High Performance Management—Courage and Business Transformation

Graphic displaying terms relevant to high performance managementThe topic of transformation is a challenging one for all management teams. It’s not surprising that few muster the collective courage necessary to transform their organizations even in the face of sustained headwinds or looming crisis.

Certainly, there are different drivers behind the need for significant change. One very common and challenging situation arises when a firm comes face to face with its own impending irrelevance, often created by competitive disruption or technological obsolescence. Another scenario…the one I see most often in technology firms is the need to transform to support growth. Both offer their own unique challenges.

The first situation…impending obsolescence and a high probability of organizational death demands transformation on a major scale. The issues are fairly clear, and the adversary easily observed and studied. While some of the big decisions are obvious…shedding unprofitable endeavors, cutting costs etc. selecting the response or strategy that will postpone or eliminate impending doom is quite challenging. The art and science in this situation isn’t the financial management it’s the strategy and execution work.

In the second scenario, transforming to support scaling…to go from good to great or great to greater, the biggest adversary management teams face is overcoming the comfort of “incrementalism” and wrapping their brains and arms around the need to unite on and drive significant change. The overwhelming emotion for managers is to incrementally fix and tweak and tune what has been working versus taking action to reinvent. What’s needed are new functions, processes, systems and talent with a charter to go to new arenas, and what happens looks more like the duct-tape and flexi-hose repairs I use for sudden plumbing problems. I momentarily stem the crisis, but I don’t fix the systemic issue.

Having lived both of these scenarios in multiple technology businesses, I find the second situation, driving significant change while successful (albeit increasingly stymied by capacity, infrastructure and talent issues) to be the most vexing of the situations. There’s almost never a mandate to change and management teams solve small problems all the while the bigger machine begins to squeak and groan and then smoke. As efficiency and effectiveness decline and good opportunities in new markets or with new products go unrealized, management begins to flail and inevitably, the financials begin to move in the wrong direction.

Navigating and ideally, avoiding the squeaking, groaning and smoking phase takes incredibly strong senior leadership starting at the top with the CEO and carrying through the entire executive management team. In the circumstances where we got this right, the group was able to put ego and personal interest aside and focus collectively on what was right for the business over a longer horizon. The groups found a new performance gear, and while talk of risk and uncertainty dominated much of the dialog (and emotional atmosphere), the unrelenting focus on the need to help the business “Level-Up” defined the mission. There must be unanimity or talk of transformation remains just that.

Conversely, where the need was present but the work failed, these teams lacked the collective courage to consider the topic with anything more than lip-service. Talk of transformation in these cases is infused with politics, self-interest and the dialog if it even turns into that, is more an endless philosophical debate. Those seeking to derail this train are able to easily manipulate the agenda and a less-than-unified team lets it drop. In this case, the focus remains on tackling incremental issues versus systemic. It may work for awhile, but it eventually runs into the brick wall of reality.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

If you and your team have recognized the warning signs of your firm’s structural, capacity, strategic and human limitations, it’s important to begin framing and forming a discussion that looks beyond the symptoms to the underlying issues. The temptation is to attempt to reduce the symptoms with a variety of small fixes. The need is for the team to rethink what it needs to look and act like to ensure a profitable, healthy future. Don’t fight reality. Recognize that the inertial power of the status quo is strong. It takes extraordinary strength to move beyond how we do things today.

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Ideas for Professional and Performance Growth for the Week of August 2, 2015

How Would You Run the Play?Note from Art: Every week I offer ideas to encourage you to stretch and grow. Use them in great professional health!

Do: Ask an Objective Outsider to Observe and Offer Feedback on Your Team/Project Meetings

There’s nothing like a fresh set of eyes to help assess group dynamics and team performance. One of the simplest and most powerful ways to improve project team effectiveness is to gain objective feedback on what’s working and what’s not. An outsider is able to observe interpersonal dynamics, assess whether everyone is engaged and look for destructive or toxic behaviors that are holding the team back from performing at their best. I’ve observed teams that were nothing more than debating societies, arguing everything and deciding nothing. I’ve also observed environments where a toxic team member was suppressing the input from others. The functional leader didn’t see this until I provided my unvarnished view as to what I had observed. Given that so much of our work takes place on teams and in groups, it makes great sense to ensure we’re doing everything we can to support the emergence of healthy behaviors. Find a qualified, objective outsider and ask them to sit-in on your sessions and then ask for input.

Experiment: Promote Managerial Skills Development by Establishing a Rotation for Leading Operations meetings.

Those regular events where you convene with your colleagues to review performance indicators and discuss challenges are ideal opportunities to help others cultivate their own managerial skills. Ask your team members to rotate through the role of meeting leader and give them a bit of flexibility to creatively adjust the agenda. In addition to serving as excellent practice for the team members, it will break the monotony and routine of most recurring operations meetings and add fresh voices and new energy. Consider a rotation that includes a tenure beyond a single meeting…perhaps serving for a month or a quarter. Encourage the meeting leader to both meet the objectives of the meeting (operations/indicators/issues review) and to add his/her own imprint.

Explore: What are your competitors doing that customers are paying attention to?

One of the constant themes in my writing and speaking is for professionals to shift their view and gain critical perspective from the outside. Chances are your competitors are doing something unique and/or particularly effective that has gained the attention of customers or prospects. Take the time to study your competitors and assess what’s working for them.

While never a fan of imitating competitors, it’s always critical to understand what’s working for them and what you might do to blunt their efforts. Tap into  any or all of win/loss interviews, input from salespeople, industry publications, in-person customer meetings, input from product management and support professionals and presentations at industry events to understand and assess where and how your competitor is winning. Strive to find the substantive activities that are working for them and then assess whether you can adapt or countermand these activities with your own moves. It’s good sport and productive to marginalize your competitor’s efforts while focusing on your own core strategy. Keep them distracted and dancing without distracting your own firm. Remember, it’s not the imitation game…you need to focus on your own strategy while blunting theirs.

That’s it for the early encouragement in our new week. Best of success as you do/experiment and explore! -Art

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Art of Managing—5 Big Lessons Learned from My Hiring Mistakes

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.

Over an extended career, you will make more than one hiring mistake. I guarantee it.

No hiring manager escapes unscathed in this process. While a misfire is inevitable, this painful mistake (for you, your firm and the hire) is packed with some powerful life and career lessons. Trust me, I’ve learned the hard way.

While I’m incredibly proud of a track record hiring and cultivating talent during a career now entering its 4th decade, there have been some notable misfires. Each mistake offered a painful but much needed lesson in this most critical of managerial activities. While I regret the mistakes (they were controllable), the lessons learned helped me dramatically improve my batting average over time. Use these in good health and great hiring!

5 Big Lessons Learned From My Hiring Mistakes:

1. Haste always makes waste. My critical need for help drove at least two hires where I failed to properly assess character. Both individuals had seemingly great credentials and were excellent performers during the interview process. After the hire, excellent and performance weren’t used in the same sentence around them ever again.

I had failed to appropriately apply behavioral interviewing techniques and in one case, I violated my gut sense (more on this in the next example) that something just wasn’t right. I needed help to hit a critical product launch window and I let this pressure overrule the need for process and patience and thoroughness. One of the individuals put on a great public show for management while quietly asserting as the evil dictator with his team. The other was unable to back her talk with action. After offering feedback and coaching to no avail, I had to fire them both.

2. If you have to talk yourself into hiring the person, you’re probably making a mistake. With the recognition that I must be a slow learner, much like the examples above, I made this mistake twice as well. In both cases, an initial very good interview was followed by a series of discussions where I began to doubt the accuracy of the positive first impression. Others involved in the process had similar positive first impressions, however, I was the only one to meet with the individuals on multiple occasions, and after each meeting, I recall struggling with the sense that I had been wrong with that first impression. Nonetheless, I went ahead with the hires. One lasted 48 days and the other 8 painful months.

While hindsight is of course 20:20, I know now that the creeping sense that something wasn’t right should have prompted additional diligence or simple disqualification. However, at the time, I fought this feeling and anchored on the positive first impression. Instead of my blink reaction being right, it took multiple exposures for me to begin to question the accuracy of that first impression.

One individual was a carefully veiled megalomaniac and the other a charter member of the 70-Percent Club. (The 70-Percent Club is an exclusive organization where membership requires that you start a lot of good things and finish none of them. You bring them to 70-percent completion and then let them die.) If you have nagging doubts, they’re probably real. Don’t make the hire.

3. Intelligence doesn’t always translate into actions. I enjoy talking and working with people who are great critical thinkers…who are well read and who do something other than soak up the latest reality television shows in their time away from work. I’m also guilty of imputing that intelligence equates to ability. Sadly, that’s not always the case. Don’t become enamored by how smart and well rounded someone seemingly is. Assess their track record and ability to turn great ideas and insights into meaningful actions. The talk may be interesting, but it’s not going to move the meter unless it can be backed by actions.

4. Misjudging the stretch. It’s my nature to believe in the ability of people to stretch and grow. Nonetheless, people develop mostly on their own timetables and not at the rate that you might desire. In several instances, I’ve opted for people who I believed had “the right stuff” for stretch positions. These were roles that exceeded their prior roles in terms of responsibility, decision-making and leadership, but I perceived the stretch to be within reason for them. While this has worked in many instances, there were a few where it was too much too fast and I had to step-in and simplify the challenge while their brains and their self-confidence grew to match the larger challenges. Noble mistakes…but mistakes nonetheless that came with real costs to the team and organization and psychic costs to the individuals.

5. Don’t ignore reality. Beware the natural inclination to hide from a hiring mistake. While this is one I’ve not stepped in before, I’ve observed it with other managers who viewed it as too costly to admit to a mistake, and therefore, they ignored reality and compounded the problem by letting the poor hire become a long-term poor employee.

Yes, it’s embarrassing to recognize that your judgment call on your hire was wrong and yes, your boss won’t be happy with your mistake. However, no one will be happy with a lousy hire that turns into a long-term problem employee. Admit the mistake to yourself up front and plan on approaching your boss with the message and a plan. Just don’t hide from reality.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

No one gets out of the work of managing and leading with a perfect hiring score. Some managers are outstanding judges of talent. Others bolster their batting averages with external resources that assess fitand that purport to improve predictability. But every manager at some point slips and lets one through the net.

It’s what you do at that moment of truth and what you learn from this experience that either exacerbates the damage or stops the bleeding. Adding the right resources to your team is a sacred responsibility and owning up to and learning from your mistakes is a critical part of your growth as an effective manager.

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

 

 

Art of Managing—Be Careful About Labeling Your Employees

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.

There’s an interesting article at Harvard Business Review, entitled, “How to Manage a Team of B Players,” by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic. I appreciate the author’s attempt at describing the leadership challenge and approach to molding a group of “ordinary” individuals into a high performance team. He offers some compelling guidance. I am however, uncomfortable with his easy use of the term, “B-Players.”

And while I am absolutely guilty in the past of using the A, B, C, designation to characterize individuals and their level of skill/capability/potential, I’ve grown uncomfortable with the cavalier assignment of people to these categories. It’s a crutch that I gave up. In my experience, the labels are often misused or abused to mask managerial laziness. Now, when I see it in print, I flinch.

As mentioned in the article, Jack Welch popularized this designation during his tenure as Chairman and CEO of GE, with the notion of turning B-players into A-players, moving C players to B and letting the A-players stretch and run. And while Welch might have had some rigor in his assessment and categorization approaches (along with his forced ranking system), for the rest of us, the cavalier use of these labels is lazy and potentially destructive.

And yes, I get that every person comes to us with different skills, aptitudes and perspectives. I love challenging those ready to navigate big, hairy, ambiguous situations and I love watching others grow into their own by leveraging their skills and capabilities and inner drive. What I truly dislike however, is a categorization Back to Schoolsystem that in very simple fashion draws upon our lifetime of school grading (A=excellent, B=Very Good, C=Average) and mostly assigns people in an arbitrary manner to a particular group, thus altering their options, opportunities and futures. It’s just lazy management and in many cases, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for those being labeled.

Labeling a person a C-player is effectively sealing their fate on your team or in your organization. The connotation is some combination of not smart/not motivated/lousy attitude and managers are quick to write these people off instead of focusing on coaching behavior changes, providing training or varying assignments to better match the real skills of the individuals. Give someone the label of C-player, and you’re capitulating on your responsibility to manage and develop. It’s a way to fast-track a perceived “problem” out of your daily life.

The B designation is even trickier. When polling managers on what they interpret when they hear that someone is a B-player, I hear words such as solid, dependable, journeyman, along with some qualifiers that justify a label other than A or C. Again, this categorization paints a scarlet letter on the forehead of the individuals and dictates a certain, limited level of attention and support. In looping back with managers who had classified a number of their employees as B-players, I’ve rarely encountered a change in label, particularly from B to A. Once the view of someone is locked in as second-tier or second-class or B, it’s difficult for the individual to shake that label.

Every one of us is a work in process. There are indeed circumstances where someone’s combined attributes don’t fit our needs. There are mismatches between the environment and people. There are situations where you have to choose to invest more or cut. Just don’t take the easy way out by lumping someone in a category and then leaving them there to grow old. Your first job is to get the right people in the right roles. And yes, sometimes it takes creativity and effort.

Put your so-called B-player into the right role or a different environment and they may very well swim circles around your designated superheroes. Find the right combination of coaching and challenge and support and watch your so-called C player blossom into a remarkable performer.

And yes, I get that what I’m describing was the intent of the author in the article. His intent is positive. I simply rankled at the focus he placed on the label. It opens up too much potential for misuse and abuse.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Beware the easy and cavalier assignment of labels. It’s not that simple.

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

 

Art of Managing—In Negotiations, Focus on Interests, Not Positions

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.

All of us are involved in negotiating for something on a fairly frequent basis, and over and over again, most of us make the same critical mistake. We reduce the negotiation to a battle of wills over positions (I want/You want) and we try and brute force our way to a conclusion. For many situations, there’s a better way.

While most negotiations start with some form of I want/Would you consider lead-off, (a position proposal), suppress your natural counter-position response and ask questions to better understand what the other party is truly trying to accomplish.

Consider Two Examples:

An educator is approached about switching classrooms and responds with, “No, I like my room” to the administrator making the request.

Two things have occurred as a result of this unfortunate opening dialog. The administrator now must navigate a miffed educator and the educator has most definitely not cultivated any political or negotiating capital with the overt rejection. The administrator’s true need is to bring two classes and teachers closer together to more easily enable team teaching and technology sharing.The educator should have probed for the reason behind the request, and armed with an understanding of the greater needs, might well have leveraged the situation to pursue interests of his own, included added technology, some flexibility on the curriculum or a leadership role on an important committee.

What could have been a productive, interest-focused discussion turned into a tug of wills over the room. It is likely that the next step will be a command to change rooms, leaving both parties worse off than if they had opted for a different negotiating path. In this very real scenario, there were missed opportunities on both sides!

In another example, an aggressive and competent professional consistently nagged his boss about a promotion incorporating a bigger title and more responsibility and compensation. His focus in the discussion was all on position(s), and what should have been a productive and on-going career development dialog turned into one that the boss quickly grew frustrated with when the issue was raised. The employee considered looking for another job and the boss ran the other way every time he sensed this conversation was surfacing yet again. Both responses were highly unproductive to the best interests of the parties and the firm.

The employee failed to build value for how he could better support the company at a new level with broader responsibilities, and the boss failed to focus on the real opportunity to develop and help the firm with this individual. Once interests were surfaced, the discussion resumed, a way forward was designed that satisfied both parties and the day was saved for the firm, manager and employee.

I can extend this discussion to pricing negotiations between suppliers and distributors or sales representatives and clients; debates over process changes between functions in organizations, and arguments over feature inclusions or scope changes on project teams. The position-focused debate is prevalent in almost every area of our professional and personal lives and the parties haggling over the specifics are leaving incredible value on the table with this approach.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

For some reason, many people are uncomfortable exposing their real needs in the opening stages of a negotiation. Arm yourself with the knowledge that something important is lurking behind the individual’s opening request. Strive to understand the real needs behind their position and you’ll be better armed to both address these needs and gain support for your own interests. Use the same technique when you are the initiator. Frame your interest to offer valuable context and to defuse early tension and then pursue a way forward that focuses on achieving respective interests without making the situation a giant tug-of-wills.

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.