Art of Managing—Moving Beyond A Failure to Execute

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management termsThe Art of Managing series is dedicated to exploring the critical issues we face in guiding our firms and teams to success in today’s volatile world.

Ram Charan writing in his article, Conquering a Culture of Indecision (found in the HBR 10 Must Reads on Making Smart Decisions collection), offers, The single greatest cause of corporate under-performance is the failure to execute.”

While there’s a Thanks, Captain Obvious, feeling inherent in Charan’s statement, it’s his explanation that should give most corporate managers a cause to pause and even squirm just a bit.

I paraphrase: Such failures (to execute) usually result from misfires in personal interactions…and it’s these poor personal interactions that perpetuate a culture of indecisiveness.

Charan goes on in this very useful article to focus on the issue of building a culture to promote the right type of honest, robust dialog that leads to decisions.

There’s little doubt in my mind that decisions are the fuel that creates locomotive power in organizations and that high quality dialog leads to better decision-processes. The absence of timely and unified decisions on direction and priorities, not only sustains the status quo, it creates a corporate trap where people act like there feet are encased in cement blocks. Movement slows and when it occurs, it’s disjointed and short-lived.

The lack of healthy dialog manifests itself in a variety of symptoms in an organization, however, there are three key contributors to a failure to execute that jump out at me over and over again in my travels:

1. A wholesale failure of senior leadership…from providing clarity on direction and strategy to actively working on building and reinforcing an environment that promotes accountability for execution, learning and continuous improvement.

2. The absence of an empowered and unified middle-layer of management. While senior leadership is again at fault here, the layer of mangers in the middle controls the work that gets done in a firm and often has more power than it understands or uses in pursuit of execution.

3. The lack of creative or productive tension or dissatisfaction on the part of the entire workforce that good isn’t good enough, AND the belief that they are charged with the task of doing something about it.

While it’s easy and appropriate to indict senior management for all three of these contributors to poor performance, the issues tend to be more sins of omission than commission.

Most senior leaders care about their firms, their teams and their results and spend their time working hard in the business. And most middle managers work extraordinarily hard to keep things moving, often while coping with being under-staffed and operating in a state of uncertainty over the bigger picture of the firm and its strategies.

Resolving the failure to execute problem is much more like a long-term fitness program than a quick weight-loss diet. It involves changing the thinking about what’s most important for organizational health and success and doing the hard work of developing new habits that support continuous improvement.

It’s the hardest work senior leaders and managers will ever do.

7 New Habits to Help You Move Beyond a Failure to Execute:

1. Start and sustain a company-wide dialog over direction. Everyone who walks through the door in the morning must know where the firm is headed and why. The lack of context for direction and specifically for how team and functional priorities connect to corporate priorities is a guarantee of poor execution. Fixing this starts with the right, regular conversations.

2. Work hard to link functional and individual goals to the corporate goals. While this sounds like some advice from our friend, Captain Obvious, it’s more the norm that I find firms where corporate goals are vague and there’s little cohesion between individual and functional goals and corporate direction. The failure to align here guarantees failure.

3. Move faster and smarter. Redefine the operating cadence to reinforce communication on performance and to encourage learning and improvement. Consider applying Agile approaches to your operations meetings, where reinforcement and focus on priorities occurs constantly and the emphasis is on identifying and solving problems. Frequency, speed and focused built upon a foundation of accountability…priceless. End the debating society culture that pervades most operating meetings and focus on talking about what it takes for the firm to win…one decision at a time.

4. If you are the CEO, rethink your role. Seriously. If you signed on for the job…all of this is on you. You control the corporate agenda, you are a major contributor to forming and framing the working environment and you own bringing clarity and direction to confusion. If you’re not the CEO help him/her succeed with these important tasks.

5. Give the customer a chair in every meeting. Literally. A nameplate at the table, a stuffed animal or a cardboard cutout…I don’t care how you remind yourself that the customer is present, just do it. If the focus is on new markets and future strategies, these new…even blank-faced customers must be present as a reminder that no strategy works and no execution plan is worthwhile unless it aims to do something for someone who can pay you for it.

6. Invigorate mid-level management. Help them recognize their critical role in execution success and ensure that senior leaders, give them support to improve instead of giving them hell when things don’t go right. If this layer of talent is weak, top-grade the talent to build strong management here. These are your future senior leaders.

7. Get the whole company involved in the wins and the lessons learned. Build the excitement and creative tension to improve by celebrating and sharing the small and big victories. The workforce at large has to buy into the idea that execution and continuous improvement are their responsibility. Management must bring this to life by ensuring that the heroic efforts, great victories and even challenging lessons are made visible as part of the daily culture of the firm.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

There are no silver bullets or simple solutions for business execution challenges. It’s a journey that starts with senior leadership and all of management focusing on what counts…giving clarity to direction and goals and working non-stop to support the people working hard every day who help you move closer to your goals. It’s good, old-fashioned, grind-it-out hard work. But once it starts to take root in your culture, the habits of winning take over and the work doesn’t seem so hard. Just exhilarating.

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Level-Up #2—Reality Check for the New Vice President

levelupThe Level-Up series at Management Excellence is dedicated to supporting the successful identification and development of new executives.

There are few more simultaneously exciting and disorienting experiences in your professional life than your initial promotion to a corporate position as vice president of something.

A Swirl of Emotions:

The promotion feels good personally, because in your mind, it validates your hard work and the sacrifices you made earlier in your career. And it is gratifying that someone or some group thought highly enough of your work and your potential to trust you at this new level. Congratulations!

It’s exciting, because you are confident that now that you have the title and authority that comes with it, and you’ll be able to push through those sweeping changes you know are needed to keep your firm at the top of the industry.

And it’s a bit disorienting, because there’s a lot of “new” involved. Your peers are new. Your routine is new…new meetings to attend, new reports to generate and new goals and assignments from your boss that are a lot fuzzier and more abstract than those you are used to tackling.  A great deal in this new role feels new, but after all, you haven’t made it this far without embracing change. And how tough can it be to succeed at this level? It’s not much different than every other promotion in your career. Or so you think.

And then reality sets in.

4 Hard Facts of Life in Your New Role as Vice President (and a few thoughts on what to do about them):

1. Don’t expect a ticker tape welcoming parade from your new peers. Title offers you admission to but not credibility in the executive ranks. Don’t expect a great deal of start-up help or even attention from the grizzled veterans sitting around the table with similar titles but eons more experience. To them, you’re furniture until proven otherwise.

A key part of early success or avoiding derailment is to prove credible to these brokers of power, influence and resources. Reach out to them individually. Strive to understand their priorities and in particular, their issues/needs vis a vis your resources and functional areas and then deliver help. If they begin to perceive you are serious about being part of the solution, the barriers will crumble and working relationships will form.

2. There is no honeymoon period. OK, I’ll give you until about mid-morning on your first day. After that, it’s, “what have you done for your firm lately?” Moral to the story: if you’re starting in your new role without an understanding of the terrain and challenges as well as the framework for a plan, you’re already behind.

Quickly focus on understanding your priorities. This includes tuning into the metrics your boss uses to evaluate you as well as learning to understand her priorities and goals. It also includes getting to know your new team members and plugging into their world with 3 simple questions: What’s working? What’s not? What do you need me to do to help you/your area with your goals? Remember to do something with the feedback. Quickly.

3. They promoted you because they trust you to make good decisions. Now make some! They might have left out the part about the issues requiring decisions being significantly more ambiguous than in prior roles and the outcomes being much more impactful. Yes, it’s important to be able to select that next market to penetrate or, to choose what products or programs to cut so that you can focus on things that hopefully will bring more value two years from now. Regardless of the ambiguity, you’re on the hook for some good decisions. Now.

It’s time to exercise those decision-making skills I’ve been writing about in at least 924 of my 1,000 plus posts here at Management Excellence. (OK slight exaggeration, but not by much.) Seriously, learn to leverage framing for fun and profit and be careful of the decision traps that bedevil so much human interaction. Learning to make good decisions or, teaching your new team to make decisions is a lot like that fitness program you’ve been thinking about. The view in the mirror doesn’t change unless you do something about it. Read, study and apply the tools of effective decision-making. Teach your teams to talk and frame and debate effectively, and liberally leverage outside perspectives to help or to sanity check. This is the hard work that will either keep you in this role, propel you to the next level or earn a one-way ticket heading in the opposite direction of the C-Suite.

4. Everyone’s waiting to figure out who you are. Seriously, your new team needs to know what you stand for and what your elevation to the lofty new title means for them. As mentioned earlier, your new peers view you as furniture or white noise until you prove yourself and the boss is excited but looking for validation of the decision to move you up. The title is great, the compensation not bad, but the stakes are high.

Accept that you’ve got to prove yourself all over again and get on with the work. The “What’s Working” discussions referenced above, are a great way to break the ice with your team. While it’s tempting to assert yourself in your first executive meetings, my council is to choose your contributions very deliberately and avoid the tendency to sound like a jackass as you share your pent up concerns about how the company is run. Seek first to understand in your new environment and find ways to prove helpful and supportive. The allies you make now will provide the treasure for revolution later on in your tenure.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Congratulations on your new role and welcome to my reality check. You may have just earned the hardest job in the firm. Or, in any firm.

There’s a reality about the role of Vice President in most organizations that isn’t apparent until you occupy the position. You’re sandwiched between the needs and demands of the CEO and the needs and demands of those below you, and they often are at odds with each other. That and the fact that influencing change from your role may well be harder than doing it from the middle of the pack due to the power and politics swirling around the C-Suite, are sobering but real issues for anyone in this role.

Go into your new arrangement with eyes wide open and with the acceptance that the first-time Vice President’s role isn’t a linear extension of your prior role. A beginner’s mind is healthy in this circumstance, coupled with the recognition that you’re on the clock and under scrutiny from above, from the sides and from below. Seek quickly to understand and then leverage your skills for communication and action, all the while forging new alliances and serving a large number of cantankerous constituencies.

It’s simple.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

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An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

Leadership Caffeine—What Frequency are You Broadcasting On?

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine series is over 200 installments strong and is dedicated to every aspiring or experienced leader and manager seeking ideas, insights or just a jolt of energy to keep pushing forward. Thanks for being along for the journey!

In a conversation with a good friend and highly respected retained search professional, the topic of a “leader’s frequency” was raised.

I like the metaphor, although my friend might describe it as much more real than metaphor. For my own interpretation however, I’ll describe the leader’s frequency as that invisible but palpable energy and unspoken message that he or she clearly broadcasts on about their work, their values, their team members and their confidence or positivity in succeeding at the mission. It’s not words…it’s that innate sense of energy and clarity for the work that we perceive when we work with these individuals.

No Static at All:

Jim Collins describes a Level 5 leader as someone whose profound humility and fierce sense of commitment enables them to pick up an organization on their shoulders and carry it through difficult times or from good to great. This leader’s frequency is particularly palpable and free from static. In my own experience, the leaders who stand out…the ones who moved the needle for teams, individuals and organizations all broadcast on a frequency that is easy for us to hear and to understand with minimal amounts of noise to distract us from the message.

Frequency isn’t about volume, it’s about clarity. Effective introverted leaders broadcast on their own, clear, powerful frequency without the noise of their extroverted colleagues. The signal-to-noise ratio is just right for easy interpretation by the rest of us.

For those leaders who are less effective, engaging with these individuals is like trying to tune your car’s AM radio around power lines or when that great song on the FM fades in and out as you move further and further away from the source. You get split seconds of clarity interrupted by static and crossover from other sources. The result is stressful and your reflex is to reach for the dial and change.

Attitude Drives Frequency and Clarity:

What you broadcast and how clearly you broadcast starts with your core attitude. And while we cannot control our DNA, I’m a firm believer that we all control our attitudes. Operate on a frequency with a message that says and shows failure or negativity, and you’ll likely encounter a good deal of both. The opposite holds true, in my opinion, when your core attitude is positive and reflects one of striving for success. The frequency is particularly perceptible when your core belief in success and in the abilities of others to achieve success is strong.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

With apologies to physicists and radio hobbyists for my abuse of the notion of frequency, I still like the metaphor. If one of the definitions frequency is, “the particular waveband at which a radio station or other system broadcasts or transmits signals,” I’m ascribing leaders to “other system.” We all broadcast on our own frequency and the clarity of what is perceived is a function of our own attitudes and of course our core beliefs in ourselves and our colleagues. Those who broadcast on a clear frequency with a message that supports building and growth are the ones who propel organizations and teams.

What are people hearing on your frequency?

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

Level-Up #1—Congratulations on Your Promotion! Now What?

levelupThe Level-Up series at Management Excellence is dedicated to supporting the successful identification and development of new executives.

There are few opportunities in your career that offer greater opportunities for learning, growth and personal and financial reward than your move to executive management.

And while the opportunities abound, the risks to your career from missteps or failure are also very real.

What Got You Here…

Your first job as a supervisor or manager…your first opportunity to lead a high visibility strategic project are all wonderful opportunities bestowed upon you because someone deemed you worthy of trust and capable of success in this endeavor. They viewed you as promising and agreed to give you a chance to showcase your abilities in a role where the tasks and decisions were just a bit less defined or programmed and the challenges of leading and guiding others a lot more complex.

Succeed in these early leadership and senior contributor opportunities and the career elevator climbs, doors open and opportunities abound. Muck them up and well, the elevator slows or stalls. Setbacks are annoying but not fatal to your career during this rise through the middle-layers. A return to an individual contributor role is not out of the question at this time.

You work hard and deliver good results and then for the right reasons, everything changes.

…Won’t Get You There or, Warning, Hidden Curves Ahead!

Your success in middle management earns the trust of the firm’s senior leaders and you suddenly find yourself heading for or elevated to the first rung of executive management. Whether the title says Director or Vice President, you’ve arrived. And you look around and attend a few meetings and talk with your boss…someone with a Senior or Executive label in front of their Vice President title, and suddenly, you realize that you’ve arrived, but you’re not sure where.

Everything is different. The topics of conversation change. They’re much about strategy and execution on a large scale. The challenges that are discussed don’t have easy solutions, particularly the ones you find yourself and your team now responsible for solving. And, it doesn’t take long to recognize that the skills that the dialog and subtle issues of power and politics are very, very different than what you are used to from your time in middle management.

The Cold Slap of Reality Check:

Welcome to your new job, where ambiguity is the order of the day, and in many organizations, you’re suddenly thrust into the business professional’s form of “Game of Thrones” where those who cultivate influence and solve the big problems and move the revenue and profit needles gain more responsibility and by default, more power. And those who have the power seem to be enjoying themselves. You recognize as well that those who don’t adapt to the new environment and contribute will be quickly marginalized or eliminated.

Some enlightened firms offer coaching to their emerging and new executives. Others (read: most) perpetuate the “sink or swim” model of professional development which you likely experienced in your earlier promotions. However, sinking and failing are not great options at this stage, where derailment is costly and recovery a bit more vexing than in your earlier days.

You need to form a strategy that will amplify learning and allow you to win at this new level, where winning is defined by both driving quality results AND cultivating power and influence.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

If you’re motivated by making a difference…leading others, helping people grow in their careers, serving a cause, fulfilling a mission, developing yourself or, simply securing the future for your family, few positions offer more opportunities for succeeding at these items than a role in executive management. However, an important first step on your journey to success at this new level is recognizing that much has changed, from the stakes to the definition of success to the means and tools you’ll use to be successful. Acceptance of this new reality is your first step. Cultivating a strategy to learn, adapt and importantly, generate early victories are all critical to becoming credible in your new role. While you’re experienced and hungry to show what you know, you might just find that the “Beginner’s Mind” is one of your best assets at this early stage.

Upcoming Posts in the Level-Up Series:

  • Reality Check for the New Vice President
  • Why Power and Politics Aren’t 4 Letter Words
  • Setting Your Sights on Senior Management—How to Plan Your Journey

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

Leadership Caffeine—In Challenging Times, Keep Fear and Failure Outside Looking In

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine series is over 200 installments strong and is dedicated to every aspiring or experienced leader and manager seeking ideas, insights or just a jolt of energy to keep pushing forward. Thanks for being along for the journey!

Every organization and every team runs into challenging spots. Life and business don’t always work as planned. “Man plans and God laughs,” as my former CEO would recite.

It’s the rough patches that teach you and require you to cultivate your leadership character, and part of this is keeping fear at bay and the specter of failure out of mind and out of the vocabulary of your team.

Every manager and senior leader looks like a genius when the tide is rising and business is good. All too often however, the rising tide masks the real issues of performance and the gaps in strategy and execution that become painfully visible as the rising tide slows and begins to recede.

The tendency at the initial sign of challenge….a missed quarter or two, or a blown forecast, losing ground to a competitor is to flail. While we don’t set out to flail, a series of knee jerk reactions around cutting costs and killing programs or adopting a series of “short-term” fixes, shout FLAIL to everyone around us.

Once the flailing starts, fear and failure sensing a weakness in the defenses, begin to insert and assert themselves in the minds of your team members. Needless to say, nothing good happens when a team or organization suddenly falls victim to fear.

Deming’s point #8 paraphrased: managers must strike fear out of the organization.

6 Ideas to Keep Fear and Failure On the Outside Looking In:

1. Be open and transparent with your team about the challenges. Nothing invites fear and failure to the party like keeping bad news from people. Everyone knows when things aren’t going right, but what they don’t know is whether it’s bad or really bad.

2. Invite your team to be part of the solution. More than a few leaders have fallen victim to the “I am in charge, I have to come up with the solution” trap. Effective leaders understand the power of harnessing the team’s collective gray matter around key problems.

3. Resist the urge to substitute a well-developed long-term strategy with temporary, short-term compromises. It takes leadership courage to stay the course in the face of short-term headaches…this courage is something that is all too lacking in many organizations.

4. Do recheck the core assumptions around your strategy. While I don’t want you to sacrifice the long-term for short-term, I don’t want you to blindly grasp to something that isn’t as well baked as you might have thought. It’s a good time to review your strategic thinking and then to assess whether the execution approach is serving you well.

5. Redouble your efforts to celebrate victories…even the small ones. Success begets success, and it does nothing but help when you single out the successes during a challenging period.

6. Don’t stop the talent machine. Keep supporting the development and growth of your team members and don’t stop working to get the right people on the bus and those who don’t fit, off the bus. No timeouts on talent allowed!

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Your greatest successes will come from navigating challenging situations. It’s the hard times that require you to operate at your professional best and it’s during these times when you learn what it means to truly lead. Although it might seem odd to suggest it, enjoy the challenges, as you will not pass this way again and you will not find a better teacher.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.