Ditch The Talking Points, Make Listening Points

By: On September 3, 2014
Oh no, more talking points...

Oh no, more talking points…

You’ve been to this meeting. You and a bunch of peers are gathered to do some planning or training. Over lunch, a senior leader of the organization has been asked to come spend time with the gang. It’s a great opportunity for both the leadership group and this senior leader to have exposure to each other.

More than likely, the leader emailed the meeting organizer, “What do you want me to say?” Leaders almost always do that when they’re asked to join a meeting with middle management or a customer or a key partner. They know that others expect a leader to say something.

So that’s what the leaders do.  They say… something. They come armed with talking points. Sometimes they say something good. Occasionally it’s memorable – especially if they use hand-drawn pictures. More often, it’s forgettable, benign, and sanitized. You and your colleagues parse and interpret. You read the tea leaves.

Then you go back to work.

It’s not tragic, but it’s a wasted opportunity.

Listening

Try this instead…

Now flip this scenario around. Say you’re the leader in this situation.  There’s another way to handle this interaction, one that has a better chance of building trust and credibility with a key group. The strategy is to create listening points. Here’s how you do it.

  • Listening Point step 1: Think of an issue that is of mutual interest. It could be a strategy that this group is trying to implement. It could be a trend you’re sensing in the environment.
  • Listening Point step 2: Ask a few real, provocative questions about the issue. Here are a few questions you could try on for size (I got several of these from Tom Paterson, a master strategic facilitator):
    • What might I be missing about what it’s really like to do your job right now?
    • Where do you see opportunities we might not be taking advantage of?
    • Where do you see dangers to which we are apparently blind?
    • Where are we wasting resources?
    • What excites you about our direction?
    • What concerns you about our direction?
  • Listening Point step 3: Listen for anything – and I mean anything – that you can commit to act upon or bring to your own peer group for further consideration.
  • Listening Point step 4: Commit to take that action and communicate when they will hear back from you.
  • Listening Point step 5: Follow up as promised.

This approach has several benefits over the usual way executives make appearances.

  • You can direct your comments to the real felt needs of people in the group rather than shooting in the dark with pre-prepared comments.
  • You have the opportunity to make a real contribution to something of shared interest. This is much better than playing a figurehead role where people are left wondering what you really do all day.
  • You can build credibility with a key constituency through actions plus words instead of just doing happy talk.

I understand why leaders fall back on talking points. It’s a safety net. Leaders often feel like they’re safer if they take the initiative and fill the air time with scripted comments, much like politicians do on talk shows. Interactions like the one I describe above are largely unscripted. And unscripted can feel out of control.

But the control you get by hiding behind talking points is shallow. You get momentary control but you lose the influence you only get by surfing through an improvised conversation. That’s when people learn what they really want to know about you.

How does she really think?

How open is he to influence? How humble is he?

What excites her? What makes her crazy?

Like anyone, they’re really trying to figure out whether you’re someone they want to follow and listen to and deal with. They know that talking points can be an elaborate screen. Listening points – and especially your response to the conversation – provide a window into who you really are.

And that’s what people really want to know.

Who are you really?

Will you listen?

Is there a chance that you’ll be open to their influence?

If you answer those questions convincingly – in how you act more than what you say – you’ll develop an environment of optimism and innovation.

Noonday Sun

Be bright.

Smart vs. Good

By: On June 25, 2014
Smart, Good, or Both?

Smart, Good, or Both?

Jim Collins starts his classic, Good to Great, by saying “Good is the enemy of Great.”  I love Collins’ books but I’d like to suggest a 2014 corollary to his comments. Today, Smart is often seen as the enemy of Good, as in Goodness. And personally I’d love to see a resurgence of Goodness.

In my work, I get to observe CEOs, founders, GMs, and key functional leaders up close and personal. As I work on strategy and organizational effectiveness, I see the inner workings of organizations. People come to trust me and tell me what really happens on the inside.

One thing I’ve noticed in the past few years is that we’ve become very enamored of smarts. Listen to how people describe someone they admire intellectually. “She’s super-smart.”  “He’s a rock star.”

When this cult of smarts gets extended to its logical conclusion, you end up with someone like Colin. Colin graduated from an Ivy League school and landed as an associate at a blue chip strategy consulting firm. He did fine in the firm but grew impatient. Since he was a little kid, he had been told that he was exceptional. Now he had a few accomplishments to back it up. So he jumped ship and began a tech startup with a few friends from the firm and from B-school. They’ve successfully raised money and are in the process of scaling the business. Colin is active in the press, promoting their new service and talking up the business, often with dazzling effect.  No doubt he’s smart.

Behind closed doors, while it’s clear that he’s sharp-minded, he’s also very sharp-tongued. He dresses down colleagues, especially the junior associates they’ve recruited to their rapidly growing startup. When he interviews potential employees, he focuses on their raw intelligence – often as indicated by their scores on standardized tests, the schools they attended, and the companies they’ve worked for. He’s dismissive of anyone without his version of pedigree.

Colin is a perfectionist with staff, using them up like Kleenex. He breeds fear and competition in the organization. He’s smart, ambitious, and ruthless. His leadership platform is based on fear and on making everyone want to please him. It works to an extent. People jump. It’s just that sometimes they jump right off the cliff into all sorts of strange behavior as they respond to Colin’s pressure. They push customers, shift blame to colleagues, use and abuse vendors.

Flip over to Jim. Jim’s no dummy. He has several advanced degrees. But what’s most striking about him isn’t his “presence” or his hyped-up oratory. While he’s articulate, what’s most notable is how people talk about Jim when he’s not there. Yes, he has his detractors. He himself will tell you that with self-deprecating humor. But the general vibe about Jim focuses less on his smarts, and more on his character.

“He’s a good man,” someone will say. “People all around our community look up to him,” another will say. “He’s obviously intelligent, but he’s not about looking like the smartest guy in the room,” another will comment. They may not always agree him, but they believe that Jim is about doing what’s best for the institution.

Behind closed doors, you’ll hear a real person when you talk with Jim. He’s not above frustration or impatience or fatigue or even withdrawal in the rough and tumble of leading an organization. But what’s striking is that Jim comes back to center quickly. He listens. He’s open to influence. He owns his part of any challenges facing his organization and his relationships with colleagues. In other words, he’s human in the best sense of the word.

Colin may get more dramatic results in the short term. But you will see a trail of wreckage behind him as a result of his approach. Jim’s results may take a bit longer or be a little more understated. But given time, he’ll be able to attract high-character, highly talented people to his cause because of who he is and the thriving environment he creates.

Both will stamp their character on their respective organizations. One will be a force of nature, almost violent as it sweeps through the marketplace. The other will be a quiet, steady breeze urging the organization forward. It will be gentle, which a mentor of mine once beautifully defined as “strength under control.”

Smarts are useful. But the character and heart of an organization will have a lot more to say about its long-term impact than its collective IQ. Character drives the organization’s deepest beliefs and persistent behaviors. It’s what teaches salespeople how to interact with customers in ways that promote rather than tarnish the brand. It’s what teaches team members how to interact with colleagues when they get sideways with each other so that they can create more together than they would on their own. It’s what teaches leaders how to productively handle adversity or mistakes or embarrassing foul-ups.

Smart isn’t really the enemy of good. It’s only seen that way because we expect too little from those blessed with a high IQ or impressive pedigrees. So next time you’re faced with a decision – especially about who to select or reward or discipline – don’t only ask about the smart move. Ask about the good move.

Noonday Sun

Be bright.

How to Provoke Change Without Alienating Your Peers

By: On May 29, 2014

Sara has a problem. She was recruited into an important role at a new company, one where her ability to succeed is directly affected by how well she can get tenured colleagues at this well-established company to change how they think and act. She comes from a company and industry known for innovation. The company she’s joined, while no laggard, has lost its creative mojo over that past few years.

Sara’s no dummy. The first couple of months in her assignment, she acted patient, interested, open, respectful. If she was honest with herself, she would admit that it was partly just that – an act. Privately, she looked around at this company – and even this industry – and thought they had missed the boat on so many things that make a cutting edge company. Decisions seem bureaucratic.  Resource allocation seems upside down. She can see waste and old thinking all around her. Inwardly, she’s getting aggravated with the glacial pace of change, with what seems like the team’s willful blindness.

It came to a head today when Sara was in a meeting with her boss’s team. They were having their 27th discussion about how to allocate resources in next year’s budget. She could feel her blood pressure rising. She didn’t even notice that she had rolled her eyes a few times. To let off steam, she had made a few snarky comments to the other new team member next to whom she had strategically seated herself. She has a playlist of snappy one-liners dancing on the tip of her tongue, waiting to get out there like itchy thoroughbreds in the starting gate.

CrossroadsSara stands at a crossroad. Here are the likely outcomes based on how she handles herself:

  • Option 1: She indulges her impatience. She buys into the heroic tale that she’s the one who is here to shake this organization from its lethargy with a well-placed kick in the rear. In so many ways, she says, “What’s wrong with you people?!?!?”

    If she chooses this option, here’s what’s going to happen. The shutters will come down. She’ll find herself suddenly on the outside of the group looking in. Her job will get harder, not easier as colleagues distance themselves from her. While she may be able to explain her demise with a martyrdom tale of how she tried to help these people but they wouldn’t listen, the fact will remain. She won’t have helped them. And she’ll be at best marginalized and at worst out of a job.

  • Option 2: She embraces the situation with curiosity, respect, and humor. Yes, she’s going to keep nudging and challenging because to not do so would be simple self-preservation. And Sara wants to make a difference, not just keep a job. But instead of boring people with “how we did it at my prior fabulous company/industry,” she influences her peers by asking questions first. She chooses questions that will both inform her and potentially provoke new thinking. Questions like:

    • Tell me more about how you do things and how you’re structured?
    • What led you to doing things that way?
    • What’s worked for you about that? What’s frustrating or not working?

That kind of approach will begin to earn Sara the right to suggest alternatives instead of just getting slaughtered.

If Sara chooses that second option, she’ll be showing a different mindset – one of curiosity, respect, and appreciation. She’ll have to remind herself that you can both respect an organization’s past and acknowledge that it’s time for change. Grownups can hold those two things in their minds at the same time, avoiding the trap of thinking that you have to trash the past to motivate change.

Most of all, she’ll give herself a chance to make a difference, to serve this group of new colleagues with her different perspective and ideas. That’s why she’s here in the first place. She knows that the long-term road to happiness at work – and even to promotion if her mind is set on that kind of thing – comes through serving others.

If you’re trying to influence a team or a workplace, start there. Start with a mindset of service. Build curiosity, humor, respect, and appreciation on top of that attitude. Then persistently pursue excellence with your new colleagues. You’ll have earned the right to challenge them because you will have demonstrated that you’re for everyone’s success. Then even when your ideas and questions unsettle them, they’ll buy your intent.

Noonday Sun

Be bright.

Three Marks of High Leverage Change Opportunities

By: On April 15, 2014

Dear Change Agent,

Let’s say you just took over a major business unit of a well-known consumer services company. You were brought in from outside the industry because you had a stellar history of creating healthy growth in other consumer-oriented services companies.  Recent results have been mediocre. New competitors lurk around the corner, some of them bigger and badder than the company has ever faced.

You can see fundamental issues in the business – as fundamental as a casual attitude toward customers and the frontline employees who serve them. You know this because employee turnover at key frontline sales and service positions is through the roof. Maybe these symptoms are normal for this industry, but they’re not normal for you.

You’ve been in your role for 30-60 days. You’ve gotten out in the field and seen first-hand what’s going on with customers and employees. You’ve started collecting people to go along with your observations. You’ve sorted your insights into what’s right, wrong, unclear, and missing about this organization.

Maybe your analysis looks something like this.

Four Helpful Lists Filled In

It’s time to plan some action. But not any old action. Anyone can get busy. The relentless pressure you’ll feel to DO SOMETHING will tempt you to jump into the busy-ness pit. Stop. Think.

Look especially for high leverage change opportunities, those places where you can push a little and get a lot of result.  Here’s what to look for:

  • Avoid this!

    Avoid this!

    Push Levers, Not Rocks – Look for initiatives where focused effort on a relative few people, processes, or customers will touch many others. For instance, if your problem is improving how your sales organization interacts with customers, it will be tempting to focus energy on training front-line salespeople. That’s pushing a very large rock uphill and probably the wrong place to start. Instead, ask yourself where the high-leverage few are. Usually that’s going after sales managers or opinion leaders in the sales organization.

  • Find Double-sided Initiatives – You’re new into a culture with unwritten rules on how things run and what matters. If you want your ideas to be accepted, look for initiatives that can be positioned in at least two ways – to appeal to the existing cultural norms and to drive the organization toward the new cultural rules that you want to instill. So if the existing culture is cost and numbers driven and you want to foster a customer-obsessed culture, look for initiatives that can be positioned as reducing costs to your corporate colleagues while you emphasize the impact on customers to your own team. Avoid if possible single-sided moves that only play to the existing culture or the desired culture. If you completely conform to the current culture, you lose your edge for change. If you ignore the current culture in the zealous pursuit of change, it’s only a matter of time before the organization spits you out.

  • Select Symbolic Initiatives – Look for efforts around which you can wrap your change story. So if you’re trying to change the culture from being casual toward customers to being customer-obsessed – and you’ve chosen your sales leaders as the leverage point – be ready to explain the initiative in terms of how it supports that change and why that change is important. The argument for driving a customer referral program could go something like this:

    • “Delighting customers isn’t just a feel-good thing to do. It’s the smartest way for us to run our business and to protect ourselves from powerful new entrants to our market.”

    • “While our salespeople are the ones who most directly touch customers, our leaders are the ones who create an environment that drives how salespeople think and act. It’s our job as leaders to make selling easier over time and there’s no better way to do that than to get customers spreading the love.”

    • “We’re going to invest in and measure an initiative to help salespeople generate and track leads from referrals. But we’re going to deliver this program entirely through our sales leaders because you are the ones to make this happen.”

To make the initiative really symbolic, be ready to both publicly recognize progress and firmly deal with those who don’t get on board. And by firmly deal with, I mean potentially letting some of those people go. You don’t have to be nasty, but you do have to be resolute based on the business case and your principles.

Observe. Diagnose. Select. Act. You’re on your way.

Noonday Sun

Be bright.

 

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Where to Start When You’re a Change Agent

By: On April 1, 2014

Dear Change Agent,

Let’s start with the bad news. If they hired you to be a “change agent,” it means you automatically have a target on your back. Companies hire change agents and “thought leaders” when they’re scared to death to do the hard stuff, unsure what to do, or both. I’ve known quite a few people hired into these roles and many of them end up leaving the company – sometimes with the thanks and accolades, but often without.

But you wouldn’t have taken this role if you were faint-hearted or looking for a safe job. Where to start? Like in most of life, there’s an inner game and an outer game. The inner game almost always comes first. You have to decide on the mindset you’re going to use in this job. While I’m tempted to give you happy talk about how you can choose your mindset – and that’s true to some extent – I want to acknowledge that circumstances will probably influence the way you play the game.

Which set of circumstances best describe your situation?

  • Scenario A: You have life circumstances that demand a stable income stream and job situation. It could be a special needs child, a mountain of debt to pay off, or an aging parent. In this case, while you’re hired to play offense, you’re going to have to play a fair bit of defense at the same time.  You will want to pay careful attention to identifying and managing the stakeholders in your organization. You’ll need to communicate carefully with the board or your boss, to keep expectations very clear. Your mindset will be about balance and prudence.

  • Scenario B: You have margin in your life to take more risks. While you’re not looking to get fired, you can afford to play more offense. Like an actor or musician, you can view roles as assignments in a larger career that may have pauses or flat-out busts. Your mindset will be less about keeping everyone happy and more about doing fantastic work that will make you even more attractive in the next gig. You will also want to keep your external network very fresh since things can change quickly when you play offense in a change agent assignment. Your mindset will be about making bold moves.

Now that you know what mix of offense and defense you need to play, what next? You’ll be drowning in things to do and many will be urgent. But the first fire to put out is discerning exactly what change needs to happen to get your organization rolling.

You’ll need to get out and observe a lot of people and situations. You already know that those observations will need to include seeing the customer experience and getting your hands dirty with frontline employees. You need to see things for yourself, not just hear about them. Yes, you’ll want to see data and hear reports but nothing beats first-hand observation.

As you’re out collecting information, start to gather people too. Many people will want to talk with you. Many will be playing angles with you, trying to shape your perception, often to preserve the status quo and their own personal position. But you will find a few people who, with the right prompting, will give you the straight scoop. Note them. Build connections to them. Draw them in regardless of role and title. Be sure to include some of your peers in this network since they can be important allies in the future.

After a period of observation – usually 30-60 days is a realistic amount of time you’ll get for this – it’s time to shape your conclusions. Ask yourself and your growing circle of influencers a few simple questions:

  • What’s right about this organization? These are the strengths you can build on. They’re also traits you can unapologetically praise, which will put political coin in your bank account with the veterans in the crowd.

  • What’s wrong about this organization? These are the weaknesses you need to correct. They may be obvious to all or only to those with a fresh set of eyes. Note which variety they are.

  • What’s unclear about this organization? You’ve been brought in because change is required and that usually means there’s ambiguity. This is where you can note questions to be investigated further and hypotheses to be tested.

  • What’s missing in this organization? You’ll see voids that need to be filled.

I first heard these questions from master strategic planner Tom Paterson. It’s amazing how they can help sort the jumbled mess of your observations into actionable insights.

It helps to capture your thoughts in a simple table like the one below, using the columns to capture the answers to the questions. To make the identification of key issues easier, sort them into categories like I’ve done in the rows. You may use different categories based on your situation. I’m just showing you a few that I often use as starting points.

Once you get your thoughts out and categorized, you can start to hone in on the issues that are most urgent and fundamental to change. You might circle the issues that are most urgent and star the ones that are most fundamental to change.

 Four Helpful Lists

If you’re like most of us, you’ll wish you had more time and more data. Maybe you’ll be able to buy more time. Often you won’t because the board or your boss is impatient, or the external circumstances are pressing.  In that case, you will have to make your best calls.

You may also be able to extend your learning window and still show action by sorting your insights into two additional categories and acting accordingly.

  • For the insights that seem certain, urgent, and important, identify one or two moves you can make immediately. Identify something tangible you can achieve in 60-90 days that will symbolically and substantively show that you’re moving forward.

  • From your hunches (probably largely in the “Unclear” column), pick one or two hypotheses that you can test. Propose a pass/fail experiment that will help everyone gain more insight.

Once you get your mindset straight and do an effective fast-track diagnosis, you’re on your way to making the most of your change agent assignment.

Be bright.Noonday Sun

The Secret To A Hopeful Planning Meeting

By: On February 24, 2014

Here’s the situation: You’re sitting in a planning meeting. Your team has brain-dumped a list of great ideas that have been turned into the next wave of initiatives.  They’re inspiring. They’re feasible. They’ve won the prioritization vote. And you leave the meeting feeling defeated, because you know none of these very good ideas will be implemented.

Here’s why: there is too much clutter in the existing system. Today’s work leaves little room for new efforts. So any senior team that wants to create a great organization has to get ready for new initiatives by regularly clearing the decks. That way, you and your staff can feel excited and positive about your planning work because something productive will come of it.

Moon Bridge at Anderson Japanese Gardens

Moon Bridge at Anderson Japanese Gardens – Photo by Jeffrey Anderson

But how do you unclutter cleverly? I decided to ask someone who has been eliminating clutter at a world-class organization for 25 years. His name is Tim Gruner and he’s the head horticulturist at Anderson Japanese Gardens, a jewel of a garden tucked away in Rockford, IL and perennially recognized as one of the top Japanese gardens in the world.

Tim Gruner

Tim Gruner

When you visit Anderson Japanese Gardens during the warm months, you’ll see Tim and his team out in the garden. Most of the time, they’re pruning. To you and me, it just looks like they’re cutting branches and shoots off trees and shrubs. To say we’re missing the point is an understatement.

I interviewed Tim about the art of pruning. Here are the takeaways from that interview with applications to leadership teams.

  • Context Matters: Any world-class garden is designed to create an effect on visitors. For a Japanese garden, that effect is to have humans feel connected to nature through composed scenes.

    • Leadership Application: What effect are you trying to create in customers and employees? What do you want to be famous for? Get clear on that before you start pruning. It provides you with the right mindset – the artistic eye – for the job.

  • What it’s all about (A): At a basic level, pruning keeps the garden alive by avoiding over-crowding. Tim says, “We’d lose this garden within a year if we didn’t prune it.” Individual plants need pruning so that they get enough light to stay healthy.

    • Leadership Application: How do you know if your key projects are healthy? When is the last time you examined them for signs of drift or bloat? The law of entropy applies at work just like in a garden.

  • What it’s all about (B): At a deeper level, pruning helps each plant fit with the rest of the plants around it in the “composition.” No individual plant can be managed on its own but only as it relates to the scene it creates with those around it.

    • Leadership Application: When your senior team prunes work efforts, how much of the conversation centers on how each project fits into the larger picture? Effective leadership teams design the overall work portfolio to achieve a specific strategic goal. So if a company needs to ramp up innovation to respond to a changing environment, they look at the overall weighting of their efforts and ensure that enough of them are focused on exploratory work.

  • What it’s all about (C): At its deepest level, pruning preserves the potential of the garden for future generations. By maintaining individual plants and the overall composition, you have the potential to create extraordinary experiences for people in the future.

    • Leadership Application: What pruning needs to happen now to preserve the potential of your organization for the future?

  • How to learn it: Pruning looks simple but takes years to master. Mastery starts with humility and then continues with observation of skilled pruners, experimentation under supervision, and being comfortable with the risk of mistakes.

    • Leadership Application: How intentionally do you practice the skill of pruning as a senior team? I’m not talking about the reactive cost cuts that come when business turns south or someone tells you that you must cut now. We all know what that sort of reactive exercise feels like. I’m talking about making it an art you master through regular, intentional practice.

Do some pruning before your next planning session so that your brilliant new ideas can be put into action. That way you won’t feel overwhelmed or discouraged. You’ll feel hopeful.

And if all this talk of pruning leaves you needing a Zen moment, grab a cup of green tea and check out this aerial video of Anderson Japanese Gardens shot from a drone by noted photographer Nels Akerlund.

Click below for Tim’s 60-second summary of the essence of pruning – or here for the entire 13-minute interview where Tim dives into the thinking behind pruning at a world-class garden. You’ll never look at workers pruning a garden the same way again.

Be bright.Noonday Sun

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Six Beliefs Of Hazardous Organizations

By: On February 11, 2014

PoisonSome organizations should have a warning label: Caution, working here can be hazardous to your health. Complications could include high blood pressure, weight gain, insomnia, and bleeding ulcers.

Behind every hazardous work culture there’s probably at least one dangerous leader who sets the tone. Crawl a little further into these leaders’ heads. Probably, they live with beliefs that make counter-productive behaviors seem totally rational and healthy. I heard those beliefs vocalized by an administrative assistant a while ago in such bald terms it took my breath away.

I was about to start a strategy session with a leadership team. She was organizing the otherwise-empty room, setting out breakfast, dropping off snacks.

She said quietly to me, “I wish I could be here in the meeting.”

I paused, sensing something else was coming. “I mean, how do you do it?” she asked.

It’s a good question. How do I do it? I wondered.

Wait, do what?

So I asked her, “What do you mean by ‘do it?’”

She smiled slyly. “How do you get a group of senior leaders to actually work together? It must be a huge challenge.” She blinked at me knowingly. I stared back, puzzled.

“Ummm. Well, it has its moments but which challenge are you referring to?”

“Well, let’s face it. All of these people got here by stepping on others, by using and abusing people, by watching out for themselves. How do you get them to turn that off and start working together?”

Her belief system was stunning. Leaders use. Leaders lie. Leaders scrap. Because of their inherent selfishness, leaders are highly unlikely to work together.

I later learned that she had cut her teeth at a top professional services firm, one equal in reputation for excellence and aggressiveness. I couldn’t help but wonder if those formative experiences had shaped her view of leaders and work and what’s possible in a company.

Just like family backgrounds have a profound impact on how we see the world, so our early companies often shape how we see life. We pick up their beliefs and attitudes like lint – or sometimes we have an allergic reaction to them and choose to go the opposite way.

Unlike family backgrounds, we can exercise some choice about our companies of origin – at least early on in our careers. So now, when talking with young people entering the workforce, I’m going to give them a little advice: choose your company of origin carefully. We all like to believe the myth that we’re independent thinkers, impervious to the influence of those around us. It’s a lie. And we should get over it.

Here are a few beliefs you might pick up from the behaviors around you early in your career:

  • Cut-throat vs. Collaborative: If your early companies allow colleagues to be cut-throat, you’ll start to believe that you have to watch your back if you want to survive. But if your early companies expect people to help each other out – sometimes sacrificially – you’ll start to believe that loyalty and teamwork will help you thrive.
  • Corner-cutting vs. High Integrity: If your early companies are willing to bend the truth to sell stuff, you’ll start to believe that the sales goals justify the means. But if your early companies only make promises they can keep to customers, you’ll start to believe that integrity leads to long-term success.
  • Perfectionistic vs. Learning-Driven: If your early companies punish people for making mistakes, you’ll start to believe that you should keep your head down if you want to survive. But if your early companies encourage people to take smart risks, you’ll start to believe that accelerated learning is the best path to long-term earning.
  • Passive-Aggressive vs. Straight-Talking: If your early companies carefully avoid confrontation, you’ll start to believe that it’s smarter to passively resist things you don’t like instead of dealing with things head-on. But if your early companies practice constructive truth-telling, you’ll start to believe that caring enough to speak the truth is the smartest policy of all.
  • Takers vs. Servants: If your early companies only care about customers because of the profit they bring to the company, you’ll start to believe that customers are conquests or even opponents. But if your early companies show radical concern for customers, you’ll start to believe that all great work starts with the attitude of service.
  • Hype vs. Substance: If your early companies do token “community service” or “social responsibility,” you’ll start to believe that work is primarily about making money and keeping up appearances on everything else. But if your early companies have woven social responsibility into the very fabric of their business models, you’ll start to believe that great work always serves the common good as well as the bottom line.

Many of us are past those days of choosing our companies of origin. We have a stack of beliefs we’ve picked up along the way at our various employers and clients. But we aren’t powerless about this either. We aren’t doomed by the attitudes we picked up. We just have to challenge them a little bit.

Here’s how. Start by recognizing beliefs when they pop up, often in statements that begin with “all” or “none.” For example, the assistant I described above had a belief, stated bluntly as “All leaders are self-serving, Machiavellian liars.”

  • Ask yourself, “Where did I get that belief?” Play back the situations and characters who shaped that thought.
  • Ask yourself again, “Is that belief really true now? Does it need to be true now?” Does that belief pertain to your current situation or are you saddling today with yesterday’s beliefs?
  • Think for a moment about how those beliefs might be holding you back in your work today. Are they making you less trusting, less giving, more cynical, more defensive? And are those responses helping you do your best work?
  • Choose models and mentors for your future who help you do your best work with your most constructive mindset. They shouldn’t be pollyanna-ish any more than they should be hardened cynics. They should be those who are at home with the way things are, while still being their best selves.

Wherever you are, do all in your power to create your own exemplary workplace – a place where you’d want your child or your best friend’s child to have her first work experience.

Be bright.Noonday Sun

Lessons From A Redemptive Entrepreneur

By: On December 3, 2013

“Now that’s a big idea!”

It was high praise from the former senior partner of a highly respected strategy consulting firm, a guy who deals in big ideas every day. I had just shared the concept behind one of my client’s new ventures over lunch. While still in its early days, this company aims to change how $200 trillion gets managed every year. Yes, that’s trillion with a T. Can you say b-i-g i-d-e-a?

What waits off the beaten path?

What waits off the beaten path?

But I heard a piece on NPR this summer about a group of Harvard MBA’s who may have an even bigger one. They decided to swap a typical summer internship for a road trip to help entrepreneurs. Maybe it says something about us as a society that we’re surprised that four bright, young people would break from the herd charging up the well-trodden path toward the top of the world to spend time working with ordinary people in middle America who are trying to make their business dreams a reality. Let’s face it, the world those students live in solves for money, power, and status. Helping entrepreneurs figure out how to launch sustainable and socially responsible businesses isn’t the most direct path to the top.

But as impressive as those MBA students’ choice was, I’m even more intrigued by the people they chose to help: an inner city hair salon, a designer of rugged women’s work clothes, and a micro-brewery.

Take Sebastien Jackson, a young African American man in Detroit. His vision is to use a for-profit business – in this case, a hair salon – to drive cross-racial understanding in one of our toughest and most segregated cities. Now that’s a big idea. Instead of fleeing his city, Jackson is choosing to put his efforts into transforming it. In his case, he used what was close to his hands and his background to get started. He had worked at a salon prior to starting The Social Club Grooming Company. Now he wanted to use it to crack the code on racial reconciliation.

That’s what redemptive entrepreneurs do:

  • They see a bigger issue that needs to be changed. Jackson saw his city falling apart and knew that one major barrier to its rebuilding was the underlying racial tension. No one wants to move their families and businesses to a place that seems like it’s on the verge of a riot.

  • They see a solution – or at least part of a solution. Jackson believes that people don’t get along when they don’t understand each other. He decided to try to create a place where people could casually learn about each other – to rub shoulders in ways that promote understanding without being forced. I’m guessing you already know that men get to know each other better when they’re interacting casually instead of facing each other across tables eye to eye (ladies, you can send me your checks for that free relationship advice anytime). Sitting in a barber chair and shooting the breeze is a perfect environment for guys to start to get to know each other.

  • They use what they know to do what they can. Sure, Jackson could have gone out and gotten a social work degree. Maybe he could have become a politician – and maybe he will in the future. But here’s the fact: the guy knew hair. So he combined his vision for change with a solution that was natural for him.

  • They build organizations that will be viable for the long term. A noble idea without a sustainable model is unfortunately not much use. This is where the Harvard MBA’s came in – using what they know (business, economics, finance) to do what they can (helping redemptive entrepreneurs create sustainable business models).

Maybe the example of the Harvard MBA’s points out another mark of the redemptive entrepreneur. A redemptive entrepreneur sees herself as one piece of a tapestry of like-minded people who are determined to use their skills for the common good. She doesn’t have to do it all. She just has to do her part and find others who are also doing their part. Put together, they create something useful, meaningful and even beautiful.

Be bright.Noonday Sun

Getting The Math Right

By: On November 25, 2013

Hand working on equationToo many of us hate our jobs and live in fear. Even the super-successful. And it’s our own doing.

I had lunch with a super-talented guy recently. He has a resume to die for – blue chip schools, top tier firms, big titles. Amid his success he had been bounced out of companies a couple of times, as people do when they play at senior levels. Even though he has been incredibly successful, I sensed a deep worry about whether he had ruined his career, about how many opportunities he had missed. The smell of fear mixed with the aroma of the pasta.  I walked away feeling badly for him but also frustrated. This happens to so many of us. Why do we strive and achieve and yet still get chased around by the barking dogs in our heads?

Maybe it’s because a lot of us work for goofy reasons. Oh, I know that most of us have to work. We weren’t born into a fortune. We like to eat and eating costs money. But most of us aren’t driven by the need to eat. Not if you’re reading this on a screen somewhere. If you were really fleeing starvation, you wouldn’t have time for this kind of rumination.

As smart as we are, a lot of us have gotten the math all wrong about our work. We think that if we’re super successful and we don’t totally lose our souls in the process, we’ll be happy. The equation goes something like this:

Success + Being a Decent Person = Contentment

Only, that equation doesn’t really work. If it did, I’d have a parade of lunches with people who had silly, contented smiles on their faces because I regularly mix with really accomplished, decent people. Instead, too many smart, high-achieving people are secretly lost. In fact, their happiness is too often inversely proportional to their visible success.

The problem isn’t that they aren’t successful enough, whatever that means. The problem isn’t that they aren’t decent enough, though we could all amp up our decency without hurting anyone’s feelings. The problem is that the equation they’re living by is just flat wrong.

What would happen if my friend lived with this equation in mind?

Being who you’re created to be + Contentment = Success

Simple, I know. But in a culture that actually glorifies dissatisfaction as a noble trait, think of the implications of switching your emphasis:

  • Instead of letting achievement, acquisition, and the quest for clout control my happiness, I’m clear that wealth, notoriety, and influence don’t define my life. My character and my impact on those closest to me does.

  • Instead of being under the grinding pressure to “win” no matter what hand I was dealt, I do the best I can with the hand I’m dealt. I shun the cheap happiness of comparison in favor of joy.

  • Instead of always looking over my shoulder at what might happen or what might have happened if only…, I look at what’s right in front of me and enjoy it for what it is.

  • Instead of seeing today’s work as a stepping stone to something really good, I see today’s work as really good in itself because it just might draw the best out of me. It might even make me better. It might be a class I have to pass to become more of who I was created to be.

Don’t think for a minute that conventional wisdom will make sense of this. Our world trades in fear, insecurity, and scarcity. It knows that you can motivate people to buy and sell anything – even their very happiness and souls – when motivated by those barking dogs. The purveyors of dissatisfcation equate contentment with resignation. But they’re wrong. Resignation says that things aren’t that good and they’re not likely to get better. Contentment celebrates that things are actually quite good, and that – in the grand scheme of things – all is well.

So this Thanksgiving, think about your life and work.

  • Are you doing something – at least a decent chunk of your day – that flows out of who you’re created to be? If so, give thanks. If not, ask yourself: Where can you make a slight shift in thinking or action that would change the game and play to your sweet spot? Or can you shift your attitude from thinking your work isn’t good enough for you to thinking it’s a gift just waiting to be unwrapped?

  • Does your work give you the opportunity – and by “opportunity” I really mean “difficulty” – to grow your character or to make a positive impact on someone else? If so, give thanks.

  • Is there some limitation you face that forces you to be creative, to overcome, to be abnormally resilient? If so, give thanks.

  • Have you had a good laugh or better yet that moment of joy in your work where you’re engaged, switched on, or even righteously angry? If so, give thanks.  (If not, this might help.)

  • Does your work provide you with an opportunity to provide for and care for those you love even if it’s not your rock and roll fantasy? If so, give thanks.

Maybe you just realized that you had the math wrong and you’ve decided to work from a new equation. That’s worth giving thanks for too. Because it all starts with getting the math right.

Being who you’re created to be + Contentment = Success

Be bright.Noonday Sun

Four Keys To A Successful Breakthrough

By: On November 4, 2013

Light Bulb“I’m worried about where you’re going here!” It had taken the CFO a day and a half to finally burst. He had been watching our planning session proceed, only commenting when his financial expertise seemed relevant. But after the CEO’s description of his expansive vision for the company, the CFO had finally had enough.

“What are you worried about?” Chris the CEO said, a little stunned that his normally taciturn financial sidekick had been so direct.

“You’re telling us all of the beautiful things our organization should be doing. It sounds great on the surface. You call it vision. I think it’s really mission creep.”

I felt a familiar mix of reactions to this exchange. On the one hand, I was rubbing my hands together with anticipation. This moment in the planning process can precede a breakthrough, that moment when we climb beyond superficial solutions and find creative alternatives to deep issues. This company desperately needed a breakthrough. Its market was depressed. Its products were aging. Business as usual could end up badly.

On the other hand, this moment can get messy. Though I’ve never personally experienced labor beyond witnessing the birth of my two sons, the process of a leadership team achieving breakthrough can look like collectively giving birth. There’s pain. There’s pushing. You get stuck for what seems like an eternity.

The whole experience sometimes scares people off. Teams fear getting stuck. The leader fears giving up control. Many teams either avoid the whole chaotic affair or they do a sanitized, superficial version of the process that promises safe outcomes. While tidier, there’s no baby after that approach. Maybe you get to cradle a doll that looks and coos and even pees like a baby. But the real thing comes from the mess.

After the CFO’s outburst, I called a break. I knew what was going through Chris’s mind. He had had private reservations about opening up his strategic planning process to his team, fearing that the group would slam on the brakes when he wanted to go in a different direction.

Out in the hall, Chris asked me, “How should I handle this situation?”

“Don’t worry,” I said. “In the end you won’t have to lead a charge in a direction you don’t believe in. But we might just be on the verge of a breakthrough.”

Chris took a deep breath. We agreed that he would listen carefully to his team members, to understand where they were coming from, to try to find that place where their points of view intersected with his.

In other words, to wait for the breakthrough.

After the break, I called the group back together. “I’ve been talking with Chris over the break. Here’s what it looks like to me: Like many visionaries, Chris wants to stretch your organization to achieve more for your customers and stakeholders than we’ve ever even imagined. He sees possibilities. Beyond that, I think he believes that holding pat is actually a risky path, maybe even a slow death.” Chris nodded his head.

“Others in the group are worried that this expanded vision will set unrealistic goals that they will never meet. They’re worried they’re being set up to fail.  You want to succeed. And success means hitting realistic goals.” The CFO and a few others in operational roles gave knowing smiles.

“OK,” I continued. “We’re at a point in the process where it’s time to go for breakthrough. This isn’t on our agenda because you can’t plan for when it will happen. It’s a detour. But if you’re up for it, it could be very productive.”

We dove in to a rigorous and difficult conversation that had an unusual outcome: everybody got a version of what they wanted. Here’s why:

  • The team members vocalized their concerns. They needed coaxing at first. They stumbled around with their thoughts. They trod carefully, aware that they were dangerously close to stepping  on Chris’s toes. To support the process, I took their point of view and agreed with some of what they said, trying to get them to extend their necks further.

  • The leader listened. Chris hung in there on his own vision but he listened to their concerns. He supported their desire to be successful. He avoided the two usual tactics of leaders in this situation: he neither shut people down nor did he shut himself down. Together, they kept digging and waiting and believing that an answer would emerge.

  • They were honest and skillful. This is very different from being honest and unfiltered. If Chris had been unfiltered, I think he would have said that he was about to blow his stack and that he was bound and determined to expand the mission of this organization whether the team liked it or not. If team members had been honest and unfiltered, they would have rolled their eyes and said, “There you go again. You always do this. And it winds up creating messes that we have to clean up.” Neither of those approaches would have been helpful. Instead of being their worst 5-year-old selves, they were their best grown-up selves. That made a difference in how long they could hang in during the mess.

  • The mission was clear and compelling. Though it may have seemed a throw-away exercise at the time, we had spent a good chunk of time earlier in the session talking about why each member of the leadership team chose to work at this organization at this time – besides the chance to earn a paycheck. They had a surprising amount of commonality in motivation. They all wanted what was best for the company and the community it was serving. The mission was important and highly personal to each of them. Most of all, the mission was way bigger than themselves.

Even when you persevere in the labor for a breakthrough, it doesn’t always happen – at least not on schedule. And when you do get a breakthrough, it will need tender care and feeding until that fragile new life is ready to leave the hospital and venture into the big, bad world. But you dramatically increase your chances of seeing that breakthrough burst into life, seemingly out of nothing, when you navigate the mess skillfully like these folks did.

 

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