Art of Managing—Steering Clear of Flail and Fail

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.

Businesses of all sizes, shapes and ages run into rough patches. Rapid growth, disruptive competitors or technologies, regulatory changes or the end of the road for well-worn strategies are all potential culprits in the move from success to struggle. It’s critical at this point for a firm’s leaders and managers to react carefully and appropriately in this unfamiliar terrain or they risk moving quickly from flail to fail.

The “Flailure” Effect:

Whether the stimuli are positive promoting rapid growth or negative and threatening financial well-being, firms and management teams accustomed to a consistent rhythm and cycle to their business are often caught off-guard and unprepared to process and respond to sudden change. The initial symptoms include a rash of problems as conventional approaches and systems are stressed and teams are challenged to respond in ways they’re not accustomed to around issues that feel foreign.

It’s this point where the new stressors invite widespread anxiety to the corporate party. Tempers flare, fingers point and if left unchecked, dysfunctional conflict sets up camp. In response, well-intended managers scurry around settling disputes and putting out fires…often feeling like they are steadily losing ground against the onslaught of issues.

Obviously, these circumstances call for strong leadership, and it’s often the wrong kind of strong leadership (and decisions) on organization structure, strategy and key leadership roles that finally amplifies flail and moves the firm steadily towards fail. It becomes Flailure.

5 Starter Ideas to Help You Steer Clear of Flailure:

1. Share the Real Situation With the Organization. Your instinct is to mask the problems. That’s wrong. Everyone senses when things are going katty-wampus and the problem is magnified many times over when no one at the top is sharing the straight story. Context is King…and good people long accustomed to success, want to be part of the solution…not kept in the dark. But first, they need to understand the scale and scope of the challenges before they can contribute their energy and gray matter.

2. Get the Middle Involved. Your mid-level managers are involved in all of the work of the business and they are the source of most daily decisions. Additionally, they deal with every headache and they see the stressors clearly…in contrast to a firm’s senior leaders who are by the nature of their role removed from the daily heavy lifting. You need them on your side and active in seeking solutions. You need your mid-level managers engaged with each other and comfortable in translating front-line realities into unified ideas and actions. In addition to serving as the execution layer around fixes and changes, these people are the critical translation layer in helping a firm’s senior leaders gauge the progress and outcomes with new programs and strategies.  (For those of you who pillaged and eradicated your mid-level management layer in the name of efficiency, you’re exposed here.)

 3. Mind the Intersections. Our tendency is to hunker down in our functional silos, yet most issues in times of significant change involve hand-offs and collaboration and many of the problems and opportunities occur where processes and functions intersect. Building on the prior point, your mid-level managers are critical to gaining visibility into the issues and bringing the resources to bear to change processes and monitor results. Pay particular attention to gauging and improving the process work around the intersections. (Of course, the functional issues must be addressed as well.)

4. Build In Stress Relief. Yes, this one is lighter…and I know that I personally don’t do “light” very well, but I respect its power and importance. No one and no team does their best work under sustained periods of high stress. The stress becomes toxic to individuals (health, well-being) and relationships. The culture becomes sick. It helps to find ways to lighten the mood and shift the focus at least on a social level for moments in time during periods of tension. One leader I observed set up a bowling league and in spite of the behind the scenes laughs at a perceived trivial and unrelated activity at the wrong time, the people learned to relax, compete and have fun together every other week…taking the edge off just a bit. Howard Schultz famously took 10,000 managers to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to offer help rebuilding and then to meet and share frank talk on the downturn at Starbucks. He offered (I paraphrase): if we didn’t have New Orleans, we might not be here. Creating an opportunity to blow off steam and allow people to rediscover their human side is never a bad thing.

5. Senior Leaders… Avoid the Easy Temptations and Focus on Clarifying Direction. Our knee-jerk reaction when things aren’t working is to restructure…people, teams and the overall organization. We run around rearranging deck chairs and walls and we don’t have a set design or blueprint. Structural change won’t compensate for a failed or failing strategy and identifying a scapegoat for the problems and changing out functional leadership definitely won’t cure the disease. The same goes for unexpected growth. If it was accidental…this happy outcome is every bit as serious as the challenges of disruption. Get your arms around the strategy and then begin sorting through the best way to organize to leverage the opportunity. Remember, the directional decisions come first and this is where senior leadership must earn its keep.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

This is a big hairy topic and it’s one that I’ve observed in clients or prior employers over time. If you’ve lived through this, you recognize the symptoms and too often as an employee or manager, you feel helpless to stem the tide or make a productive difference. Fight this attitude and resist the temptation for knee jerk reactions. Communicate with your peers…have the confidence to surface the problems and propose ideas. Find opportunities to let the teams blow off steam. Your ability to galvanize the collective gray matter of your team members, peers and colleagues is absolutely essential for avoiding flailure, and you need their hearts and minds in the process.

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.

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

 

Helping the Senior Management Team Find Its Voice

Graphic displaying terms relevant to high performance managementThis series at Management Excellence is intended to prompt ideas and promote healthy discussion around the big topic of strengthening the development and performance of senior management teams.

I’m convinced one of the key limiting factors of management team effectiveness is the discomfort these high-powered functional experts have in talking with each other.

While there are few quiet senior management team meetings, the words exchanged tend to be more about functional updates and carefully worded ideas or collegial debate over direction or investments than they are about the real issues confronting the firm.

Some suggest the CEO remind these individuals to leave their functional hats at the door, but this seemingly sound guidance is simply impossible. It’s the functional expertise and perspective that forms and frames senior managers and there’s no leaving the well-patterned thinking and experience anywhere. It’s foolish advice as well. The wisdom gained by experience is why you hired these people in the first place. Better to harness it than banish it from the scene.

Another reality of the communication dynamic between groups of senior managers is an exercise in political sensitivity. There’s an unspoken rule that you don’t step over an invisible but very real line in challenging other senior managers, lest you embarrass someone in front of the CEO and/or invite an angry response and eventual reprisal.

Instead of tackling the tough issues, topics are politely floated with carefully selected words intended to soften the risk of a perceived slight, and less than complete answers serve as periods that punctuate the end-points of the topic.

The real challenge for CEOs and senior managers is to transcend the forces that keep these groups from talking openly and comfortably with each other about the tough issues or decisions standing in the way of progress. Depending upon the state of the management team, one or more of the following ideas might help take the dialog to a new level of effectiveness.

5 Blocking and Tackling Ideas for Helping the Senior Management Team Find Its Voice:

1. Bring in outside help. Most CEOs aren’t able to overcome the issues that impede senior management team communication effectiveness, try as they might…either by moral suasion or sheer force of personality. I’ve sat on both sides of this table…as the coach/facilitator and as one of the challenged senior executives, and in environments where the right help and coaching is present for the team, discussions flourish and real progress is built one topic at a time. A good facilitator will cut through double-speak, call out people who aren’t participating and cry foul when the topic steers off course. A small investment for a priceless return.

2. Create Nominal Group Opportunities. This under-utilized technique for eliciting ideas is no more complicated than framing up a single, focused question or approach and allowing senior executives to contribute in writing, anonymously. Yes, I know that sounds weak…senior executives forced to share ideas cloaked behind the veil of anonymity, however, the technique depersonalizes the discussion and allows people to focus on the issues…safely away from the real-time filters that suppress face to face communication. While there’s always some guessing on who submitted what ideas or critiques, the depersonalization of the input changes the communication dynamic for the better. The focus stays more on the issues and ideas and is less about perceived agendas. Appoint someone to organize and share the feedback and key points.

3. Keep it visible, but use a written discussion board format. I never cease to be amazed at how well my MBA students open up and share in discussion board forums and I’ve observed the same with management teams. This technique offers an opportunity for individuals to review and share ideas on their own time and at their own pace. Instead of fleeting words in a meeting, the opinions of others are captured and visible to read and reflect upon, while forming their own thoughts. The results are often rich, thoughtful perspectives that compare/contrast and build upon the opinions of others. One bonus…the perspectives are archived for easy reference or reminder.

4. Ensure that discussions have a way to turn into action. Again, odd sounding, but these talented professionals who often manage big budgets and big teams aren’t accustomed to taking on work as part of a team. That’s a muscle that for many at the senior level has long atrophied. Use project management techniques and a project approach for executive team assignments. Always appoint a sponsor…create a charter and write a good quality scope document that frames the expected outcomes/time-frames for the work. As needed, add in a professional project manager to guide the execs and politely but firmly hold them accountable to progress.

5. Write the rules. Most senior management teams don’t take the time to ensure clear, written rules for their discussions. Try establishing clear standards and values for communication, including: one topic at a time; everyone participates; divergent opinions are welcomed; there’s a time for assessing risks and identifying problems with ideas…and there’s a time for building solutions…don’t mix those time-frames. This is work that good project managers and team builders do in their sleep…but most CEOs aren’t wired to focus on the hard work of building team dynamics and team communication standards.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

There’s nothing easy about building high performance teams, particularly when the group at hand is comprised of senior executives. The real value that accrues from these groups of high powered people working together comes from their ability to have the right conversations and move from issue to action quickly and effectively. While the topics of these groups…direction, strategy and investment are big and lofty and ambiguous, the use of one or more of the above ideas can help neutralize the political dynamics and help the group develop a more effective and open communication style and cadence.

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 latest book: 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—Your Critical Personal Performance Questions

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!

An early career mentor offered this comment and it has been with me in one form or another throughout my career: “If you’re sleeping through the night, you’re not thinking hard enough about your job and career and you’re definitely not asking yourself the tough questions.”

While I encourage a full night’s rest…we all need quality sleep to perform at our best, the second half of his advice on asking (and answering) the tough questions of ourselves is spot on. From CEOs to smart functional managers and senior leaders, we often get sucked into the operational vortex of our jobs and we forestall asking and answering the big questions on direction, people and about our own personal/professional well-being.

There are convenient excuses we use to keep from attacking all three of those categories.

  • People issues are sticky and they involve emotions, and when the emotions might be negative, we tend to move in the other direction.
  • Issues of direction…a change in strategy, investing in new offerings or changing long-standing processes, are by nature ambiguous and therefore perceived by us as risky. Too many managers are taught to avoid risk, and by habit, we move towards the status quo as a safe haven.
  • And issues of well-being…physical and mental health and career satisfaction are things we plan on getting to later. They take a backseat to the urgent daily activities.

Yet, no three topics are more important in helping create value (profits, market-share, efficiencies, engagement) for our firms than the decisions and actions we make and take on people, direction and on the development and maintenance of our own physical and mental well-being.

Here are just a few of the questions effective leaders hold themselves accountable to asking and answering.

At Least 11 Must Ask and Answer Questions for Leaders at All Levels:

Fair warning…compound questions ahead.

1. How am I truly doing as a leader? Am I getting the frank feedback I need from my team members and peers to help me strengthen my effectiveness? If not, how might I get this feedback?

2. Am I taking accountability for the team that I’ve put on the field? Is the best team with the right people in the right positions, or, are there clear gaps that only I can fix? Do I have a plan to fill those gaps? Do I have the courage to make the needed moves?

3. Am I a net supplier of level-up talent to the broader organization? If not, how can I strengthen my talent recruiting and development efforts?

4. How am I measuring performance and success of my team(s)? Do the measures promote the right behaviors? Do the measures promote continuous improvement? Do the measures connect to the bigger picture outcomes we are after?

5. Is the firm’s direction clear to everyone on my team? What can I do better or more of to constantly reinforce direction and ensure that our individual and team priorities support direction? Do I need to teach people about our business and how we make money and how we plan to grow?

6. Am I realistic about the need to embrace change? Are market dynamics signaling a needed change in direction and am I advocating for this change with my peers and by offering ideas?

7. Am I serving as a catalyst for productive change in my firm? Do I believe passionately in an issue that can benefit my firm and am I advocating hard for it, or, am I simply going along with consensus? If it’s the latter, how can I constructively break with the consensus and build understanding for my idea or approach?

8. Am I actively cultivating healthy relationships with my peers and colleagues in other functions? Do I recognize how dependent I truly am on the help and support of other leaders and other functional team members for my own success? Is there a rift that needs healing and am I taking the lead on making this happen?

9. Am I developing myself? What investments have I made in time, effort and money during the past year in strengthening my skills and gaining exposure to new ideas and new ways of thinking?

10. How I am doing? Is my work (my firm, my vocation) in alignment with my passion, superpower(s) and values? If any of the three are out of whack, what must I do to fix the problem? Are the issues repairable in my current environment or, must I do the hard work of making a significant change?

11. Do I understand that my physical well-being directly impacts my mental well-being and professional performance? Am I taking care of myself physically? If not, how can I adjust my lifestyle to improve my physical health? Do I need to invest the outside help of a coach or trainer help me jump-start an improvement program?

The Bottom-Line for Now:

High personal performance is an outcome of clarity and balance. From ensuring clarity for the direction of your firm, your team and your team members to gaining objective insight on your own performance, clarity in the workplace is essential for your success. Balancing your passion, capabilities and values with your daily work and backing this balance with physical well-being is essential for your satisfaction and success. The pursuit of needed clarity and healthy balance is a journey with constantly shifting terrain. Get started by asking and answering the questions noted above. And if the answers are less than ideal for you, take action.

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.

Just One Thing—Practice Staying in the Moment

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

“To be present is to listen without memory or desire.” Wilfred Bion as cited in John Baldoni’s excellent new book, Moxie—The Secret to Bold and Gutsy Leadership.

Our world of work is filled with quick sound-bite exchanges and constant interruptions. Many of us have learned to cope with competing stimuli and the pressure to move faster and faster in our daily transactions, yet there is a cost to working this way. We’ve sacrificed personal connection and clarity for the siren song of constant communication. It’s communication of sorts, but in no way complete.

Consider:

Most meetings are a competition for some unknown prize, where people talk and debate but don’t typically connect.

Too many leaders engage with half (or less) of their faculties with their team members as they chase the urgent or the urgent-unimportant.

Spend a day observing how people engage in the workplace and you might reasonably conclude that the signal-to-noise ratio in the workplace is mostly noise.

Exercise Your Power of Attention by Staying in the Moment:

Just for today, bend time to your will by slowing down and focusing on the people you come in contact with in the workplace.

Listen intently to what they have to say or what they are asking. Resist the urge to jump in and finish sentences or interject your own thoughts. Ask clarifying questions to ensure you understand their perspective. Restate their points in your own words to confirm that you understand their points. And then and only then, share your ideas in response.

If you are approached in your own workspace, flip a mental switch and disconnect from your screen and turn your attention to the individual in front of you. One effective manager I know, blanks her screen and puts her mobile device on silent in her desk drawer to ensure her full attention.

Yes, the suggestions above are part of what we call active listening. I call it showing respect.

Do the same in meetings. Leave the device in your pocket or at your desk and serve as that clarifying influence. Pay attention to the speakers. And if needed, help people corral the communication chaos by actively facilitating in pursuit of common understanding.

And finally, there are some people we work with who are brilliant but struggle to communicate clearly using just spoken words. Some people are visual communicators…engage with them by drawing on a whiteboard. Others are fierce writers… find an opportunity for them to think on screen and then share their wisdom. Still others live and work in a world of numbers or logic. Be the better communicator and strive to find the medium that best supports their ability to share their message.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Few activities in your career offer a better return on investment than silencing the noise and paying full attention to everyone you encounter.

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.

 

A Leader’s Reasons to Be Thankful

Thank YouNote from Art: This is an annual post at Management Excellence, offered in the spirit of the Thanksgiving holiday here in the U.S. It’s a nice time for leaders to pause and recognize the many reasons they have to be thankful for the privilege of serving. 

A Leader’s Reasons to be Thankful: 

  • Be grateful for your unique chance to serve others. It is a privilege.
  • Be thankful for the patience and forbearance that your colleagues and team-members show as you learn over time and through trial and error what it truly means to lead.
  • Give thanks for your chance to learn everyday from others.
  • Be thankful for those that came before you and took the time to pass along their wisdom…even if you didn’t realize how valuable it was until much later.
  • Be grateful for the opportunity to positively impact lives in ways that few other jobs or professions provide. This is one job that impacts others for a lifetime.
  • Be thankful for the opportunity to motivate, coach and teach those who invest valuable time in their lives and careers with you.
  • Be grateful for those who choose to follow you. Without them, you’re not a leader.
  • Give thanks for the opportunity that you have to create value for your organization.  You might not engineer new products or services, but get this job right and you will enable many others to create, engineer, build and add value.
  • Be thankful for the headaches of daily leadership. Without the problems, your opportunity to lead doesn’t exist.
  • Give thanks for your chance to participate in the journey of a lifetime.
  • And most of all, just give thanks by speaking up and remembering that a well-placed, heartfelt “Thank you” is one of the most powerful and important of all leadership tools.

And yes, please accept my sincere Thank You for your readership and conversation.  I am truly grateful for you.

-Art

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.

 

Art of Managing—Strengthen Performance by Clarifying Your Firm’s Values

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.

Clear, actionable corporate values…the type that are embedded in a firm’s DNA and used to reinforce ideal behaviors and support employee selection and development are incredibly powerful tools for managers to leverage in supporting the development of a great performance culture.

However, much like the infomercial that promises a nearly endless set of benefits with the frequently uttered, “But wait, there’s more,” there is indeed more that flows to you from the hard work of whittling your corporate values down to their meaningful, actionable essence.

The short-form of this post…if your values aren’t working hard for you and your firm every single day, it’s time for a refresh or reset.

Examples that Set Direction and Promote Performance:

Consider the primary value of The Mayo Clinic: “The needs of the patient come first.” Not only does this simple, powerful statement give birth to the hiring profile and support every single clinical and business decision, it points the way to the institution’s strategy…effectively how it will compete (as a relative term) in the market.

The Zappos Family Core Values define the hiring profile and expectations starting with the name “Family Core Values” and extending through ten short, crisp statements. The first value, “Deliver Wow Through Service,” goes a long way to defining how Zappos competes (strategy) and how it executes. As the firm’s founder has offered (I paraphrase), the original idea of selling shoes online seemed like another bad internet idea. However, the marriage of the first value with the business model supported the emergence of a firm that took a big chunk of the revenue and profit streams in the sleepy, unexciting old marketplace of shoe retailing.

Lesser known but successful regional chain, Mike’s Carwash, offers a set of Customer Service Values (separate from the Team Values) that leave no doubt about how the firm will compete and ensure that Mike’s is the destination for all of your future washes. The combined sets of values (Customer and Team) frame every decision and action from hiring to training to developing employees to managing the teams and the entire customer experience. Rocket fuel for effective performance!

The guiding principle behind the firm, S.C. Johnson (tagline: A family company) was stated by Herbert F. Johnson Sr. as, “The goodwill of people is the only enduring thing in any business. It is the sole substances. The rest is shadow.” The opening line in the “What We Do” section offers, “We make homes better for families.” Again, the simplicity and clarity of the thinking points in a direction and frames and filters every other decision at every level of the organization.

Successful companies in my experience operate with a set of clearly understood, actionable values. These values transcend behavior and point to purpose, direction and approach. Most of the time, they are codified or articulated,  however, in the case of some smaller or start-up organizations, they are present in the environment even if they are missing from the framed artwork on the wall.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

For those of us working in firms where the values are defined but not necessarily part of the daily routine, there’s nothing stopping you and your colleagues from translating them into something more meaningful and actionable for your teams. Use the existing values as starting points and work on clarifying them until they point to direction and frame decisions. And for those of you who either sit at the top or are comfortable catalyzing a positive revolution, start a movement to redefine your firm’s values. I checked, and there’s no law against discarding unproductive, cliché-riddled words with something that sets direction and defines the criteria for making decisions. It might just be a game-changer for your firm.

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

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

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

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

 

 

Level-Up #3—Cultivating Grace or Fire Under Pressure

levelupThe Level-Up series at Management Excellence is dedicated to supporting your professional development as an emerging executive.

There will be bad days, tough situations or pivotal debates on key issues with colleagues that will trip your trigger and stimulate your fight (as in argue) or flight reflex. For some of us who never met a good knock-down argument we didn’t love, the situation will tempt our fight or fight-harder reflexes. And for those who tend to operate on the quiet side of the equation, sometimes you just need to be heard.

Learning to match just the right level of emotion or passion to each situation is important in gaining support for your initiatives and gaining much needed credibility with team members and your firm’s senior leaders. Knowing how to temper your emotions in the heat of a business battle is equally important.

For those Predisposed to Engage Aggressively in the Debate, There’s a Line:

I managed to get away with stepping over what I would now perceive as a reasonable line in a number of challenging moments during the level-up phase of my career. In hindsight, I’m fortunate that I did not derail right out of a role or off into a position penalty box. While I cannot recall having a distinct strategy, I believed to my core that my passionate engagement was on the side of goodness for my firm. I came out fine and mostly unscathed. I’m certain luck helped in a few instances.

My mistakes and those that I see frequently involve miscalculations on whether to engage and debate passionately (fight) or withdraw and reassess options. For many of us, the idea of compromise feels a lot like defeat.

Never Engage in an Emotionally Turbocharged Issue Blind:

It’s likely I set the all-time record for mistakes and gaffes when as a rising product and marketing director, I managed to tick off one of the top senior executives of my very large Japanese employer. He was making a ceremonial visit that turned somehow into a very detailed business discussion over forthcoming products and the end-of-life management of our cash cow product in particular. The dialog moved tactical and I believed passionately in moving this system out of market with a bang…leveraging it to capture market share in its last year. He didn’t. I argued passionately (and with volume in my voice) for my case and the situation became uncomfortable. As I later learned when the meeting adjourned, the senior director offered to my boss, “He really ticked me off. I like him.”

I got lucky. I showed passion for a product that was very personal to those who had engineered and enhanced and supported it for many years. I respected their baby. I was a newbie, and I was willing to fight. While I violated almost every cultural norm in the situation, I had established my reputation for strength and the willingness to advocate for what I believed was right for the firm. My motives were perceived as pure.

Too Loud, Too Long or Too Quiet are All Problems:

I’ve observed many others stubbornly hang on to a position that seems to everyone else in the room to be mostly self-serving. In this case, the incessant arguing seems irrational and selfish, unleashing a credibility killing cloud of hot air that becomes suffocating to others.

Hang on too long to the wrong position for the wrong reasons and you’ll do yourself more harm than good.

I’ve also worked with professionals who erred by spending too much on the side of quiet reserve. While a strategic retreat when you are losing a firefight is a reasonable approach, the failure to know when to stand up for your position and ensure that you are heard communicates weakness and works against you with those responsible for your Level-Up opportunities.

7 Suggestions for Matching Your Response to the Moment:

1. Sometimes you have to jump through the walls. Overcoming the resistance of the status quo in many circumstances requires extraordinary energy. Your willingness to engage passionately for something you believe is in the best interest of the business will wear down resistance and even build enthusiasm. It’s appropriate to let the fire in your belly for an issue turn into passionate and constructive debate.

2. Not every situation demands that you jump through walls. Sometimes it’s appropriate to walk through the door. Save your passion for the big issues. This skill will become particularly important in senior management and boardroom settings.

3. Don’t cross the line and make the debate personal. Ever. When that happens, you’ve lost the debate and you’ve lost credibility with everyone in fallout range.

4. Do seek first to understand. Always. This is a recurring theme in my coaching and posts. Too many people focus on their position…their approach and far too few strive to find shared interests. Once the interests are uncovered for an issue, you can construct an approach that serves various constituencies. Again, this is a critical skill to cultivate that will set you apart from peers and help those who must select you for more opportunity to develop confidence in your approach.

5. Learn to self-regulate. If the battle has been lost, withdraw and offer your support. It’s better to be respected for advocating an idea and then accepting that it’s going in another direction than it is to be known as that pain in the a@@ who won’t let go.

6. Know your opponents. My example above with the senior director of a firm from a very different culture was extremely dangerous. He allowed my to violate his cultural standards because we were in our environment. He was enlightened. I wasn’t. Don’t expect to find someone quite as enlightened in most circumstances. I’m fortunate that I wasn’t put in the permanent penalty box in that environment after picking a fight blindfolded.

7. There’s a time to make noise even if you’re quiet by nature. Cultivating the courage to step into an important issue and assert your opinion will help build your level-up credibility. People recognize your quiet nature and heads will turn and resistance may melt when you shift your style momentarily and engage. The failure to engage is a limiting factor.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I appreciate professionals who debate constructively, passionately and intelligently for their points. In fact, I love working with these types. It shows me they are engaged and motivated to do what it takes to get beyond the sticky gravitational pull of the status quo. If the results are good and the passion is more than self-serving hot air, I look for reasons to promote these types. For those who simply like to argue, don’t expect much support in your quest to level-up.

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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In Pursuit of Senior Management Team Cohesion

Graphic displaying terms relevant to high performance managementThis series at Management Excellence is intended to prompt ideas and promote healthy discussion around the big topic of strengthening the development and performance of senior management teams.

In the most recent post in this series, I emphasized the importance of carefully cultivating senior management team chemistry …particularly when it comes to neutralizing the impact of toxic participants. However, even with the positive situation of a ph-neutral group of senior leaders (including the CEO) at the management team roundtable, there’s still no guarantee of high performance.

It’s just not that simple.

As we shift away from the issue of toxicity (a deal-killer for team performance) and move towards cultivating high performance at the senior management group level, the ideas of team cohesion and team attraction come into play.

The Research View on the Ideas of Senior Team Cohesion and Attraction:

In my own (non-exhaustive) review of the somewhat limited research on the topic of top management team performance and cohesion, researchers serve up guidance that is difficult to describe, more difficult to measure and even more challenging to connect in a causal way to firm performance. Nonetheless, the few studies that tackle this topic suggest a positive correlation (but not causation) between senior management team cohesion and a firm’s performance.

Before tackling the practical implications of cultivating cohesion and attraction, let’s look at some of the terms (drawn from the study, Top Management Team Attraction as a Strategic Asset).

The classic definition of cohesion (Fetzinger) describes it as the “resultant of all forces acting on members to remain in the group. These forces include a range of factors such as member attraction, shared goals, network benefits and social identification”

The dimension of team member attraction references “the degree to which top management team members desire to identify with and be accepted members of the team.” And perhaps, the most telling statement on this dimension of cohesion reads, “top team member attraction is a socially complex phenomenon reflecting the unique personalities of team members.”

Like team cohesion, attraction is squishy and not easily manipulated, fostered or replicated in practice. However, the idea of attraction and the broader category of cohesion do provide us with some clues to work with in our pursuit of the high performance management team.

At Least 5 Ideas to Promote Team Cohesion and Attraction:

There’s some well-worn but worthwhile advice in the sources on team development that many of us read and talk about. Lencioni is perhaps the most practical with his 5 Dysfunctions, however, we need to flip those around and turn them into 5 high performance functions.

There’s ample research on team development (teams in general, project teams specifically), and in aggregate, the material offers content to build a framework for team success, but little in the way of practical, actionable ideas for strengthening senior management team performance. There are test instruments to help us assess team dynamics and no shortage of options to climb with, hike with or catch our colleagues in trust-falls. Nonetheless, for the typical team and CEO wondering where to go next, guidance is in short supply.

I’m a fan of starting simple with well-intended actions versus over-baking the complexity of this already complex issue. Here’s one reminder and a few thoughts for you to try on for size. Use them in great senior team health!

1. You Must Create the Fundamental Condition—A Neutral Team PH

This theme of my prior post in this series bears repeating. Nothing (good) happens on a team when a member is not trusted over questions of character, values or ethics. Just don’t confuse passion and commitment to debate vociferously with toxicity. This isn’t a “why can’t we all agree” issue, it’s a fundamental concern over the integrity of a team member. If the other team members don’t trust someone, cohesion won’t occur and attraction is diminished.

2. The Purpose Must Be Big and Personal! Note: Growth is Not Big and Personal.

Every college student learns in the first course on management that one of the core conditions for positive team performance is a clear and compelling purpose. And for much of their subsequent professional careers, they find themselves attached to teams where the purpose is neither clear nor compelling. That’s on us as managers.

At the top of organizations, senior managers have their own vacuum-of-purpose problem. As individuals, they have functional purpose and accountability, but at the roundtable of peers plus the CEO, they tend to act more like megaphones for their various areas instead of team members united around a common set of galvanizing goals.

I love Guy Kawasaki’s short clip from Stanford, entitled, Make Meaning. Kawasaki suggests (and I agree) that the pursuit of making money isn’t enough…and yet most top management groups focus on the chase for growth. Instead, he suggests three key focal points to make meaning…increase the quality of life of some audience, right a wrong in the world or prevent the end of something good. While Kawasaki is referencing the “make meaning” theme in the context of entrepreneurs, the theme holds in the senior management environment. Without a meaning or purpose beyond the numbers, cohesion won’t develop and attraction will be transactional.

This idea of making meaning begs bringing mission to life and focusing a vision around something bigger than today and galvanizing for not only the senior managers but for all employees. One of the drivers for senior leadership teams must be helping to ensure that employees feel that same sense of being part of something bigger than themselves or their functions. Building team cohesion starts with re-examining and clarifying the meaning for everyone and for the firm.

3. Change the Meeting Environment: Try Living Together for a Few Days!

The typical company or hotel conference room is an energy sink. There’s nothing stimulating about sitting in the same room with the same furniture and the same artwork meeting after meeting. The table is a barrier that we sit behind…and we’ve all long been conditioned to act and function with reserve in this setting. Instead, find an environment where the table doesn’t separate people and there’s freedom to move and engage comfortably and loudly for extended periods.

One senior management team I know moves its meetings a few times per year to a couple of luxury homes at a mountain resort 70 miles from headquarters. While this might shout boondoggle, it’s far from it. The rental cost off-season or during the week is less than the typical hotel room per person. The team divides into two homes (everyone has their own room) and each house takes turns preparing meals in an ad hoc competition around one of the great human bonding experiences…eating together for a few days. And yes, the house that cooks the meal also handles the cleaning!

The big common rooms of the homes are ideal meeting places that promote movement and engagement, and the dirty little secret of these settings is that living with co-workers for a few days promotes relationship development and a lot of long hours of business talk that would never take place in the death march meeting inside a conference room.

4. Divvy Up Work Assignments in Pairs…and Not By Functions.

The work of the senior management team should not be functional in nature. This team owns ensuring that the fundamentals for broad success are in place…a clear sense of organizational purpose; the right talent in the right seats; broad involvement and engagement in strategy and assuring the strategy execution systems are in place. If you have functional assignments for one or more of your executives, take this off-line from the senior management team environment.

Use the senior team meeting setting to identify the big topics that will enable the organization to better execute on strategy and work towards vision, and then assign the individuals best suited for the initiative to work together. While you will sometimes end up with counter-intuitive teaming arrangements…imagine, sales and engineering or marketing and IT working together, the approach supports both relationship development and creativity in pursuit of the tasks. A great deal of subsequent good can emerge from a relationship built on having tackled and succeeded with a tough topic that helped the organization move forward.

5. Victories and Defeats are Equally Valuable…Don’t Squander Them

Good senior management teams celebrate victories…with employees and as a group. Great senior leadership teams link arms around defeats and do the work necessary to come away stronger and smarter. The CEO who smiles when life is good and the tide is rising and then flails and rails when something goes wrong is a CEO who won’t create a high performance team. Same goes for the team members when one of the group comes up short. As long as there is no attempt at obfuscation or deflection, the point of the team is to be stronger than any one individual. Great teams pull together to make each other better. The “better” comes from hard times and failures, not the easy victories. Recognize that the next “Oh sh!t” situation is the next opportunity to improve team cohesion.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I respect the notion that this big topic of promoting high performance with senior management teams is not adequately addressed in a single post or even a series of these posts. It’s a journey here just like it’s a journey in your organization. At the end of the day, we’re trying to foster an environment where smart, successful subject matter experts learn (or remember) how to work in a team setting. The answers are both simple and complex. The only failure here is for you to not try. I believe to my core that a high performance top management team is a strategic asset not easily replicated by competitors. Sounds like a source of competitive advantage to me!

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 latest 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.

It’s Your Career—The Power of Displaying Passion for Your 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 and guidance on strengthening your performance and supporting your development as a professional. Use the ideas in great career health!

There’s something infectious and likeable about someone who displays obvious passion for their work, particularly when the enthusiasm is anchored in fixing, improving or innovating around something meaningful to others and to the firm. For professionals climbing the rungs of the organizational ladder or navigating boundary crossing in highly siloed organizations, visible enthusiasm for your work will serve you well during your journey.

What you project about yourself, your attitude and your enthusiasm for your work are all important components of your professional presence…how people perceive you as a professional. Since others must choose you for more responsibility, it’s important to have your presence working hard for you and not against you. Putting your passion for your work on display is one way of projecting a stronger, more positive presence.

Managers appreciate employees who show how much they enjoy their work. (Perhaps more than you will know.) Executives are hard-wired to notice people who seem to thrive and enjoy their work and new challenges. And peers and other resources tend to rally around individuals they perceive as genuine in their interest to right a wrong, fix something that is broken or do something new for the greater good.

Your showcasing your personal passion for your work is an admission ticket to the early stages of that precious asset we seek from others, known as trust. Your enthusiasm excites a similar emotion in others, something that is sadly often dormant in your many un-engaged co-workers who have grown accustomed to accepting the status quo. Armed with the trust and support of others, you can move mountains.

Alternatively, a dour demeanor or one that seems to project a constant aura of boredom or worse, righteous indignation laced with I’m just here to do my job and by the way, I’m right and you’re wrong, has the opposite effect of the positively passionate individual. I’ve known, managed and coached plenty of both of these individuals over my career, and without a doubt, the individuals who showcased genuine interest in others and authentic enthusiasm for their work and their firm’s work have grossly out-distanced their often very intelligent but less excited peers.

While putting a smile on your face and ginning up some halfhearted enthusiasm won’t get you too far…people will see through your attempt at a façade. Those striving to grow and advance in their careers will be well served by discovering (or re-discovering) what they love about their work and putting it on display. And by the way, if there’s nothing left in the tank that resembles passion for your work, it’s time to consider a new direction.

5 Ideas to Strengthen Your Professional Presence and Put Your Passion on Display:

1. Start with shifting your attitude from “I’m here” to “You’re here!” One of the great role models of professional presence in my career was an incredibly successful business owner who was widely viewed as the patriarch of his industry. He was a marvel to watch as he arrived at a conference or entered a room. Some people project the aura of “I’m here and I’m important, please acknowledge it.” His approach projected “You’re here and I’m honored to see you and I acknowledge you.”

Whether you were a senior executive or someone fairly low on the ladder, he sought you out, engaged with you and left you feeling like he appreciated you. Needless to say, that approach earned him widespread respect and massive cooperation for a number of his industry initiatives. The “I’m here” attitude projection is a derailment factor and the “You’re here” showcases interest and enthusiasm for being in the presence of others. It is indeed a powerful approach to leverage.

2. Execute on social blocking and tackling. The basics count! Smile more, engage with people with the “You’re here” attitude suggested above and practice and employ active listening techniques. The latter emphasizes listening more than talking, striving to understand the views of others by asking questions and then working hard to offer supportive ideas or direct help.

3. Seek first to understand. While much about passion is you putting your enthusiasm for your project or work on display, it’s imperative that you understand how your ideas fit with the interests and initiatives of others. Too often in the workplace, people are at cross-purposes over approaches. They focus and argue on “The What.” They fail to understand that they completely agree on “The Why.” No one loves a pontificating blowhard who fails to listen to the views of others. Everyone appreciates someone who can listen and understand interests and blend or meld ideas.

4. Accept and project that you are there to solve problems. Too many professionals display a sense of righteous indignation over the problems they encounter…and of course these problems are always because others are too ignorant to get their part right. That’s bull. Your job is to enthusiastically seek out and engage with others to make things better (improved quality, reduced time or cost, improved effectiveness etc.). Stop thinking and projecting that you are the only smart one in a sea of idiots and start recognizing and displaying through your actions that you are here to help fix and strengthen.

5. Turn the volume up but remember, it’s not about you! Many good professionals struggle with articulating how important they perceive their work is and how excited they are to be engaged in it. And when they do find the courage to share their enthusiasm, the message comes out muddled or it seems self-serving to others.

Do find or create opportunities to share your genuine excitement. Project review meetings, executive updates and even workplace social situations are all appropriate venues to showcase your enthusiasm for your initiatives. Make certain however, to anchor your excitement in why the initiative is relevant/helpful/germane to creating something new, fixing something that needs fixing or doing something important more effectively. It’s not about you!

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Showcasing your passion for your work sends a strong message to everyone around you. It screams, “I’m engaged, I’m here to help and to solve, and let’s do something great.” As an executive, and a coach, I love this attitude. I’ll move mountains to help these people. Sadly, this type of enthusiasm is either dormant in many or simply in short supply. Odd, because it costs absolutely nothing. Try it on for size, you might just like the results in your career and your life.

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.

 

The Sticky Topics of Senior Management Team Chemistry & Performance

Graphic displaying terms relevant to high performance managementThis series at Management Excellence is intended to prompt ideas and promote healthy discussion around the big topic of strengthening the development and performance of senior management teams.

The use of the word “team” to reference the collection of a firm’s senior leaders is generous at best and fallacious in many cases. Senior managers don’t necessarily gel as a team and perhaps a more accurate description of them in the context of a group might be that they are a collection of intelligent, successful functional leaders who occasionally come together and tolerate each other for a few hours of collegial discussion.

While my view may sound slightly or very cynical, I’m comfortable that it is closer to reality than the view that these groups naturally function as effective teams. Sad, but true for a variety of reasons, and this lack of cohesion and lack of commitment to working and functioning as a team leaves performance and potential on the table and CEOs everywhere wondering what to do to get more from the people they depend upon to run their businesses.

The list of reasons for the failure of most senior leadership groups to gel as a high performance team is long and many sounding and acting a great deal like Lencioni’s 5 Dysfunctions. In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, I focused on a variety of these failure to gel causes, with emphasis on the critical lack of meeting the fundamental conditions of a team and a related lack of identity and purpose as a group.

There’s a certain not surprising reality that collections of highly successful, intelligent individuals who have long careers as functional leaders and experts won’t easily or immediately walk in a room and let down their guards and trust their peers or CEO enough to perform as a team. The operative words here are “easily” or “immediately.”

It’s difficult, but doable to help these groups develop as teams. However, it takes hard, deliberate work on the part of the CEO and it requires an eyes-wide-open view to a variety of issues, including the important and somewhat squishy topic of the chemistry between the team members.

The chemistry of any group of individuals is a compound comprised of a number of ingredients. From my frequently referenced compelling purpose to the ever-present issue of trust to different personality types and working/communicating/decision styles to the biases of each individual’s values and experiences, the senior group chemistry is less a recipe than a bubbling cauldron of issues and differences. The differences between team members make it challenging to align yet those differences are ultimately strengths that can make the group more effective as a team. At least two key areas that critically impact team chemistry, include team membership and the presence of toxicity.

Who’s On the Team?

Too often, CEOs err on the side of broadening inclusion in an attempt to stimulate performance at the senior leadership level, while ignoring the real team-forming issues of purpose, shared accountability and a limited agenda of actions (direction, strategy and strategy execution coordination). The broader inclusion seems like a good tool to develop new leaders and to stimulate communication and working activities, however, it masks the reality that the team does not have a clear reason for being. Instead of a team emerging, a bigger committee emerges with all of the attendant complexities of larger and unwieldy groups.

One approach is to consider the opposite of expansion and shrink the team to the core people accountable for strategy definition and execution coordination. Another is to split senior leaders into two different groups…an executive committee armed with a crystal clear charter with visible accountability for a limited set of issues around guiding and governing and a senior leadership group responsible for managing and monitoring and ensuring the operating cadence and daily health of the organization. This latter group also requires a crystal clear charter and a visible list of items they are accountable for delivering.

And Then There’s Toxicity:

We all know toxicity when we see it in action. From blatant political plays (turf protection, bigger budgets without purpose, deflecting responsibility) to the more subtle passive-aggressive behavior that has some individuals nodding their head in agreement in a group setting and ignoring or even countermanding the “agreed upon” direction in private, the presence of toxicity is a serious problem for the CEO and senior management group. And 100% of the time, the presence of toxicity indicates that the CEO has dropped the ball on a critical issue around team development and coaching that only they can own in the senior leadership setting. It’s up to the CEO to neutralize or extract the toxicity.

5 Ideas to Help Get the Toxicity Out and Performance Up:

1. Clarifying what it means to be a member of the team helps underscore expectations for performance and accountability as individuals and as a group.  Membership on the senior management team is an earned privilege not an inalienable right of someone with a title. Make the criteria clear and spell out the expectations for shared and individual  responsibilities.

2. Narrowing the agenda will focus energy and increase accountability. The lack of clear and compelling purpose for senior leaders as a team is a huge detractor to performance and an invitation to all forms of aberrant behaviors. The best senior leadership teams operate with a laser focus on setting direction, identifying core strategies and coordinating strategy execution. Beware of going much further than those key issues at this level.

3. Strengthening accountability for outcomes takes away the opportunity for the political animals or passive-aggressive types to hide in plain sight. Too often senior management gatherings are debating societies where issues are talked about but accountable actions nowhere to be found. There must be accountability for forward progress on the key issues from meeting to meeting. A simple follow-up list indicating the issue, ownership and timing can work wonders here.

4. Shared activities strengthen relationships and further reduce the opportunity for destructive behaviors. The meeting is simply a prelude to the value creating work of solving, fixing or innovating that must take place between meetings. Find natural groupings of senior leaders to attack key issues together and make their work visible.

5. Exorcising toxic or unproductive team members allows the healthy team to flourish. Again, membership is an earned privilege and not a right. When the CEO upholds this principle and removes unproductive or destructive participants, she is reinforcing the spirit of accountability so critical to team performance. In every instance where I’ve observed toxic member(s) being booted off the island, team dynamics and performance improved almost immediately. Everyone knows the toxicity is there, but only the CEO can excise it.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Humans are challenging creatures and those who have climbed high in their professions are particularly resistant to being herded, even if the one doing the herding is the CEO. When it comes to promoting performance of senior professionals in a team setting, there’s no substitute for a crystal clear charter with a laser focus on the right issues. Beyond the clear reason for being and clear identification of tasks, it’s all about getting the right people in the seats and the wrong people out of the room and maybe out of the business. The laser focus on a limited set of tasks and clear, shared accountability for the right outcomes go a long way towards promoting good team chemistry and supporting the emergence of high performance.

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 latest 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.