Leadership Caffeine™—Seeing and Observing

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The Leadership Caffeine™ series is intended to make you think and act.

A dialog between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:

“The distinction is clear. For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room.”


“How often?”

“Well, some hundreds of times.”

“Then how many are there?”

“How many? I don’t know.”

“Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.”

The famous author Saul Bellow coined the phrase, “first class noticer” and the late Warren Bennis as well as Harvard’s Max Bazerman both implore(d) us to strengthen our powers of noticing.

”I’ve never seen the world before. Now I was seeing it, and it’s a beautiful, marvelous gift. Enchanting reality! –Saul Bellow

In my discussions with senior leaders, I ask a few simple but not simplistic questions:

  • What’s new that will change everything for your firm?
  • Who are the people on your team that see the future?
  • What are you doing to change the game for the better for your customers?

As you might imagine, the answers to all three of the questions are often…light.

Too many of us view our world through glasses that both narrow the vision and shrink the focal point to a point just a short distance (and time) from the here and now.

We spend an incredible amount of time immersed in a world of our own fabrication—the world as it feels and looks and acts from inside our organization’s walls. It’s not the culture that will kill you, it’s the view. It’s time to change it.

Take off the blinders and look up and out further. Extend your focal point.

Changing the View and Becoming First Class Noticers:

A marketing executive I hold in high regard did this with her team.

She had grown tired of the endless debates about what to do and where to go that were anchored firmly by the view and biases of the people in her firm.

She sent her team out into the field to attend industry events and talk with customers. They parroted what they heard: “faster horses” (more of the same…incremental changes) from the customers, and the same tired industry gossip and scuttlebutt about new features, functions and releases from competitors. She had long been convinced that the only thing that changed at the annual industry trade-shows were the company names on the badges of the same people.

She did something her team viewed initially as odd. She cut the budgets for travel to industry events and she signed people up and sent them out to events and conferences and summits in markets and for technologies far removed from her firm’s industry.

The team was confused.

She sent them out with bewildered looks on their faces, armed with two requirements:

  1. Listen and observe. Pay attention to this environment. What’s happening? What’s new? What’s driving and changing everything? How are the change leaders impacting the incumbents?
  2. Be prepared to come home and share your ideas (no matter how wild) on how what you observed might apply to our industry and customers?

While people were tentative at first, they quickly embraced the idea of listening and learning and observing in these very foreign environments. They met with industry leaders. They lingered at the booths of unfamiliar companies and asked questions. They asked a lot of questions. And then they returned home to share.

Some of their ideas connecting developments two or three degrees away from their industry sounded like science fiction. She was pleased.

They logged the ideas and made them visible in open space area. She encouraged people to return to them and refine and jump and build on the ideas…on their own or in small groups. She encouraged people who developed a belief in a vector to research and experiment. They did.

Over the two years following the start of this program, the company added two of the ideas from this adventure to their long range investment horizon. Two other ideas translated to near-term revenues based on new partnerships uncovered in these pursuits. Her team is now talking with their customers about opportunities to grow and adapt and partner in new ways with new technologies and ideas.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The team in this example extended and broadened their view of the world to their firm’s benefit. They became “first-class noticers” who translated what they observed into ideas and in some cases actions. If your firm is preoccupied in the world that exists inside the walls of your firm, it’s time to push out and open your collective eyes and look around and notice. There’s a lot going on out there. As Bellow says, “Enchanting Reality!”

Art Petty serves senior executives and management teams as a performance coach and strategy facilitator. Art is a popular keynote speaker focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.



Just One Thing—Think Big(ger)

Just One ThingI confess to having cultivated a strong affinity for Big Thinkers in my advancing years as an executive. The flip-side of this growing affinity is my creeping impatience and dismissal of small thinkers. Given the scale and scope of the challenges in our world and in our industries and firms, small thinkers are a drag on the drive to change. And yes, life and our careers are too short to think small.

Big Thinkers see unlimited opportunities presented over a stream of endless tomorrows. They are unencumbered by the shackles of the status quo and the narrowness of their own experience.

In prior generations, the Big Thinkers would have been arctic or sea-faring explorers or inventors challenging the boundaries of dogma and human experience. In our time, they’re the ones found rethinking everything in a world where the pace of technological change enables everything to be rethought. They’re app developers solutions architects and entrepreneurs and researchers and the business professionals stomping all over the philosophy of: “But we’ve always done it this way.”

And while ideas without actions just take up empty space in the universe, the Big Thinkers I admire revel in the view to the future while promoting actions in the here and now. They are Big Thinkers and Big Doers. Consider:

  • There’s the senior product manager who watches his customers run their operations and identifies an opportunity to save tremendous amounts of time and money by adapting off-the-shelf technology in a way never envisioned by the technology’s creators.
  • There’s the sales manager who sees the market declining over the next few years and immediately begins building an all new (to the firm) approach that will open up new customer segments.
  • There’s the engineer who takes on the de-facto industry standard technology for high value applications with a radically different and dramatically less expensive approach. But it wasn’t just the technology, it was the established dogma and the ecosystem surrounding the old technology that had to change. He won the market.
  • There’s the senior manager who tires of the price and feature battles with competitors and reinvents the firm as a systems integrator. When he presented the idea to his Board, they laughed. They’re not laughing now–they’re too busy helping govern a growing firm.
  • And there’s the customer service manager who grew tired of what she describe as, “managing reduced expectations,” and built a team that rethought what it really meant to “serve customers.” She changed the fate of the firm in the process.

In each of the examples, these Big Thinkers stared down complacency, overcame the powerful gravitational pull of the status quo and convinced others to try something new and different and even frightening. They looked up from their desks, pushed their view beyond the one from the conference room window and embraced the philosophy of: “What If? and Why Not?”

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The real leadership issue of our time is to find and engage and help the Big Thinkers who are Big Doers. If you’re a dreamer and a doer, you’re in the right place at the right time. Small thinkers need not apply.

Art Petty serves senior executives and management teams as a performance coach and strategy facilitator. Art is a popular keynote speaker focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.

High Performance Management—All Strategy Work is Personal

Graphic displaying terms relevant to high performance managementMost businesses and most management teams flail and fail when it comes to the work of strategy.

In today’s world, where the long-cycle strategy process has been replaced by short-bursts of experimentation and iteration, it’s essential to reduce the fail and flail by attacking the root causes of so much dysfunction with this work. And, it’s not the complexity of the new initiatives that derail these teams. Rather, it’s a lack of discipline and a deficit of resolve on the part of the primary actors to do what is necessary to improve the odds of succeeding.

Watch Out for These Pitfalls:

The debate around direction (strategy) is almost always a tug-of-war, with those firmly married to this bygone era, resisting those who see the need to throw away that familiar security blanket in pursuit of new. These situations often end up as an Us-Versus-Them contest, with one side waving the flag of culture and tradition and the other side shouting that it doesn’t matter. The history isn’t the issue. It’s part of the firm’s legacy and culture and it should be celebrated but not endlessly emulated or repeated. Once the fracture in the culture opens up, this is difficult to repair and it creates a drag on progress in finding much needed new growth opportunities.

Another common dilemma is the debate over disconnected vectors. One group is passionate about the opportunities in markets A & B and requires investment to realize the benefits of those markets. Another group looks at Y & Z as the logical next steps and requires their own new investment to move forward. Instead of making the hard but critical call, senior executives often broker a compromise and fund both, setting the stage for a Darwinian battle for survival. This “cut the baby in half,” where the baby is precious resources and capital, practically guarantees failure for both initiatives.

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management termsYet another tripping point for senior management teams comes from the passive-aggressive lone-holdout. In my experience, the name and role changes, but the behaviors remain the same. Whether it’s the head of sales or marketing or research and development, this individual views himself/herself as the protector of the sacred status quo. He/she plays along in the strategy games, often extending debates and withholding commitment. They become particularly dangerous when they quietly but maliciously work to torpedo the initiative by withholding resources and derailing key supporting projects. These individuals are often master politicians, deftly navigating and neutralizing much deserved criticism.

All of the above is compounded when the individual sitting at the head of the table is uncertain over the right direction and unwilling to commit until the fog clears and the path becomes obvious. This hesitation is perceptible to everyone and easily exploited by those anchored to the status-quo.

This would be easy if it weren’t for the people.

7 Steps to Help the Senior Team Get it Right:

1. Get Outside Help. Yes, I’m biased, but the bias comes from decades of beating my head against the wall as a member of senior management teams trying to cut through all of the above. The right guide will shave person-years off of the duration of these initiatives and dramatically improve your odds of success. When choosing a guide, select someone with some gray or less hair from this process and beware of consultants bearing templates. There is no one template to get strategy right.

2. Conduct a Pre-Post Mortem on the Initiative. Ask, “when this succeeds, what will we have done right?” Model the success. Then ask, “If it fails, what will we have done wrong?” Leverage the output from these questions in forming and adopting a set of values that describes the essential and accepted behaviors.

3. Make Success or Failure Personal. In a variation of number two, ask everyone to codify in writing and then to verbalize, “At the end of this initiative, what will my teammates say that I did?” Everyone, involved, and especially the CEO, must participate. One team posted their planned contributions and behaviors in the designated “war room” and referenced them regularly.

4. Address the Elephants in the Room Early and Often. Remind everyone: Yes, this may mean a departure from the status quo. Yes, we will eventually have to structure to succeed. Yes, pet project are potentially vulnerable. Yes, we will make the hard decisions on what’s right for our firm, employees and stakeholders. Yes, we will ask outside opinions. Yes, you will be voted off the island if you violate the established values.

5. Respect the Legacy, but Don’t Anchor to It. Acknowledge that past approaches and legacy markets were the sources of growth that brought you here. Unless a clear case can be made for growth by extension in those arenas, it’s time to make some new opportunities and earn some new victories.

6. Decide How You Will Decide. Take time upfront to define the decision-making process. Too much work around strategy is prolonged by the lack of clear processes and approaches for this difficult but critical step.

7. It’s All About Execution—Build Discipline in Up-Front. Even when management teams get the advance work done in good form, there’s still the real work of bringing the ideas to life. Take the time to architect an execution program that allows for experimentation and learning and refinement. By the same token, build in the measures and reporting needed to quickly identify lack of commitment, poor coordination and the gravitational pull of resorting to old approaches.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Humans by nature are consistent and predictable, particularly when it comes to the messy issues around change. While few would argue that change is the order of the day in our world, we’ve not yet adapted our hardware and software—our minds and hearts—to facilitate critical change and adaptation in our businesses. Today, strategy work is an iterative, short-cycle process that demands participation, discipline and resolve. The senior team and senior leaders must build and build-in practices that mitigate the human pitfalls around change and motivate experimentation and learning. And while we talk about strategy as an organizational issue, it’s really an intensely personal issue.

Art Petty serves senior executives and management teams as a performance coach and strategy facilitator. Art is a popular keynote speaker focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.


Leadership Caffeine™—Running Uphill Against the Wind

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

The oft-cited and disturbingly dismal numbers reported about employee engagement tell an interesting story about leadership effectiveness…or the lack thereof.

In my own experience, professionals and workers who are engaged have a number of very common characteristics. They care deeply about their work. It’s a reflection in part of who they are as human beings and they have a fierce desire to not only strive and succeed, but to help their coworkers and their organizations succeed. They see the flaws in the workplace and genuinely strive to be part of the solution. They have an emotional attachment to their work and their workplace that transcends the pay for hours provided.

And they respect their firm’s leaders. They feel supported, challenged and safe.

There’s another group…perhaps the largest group in aggregate. These are individuals who WANT to care deeply about their work, however, something is fundamentally wrong in the working environment, pushing them to operate mostly in “safe” mode as a survival mechanism. They have no emotional attachment to their workplace and they most definitely don’t feel good about their bosses.

Sadly, this latter group is sizable, and likely contributes mightily to the disturbing size of the “we’re not engaged” numbers. The root cause of this situation isn’t a flaw in the people, it’s a flaw in the system of management in these firms, and particularly, it reflects fatally flawed leadership.

When I’ve surveyed or interviewed individuals in this latter group, the input is consistent. There’s some combination of not being treated with respect, being micro-managed, being verbally abused, not being challenged and supported to grow that combine to create these very dysfunctional environments.

All of these behaviors are easily identified, and while often not curable across the firm and up and down the organizational ladder, they are curable by YOU in your immediate environment.

We have an interesting tendency to mimic the behaviors of those around us, and in organizations, the behaviors modeled by those in senior leadership roles tend to be the behaviors adopted by everyone in managerial or supervisory positions. However, you don’t have to fall into this vicious failure trap.

If you’re reading this, you’ve already likely self-selected yourself into the group of “I care.” Now, take the time to look hard at your own behaviors. Are you creating an environment with your team that is safe, free from toxicity and genuinely focused on helping people strive and grow? If not, you’ve got some work to do, or you’re at risk of being part of the problem.

 The Bottom-Line for Now:

An early mentor of mine impressed upon me the reality that even in a sea of aberrant organizational behaviors and lousy leaders, I should always strive to create a calm zone where people valued their work and felt respected and appreciated. He was right. It’s hard work…you’re running uphill and against the wind. But it’s the good work you’ll be proud of when you look in the mirror. Don’t accept dysfunction and lack of engagement as inevitable. It’s time to start running uphill.

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™—Uncertainty…Get Over It

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!

“Taking control of uncertainty is the fundamental leadership challenge of our time.” Ram Charan in the opening line of his latest book, The Attacker’s Advantage—Turning Uncertainty into Breakthrough Opportunities.

Frankly, this is a remarkable time to be in business and to be serving in a leadership role. The risks, fears of change, possibilities of disruption or the realities of creative destruction and non-destructive creation are all facts of our business lives and they create a remarkable backdrop for us to create…to innovate. But first, we’ve got to fight our natural tendencies when determining how to act in this environment.

3 Nearly Fatal Leadership Mistakes in this Era:

1. Waiting for Normal to Return.  Some leaders imagine a return to an environment that feels more like equilibrium. Newsflash…the new equilibrium is a constant state of disequilibrium. Quit waiting on this friend to return. She’s gone.

2. Fighting Unseen Dragons. Others have as their sworn duty the need to protect their firm against risks…known and unknown. This fear-driven response to the environment narrows the options and in some cases induces an organization-wide paralysis that nearly certainly leads to decline and death. If you’re not moving, you’re dying.

3. Striving to Control the Weather. Worse yet, some attempt to impose order on the big forces propelling ever faster change in our world. Whether it’s through traditional approaches to long-term strategic planning (oxymoronic) or expecting the customers and market to bend to the whims of leadership’s wishful thinking, the attempt to impose order on these forces is a lot like expecting you will succeed in making the weather respond to your bidding.

Welcome to The Leadership Blender:

For those of you comfortable being uncomfortable in what I describe as the leadership blender where speed and ambiguity are the order of the day, this is the best of times. As Charan suggests in his new book, the advantage goes to the attacker. Translation: the team that plays offense stands a greater chance of success than the firms striving to perfect their defense.

A great example of this in action was the software firm whose plans to merge with a larger, complementary firm were derailed in the immediate aftermath of that very bad day in September, 2001. Instead of hunkering down, the firm and the firm’s leaders bet it all on a new vision in the face of what was the most disorienting time in most of our lives. The competitors hunkered down…the attacker rewrote the rules of a market and won.

Open Season on Innovation:

For those leaders willing to emphasize action in the face of ambiguity, it’s open season on innovation with the most creative firms, entrepreneurs and leaders leveraging modern tools to reinvent old businesses in new ways…or to carve new markets from the unstated but insatiable needs of growing demand for things that help, amuse or simplify. Historically, we looked at these individuals and teams that took risks that seemed far-fetched and counter-intuitive as heroes. Today, these heroic qualities are essential for leaders.

While the traditional tools of effective leadership…respect, fairness, accountability, coaching, guiding…are timeless, there are a series of critical new skills that we must cultivate to succeed in this world of change.

5 Critical New Skill Sets for Today’s Leaders:

1. Leading Without Authority. In a world without traditional borders of time, geography and culture, the new leader must be capable of assembling and motivating temporary teams to seize opportunities. The goal is to bring the best resources available at the time to bear on a problem or an opportunity. A good number of the resources will have little formal accountability to the team leader, yet, they will be eminently accountable to the team for results.

Today’s role of Project Manager comes the closest to resembling tomorrow’s critical integrator leader…the individual who spans boundaries and disciplines and organizes resources to execute and then moves on to the next challenge. Sadly, this critical role is grossly under-positioned, narrowly defined, under-supported and under-developed in most organizations. In a world driven by projects around temporary and unique activities, building a strong project leadership culture and investing in growing great project managers is essential for survival and success.

2. It’s Leading AND Following. Smart teams will increasingly take responsibility for selecting their own leaders, with the sole criterion being the best person to enable success with the initiative at hand. Authority will come less from a title attempting to legitimize power and more from the belief that you are the absolute right person to enable us to succeed at this time with this initiative. An outcome of this “fitness for purpose” approach to team leader selection, will be the need for leaders to be comfortable and adaptable to a shifting role as leader one day and follower the next.

Our industrial revolution age style of hierarchical organizational structure and thinking fights this adaptive approach. Frankly, we need to adapt our thinking or risk obsolescence. Imagine your boss suggesting tomorrow that you relinquish your role and title of director or manager to someone else to play a role as an individual contributor on a strategic initiative. For many, it’s a horrifying…or at least uncomfortable thought that smacks of a demotion. In reality…to survive and succeed in this new reality, all of us will increasingly be asked to play a variety of different roles at different times. Your momentary title is not the issue. Your ability to lead today and support a project team tomorrow as a contributor with expertise and passion is what your firm needs to succeed.

3. Building Coalitions for Fun and Profit. Your success will increasingly be a function of your ability to tap talent, resources and knowledge in environments outside of your core function. Those who learn to connect disparate networks of resources will not only grow their personal power in an organization, but will be the ones tapped to lead the most mission critical, boundary spanning initiatives.

4. Learning to Exploit the Math (and the Data). The volume, access to and velocity of data represents one of the fundamental new forces and resources in our world. Charan in The Attacker’s Advantage, describes the need for organizations and leaders to become increasingly mathematical…to employ algorithmic approaches to vast quantities of data in pursuit of making decisions and adjusting direction. I agree. The ability to leverage data and the tools around data to select strategies, guide decisions and gauge and adapt to results will be table stakes for tomorrow’s leaders, yet too many of us operate blind to these tools or handicapped by organizations that missed this memo. Strive to develop your comfort and command of the tools of data and to incorporate them in the work of your teams. For many of us, first, we need to get our organizations on board with this mission critical task.

5. Actively Harnessing Diversity. Much like the accessibility to data described above, the access to resources of all ages, cultures and backgrounds offers remarkable opportunities for leaders. Learning to work across cultures and to build teams that blend backgrounds and generations is a critical job for anyone striving to lead in this world. Our technologies enable around-the-world collaboration, yet we must develop the cultural intelligence necessary not only to engage but to inspire blended groups to create something remarkable.

An additional opportunity in this category is the ability to blend the generations to leverage the experience of the oldest workers with the perspectives of the youngest. Much of the planet is aging quickly, and it’s reasonable to believe in many cultures that the older workers will remain involved in some form or fashion for years to come. Learning to blend and lead these mixed age teams is just another great opportunity for all of us.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

There are so many complex variables at work in our world today, that the level of predictability is almost nil. The days of long-range plans are dead, replaced by a mid-term vision and a series of short-term ideas and experiments. The practicing leader must be strategically and tactically nimble, able to quickly identify, select and execute upon opportunities in rapid succession…learning and adapting on the fly….but not hesitating. The old saying, “speed kills” is replaced with “without the right speed, we’re roadkill.”

The future is remarkably bright for those of you who thrive on change and that cultivate advanced interpersonal and political skills. Ultimately, you will succeed or struggle based on your ability to perform in an environment where the only constant is change.

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.