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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Leadership Caffeine™—Is Leadership Changing?

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

There’s an interesting interview at McKinsey, with Heidreck & Struggles CEO, Tracy Wolstencroft, that explores what they describe as the changing nature of leadership in this era of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. The interview prompted my own consideration of some of the changing leadership behaviors I’m observing in firms who are succeeding in navigating the fog of these times.

Warren Bennis once suggested that “leaders manage the context,” and for those firms I’ve observed and have worked with, who are effectively reinventing themselves in this era of complexity, there are a number of emerging new themes in how leadership is practiced and deployed. They are indeed managing the context.

Command and control is giving way to a style that reflects more serve and support and form and frame. The serve component reflects an increased focus by those in leadership roles on answering the question for teams of, “What can I do to best help you succeed?” The form and frame perspective emphasizes the leader’s role in creating an environment where individuals and groups are both challenged and enabled to excel.

And while I use the word “serve” in the description, serve and support, don’t construe that to mean “soft.” The leaders  who have shifted their focus to helping find the answers versus dictating the approaches are anything but soft. They set expectations high and demand a great deal not only of their teams, but of themselves. They are fierce in pursuit of results through groups…and fierce in their support and defense of the work of their groups. There’s a mutual accountability and transparency between leaders and teams that is…refreshing and even invigorating.

Position in the hierarchy is less relevant, with emphasis placed on the ability of these leaders to span functional boundaries in pursuit of solving problems through temporary teams. The strongest, most effective leaders…people leading groups to get things done, are in my opinion, the emerging “integrator” leaders who span boundaries and operate without authority but with huge accountability for delivery. And thank goodness, because the work of navigating structural uncertainties in the marketplace isn’t the work of any one function, it is the work of people with diverse skills coming together to solve problems. (Might this mean that silo walls are finally coming down?)

Supporting the development of high performance teams is more of today’s focal point for leaders, as we begin to recognize the potential for groups to lead innovation and strategy execution. Most of the work that propels organizations into new markets with new strategies and technologies comes about via teams and today’s leaders are tired of the results described in headline grabbing studies on  how miserable we are at succeeding with these groups. They are committed to realizing the true potential from teams.

Leadership is much more of a temporary mantle, with individuals moving from a leadership role one day to a team member role on another initiative the next day. I like this…it reinforces the need to understand what it takes to be a great team member…critical context for learning to be a great team leader. Leader selection is more about who has the right skills for the situation and much less about title or seniority.

For those of us who grew up in a world where command and control was the style, much of how leadership is being deployed in some organizations looks and feels different. Yet, underlying the behavior and style differences are the foundations of effective leadership, which remain unchanged over the millennia. From setting direction to selecting talent to both earning and giving respect to motivating and inspiring and standing up and fighting for the group and the right issues, these attributes of leadership thankfully remain and are perhaps more important then ever.

And while I’ll stop short of suggesting a causal relationship between an organization embracing new styles of leadership and gaining financial and market success in today’s world, the differences are at least part of the answer. Conversely, firms I’m observing that struggle to navigate our world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, tend to be tethered to the hierarchical, command and control style of a bygone era, with the employees waiting to be told where to go.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

It makes sense that the skills necessary to lead in today’s environment are different than those that were emphasized in quieter times. Leaders aren’t defined by title, they are defined by behavior, and the behaviors necessary for success in today’s world suggest that we best be supporting the development of emerging leaders at all levels and in all roles of our organizations.

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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—There’s No Substitute for the Right Tools

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.

My Dad often reminds me during our various build or fix projects that, “There’s no substitute for the right tool.”

While I’m comfortable with my typical selection of the Big-3 (hammer, screwdriver and adjustable wrench) for most projects, Dad travels with a well-stocked toolbox filled with all manner of shiny, unique tools designed for very specific challenges. He takes particular pride in going to just the perfect tool for a sticky project situation and then applying it skillfully to solve the problem.

He’s right of course. He can fix or build anything and the workmanship is great. My improvement projects are a bit more “triage-like” in their appearance and function.

Dad’s constant reminder of the right tool for the situation fits in management as well.

Too often, managers trot out their own variation of their “Big 3” with approaches such as S.W.O.T analysis, template-type strategy frameworks, multi-year forecasting models, cascading goal planning, a project team or 360-degree feedback and others (insert your firm’s standard issue tools here), when the situation calls for something very different.

Most of the tools of management were conceived in an era characterized by a great deal of consistency and predictability…two attributes in short supply today. We’re living and working in an era of complexity…characterized by uncertainty and ambiguity and we need new tools to help us successfully navigate through the fog and around the many unknown risks lurking just out of sight.

In addition to the tactical templates and instruments referenced above that offer little help in making sense out of complexity born by constant change, much of our larger workplace environment…our superstructure (think hierarchical, siloed organizational structure) seems and feels anachronistic in a world where speed and adaptability are much more important than top-down driven efficiency.

Zappos has been in the news recently for their attempt to eliminate all managers from their organization. Coverage of their experimentation with holacracy seems to end up more on the negative/scoffing/it’s doomed side, and while this reductionist technique doesn’t “feel quite right” to me, it’s an interesting attempt to re-think the organizational superstructure and supporting tools. This experiment bears watching. (As I’m reading McCullough’s excellent new book, The Wright Brothers, it serves us all to remember that most of the people experimenting with flight were widely lampooned in the press and in society during that era.)

Whether holacracy becomes a useful tool or not, there are less revolutionary but potentially effective approaches for structuring and teaming in our organizations. Managers are well-served to study McChrystal’s “Team of Teams” content in his recent book. Sadly, the experience gained in today’s form of combat is highly applicable to our approach to managing and structuring and leading in a complex, fast-changing world.

The article, “Strategy Under Uncertainty,” at McKinsey, does a great job of describing why various tools and management approaches work or do not apply depending upon the level of complexity you are experiencing in your industry. I see the logic suggested in this article violated regularly as executives and management teams attempt to corral complexity into their world-view…which is of course based on experience gained in a different era. The most common violation is the attempt to plot an “Escape Velocity” strategy…a move into new markets or businesses by leveraging the same multi-year planning model used for the very mature businesses. While there are few certainties in life or business, this approach is certain to fail.

My encouragement is to diversify your toolkit with new approaches and ideas for translating external noise and complexity into ideas, insights and intelligent experiments. It’s likely you will need to craft some of your own tools in the process.

Teams and firms winning in this world are creating approaches that emphasize translation of external noise into relentless focus on simple but not simplistic questions such as: what does this mean for us/our customers/our competitors? How might this disrupt our business model? How can we innovate with more than just technology? How can we move faster from experimentation to monetization?  And many others.

Effective managers are pushing the development of perceptual acuity…attempting to see around corners, with their teams. They’re inviting customers to the team…crossing boundaries within their organizations to develop a broader perspective and going outside of their firms and even their customer groups to see what’s happening in environments radically different…but where they are tackling analogous issues.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Yes, I know…these are big, lofty and abstract thoughts that seem easy to write and that don’t fit with your need to prepare that next 3-year plan …or get ready for the once per year strategy offsite (a convention that must die…strategy is an all-the-time activity). Yet, the warning signs of creative destruction are all around us with the daily changing fortunes of long-standing and new firms. Outgoing Cisco CEO, John Chambers, stared at his customers at their annual conference the other day and suggested that 40% of them wouldn’t exist in a material way in 10 years.

It’s time to rethink everything, including the tools we use to manage and plan for our very uncertain futures. There is no substitute for the right tool. Sometimes, you simply have to create that tool.

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—Becoming Agile and Adaptable is THE Leadership Issue

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

What if everything that used to work for your business no longer did?

The business challenge of this era for long established firms is much about escaping the powerful pull of the past. Approaches that worked so well for so long are rendered impotent by shifting technologies, new forms of competition armed with different business models and disruptive offerings, and by customers whose needs are changing as they struggle with the same macro challenges you are.

Historically, we built our organizations for efficiency and our leadership and management approaches reflected this purpose. We built tall organizations with distinct silos surrounded by moats and supported by the defenses of the silo executive. While the vestiges of those castles and moats still survive in many organizations, they (and their senior leaders) are increasingly out of place…out of context with the realities of the day. They are organizational and leadership anachronisms.

Adaptability is key, yet many leaders struggle to understand what to do to create it. Their words say “speed and agility,” but their measurements and compensation systems scream “efficiency.

When cheerleading and half-baked attempts at styles that feel agile and adaptable fail, the poor outcomes are rationalized as reasons to revert to the old and “normal.” New investments in new markets that are held accountable to the same measures as the core business fail, because you cannot measure and manage new start-ups the same way as long established businesses in old markets. People and groups that operate with a well-baked set of logic about the business are leveraged to build a new set of logic. Failure is predictable. It is self-fulfilling.

Success in building the adaptable organization (e.g. McChrystal’s Team of Teams) is the obligation, responsibility and requirement of leadership. It’s not 50% a leadership challenge or 80% a leadership challenge. It’s THE leadership challenge. Yet too many in leadership sit in wide-eyed wonder as the world changes and their business decays, decrying the failure of the team to adapt. They fiddle while their businesses burn.

Success with this difficult dilemma requires senior leaders to re-think their points-of-view on everything, with emphasis on the role of the leader, the development of true teams and their viewpoint on navigating uncertainty and risk.

The nature of leadership hasn’t fundamentally changed, but the focus has and must. Today’s leader is demanding…of his/her team and of himself/herself, yet the focus is on forming and framing the environment for success. This leader exists to bring the team to life…and to allow team members to become their best…as individuals and as a group. This leader serves…more than commands.

Instead of efficiency, adaptability is the focal point. Learning to leverage new technologies…the weapons of business is essential. Enabling groups to sense and respond…to learn and refine…to experiment, fail and then succeed is the work of the leader. It’s about adaptability.

Risk and uncertainty are now invited to the party. Instead of resolving to the status quo in the face of uncertainty, there’s a need to run at the unknown and figure it out as you learn. Risk isn’t something to be avoided at all costs…it’s on your team and part of learning.

Teams offer remarkable potential, yet we all know that mostly, they fail in our organizations, not because the concept is flawed, but because we are flawed in our structure, support and leadership of these teams. Moving beyond the lipservice most leaders give about teams to enabling true team development is essential.

Once again, Walt Kelly was right. “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

The Bottom-Line for Now:

While we are bombarded with facts about the obvious…that things are different today in our world, we’re stubborn in our willingness to let go of dated thinking and obsolete approaches to leading and managing. It’s time for all of us to re-think how to reapply the tools of management and leadership to a world that isn’t going to revert to what used to work. Let’s get on with it leaders!

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.