoulders, backs, fore-arms and knees. Here, one works the whole body rather than simply being a spectator in front a computer screen. 

In this era of of hyper connectivity, hyper speed, and hyper vigilance, the slow work of a shovel or a trowel my seem antique if not ancient. But for those of us who regularly and routinely do this kind of work, we have come to discover that it is the the kind of work that requires a commitment to a more centered life where breath and motion become one.

As the leaves turn from green to golden yellows and brilliant oranges and reds, I believe that we need to create time in our lives for slower, more analog space. Here, we unplug and unwind from living life at the speed of software and instead reconnect with who we are, what we believe in, and how we work. Being mindful of the value of analog work, we rediscover a feeling of being centered in an un-centered world.

Either this upcoming weekend or the next one, I will pull out my shovel, my hand trowel, my trusty knee pads and a bucket of spring bulbs. Carefully, and thoughtfully, I will move around our different flower beds, tucking in these spring miracles. Then once the bucket is empty and the freshly dug places have been re-mulched, I will carry my tools into the basement and begin the process of cleaning them up for next spring. While the bulbs settle into their new homes and make roots for next spring’s celebration, I too will slow down and celebrate the value and importance of physical labor. I will look forward to the reawakening of the earth in the spring.

In the long view, it is the seeds we plant today that will truly result in the harvest we experience in the future. Therefore, I encourage all of you to go out this new month and plant well and wisely. Be they spring bulbs, new experiences, or the building of new relationships, each seed has the potential to transform your life and your perspective.

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