Art of Managing—It’s Your Job to Bring Your Firm’s Values to Life

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.

I’ve long been a student of the values that organizations espouse. They are after all an attempt to encapsulate the accepted and aspirational behaviors of the firm’s employees and officers. And while the words on the wall or in the placard are typically interesting, noble and even somewhat predictable, what’s truly fascinating is to compare and contrast the behaviors of people in an organization to the values statements hanging on the wall.

In too many organizations, the values statements are corporate furniture. They’re décor…eye candy and while people see them every day, when questioned on what their firm’s values are, many employees will stumble and stammer. That’s too bad, because the values of a firm are powerful tools, intended to aid people as they navigate complex issues of strategy, talent identification and development and problem-solving.

It’s been my experience that organizations where the values are clear, meaningful and importantly, lived, are better able to sustain success, navigate the problems and challenges that arise in the course of time and business. And while my observations are entirely that…just observations not backed by research, it’s been my experience that firms with strong, clear, well-lived values create environments where people who relate to those values enjoy themselves in pursuit of their vocations and assignments. That’s a fancy way of saying that people enjoy themselves when they align their own internal value sets with those of the organization they work for. The output of all of that enjoyment and alignment can absolutely be higher performance for the firm over time.

I’ve helped a number of firms discover their values over my career and while yes, the output included something framed and hung on a wall, the experience of discovering and then describing the existing, often unstated and aspirational values that mattered to all employees (from the board-room to the shop floor) was humbling. Many people want to believe in something and they want to believe they are committing in their work to something they can both build and be proud of. It is hard to be proud of an organization that either appears valueless or, displays behaviors that are in opposition to our own values.

And from a practical perspective, the values are powerful tools to apply in the identification and development of talent. They create filters for hiring and foundational tools for evaluation and development. And yes, they are important in voting people off the island as well. While I’m momentarily channeling my inner Jack Welch, I don’t care if you’re an A player, if you operate in opposition to well-described standards for behavior, you’re toxic and you’re off my team.

Finally, where I’ve seen the values most…valuable (sorry!) has been in navigating challenging circumstances. When the market changes or the existing strategy runs out of gas, it’s easy for firms and their leaders and managers to flail and then fail. Bad choices become tempting as quick fixes and band aids. It’s easy for collaboration to break down into confrontation and conflict, particularly in boardrooms or the senior management arena, and in all of these circumstances, strong, clear values serve as powerful guides to right and wrong. We all need those guides in our lives from time to time and organizations navigating stormy seas are no different.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

At the end of the day, we as managers are accountable for bringing our firm’s values to life…and of course to helping refine what those often slightly too lofty statements mean in the context of desired and accepted behaviors. We’re accountable for putting the values on display every single day…not so much be parroting them, but more so by living them in every encounter and with every decision. Values are powerful performance tools that when used for good, can make a firm and team very good indeed.

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Art of Managing—Managing Effectively is Hard, Good Work

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.

For some reason, the work of management and of managers often is positioned as a poor second cousin to the richer, nobler tasks of leading. Managing isn’t as captivating to many…sounding and feeling more clerical than inspirational and achievement oriented. Even the label of “manager” tends to connote someone of lesser rank toiling away over spreadsheets and far removed from the loftier issues of leaders.

The academic world and the world of business writers (and leadership bloggers!) have often worked to focus on the differences between leaders and managers. Kotter started this dialog, management texts explore the concept and it’s not uncommon for the dialog to become a debate. In my view, it’s a ridiculous non-debate. Do you really want to work for a leader who cannot manage and a manager who cannot lead?

Yes, leading is critically important. It’s also a tool of management and managing (planning, organizing, leading and controlling) and while those we label as leaders may dream and speak of building great monuments and testaments to the human spirit and ingenuity, those we call managers bring these visions to life.

The Proper View on Management and the Need to Reinvent:

Gary Hamel, founder of the Management Innovation Exchange (MIX) and a professor at the London School of Business, describes management as, “the technology of human achievement.”  (Note from Art: check out Gary’s fabulous video on this topic at the MIX site.)

Hamel also suggests that the present tools of management are steeped in thinking cultivated from the industrial revolution and early 20th century thinking and fundamentally not appropriate for our emerging world. This goes for how we lead as well. He offers: Current management practices emphasize control, discipline and efficiency above all else — and that’s a problem. To thrive in the 21st century, organizations must be adaptable, innovative, inspiring and socially accountable. That will require a genuine revolution in management principles and practices.

If Hamel is right, the work of today’s manager includes both flying the current plane and building a new one simultaneously.

The Critical Work of Today’s Effective Manager:

The effective manager understands her business and how her firm makes money with clarity, and her decisions are guided by this knowledge. She is well versed in strategy, constantly aware of environmental forces impacting the business and critically attuned to forming a work environment that allows her people to operate at their creative best. She provides frank feedback, knocks down barriers for her team and navigates the firm’s political environment and senior leaders with the agility of a world-class athlete. She finds and develops talent, translates corporate goals into specific functional objectives and works to constantly gauge progress and quality and identify opportunities to improve performance.

And while she’s at it, as Hamel suggests, the effective manager is looking for new ways to create an advantage by changing and innovating her practices. Consider just two key issues faced by today’s managers:

1. How to cultivate effective project teams (we live in a world of projects) with team members distributed across continents and cultures.

2. How to combat and outflank fast emerging competitors armed with technologies that were pipe dreams just a few years ago and now threaten a firm’s very existence. From external awareness to command of strategy to managing the process of turning ideas into offerings, this is critical, hard work indeed.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The work of the effective manager builds bridges, moves mountains and brings great big dreams to life. Perhaps the world and our firms need a few more people proud of their role as managers.

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Art of Managing—Beware the Lure of Strategy in a Box Approaches

image of a box with new and improved on the labelThe 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.

Strategy is one of those difficult topics that dog most management teams and most firms.

The real work of strategy is challenging, time consuming and filled with hard-to-answer questions. It requires a simultaneous out-of-corporate body experience to objectively understand market, industry and competitive forces, along with an invasive and sometimes painful self-examination around internal capabilities.

Few managers come to strategy work with a common understanding or agreement on what strategy is, much less what an effective process looks and feels like. Selecting a strategy and building out the execution program includes the painful process of choosing what not to do, something that often dies on the field of political battles or lack of decision-making discipline.

Last and not least, the groups working on strategy often have little experience working together much less deciding together. In larger organizations participants are often handicapped by lack familiarity with their colleague’s businesses or offerings. Mix in  political dynamics with the lack of familiarity and experience teaming, and you shoot any realistic near-term opportunity to cultivate high performance right in the corporate rear-end.

Given the challenges of managing an effective, on-going strategy process, it’s no surprise “Strategy in a Box” approaches are often adopted by management teams looking to add a check mark to the strategy task on their annual goals.

Recognizing “Strategy in a Box” Approaches:

While there are several variations, the process typically involves bringing a group of senior managers and functional or technical experts together with an outside facilitator for a multi-day offsite retreat.

The “process in a box” invariably starts at the top of the intellectual heap…setting vision to guide future direction. A painful (think root canal with no Novocain …but even more painful) round of group wordsmithing on a so-called vision invariably results in a gobbledygook of words that no one likes but everyone momentarily settles for just to end the pain.

After vision, there’s typically a S.W.O.T. (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) exercise…a discussion that is best described as a bias-filled cesspool of incremental and wild ass thinking on external opportunities and a superficial analysis of internal issues and capabilities. The internal assessment is often either a glossing over of capabilities or a political battle with functional or technical experts taking shots in an effort to distance themselves from criticism and gain leverage in the expected future resource battles. There’s often little preparation or external analysis, and objectivity for internal realities is horribly lacking.

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management termsNext out of the box is a round of goal setting, where the goals become the strategies. The goals are invariably around numbers and the bigger the numbers, the better. It’s not uncommon to hear the adult version of the playground “triple dog dare,” pushing numbers higher and higher:

“C’mon, if development hits the timing window at the right cost and feature set, we can do twice that with our hands tied behind our back.”

“I think you’re sandbagging. We can do your number and then some with the right execution and management.” (Note the thinly veiled jab.)

Big numeric goals become the perceived strategy: “100 million in three years,” or, 100,000 customers or number one or two in our market.

The last tool out of the box is the action plan, where some high-level actions and responsibilities are assigned, with the middle-layer of management in the room inevitably taking on the most critical work.

After a final shake of the box, the follow-up date is set and people adjourn with smiles and handshakes, all internally secure in the knowledge that little of any value was achieved and all wondering how the heck they can avoid any accountability here.

The Alternative…Deliberate Focus on the Right Issues and the Hard Questions:

I wish I were exaggerating on the above description, but I’m not. Some form or variation of this superficial approach is what too many management teams experience when it comes to strategy work. 

The right alternative is to focus on and attack core issues. Rumelt advises us in Good Strategy/Bad Strategy to focus on the kernel of a strategy. Carefully diagnose the situation (an exercise not to be taken lightly) and then decide what to do about it at a high level. Back the diagnosis and guiding philosophy with a set of integrated actions and build from there. Much like a medical problem, the diagnosis frames and defines the follow-on regimen and measurement.

Geoffrey Moore’s framework of frameworks in Escape Velocity forces a view to the portfolio of opportunities and demands answers to the hard questions for today’s and tomorrow’s businesses from an investor’s perspective. He also appropriately segregates discussion into time horizons and cautions us to treat today’s businesses and tomorrow’s businesses very differently.

Others, including Welch’s famous 5 slides (approximately 20 questions) create a laser-like focus on the issues of strategy and opportunities and competitors and actions.

In my own experience leading strategy inside corporations and externally as a consultant, the hardest part of the process is building the discipline and teamwork to objectively tackle the right issues and hard questions. While the components included in the “Strategy in a Box” have merit…vision, assessment, goals and actions, it’s the poor process and then attempting to pass them off as the complete strategy work that I object to strenuously.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

In truth, the work of strategy is hard work, however, the actual key questions to be answered are finite and very visible. The focus must be on finding or creating strength to use against weakness or to exploit opportunities. The work is much about assessing your firm’s true situation in the context of change (tastes, industries, macro forces, competitors, substitutes, technologies) and selecting a set of intelligent experiments to test hypotheses. The work demands the development of a team committed to high performance, supported by the organization and accountable for objective assessment and selection of options.

Don’t be lulled into sacrificing the rigor of the work and the accountability to key questions to a simple sounding but canned approach that doesn’t get at the right issues at the right depth. There are no shortcuts to strategy.

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Art of Managing—How to Respond When the Experiment Goes Wrong

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.

Many firms incorporate something in their values statements that encourages experimentation and recognizes the reality of failure in pursuit of learning and growth. The understanding that to succeed you have to fail first is common knowledge for most of us. However, it’s not the words on the values sign that bring life to a culture of experimentation, but rather, it’s the response of senior leadership to the inevitable clunkers that determines how willing people are to take risks and pay the lessons learned forward.

I have more clunkers to my credit than most people would be comfortable admitting publicly. And while the clunkers created sleepless nights and a fair amount of internal anxiety, I take satisfaction not in having politically survived these failures, but rather, in having leveraged those failures for future gains that propelled our teams, products and firms forward. Of course, a bit less pain along the way would have been nice, but I’ve yet to find the path to innovation that doesn’t include some discomfort in the process. Thankfully, the people I worked for had fairly high pain thresholds.

In the most successful firms I’ve been around, the managers actively promote experimentation and learning as core to everyone’s job. Yet, it’s not the words on the wall or even the words that come out of their mouths about experimentation, it’s the actions they take when things go horribly wrong that fosters the effective learning environment. In a number of these firms, this support of learning is so strong it creates the gravitational pull that keeps the top performers in place long-term and not drifting towards competitors.

3 Counter-intuitive (and Effective) Responses to a Failed Initiative:

1. Throw a experimentsparty. Seriously. One of my favorite managers leveraged the occasional project gone horribly wrong scenario with this counter-intuitive tactic. It was his way of pulling the final plug…telling us how much he valued our efforts and charging us up for our next run at something new. For one particular disaster, he sponsored a day at a theme park. While I carefully checked the safety harness on my first roller coaster ride just in case, it was his way of helping us blow off steam. An important note here; the party wasn’t the end of the process, but the beginning of the next phase of learning. After the fun was over, he put us through the paces of rolling up lessons learned and identifying pieces of intellectual property that could be inventoried and used for the future.

2. Invite Some Outsiders to Help You Study Your Failure. While not as fun as the party process described above, this technique of peer review served as a powerful learning tool. We invited a group of uninvolved experts to challenge everything from our assumptions to our decision-making processes and execution approaches. The playback of the project plus the clinical, detached questioning from the outsiders created a powerful environment for reflection and learning. The results were carefully summarized and archived for review prior to our next initiative. In fact, every new project team spent at least a week as part of their forming process reviewing cases from other project teams as a means of sensitizing the members to historic success and failure factors.

3. Make a Case Out of the Failure. No, not a federal case, but an actual working case to be studied by other groups. Closely related to the “outsiders” suggestion above, the team would create their form of a thinly disguised business case and then sit by and listen and learn as other groups assessed the case and proposed different courses of actions. While this might sound onerous or even too academic, the effort that went into creating the case required a detailed review of the assumptions and processes, and everyone gained insights from the experience of watching the new groups work the case and develop their own approaches.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Most managers and most firms work hard to eliminate the odds of misfires and miscues. While I don’t encourage managers to run towards failures, the process of moving forward requires frequent backing up. When it comes to projects or major initiatives, you cannot plan your way to success on paper and expect the plan to unfold as predicted. You have to deal with the messy, sometimes unpredictable nature of people and the inherent challenges in doing something new. Your response at the point of failure is critical to what happens next.

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Art of Managing—In Searching for Talent, Emphasize Potential

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

The article, “21st Century Talent Spotting—Why potential now trumps brains, experience, and competencies,” in the June, 2014 issue of HBR by Claudio Fernandez-Araz, is must reading for every manager concerned about putting the right management and leadership talent in place to grow his/her organization. (And yes, every manager should be concerned about this significant challenge.)

The author builds a case for shifting away from the competency model (core skills and experiences) that has dominated hiring practices for the recent past, to one that emphasizes assessing a candidate’s potential in the form of, “the ability to adapt to ever-changing business environments and grow into challenging new roles.”

Raised Eyebrows and Victories:

I’ve long been a fan of build versus buy or, hire the best athletes when it comes to talent acquisition, although admittedly, my selections have raised some eyebrows in the more traditional HR environments. One hire to help build out a new initiative had no experience whatsoever in the function I was hiring her for, yet she brought a deep understanding of the customers we were pursuing. In this case, the HR executive who not so politely wondered whether I had lost my mind, was professional enough to loop back after I invited him to the interview process, to offer, “Now I get it.” The outcome was excellent, as she quickly provided much needed customer context for our strategy work, while learning the ins and outs of a new discipline.

Another hire that proved to be remarkably valuable was the recruit from the retail world for a technology sales role. There’s not a hiring model in existence that would have led anyone to this individual, however, the attributes he displayed in winning for his firm, team and store in his retail role were so powerful, I had to give him a shot in my world. He is now a Senior Director in one of the world’s largest and most successful software firms.

The Big Five Indicators (Plus Some):

The focus of the author’s model is on assessing five key indicators: the right motivation, curiosity, insight, engagement and determination. (He also appropriately highlights need to gauge intelligence, values and leadership abilities as part of the process.) The emphasis on the five indicators shifts the weighting away from prior experience in the job and places a tremendous emphasis on the ability of the individual to both learn and adapt. The oft-cited assessment philosophy of, the best predictor of future success is prior performance, is significantly diluted in this approach.

Of Risk and Return:

In addition to a number of noteworthy successes in my own too ad-hoc approach to this style of talent assessment, I’ve also misfired on several occasions. In one case, I failed to recognize the true complexities of quickly learning the new role, and the individual struggled to win the confidence and respect of his colleagues. In another, the individual failed to gravitate to the new role at all, preferring to avoid situations where her expertise was less important than her ability to execute on her core position responsibilities. Both were frustrating situations for all parties, and I learned to avoid future gaffes (like these) through better pre-hiring dialogue over a longer time frame and significantly increased exposure to the demands of the very new role for the candidates.

Invest in Potential and Then Push to Stretch:

Fernandes-Araz concludes the article with an emphasis on “Stretch Development” for the high potential hires. In his words, “When it comes to developing executives for future leadership assignments, we’re constantly striving to find the optimal level of discomfort in the next role or project, because that’s where the most learning happens.” The stretch work is also where you find out whether your initial assessment of potential was on or off the mark.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Talent is the difference-maker in this world, and identifying, securing and developing the right talent is arguably the most important task of managers in the enterprise. You don’t fulfill on mission, effectively serve customers or appropriately reward stakeholders without the right people on board…all learning, growing and adapting to market  conditions. If shifting your viewpoint and recruiting approaches off of the like-kind prior experience model will give you a potential boost, it’s worth the risk. Your batting average on hires that stick might slip a bit, but the upside is worth the cost of the experimentation.

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.