Radical Candor—A Band-Aid for Lack of Accountability

group fightingI was intrigued by the recent article in the Wall Street Journal (registration or subscription may be required), entitled: “Nice is a Four-Letter Word at Companies Practicing Radical Candor.” The opening of the article offers:

Companies from advertising firm Deutsch Inc. to hedge fund Bridgewater Associates are pushing workers to drop the polite workplace veneer and speak frankly to each other no matter what. The practice is referred to at some companies as “radical candor,” a “mokita” or “front-stabbing.”

Imagine the start-up of a new program introducing radical candor in a culture where the norm has been more collegial and reserved in communication and criticism:

(Said tongue in cheek): “Finally! Bob, I’ve been waiting for years to tell you what a jerk you really are. And Mary, you should seriously consider a new career because you suck at the current one. Jeff, I know your the new accountant here, but I truly believe you that you couldn’t tell your rear end from a contra-account.”

The sudden introduction of radical candor in most of our organizations would take on the demeanor of the movie, “Liar, Liar,” where the principal character, a lawyer, is suddenly unable tell a lie to hilarious outcomes. (The lawyer not lying sounds like serious fiction.) While the sudden candor makes for some funny situations in the movie, I’m not certain too many would be laughing in our offices. As one recipient of someone’s radically candid observations offered in the article, “…the unvarnished feedback cut me to the bone.”  A good biting, bone-cutting comment from a co-worker is better than an energy drink for my motivation.

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management termsIn all candor, (I couldn’t resist), environments where people struggle to communicate openly about business issues and performance and behavioral issues don’t need a new program, they need new leadership and management.

Individuals struggle to talk openly and respectfully about the big issues because management stinks. (Hey, I’m getting the hang of this radical candor!) The ability to talk clearly and even directly about the important issues is a function of how effective management has been in imbuing the culture with the quality of accountability and the values of honesty and continuous improvement. The lack of candor in the workplace reflects the absence of those values and the presence of fear of reprisal from those in positions of authority.

In particular, the often elusive quality of accountability is the life-blood of high performance and continuous learning, and where it is lacking, everyone suffers—often in silence. Accountability is key and king when it comes to promoting a healthy workplace environment built around open and honest communication.

At Least 7 Benefits of an Environment of Accountability:

  1. People understand their jobs and what’s expected of them.
  2. Everyone understands what’s expected of everyone else.
  3. Performance gaps are easily identified and traced to the source.
  4. Teams and groups self-police accountability with their team members.
  5. Discussion around the tough topics is a regular, comfortable occurrence.
  6. Accountability promotes continuous learning and improvement.
  7. The chances of negative surprises are minimized.

And yes, even in long dysfunctional cultures, accountability can be fostered and cultivated, and openness in communicating can be strengthened. All it takes is transplanting those in charge with leaders who care. Investing in a gimmicky program is a band-aid for the wounds created by a bigger problem.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Instead of tacking on what is likely to be a disastrous and potentially personally destructive program that breeds fear in an already dysfunctional workplace environment, make it simpler and teach and expect accountability from yourself and others. When it fails to show up, bring it up. This isn’t a program you add on to your firm, openness and honesty are core values and a way of life.

Read more in the Art of Managing Series.

Read Art’s All-New Management and Leadership writing at About.com

Art Petty serves senior executives and management teams as a performance coach and strategy facilitator/adviser. 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.



The Inner Game of Leading and Your New Year’s Resolutions

best practice on blackboardFor the past few transitions to the new year, I’ve reposted my “A Leader’s Resolutions are Calendar Blind” article, suggesting that we need a bit more frequent refresh than this annual once per year, open-season on resolution resets. While I stand behind the suggestions in the post, my thinking has evolved a bit during this past year.

In my opinion, a daily refresh isn’t too frequent—and in this world of complexity and change, it might not be enough.

A bit of background is in order.

I had the great fortune thanks to a client engagement to dig in to the very important topic of leading and leadership in dangerous situations. Sadly, this century has thus far been marked by global turmoil, war and violence, and as a result, we’ve developed a body of research on the challenges, issues and practices that work (and don’t work) in dangerous settings.

  • General Stanley McChrystal and his team have suggested an entire new approach to managing and teaming in his excellent book, Team of Teams.
  • A 2011 publication, “Leadership in Dangerous Situations,” offers some outstanding research-backed guidance on the practices and approaches that work in both modern combat and first-responder situations.

At least one of the core themes in all of these works is the need for the leader to internalize and constantly execute on his/her role in distinct ways because of (not in spite of) the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) in these situations.

In the business world, two important works suggest the need for new approaches to leading:

  • The Attacker’s Advantage by Ram Charan suggests combatting VUCA by going on the offensive and striving to see and seize opportunities in all of the noise.
  • No Ordinary Disruption by Dobbs and Manyika (and the McKinsey Team) offers up a view to the unparalleled and profoundly powerful macro forces impacting the global economy and business environment. Surviving and thriving in this environment surely demands new approaches to leading and managing.

What’s a Leader to Do?

The behaviors that everyone of us can list chapter and verse that reflect our traditional view of effective leadership still hold, but they’re not enough.

There’s a new dimension in business—the need for speed around innovation, problem-solving, opportunity development and execution, coupled with the need to promote safety and security in what is ostensibly an unsafe and insecure environment. These factors suggest that today’s successful leaders cultivate a stronger sense of purpose and role and work tirelessly to reinforce this role. I referenced this in earlier posts this year as, the “Inner Game of Leading”.

How does this relate to your new year’s resolutions to be a better leader, you ask?

Here are my suggestions for supporting your growth, development and daily effectiveness in the new year.

4 Big Ideas to Renew Your Leadership Effectiveness Daily:

1. Rethink your role. Today’s leader must offer “burden relief” to his/her team members. Take the environmental problems away and do everything possible every day to allow your team members to apply their creativity and talents to their core work. Uncomplicate things for them!

2. Decomplexify. (Yes. I’m minting words in this post.) Ambiguity in our markets is the order of the day. You need to actively strive to take the complexity out of the situation and allow your team members to focus on taking bite-sized chunks out of the elephantine level of challenges in front of them.

3. Practice “adjusting your own attitude” every morning before work. Take a few minutes in the parking lot at the coffee shop or at your desk before the craziness starts and focus on what you can do to best support your team members. It’s likely not about barking orders or running an endless series of status update meetings. If you are spiritual, consider incorporating or adapting your own variation of the Jesuit practice of The Daily Examen.

4. Learn to care about your team members. Show it and mean it! Beyond displaying competence, the notion that the leader “cared” for team members and their safety and security is consistently listed as the most critical credibility builder for leaders in dangerous situations. While most of us aren’t facing the daily hostilities of our treasured men and women in the armed forces, we are dealing with people who will respond positively to a leader who cares about them, their careers and the security of their jobs and families.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Great leadership practices are timeless, but the context has shifted. It’s different for all of us today. There’s an underlying feeling of anxiety and stress in a world where “change is changing” seemingly at an accelerating pace and where economic turmoil and the miserable specter of violence in our society are never far away, whether we’re in Paris or on the streets of Chicago. You and I must learn to be better at our jobs every single day!

May your resolutions and your resolve to improve be ever-green!

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.


How Small-Company CEOs Can Build Management Teams that Work

Graphic displaying terms relevant to high performance managementOne of the worst uses of the term, “team,” is in relationship to the group of executives who report to the CEO. For many of the firms I work with ($20 million to $200 million in annual revenues), there’s little beyond the “report to” issue that binds these groups together as a team. This is often frustrating to CEOs who expect more from their highest paid lieutenants.

Countless hours and dollars are spent at offsite retreats and with expensive consultants and industrial psychologists exploring interesting dimensions of individual and group dynamics, often with no sustaining and positive “teaming” effects once the group returns to their day jobs.

What’s a CEO to do?

The answer for many is to simplify this situation by resetting expectations for teaming and laser focusing on the few issues that demand close coordination across this group of experienced and highly compensated individuals. While resetting expectations may sound like capitulation, it’s more of a case of choosing what not to do and focusing energies on the few combined activities that will move the performance meters in the right direction.

Resetting Expectations—Letting Go of Visions of Camelot

For many CEOs, there’s an idealized state of existence where the senior managers without prompting function as a single entity solving problems and making decisions and spreading confidence and good cheer across the firm. In this vision, the managers trust and even like each other and importantly, they protect each other. It’s a nice vision. Nice, but impractical.

In reality, senior managers are often at cross-purposes with each other over budgetary issues and the battle for resources for their teams. By nature of their functions, their time horizons are different. Poorly designed compensation systems fail to motivate integration and coordination, and key performance indicators reflect functional variables that are irrelevant beyond the specific department—interesting and perhaps important, but not meaningful to the group.

And the unspoken reality is that some senior managers view a seat at the table as a license to hunt for more power—whether it’s via an elevated title or favored status when it comes to gaining access to the CEO’s ear. The senior management environment is a ripe breeding ground for competition for individuals used to competing and succeeding in games of power and resources.

While many of the above variables are capable of being tuned and tweaked, a faster path to meaningful collaboration is to focus on the core issues that must bind this group in attitude and performance: direction, coordination and values. While I absolutely advocate creating meaningful, integrated measures, goals and compensation schemes, and eradicating destructive power-grabs, those should emerge from a focus on the issues.

Where Teamwork Matters at the Top:

1. Direction.The senior managers must coalesce around the next steps for the firm. Easy words, but a difficult objective to achieve in reality (and the subject of a dedicated forthcoming post).

Helping Teams and Individuals Find DirectionWhether it’s diversifying and strengthening offerings or making moves to extend within a current segment/customer group or, expanding to cover new segments, a unified front from this group is essential. In teams where this unified view and messaging is missing, the broader organization picks up on the dissonance and morale and execution suffer.

CEOs must facilitate the hard dialog about direction and bring the debates to a close with a clear, unassailable conclusion. Once direction is set, the team is accountable to owning this direction choice together—from messaging to execution, learning and adaptation. This doesn’t preclude amending or shifting in the future, but there’s a point in time when the debates stop, a choice is made and the needed senior manager collaboration begins.

2. Coordination around Strategy Execution. Management groups are capable of developing as teams around the critical and challenging work of bringing directional decisions to life. These are effectively programs or projects with a tremendous number of inter-dependencies between functions. From co-sponsoring cross-functional initiatives or key project pieces to defining meaningful measures that gauge organizational progress on strategies, teamwork at the top is critical. In my experience, the clear and galvanizing purpose of strategy implementation and the transparency required for gauging progress are critical variables for promoting senior manager teamwork.

3. Values. For high performing organizations, the values that define expected and accepted behaviors are visible and very much alive, and their reinforcement starts and stops with senior management behaviors. People mimic powerful leaders, and they are super-sensitive to behaviors that are dissonant from what’s been described as appropriate or ideal. There can be no exceptions at the senior manager level to living and supporting the values of the firm and the behaviors needed to ensure clarity of purpose, rules of engagement and collaboration and accountability for outcomes.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

In three decades of attending, being a part of or facilitating senior management teams and meetings, I have no qualms suggesting that most of these groups sub-optimize. I’ve observed or have been a part of a couple of groups for points in time that looked and felt like real teams in all respects, but those are the exceptions. CEOs have a tough job deriving value beyond functional leadership from their senior managers, and instead of expecting them to spontaneously emerge as a great team, they are better served focusing on driving teamwork in the limited but important areas of direction, strategy execution and values reinforcement. Get these three right and the opportunity for the group to emerge as a real team improves considerably.

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™—Role Models from Dangerous Situations

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

I had the great honor of delivering two leadership workshops at the Alabama Jail Association Annual Conference recently, and the experience was for me, fascinating, humbling and incredibly educational. (Yes, teachers do learn from students and instructors from participants!)

I wasn’t certain what to expect from this audience heading into the program. I didn’t know this crowd. In fact, as I remarked to the group, I had successfully managed to avoid meeting them my entire life. Also, beyond a few corporate settings that felt like war zones, I had not spent a great deal of time with individuals immersed daily in dangerous settings.

As it turned out, the audiences in the two programs were fantastic! They were hungry for ideas and insights on strengthening as leaders and they were more active and engaged than most corporate groups I’ve worked with over the years. They worked hard on the cases and activities and they generously shared the challenges of their environment as we discussed ideas and approaches to strengthening leadership effectiveness.

Early in the program, we ran a breakout activity where I asked the participants to share stories in small groups about the individual they point to as the leadership role models in their lives. Digging deeper, I asked them to discuss what it was their role model did that had such a profound influence on them and others. I requested they pick one story from their small group to share with the larger audience. And to a group, they shared stories with identical themes.

The role models were either current or former senior officers from the corrections environment. They inspired by leading by example, living and working by a clear code of values, holding themselves and others accountable for fairness and excellence and to a person, caring deeply about their team members.

One example of a number of the officers turned out to be the mother of another participant in the workshop. To listen to others describe the impact she had as a leader on so many present was visibly humbling for the son.

I listened and soaked up the great stories, and as the participants described the realities of their difficult working environment, it was clear to me that the great skill of effective leaders in dangerous settings was the ability to create a leadership and performance environment that transcended the physical setting and dangerous circumstances.

As part of my preparation for the program, I spent a good deal of time catching up on the leadership studies and stories from dangerous settings. Sadly, we have all too much recent data on this topic, mostly beginning with the reporting of the heroics of the law and fire officials during 9/11 and certainly from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The studies showcase consistent behaviors that define effective leadership in dangerous settings, including:

  • Caring at a personal level
  • Credibility earned by backing words with actions
  • Competence displayed…physically and cognitively, particularly via decision-making
  • Trust given
  • Purpose front and center
  • Accountability uniformly and fairly enforced

The consistent display of these behaviors contributes to forming a working environment that transcends the physical setting. While the audience was quick to highlight the flaws and challenges in their workplaces, they were visibly proud of their membership and of their team members. For all of us operating in the relative safety of corporate walls, there’s more than a few powerful lessons on leading we can gain from those operating in harm’s way. The first lesson is humility.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Effective leaders create the environment for success regardless of physical surroundings. Their behaviors transcend the dangers, and the tough circumstances create the bonds that build trust and loyalty and promote performance. And yet again, we hear that the impact of an effective leader has a ripple effect that transcends the years and generations. If you’re looking for a leadership example to model your own behaviors, perhaps it’s time to look to those leading in harm’s way for a meaningful example.

New Leader Tuesday—3 Questions to Bring Your Future into Focus

Text image with New Leader Tuesday and a variety of management termsTuesday at the Management Excellence blog is for anyone getting started (or starting over) on their leadership journey.

I can tell you with absolute certainty that I didn’t think about my own leadership legacy during the early part of my career. No one does. After all, who has time to worry about something so squishy and distant sounding when you’re focused on getting things done? And make no doubt about it, I was laser focused on translating the formula for success in corporate life into my own personal gain.The formula in my mind was preoccupied with driving great results by pushing others.

Yes, my style as a young manager was more muscle and not finesse. I was playing a short-game…minute to minute with little concern for the long-term. And for awhile, the scoreboard was in my favor. I grew my responsibilities, title and income at a rapid rate. And then the wheels began to wobble as people cycled through my teams and off to other areas and even my own satisfaction with what I was doing (and how I was doing it) began to decline.

Thanks to a great mentor, I began to understand that the good short-term results were coming at a high price in terms of morale, burn-out and my own professional reputation. I believe he described me as a “machine,” and it wasn’t intended to be flattering. The connotation was more about being demanding and soulless and less about efficiency. He made me think about my approach and my style and I didn’t have to look far to find evidence that supported his case.

The relationships with my team members were shallow…mostly transaction-based, and the environment was demanding. I was demanding. Perhaps a bit of a minor tyrant. I took pride in my “get it done at all costs” reputation. As it turned out, I was running things like a sports team interested in winning a championship now with little concern for the team members or building a culture of excellence that would sustain the test of time.

Over the months following the “machine” comment, he challenged me to think about and then act on the output from three provocative questions. The introspection prompted by these three questions changed the course of my work, my career and likely my life. How will you answer them?

3 Questions to Help You Build a Great Leadership Legacy:

1. At the end of your career at your retirement party, how do you want people to describe the impact you had on them?

I remember laughing at this one. Retirement seemed a long way off then, and today, it just feels like a foreign concept. Nonetheless, this good question challenged me to consider the impact I was having on each individual versus thinking solely about the numbers and achievements. With a few more years under my belt and many remarkable accomplishments from my teams and for my firms, I care very little about the glories of great numbers…those are outcomes we are accountable for to our stakeholders, but they’re never the purpose or the drivers. The great quarters and years are like dusty trophies on a shelf in the basement. What I’m most proud of are the many successes of the great people who got their start on my watch. This simple question caused me to pause and then pivot in my thinking about my purpose in leading others.

2. Who are the leaders from history or in your life (not just business) that you most admire? Why? What was/is it about their approaches or actions that you find inspirational and instructive?

I still love this question and I use variations of it in my different programs and classes. I became (and remain) a student of history and a passionate observer of the effective and ineffective leaders in my firms and in my life. In particular, I’ve developed a long-term obsession to better understand how leaders facing great adversity dealt with their circumstances. Thinking through this question in the context of great leaders of history (or perhaps your personal history…via family members) is humbling. You recognize how important it was to have vision and then overcome extreme uncertainty and hardship while striving to keep people inspired by the vision. Whether it was the survival of Britain or the retention of the entire Union, neither Churchill nor Lincoln knew how they were going to prevail, they just knew that they had to for the greater good.

3. What type of environment do people need to prosper and do their best work, AND what is your role in creating this environment?

This compound question in particular has served as the foundation for my exploration of and experimentation with teams and approaches in pursuit of high performance. Ultimately, the leader sets the environment and issues of respect, trust, credibility and accountability are all wrapped up in forming and framing the environment for high performance. Most of us intuitively understand this at some level, but the question is are you living it every day? The environment I had created as a young manager was anything but healthy.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The comment that I was functioning like a machine irked me. In hindsight, it was pivotal in my career. I’ve enjoyed myself more and I have a reasonable belief that I’ve helped people grow and have helped my firms and teams prosper because of my active cultivation of an approach based on my answers to the questions above. I use a question in my keynotes that challenges leaders to offer a pre-post-mortem on their impact on big initiatives. Extend this to your career, and ask: “At the end of your career, what will you want people to say that you did?

It’s time to start doing it.