Art of Managing—Shiny Objects and the Senior Management Team

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management termsOne of the value killers found inside many organizations is the out of control pursuit of too many new initiatives. The resultant too few resources chasing too many projects, is a sure-fire way to create organizational stress as initiatives fall short, inefficiencies skyrocket and employees, stakeholders and customers grow perturbed.

In one client firm, the sure-fire path to success was to attach oneself to as many high visibility initiatives as possible, in the hope of being associated with the success of one of them. It was a political portfolio game, with most projects flailing and failing. Nonetheless, the politically charged environment and the visible path to success catalyzed a seemingly endless number of new initiatives designed to optimize the visibility and executive attachment of the idea generator without really focusing on solving critical problems.

The root cause of this undisciplined pursuit of new initiatives rests squarely on the collective shoulders of the management team. Both success and struggle are equal opportunity contributors to this situation.

Success generates the ego that tells management, “we can do no wrong,” and struggle or strategy disappointment (either the idea or the execution) generates political flailing that rationalizes the search for a quick fix.

Another team rationalized maneuvers several degrees off of a still-evolving core strategy in the name of revenue coverage. “Until we figure out the strategy, we’ve got to show growth,” was their mantra. Their lack of discipline led to to a collection of disparate initiatives that struggled for room to breathe in an environment where every idea was good and no ideas attached to revenue were turned away. They failed.

Effective management teams learn to recognize the signs of a breakdown in discipline and they redouble their efforts to promote clarity and minimize the tendency to fill ambiguity with unqualified activities.

These groups recognize the dangers of hubris born of success (Jim Collins) or the tendency to flail in search of quick answers when things go wrong. They understand that they are accountable for setting direction and ensuring that each and every choice to apply company resources must create the right kind of value. And they accept that determining just what the right kind of value truly is, is an exercise that can only be resolved through debate and deliberation.

One particularly effective management team holds themselves accountable to evaluating ideas against the filter of,  “Does it create the right kind of value?” They live by the mantra that not every dollar of revenue is created equal, and they’ve learned to separate interesting ideas from ideas that move them closer towards a desired future state (new markets or new customers). They’ve also learned to effectively and passionately make a case for new ideas and then make a decision and move forward. They credit their success to the senior executive who has worked tirelessly to depoliticize their environment and focus them on moving towards the future.

 The Bottom-Line for Now:

Whether you sit on the senior management team or you sit in the middle of the organization where the real work takes place, strive to cultivate intelligent filters for new initiatives. Anchor to key corporate goals and strategies, and always ensure that your initiatives connect to a real customer…not a customer of myth or imagination.

Ideas are wonderful and you don’t want to stifle their generation, however, not every idea deserves to turn into an initiative. Choose carefully. You need just enough to push the team or organization forward and not too many to promote distress. If the people around you are running around trying to keep the spinning plates from wobbling off of their sticks and crashing to the ground, it’s time to reassess.

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Just One Thing—Cultivate Your Project Leadership Skills

Just One ThingThe “Just One Thing” Series at Management Excellence is intended to provoke ideas and actions around individually important topics. Use them in good health and great performance!

Increasingly, the work of organizations is completed in the form of projects. Strategy is executed in projects. Innovation efforts take on the form of projects. Quality improvement efforts start-out as projects. Even planning the company holiday party qualifies as a project, albeit, a particularly stressful one.

Understanding the discipline and tools of project management is now de rigueur for professionals with any intention of growing in their careers. Whether you are an individual contributor, a functional manager or an executive, it’s great to understand the issues, challenges and practices of delivering projects.

However, when I take a close look at project teams that struggle (and too many do), it’s generally not the misapplication of project management tools or practices that are at the source of the problems. Most often, it’s the absence any visible form of project leadership.

Consider: project teams are generally temporary groupings of individuals with different skill-sets but a shared interest in creating something unique. Often, these individuals have little experience in working with each other, and while they might share an interest in the outcome, it’s dangerous to assume that this group will magically or easily coalesce into a functioning unit capable of navigating all of the issues that arise on teams and with projects.

The Project Manger/Leader is responsible for guiding this team from selection and assembly through the murky woods of learning to act, decide, learn, argue, resolve, create and execute together. And for an encore, they have to coordinate the phases of the project, the use of the tools and the communication and coordination and general herding of cats necessary to move the team forward and keep the stakeholders appropriately informed.

The most successful project leaders I’ve encountered are lifetime students of human nature, relentlessly focused on engaging the hearts and minds of their team members and forming a team environment where the landmines surrounding human interaction can be safely navigated.

These individuals take the time to cultivate their leadership and coaching skills. They develop confidence in delivering tough feedback and they work hard to create visibility for and support the development of their high performing team members.

And along the way, they create remarkable value for their firms, rescuing troubled projects and safely guiding even the most challenging of these activities to success.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Remember to put the “Leadership” into your firm’s project work. If you’re a project management professional, invest in your leadership skills development and put the tools to work to strengthen your performance and your team’s performance. If the project culture in your firm is more informal, remember to bring the leadership focus when it’s your turn to plan the holiday party or plan that new market launch.

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.

Eliminate “I never heard that before” from Your Workplace Conversations

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!

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard the phrase, “I never heard that before,” or, its slightly more grammar challenged equivalent, “No one ever told me that before,” in response to performance feedback.

It’s sad and annoying all at the same time to hear those words. It’s annoying because it tells me that the managers charged with supporting, guiding and developing these valued individuals have shirked their responsibilities. It’s doubly annoying because the effort to deliver constructive feedback is minimal, the techniques to do so effectively fairly easy to learn and the results when done properly, priceless.

It’s sad, because the real victims are the individuals not receiving the feedback they need to grow and improve, and the firms and teams they work for and with who are indirectly penalized with suboptimal performance.

If you’re one of those managers who can stand to improve your frequency and comfort for delivering constructive (and positive) feedback, take the time to get some help. You’ll benefit and your team members will thank you.

The Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations books are excellent. Scan my feedback category, or check out the six part series which starts appropriately with:“Moving Beyond Fear and Anxiety.” And most of all, start observing and talking with your team members about the visible, business-related opportunities to improve or to do more of what’s working.

By the way, I’ve never met a high performance professional who didn’t want to receive feedback on his/her performance. A lot of feedback. Good professionals are always hungry to improve. If you run into someone who objects to it, either your approach is off or, they’re not the high quality professional you thought they were.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Paying attention to your team members is a high form of showing respect. Supporting their professional development through a variety of means, including but not limited to timely, high quality feedback, is the best way I know as a manager to show that I truly care. Take the time to master the tools and start supporting growth for your team members. You’ll grow a good deal as a leader along the way yourself.

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.

It’s Your Career: Learn to Embrace Ambiguity as Opportunity

Graphic image with the words, It's Your Career and other related professional development wordsThe “It’s Your Career” series at Management Excellence is dedicated to offering ideas and guidance on strengthening your performance and supporting your development as a professional. Use the ideas in great career health!

One of the core capabilities of successful senior leaders and individual contributors is their ability to cope with and leverage ambiguity as a tool to create.

While many of us stop or even freeze when faced with unfamiliar situations, others recognize the opportunity to leverage uncertainty as a means to showcase our problem-solving and informal leadership capabilities while solving a vexing workplace challenge.

Instead of viewing the blank page or the empty picture frame in front of you as intimidating and a reason to grind to a halt, recognize that the right reaction is to do something to place words on the page or an image in the frame.

From defining and developing new strategies to creating new roles on your team to being tasked to create a new function and supporting processes critical for the future of the business, there are many tremendous opportunities shrouded in ambiguity, where the right moves will propel you forward.

5 Key Do’s and Don’ts When Faced with Ambiguous Circumstances:

1. Do Work to Internalize the Situation as Opportunity. For some of us, the lack of a template is intimidating and even frightening. While the reaction is understandable, it’s out of sync with the expectations of those around you. Your boss and team members are looking for forward progress and actions that begin to address the inherent problem(s). If solving this were easy, someone would have already taken care of the issue. Know that you’re being measured on incremental progress, not sudden magical answers.

2. Don’t Go to Ground. Your first reaction might be to don the cloak of invisibility and hunker down in search of solving whatever riddle is in front of you. Don’t. By disappearing into silence in search of answering the dilemma on your own, everyone else around you simple notices the disappearing act. Your perception that you have to go away until you have the solution is wrong.

3. Do Actively Build a Network of Contributors. Cultivating a strong advisory or problem-solving network in the workplace is a leadership power tactic. By connecting people with different skill sets in pursuit of solving a vexing issue, you’re improving the odds of success and you’re displaying effective informal leadership skills. Looking at it from another perspective, the most powerful people in a firm are the ones who get things done by bringing diverse talents to bear to solve a problem. It’s the friendly, ethical way to enhance your power and visibility, while doing the same for others who become attached to solving the issue at hand.

4. Don’t Ignore the Need to Make Noise. Silence is not golden in this case. The quieter you are about the work and progress on the initiative, the more you reinforce a perception that nothing is happening. Develop a communication program to keep stakeholders informed of progress, lessons learned and what to expect in the near-term. Also, know that sharing information on small victories reinforces the idea that something positive is happening. Your goal is to buy time and help, and the credibility gained from cultivating an accurate perception of your forward progress is critical.

5. Do Shine the Spotlight on Those Helping You. Nothing turns people off faster than obnoxious self-promotion. On the other hand, you can build goodwill by showcasing how others are helping YOU resolve an issue or create something new. Your team members will appreciate the limelight and you will be attached to the positive progress and the willingness to promote others ahead of your interests. Consider this an investment in your own future when you need to draw upon a broader or different audience for help with the next highly ambiguous situation.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Situations ripe with ambiguity can be intimidating or at least unsettling. In reality, they are ripe with opportunity. Instead of focusing on the fear of doing something wrong, recognize that the one thing you can do that is absolutely wrong is to let fear paralyze you into inaction. Engage with others, build a problem-solving network and put those first brushstrokes down on the empty canvas.

Related Post: 5 Common Sense Ideas for Growing Your Power at Work

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 Art’s book: 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.


Guest Post: The Art of Cultural Fluency in Leadership

cover FlexNote from Art: I’m excited to feature author and global leadership strategist and consultant, Jane Hyun, on this highly relevant topic of managing and leading across differences. Jane’s latest book with Audrey S. Lee, Flex–The New Playbook for Managing Across Differences, offers a practical and powerful guidebook on this important issue for managers and leaders at all levels.

The Art of Cultural Fluency in Leadership

by Jane Hyun

The face of the global workplace has changed forever. Chances are good that your company is already comprised of workers from around the world as well as multicultural employees in North America; more women are in the workforce (about 50% in the U.S.) than ever before, and millennials are entering the workforce in increasing numbers.  No matter where you are headquartered, you are likely doing business with at least one partner or supplier in another country. Yet, despite this increasing diversity of our workforce, we have yet to unlock the keys to fully leveraging this rich talent pool.

Our Tendency to Minimize Difference:

When it comes to navigating across differences, managers tend not to have the conversation.  We recruit diverse people into our organizations and expect that they too, will figure out the rules. But goodwill and positive intent alone is not sufficient for tapping the potential of your multicultural talent.  Too often we expect that cultural outliers on the team will assimilate into the dominant workplace culture, and figure out the behaviors for getting ahead. Some companies even adopt a “sink or swim” mentality for new employees, and  managers who only see through one cultural lens (their own) force employees outside of the dominant culture to change. As a result, workers from other cultures have to adopt Western notions of acceptable behaviors and mannerisms, even those that clash fundamentally with their cultural values.

Without a more nuanced understanding of the differences between people, as well as tools to bridge the communication gaps, managers will be at a loss to bridge the distance between themselves and those who think differently.

Questions for Self Reflection:

  • How comfortable am I with people who are different from me?
  • What perspectives do my diverse employees bring to our business?
  • Are there management practices that I have been using that may be hindering my team’s development?
  • How have previous diversity training or the stigma of talking about differences impacted me as a leader?

 Talking About Differences is Hard

If left unattended, diversity can negatively affect team cohesion and increase miscommunication and conflict. Having a culturally adaptive leader at the helm can encourage diverse viewpoints in decision-making and give voice to the unique perspectives that will drive innovation and growth for your organization.

But talking about difference can be hard. We become so afraid of making the wrong statements that we end up not initiating the dialogue at all. We need a shared vocabulary for discussing differences in a productive way. The solution? To add “fluent leader” skills to your leadership tool kit. A fluent leader adapts his own leadership style in order to work more effectively with colleagues who are different from himself (culturally, generationally, and across the gender divide). He investigates, without judgment, the differences in order to achieve the optimal result.

Here are the stages that we’ve identified when managing people across differences of culture, generation, and gender:

The Blindsided Leader– To you, no news is good news. You are sometimes blindsided when things don’t always go the way you expect. When direct conflict or difficulty arises from differences, you may avoid it completely.

The Judging Leader – You find individuals who relate differently from you annoying.  You might resent a Millennial employee for over-using social media at work, and prefer that people should relate to each other the old fashioned way, or find that your colleagues in Japan tend to be too indirect. You tolerate some differences, but when push comes to shove, you have the right way of doing things and expect team members to conform to your style.

The Golden Rule Leader-  Diversity training has taught you that it’s probably safest to treat everybody the same. You de-emphasize differences and believe that most people will respond positively if you treat them the way that you would want to be treated.

The Fluent Leader -  You accept and are curious about differences across cultural, gender, and generational lines. Instead of resorting to stereotypes to judge these differences, you explore the differences on a one-to-one level.  You can adapt your style to be more effective with colleagues who are different from you.

 A Fluent Leader Creates Connectivity:

Kristin, a VP of Finance in the publishing industry, exhibited fluent leader traits while working with Rosa, one of the accountants on her team. While other team members actively contributed their ideas during their weekly in-person meetings, Rosa seemed hesitant to speak up, even though her written presentations were excellent. As a result, colleagues from other departments began to perceive her as ineffective and even disengaged. Kristin decided to investigate. She took Rosa to lunch and provided feedback about the impact of her meeting behavior.  Through that conversation, she learned that Rosa had been brought up in a traditional Mexican American family.  You show respect by letting your superior have the floor, and these values were deeply embedded from a young age. Since Kristin often led the weekly meeting, Rosa did not feel it was appropriate to interject. With Kristin’s guidance, Rosa shared her opinion once at the next meeting.  Over the course of the next 5 months she contributed her views gradually more each time, turning around how others perceived her in the organization.

The Wrap-Up:

Hiring diverse teams and then hoping for the best is not sufficient.  Motivating people who have divergent viewpoints and cultural styles requires an active dialogue to unearth optimal strategies for engagement. The fluent leader adapts his approach and management style to meet his team members partway to help bridge the gap between them. He is willing to re-think conventional ways of managing others instead of expecting newcomers to adopt the organizations’ norms. And the leaders who become adept at interacting across differences will ultimately win the global talent war.

Jane Hyun is a global leadership strategist and coach to Fortune 500 companies, MBA programs, and nonprofits. To learn more, visit her website: Hyun Associates.

She is the co-author of the book Flex/The New Playbook for Managing Across Differences (March 25) and the author of Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling. She has appeared on CNN, CNBC, and NPR to discuss leadership, authenticity, and culture. To learn more about Flex, visit the site: