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…

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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.

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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.)

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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™—Leading into the Fog

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!

“A core capacity of leadership is the ability to make the right decisions while flying blind, basing them on knowledge, wisdom and the ability to stay wedded to an overriding goal.” –Warren Bennis as quoted in Onward by Howard Schultz

It’s the challenging times that build your leadership character.

Almost anyone and any team can prosper during rising tide situations…a hot economy, a regulatory change that acts as a boon to an industry or, even a hot product that for a moment catches competitors off guard. Certainly, it takes good management and leadership to exploit those opportunities, but the work of leading in these fortunate circumstances is different than the work of navigating the troubled waters of crisis.

During the rising tide situations, the game is simplified…the way forward is clear and the challenges defined. Exploit the opportunity; move fast to deliver more; execute, execute, execute.

It’s when conditions change that the view ahead becomes one giant fog bank and leading suddenly turns difficult. As mentioned in my recent Art of Managing post, “Steering Clear of Flail and Fail,” our tendency as times turn challenging is to overreact. We engage in the undisciplined pursuit of more (Jim Collins) in the naïve hope that something will work and return us to the bliss point of easy days and restful nights… those times where the planets align and all of the indicators point in the right direction and we can congratulate ourselves on our brilliance.

I love the quote from Bennis at the top of this article, because it so succinctly and powerfully captures the truth about the real job of a leader: guiding the firm and team through the fog and safely beyond peril.

Effective leaders understand that there’s no easy way out of a crisis. There are no silver bullets, no sure-fire strategy templates and no programs, courses or approaches that replace the hard work of navigating ambiguity. Someone has to stand up and point and say, “This way.”

The history of the world and the history of modern management are filled with examples to learn from. Facing extreme uncertainty and miserable weather that blew up most of the plans for supporting the troops in the invasion of Normandy in World War II, General Eisenhower sought the input of his best advisors. They were split on whether to go or not given the weather and the inherent risks to the entire operation and thousands of lives. We’ll go,” he uttered, after staring out the window into the fog and darkness, knowing that many would die and success was far from guaranteed. The moment had arrived.

While less fateful in terms of human lives, but incredibly impactful in terms of the business and livelihood of thousands, Howard Schultz, the newly returned CEO of struggling Starbucks made a series of decisions that were contrary to the advice of the critics, analysts and pundits during the 2008 downturn. Anchored with the conviction that he could not compromise when it came to serving his partners (employees), his customers and guided by his overarching belief in the good that his firm provided to millions, he did what he believed was right and he and the team persevered. He retained healthcare for part-time employees, shut down the chain for a day of much needed Barista training, took 10,000 of his store managers to New Orleans to rediscover their passion and help a struggling community and said “No!” to the cry to cut quality and take short-cuts in the name of profits.

Schultz effectively employed Eisenhower’s “We’ll go” which in his one word rallying cry, was “Onward.” The decisions rallied the firm and galvanized his top leaders to fight harder and the push to innovate when others said, “cut” paid off. Eventually. Results are never immediate and wise crisis leaders know that things get worse until they turn towards better.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

While most of our own experiences in leading won’t make the history books or become the stuff of business legend, they are no less significant in our own lives and for the lives and welfare of those around us. The way forward is murkiest just at the point where we need to choose a path and then lead into the fog, uncertain of outcome or success. Focus on the bigger issues…the ability of you and your coworkers to continue working on fulfilling a noble mission or on preserving the welfare of those who depend upon you and your firm. And importantly, recognize that everything in your past as a leader and as a professional was simply practice for the journey ahead.

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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—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.

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.