Leadership Caffeine™—Don’t Back Off Leadership Development in a Crisis

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine™ series is intended to make you think and act.

When things break bad (even momentarily) in an organization, a number of predictable reflexes kick-in. Expenses are cut. Operations reviews evolve into extended, public proctology exams with everyone taking a long look searching for answers and blame. Time horizons shrink, the collective field of vision narrows to a pinhole and the lofty, noble ideals of developing leaders and teams that top management so passionately espoused during good times are reduced to echoes from a different era…when things were good.

Some of the responses are reasonable and expected. Expenses and forecasts merit exploration. Others are destructive. Suspending the work of developing your leaders and managers is destructive. Instead of letting your training budget dictate your team and leadership development efforts, try a return to the powerful and much needed full-contact work of coaching and teaching. Frankly, we should be doing this all of the time but too often we let external training substitute for our own heavy lifting around leadership development. Tight budgets are no excuse to back off. Instead, try these low-cost, high contact ideas to help support your efforts.

5 Ideas to Double Down on People Development when Things Break Bad

1-Get the Right Conversations Started. Encourage the managers and leaders to form their own reading/discussion groups. You buy the pizza, drinks and occasional reading materials and they talk and then act on making things better. Caution, no need to make this a corporate mandate or H.R. driven program. Sew the seeds…and support the efforts but don’t make it feel like work. You’re lighting or stoking the collective fire for individuals to find a new performance gear and you have to inspire not command involvement. My suggested starter book: the latest edition of The Leadership Advantage by Kouzes and Posner. The discussion and potential for idea generation present in Chapter 1 alone will make this one of your best professional development investments ever!

2-Increase Your Coaching Efforts. Because the time horizon is now perceived as short and the field of vision narrowed to a laser focus on the revenue and cost numbers, the soft but hard discussions are often left for some future date to be determined. They just don’t happen, which is counter-intuitive. Effective leaders redouble their efforts to remain attuned to their own managers and senior team leads and both offer coaching to support strengthening and to shore up morale. While there’s always an opportunity cost to your time investments, this one pays significant dividends. Focus on observing, coaching and supporting your people If your calendar doesn’t have the equivalent of 20% of your time on this per week, you’re not taking it seriously.

3-Mind the Gap on Big Decisions. While closely related to the coaching efforts, any process of recovery invites big decisions on people, projects, structure and investment priorities to the table. Big decisions are often decisions that end up stalling out while everyone’s rushing around putting out fires or simply avoiding the discomfort. Hold your key leaders accountable to moving forward on the decisions and commensurate action items. Coach them through the decision-process and ensure that they’re prepared for the critical next steps on people, structure and programs following the decisions. Nothing supports professional development like the ownership of a big decision and accountability for the actions and outcomes.

4-Pick, Prioritize and Projectize the Recovery Efforts. Develop the discipline to identify and prioritize the limited number of critical recovery priorities and then get teams working on them. In a crisis, there’s a tendency to drive a lot of activity with no vector. Instead, help the employees narrow their own efforts to the critical few activities and then provide support for these project teams. Be deliberate selecting team leaders. These recovery priorities are remarkable developmental opportunities for people you perceive are ready for a new and bigger challenge. Again, nothing supports leadership and professional development like team leadership, particularly when the stakes are high. Ensure that each team is aligned with a good sponsor who understands his/her role to support building an effective team environment, and then let the teams and leaders run hard.

5-Bring Your Firm’s Values to Life. Sometimes the best development tools and opportunities are right in front of you in the form of your firm’s values. All too often the values get lost in the noise…they’re present on the wall and in the employee handbook, but mostly invisible in the daily work of the organization. Home grow a program focusing on exploring the meaning and application of the values in the day-to-day work environment. Let your managers grow a grass roots program to recruit these powerful (and aspirational) behavior statements into the hard work of helping the firm navigate the storm. This work can be a game changer for strengthening your firm’s culture.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The best professional development always takes place with live fire activities. While budget cuts might kill the external training activities for a period of time, a crisis shouldn’t mean the end to the good work of leadership development. A crisis is a horrible thing to waste. Use it wisely and you’ll come out of it with a stronger team prepared to take your firm to new levels of success.

Leadership Caffeine™—Resist the Urge to Shield Your Team from Bad News

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine™ series is intended to make you think and act.

In difficult situations, reality tinged with optimism and backed by encouragement serves as a more effective motivator than a saccharine-sweet message of false praise and manufactured positivity.

The fact is, we’re not always fine. Strategies don’t always work. Mistakes happen. Competitors confound our best attempts and deals delay or derail. Stuff happens, and your attempt to reinforce a false reality will confuse people who expect and need honesty and transparency from you.

I see this dissonant messaging in action when I’m called upon to work with struggling firms or teams. The leader…often the CEO, is concerned about demoralizing the group and instead of shooting straight, obfuscates the reality of the situation with an overdose of praise and ginned up optimism. Unfortunately, this approach generates confusion (people are adept at sensing reality) and fails to do the one thing most critical to navigating the problems…draw people into the good and hard work of finding the solutions.

The Positive Side of Shooting Straight:

I observed a manufacturer navigate a complex quality problem by shooting straight with employees and customers as soon as the problem surfaced, and then making heroic efforts to remedy the problems. This was a potential lawsuit inducing, firm-killing issue and while navigating it was expensive and uncomfortable, the clear, transparent communication galvanized employees to act and actually strengthened the firm’s relationship with a number of key customers.

Another firm was failing to gain traction with a new strategy. The approach would push this firm into new arenas and the gravitational pull of the past resulted in half-measures and  halfhearted enthusiasm for the new direction. The top management took this issue to the employee population by both explaining the strategic rationale and importantly, educating everyone on the declining number of opportunities in legacy markets. The presentation was supported by a company wide review of key financial indicators and trends and a lot of discussion on what it really meant to move to this new market. Armed with new knowledge and clear on the very real need to succeed, the firm’s employees pulled together and not only succeeded in the new market, they became more adept at managing costs and selectively pursuing profitable opportunities in legacy markets.

Both of these very real cases required senior leaders to get out in front of the message. Without broad employee awareness and support, there was no hope.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

While the need to remain positive in dire circumstances is understandable and indeed very human, keeping your employees in the dark will work against you. You’re not protecting them… you are keeping them from getting involved. Resist the urge to shield your employees from reality. Share the facts, offer your assessment and insure that everyone has the opportunity to ask questions and offer ideas. You want to get people in front of the real issues holding you back and give them a voice in finding and implementing solutions.


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.

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


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

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management termsThe Art of Managing series is dedicated to exploring the critical issues we face in guiding our firms and teams to success in today’s volatile world.

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

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

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

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

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

And Then “It” Happens:

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

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

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

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

The Level-Up Opportunity:

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

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

It’s time to change the system.

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

Beware the Siren Song of Two Powerful Actions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bottom-Line for Now:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leadership Caffeine™—Know When to Assert Yourself

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine series is over 200 installments strong and is dedicated to every aspiring or experienced leader and manager seeking ideas, insights or just a jolt of energy to keep pushing forward. Thanks for being along for the journey!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bottom-Line for Now:

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

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

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

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

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

Revisiting The 5 Priceless Lessons from Amundsen and Scott

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bottom-Line for Now:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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