Art of Managing—Helping Your Firm Navigate a Level-Up Situation

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.

“85-percent of organizational problems are system related and only 15-percent are related to people.” –W. Edwards Deming

As managers, it’s our sacred responsibility to create and continuously improve an environment and system that allows our people to do their best work.

This system that Deming speaks of is an amalgam of the values, behaviors, processes and approaches in pursuit of the firm’s core mission that define the personality of an organization. The approaches and processes around decision-making, planning, developing talent and executing on projects and core operations are all part of the system. Innovation, creativity, employee and customer engagement and financial performance are critical outcomes of an effective system.

Few managers would disagree with their responsibility and accountability for creating this effective environment. Like breathing, it’s a good idea to invest time and energy in practices that promote a healthy, efficient and effective system. In reality, many firms do a good job of this in stable markets…the operative word being “stable.”

I’ve worked in and around many organizations where the firm’s leaders point proudly to a long string of successful years and effectively suggest that they’ve cracked the code of sustaining performance. Their organizations are well-tuned for the current state, the numbers are just good enough to keep stakeholders happy and employees have that swagger of consistent champions.

And Then “It” Happens:

“It” is most often some form of disruption…an unanticipated competitor move, a new market entrant, a disruptive technology innovation or some unexpected shock to society. Regardless of the source, change becomes the order of the day and the long-successful senior leaders react to the situation in a logical fashion and begin to talk about the firm moving down a new path with new strategies or approaches.

New initiatives and projects are born and the latest books consumed in search of answers or approaches that lead to answers. And when results aren’t immediately visible, energy and enthusiasm for experimentation and innovation wane and the pursuit of new consistently loses out to the gravitational pull of the old. From investment dollars and attention, the pursuit of new is often suffocated…for what seems like perfectly rational reasons chasing today’s problems. After a period of time, the wheels on the vehicle that is the effort to pursue new begin to wobble and parts start to fly off as the firm races towards an uncertain destination via an unknown path through uncharted terrain.

With apologies for mixed metaphors, the ride begins to resemble Theodore Roosevelt’s harrowing and horrifying post-presidential journey deep into uncharted portions of the Amazon, as he and his colleagues navigated all manner of disasters and dangers as they followed the aptly named River of Doubt.

Once the dangers become visible and the wobble of the wheels sensed by everyone, the fun begins. That is if you find journeying through organizational and career hell some form of perverse fun.

The Level-Up Opportunity:

This moment in time when a firm faces the critical need to change is what I describe as a Level-Up opportunity.  Level-Up opportunities typically involve individuals, teams or entire firms learning to navigate situations of extreme ambiguity and potential peril. We face them as individuals in our careers as we take on new challenges and climb the ladder of responsibility. Organizations face Level-Up opportunities as they strive to do something new…develop and implement a new strategy, move to a new market, capture a new group of customers or pursue an innovation they perceive will leverage their strengths and enhance their fortunes.

It’s somewhere during the flailing phase at the front-end of of a Level-Up situation that people recognize that the old system doesn’t work for new needs. Sure, business the old way continues just fine, after all the system is optimized for the old. However, when it comes to new, the gears grind, the engine smokes, rpms rise and speed slows to a crawl.

It’s time to change the system.

The old ways don’t work for new markets, customers, technologies or business models. It’s also at this time where too many senior leaders choose the wrong paths and tactics. Like Roosevelt’s team attempting to descend a seemingly never-ending number of treacherous rapids and falls during their journey down the River of Doubt, what worked for us at the last rapid or fall results in us smashing our canoes to bits on the rocks in this new environment, endangering lives and squandering precious time and resources.

Beware the Siren Song of Two Powerful Actions:

There are two reflexive actions by senior managers that often exacerbate the wobble. The first is a creeping belief that the people that brought them this far aren’t the right people for the journey ahead. They begin to doubt the abilities of their people to learn, adapt and succeed.

The second mistake is to assume that the organization’s structure is at fault. It’s not. It’s the strategy and system.

While there are nuggets of truth in both of these reflexive thoughts, the actions must be filtered against a clear strategy and tempered appropriately or you risk making a difficult situation impossible.

Change is difficult. Ambiguity and complexity are powerful adversaries in the fight for successful change, and while no simple list of ideas offer the absolute right answers, these seven are intended to help you strive for clarity and simplicity while learning to deal step by step with ambiguity.

Seven Ideas to Help Your Firm Navigate a Level-Up Opportunity:

1. Senior Executives Must Link Arms on the New Strategy Direction. Easy words…damned difficult to achieve in practice. Most senior leaders struggle to show up in the same zip code on strategy much less end up on the same page in the same book in the same house. CEO leadership is essential here…with clarity as an absolute and once the direction is set, senior manager compliance essential. Fight it out with vigor and honor, but link arms and go forward aligned and resolute.

2. It’s Not a Strategy If No One in the Firm Understands It. The hard work of strategy begins after the boardroom brawling ends on this topic. Your job is to simplify the strategy and ensure that everyone not only gets it, but sees how they play a role in supporting it.

3. Remember, It’s Not Important to People Just Because You Said it Is. Don’t assume awareness equals either understanding or support. Your approach to strategy development and then execution task definition and implementation must get everyone involved in offering input and backing words with actions..

4. Bet on Your People First and then Acquire to Fill Key Gaps. There’s no doubt that anything new requires education, training and yes, some fresh perspectives from people immune to the firm’s dominant logic. Strive to objectively assess the skills needed for the new strategy and then focus on whether those skills can be learned, trained or whether they must be acquired. We’re too quick to assume acquisition is the answer…when the reality is that your good people are typically hungry for something big and new to do and willing to pour their hearts and souls into it. (For people who resist new learning and new directions, drop them off politely and professionally at the next rest stop. You’ve got no time to waste.)

5. Tune the Organization to Align Superpowers with Key Opportunities. Instead of assuming that a new structure is the solution….something that often emerges from these challenging and frequently political battles over change, use as your emphasis aligning the absolute best resources with the biggest opportunities. Strategy should highlight the best opportunities…now, plug in the people with the right superpowers to succeed for each key opportunity. More often than not, wholesale restructuring squanders precious time and creates confusion. The Superpower-to-Opportunity approach reduces resistance and accelerates the time to implementation so critical in this situation.

6. Use Formal Project Management Practices to Execute the Key Strategy Initiatives. Most strategies breakdown in the execution phase…not the idea phase. For your key initiatives, establish formal project teams complete with an executive sponsor, a clear charter and scope and a well define project team with priorities and targets. Then use this project-focus to provide visibility into progress and to capture lessons learned along the way.

7. Use Process Mapping Relentlessly to Support Building the New System. The work of mapping out key processes around selling, marketing, supporting, deciding, measuring etc. is priceless. Remember that the gravitational pull of “we’ve done it this way” is extremely powerful. Process Mapping helps identify opportunities for new approaches and of course, it highlights flaws, blind spots, inefficiencies and in general it supports cross-functional collaboration and learning.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Deming was once asked what he hoped his legacy would be. In the interview (I paraphrase), he responded quickly with, “I’ll doubt I’ll be remembered at all.” Then after thinking about it, he offered, “I would like to be remembered for trying to help (American) companies from committing suicide.”

The seven suggestions above are not foreign to most senior leaders. They reflect some good commonsense. However, their use in synchronization is way too rare. When striving to navigate a Level-Up opportunity and adapt your system to changing circumstances, using these ideas is like breathing…a really good idea. Anything else has a bad outcome. Now, breathe…

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—What to Do When You Grow Fatigued

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!

Much of our common dialog around leadership focuses on the lofty and noble. That’s good and appropriate. After all there are some remarkable opportunities for growth and reward in the life of a conscientious leader. Empowering people who respond in great form to drive remarkable outcomes is indeed exhilarating. Taking a short leap of faith on an unproven player in a new role and watching (and helping) it work is what it’s all about. Looking back at the careers and achievements of people who intersected with you during your journey for a moment in time is truly amazing and humbling.

Why then is it so damned exhausting to serve as a leader? And better yet, how does someone entering the power dive of leadership fatigue find a way to pull out and continue serving enthusiastically in pursuit of the noble?

Vexing (and very real) challenges and questions for anyone who has served in a role responsible for others.

An Inelegant Escape (With a Great Outcome):

I hit the wall hard earlier in my career and made what was likely my biggest career blunder in my drive to escape the tyranny of the team. After being in a supervisory or managerial role for all but 6 months of my first 14 years out of college, I had had it with the drama, soap operas, head cases and garden variety of issues that all people and all teams bring to the occasion. All my teams had been successful…our businesses grew nicely and the talent was everywhere. And I was out of gas spinning the plates and keeping the wings from breaking off during our tumultuous flights for success.

In my attempt at achieving escape velocity from the life of a leader, I took an individual contributor’s role as a senior staff member working for a brilliant (but very) mid-twentieth century style command and control leader. It didn’t take long to recognize that something was wrong. While the people around me were brilliant and the many divisions and firms under this corporate umbrella fascinating, there was no team for me to develop and I wasn’t building with anyone. I discovered that if I wasn’t building people, teams and businesses, I felt like I was dying. Fortunately, this role led to an unexpected door into a new role and new firm leading others and growing a business that by all standards was the most rewarding portion of my corporate career. Happy ending. Good fortune. The next time around, the experience with all of its headaches was so rewarding from a people perspective, I dedicated my first book to a good number of those “family” members.

You’re Not Alone:

I’ve discovered that I’m not alone in having hit the wall of leadership fatigue. Many former colleagues and coaching clients have experienced their own form of this syndrome. Many suffer in silence, counting the days and marking time. Others have pursued radical career changes and entrepreneurial adventures and a good number have managed to find ways to revitalize and reset around this wonderful, vexing, draining, exhilarating role of leading.

Here are a few thoughts drawn from the wisdom and examples of others striving to recover from a bad case of leadership fatigue. Feel free to add your guidance here for all of us striving to keep the energy high.

Ten Ideas to Help You Fight Leadership Fatigue:

1. Create an Artifact to Remind Yourself Daily of Your Real Purpose. The daily challenges in our organizations can be all consuming. Chasing the urgent consumes much of our time and the urgent-unimportant has a way of filling any openings. An exercise I’ve used for years now to help leaders remind themselves is to develop and make visible their own personal leader’s charter. I have my own…and those who have followed this tactic have developed their version of why they are serving in this role and what they are accountable for in leading others. A simple morning re-read of this framed charter hanging on the wall or sitting on a shelf provides a powerful reminder of your real role and the opportunity you have to build others and your business with every single encounter in the upcoming day.

2. Cultivate a Beginner’s Mind. This one is difficult for the young and brash. It takes a few laps around the blocks of professional life to recognize that you don’t have the answer to every problem. Approaching issues by suspending judgment and seeking first to understand is a remarkable way to change the tone and tenor of every day. Beginners learn to ask questions and viewing people and teams and challenges from a fresh perspective can lead to an inner calm and a perpetual journey of discovery. The wisest leaders I’ve worked around understand that with every person and every day they are beginners.

3. Keep it in Context. Remember, you have the privilege of helping people and helping your firm every single day. Each day is a blank canvas that you get to fill-in with positive encounters, helpful ideas and productive interactions. Problems and issues represent opportunities to serve and to teach. Recognizing and reminding yourself of this privilege of serving helps to tame the stress.

4. Don’t Cede Control to the Gremlins. Faced with circumstances that are personally toxic…a hostile environment; a micromanaging maniacal senior executive breathing down your neck or an endless barrage of Everest-like problems, it’s easy to fall into the professional death spiral. Unless lives (yours and others) are on the line, beware this trap of equating your self-worth and your life’s value with your miserable work experience. While I don’t advocate a casual attitude about your work, remember that you have to give permission to that miserable manager or the stressful circumstances to take control of your perception of self. Strive to not cede that control by looking at the reality of the less than life or death issues swirling around you. (In some cases, external help/counseling/coaching is a great idea if you’re in this mode.)

5. Engage In the Moment—One Encounter at a Time. Instead of focusing on the noise and heat that you expect to encounter every day, reign in your focal point to the person, group or issue immediately in front of you. Much of our angst is over the expectation of what will happen. The act of focusing on what’s happening in the moment versus boiling the ocean of uncertainty over what may happen or what’s happening in the background is liberating. You get to create the future one controllable moment at a time.

6. Get a Coach. I love great executive and professional coaches for all of the wonderful wisdom they bring to our issues and for the metaphorical clubbing upside the head they provide to help us see ourselves and our situations with a level of clarity that we are unable to gain on our own. Great coaches peel back the layers of complexity and help us identify our core issues and then they kick our asses in pursuit of resolving or strengthening around those issues. If you’ve ever had a great strength training or conditioning coach, the professional coach has the same priceless impact. They see you through eyes other than your own and they push us harder than we would ever push ourselves.

7. Master Another Discipline. It’s amazing how pursuing something new…a new language, a craft or a hobby that takes you completely out of your daily life can help you cope with those vexing daily circumstances. While you hate to say that the workday becomes less important, the pursuit of a new passion is energizing and it creates a halo effect around your work days. You’re aware that you are tackling something bigger and different than your daily work and strangely/interestingly, it makes your work all the more bearable.

8. A Healthy Body Breeds a Healthy Mind. Working on your diet or fitness offers nearly instantaneous feedback and it’s amazing what a host of small victories (more time, faster time, more strength, the first few pounds, the next weight target, the better fitting clothes) will do for your daily attitude. In my case, it has been transformational for both mind and body.

9. Manufacture “You” Time. Finding time to think deeply about what you are doing and what you need to do is priceless. Our always-on world and our omnipresent devices don’t make this easy. Something as simple as 15 minutes of reading (in your profession, in your faith, pure escapism… whatever) gives your brain both a much needed stress rest and a jolt of energy and creativity.

10. Don’t Be Afraid to Push the Eject Button. While it may sound like I’m suggesting you give up, there are absolutely circumstances where enough is enough. I tripped and stumbled a bit with my own eject activity, however, I would do the same thing all over again. The transition helped me refuel and regain much needed context. Importantly, it set the stage for some of my life’s best work. Sometimes a new adventure is just what the spirit needs to revitalize.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I’ve encountered too many people suffering in silence in their roles responsible for others. Nothing good comes of this martyrdom…for you for or for those around you. Pick a strategy to recharge…try a variety of approaches until something works or, cultivate the courage to go do something else. The only mistake is to stay locked in irons, making yourself and everyone around you miserable. Leading others is too important to be left to someone out of gas and out of heart. Given our challenges in this world, we need all the leadership energy and heart we can muster.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! (All new subscriber-only content!) 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—Know When to Assert Yourself

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!

There are points in time when the only right choice is to assert and dictate direction or a decision. In those crucible moments for firms and teams, the failure of a leader to assert is the height of malpractice and irresponsibility.

From critical strategic choices to decisions on talent, teams and execution, there are times when the kinder, gentler form of participatory leadership just doesn’t cut it. This is a difficult topic for those who ascribe to a softer style of leading, Yes, I applaud your daily repression of the command and control style in favor of a more participatory and consensus driven approach. However, when timeliness is of the essence and lives or jobs are on the line, you must step-up, step-in and assert yourself.

I’ve encountered too many well-intended but misguided leaders who through their slow-to-act approaches have squandered opportunities, opened the door for competitors and caused damage to their own careers. In polling these leaders post-crisis (in many cases, years later), what I consistently heard was some form of, I truly expected my directs to suspend their own views and come together as a group around what was right for the organization in that time of crisis. The fact that they didn’t is disappointing.

The only person this leader should be disappointed in is the one staring back at them in the mirror.

I would like to live in that world where people in groups suspended their own personal views and interests in the name of some form of corporate, arm-linking kumbaya focused on the greater good. And while it happens in some circumstances, in 30+ years of navigating corporate hallways and boardrooms through all manner of crises, I’ve learned not to hold my breath waiting for that momentary alignment to emerge on its own. Strong leadership for key directional decisions is essential for unifying people’s hearts, minds and actions.

Your job in crisis situations is to catalyze action along a clear vector. You’re the compass…you determine the vector and your approach to the crisis situation will either help people shake off fear and the resultant paralysis or, you’ll be the cause of chronic running in place.

Don’t wait for perfect clarity to emerge before you decide. It never does. Your leadership must bring clarity to others. Once the team begins moving, you can tweak the course as the fog lifts.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Once you’ve successfully led the team through the storm, you can return to your regularly scheduled style of soft leadership. In the meantime, assert yourself, darn it! Your team, your firm and your career depend upon it.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! (All new subscriber-only content!) 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.

The Saturday Serial Number 1—Welcome to ACME John Anderson

A text slide reading: The Saturday Serial: A Management and Leadership Story Delivered One Post at a TimeThe Saturday Serial is an on-going management and leadership story and case based on a fictional firm and fictional characters all dealing with very real challenges in leadership and management. The intent is to stimulate thinking and discussion in a format different than the traditional “how to” blog post. Each episode includes a series of discussion questions for your consideration (or use with your team). I’ll share my views on the prior week’s chapter and questions in a subsequent post.

Episode 1:

The electronic sign in the lobby, offered up a friendly, Welcome to ACME CONSOLIDATED SOLUTIONS GROUP (ASCG). As John waited to check in with the receptionist, he was pleased to see his name scroll past: John Anderson, Manager, Product and Marketing. Nice touch, he thought as he stepped up and gave his name to the receptionist.

John was excited to be starting at ACSG today. This was his third employer in 14 years since graduating from college. While ACSG was a big conglomerate, John would be working with one of the smaller units…the Data Systems Solutions Group (DSSG)…an area that from all of his research, appeared to be an important part of the conglomerate’s future. During the interview process, John had been impressed with the entrepreneurial spirit he sensed in the people working in the Data Systems Solutions Group, and he liked the fact that he could help grow a start-up under the umbrella of a firm with deep pockets and diverse business interests. Also, John was mid-way through his MBA program and it didn’t hurt that the firm offered to pick up the future tuition costs as part of their generous employee education reimbursement policy.

All in all, John was excited to start this next chapter in his career.

After a quick greeting with his boss, Pat Paulsen, John was off to a whirlwind of meet and greet sessions. He met with security and had his picture taken for his permanent i.d. badge. HR took him through benefits sign-up and then Pat walked him around the Data Systems Solutions Group offices and introduced him to all of the unit’s 54 employees, including his new product management and marketing team members. After some time spent with I.T. setting up log-in credentials, it was 11:45 a.m. and John was scheduled for lunch with the unit’s six-month new CEO, Victoria Pyott. Victoria’s policy was to have lunch with every new employee regardless of level or title on their first day, and John was impressed with this thoughtful treatment.

Over lunch, Victoria outlined her view on the opportunities and challenges for the team in DSSG, and John was impressed with both her excitement about the unit’s prospects and her frank assessment of the challenges for the upcoming 18 months.

“We’re in a great arena,” offered Victoria. “The opportunity to help firms, teams and managers make better sense of their data is huge. All of us in all of our firms have spent years investing in systems to capture and access data, but we’ve still not resolved some of the fundamental issues…how to get the right data at the right time for the business problem or process issue we’re attempting to resolve. There’s all manner of software packages and tools to help clients do this, but by and large they’ve failed, because they’ve been expensive, complicated to install and integrate and frankly, very complicated to use. We can’t expect the finance or supply chain manager to be a software or even data expert…we have to create offerings that make their lives easier and that easily help them develop trusted, complete data on demand for the problem at hand,” she stated.

“Of course, like any firm motivated to grow and supported by a parent company that looks for results, not just promises in the future, we have to do a better job turning our ideas into solutions that we can monetize,” added Victoria. “That’s where you and your team come in, John. Thus far we’ve been led by the vision of our CTO, Raj Nataraj, and while he’s brilliant, he doesn’t have that knack for commercializing his vision. I’ve invested heavily in your team, and when your predecessor was grabbed by our parent company to lead another new initiative, we worked hard to find the right replacement. I think you’re absolutely the right person at the right time to lead this team and help lead this business into a successful future. It won’t be easy, but you have my support and the support of our entire management team.”

After returning to his office and sitting down with his manager, Pat, he relayed the lunch discussion and shared his over-the-top excitement with her.

“John, Victoria is right,” said Pat. “We’ve got a great opportunity and your role and your team is critical. But remember, no one said this would be a day at the beach. There are challenges ranging from the choice of markets and the development of the best entry strategies to critical product investment calls and challenging execution issues. We’re a young unit, but we’re big enough to need more process around our approach to daily operations…while at the same time insuring that we keep that entrepreneurial culture. And yes, I read once that these jobs would be easy if it weren’t for the people. It’s true here…there are a wide variety of personalities, all with different perspectives and all trying to help the firm grow and go. More than a few of them missed the memo on teamwork. You definitely have your work cut out for you, but I’m glad you’re here. And I’m thrilled to have your help and to offer my support,” she said.

“Now, are you prepared for your first team meeting?” asked Pat. “It’s in five minutes.”

While the morning’s raw enthusiasm was still there, John was beginning to understand the magnitude of the work out in front of him. He smiled, and said, “Absolutely. Just point the way to the conference room.”

Discussion Prompters:

  1. The initial meeting with a new team is one of the more challenging for any manager. What do you think is running through the minds of John’s new team members as they head to the conference room for this first meeting with their new boss?
  2. What are John’s objectives for this initial, formal group contact?
  3. What must John do and say to make a positive first impression?
  4. What must John avoid to minimize tarnishing that first impression?
  5. Help John get started on the right foot in the weeks ahead. What should John do in the early days of his new role as the head of Product Management and Marketing in the DSSG?

All characters and firms are fictional and any resemblance to any person or any firm is purely coincidental. The Saturday Serial is a copyright (2015) of Art Petty, The Art Petty Group and The Management Excellence Blog.

Introducing The Saturday Serial—An Ongoing Management & Leadership Case

A text slide reading: The Saturday Serial: A Management and Leadership Story Delivered One Post at a TimeA note from Art:

I’ve long believed serials are great ways to share stories. Dickens published many of his works in serial format and the dockworkers were reputed to shout from the shore as ships arrived with the latest installment of The Old Curiosity Shop, “Did little Nell live?” The Golden Age of Science Fiction was filled with stories told one chapter at a time from issue-to-issue and today’s Game of Thrones novels from George R.R. Martin are an excellent example of the serial on steroids, with fans (myself included) waiting impatiently to learn the fate of our favorite characters and hoping that Mr. Martin finishes the story. Who lives? Who dies? Who conquers?

Serials provide readers an opportunity to become invested in a story and the characters, and I believe the approach provides authors an opportunity to think and then create new twists and new approaches to challenge the characters and further engage the readers. As a child and teen I was addicted to the Encyclopedia Brown Mysteries because I appreciated the characters and I loved the ability to try and solve the cases. I’ve added that twist here in the form of discussion questions and I look forward to sharing my ideas and learning how readers might solve these business cases.

Welcome to my intent and attempt to share and cultivate management and leadership lessons beyond the format of a stale blog post and endless lists of “10 ideas to… .” While I love writing the Management Excellence blog and the first 1,025 posts are testament to my commitment, I’ve wanted to experiment with the serial and management fable format here for a long time. I’m emboldened by the reader appreciation for the short, fictional cases around my mythical APEX Corporation, inserted in front of the chapters in my book with Rich Petro, Practical Lessons in Leadership. Those mini-cases and their discussion questions and the author’s take on the cases have been a staple of this book and something many managers have leveraged to stimulate thinking around the issues we all face in growing as leaders. I’m grateful for the appreciation many of you have expressed for those cases.

Lencioni and Goldratt popularized the novelized or fable form of business lessons in their various writings and I understand that some of you love those and others don’t. For those who prefer their business and leadership lessons and questions with a taste of drama, The Saturday Serial is ideal for you.

Beginning with my first episode, “Welcome to ACME John Anderson,” you will meet a growing cast of characters facing a series of very real management, leadership and career challenges in this fictional high-tech, global conglomerate and its various units and divisions.

Yes, the issues are real. I see them every day and I’ve experienced and observed these dilemmas around strategy and execution and learning to lead and learning to manage in many flavors  for 30-years. And while the characters and firms are all fictional, I will wager a fair amount, you will recognize these issues and challenges…and many of you will be dealing with them in real time. Now, you get to see and hear them unfold here in this on-going series of stories and cases, and hopefully, we’ll all engage in sharing some ideas on how to navigate the challenges. After all, the intent of my work and this entire blog is to help those striving to grow their firms and grow in their careers find useful and creative ideas and answers to the vexing challenges we all face during our journeys.

Welcome to The Saturday Serial at Management Excellence I hope you’ll tune in and chime in as the story develops. After all, the beauty of this format is that you can help determine the outcomes. -Art

Check out Episode Number 1.

 All characters and firms are fictional and any resemblance to any person or any firm is purely coincidental. The Saturday Serial is a copyright (2015) of Art Petty, The Art Petty Group and The Management Excellence Blog.

Six Ideas to Help You Have Better Days at Work

Businessman Being Hit with Boxing GloveEveryone has difficult days, however, when every day feels like a slow, painful, stressful march up a rock-strewn path toward certain calamity, it’s time for you to take action. Here are a few ideas to help you re-frame your daily activities and reset your attitude.

Six Ideas to Help You Have Better Days at Work:

1. Shrink your goals and create little victories. View every encounter or task as an opportunity to succeed…and internally acknowledge the successes. This technique is often referenced in the context of the Navy Seals as one that allowed them to survive and succeed one of the most rigorous training programs on the planet. Every successful step during this stressful program places them one step closer to achieving their goal.

Instead of focusing on the less tangible yearly or quarterly goals, spend more time succeeding in the present. Remind yourself that every day offers a host of challenges and encounters ripe for earning victory. Whether it’s taking the burden away from that stressed out customer, sharing challenging news with executives or, making the calls needed to support your sales pipeline build, every step and every encounter offers a chance for you to say, “OK, I succeeded with that one. Next!”  You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how acknowledging small victories will improve your attitude and steel your resolve and confidence for solving the bigger challenges.

2. Defuse stressful situations by employing a “seek first to understand” approach.  Instead of arguing with that same character in the other department, ask questions that when answered will help you understand why he is so animated about a change in process or policy. When you encounter squabbles on project teams, take the same approach. This is a classic negotiating technique where striving to uncover shared interests allows the two parties to work towards or design a proper outcome. More often than not, we engage in verbal arm-wrestling over positions and approaches without cultivating a clear view to the real interests of all parties. Questions are your best friend here!

3. Try Admitting Your Mistakes…instead of hiding from them. It’s typically not the mistakes that we make that are damaging to our credibility and our immediate environment…it’s what we do once we’ve made them that determines the real impact. How you handle one of your mistakes says a lot about your character and whether people can trust you. With a genuine dose of humility, try a simple, “You were right and I was wrong,” or some variation based on the situation. This approach can prevent emotional boil-overs and help cool simmering slow-burns.

4. Try Offering Your Help. The words, “How can I help?” or, “Here’s how I can help…,” are lifelines for individuals and teams struggling through complex issues, and your support is a great way for you to build professional equity and credibility with your coworkers. Of course, once the offer is made, stand prepared to deliver.

5. Practice Preparing Your Daily Attitude. I’ve referenced this one before and it bears repeating. A participant in one of my workshops offered how she managed to move her attitude from negative to positive with a simple daily ritual. She would arrive at work a few minutes early every morning and use those minutes in her car to begin focusing on how she wanted her day to unfold…from beginning to end. While things have a habit of not going as planned in most workplaces, she offered that the simple adjustment of walking in the door and walking around to greet her team members helped her improve her attitude and set a better tone with her team every morning. As she walked out the door at night, she would think about the achievements of the day (small victories) and how tomorrow offered another great set of opportunities to succeed. The other workshop participants (and the workshop leader) found this approach to be priceless!

6. Ask for Help—Seek Outside Perspectives on Big Issues. While I encouraged you to offer, “How can I help?” above, it’s important for you to recognize that in some circumstances, an objective outside perspective is essential to identifying or evaluating a situation. Instead of stewing and stressing over a big decision on your own, identify someone who is experienced enough to offer valuable perspectives and far away enough from your situation to be objective. While you may own the call and the implications of the call, seeking external input is an important and stress-reducing step we should all take more often in our work.

The Bottom-Line for Now

Creeping negativity is a morale killer in too many workplaces and a potential career killer if you’re the one spreading it. If you’re daily attitude needs a bit of adjusting, you owe it to yourself and your colleagues to take action. And who knows, you might just stimulate some creeping positivity and help make work a better place for everyone around you. For those of you who have some additional ideas and approaches for improving your days at work (and reducing stress), please share. You’ll be doing us all a public service.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter with subscriber-only content! 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.

Revisiting The 5 Priceless Lessons from Amundsen and Scott

Roald AmundsenNote from Art: given the recent storms and polar-like weather in the Midwest and Northeast, it seems fitting to revisit the priceless management and leadership lessons gleaned from Amundsen and Scott in their race to 90-degrees south. These lessons never grow cold!

In preparation for an upcoming presentation, I’ve become a bit obsessed with studying the 1910 expeditions and race between Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott to 90-degrees South (the South Pole).  The lessons for leaders and managers practically leap off the pages of this classic example of coping with risk, uncertainty and volatility.

This “Heroic Era” of polar exploration was capped off (really bad pun!) by Amundsen and Scott, in what turned into an adventure where Amundsen beat Scott to the pole and safely returned, crew intact. Sadly, Scott and his crew ultimately perished during their attempted return.

I have Jim Collins to thank for this latest management segue, as he draws upon this same race and the comparison and contrast between Amundsen and Scott in his book with Morten T. Hansen, Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos and Luck-Why Some Thrive Despite them All. (Note: While Collins hooked me, see my suggestion at the end of the post for much deeper reading on the topic.)

The level of preparation that Amundsen and team put into their polar expedition was both monumental and commendable.

All students of project management and management and leadership in general should study this case.  The comparison and contrast between Amundsen’s approach and Scott’s is fascinating and highly relevant to leading initiatives and organizations in today’s turbulent workplace environment.

For the rest of us, here are a few lessons gleaned from my just-started study of this fascinating event.

At Least 5 Key Lessons Gained from Studying Amundsen and Scott:

1. The Conventional Wisdom Isn’t Always Right.  Amundsen’s selection of a previously uncharted path to 90-degrees South was contrary to all of the conventional wisdom of the time.  Long voiced concerns about the stability of the ice in the area kept prior expeditions from considering Amundsen’s starting point. His own painstaking review of the various logs of prior explorers suggested that the geology hadn’t changed much in decades. He decided to take this risk in return for a straighter, shorter (albeit completely unknown) line to his destination. While his choice introduced an element of risk, he viewed the payoff for success as worth it.

How often do you let the conventional wisdom dictate your approach to a complex problem?

2. Focus Means Focus. Amundsen was solely focused on reaching the South Pole. Everything he did…the months of preparation, the customization of his tools…and everything he had done earlier in his life, including, living with the Inuit, led to his preparation for success in the harsh polar environment. Scott had a mixed agenda of exploration and science, and the complexity of doing both contributed in part to his challenges.

It’s always tempting to tag on goals that seem complementary. Beware the dilution and distraction effect. In another work, Collins describes our tendency to engage in the “undisciplined pursuit of more.” We’re always best served by clarifying and then laser-focusing on the mission at hand.

 3. Luck Happens-It’s What You Do with It that Counts. In Amundsen’s words: “I may say that this is the greatest factor—the way in which the expedition is equipped—the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who has everything in order — luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck.”

Scott’s journal was filled with descriptions of bad luck. In reality, the two expeditions faced much of the same lousy weather luck. One succeeded while the other failed. What we do with our luck…good or bad is completely within our control.

 4. Tailor the Tools to the Mission. While Scott and his crew spent the winter months wiling away their time with lectures (to each other) and reading, Amundsen’s team maintained 8-hour days customizing every single piece of equipment to improve their odds of surviving anything. Both expeditions used the same sledges, but Amundsen’s were modified to reduce the weight considerably. Amundsen redesigned his skis and ski bindings, his crates, his critical paraffin containers and everything else with the idea of safety, security, light-weight, ease of use from set-up to stowing all the driving goal. And he took tips from the Inuit on clothing, opting for a style and material that promoted air circulation and helped managed sweating and heat retention/loss.

Too often we expect our technology tools and generic practices to yield great results. Take a page from Amundsen and tailor your tools to the mission in front of you.

 5. Nobility is Nice, but Practicality Wins. Scott and his crew viewed it as noble to man-haul their sledges and gears. Yes, man-haul. Amundsen knew from his time with the Inuit that dogs were superior haulers and that the issue of calories would eventually determine survival or death. Scott grossly miscalculated the calorie burn from man-hauling, and that combined with poor food depot planning (location, contents, fuel) contributed to his team’s demise. It is reported that Amundsen’s team actually gained weight during their successful return trip.

Pride and nobility goeth before the fall. Don’t get caught up in the nobility of your tactics, when there may well be a better, less-elegant approach to save the project, your job or in Scott’s case, his life.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

All of us live and work in a world filled with chaos and turbulence. Our customers feel it, our suppliers know it and our competitors are coping with it as well. As Collins and Hansen suggest in Great by Choice: “It’s what you do before the storm comes that most determines how well you’ll do when the storm comes. Those who fail to plan and prepare for instability, disruption, and chaos in advance tend to suffer more when their environments shift from stability to turbulence.”

While, “Be like Amundsen” doesn’t have that commercial jingle sound to it, we will all be better off if we incorporate this explorer’s constancy of purpose and unrelenting focus into our personal and professional endeavors.

Another great resource on this topic: Race to the End by Ross D. E. MacPhee (hardcover only…a beautiful collector’s book.)

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter with subscriber-only content! 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.

For a Change, Try Embracing Change at Work

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, guidance and inspiration for strengthening your performance and supporting your development as a professional. Use the ideas in great career health!

We all know that we live in an era of constant change. Gary Hamel in his excellent video on the reality and near future of management, “Reinventing the Technology of Human Achievement” suggests that even “change is changing.” It impacts our firms, competitors and markets, and of course, change impacts all of us in our jobs.

And more often than not, the thought of change is enough to send us scurrying for cover.

However, hiding or simply allowing fear of the unknown to seize your emotions is the wrong approach in a situation that stands to be both a rich learning experience and an opportunity for you to showcase your value to your managers and your firm.

Organizational Health Demands Learning and Change:

In the McKinsey study summarized in “Beyond Performance” by Keller and Price, the definition of organizational health is one where a firm “aligns, executes and renews faster than competitors.” The align/execute/renew tasks imply the need to be in a constant learning and adapting mode, and that means that firms, teams and individuals must adjust their strategies and approaches to cope or leverage changing market conditions. Naturally, this means our own roles and tasks and teams will change.

The McKinsey study goes so far as to offer a causal relationship between this ability to learn and change and drive financial results. Firms that do this well win and firms that don’t struggle or die. Now, about that new team you are being asked to join or that new set of challenges in front of you and your group… .

Don’t Assume the Worst About the Rationale for Change:

While there’s little doubt that change is often mismanaged by those in charge of leading it, and I’ve certainly observed change that was politically motivated rather than motivated by market conditions or opportunities, more often than not, the need to change is based on very legitimate issues. In particular, in those organizations where leadership is critically concerned about serving stakeholders (employees, customers, suppliers, partners and shareholders) and building or sustaining success, change is essential for prosperity. Markets, technologies, customers and competitors don’t stand still and don’t doubt that your competitors would love to keep you and your team members from earning those bonuses or paying those bills. We’re all in competitive markets and our ability to quickly change and adapt is essential not only for success, but survival.

Adjust Your Attitude and Seize the Golden Opportunity that Change Offers You:

The only people truly nervous about change should be the leaders and managers leading the charge on change. After all, they’re dependent upon everyone else for their success.

Try spending a few minutes walking in your manager’s shoes and you would quickly learn that she’s hoping and looking for someone and some people to step up and help with change. Whether it’s building that new market-focused team or combining two formerly siloed groups into one or taking on a new set of customers or tasks, your willingness to help with the heavy lifting is a priceless opportunity to stand-up, stand-out and enhance your professional equity.

To seize this opportunity, you will need to quell that queasy feeling of, “I’m not certain what this means for me in my work” and adopt the more productive perspective of, “If I jump in, I can help form what this means for me and my team, and I can help my manager and firm.” There’s a profound difference between the two types of thinking and the behaviors and results each one promotes.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

When faced with change, fight your natural instinct to hide or react with outrage. Take a few deep breaths and recognize that you will be dealing with change the rest of your career and you can either make it your friend and an engine for your growth, or, it’s going to be a long, unpleasant career. My vote is for you to jump in and pitch in. Your manager and your firm need your help and your career might just get a boost in the process.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter with subscriber-only content! 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.

Leadership Caffeine—Humility and the Effective Leader

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 most effective leaders I know are simultaneously courageous and humble in the face of ambiguity and adversity.

Courage as we all know is essential for facing and making the tough decisions demanded in difficult situations. I referenced this attribute in my recent post, Leading into the Fog.

A healthy grounding of humility serves as a powerful check and balance influence that helps effective leaders fight the pressure to make rash decisions in the drive to be perceived as omniscient.

There’s a very real…and very dangerous pressure in many organizations for those in charge to appear all-knowing and all-confident. This pressure is a catalyst to rash and poor decisions that exacerbate already difficult situations. After all, no CEO wants to appear weak in front of her board and no manager wants to appear as if he doesn’t know what to do in front of his team or boss. The pressure to avoid being perceived as weak or uncertain invites individuals to portray a false sense of confidence and to act around misguided quick-fix thinking.

There are no quick fixes in business. Not for a strategy problem, a revenue problem, a competitive problem, a quality problem or a talent problem. They are sticky, wicked, complicated issues where solutions emerge in iterative fashion of try, fail, learn, improve… . You have nothing to gain by suggesting you have all of the answers.

Please don’t confuse my use of the notion of humility as anything that suggests weakness. Rather, I view the trait of humility as an attribute of a strong leader. Humility allows the leader to clearly understand the situation and to have realistic context for the implications, risks and challenges. It also allows this leader to comfortably seek and accept help.

The effective leader is a realist who understands that he/she is responsible for the choices to move beyond the present circumstances. This leader draws upon the ideas, insights and approaches of the best minds on the team. It takes true inner strength to both acknowledge that you don’t have all of the answers and that you and the team will be better off if you seek and accept input from those around you.

Developing Your Own Leadership Style:

We all cultivate our own leadership styles and approaches over time and based on experience. With the benefit of age and experience, I’ve long concluded that I’m stronger and more effective by drawing upon and engaging others for the most vexing challenges. It’s difficult at times to resist asserting on an issue that seems straightforward or feels familiar. It’s easy to dictate..but it is most often right to hold back and support the discovery and learning of others. Often, the solution the team develops turns out to be superior to the one that worked historically.

At the end of the day, the art of leading and managing effectively is knowing which decisions you can outsource and which you and you alone must be accountable for. Don’t shirk your responsibility to make decisions that enable action. Just don’t confuse this with the need to make all of the decisions.

In situations where the pressure is on from above and below, it’s fine and necessary to portray a strong sense of confidence that you and your team will find the way forward. Those above you want to know that you’re moving forward and those around you want to be part of the work. Just resist the temptation to put it all on your shoulders. That’s not leading, it’s dumb.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Delusional leaders who have worked to convince everyone around them that they have all of the answers have a tendency to begin believing their own dogma. These individuals are dangerous to a firm’s health. Instead of feeling the pressure to act like a superman or superwoman in corporate clothing, try recognizing that the super people around you have the critical pieces to most business puzzles. All you need to do is invite them to get involved with developing the solution.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! (All new subscriber-only content!) 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.

The Importance of Owning Your Own Career

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, guidance and inspiration for strengthening your performance and supporting your development as a professional. Use the ideas in great career health!

Too many of us wait for someone else to create the circumstances that allow us to be happy in our work. Expecting someone else to lift us up from our current situation is a fool’s errand blended with a real life frustration dream. No matter how much we sulk or complain about our lot, the only person responsible for changing the situation is the one staring back at us in the mirror.

You own your career. Not your firm.

You own your professional development. Not your boss.

Ultimately, you own the task of finding and participating in work that leverages your superpower and feeds on your passion to do something.

Too many of us struggle with the internal knowledge that we have more to do…more to give, yet our daily work doesn’t leverage this drive to do or give more. Others move from role to role in pursuit of a paycheck and some sense of happiness, but fail to focus on and develop what I call their superpower… their unique, innate talent.

The business press talks about the high level of employees that describe themselves as “not engaged” in their work or their workplace. Instead of an engagement index, it’s more appropriately referenced as a misery index. From the latest report, it appears that there’s a bull market in professional misery.

Finding Inspiration:

In one part of my professional life, I teach. Over the years, I’ve developed relationships with a number of fine institutions from my community college to DePaul University in Chicago. I do this to give back…to serve and to ensure in part that I keep learning. (Yes, the teacher is often the beneficiary of ample wisdom and creativity from the students.) Whether the students are those just getting started or those starting over, I am consistently inspired by the many who are striving for something for themselves.

I am in awe of the single parents who hold down multiple jobs…days cleaning houses and evenings waiting tables, who enroll in online coursework to pursue a degree that will support their movement towards something they believe is more their calling. I would put some of these students up against the best of the more well-heeled classes. Their life experiences and common sense and passion for their coursework and for their advancement are remarkable and inspirational.

There are the military professionals in my courses across all institutions who are so passionate about and dedicated to their country that they deserve all of our thanks and respect. Often, I find them striving to gain the skills and knowledge to extend their service into something else that gives back. They teach us all to lead and think based on experiences that we as ordinary citizens cannot possibly relate to.

And there’s the mid-career professional returning to earn an MBA or other advanced degree. These people juggle demanding professional roles, travel and family in an exercise that is more about fortitude than intellectual challenge.

While education and training are important components of improving our situation, the moral to the story isn’t about going back to school, it’s about taking action to improve yourself. It’s about being accountable to yourself and not waiting for someone to come along and lift you up. Instead of wallowing in some state of unengaged misery, these people use their current situation as fuel to drive learning, improvement and change. They are accountable to themselves and they know that movement is required for change.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I love working with and teaching and yes, hiring people who understand the importance of taking ownership of their own careers and their own development. There’s something about this person with a value set that emphasizes personal accountability that makes me want to do everything I can to help them along on their 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 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.