Art of Managing—Beware the Lure of Strategy in a Box Approaches

image of a box with new and improved on the labelThe 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.

Strategy is one of those difficult topics that dog most management teams and most firms.

The real work of strategy is challenging, time consuming and filled with hard-to-answer questions. It requires a simultaneous out-of-corporate body experience to objectively understand market, industry and competitive forces, along with an invasive and sometimes painful self-examination around internal capabilities.

Few managers come to strategy work with a common understanding or agreement on what strategy is, much less what an effective process looks and feels like. Selecting a strategy and building out the execution program includes the painful process of choosing what not to do, something that often dies on the field of political battles or lack of decision-making discipline.

Last and not least, the groups working on strategy often have little experience working together much less deciding together. In larger organizations participants are often handicapped by lack familiarity with their colleague’s businesses or offerings. Mix in  political dynamics with the lack of familiarity and experience teaming, and you shoot any realistic near-term opportunity to cultivate high performance right in the corporate rear-end.

Given the challenges of managing an effective, on-going strategy process, it’s no surprise “Strategy in a Box” approaches are often adopted by management teams looking to add a check mark to the strategy task on their annual goals.

Recognizing “Strategy in a Box” Approaches:

While there are several variations, the process typically involves bringing a group of senior managers and functional or technical experts together with an outside facilitator for a multi-day offsite retreat.

The “process in a box” invariably starts at the top of the intellectual heap…setting vision to guide future direction. A painful (think root canal with no Novocain …but even more painful) round of group wordsmithing on a so-called vision invariably results in a gobbledygook of words that no one likes but everyone momentarily settles for just to end the pain.

After vision, there’s typically a S.W.O.T. (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) exercise…a discussion that is best described as a bias-filled cesspool of incremental and wild ass thinking on external opportunities and a superficial analysis of internal issues and capabilities. The internal assessment is often either a glossing over of capabilities or a political battle with functional or technical experts taking shots in an effort to distance themselves from criticism and gain leverage in the expected future resource battles. There’s often little preparation or external analysis, and objectivity for internal realities is horribly lacking.

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management termsNext out of the box is a round of goal setting, where the goals become the strategies. The goals are invariably around numbers and the bigger the numbers, the better. It’s not uncommon to hear the adult version of the playground “triple dog dare,” pushing numbers higher and higher:

“C’mon, if development hits the timing window at the right cost and feature set, we can do twice that with our hands tied behind our back.”

“I think you’re sandbagging. We can do your number and then some with the right execution and management.” (Note the thinly veiled jab.)

Big numeric goals become the perceived strategy: “100 million in three years,” or, 100,000 customers or number one or two in our market.

The last tool out of the box is the action plan, where some high-level actions and responsibilities are assigned, with the middle-layer of management in the room inevitably taking on the most critical work.

After a final shake of the box, the follow-up date is set and people adjourn with smiles and handshakes, all internally secure in the knowledge that little of any value was achieved and all wondering how the heck they can avoid any accountability here.

The Alternative…Deliberate Focus on the Right Issues and the Hard Questions:

I wish I were exaggerating on the above description, but I’m not. Some form or variation of this superficial approach is what too many management teams experience when it comes to strategy work. 

The right alternative is to focus on and attack core issues. Rumelt advises us in Good Strategy/Bad Strategy to focus on the kernel of a strategy. Carefully diagnose the situation (an exercise not to be taken lightly) and then decide what to do about it at a high level. Back the diagnosis and guiding philosophy with a set of integrated actions and build from there. Much like a medical problem, the diagnosis frames and defines the follow-on regimen and measurement.

Geoffrey Moore’s framework of frameworks in Escape Velocity forces a view to the portfolio of opportunities and demands answers to the hard questions for today’s and tomorrow’s businesses from an investor’s perspective. He also appropriately segregates discussion into time horizons and cautions us to treat today’s businesses and tomorrow’s businesses very differently.

Others, including Welch’s famous 5 slides (approximately 20 questions) create a laser-like focus on the issues of strategy and opportunities and competitors and actions.

In my own experience leading strategy inside corporations and externally as a consultant, the hardest part of the process is building the discipline and teamwork to objectively tackle the right issues and hard questions. While the components included in the “Strategy in a Box” have merit…vision, assessment, goals and actions, it’s the poor process and then attempting to pass them off as the complete strategy work that I object to strenuously.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

In truth, the work of strategy is hard work, however, the actual key questions to be answered are finite and very visible. The focus must be on finding or creating strength to use against weakness or to exploit opportunities. The work is much about assessing your firm’s true situation in the context of change (tastes, industries, macro forces, competitors, substitutes, technologies) and selecting a set of intelligent experiments to test hypotheses. The work demands the development of a team committed to high performance, supported by the organization and accountable for objective assessment and selection of options.

Don’t be lulled into sacrificing the rigor of the work and the accountability to key questions to a simple sounding but canned approach that doesn’t get at the right issues at the right depth. There are no shortcuts to strategy.

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—Ideas to Help You Adjust Your Attitude and Improve Performance

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!

While Woody Allen offered, “80 percent of success is just showing up,” I might politely suggest the phrase is missing a key ingredient: attitude.

There’s a profound difference between showing up and showing up with the right attitude.

Our attitude is visible on our faces, discernible in our words and palpable in our body language. If you’re having a bad attitude day, month or lifetime, you can be certain that everybody you come in contact with knows it and feels it. When you walk into a room with a lousy attitude, it’s like a storm front approaching. Everyone sees it and wonders how bad it’s going to get.

The impact of a lousy attitude extends quietly outward, systematically poisoning the working environment.

Think of managers you’ve worked for that projected a pissed-off, mad at being born and madder at having to deal with you and your colleagues, demeanor. What did that feel like?  How did people react to this person? How effective was this leader?   (And while you would like to believe that these characters don’t end up in leadership roles, inexplicably, they do.)

Alternatively, think of managers and leaders you’ve encountered that projected a pragmatically positive perspective, even in the darkest of times and most troubled of situations. Their impact creates a ripple effect that promotes progress, problem solving and innovation. Positive leaders beget a positive environment.

Of course, even genuinely positive people have bad moments as well. I found myself recently in a setting where I couldn’t find a single positive reason why I was there and it took every ounce of energy to attempt to remain engaged and interested. I suspect I failed. For others, the speeding ticket on the way to work, troubles on the home-front, the shadow of a family member’s illness or any one of a number of life’s issues can put pressure on the best of attitudes.

Regardless of circumstances, when you hit the office, it’s best to mentally shift gears and focus on your bigger purpose.

Preparing Your Attitude is a Daily Ritual:

I love the daily ritual for “preparing her attitude,” shared by one manager in a workshop.  “Every morning, after arriving at work, I sit in my car for a few minutes and think about how I will measure success today. I focus on the impact that I want to have on people around me, and I remind myself that I’m in my role as a leader at the discretion of those I serve. This act of focusing helps me push out all of life’s and the morning’s stress points.”

Priceless advice for success! I’ve suggested this to a great number of coaching clients and they’ve applied it to success. So, if you walk past a colleague sitting in her car in the parking lot, lost in thought, know that she’s simply adjusting her attitude for success in the upcoming work day. Perhaps you should give it a try, you and your colleagues might be pleased with the results!

In case you are in need of a little attitude adjustment, consider the following ideas:

5 Ideas to Help Prepare and Sustain a Positive Attitude:

1. Vow to measure success by progress made, not distance left to travel. Instead of focusing on the magnitude of workplace problems, consider how important it is for you and your team members to take positive steps towards resolving them. Turn your attention to identifying obstacles that you can clear away and plan on valuing your daily success by how far you’ve helped team members travel.

2. Shift your view on the workplace as battleground. Nothing poisons an attitude more than viewing the workplace as a battleground filled with adversaries or enemies. Every meeting isn’t a fight…it’s an opportunity to exchange ideas and develop approaches. The person arguing with you likely has an underlying interest that he/she has not disclosed and yet you seem to be fighting over positions. Strive to understand by asking questions and then strive for agreement on positions. If you’ve burned bridges across the workplace, resolve to invest time every day in repairing at least one relationship. If necessary, be the bigger person and apologize. And then move forward.

3. Rethink and reset your daily priorities. What are the most important items you must make progress on today? Chances are they don’t involve clearing your e-mail in-box, rearranging your office or sitting in seven status update meetings. Too many managers navigate their days without making serious headway on the issues that will move the performance indicator for the firm and the team. Mentally reorder your priority list and put the people and problem issues you’ve been avoiding at the top of the list.

4. Plan to quality-check yourself in real-time. Ask yourself after every encounter: “Did I live up to my commitment to help?” If the answer is, “no,” retrace your steps and fix the problem immediately.

5. Remind yourself: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”  Whether it’s the speeding ticket, family challenges, self-esteem issues or career frustration, every person you encounter is waging some internal battle. Respect the person and impact them positively and you will be easing that burden just a bit. Empathy is a virtue in leaders.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

You choose your attitude every-day and for every encounter. Spend a few minutes today reminding yourself of the responsibility you have to serve and help others, and prepare your positive attitude before you walk in the door. And when you end your day, remember to measure your successes instead of dwelling on your failures.

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 Praise of Mistakes Made for the Right Reasons

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!

The true test of your leadership character isn’t measured by the absence of mistakes, but rather by the mistakes made in pursuit of growth and learning AND how you conduct yourself once you’ve made a mistake.

Show me a mistake-free leader, and I’ll show you someone hiding from the real issues confronting the business: people and strategy.

People:

People are complicated. In spite of the myriad of assessment tools at our disposal, selection is still a judgement call with all of the inherent risks and biases of human decision-making. And the challenge of aligning skills and experiences with tasks while searching for that spark that stimulates people to work at their creative best is truly much more art than science.

You will make mistakes on people. Make them for the right reasons. Taking a chance on good people for the right reasons is worth the risk every day.

Remember, character always gets a positive vote. After a certain age, character is formed and nothing you can do will alter someone’s core character. You cannot change someone. Assess character carefully. Look for behavioral examples around values, and if the view is dissonant, it’s a non-starter.

Passion and desire are powerful reasons to take a chance on someone, even if others around you suggest this person isn’t right for a role. I like betting on the underdog if I’ve done my homework on the individual. Taking chances on people who show that extra spark is part of the essence of leadership. Much like character, you cannot teach passion, you can only help it emerge.

The greatest rewards I’ve enjoyed as a leader come from those people I selected against popular wisdom because I saw something. Of course, “something” is hard to codify and I’ve been wrong here as well. It doesn’t mean I will stop taking chances.

Strategy:

Much like the challenge of selecting and inspiring people to apply their talents, strategy is filled with ambiguity and uncertainty. Choosing what to do and importantly, what not to do is a core management task, yet human judgement in all its brilliance and all of its flaws is once again at the center of strategic decision-making.

Even in our data-driven world, selecting and then executing a strategy is like walking through a minefield on a fresh lava-flow blindfolded. There’s a high probability that somewhere between choice of path and the journey down that path, you will misstep with painful results. Assuming the essence of the strategy is sound, often, you can recover, adapt and proceed from execution missteps. These non-fatal errors are powerful learning experiences, teaching you and everyone around you how to spot gaps, fill in blind-spots and redouble efforts to get execution right.

While many view strategy as an event, with an outcome that is carved in granite and the granite set in concrete, in reality, it is effectively a testable hypothesis backed by a series of experiments. In a military metaphor, you engage in a series of skirmishes designed to test defenses and learn terrain, and then you push to conquer the ground. These skirmishes are the teaching experiences and your mistakes here are part of the process of figuring out how to get it right. The only mistake is not to decide to take action.

The best leaders I’ve worked around understand the need for the missteps. No one actively seeks them out, but they are an inevitable part of the pursuit of success.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The least interesting professionals to me are those who cannot articulate a litany of mistakes on their way to their successes. The absence of mistakes…or, the unwillingness to admit prior mistakes is a character flaw and as mentioned above, there are no compromises when it comes to character. There’s no guarantee that some of your own mistakes won’t have painful consequences. Nonetheless, the mistakes made for the right reasons…in favor of great people and in pursuit of business success, are simply tickets to admission. Pay the price, take your lumps, learn and keep moving.

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—3 Questions To Help You Cultivate Your Leadership Style

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 can tell you with absolute certainty that I didn’t think about my own leadership style for a large part of the first decade of my career.

I didn’t care at the time. It wasn’t relevant. Although in hindsight, I certainly had a style, it was more muscle than finesse.

My focus was on driving results through people and pushing, pushing, pushing. It was a simple formula. Drive results + make bosses happy = growth in responsibility and income. And it worked. The results were there, but the relationships were shallow…mostly transactional, and the work was less than rewarding. There was little consideration for the bigger picture of the people or environment I was creating.

I was managing, and as it turns out, and not very effectively. There certainly was no visible sign of leadership in my approach.

Fortunately, a wise senior manager took me aside and suggested I would be more effective over the long haul if I quit acting like a machine and started acting like a human who cared about people at least as much as he cared about results. He suggested that I was leaving, money, performance and the growth of people on the table, and he challenged me to think long and hard about the type of leader I wanted to be.

I am grateful to this day for that leadership wake-up call.

Over the months following the “machine” comment, he regularly challenged me with a number of provocative questions that ultimately shifted my focus from results at all costs to results through supporting and developing others. How will you answer these questions?

3 Leadership Questions to Help You Cultivate Your Leadership Style:

1. At the end of your career at your retirement party, how do you want people to describe the impact you had on them?

I remember laughing at this one. Retirement seemed a long way off then, and today, it just feels like a foreign concept. Nonetheless, this good question challenged me to consider the impact I was having on each individual versus thinking solely about the numbers and achievements. With a few more years under my belt and many remarkable accomplishments from my teams and for my firms, I care very little about the glories of great numbers…those are outcomes. However, I am fiercely proud of the great people who have developed on my watch and their many subsequent career and life successes. This question made me pivot in my thinking about my role.

2. Who are the leaders from history or in your life (not just business) that you most admire? Why? What was/is it about their approaches or actions that you find inspirational and instructive?

I still love this question and I use variations of it in my different programs and classes. I became (and remain) a student of history and a passionate observer of the effective and ineffective leaders in my firms and in my life. In particular, I’ve developed a long-term obsession to better understand how leaders facing great adversity dealt with their circumstances.

3. What type of environment do people need to prosper and do their best work, AND what is your role in creating this environment?

This compound question in particular has served as the foundation for my exploration of and experimentation with teams and approaches in pursuit of high performance. Ultimately, the leader sets the environment and issues of respect, trust, credibility and accountability are all wrapped up in forming and framing the environment for high performance. Most of us intuitively understand this at some level, but the question is are you living it every day?

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Feedback that drives introspection supports growth. The comment that I was acting like a machine irked me. In hindsight, it was pivotal in my career. I’ve enjoyed myself more and I have a reasonable belief that I’ve helped people grow and have helped my firms and teams prosper because of my active cultivation of a style based on my answers to the questions above. Try spending some time thinking about the leadership style you want to cultivate, and then do it.

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—Is It Time for You to Go?

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!

Far too many professionals linger in stagnant roles or struggling firms long beyond the optimal expiration date of their involvement. Instead of seeking out new challenges that support learning and skills expansion, otherwise competent, motivated individuals tend to linger in bad situations hoping for circumstances to shift more to their liking. More often than not, they are disappointed.

This is the career equivalent of the classic cognitive trap, escalation of commitment. Instead of cutting our losses, we value the time invested and recall better days. We falsely believe that with just a bit more time and effort, things will change. In reality, the time you’ve put in is gone. It’s a sunk cost, and the only thing that matters is what happens today and in the months and years ahead for you in your career.

Most of us are conditioned to place a premium on loyalty and dedication in our co-workers, and we wear our own commitment as a statement of who we are as professionals. Sadly, in this era, there’s little reward for standing firmly planted on the deck of a sinking corporate ship or facing the daily tirades of a miserable manager. There are no gold watches and there is no one to look out for you in your career but yourself.

Please give yourself permission to do what’s best for you in your career, including changing roles, departments or even firms.

Beware The Gravitational Pull of Running in Place:

With apologies to physicists everywhere for the very inaccurate science suggested in the header of this section, the fact is that there’s a strong force that keeps is locked in position, repeating our daily routines week in and week out, in spite of our internal understanding that this is going nowhere…or at least nowhere good.

When I talk with employees or clients about why they’ve lingered for so long in a situation that has moved from bad to lousy, they typically offer some form of the following three responses:

  1. I believe I can make a difference and improve things.
  2. At least I know what’s wrong here. I could easily jump into something worse.
  3. I have financial commitments. It’s not a good time for me to make a job change.

My response in order: (1) that’s noble, but after a good effort with no change, you are simply naïve, (2) that’s a lame excuse to stay in employment jail, and (3) the best chance you may have for easing those financial burdens is to make a change.

Fear and Loyalty:

My own translation is that most of us struggle with the elements of fear tinged with low self-esteem. For many, throw in a smattering of that nagging feeling that if we leave we are being disloyal to the firm that sends us a check every few weeks or to the manager who has helped us along.

First, the fear issue. The thought of change is disconcerting. And yes, changing positions, firms or industries comes with a set of all new challenges. Your routine will change. The political dynamics in your new department or firm are different than what you’ve grown accustomed to in your prior role. You might not be the expert…and in fact, you might be momentarily dependent upon other experts. Or, it might not work out. Those are all tangible concerns and some of them breed fear. Nothing should be as frightening however, as wasting the time of your life or the time of your career. If you’re not learning and being challenged, you’re dying professionally, and the thought of that should scare the heck out of you. Fear breeds resistance and you have to find a way to cut through that resistance.

Now, the loyalty issue. I’ll offer it from my own perspective as an executive. I value the intelligence and hard work of the people on my team and I appreciate every single day they make the decision to walk in the door and help the cause. I know very well that it is my job to foster an environment and provide the support, coaching and feedback that keeps the good ones coming back every day. Any manager worth his/her salt gets this.

However, I also understand that I am dealing with individuals who have aspirations and sometimes those aspirations cannot be met in my world. It’s a sad and proud day when a long-time valued contributor moves on to a new role. And it’s an honor when I’ve helped them along the way and served as a reference for the next opportunity and have welcomed them into my extended professional network.

No one owes me or any other manager anything more than their best efforts during their time of employment. That’s code for saying that I don’t expect nor will I reward any excess loyalty. I respect your need to take care of yourself in your career.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

If you are stuck in a position that no longer is challenging, or where you are no longer learning, it’s up to you to seize control and improve this situation. Don’t let the fears or false beliefs or even laziness keep you from resolving your career problem. I admire individuals who strive to solve the challenges within their present firms and I respect those who after giving this a valiant effort, decide to take their talents elsewhere. Give yourself permission to make a change.

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.