Just One Thing—Push Beyond “M” for Mediocrity

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!

Why do we fail with our initiatives (projects, strategy, leadership) in the workplace so regularly when the causes of failure are well documented and the practices to minimize the chances of failure so well identified?

A student exploring project risk management was perplexed when she compared the data on project failures to the literature on risk management, only to see that the causes of failure and ideas for reducing risk were clearly identified over and over again in a nearly endless stream of articles.

I see this same situation play out repeatedly in leadership and strategy work.

The formula for leading effectively isn’t a secret kept locked in a vault with the combination known only to two people. In fact, the principles have been understood for a few millennia. And for us today in our firms, the behaviors of miserable managers and lousy leader are well understood and at last count, there were seemingly 4 quintillion resources offering input, training and help on how to lead effectively.

For strategy, too many of these programs fail not just because they were poor ideas (usually not the case), but rather because the process of execution broke down. People fail to coordinate the work necessary to properly and effectively bridge ideas to execution. While not to minimize the complexity of executing on strategy, the issues of communication, coordination, feedback, adaptation and so forth are fairly easy to grok.

Finally, when I work with people and teams in troubled organizations, I always figuratively scratch my head over the juxtaposition of relatively smart people who understand what is going wrong with the reality that few are doing anything about it.

It’s as if we have a default gear labeled “M” for mediocrity in our organizations and in ourselves. It’s the acceptance of this gear inside organizations along with the perpetuation of practices that reinforce “M” that governs our consistent and repeated sub-par performance.

However, not everyone or every team is held back by the tractor-beam pull of mediocrity.

In troubled organizations, I look for the individuals who fight back and rail against the tyranny of something that screams less than excellent. These people fight mediocrity with all of their energy and while they are often laboring in relative isolation, I strive to place them in positions of power for getting things done. From leading change initiatives to managing projects to owning big chunks of the coordination of strategy execution, these individuals have an extra gear or two beyond “M” that allows them to move people and teams faster and more effectively than the norm.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

For all of us, we have a choice to make. We can either be part of the problem or we can push ourselves to shift out of “M” and fix what’s broken and quit perpetuating the mistakes that give rise to the same advice over and over and over again. The choice is yours on what gear governs your performance. But be careful, once you shift away from mediocrity, the side effects are quite rewarding. You feel great about yourself and your work and someone somewhere who chooses people to be successful will want to create a whole new set of opportunities for you.

Is it time for you to shift out of “M” and fix what you know is broken?

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—Thriving at the Speed of Change

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.

The current theme in much of today’s management writing and speaking focuses on the unparalleled speed and volume of change present in our world.

From the work of Gary Hamel (video: Reinventing the Technology of Human Accomplishment”) to the excellent new book, “No Ordinary Disruption,” by Dobbs, Manyika and Woetzel at McKinsey, to a variety of other new works, the literature certainly suggests it’s a fascinating and simultaneously frightening time to be responsible for guiding an organization forward into the storm. While we’re all busy learning to navigate and leverage (or understand) Big Data, the real issue is or should be navigating Big Change.

In “No Ordinary Disruption,” the authors offer a powerful, research-backed narrative describing the four primary forces behind the shifting landscape of society and business. These include the massive movement of people to urban centers in much of the under-developed world; the ever-present and unrelenting pace of technological change; the aging of the world’s population and the powerful force of globalization.

The book is fascinating…the evidence compelling and if you’re in charge of one of yesterday’s businesses, you’re to be excused if one of your thoughts is to go back to bed, pull the blankets up tighter and hope to awaken in a period of stability and predictability.

Nice thoughts, but you can kiss that dream of stability and predictability goodbye. Welcome to the rest of your career where nothing looks particularly familiar and what brought you here won’t take you or your firm there.

My one disappointment  with much of the current writing about change is that it is short on the “what to do about it,” content, in part because the notion of all this change makes for fascinating reading, and in part, because it’s not clear what exactly we should be doing in many cases.

Navigating the unknown…rethinking or discarding old strategies, offerings and approaches is uncomfortable and difficult work. Yet, it’s work we must undertake. While this is a big topic (worthy of book length), I’ll start small and keep building through the Art of Managing posts. (And yes, I know the words are easy and the actions challenging…but we have to start somewhere.)

5 Ideas to Get You Started on Navigating Big Change:

1. Learn to Look for Opportunity in Uncertainty. The operative word is “learn.” Our natural reaction to the notion of change in our business model is some combination of fear mixed with a drive to look harder for reasons to rationalize maintaining the status quo. The firms and teams I’m working with who are succeeding in rethinking their businesses are those who have embraced the idea that while change may disrupt the successful approaches of the past, it also opens the door to an almost endless set of new opportunities. They are focused on building the management tools, team talent and approaches needed to explore and test for ideas that stick.

2. Think Like an Explorer, Not a Manager. This is a great example where history is a teacher for the future. The polar adventures of Scott, Amundsen, Shackleton and others defined the original Great Age of Exploration and students of these adventures can apply the lessons from success and failure to our own circumstances. In “Great by Choice,” Jim Collins and Martin Hansen offer a detailed description of how Amundsen prepared himself and his team to navigate all manner of unknowns and uncertainties and succeed in great form while his capable adversary, Scott perished along with his entire team. The risk taking was calculated…the mission was crystal clear, the tools and training emphasized adaptability and the risk mitigation planning was exemplary. Study the explorers and look for ideas to apply to your firm’s or team’s business explorations.

3. Recognize that Innovation is the Currency of the Future and It’s More than Product Innovation. Much of our conventional approach to navigating uncertainty in our markets is to focus on investing in our products. The natural tendency of good product managers is to look for ways to make their offerings more relevant to customers. While this will never go out of style, the reality is that the forces of change open up massive opportunities to innovate beyond product. From business models to customer engagement approaches to network/ecosystem innovation, there are a myriad of ways to reach more customers and outflank competitors by innovating beyond the product. A must read for everyone concerned about the future is Ten Types of Innovation,” where the authors offer up their periodic table of innovation elements and suggest that the most successful firm use multiple elements…beyond just product innovation.

4. Hunt for Ideas and Insights. Ram Charan calls this strengthening your perceptual acuity. Regardless of the label, it’s about teaching your team to go beyond their four walls and challenge themselves to observe and relate changing market, competitor and customer forces to one of the most powerful phrases that should be in your corporate vocabulary, “What this means for us, is… ,” or a variant, “Here’s how we can leverage this change to grow/strengthen our business.” Too many teams are inwardly focused…opining on customer issues and market trends while looking at the same view of the parking lot from the conference room window. One innovative firm sent their team out to a group of customers to observe a day in the life of data…as they tracked data flows around a particular set of processes in the business. The observations on process inefficiencies and challenges led to a significant number of insights for new offerings.

5. Pursue Intelligent Experimentation and Accept Compressed Time Horizons. Navigating uncertainty demands experimentation and experimentation embraces failure on the road to success. Traditionally, we view failure as something to be avoided…and mitigated. That worked fine during a period of time when next year in an industry looked a great deal like last year. Now, managers must learn to embrace the idea of failing forward to find innovations that might stick. Along with establishing conventions for widespread intelligent experimentation, we must shrink our view on acceptable time horizons. Experiments and subsequent strategy or offering development must resemble a series of sprints and our view to the expected marketplace life of our innovations must reduce to reflect the reality of shifting needs or tastes and the likelihood of disruption. This doesn’t preclude us from mining a lucrative vein for a long period of time, but the nature of our world is those veins will be seized upon and exhausted by fast and/or disruptive competitors and their offerings. Speed kills on the highway, but timeliness is of the essence in this new world.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

While far from exhausting this expansive topic of thriving at the speed of change, we’ve defined some starting points well within your control. You own your own attitude about navigating uncertainty and as a senior manager, you have a great deal of power to create the approaches and tools and to guide your talent to become more adept at observing external forces at work and translating those observations and insights into actions. While the essence of most organizations and most teams is to preserve the status quo, this is one case where standing still practically guarantees that you’ll end up as global road kill. Steering into the fog with the right attitude and committed to finding the way forward as you go is a much better alternative.

Leadership Caffeine™—Letting Go of Your Need to Be the Smartest Person in the Room

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!

One of the most common and damaging of a leader’s blind-spots is the compulsion to regularly provide evidence that he/she is the smartest person in the room.

Many well-intentioned leaders are adversely impacted by this bad habit without realizing it. The impact of what is often not much more than one or more behavioral tics includes stifling creativity and innovation and derailing any hopes of developing a high performance environment.

The challenge is to learn to recognize your own smartest person in the room behaviors and to replace them with a few simple but not simplistic habits that focus on drawing input from team members instead of stifling input. While blind-spots are by definition difficult to see, I’ll make a reasonable assumption that your desire to improve your effectiveness as a leader can help you both self-diagnose and take some simple but powerful corrective actions. (For those too smart to spend time thinking and working on their own performance and behaviors, now would be the time to write a comment suggesting why you’re right.)

3 Common Smartest Person in the Room Behaviors:

Do any of these feel familiar?

  • The Final Word Habit. Leaders who struggle with smartest person in the room syndrome often operate with a false belief that being in charge means always having the answer. This drives the individual to assert his/her opinion as the final word or last word and it teaches people to suppress their own ideas and wait for solutions from the person in charge. If you’re frustrated with your team’s lack of creativity or active discussion about ideas, you might be someone who has taught them to wait for the last word.
  • The Eyes…and Face and Voice Say it All! Some leaders telegraph their smartest person in the room persona through their verbal and non-verbal responses to the commentary or ideas of others. I’ve observed senior managers who portray what is perceived as disinterest or disdain for the commentary of team members by interrupting them in mid-sentence or maintaining a facial expression that seems to ask: “Why are you using up my valuable oxygen with this stupid idea?” Of course, the leader may not be intending to communicate disregard or disdain however, we impute this less than noble intent based on our interpretation of the visible and audible cues. If your team members are less than enthusiastic about sharing new ideas and approaches, perhaps you’ve inadvertently shot them down too many times.
  • I’ll See You and Raise You. A closely related cousin to the behaviors above is the leader who listens to the input of his team but fails to acknowledge good ideas or threads of their good ideas. One top leader had the unique habit of responding to input with his own input in a seeming point/counter-point battle that was interpreted as either arguing or trumping the ideas. In reality, she was using an unrecognizable form of active listening to translate what she was hearing into her own words, however, it was interpreted very differently.

3 Approaches to Combat Your Own Smartest Person in the Room Syndrome:

1. Ask More than Tell. Questions are powerful leadership tools…much more effective than orders in most circumstances. Train yourself to respond to ideas with questions to help you and others better develop their ideas. Strive to understand before offering your own perspective.

2. Cultivate the Courage to Shut-Up and Let Others Decide. While you never have to cede your right to veto an idea or an approach, use this veto power sparingly. Most of the time through questioning and the technique of “building upon the ideas of others,” you can promote a modification or adaptation of someone else’s approach without throwing your weight around. If you must, use the “line item” veto

3. Work Hard to Look for the Beauty in Ideas, Not the Flaws. Some people look at a scene and see the beauty in it and others find the gaps…the faults. Frankly, those who see the flaws are significantly less interesting and enjoyable to be around. A micro-managing boss sees the flaws and hammers people for changes to minutiae. The effective manager acknowledges the beauty inherent in ideas and focuses questions and efforts on realizing that beauty. Discussions about flaws can be isolated to a simple discussion around risks.

And a Few Ideas If It’s Your Boss Who Doesn’t Recognize Her Case of Smartest Person in the Room Syndrome?

If you are working for someone suffering from this syndrome, you have a number of options…all with pros and cons.

1. Resist the Urge to Argue. It’s tempting…it’s one of my own challenges and it is often wrong. Take a deep breath…close your lips and think. If you must talk, ask clarifying questions. It never hurts anyone to seek first to understand.

2. Manage Upside Down. If your boss is generally well-intended and receptive to input from team members, construct an effective feedback discussion with behavioral examples. Indicate the business or performance consequences of the smartest person behaviors and offer one or more of the techniques above as suggestions. Offer to observe and look for opportunities to apply the techniques. Agree on a mechanism to signal an improper behavior and suggest a different course on the fly. It takes your own personal courage to offer feedback to your boss. Remember, my operating assumption is that your read on him/her is that they are interested in strengthening performance and growing as a leader. There are some who will not take kindly to your feedback. Tread softly and if the ice is firm, proceed. If not, move to number 3.

3. If the Boss Isn’t Approachable, Use Judo on the Situation. Reinforce the ideas from the boss as positive and suggest approaches to strengthening those ideas. Of course, the approaches match your original suggestions, however, you’ve re-framed the idea as his/hers. A little bit of child psychology can go a long way with a difficult boss.

4. Facilitate His/Her Idea Development and Proactively Raise the Risk Discussion. Your calm facilitation of the discussion will allow you to both ask clarifying questions and at the appropriate time, suggest that you explore the risks. List them on a board or flip-chart. The act of highlighting risks may be enough to gain cooperation from a boss who views himself as always right.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

There are a number of powerful internal drivers that push some people to assert their opinion as the right one. From compensating for a lack of self-confidence to falsely believing that being in charge means being right, this need to assert is a performance and environment killing habit. Learn to recognize your tendency to do this and use discipline to resist the temptation. Like reaching for the donut instead of the handful of almonds on the snack table, it’s difficult to do at first. If you work for the smartest person in the room, strive to be just a little smarter…by managing the psychology and resisting the urge to argue. In all cases, the effort is worth the potential improvement.

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™—To Be Effective, Your Do Must Match Your Tell

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!

And no, I’m not talking about hairstyles. The phrase, your do must match your tell was offered up by an interview subject in response to a question focusing on developing credibility as a leader. It’s memorable, it’s quotable and it is spot on accurate.

No creature on the planet destroys credibility faster than a pontificating blow-hard of a boss who is great at turning oxygen into over-heated carbon dioxide, but not so great at overcoming the gravitational pull of his posterior to the chair and putting his own words into action.

Looking for some blunt advice? Here you go: Don’t be that person! If that’s not enough, here are 7 ideas you can put into action today to begin strengthening your credibility as a leader.

7 Tips to Help You Build Credibility as a Leader:

1. Model the Behaviors You Are Preaching: if it’s hard work and commitment to excellence, then you best cultivate an unimpeachable reputation for working hard and pursuing excellence. If it’s focus on the customer, then you need to be logging some significant quality time in front of your customers. Don’t demand it if you’re not living it.

2. There’s Only One Set of Rules: accountability for effort and outcomes must be applied evenly, without exception. It’s the exceptions you make (and that everyone sees) that kill your credibility.

3. The Big Issues Cannot Wait: there’s no getting away with, “that’s an important issue and we should talk about it at the right time.” It’s always the right time to tackle the tough ones.

4. Don’t Pollute the Environment with Dissonance: if you encourage people to make decisions, then let them make and learn from their decisions. The boss who laments that no one makes a decision and then metaphorically clubs anyone over the head who makes a decision without consulting her is polluting the environment with dissonance.

5. Run, Don’t Walk to Admit Your Mistakes: there are few better teaching moments when you as the leader take responsibility for a poor outcome. Admit it…share your lessons learned and how you will attack this type of an issue in the future and move on. Our instinct is to feign invincibility and omniscience when the right thing to do is admit that we are human and imperfect. Awkward…yes. The right thing to do: absolutely.

6. The Blame is Yours and the Praise is For Your Team: never put yourself in the spotlight, unless you are defending your team. When it works…it’s all them. When it doesn’t, it’s all you. No exceptions.

7. If You Want Someone to Trust You, Trust Them First. Too many shallow managers require that their charges earn their trust. Flip it around and offer your trust first. While someone will eventually abuse it, the many who thrive because of your upfront offer outweigh this risk.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Credibility is the leader’s currency. Without it, you’re effectively bankrupt. Making certain that your do matches your tell is a great place to start accumulating this precious asset.

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.

It’s Your Career—Priceless Perspectives of Experience

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!

During the past few years, I’ve talked to many 40 and 50-something professionals on how their perspectives and attitudes on personal and career issues have changed over time. Their insights are instructive and inspirational. Enjoy!

On Confidence:

  • The sky is not falling no matter how big the problem is we will find a way to deal with it.
  • I’m fearless on taking risks, because I know I’ll find a way to navigate through it and learn a great deal in the process.
  • While the world has changed, people haven’t. If you’re good in working with and through others, there’s no problem that cannot be solved, no matter how new and unique it is.

On Failing:

  • I’ve failed more times than I can count on my way to succeeding in my career. While it’s never the goal, it is a fact of life for anyone striving to achieve something.
  • I long ago learned not to sweat the small stuff that made me a raving lunatic of a manager when I was younger. It turns out that most of our issues are small stuff.

On Striving:

  • Success isn’t a solo sport. Others choose us to be successful and others help us along our journey to success.
  • It’s a lot more about the work and the impact of the work on others than it is about the pay or the title.
  • At the height of what I thought would be success…title and money, I was miserable. I had to learn to redefine success was for me, and it wasn’t title or money.

On Leadership:

  • It used to be about what I wanted. Now it’s about what they need.
  • To lead, I teach.
  • I take more chances on people I truly believe in, regardless of the conventional wisdom around me. The individual is my responsibility, not some other executive’s.
  • I give my trust instead of requiring people to earn it. It saves a great deal of time and eliminates the games.

 On Effectiveness:

  • I flail less, fail faster, teach more and help more and I’m more effective than I’ve ever been in my career.
  • My need to conquer the world in the next quarter has given way to the reality that people and teams evolve at their own pace, not the pace in my mind.
  • I used to be driven by fear. Fear of job loss. Fear of the boss lurking behind me. That stifled my creativity. I finally found my performance gear when I quit worrying about both of those things.

On the Future:

  • My best work is still ahead of me.
  • Every day is a great new adventure. Even the tough stuff feels more like fun than it used to.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

If you’ve got a few miles on you, take heart that you’ve earned the right to draw upon wisdom gained over time. If you’re just starting out, re-read these quotes and strive to realize them just a bit faster than the rest of us. You’ll be happy you did.

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.