Critics and Allies

By: On November 28, 2017

If you’re a leader, you’re going to spend the vast majority of your days in meetings. Leaders spend most of their time with others wrestling with tough issues that couldn’t be solved elsewhere and creating a future that no one person could achieve alone.

So, quick: think about the next meeting on your calendar with colleagues at work. When you walk into that room, what will you encounter?

If you’re like too many organizations, that room will be packed with critics. They’ll be impatiently waiting for you to shut your big yap so that they can tell you what’s wrong with your ideas. They’ll relish playing devil’s advocate as if the devil needs any help these days. For every point you make, they will bring a counterpoint.

Even in a room of critics, you can be an ally

If you want to kill a meeting dead, follow the Critic’s Creed:

  • Indulge fantasies of punching, spitting, or escaping the meeting.  You’re activating the reptilian part of your brain. It mostly wants to survive and sit in the sun. It’s guaranteed to escalate or freeze out any real conversation.
  • Hide what you really think and want. This will make everyone wonder what your real agenda is. Your colleagues will watch their backs, their heads on a swivel. Which you think is fun to watch.
  • If you do say something, blur the distinction between data you see and how you interpret the data. Mash it all up so that people exhaust themselves trying to figure out how you got there!?!? That will wear them down and get them back to swinging their verbal fists. Which is what they always wanted to do anyway.
  • Spend a lot of time arguing about who owns what responsibility. Everyone knows deep down that these arguments are really about who gets credit when things go well or blame when they crash and burn. In case they got lax, the self-preservation instinct triggered by this topic will get everyone watching their backs again. #awesome

Critics practice this creed because they’re afraid of losing a zero-sum game they’ve invented in their own minds. They can’t see an alternative of working with others instead of against them. Unconsciously, Critics have adopted the belief system of what Wharton professor, Adam Grant calls Takers.  You don’t need me to tell you that if your culture is dominated by Critics, it will kill innovation and stifle the development of your next generation of contributors. Who would dare trot out a vulnerable new idea or stick their necks out to lead if they’re going to get slaughtered by the Critics?

A room packed with Allies is very different. Don’t get me wrong, Allies aren’t soft. They’re hard as nails on the problem you’re working on together. But they’re soft on the people. Instead of sitting across from you, arms crossed, ready to shoot down your ideas, they’re sitting next to you saying, “Tell me more. I didn’t see it that way. Maybe together, we can make something better happen.”

If you want to bring a meeting alive, follow the Ally’s Action Plan:

  • Monitor what’s going on in your mind, especially your reactions to others. If you find yourself getting angry or wanting to avoid this conversation, use that reaction as a trigger to ask your brain a question that the reptilian brain can’t answer. Something like, “what might lead a rational person like this colleague to hold that point of view?” Give the idea the benefit of the doubt, and forget about whether or not the colleague is rational. It’s an insignificant consideration.
  • Reveal what you think and what you really want and maybe even why you want it. Critics hide what they want to keep everyone off balance. Instead, put your cards on the table because you trust that you’re Allies and that there’s a really good chance you can reach an agreement or a better idea.
  • When you speak, use the four magic words. This will help others separate what you see from what you believe. It will also help them build on your ideas.
  • Align yourselves on the shared outcome you’re trying to achieve and how each party in the room can contribute to shared success. Spend extra time understanding where different parties must cooperate well and quizzing each other on what each of you must do to make the other successful. Make realistic and value-enhancing agreements – and then deliver on them scrupulously.  

It’s much easier to be a Critic than to be an Ally. It’s much easier to complain about the lousy meetings you have to endure than do your part to make them really productive. If you’re an Ally, you get on the same page faster. You agree to action faster. You learn and adjust faster. You do all of it with less wasteful friction and more creative tension. Put a bunch of Allies together in a culture that values that sort of constructive behavior and you’ll end up with more creative output and more commitment to everyone keeping promises.

And yes, if you’re an aspiring Ally stuck in a Critic culture, you can still make a difference. You have your own sphere of influence. You can find other Allies and do everything possible to work with them. You can model Ally behavior knowing that some current and potential Allies will find you.

At the very least, you will become one of those people about whom others in the organization will say, “She’s a tremendous colleague. We do our best work and feel best about ourselves when she’s involved.” That has potential for influencing others to come out of the shadows and join you.


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 Money and Do Good at the Same Time

By: On September 6, 2016

When is the last time you changed the world and made a profit at the same time?

Chelsey is a new friend of mine who helps lead Medicare Operations at one of the biggest health insurance companies in the US. I know health insurance companies are about as popular as airlines, cable operators, or the IRS. I’ve had my own choice words for them in the past when I endured seemingly endless runarounds to get what I believed was reasonable treatment for myself or my family.

But Chelsey’s story illustrates beautifully how a switched-on leader can find opportunities to serve the common good and the bottom line at the same time, even in an industry many assume is only driven by profit. Her division has roughly 8000 call center agents mostly serving Medicare Advantage members. If insurance companies understand one thing, it’s numbers. For years, the numbers told them that they could save a lot of money if their members would get routine and early screenings for common diseases such as colon cancer and breast cancer that often afflict these populations. Early intervention is generally more effective and much less costly than dealing with a late stage diagnosis.

While these numbers were well known, the company was frustrated with their progress in getting members to get these screenings. Like most of us, senior citizens tends to ignore written pleas. The best chance to influence them is to have personal contact with them, especially with someone who has insight into their medical condition.

That’s where the call center agents came in. Since they field hundreds of thousands of calls a month, why not have these call center agents encourage screenings while on the phone with members?

Not so fast. The insurer tried many ways to get call center agents to have these conversations. They gave agents talking points to pitch with members focused on the Star rating system Medicare uses to evaluate program quality. They emphasized the value to the company of getting members to be screened. They even put incentives in place for employees. No dice. Despite all of management’s efforts, the call centers were only generating 450 screenings per month.

Then Chelsey’s team had an idea. They knew from talking to doctors and actuaries that the numbers were straightforward. For every 100 colonoscopy screenings her team could get members to complete, a life would be saved. For every 556 breast cancer screenings performed, a woman’s life would be saved.

Would you like a colonoscopy with that?

“Would you like a colonoscopy with that?”

The team thought about what motivated – or could motivate – a call center agent to have a personal, slightly invasive conversation on a topic that most of their members would rather not have. After all, “Would you like a colonoscopy today?” is a little different than offering someone fries with their burger. That motivation was probably not the company making a lot more money. Most call center agents feel galaxies away from the corporate suites where financial returns matter.

But maybe, just maybe, focusing agents on saving lives would grab their attention more than saving a buck.

That’s how the Save a Life campaign started. Over the next few months, the leadership team clearly communicated the facts to the call center staff. In small groups around the company, senior leaders shared the potential impact a call center agent could make in the lives of members by scheduling preventive care appointments. The leaders themselves connected emotionally to this effort – and dared to show that gut level passion to their people.

This changed everything for the employees. They started to see their job not as just any old call center rep, a role most people don’t aspire to as they grow up. They began to view themselves as advocates who were saving lives of their members. Agents talked to Chelsey and her team through tears as they began to understand the power of their role.

The numbers were impressive. Over the course of the campaign, the call center operation went from generating 450 to up to 38,000 screenings per month. Yes, this will save the company a boatload of cash. That’s good for the company and its shareholders – and not too shabby for the broader healthcare system. But if the actuaries’ numbers are correct, they’ve already saved hundreds of lives this year that would have been unnecessarily lost to these diseases. Members have written numerous notes – some even the old-fashioned hand-written ones – expressing thanks for how the company has helped keep them healthy.

As icing on the cake, there was an unanticipated benefit. The employee engagement scores for the call center team rose by a staggering ten points on a 100-point scale. Anyone who operates a call center will tell you that keeping agents engaged in what can sometimes be repetitive and thankless work is super challenging and incredibly valuable since engagement is one way to reduce costly turnover. They’ll also tell you that bumping your scores by ten points in one year is beyond remarkable.

Working for the good of others and making a profit don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Doing both requires switched-on leaders who reject the notion that organizations are machines and that people are purely coin-operated. That leader could be you.

Noonday Sun

Be Bright.

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.


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.

Four Reasons I Hate Lists

By: On October 23, 2013

An executive I was coaching needed to dig his way out of a serious credibility problem with his boss. When he had joined the company 18 months before, he replaced the entire team while his boss smiled and nodded her approval. Now, there was a culture of infighting and it was creating an environment that produced poor results. The boss wasn’t smiling anymore. This leader’s credibility stock was tanking with his team, his peers, and his boss. During our work together, he stopped me one day mid-session and said sardonically, “I’m waiting for the magic.” He wanted me to give him the simple trick for reversing his way out of a land-mined cul-de-sac.

He wanted a list. Steps he could cross off. Maybe something he could blame if he took those steps and still had a credibility hole. Like most of us, he wanted quick and easy learning.

Lists are great for some things: buying groceries, packing for a vacation. But if lists really had impact, we’d see an explosion of positive change every two minutes as people read the latest listy advice.

Slide2Most of the really important issues we face aren’t simple enough to be solved by a nice, neat list of actions. Instead they require a change in mindset and approach that can take months, years, even decades, to manifest. I made a list of those mindsets and approaches that you need to adopt. And I made a list because if I didn’t, you wouldn’t read this piece. But just so you know, I’m hating every minute of it.

  • Important issues require reflection. In a world that glamorizes action, reflection gets a bad rap. Heroes don’t sit around pondering their situations. They leap into action. But wise people know that sometimes you need to step back. You need to see your situation from above, to have an altitude adjustment. My executive client needed to understand why he had a credibility deficit – and to really own his part of the problem – if he was to have a prayer of digging out of that hole.

  • Reflection leads to insight. When you step back long enough, you start to see the root causes of the challenges in front of you. If you’re fortunate, you see how those causes might be interconnected. While it might not lead to a magical solution, you will at least see the likely consequences of the possible paths and be prepared for those challenges. My exec client faced thorny choices to deal with the performance problems on his team. There were no easy, painless options – only tough trade-offs and hard work. He wanted a simple solution that avoided those nasty choices. Lists provide us with the illusion of that simplicity, but simply delay the inevitable.

  • Slide1Insight leads to deep changes in beliefs so that the behavior change sticks. Lists are almost always behavioral. My client needed to challenge his belief that he couldn’t survive without the problem team members who were creating the infighting. Armed with a belief that his leadership team could figure out a way to cover those responsibilities if those team members refused to change, he would have been able to go after the issues boldly. Otherwise, he would make false starts and fall off the wagon further damaging his credibility with his team and his boss.

  • Lists tend to dis-integrate issues. But really vital issues require coherent action across multiple domains. What we do in one area must reinforce what we’re doing elsewhere. Otherwise our effectiveness leaks out all over the floor. My client would have had a chance if he had made several coordinated moves designed to get his team on-side – and preparing for the possibility that they wouldn’t.

Lists can make complex things appear simple. But we too often confuse simplicity with practicality. And there’s no replacement for hard work whether you slap that hard work into a list or not.

Four Alternatives To A Shouting Match

By: On September 17, 2013

You’ve been here: You’re working on a critical issue facing the organization in a cross-functional group. Maybe it’s something important like the freaking future of the company. The work of this group matters not just to the participants, but to many people who weren’t on the invitation list. And then Group Member A puts forward an idea, maybe one that would require Group Member B making some sort of change. Group Member B starts shaking his head before the thought is even on the table.

If this happens once, it’s no big deal. But sometimes it happens again. And again. And again. Over the course of a day, the pattern becomes ingrained. She says black. He says white. She says oil. He says water. Maybe the meeting is supposed to last an hour or a day, but it soon feels like a month-long hostage crisis. It may turn into a shouting match or devolve into a brewing cold war of nasty looks and snarky hallway comments, but you know one thing: nothing creative is going to happen between them and they run the risk of screwing up the atmosphere for everyone else as well.

We live in a country where this lousy way of interacting is not only becoming normal, but people make good money off it. And it’s bad. We have serious, complicated problems that require the constructive friction that comes from listening to each other, stretching our own thinking, and taking productive action. Instead we get Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, and almost any comments page on many major news outlets filled with shouters. Shouting is entertaining – in a very Jerry-Springer-toxic way – but it rarely convinces. Shouting just stirs up the people who are already on your side to similarly mindless action. It’s about inciting the mob to riot.

Well, while our organizations – and our country – need plenty of revolution, rioting is rarely the way to build something beautiful. Because shouting and rioting always involve the making of winners and losers, insiders and outsiders. You don’t have to be a PhD in neuroscience to know that the human brain doesn’t do its best creative work with a gun to it. It strikes back. It runs. It shouts. It doesn’t paint a Picasso.

Next time you’re in the room and you can see the hot or cold shouting match brewing, you could try a few things: Start with yourself and the role you’re playing in this made-for-Wolf-Blitzer moment. How are you contributing to the shouting? Are you one of the shouters? Are you the host purposely throwing them into the cage to fight for sport? Are you an audience member alternately thinking “Oooh!” and “Ewww!”? Are you in the crowd, but just trying to keep your head down?

  • If you’re one of the shouters, stop and breathe. Ask yourself a question that your crazy-talk-show-guest brain can’t easily answer. Like, “What positive outcome might this other person be trying to accomplish?” or “What legitimate point might this person have?” Note: it’s hard to do this if you’ve convinced yourself that the other person is a total creep who could never even think of doing something noble. If that’s your mindset, it might be time to change the channel. Will you really get what you want by playing that tape over and over in your head?

  • If you’re the host of the show, take away the rewards for shouting. Move the conversation away from the shouters. Gently, but firmly, tell the shouters – privately if possible – “We have really important work to do here. Your input is important – but the way you’re giving it right now, and particularly how you’re interacting with Member B over there is hurting our chances of getting that work done.”

  • If you’re one of the audience members, at the very least starve the shouters from any reinforcement. Deflect their snark-tank comments on break. Refuse to be drawn into the personal aspects of the attack. Ask a question that might shock them back into thinking like a grown up, noble human. Something like, “You and I both want to get somewhere on this issue. What do you think the group needs right now if we’re going to get a good outcome?” Draw their mind from attack to service of the common good.

  • If you’re tempted to just keep your head down, ask yourself whether that’s really the best option. How does this scene play out if people like you sit on their hands? Are there others like you in the room? Could you band together and try to influence the conversation to a more productive place? Sure, intervention implies risk and may not be worth it if the powers that be desperately want a chair-heaving shouting match. But is it worth it to stay silent?

If we all rejected shouting as a change strategy – to leave the room when it’s happening, or even better to turn down the volume on the rancor and turn up the volume on the underlying legitimate issues – we’d get more done. And we all know that there is more than enough to do.

Be bright.Noonday Sun


Mandela: The Imperfect Nobility of a Great Leader

By: On June 28, 2013

Like those last bittersweet days before you send a child off to college knowing that family life will never be the same again, the world is coming to terms with saying goodbye to Nelson Mandela. Whether it’s today or next week or next month, it appears we’re in the final days of our time with the one they reverently call Madiba. It’s a good time for taking stock.

Maria, one of my friends at the HIV hospice

Maria, one of my friends at the HIV hospice

I was lucky enough to visit South Africa last year. In a whirlwind week-long experience, I got to see and touch many parts of that complex country: the leafy suburbs of Johannesburg where the wealthy live behind walls and gates while being served by a largely black servant class; an HIV/AIDS hospice where young and old, male and female, mostly black and a few white come with hopes of recovery but too often die; a tent church pastored by a dynamic and courageous black pastor in a township; a squatter camp where 65,000 people live in one squalid square mile and in sight of a gated community with an irrigated golf course.

South Africa’s problems are far from solved. As Bishop Phineas, the black pastor, said, “We have political equality in South Africa. But we are a long way from economic equality.”  You don’t reverse hundreds of years of injustice in two decades.

But stop for a second and imagine what South Africa might be like if it weren’t for remarkable people like Mandela. South Africa has transitioned from minority rule to a fairly stable democracy. There was no prolonged violent revolution after Mandela’s release from prison. There have been no coups. There weren’t the bloody rampages that we might have expected. There is plenty of chaos and difficulty, but it could have been worse.

It could have been Zimbabwe. Look just to the north and see what happens when a different sort of leader seizes control. There, the people have had to endure inter-tribal warfare, terrorizing of the white minority, and complete economic meltdown. Of course, there is more at work here than simply a different leader, but there’s little doubt that South Africa’s trajectory is different at least partly because of the difference between Mandela, Bishop Tutu, et al vs. Robert Mugabe.

Mandela has been far from perfect. He led a violent movement before being sent to prison that planned and carried out terrorist acts. The party he helped lead has experienced corruption and strife. His family life has been marred by marital trouble probably at least partly caused by his single-minded devotion to his cause.

But the man who championed Truth and Reconciliation vs. the alternative of Spin and Retribution has been a gift to us all. Sometimes we equate nobility of character with what people don’t do. They don’t get caught in scandal. They don’t get dirty. They’re prim and remote from the mess. Not people like Mandela – no, we define him mostly by what he did. He has been neither the pinched, religious type who avoids getting dirty nor the flamboyant, self-aggrandizing type who gets involved to boost image or Klout or wealth. He’s not about any of that. Instead, he seems to have simply looked for what needed to be done to serve those around him and gotten on with it.

We all know that’s not normal. And it seems likely to me that his ability to lead that charge with such nobility, such dignity started with the inner work he must have done while in prison. In that cell, he undoubtedly came to understand that he had an important serving role to play if and when he saw the light of day. While that role would not as directly yield him power or vindication as Mugabe’s approach, cooperating with the path of the just through truth and reconciliation conferred on him a benefit far greater than any palace or fortune or sweet revenge. It gave him nobility of character, contentment, and the near-universal respect of the world.

Rest well, Madiba. And thank you for your example.

Be bright.Noonday Sun


The Simple Reason So Much Coaching Is A Waste Of Time

By: On June 3, 2013

We all know that developing the talent in our organizations is a fundamental role of leaders. Yes, yes we know that we should be adding to the bench strength of our organization constantly since one key to long-term growth is having enough talented, switched-on people available to turn ideas into action. We know we can’t delegate the development of people to the HR department. It’s their job to provide top-notch candidates and tools. It’s our job to wield those tools with skill and dedication.

We even put our managers through mandatory training on how to coach people. And I’d bet you’ve been to quite a few of these sessions on coaching. You know the drill:

  • Coaching is about observing someone else doing their job.

  • Your job as a coach is to focus on their behaviors instead of your judgement of their behaviors.

  • And immediately after the observation is done you should offer your team member some feedback. And yes, yes, you probably even know that it’s best if team members give themselves feedback before you offer yours so that they grow in their ability to self-correct when you’re not around.

You’ve heard all of this. You know it. And you probably know something else too…

Everything you just nodded your head to is solid.  But it doesn’t work. Here’s why.

You’ll work with Team Member A on Monday. You’ll follow the four-step (or three-step or ten-step) coaching process you were taught in class. At the end of that coaching interaction, you’ll move on.  After spending Tuesday and Wednesday keeping corporate happy doing reports and forecasts – and getting stuck in the Tulsa airport during a freak snowstorm – you’ll get another coaching opportunity on Thursday with Team Member B. Again, you’ll coach your team member based on that one snapshot, following the recipe in the cookbook. You’ll check that box and go home feeling like you’ve done your leadership bit.

This pattern goes on for a few weeks through a parade of events – off-sites, report writing, presentations to senior management, your kid’s illness – until you find yourself watching Team Member A again several weeks later. You do the coaching drill again, check the box again, and go your merry way.

Someone please put me out of my misery!

Someone please put me out of my misery!

But if you stop long enough – maybe during your next flight delay – you know that things aren’t really getting better. You’re busy. You’re following the coaching cookbook. But Team Member A’s progress isn’t all that obvious despite your efforts.

More disturbingly, despite your best efforts, the performance of the entire team isn’t improving. You know that in the end, you won’t be judged on how many coaching interactions you’ve had. You’ll be judged on results. So you’re tempted to blow coaching off entirely.

Coaching one team member, one situation at a time seems like the obvious way to begin. But if one coaching interaction doesn’t connect to the next one – and if your team’s performance as a whole isn’t improving – then it’s a waste of time. And that’s because you’re taught to do everything backwards. It’s like you’ve just signed up to coach your kid’s soccer team and they’re getting hammered each week but you’re spending most of your time helping Aidan learn to dribble. If the goal is better results for the team, coach the team, not just the individual.

Here’s one way you can coach a team to better results over time:

  • Observe the team as a whole. Don’t be satisfied with one day of observation. Watch long enough that you’re seeing the performance trends. Choose the trend that has the biggest impact or is the most fundamental. Say you lead a sales team.  Maybe you notice that they’re having a hard time getting appointments because they can’t explain what your company does in a simple, credible way. That means they get fewer shots on goal and obviously fewer goals.

  • Find the behavioral key. Ask yourself, “What change in mindset and behavior would help us overcome this hurdle? How can we keep our promises to our customers better and deliver better results for our company?”

  • Track business indicators that would tell you when the team is starting to improve in your selected focus area. In the case of our imaginary sales team, maybe we would track the ratio of calls we make to appointments we set. Bring people’s attention to this ratio over and over.

  • Start to teach and highlight that theme – improving our appointment ratio – repeatedly with the team, both in group settings and in individual conversations.

  • Ignore other stuff. When observing individuals, watch everything but pay special attention to the aspects of their work that affect your thematic focus. You may even choose to ignore other coaching issues for the short term – like that annoying joke John tells to break the ice when he tries to close the sale –  to help the group get traction. While it’s difficult to ignore the other eight things you see in a coaching interaction, there’s nothing like laser focus to get things moving.

  • Note progress and areas for continued improvement as you observe each person so that you can connect what you see in each coaching interaction. It’s powerful to say, “When I watched you try to get appointments a few weeks ago, I saw you struggle to articulate why the customer might want to meet with you. Today, I heard three crisp reasons – and I saw customers’ eyes light up as a result!”

  • Be relentless. Continue in this vein until the team makes solid progress on your focus area – as shown by the indicators you’re tracking.

  • Celebrate. Learn. Choose a new focus area.

  • Repeat.

Ah, that's better!

Ah, that’s better!

I could leave you there, but I’d be doing something that really annoys me – giving you the cookbook answer without providing the underlying rationale that will help you morph the approach to work for you.  So here’s the rest of the meal. If you want to use the approach I outlined above, you need skills.

  • You need to be a keen observer. Obviously, you have to be an astute watcher of your team members as they perform. But deeper than that, you have to be a student of the game  – whether your game is sales, leadership, consulting, or something else. You have to know what good looks like and why good matters. You have to see nuance and subtlety instead of formulas.

  • You need to be an effective communicator. That means that you have to be expert at helping light bulbs go on. If your team members are giving you blank stares, it doesn’t matter how brilliant your insights are.

  • You have to think critically. It’s no easy feat to sift through all of the potential areas of focus, find the vital ones, and link those focus areas to performance indicators.


But don’t stop at skill. You also need a different mindset. Great coaches don’t come to their team at half-time and shout about the score. Even the dullest member of the team knows the score. It’s there on the freaking scoreboard. Great coaches see their roles as helping teams unlock the secrets to performance.

Then go beyond mindset. Great coaches operate from a different motivation. They want to win, but their real buzz comes from seeing light bulbs go on and enjoying the success of others. Tap into that and you’ll start coaching winners.

Be bright.Noonday Sun


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