Why Conflict Matters to Leadership Teams

By: On May 8, 2018

“I think my team is about here on the conflict scale,” the CEO said, drawing an x on the whiteboard.

why conflict matters leadership teams

We had been discussing his leadership team and how he needed them to perform at a higher level if the company was going to achieve its next level of performance and make the impact he dreamed of in the world. The topic of comfort with conflict had come up.

The CEO had put his mental model about conflict on the whiteboard, a simple continuum moving from a group that avoided conflict on one extreme to those itching for a fight on the other extreme. Intuitively, this CEO was arguing for a Golden Mean where people are transparent and comfortable with conflict. His company is based in the Midwest, so it came as no surprise that he placed the majority of his team in the conflict avoiding space on the line.

The question hanging over this whole conversation: why does a team’s comfort with conflict matter? Are people who value conflict just sociopaths disguised in business casual attire?

If you work together long enough, you’ll fight for a variety of reasons.

  • You may disagree on what to do. This is task conflict.
  • You may disagree on how to do something – or how someone should do their job. This is process or role conflict.
  • You may just dislike or distrust someone else. You may pick a fight for fun or to score political points. This is personal conflict.

All great teams welcome the first two kinds of conflict. They see them for what they are, tremendous opportunities to advance the shared agenda of the team. They understand what’s behind these conflicts and how to make them productive.

Productive teams know that task and process conflicts are decisions in disguise. Since a leadership team is the sum of its decisions, you could say that a leadership team is the sum of its conflicts.

Think about the decisions your leadership team has to make:

  • Where are we taking the organization? Where are we not taking the organization?
  • How high should we set our goals?
  • Where will we allocate precious resources to run today’s business and build tomorrow’s business at the same time?
  • What will we stop doing so that we have enough resources to pursue the best outcomes?
  • What do we stand for as a company? What are we willing to do even if it costs us because it’s simply who we are and what we believe?

You could probably fill in another 20 decisions your team faces regularly. You should expect differences of opinion on issues of this magnitude. In fact, it would be a sign of trouble if you didn’t have any tension about these questions.

Conflict has the potential to build or erode a team’s confidence in itself.

That’s because every person on the team is constantly asking themselves a few key questions about their participation on the team.

  • Am I in or out? Do people value me and my input as a colleague?
  • Do I have influence on this team or am I powerless?
  • Will I be able to make my best contribution as a result of this decision or will I be handcuffed?

When a leadership team does decision-making conflict well, team members answer those questions positively even if the decisions don’t always go their way. Do this regularly, and the team starts to feel as if they can take on any challenge successfully. People reinvest that little bit of extra effort into the shared work of the team. That, in turn, makes it more likely that the team is successful tackling the next decision. It’s what turns a group of individuals loosely held together by an org chart into a true team.

When decision-making and conflict break down, team members answer those same questions skeptically. Fail regularly, and the team starts to wonder if they can handle even the simplest decisions as a group. People hold back that extra effort required to make the shared work of the team successful. That, in turn, hampers the team’s ability to tackle the next challenge.

So try this experiment: List the last five decisions your leadership team faced. Note how much conflict you experienced. Flag how successful the decision process was in terms of reaching a decision supported by the team in a timely fashion. Notice how each decision affected the emotional commitment of team members.

And next time the tension is rising in your team meeting, ask yourself:

  • What decision is provoking this tension?
  • How do my teammates’ reactions show their level of confidence in our ability to handle this challenge?
  • In what way is this decision an opportunity to build or erode our confidence in this team?
  • How can I help engage the group in productive decision-making?

By all means, see conflict as decision-making in disguise. See it as an opportunity to stretch yourself personally and your team into the people – and team – you were created to be.

 

Be Bright.

How to Get the Truth When Facing a Big Decision – An Open Letter to the Boss

By: On April 19, 2018

Dear Boss,

If you’re facing a big decision, what you most need now is the truth.  Without the truth, you could easily foul that decision up.

Here’s the bad news: No one tells you the truth.

This may come as a surprise. You think you’re approachable, fair, and level-headed.  Trust me, you’re not… at least not in the minds of your people.

They remember that day a few months ago when you were a mini-Mount Vesuvius and erupted all over them.  They remember the time you heard something you didn’t like and they felt the arctic breeze blow across the conference table, over their shoulder, and down their back toward the place where the sun never shines.

You call yourself intense. They call you volatile. You say you like working with smart people. They say you hang with your cronies. You say you demand excellence. They say you’re a perfectionist.  You say you have an open door.  They say you stuff your ears with cotton.

So when you most need the straight truth, you’re left with something more obtuse.  People are playing each other like backboards, bouncing messages off each other or a subordinate or a consultant and hoping to get the ball to drop through your net.

Each time they open their mouths, they’re thinking about consequences. Rather than articulate, they calculate. Some go silent. Worse yet, others have learned what you want to hear and they’re happy to feed it to you even if it isn’t really true: “You’re right. Alex is a screw-up. And everyone else sees it too.”

Maybe most frightening, those who are most likely to give you a straight shot have stopped short of 100% candor.  They leave out the crucial 11%, quietly hoping you’ll fill in the blanks and covering their bets by not showing their whole hand.  Why risk retaliation when they’re not sure you’re going to go for it anyway?

 

How to Get the Truth When Facing a Big Decision

 

Before you shrug your shoulders and move on, think about the consequences for a minute:

  • Do you ever feel like you’re the one who is pulling hardest on your team? Do you ever get frustrated with the team for not owning the goals that you’ve set? Maybe at this point, they’re in the first stages of resignation.
  • Unless you’re a genius and can make your company’s dreams come true single-handedly, you’re going to need to attract and engage a team of highly talented people to turn the dream into a reality.  You can only play the “it didn’t work out with Mark because he wasn’t a good fit” card so many times. Then, smart people will start to realize that maybe it’s you. Good luck recruiting them then.

You’re probably surprised about this. You might be tempted to forward this note to your own boss or to a colleague.  Before you do, think for a second:

  • Am I getting the whole truth from those around me?
  • If not, how am I encouraging people to hold back?
  • What can I do to increase the level of candor?

Since you have the courage to ask those questions, you probably want to take action.

Here are a few ideas on how to get the truth when facing a big decision:

  • Choose a straight-talking person on your team and take her out for coffee. Ask her an open-ended question like, “What fact is obvious to everyone else but most people would think I miss?”
  • If you’re feeling really courageous, ask her, “What am I doing – or not doing – that has made people hesitant to tell me that truth?” Or, “What’s it been like to be on the receiving end of my leadership these past few months?”
  • It will be tempting to justify, explain, and defend. Don’t. Take notes. Ask curious follow-up questions like, “Tell me more.” Or, “What did you see that made you react that way?”
  • Thank your team member for her honesty.
  • Pay for the coffee.
  • Do something immediately to apply one thing you learned from the conversation. If you want people to keep telling you the truth, please don’t skip this step. If appropriate, publicize your effort to the team member who prompted the insight as a way of saying thanks.
  • Repeat.

Yes, this is vulnerable. It takes time. It takes humility, that most winsome leadership trait. But do it long enough, and the spigot of truth will flow freely. You and your team will make better decisions as a result. You’ll increase the chances that your team will achieve its goals and make an impact in the world. And that makes it all worthwhile.

 

Be Bright.

 

How To Be an Ally Without Being a Chump

By: On February 7, 2018

A while back, I wrote a piece arguing that we should act like Allies instead of Critics with our colleagues. I know you may have been thinking, “But you don’t work with this one scumbag at our company. There’s no way he’d be an Ally. And if I act like an Ally with him, I’ll end up just being a Chump.”

This might end very badly…

No doubt, there are special cases where a particular colleague defies your attempts to be an Ally. They may not have it in their mental models that being an ally is even possible in a work setting. They may believe that work is a big reality TV show and that they have no real choice but to survive at your expense.

Even in this situation, you do have options besides reverting to being a jerk at work:

  • Embrace the challenge. You can view this situation as a workout for your soul. We all know that we learn more from hardship than from comfort. Perhaps having this Critic in your life is a way for you to learn patience, the ability to unhook yourself from their critique, and the skill of not retaliating.
  • Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Ask your brain the question, “What might lead a reasonable person to act this way?” There are usually multiple possible explanations, not all of them sinister (see Hanlon’s Razor). Even if you’re not sure the other person is reasonable, this question forces your mind to soften. Soft minds have a better chance of making good calls than brittle minds.
  • Ignore the hostility. It’s amazing what you can accomplish by doing nothing. You can defuse the Critic’s negative attempts to influence or at least be wise to their methods.  William Ury, a master negotiator, tells a story about a time when a political leader spent the first hour of their meeting berating him and the other side for perceived wrongs of the past. Ury said, “I take your candor as a sign of friendship. Thank you for telling me what you think.” This immediately defused the situation because he sidestepped the leader’s attempt to control the tone of the meeting.
  • Engage in supportive confrontation. Originally described by David Bradford and Allen Cohen, this is an approach where you try to help the other person see that what they’re doing won’t get them what they want – or at best, it will get them what they want at great personal cost. The key here is that you’re saying to them (and yourself) that the easy thing to do is to avoid this conversation but that you care too much about the work you have to do together to take the easy way out. Notice you don’t have to care about them personally, although it wouldn’t hurt.
  • Enlist the power of the group. Critics lose their power when the rest of the group ignores or counterbalances their critique. Try creating an atmosphere where the silent majority is drawn out to balance the vocal critic. If you try this, attempt to provide the Critic with a bridge back to the group. Otherwise they’re bound to get more isolated and combative when they sense that the group is immune to their attempts to influence.
  • Collaborate with influencers. You can escalate the issue to leaders who may be able to influence the other person or even remove them from the situation. Of course, you’re now raising the stakes. Be sure to attempt at least one of the approaches above before escalating the issue. Any savvy leader will ask you, “What did you try already to address this situation?” Have a solid answer or risk just looking like a whiner.
  • Leave the room. If all else fails and a Critic is persistently affecting key parts of your work environment, you may be able to find ways to remove yourself from the situation. In extreme situations, this may mean quitting your job. More often, you may be able to limit or eliminate interaction with this person in your current role.

One last thing: I’m definitely not saying that anyone should put up with abusive colleagues or that a difficult person is the same as exploitive and abusive behavior. Let’s call those things what they are: completely unacceptable.

But if your colleague is temperamental or troublesome instead of exploitive or abusive, these may be strategies you can use to deal with them while becoming the person you were created to be. And that would make the hardship worth something.

Be Bright

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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Are You Starring in Leader Theater or Are You Building a Team?

By: On October 17, 2017

Karen sits in her office, slightly baffled. She’s in the middle of a major change initiative designed to dramatically improve her company’s cost structure. All along, she has been out in front of this initiative, explaining it, selling it, cheering for it. She made promises to the board.

But the results are stuck. Instead of moving up and to the right, the trend lines are flat. She walks into the executive board room and sits at the seat unofficially reserved for The Big Cheese. Around the table are key members of her organization: the CMO, CIO, VP of Sales, and head of operations. Everyone is smiling and nodding as her chief of staff opens the session.

And then this happens…

What’s about to happen is predictable if not particularly productive. It’s Leader Theater complete with assigned seats, scripts, and an open caffeine bar.

In this highly staged art form, the team members carefully tell The Big Cheese exactly what they want to hear. Sure, it would give the crowd a bit of a buzz if someone broke from role or fluffed their lines. But that’s hard to do. The group has rehearsed this bit of stagecraft for a long time. They’ve studied their characters so much that they’ve actually started to become these characters. Besides, everyone knows that you shouldn’t tell your boss the truth at work. (Or should you?)

You might be tempted to think that the team members are cowards. I don’t think so. I think they’re smart. They know there’s a script.  Big Cheeses love it when you follow the script. They can get a little testy when you don’t.  Here are the cue cards people see the Big Cheese lay out.

  • It starts with the entrance and place on the stage. They sit at the end of the board room table. If they’ve watched too many mobster movies, they choose a seat with their back to a wall, preferably where they can see the door. There will be no surprises.  
  • The Big Cheese asks questions like, “Don’t you think people are really on board with the direction we’re heading as a company?” These questions have obvious right answers. Given the power difference and the public forum, who is going to take The Big Cheese on?
  • The Big Cheese talks without listening. It’s clear that there is a stump speech that is meant to pump the troops up. All visible signs in the past five meetings using that speech have been positive. So The Big Cheese stays in safe territory, hitting key points, watching the heads nod like a table full of bobbleheads.

In the unlikely event they make a subtle appearance at the show, The Big Cheese resolutely ignores reactions like fear, sadness, and anger. Privately, The Big Cheese is not quite sure what to do with these primal emotions other than ignore them so that things don’t slow down and get messy. Lord knows, they have enough mess in their life already. Better to avert the eyes.

This script, all too familiar to many of us, is just a symptom of a leader who has forgotten a fundamental organizational reality. My friends Eugenio and Kevin from Quarto Consulting call this phenomenon The Cloudline. Like a tall mountain, any organization will feel different depending on where you sit in the organizational structure. Those at the top are often above the cloudline. Things are clear. The sun shines. Yes the air is thin but you can see for-e-ver. Farther down the mountain, there’s weather – clouds, rain, mud. If you’re lucky, you can see your hand in front of your face.

When The Big Cheese refuses to descend into the weather – to slow down, to notice, to be curious – she’s missing out on the reality that most of the organization experiences each day. She may enjoy the sunshine, but she’s going to be pretty lonely up there. It will be hard to get things done. Once she leaves the room, everyone will exit stage left and go back to everyday life, pleased that they crushed that little scene of Leader’s Theater.

This is how so many leaders get nasty surprises. They leave the room thinking everyone is on board only to find out later that people were just reading from the script. Too many strategies die as a result. Too many organizations make less of a dent on the world. That, to paraphrase a certain Big Cheese, is #sad.

In case you’re feeling a little smug right now, wondering if you can cleverly forward this post to a Big Cheese in your world without getting fired, pause for just a moment. Chances are, you’re a Big Cheese in some arena of your workplace or personal life. Maybe, like me, you recognize a little Cheesiness in your own approach and behavior.

If so, the prescription is simple, though not easy:

  1. Slow down and come down below the cloudline. You can’t descend safely without reducing speed. Next time you’re leading or attending a meeting as a Big Cheese, take a deep breath. Remind yourself that speed kills.  Think through who is going to be there. Put yourself in their shoes and ask, “How would I see this situation – and me – if I were in their place?” Based on what you discover, be ready to answer the normal questions they probably have about you and this situation as a way to open up the interaction. It’s amazing what a little empathy can do.
  2. Notice what you’re noticing. As you interact with others, take snapshots of the scene. Look for things that stick out to you. Then look one more time for things you might have missed on first inspection – a person’s expression, their fidgeting when you say certain things. Avoid judging, fixing, or even pointing out what you see. Just log it away.
  3. Be curious. Ask at least one question for every statement you make. Make them questions that do not have obvious answers. Questions like, “Help me understand what you’re seeing.” or “What would have to be true for that idea to be truly great?” are curious questions. When a response signals that another person may care more about a topic, gently dig into it simply to understand. Yes, this means you may have to wait minutes, hours, even days before you give your counterpoint to their point. That will be time well spent.

This may feel like it’s going to slow you down. But it’s almost always another example of the old wisdom, “When you slow down, you go faster.” Because avoiding Leader Theater will allow your team members to show you things you may otherwise have missed. Those perspectives are likely key to your organization’s success. That’s the kind of show we all want more of.

Be Bright.

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When Getting Sh*t Done Doesn’t Get It Done

By: On October 2, 2017

Matt is a high achieving, high potential leader at a fast growth company. His job requires him to pull together the efforts of multiple groups – marketing, sales, operations – to achieve the company’s quarterly goals. It’s a process that naturally creates friction as he asks colleagues to make adjustments and compromises, not all of which are welcome or convenient.

Matt’s bosses put him in this role because he can be, well, assertive. They know it’s a tough job but that Matt is results-oriented. Failure is not an option. A little friction doesn’t bother the bosses as long as the noise doesn’t get too loud.

In Matt’s work life, a pattern has emerged. It all starts with Matt arriving in a whirlwind, fresh off a breathless commute on crowded expressways. He walks from the parking garage to his office, and there waiting for him is Maya, his assistant. She tells him that a fire is burning, that the CEO and Matt’s boss want to see him. Pronto.

They call Matt into a hastily convened meeting in the hipster board room. There’s a performance problem and they need it fixed so that the company can hit the quarterly targets they promised the all-powerful analysts on Wall Street.

The execs turn to Matt expectantly. He knows what this means. While he didn’t create the problem, it’s now his big smelly bag of dirt.

“Figure out a way to make this happen,” they say as they are hustled from the room by a frantic-looking executive assistant whose unenviable job it is to keep this crew on schedule.

“Oh,” the CEO says as he’s leaving the room, “keep the reasons for this move quiet. We don’t want to have any leaks to the Street.”

Matt starts running the numbers immediately in his head. His brain is a big, fast processor legendary in the company for its ability to grind through data and get to solid answers. By the time he’s hit the restroom and gotten back to his office, he has a pretty clear picture of what needs to happen.

It’s going to be ugly because the moves he will suggest directly contradict what many employees were asked to do last week. Nothing makes people crazier than rapid changes of direction that lead to dumping a week’s work in the garbage. But that’s life in the fast lane.

It’s right here where Matt faces a choice: leave his soul locked firmly in his glove compartment or let work be a laboratory for his soul. Let’s imagine what happens depending on which choice he makes.

Option 1: Business as usual

Imagine a day where Matt just goes about his business with his soul stuffed safely in the glove box of his Mercedes.  When he hits his office, Matt is all action. He starts by whipping off emails to several people around the organization, asking them to re-direct their actions toward the new directive from on high. Since speed matters, he skips a few levels in this communication, in several cases bypassing his peer group to get to their people who actually do the daily work. Since confidentiality matters, he’s light on the reasons behind this hard right turn.

It only takes a few minutes for the first email response to come back from one of the troops. The message is simple: “Ummm… Huh? Seriously? Why are we doing this?” Matt sends off a curt email that mostly says, “Get moving. Because I said so.”

Not long after, Matt gets his first email from Atul, a peer who runs a key marketing function. Edited for content, the message is direct: “WTF?” Atul doesn’t understand why the sudden change of direction – and he disagrees with it. With a teeny bit of energy.

Though Atul doesn’t mention it directly, Matt is pretty sure the folks in the trenches are complaining that the directives are going to make them waste a whole bunch of work. In an attempt to mollify their troops, Atul and other peers are pushing back. They’re miffed that Matt has gone around them and in the process stirred up problems in their teams.

Matt can feel the irritation rising. Like a quarterback running the play given him in a long-yardage situation, Matt doesn’t think it’s worth wasting time bitching about it. The play clock is running. Get to the line of scrimmage. Run the play. See what happens. Then get ready to run the next play. We can peer at the game film later. Right now, it’s time to get moving.

As he reads the steady stream of emails on his phone between meetings, he mutters to himself, “Quit complaining! We’re in this mess partly because you didn’t execute your part of the original plan. We can’t control it – so just run your part of the play. And don’t worry, it will change again in a couple of weeks. So get the hell over it.” Of course, he doesn’t say this directly to his colleagues, but it’s the script playing in his head.

In an unrelated meeting that afternoon, the topic bubbles up with a couple of peers. They challenge Matt on whether the current U-turn makes sense. With blunt force analytical trauma, he puts them right back on the defensive with equal parts data and passion. After the first 30 seconds of his barrage, his teammates switch to sullen resignation.

As he’s driving home, Matt takes a certain amount of satisfaction in knowing that he had man-handled the messy challenge given to him by the CEO. He takes no particular joy in pissing people off. But given a less-than-perfect situation, he had made the best of it. And he knows he has cemented his reputation as a get-it-done guy with the CEO, never a bad brand to have.

In three other cars and on one commuter train heading out of the city, his colleagues are going home bewildered and frustrated. One of them says to herself, “I want to believe there’s a good person inside Matt. But I don’t see it very often.

Option 2: Matt sees work as a laboratory for the soul

Let’s run that same day with Matt’s soul smack dab in the middle of the story. Although Maya sees Matt come through the door at the same time of day, what she may not see is that he spent a very crucial fifteen minutes in his living room at home before heading to the office. During that time, Matt pulled out a black notebook and did a brief inventory of the day before.

He played back the interactions and challenges he faced. He asked himself what was going on inside him at key moments in the day, how his thoughts and internal reactions (aka *feelings*) shaped his behavior for good and bad. He made a mental note to thank one colleague for going above and beyond the call of duty, and apologize to another for a careless comment he made.

In his Mercedes SUV on the way to the office, Matt consciously chooses to back off the speed. He allows people to cut in front of him. He goes in a slower lane instead of weaving to find the optimally fast route. He knows that he’ll arrive at work within 2-3 minutes of the same time no matter how aggressively he drives. He also knows that hurry is one of the great destroyers of the soul.

Driving peacefully – or at least as peacefully as you can on a major city’s expressways in rush hour – costs you a few minutes. In exchange, it forces you to remember what’s important and it allows you to slow your own thoughts down. It’s also a good way to practice putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, imagining what might be going on in someone’s life to make them drive like an idiot. He chooses to wish the best for other drivers instead of giving them the one-fingered salute.

In the hurriedly arranged meeting with the CEO, Matt listens carefully. His big processor whirs into action. He can see several alternatives but they all involve difficult trade-offs. There’s no way around that.

It doesn’t take long for Matt to decide on the best course of action – or maybe the least worst course of action. Matt knows that what’s being asked of him will irritate several of his colleagues. Before launching into action, he checks back in with his boss.

“Here’s what I think we need to do,” he says, jumping to a whiteboard. “It’s going to piss some people off but I think it’s the best way to get the result you’re asking for.” His boss listens and gives him that look that says, “Do what you have to do.”

Matt is tempted to leap into the fray. Instead, he makes a quick mental list of the top three colleagues who will likely be affected by his plan. He shoots off a few texts, asking for an impromptu one on one meeting with each.

His first meeting is with Atul. Matt lays out what he can of the situation. Then he quickly comes to the point. “If I’m in your shoes, this plan is going to suck a little because your team is going to feel like we’re yanking them around. Can you think of any better way to do this?”

They talk for a while, each asking the other questions. Matt tries hard to listen, to slow his mind down for these crucial five minutes, to unplug the part of his mind that says, “I have all of the answers already.”

Unconsciously aware that he’ll be replaying this meeting the next morning in his little black book, Matt observes Atul carefully, almost as an independent third party in the room. He notices small facial expressions that he would have missed in the old days. This slower pace helps him remember that Atul’s mother is in the hospital, a detail he could easily have forgotten in the heat of the moment.

Finally, Atul pauses for a moment. He’s clearly not happy but he appreciates that Matt is taking the time to ask his opinion – and to acknowledge the situation is suboptimal – before moving forward.

“No. I don’t like it. But I can’t see a better way.” He pauses for a minute. “Can you at least tell my team why we’re making this change?”

“What I can tell them is that we need to change the mix of our marketing emphasis. I can’t really give them more detail than that. I think you know why. I’m really sorry.”

Atul gets it. It’s not his first day on the job. He nods his head. “OK. Let’s do the best we can. Just copy me on the email. And if you get big pushback, let me know before you drop the hammer.”

“Of course.” Before leaving, Matt shares how he’s planning to message his emails with Atul and gets a few pointers on how to position the information that will minimize the stir below them.

The rest of the meetings go pretty much the same way. No one is doing cartwheels. But they all appreciate that Matt looped them in and showed that he had thought about how this move would affect them and their teams.

Matt now moves into action. He writes his emails to the junior teams, taking the extra minute to read them over while imagining his colleagues seeing them. He makes a few adjustments and hits send.

Despite his hard work, Matt gets a few emails and texts back from team members questioning the move. He feels the irritation beginning to rise inside, especially given the fact that he had taken the step of talking with his peers. But he takes a deep breath and resists the urge to fire off a nasty-gram. In a couple of cases, he gets up from his desk and walks across the office to speak to those who were pushing back, trying to acknowledge their concerns while gently sticking to his guns.

At the end of the day, Matt drives home and thinks back on the day. He’s largely thankful – for the opportunities he has, for the relationships he’s built, even for the challenges he faces since he knows they’re pulling the best from him.

He makes a mental note to thank two people at work for little moves they made today toward working together and away from the normal dog-eat-dog approach. Yes, there are a few things he’d take back and one or two apologies to make tomorrow. But all in all, he sees progress in how he reacted to events beyond his control. He still got the plan in motion.

To be fair, Matt’s soul-centered approach has costs. He spent more time up front bringing his colleagues along. He invested time before that paying attention to his thoughts and reactions – and practicing the fine art of slowing down. These actions made small differences in this one day. But this is the long game he’s playing, at work and with his soul. Many small steps in the right direction gets you up the mountain.

The next morning, he’ll start the day in his living room with his little black notebook. He’ll have good things to write down. He’ll refocus for that day.

Step back from those two scenarios and look at what choosing Option 2 will mean for Matt. His relationships at work will be less guarded and more straightforward. He’ll spend less time calculating and playing the angles and more time getting work done. He’ll have more relational credibility in the bank for the day when he has to ask for a favor, something we’re all bound to need eventually. He’ll more easily see someone like Atul as a real human being with understandable human issues. When he realizes that part of Atul’s reaction may be caused by a personal issue like his mother being the hospital, Matt won’t feel like so much of a jerk. In a counterintuitive way, Matt will end up being more efficient in the long run even if there are moments where a slower approach will frustrate him.

The benefit doesn’t stop there. Using work as a laboratory for the soul almost always translates to the rest of life. Matt’s family will benefit from the exercise he’s giving to his muscles of observation, empathy, and humility. He’ll be able to tell his wife and kids that he’s wrong without gritting his teeth so much.

And of course, Matt will benefit in his relationship with himself. He’ll know deep down that he’s not just a tool for his bosses – what I call a Useful Asshole – to get dirty work done. He’ll know that he’s a secret agent of good in a world that needs an army of them. Maybe best of all, he’ll begin to become forgetful of himself and experience the joy of focusing on others. He’ll take that mission very seriously while not taking himself seriously at all.

I could end there, but I want to make sure you don’t miss something very important. Option 2 is not about more clever techniques to get others to do what you want, or methods for being popular at work. Yes, you probably will be more productive and your relational stock will likely rise.

But Option 2 is fundamentally about seeing work as one of the greatest opportunities for inner transformation any of us ever has, as a laboratory for the soul. Treat work with that kind of reverence and it’s hard for things to turn out wrong.

Be Bright.

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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

Ted Does TEDx

By: On April 24, 2017

Bread Dude hits UW Madison

What would you talk about if you were invited to speak for no more than 18 minutes to 100 bright university students? At 10AM on a Saturday morning? In December? In balmy Madison, Wisconsin?

That was the challenge I faced after exchanging emails with a client’s daughter who was running the TEDx conference at UW Madison last December. Given my first name, I’ve always wanted to do a TED talk. I would even have considered changing my middle name to Xavier so that I could legitimately do a TEDx talk.

Now it was right in front of me and I had to find an angle.

I puzzled for a few weeks, pretty sure that trying to wow students with my insights on strategy or how executive teams work would be a real snoozer for 20-somethings who had wrestled themselves out of bed on a wintry Saturday morning. But I never learned to juggle. I haven’t cracked the code on cancer. I’m nowhere close to figuring out how to get to Mars. I didn’t think I had anything dazzling to say.

Then, while talking with my friend Amy, it hit me. After 25 years in the everyday work world of organizations big and small, what do I know now that I wish someone had told me when I was 21? Or 25? Or maybe even 30? Heck, what do I still have to remind myself about even as my wife reports I have a growing bald spot and my goatee threatens streaks of grey?

The theme of TEDx UW Madison was “Thinking Differently,” so I chose to tackle thinking differently about being happy at work. Just a teeny, tiny topic.

For inspiration, I tapped into the adventure my family and I have been embarked on called Noonday Bread. And my dad’s little-known yet inspiring story. And observations from working with hundreds of senior leaders over the past couple of decades, too many of whom are far too unhappy at work.

Stir all of that together, add the yeast of a creative Prezi, let it ferment for a few months and you get this presentation, called Getting the Math Right: Thinking Differently About the Good Life. I hope it challenges you as much as it does me.

And hats off to the group of students who pulled off TEDx UW Madison with such a high degree of professionalism. It was a pleasure to be part of the experience.

Be Bright.

Why Purpose Kicks Greed’s Butt Every Time

By: On May 12, 2016
Sports Car

15-year old fantasies: Fast Cars and Fast Gaming

Recently, my almost-15-year-old son was assigned a project for his computer science class at school. The task was to profile a technological innovation. Several of his friends chose self-driving cars. He considered studying a technology that enables faster online gaming because let’s face it, games are way too slow these days.

Then over breakfast one day, we chatted about one of my clients, Medtronic’s Neuromodulation division. This company creates technology that truly changes people’s lives. Among other things, it helps those incapacitated by movement disorders like Parkinson’s disease return to a much more normal life by implanting a neurostimulator deep inside those people’s brains.

We watched a video that showed the nearly miraculous transformation produced by these devices in the life of an elderly farmer. (Trust me, it’s worth the 2.5 minutes to watch this video – see 1:15 for the patient’s story and 2:00 for dramatic footage of what happens with and without his device activated.)

My son was captivated. Here was a technology that integrated hardware, software, and the leading edge of neuroscience to help a farmer continue his life. Quite literally, this device rescued this man from shame that had prevented him from going out in public and allowed him to return to the farm work that made him feel worthwhile again. With no disrespect to fast gaming, maybe this was a different level of cool.

Yes, Medtronic has to make money. They’re a publicly traded global company with all of the complexities that that brings. Yes, Medtronic employees sometimes forget that they have a larger purpose and squabble over the usual things: pay, status, and budgets. I’ve been at the scene of some of those fights.

But there is a bedrock purpose to the company. While that purpose may be forgotten for a while, it cannot disappear. When unearthed – usually when they see the impact of their products on real people whose lives are restored to health – it snaps those same employees right back to center. It answers why. It puts them in service of others. It calls them away from the self-destructive and self-defeating paths of selfishness and greed.

Your people may be very sophisticated, but deep down they’re asking the same question 2-year-olds ask about everything: Why? It’s a purpose question. The question is simple, even if it’s asked in a variety of ways:

  • Why are we doing this anyway?
  • Why do we get up early and stay late?
  • What difference is our work going to make?
  • Why stay in this organization instead of going somewhere else?
  • Why give the next days, weeks, months, and years of my only life to this effort?

While everyone needs to make a living, please make the answers to your organization’s  purpose questions better than “bags of money.” When you build a culture on greed, people will engage mostly when it’s in their own self-interest. You wind up with a collection of individuals loosely held together by a comp plan. No higher purpose animates team members in those times when no one is watching and it’s hard and there’s no clear path to a material reward. That’s a lot of the time if we’re honest with ourselves. And yes, you could substitute fear for purpose as the foundation of your culture. Perversely, it will work for a while. But fear is a short-term motivator.

How much better to have a noble purpose that calls people beyond their baser selves? When you have that in place and people really get it, you start to see things happen:

  • "You guys suck!" Hmm - can you be more constructive with your feedback?

    “You guys suck!”
    Hmm – can you be more constructive with your feedback?

    You attract leaders who inspire others, like the hospital CEO I met who has his personal email address on the hospital’s homepage. He gets every complaint and comment delivered to his inbox and responds to each. Recently, a patient submitted feedback simply saying, “You guys suck!” He shocked her by calling her himself. He listened. He told her that his purpose is to serve patients for life. She was convinced. That’s purpose in action.

  • Your people desperately want to be at the scene where you live out your purpose. They seek out opportunities to have front row seats for those moments when your organization’s strengths are most in service of others. This is why my friends at Medtronic love hosting patients whose lives have been changed by a device. Seeing someone return to health provides more juice than any motivational speech ever could. That’s purpose in action.
  • Stories circulate about how your organization is living up to its best purposes. Better yet, those stories aren’t drummed up by a marketing team trying to hype the brand. The accounts are organic and often sourced from real customers or partners. I saw this once when a retail store associate was recognized for walking a customer out to her car in the middle of a driving rainstorm. He didn’t have to grab that umbrella and brave the elements. But this organization said that they had the customer’s back and wanted to deliver the world’s best retail experience. Better yet, they lived it at the local level. That’s purpose in action.

This is why purpose matters. Margins enable the organization to continue another day. But purpose? Purpose sustains the organization. It holds a group together when the pressures of the real world push on it. It gives them something beyond self to invest in. It instills nobility to work.

Noonday Sun

Be bright.

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