Monday, February 27, 2017

Casseroles and Questions

As a child born in the 50’s, I grew up in a world of casseroles. With both my parents working, it was common to have a casserole appear on the table at dinner time. I saw them regularly at church suppers, and once on a family vacation we even stopped and went to a church supper just because there were going to be casseroles and home-made pie.

My question is the following: “What hot dish is your company bringing to the table?” Inspired by an article by Cynthia A. Montgomery called “Putting Leadership Back into Strategy,” Harvard Business Review, January 2008, I think it is time we ask a series of excellent questions from the article to make us think:

- What kind of company do you want to be?

- What would the world be like without your organization?

- If your company were shuttered, to whom would it matter and why?

- Which of your customers would miss you and why?

- How long would it take for another firm to step into that void?

As she writes, “Purpose is at the heart of strategy. It should give direction to every part of the firm - from the corporate office to the loading dock - and define the nature of the work that must be done.”

When I reflect on all the different successful organizations I have worked with over many decades, I have come to the conclusion that successful companies have a “living” strategy. This happens because it is a purpose driven strategy. It  is more than a plan; it is a way of life for the organization. Their living strategy defines who they are and what they want to become. It is integrated into the very soul of the company and defines that daily experiences for employees, customers and the community in which they live and serve.

Successful companies create this living strategy by consciously engaging in the following activities: 

- strategic reflection, analysis and review

- strategic decision-making and delegation

- in-depth communication and definition which means communicating context, core philosophy and direction

- proactive listening and dialogue

- routine coaching and talent development

- implementing regular strategic dialogues which become the platform for real time strategic planning

When it comes to strategic dialogues, successful companies create them by developing a level of intimacy to the process, i.e. the time feels personal and direct rather corporate and impersonal. They also make sure these strategic dialogues are an interactive sharing rather than a time to be talked at. Next, these interactions are inclusive by relinquishing control over content and involving others, and they are intentional because strategy emerges better when there is a cross-organizational conversation.  

Remember: everyone brings a hot dish to the market place. Those who are successful know how to make one that employees are proud to share and customers will enjoy eating. 

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

Monday, February 20, 2017

How Successful Leaders Make Decisions

Given what I wrote last week about how leaders think, I want to explore in more detail the subject of decision-making which is critical to success in the world of leadership. Decisions may come in the form of strategy, people or culture. They may impact structure, systems or strategy. But having worked with many successful leaders, it is clear to me that they all make decisions in a unique manner.

First, successful leaders understand that decisions do not matter if nothing happens afterwards. Many leaders think that once they have made a decision they have solved a problem. But as an executive coach, I have to continually remind people that decisions are not action. Decisions do not equal implementation. Decisions are not the mobilization of resources. Decisions do not equal execution. Decisions are empty without action that follows.

Second, successful leaders understand that effective decisions begin long before the actual call. It starts with the ability of a leader to sense there is a problem within the context of service delivery or the context of the service environment. “Sensing and framing” is a term defined by Noel M. Tichy and the late Warren G. Bennis in their great article, “Making Judgement Calls: The Ultimate Act of Leadership”, Harvard Business Review, October 2007. It is critical to decision-making as it gives the decision a foundation or reason “why.”

Still, many executives forget that there is an important next step after they make a decision. What I have observed is that successful leaders focus on mobilizing resources, e.g. people, information, technology, etc., to support the decision and to make it actually happen. The key is that successful leaders also stay involved during the execution phase post the decision by helping to define clear milestones or planned short term wins so people can clarify their progress and be successful. People do not mind executing a decision or implementing a new system or solution as long as they know they are making progress. The best leaders make sure this element is part of the implementation post the act of making a decision.

Third, successful leaders understand that relationships are not linear, especially when it comes to the successful implementation of important decisions. In a linear relationship, a positional leader will approach it from the point of view that more of variable A will produce more of variable B. Successful leaders do not approach people like they are flow charts but instead recognize that the health and effectiveness of the relationship is based on clarity through dialogue. If this level of work is done in advance of the actual decision, the usual challenges with organizational change, e.g. resistance, is reduced and the forward momentum of the organization can proceed without major complications. However, the key is to build healthy work relationships on an on-going basis, not at an episodic level.

In short, when we step back and reflect on how successful leaders make decisions, we realize that they spend significant time and energy teaching others how to think rather than simply telling them what to do. And this is one of the main reasons why they are successful.

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

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Three Big Questions

Having spent a lot of time in strategic planning meetings during the last 90 days, there is a common theme that has started to emerge.  It revolves around the following three questions:

- Where are we going?

- How are we going to get there?

- What’s it going to look like?

Time and time again, senior teams are discussing these three questions and seeking precise and focused answers. They want to cascade clarity, but struggle to find concise answers that take into account the unique and very different time period that we are living through as a country. They know people want answers, and to a degree certainty in an uncertain time period. Still, they recognize there are no easy answers.

It all makes me think of the following quote by the late Carl Sagan: "Dreams are maps. We make the world significant by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers." I think the hardest part right now for many leaders and for many companies is to have the courage to ask the difficult questions. And then to lean into the uncomfortable but important process of co-discovering the answers. When we own both the questions and the answers, we ultimately will execute them from a different level of commitment and clarity.

Sometimes thought, we get caught in group think and do not have the courage to listen to different answers or even to consider different questions. We surround ourselves with people who think just like us and act just like us. While this may create team unity, it does not always generate productive dialogue. As a CEO once told me, “If you and I always agree, then one of us is not doing their job.” Our job as leaders is to have courage when it comes to questions and answers.

One unique place to explore questions and answers in the Spring 2017 From Vision to Action Executive Roundtable. Here, a dedicated group of seekers and thinkers, men and women in leadership positions from a broad diversity of organizations,come together twice a year and dive deep into sharing, thinking, exploring and listening. They do not seek the answer as much as a diversity of answers and perspectives. Then, upon reflection post the Roundtable, they discover the right answer that works for them in their situation within their particular company.

This year the Spring 2017 From Vision to Action Executive Roundtable will be at the Courtyard in Ankeny, Iowa where we will be exploring the following questions:

Wednesday: April 5, 2017
- 8:30 am - Arrival & Visiting Time
- 9:00 am - 10:15 am - How do leaders position an organization successfully for the future?
- 10:15 am - 10:30 am - Break
- 10:30 am - 12:00 pm - How do leaders move from being a functional leader to an enterprise level leader?
- 12:00 pm - 1:30 pm - Lunch & Networking 
- 1:30 pm - 2:45 pm - How do leaders help people keep moving along the collaboration continuum?
- 2:45 pm - 3:00 pm - Break
- 3:00 pm - 4:30 pm - How do leaders get coaching and employee development to become routine and systematic?
- 4:30 pm - Adjourn

Thursday: April 6, 2017
- 9:00 am - 10:15 am - How do leaders prevent burnout?
- 10:30 am - 12:00 pm - Integration and Application
- 12:00 pm - Adjourn

If you and members of your team are interested in participating, there is the link to the registration form:

In the world of leadership, there will always be questions. The key this spring is to have the courage to ask the ones that stretch you to new levels of performance and clarity.

I look forward to seeing you at the Spring Roundtable in April!

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

Monday, February 13, 2017

How Successful Leaders Think

Bill Taylor, co-founder of Fast Company magazine, wrote, “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 and three decades of work, I have clearly seen that 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.” When I step back from the day to day hustle and bustle of work and look at the bigger picture, I notice the following about how successful leaders think and successful companies work.

First, we live in an era of nonstop interruptions and 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, 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 who 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. 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, and different perspectives.

From what I observe and understand, when successful leaders see problems in a holistic manner and understand the dynamic nature of problem solving, they carefully 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. The goal of all this level of work is to align themselves and their team so that everyone understand why the decision was made the way it was made.

We live in tough economic 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.  

This week, practice slowing down and thinking more holistically. As Jim Collins’ often wrote, zoom out before you zoom in is the first step to fixing something.

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

Monday, February 6, 2017

Leadership and Strategic Change

From my experience, organizations that move most effectively through strategic change cycles have the following characteristics:

First, they have extremely focused goals and a powerful vision which does not allow for business as usual. They can answer the questions, "Where are we going?"; "How are we going to get there?"; and "What's it going to look like?”. They also can answer the question: “Why do we need to work so hard to make these changes at this time period?” Using clear, concise, realistic language that is directly connected to the mission and the vision of the organization, the organizations and their leaders move forward based on clarity.

Second, they are clear about what type of change cycle is being initiated. They are able to determine whether they are looking for incremental evolution or a radical revolution. They are able to make these choices because they have sat down together and reviewed their problems and challenges, understanding which are technical and which are adaptive. Then, based on this information, they are able to discern what are the right paths of action accordingly.

Third, they understand what levels of control and initiative should be taken by all involved. They can explain the risks of not changing, and have prepared for the resistance which is a normal part of any change cycle. They also recognize the importance of accountability and the value of role clarity.

For many organizations right now, the accomplishment of major goals is within sight. Long-standing problems can be solved. True master plans can be created through participation, trust and respect for creativity and diversity. 

However, with such looming potential, each person in a leadership position must be willing to learn and grow. This will require personal discipline, commitment, and persistence. In short, what we bring each day to work has the amazing potential to create profound and powerful future experiences. 

This week, begin with yourself so you can role model clarity in your professional actions. The energy created by a clear personal perspective, effective communication, teamwork, shared vision, and appropriate autonomy for employees at all levels can result in a new level of strategic action, generating inspiration, fresh commitment and effective performance.

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