Four Magic Words To Make Your Next Meeting Productive

By: On November 7, 2017

You probably hate meetings. But if you’re a leader, the fact is that you spend most of your time in meetings. This isn’t going to end. Stop lamenting that you want to get “real work” done. Most of your real work happens in a meeting. Which means you need to become an expert at how to have good conversations, mostly about understanding and solving big hairy problems. The easy challenges get dealt with elsewhere.

And yet most business conversations are horrible. I know. I spend my life trying to facilitate them. They’re lousy at least partly because most of us don’t know the four magic words. Here they are:

  • “Here’s what I see…” – Listen to your colleagues in the next meeting. How often do they separate the inputs they’re taking in from the opinions they’ve formed? I’d guess not very often. Instead, many people make assertions which lead to counter-assertions which lead to rabbit trails and defensiveness. Eventually, the meeting’s time runs out and you’re saved by the bell. Except that there’s been no progress on the issues and you probably like and respect each other a little less. So start by clearly stating the inputs that shape your perceptions. Start by saying, “Here’s what I see…” and specifically calling out where you got your data. “Here’s what I see” statements should be followed with:
    • Performance data and trends
    • Outside sources or research
    • Direct observation
    • Even anecdotes. No they won’t carry as much weight as data but at least you’re separating inputs from outputs.

Come to think of it, that leads to four more words.

  • “Here’s what I think…” – Your perceptions ought to lead to some conclusions or at least a few hypotheses. You’re largely paid to think, so you’re expected to draw conclusions. You may be anywhere on the continuum of certainty from hunch to conclusion. Even that is useful to share since it tells your colleagues how firmly you hold your beliefs.

Since your perceptions are limited and your thought process may be flawed, I guess this could lead to another four words.

  • “I could be wrong…” – When you pair conviction (“Here’s what I think”) with humility (“I could be wrong”), you remind yourself and others that you’re not God. Which is never a bad thing to remember. You acknowledge that every great idea is born immature and needs help to grow up. You signal that you want others to join in. The music of real conversation begins to play.

Snap! This means maybe there’s yet another four-word set to get us to a great meeting:

  • “What do you see?…” – Now you’ve turned what could have been a monologue into a conversation. You’re dancing instead of boxing. Watch out. Something creative may happen. Worst case scenario, colleagues will understand your view and will perhaps feel free to agree instead of feeling drawn to a stalemate.

These magic words simply put an open mind into action. And open minds trump closed ones when you want to get things done.

So maybe your next day of back to back meetings doesn’t have to be miserable. Maybe you can help those meetings become productive, creative, and even *gasp* fun. It just takes four simple words…

Be Bright.

Don’t Start Strategy Until You Do These Two Things

By: On October 9, 2017

My imaginary cash hoard

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen a leadership team with a shiny new strategy that’s never gotten off the whiteboard into real life, I could retire right now. They go through the pain of looking at their organization and its place in the world. They hash out the messy choices any organization has to make to move from decent to awesome. They endure the pain and anguish of listening to everyone in the team – yes, even that guy – and getting the best thinking from the group.

And there it is. A strategy, stuck on the whiteboard, still-born. It’s enough to make a strategy facilitator plead.

As it turns out, I’m not above begging. With strategy season just around the corner, I’m on my knees in front of you, imploring you to do these two simple things before you get started. Why? Because if you fail to do them, I can just about promise that your strategy will never move from being pretty words on flip-charts to changing your company and the world. And we all need a little company-changing, world-changing action these days.

Job 1: Expand the people pool – If you’re like most organizations, you have a few go-to people who get stuff done. They’re capable, ambitious, smart, and often collaborative. They’re also probably just about maxed out because you always give them the ball on important initiatives. And they usually have significant day jobs.

They probably won’t scream too loudly when they’re maxed out, which is another reason you secretly love them. But there’s only so much they can do and at some point, probably pretty soon if not yet, you’ll find the breaking point. With your luck, it will happen right when you’ve asked them to lead one of the strategic initiatives that will come out of your strategy process.

Most leaders have a hunch that their organizations run this way. They just don’t have any solutions – at least none that will make a difference in the next couple of years. What many fail to see is that their strategy process could be part of solving the problem because there are probably people in the shadows of your organization waiting to be discovered even if they themselves don’t even know it.

Your goal should be to at least double the number of people who you could consider for roles leading strategic initiatives.  Please read that sentence again. (And then take a deep breath.)

Here’s what you can do:

  • Do an inventory of your organization. List all of the people in formal leadership roles from the most junior to those on your senior team.
    • Identify the people you currently consider for leadership roles in strategic projects. This is the number you want to double.
  • Note the Usual Suspects, those who are regularly tapped to work on important organizational challenges. Be explicit about the skills and behaviors/attitudes displayed by these people that make them so effective in your organization, that make you proud of them as representatives of the best of your firm. 
  • Ask your team who they believe has potential to be a rising star in the organization. Note where they demonstrate the skills and behaviors/attitudes of your Usual Suspects – and where you’re not sure.
  • Ask the Usual Suspects who they see as high potential leaders. High capacity people have a nose for others like them, especially because high capacity people are always trying to get others engaged in their work too. Note the additional leaders flagged by your Usual Suspects.
  • Count the number of known and potential initiative leaders. If you’ve at least doubled the count, you’re ready to move on. If not, keep searching. And while you’re at it, grab some time with the people recruiting new folks into your company. Make sure they’re looking for the attributes you’re struggling to find in addition to the technical specs for these roles.

Job 2: Carve out the time for execution of the new initiatives – Unless your organization is very unusual, your people are already busy. True, some are busy doing silly stuff. But most are doing good stuff. The bad news is that your strategy process is going to create more to do. I’ve never seen a strategy that didn’t have a variety of time-consuming initiatives flow from it.

Unless you move now – before you start the strategy process – to create margin, you will inevitably come up with wonderful initiatives but be frustrated because you have no time, energy, or money to address them. This is where many strategy processes stall.

So start now. I promise this will be painful. I also promise it’s worth it. In fact, without it I believe you shouldn’t waste your time working on strategy. Here’s how to get going:

  • Do a ruthless inventory of your organization’s current initiatives. If you have a Project Management Organization, they’ll be able to tell you what’s out there formally – and maybe what’s hiding in the weeds or being done in a skunkworks.
  • Take a cold, hard look at the work being done. Even before you lift a white board marker in the act of strategy, I’ll bet you can identify 10-20% of current initiatives that are either no longer relevant or have been attempted without any clear success. Cut them. Someone will scream. But mostly, people will heave a sigh of relief. Don’t punish people for perceived failures. Instead learn what you can and celebrate the act of pruning as a declaration of freedom.
  • Look at the balance of your initiatives. If most or all of them are oriented toward making today’s business a little bit better vs. creating something truly new for tomorrow, stack rank those “make today’s business better” projects and place the bottom 10-20% of work on hold.
  • Seek the pinch points in your organization. What scarce resources (usually people) are being over-utilized today? If you can’t prune work coming through that resource, what can you do – right now – to find options for supplementing that resource?

The point of all of this is to be sure you actually have the people and time available to you when you conceive of your strategic initiatives. This avoids the deflating loss of momentum that so often strikes leadership teams when they try to move forward on strategic initiatives. I hate that experience. And that’s why I’m begging you to do these things now.

Be Bright

Is Your Team a Momentum-Maker or Momentum-Killer?

By: On September 18, 2017

Ben has a problem. He just took over the leadership of a company that until recently had been on a bad losing streak. Two years ago, the board brought in a turnaround artist who used a combination of hard work and brute force to arrest the decline.  As a result, a large portion of the current leadership team is new to the company. The good news is that they think of themselves as a collection of winners, pulled together with various experience to reverse their company’s fortunes. You can feel it in the nervous tension in the group. The bad news is that they aren’t winning as often as they should.

Ben thinks through what to do in his first few months as CEO. He knows his team members want to get moving, to get things done, to create results. Their instinct is to do something. Ben knows the typical tools used to get an organization rolling; restructuring, incentives, public floggings, optimistic road shows. He’s skeptical that these moves will work here. He’s no rookie. He’s seen what happens when you try to manipulate an organization. Smart people check out or become completely self-focused just when you need them to care about customers, the company, and most important each other.

While there are structural issues to address, Ben’s gut tells him that he needs to get his team together and do something, but it’s something that they’re going to hate: work on how they interact as a team. Without this, they can restructure all they want but the magic still won’t be there. He can imagine the thought bubble above the heads of many team members: “A kumbaya session? What does any of this have to do with getting results for our company?” He gets it. It’s a thought he remembers having at points in his career too.

From hard experience, Ben knows that there is often a strong connection between how his team works and the results they’re going to get. When his past teams were able to work through challenges without having it get personal, they could tear apart a miss in the last quarter’s numbers without damaging drama. When those past teams carried relational baggage, even deciding where to hold the next year’s sales meeting got sporty. Forget about dealing with the really tough issues that drive performance. You could almost feel the wind come out of those organizations’ sails.

Ben knows a secret that many leaders don’t grasp:  Leadership teams are responsible for managing one of the most elusive commodities in the world: momentum.

Momentum is the degree to which your people sense progress, excitement, and confidence in what’s happening. You know you have momentum when people are going the extra mile for each other, watching each other’s backs, and resiliently handling setbacks. You know it’s missing when everyone is looking out for themselves and maybe looking for a job in their spare time.

Momentum is either working for you or it’s working against you. If it’s working against you, you probably feel like you’re running in quicksand while banging your head against the wall. Which is a lot of fun if you’re into that kind of thing.

Sure, you can fake momentum. That’s called hype. It works for little while but it’s not sustainable. Once exposed, hype gives your credibility – and the company’s – a mortal wound, after which you will need to brush up your resume because the ship will likely sink.

Here’s how leadership teams – and how they work together (or don’t) – affect organizational momentum. This explanation builds on thinking from Mike Blansfield via Marvin Weisbord who first articulated these observations. Hats off to my colleague Mark Demel for making the ideas visual.

 

Like many things in life, momentum works in a self-reinforcing cycle.

  1. In an organization that’s stuck in neutral or going backward, the trigger event for another trip through the cycle is usually some sort of result. Usually it’s a crappy result. Profits are down, quality is poor, maybe a video of a customer being dragged out of your place of business after losing teeth at the hands of your staff goes viral. You get the picture.
  2. This trigger forces you to examine how things are getting done, or perhaps not getting done. As a leadership team, you need to look at plans, systems, processes, policies, structures or people. Probably a little bit of all of that. You’re on the hunt for the real issue.  In itself, this is not bad. In fact, a really good team does this well and gets to the root of the issue as quickly and deeply as possible resulting in useful course corrections. But pity the leader whose team has poo-poo’d the human stuff. Because right now, at this moment of trying to optimize or fix the business, that willful ignorance will be exposed.  Just try searching for ways to fix a business – especially one in any sort of crisis – when there isn’t a solid level of trust, openness, and shared understanding. Get ready for some totally awesome Leadership Team Theater as team members posture, attack, defend, and hide. You’ll be able to hand out Emmy awards but the problems will be obscured behind the drama.
  3. That’s because every team member is constantly asking a few questions about their participation in their leadership team. Yes, that includes your leadership team.
    • Am I in or out around here?–  Do people accept me and include me? Do I have to watch my back or do they have my back?
    • How are power and control handled here? – Team members often loathe the fact that they aren’t in total control when in a team, especially leadership team members who often crave control of their own destinies. The real question is who wields power and do I have any influence over what happens here?
    • How are skills and resources handled? – Everyone wants to make a contribution. At least everyone who deserves to be on your team. They wonder whether they’ll be given the resources so that they’re able to make their best contribution. If not, talented team members want to take their skills elsewhere.
  4. When leadership team members can’t answer those questions positively, cue the Leadership Team Theater. Your fundamental business problems will go unsolved. Maybe there will be a cosmetic fix, but nothing that’s going to reverse the momentum in any long-term way.

That cycle of failure leaves team members – and the rest of your organization – deflated. They’re less confident in the ability of the group to make good things happen. They’re less confident in their own ability to influence the group to make good things happen. Momentum sags.

But flip that story around.

  1. Imagine a leadership team that invests in the human side of their work together. Ideally, they’ll do this before they’re under the gun although there’s nothing like a crisis to focus the mind. Imagine they work hard to answer the perpetual team questions positively so that each team member can say:
    • I’m in. People value me and my contribution.
    • I can influence things around here.
    • I can make a contribution here. I have the resources to do my best work.
  2. They can address the fundamental drivers of the business with gusto. Trust, openness, and a common understanding of where we’re going – and why it matters – are going to reign. No, team members do not have to be best friends. But they buy into the team’s core purpose and their place in it.
  3. Do that long enough and deep enough and results start to improve.
  4. Pretty soon, the team has a growing confidence in the collective and in their own individual abilities to get stuff done.

That team is going to have some serious momentum. That team is going to leave its positive mark on the world. Ben wants that team and I’ll bet all of us want to be on that team.

What’s the next step you can take to build momentum on your team?

Be Bright.

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Where Passion Comes From

By: On September 11, 2017

Why do you do what you do?

I was with an executive team recently and found myself silently channeling Simon Sinek, asking myself that question about these people: Why do they do this job? Their company provides a service aimed at helping families who earn $50K or less each year make the best of their financial situation. This is a serious, for-profit company;  I didn’t need to see their compensation reports to know that everyone in the room made much more than $50K per year.

What attracted these well-dressed executives to this business? Was it pity? Boredom? Worse yet, opportunism?

Many team members were relatively new to the company so we spent some time sharing life stories around the table. A pattern soon emerged. As people told stories about their backgrounds, we heard about their own experiences of living with limited means. One had a parent leave when she was young, throwing her family into a prolonged period of economic hardship. Another had a family business go bust;  he went from being the rich kid to poor kid at school overnight.

Of the twelve people on that team, at least half had personal experience living a cash-strapped life with all of the associated anxiety, stigma, and difficult choices about which bills to pay and how to do the right thing by their children. The nickel dropped for me: this is why these people are attracted to this business. This is at least part of why they work so hard. They aren’t serving a nameless, faceless “target customer” dreamed up by a marketing consultant. They’re working hard for people they understand at a deeply personal level. The purpose of this company connects directly to a set of experiences they could never forget, experiences that in many ways shaped these leaders.

Companies spend truckloads of money trying to motivate employees. It often feels like they’re trying to whip up passion in a loveless, selfish marriage. A dozen roses, some nice chocolates, and a weekend at a fancy resort can create momentary zip. But eventually you have to come home to the hard work of everyday life where flowers wilt, your teenager eats all the chocolates behind your back, and memories of the getaway have faded.

 

The same is true for company meetings with the hottest motivational speaker or a golf outing with colleagues at a posh corporate retreat center. The excitement from the newly forged bonds and exciting ideas fade after a few days back in the grind… unless you’re in HR and you’re trying to mop up behind the bad behavior that too often happens at those events.

So what’s the secret sauce? Do you have to staff your team with people who are exactly like or have been exactly like your customer?

The answer to tapping into passion at work is often simple though far from easy:

  • Clarify why you exist as a company. I’m not asking you to describe what you do or what products you bring to market. I’m not even asking you to articulate the business value of your offering even though that is super important. Instead, I’m interested in why any of that matters. Yes, there is probably a rational part of this, something you can explain in a nice line graph. But you really know you’ve hit purpose paydirt when there is a strong positive emotional reaction in the vast majority of your key people. My client’s leadership team has a visceral response to working hard for people living on limited income. It requires no hype.
    • Hint: This usually happens when people see how what you do makes a big difference for people they know or can identify with. Which leads to…
  • Help your existing team members to link that purpose to their own experiences. If they had the strong emotional reaction I mentioned above, they probably have at least a subconscious awareness of how your organization’s purpose touches their own life story. But it’s very powerful to give people the opportunity to explicitly connect the dots – and to share that connection out loud with colleagues. “My family was exactly like our customers when I was growing up” beats a slick powerpoint every day when it comes to motivation.
  • Attract more people who personally connect to that purpose. As you recruit new staff or attract new partners, pay attention to their life stories. Listen for points of connection or disconnection with your organization’s core purpose. Yes, people can learn to appreciate a purpose even if they don’t connect with it personally. But stocking your team with a solid percentage who carry this purpose in their bone marrow is just plain smart. Skills can be learned. Passion and purpose flow from a place that’s harder to affect.=

So if you’re looking to tap into the natural energy in your organization, start with clearly identifying how the work you do benefits real people. Give them names and faces. Then try looking into the personal stories of your people. Find the high points and low points that have marked them. Go on a hunt for how these highs and lows connect to the way your organization’s work touches real people. Yes, make the numbers work. But make work personal too. Because in the end, you’re dealing with people and people crave purpose more than just about anything else.

Be Bright

How to Make Strategy Live When You’re Not in the Room

By: On September 28, 2016

Quick. Tell me the strategy of your organization. For bonus points, tell me how your team and your role fits into that strategy. And how it affects your actions each day, especially in terms of what you choose NOT to do as a result of the strategy.

Strategy slide from Hell

Strategy slide from hell

If you’re like most of us, you’re frantically digging through your mental files for the strategy deck someone showed you months (or years) ago. In your mind’s eye, you’re scrolling past the first thirteen pages of blah blah blah with dense text and squinting at imported Excel charts. You’re wondering how those people in the strategy team missed the class on effective Powerpoint presentations, blithely putting eighteen bullets on a page in 11-point font.

And in the moments it takes to do that, your brain just says, “Stop! Forget this stupid exercise. Go back to work. Do your job. Keep your boss off your back. Leave that stuff to people who don’t have better things to do with their time.”

And that’s when you’re a member of the strategy team.

meeting-from-hell

Strategy overview from hell

Imagine you’re a member of the organization just minding your own business and trying to hold down a job. In that case you don’t even bother risking a mental paper cut by digging through your mental files. You just smile benignly, wait for the person asking you to repeat the strategy to go away, turn on your heel and get back to your own little corner of the world.

This is a dirty secret of most organizations’ strategy process. They invest countless hours and most of the organization ignores the work. It’s not necessarily because employees don’t care or the strategy is poor. It’s often just because the story is way too complex. It may make sense to those who were in the room during the strategy sessions. But it may as well be the plot to Memento to everyone else.   

If strategy is coherent action in response to a challenge backed up by a rationale, this should make every leader squirm. And here’s why.

As a leader, you may have a stranglehold on the strategy, its interdependencies, and its nuances. You may be able to see the choices that are implied in the strategy, how you’re giving up one thing to get another. Maybe you can spot the useless rabbit trails a mile away and skillfully avoid them.

The problem: most of the time on most days for most of your people, you’re not in the room! Unless your company is super small or you’ve installed a secret surveillance system or you’ve invested in cloning yourself, for most of your organization’s life you’re simply absent. Sure, you show up at all of the big events and big meetings. But that’s not where coherent action actually needs to happen. Coherent action needs to happen when no one’s looking. Too often, what happens when no one’s looking is incoherent action in response to personal agendas backed up by wishful thinking.

This is why a simpler strategy story matters so much. Your job as a leadership team is not just to be brilliant and insightful and clever. On their own, these traits are lovely but over-hyped. No, you need to be clear and simple and memorable. You need to give people handles on your strategy so that they can make smart everyday strategy decisions when you’re not in the room.

A simpler strategy story usually follows a predictable storyline:

  • Here’s where we came from
  • Here’s where we are
  • Here’s where we want to go and why
  • Here’s how we plan to get there despite the terrain ahead
  • Here are the first five tactics to implement the strategy and how they fit together
Strategy Storyline

All-Purpose Strategy Storyline

If we stopped ten people in your organization and asked them about these five basic elements, how many could answer them in one or two sentences?

Your job is to make the story both simple and memorable, getting it down to one short sentence or better yet one central picture. This is why I almost always recommend bringing visual thinking into strategy work. Pictures truly are worth a thousand words, especially a thousand words in 11-point font. Brain science backs it up: a whopping 30% of the brain is dedicated to visual processing.

It’s also why I prod reluctant leaders to share strategy in the form of “chalk talks” using hand-drawn pictures instead of slide-whipping people with not-so-SmartArt-graphics-laden decks. Nothing says “I’m not invested” like generic graphics. In contrast, nothing says “I own this” more than pictures drawn by and explained by leaders.

Visual Strategist Mark Demel's take on the power of visual thinking

Visual Strategist Mark Demel’s take on the power of visual thinking

Making a simpler story is challenging. It will probably take you much longer than doing the normal 38-page Deck of Density. But you can bet your next paycheck that the next time they’re talking with a project team or a client, your people will not quote your jam packed slides no matter how brilliant your McKinsey consultant was. But they just may scribble a set of pictures of your brilliantly simple strategy on a whiteboard or a napkin when you’re not in the room. It might change how they think and feel and act. It might give them a consistent context for the everyday choices they make. Repeated over and over, it might give your organization coherent action in response to a challenge backed up by a rationale in a scaled up way.

Imagine that everyone in your organization knows why they’re doing what they’re doing and how it fits with the larger plan whether you’re in the room or not. That would make the challenge of creating a simpler story worthwhile.

 

Noonday SunBe Bright.

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The Moments You Live For

By: On September 7, 2015

My friend Amy tells of a woman who runs a company that makes architectural stone. She has many moments during her days – meetings, specification reviews, logistics strategy, customer visits. Those are all good moments, part of the joy and challenge of leading a company.

But they aren’t the moment.

She tells of the moment when her team is finished building a beautiful stone fixture for a customer. Something they envisioned together on a whiteboard or a PC screen has become reality, beautiful and durable and functional and tangible.

You might think that’s the moment, but not quite.

One moment: celebrating a job well done...

One moment: celebrating a job well done…

The moment this leader lives for is when her team members, gathered around the final product,  spontaneously pull out their smartphones and start taking pictures of the new installation. That’s the moment she feels the peculiar joy of a leader that comes from the intersection of making something beautiful for a customer and making great work for employees.

In addition to my consulting work, my family and I have a side business called Noonday Bread. Our model is unique: We bake two different varieties of bread most Saturday mornings. Our customers (aka Bread Fans) pre-order their bread and pick it up between noon and 3:00 p.m. at a local gourmet shop. Over the past several years, our little venture has helped us meet hundreds of people in our community and has provided excellent life experience for our boys. We use some of the proceeds to support micro-enterprise efforts in the developing world. Unlike a consulting practice, this venture is super-local and super-tangible. My kids can explain it to friends without getting that glazed look a description of my consulting job can evoke.

IMG_4019

Converting a gorgeous hunk of dough into Bundles of Joy…

At Noonday Bread, I love a lot of moments but there are three I live for more than others. The first happens when we’re all in the kitchen shaping bread. A great big beautiful hunk of dough sits in the middle of the table. Upbeat music is playing in the background. Playful banter mixes with the sound of dough sighing as the air is pushed out of it and bench scrapers whack the table. It is a choreography of movement as we work in concert to turn 120 pounds of dough into 100 loaves of deliciousness. I love that moment.

But that’s not the moment…

Next comes what we call the “feeding frenzy.” We bake our bread to order, so most of our bread is sold before we put any ingredients into the Hobart mixer. But since it’s impossible to make exactly 102 loaves, we always make a few extra so that we’re not short. Once we know how many extra loaves we have to sell, we post a message to our Facebook and Twitter accounts announcing to our Bread Fans that we have extra loaves. We invite them to text us if they want to claim one.

Then we wait.

It takes only a few seconds for the phone to explode with life. We usually sell out within minutes. I love that moment.

But even that’s not the moment…

noonday-bread-no-bgAt our pick-up point, customers amble to the back of the shop where we’re set up. Many have a look of anticipation on their faces. We chat for a moment. We confirm their order on our customer list. They enjoy samples of that day’s bread. Then we hand over a super-fresh loaf, peeking out through the small plastic window of the paper bag. Usually, it’s still warm. Many of our customers do something instinctive: they cradle the bread in their arms, a smile of contentment creasing their faces.

That’s the moment I live for. Joy from our customers radiates back on our team. It’s why we call our loaves “Bundles of Joy.”

Light Bulb

The birth of an idea…

I’m lucky enough to have moments I live for when I consult with business leadership on strategy and building effective teams. There’s nothing like the moment when an insight flashes into the mind of a client in a strategy session – when something that was murky is suddenly clear allowing people to turn passion into action. Even better is when that insight helps the team connect their business success with doing something remarkable for the world. It’s a birth of sorts, full of potential and promise and wonder.

Ask your friends and colleagues about the moment they live for. I’ll bet it’s not when they get their paycheck, as good as that moment is. I’ll bet it’s not even when they get personal recognition, though we all like a pat on the back or the chance to walk across a stage. I’m pretty sure it’s not that quarterly review unless they happen to be masochists.

I’d put my money on this as the common denominator behind most moments we live for at work – and elsewhere for that matter. They’re the moments where we’re most connected to service, to contributing to a process that benefits others.

If you’re trying to figure out how to rally your troops around a cause, ask yourself these simple questions:  

  • What are the moments your company lives for?
  • What turns your people on beyond all reason?
  • Whom do they love serving?  
  • How do they contribute to a process that benefits others?

Figure that out and you have a bond that’s stronger than any financial incentive can create. Make it your mission to figure out how to manufacture more of those moments. And by all means, make them for yourself. That’s what will keep you charged up to face the tests that life and work so often serve up for us.

Noonday Sun

Be Bright.

Integrity Test

By: On August 11, 2015

CrossroadsI was in a meeting recently where a leadership team was grappling with their long-term direction. They’re doing what many leadership teams must do – trying to discern how to kick-start growth in their business. It complicates things that they work in the healthcare industry where there’s enough upheaval to make anyone feel queasy.

This has led the team to consider all kinds of growth ideas. In this particular meeting, they were exploring an idea about reaching a particular market segment, one that is super price sensitive. For a company that built its reputation on personalized service, this would be a departure.

We had a few outside experts in the room with extensive healthcare experience. As the meeting unfolded, one expert shared what another company had done to grow profitably in this price-sensitive segment. As she shared the details of the business model, it became clear that this other company had achieved its remarkable growth partly be being a little less than forthcoming with customers. Was it downright dishonest? No. But in the immortal words of one of our past presidents, it may have been truthful but not very helpful.

The punch line of the story was simple: “That company made a ton of money in this segment.”

I sat in the back of the room watching faces, starting with the leader of the business. Curiosity turned to surprise and then to… discomfort? Disgust? It was hard to put a precise word on the facial expressions, but it wasn’t good. It was the same look I see on some face when Donald Trump says how “incredibly proud” he is that he made a lot of money by taking advantage of bankruptcy laws. When someone pulls back the veil on their success and all we see is naked ambition, many of us recoil. We ask that person to please grab a towel and cover themselves.

The facial expressions in the leadership team told me one thing for sure. I knew we had stumbled on a core value. People post corporate values on walls all of the time. Usually they’re lies or wishful thinking. You know you’ve hit a true value when you’re willing to walk away from profitable revenue because the business model doesn’t fit with who you are.

My client’s company has a long history of building trusting relationships with clients and partners. They care deeply about serving others. They aren’t naive. They know that a lot of organizations and people are willing to cut corners with the truth. They know that in some cases – like the one they were hearing about in this meeting – those who are willing to make those compromises have an advantage when it comes to generating certain kinds of results. But they can’t bring themselves to conduct business in that way. It would be false. Unlike Donald Trump, results at all costs would cause them discomfort when looking at themselves in the mirror.

This is an Integrity Test. Integrity is about being truthful and upright. It’s about not fudging your expense report even when no one’s looking.

But it’s deeper than that.

Integrity is knowing what you truly stand for. It’s about grasping your real values – not the motivational posters on the wall – and living by them. Even when it costs you. Maybe especially when it costs you.

In a recent Fast Company interview, Rose Marcario, the CEO of Patagonia talked about the ad her company put out during a holiday shopping season several years ago. “Don’t Buy This Jacket,” the ad blared, showing one of their high-end parkas. Of course Patagonia wants people to buy their jackets. But this wasn’t a clever piece of reverse psychology. Instead, the CEO talked about how the ad reflected the company’s core value of asking each person to have as small a footprint as possible on the Earth. That’s why they repair clothing for customers instead of simply offering replacements. That’s why they get behind low Earth-impact causes even when they have no direct benefit to Patagonia.

Ask yourself and your leadership team:

  • What would we stand for, even if it cost us in the marketplace? Usually those deep values come from somewhere in the organization’s history or the personal stories of founding members. I know of a university with roots in a religious tradition that emphasizes humble service. To this day, they’re drawn to preparing students to serve. They can’t help themselves. And I’m thankful for that.
  • When is the last time we took that sort of stand?  When did you reject a path that may have led to superficial success but would have violated your deepest beliefs? Ironically, Donald Trump is probably facing one of these moments right now. Staying true to what appears to be his core values – including achieving results at all costs within the letter of the law – will likely cost him a bona fide shot at the Republican nomination for President. This is integrity of a sort, though I wish Donald would go to the mat for something more noble than being a good Machiavellian.
  • Where can we demonstrate more integrity? There are few things more galvanizing to a team than the tangible expression of deeply held values. Look for those gray areas you’ve been avoiding, the ones that nag at you because you know they don’t really fit with your highest ideals. Search for the scary opportunity that would truly embody your company’s beliefs but carries risk or makes you stick out.

Noonday Sun
Be Bright.

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, perennially recognized as one of the top Japanese gardens in the world, and featured in garden guides. (See, for example, 55 Stunning Botanical Gardens to See Before You Die. from Emily Moore at Sproutabl.)

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

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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