Leadership Caffeine: Cultivating the Confidence to Act

Image of a coffee cupThe Leadership Caffeine series is over 200 installments strong and is dedicated to every aspiring or experienced leader seeking ideas, insights or just a jolt of energy to keep pushing forward. Thanks for being along for the journey!

For leaders at all levels, there’s much to gain from James D. Murphy’s excellent book, Courage to Execute: What Elite U.S. Military Units Can Teach Business About Leadership and Team Performance.

In particular, Mr. Murphy’s emphasis on helping us understand the hard, deliberate and very structured work that goes into training and cultivating a team of professionals who are committed to the mission and who trust each other with their lives, is worth the price of admission. (As a side-note, it is hard to not read this book and recognize how far we fall short of when it comes to ensuring the training and development necessary for high performance in our organizations.)

Of the many quotable and thought-provoking items in the book, one that jumps out at me is Mr. Murphy’s perspective on courage. His words: “…but remember, courage is not bravado. Courage is the confidence to act that comes from preparation.”

It’s the lack of confidence to act that I observe as a derailment factor for so many teams from senior levels to functional or project groups. From decisions on strategy (what to do/what not to do?) to approach (how?) to key talent issues (who’s on/who’s off?) to structural, and accountability issues, the lack of proper preparation results in leaders and teams flailing, floundering, bickering or, simply staring at the headlights on key issues.

Effective leaders recognize their role in preparing teams to act, to learn and ultimately to succeed.

5 Things You Can Do with Your Team to Cultivate the Confidence to Act:

1. Strive for crystal clarity for the mission. Whether you are leading the senior management team as CEO or leading a project team, the mission and parameters must be crystal clear. The fuzzy nature of most strategies and the inability of individuals and their work groups to clearly connect their priorities and deliverables to the pursuit of mission objectives is deadly. You cannot over-communicate and you cannot over invest in clarifying the mission to the point of common understanding on your team. Strive to reduce the lofty picture goals to a size that is digestible and actionable at the level of your team.

2. Distill the mission down to navigable, actionable size for your team and be certain that people can talk about it clearly. Knowing the goal is to win the war or move to a new market is one thing, but understanding your role and your team’s role in this goal is essential. In high performing organizations and on high performing teams, the conversation goes like this:

Our team is accountable for producing this portion of our new offering. This new offering is one component of how we are pursuing our strategy to move into this segment of this market for these customers. Our individual responsibilities as team members are… . Our internal customers are department x and y, and we are accountable for these measures of timing, performance and quality to those customers.

Anything short of this level of specificity is just so much baloney. People and teams perform when they can connect their efforts to specific audiences and required outcomes.

3. Teach your team to talk. The collegial talk between most group members on teams is poison for performance. It feels good because it’s non-threatening, however, it skirts the real issues of execution and accountability. Learning to trust each other enough to tackle the hard topics of mission clarity, roles, performance and accountability, is not something that comes easy for any group. It’s also essential for high performance.

Effective team leaders understand the connection between the ability of team members to conduct robust dialog and the courage to take action and they refuse to settle for the happy talk that bedevils most teams.

4. Teach and constantly strive to strengthen decision-making processes and decision quality. Decisions are the precursors to actions for individuals and organizations. Without a decision, nothing happens or nothing changes. Decisions promote movement and importantly, they promote learning and continuous improvement. Effective leaders help team members learn how to frame issues, evaluate options, assess risks and then decide. They also teach their team members to review the outcomes of their decisions in pursuit of learning and improvement.

5. Know that team development is an every day activity and pursue it vigorously. Successful teams are made through the careful and deliberate work of the team leader. From mission clarity to member selection to promoting core values for performance and accountability, team development is THE purpose of the leader. High performance teams are products of hard work, constant scrutiny, continuous coaching and training and the never-ending pursuit of improvement.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Achieving the confidence to act is an outcome of the hard work of team building. Clarity for the mission, confidence and trust between team members and the ability to talk through and evaluate different options and scenarios and then decide, are all key factors. None of these occur naturally in the workplace. How hard are you working at cultivating the courage to act on your team?

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 Art’s latest book: 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.


Part 2: Focus, Identity and the High Performance Management Team

ArtofManagingIn Part 1 of this new weekly series on Creating the High Performance Senior Management Team, I identified a number of key areas where management teams often fail and fail.

Here in Part 2, I tackle two critical challenges that CEOs and senior managers must overcome on the road to high performance, and I offer 5 ideas for jump-starting team development.

While it’s reasonable to think that a group of intelligent, accomplished professionals…all peers, with deep individual expertise in their functional areas might be the stuff of a management dream team, reality suggests that we shouldn’t count on it.

Most often, the benefits that should accrue from an effective team: collaboration, enhanced creativity, constructive debate, effective decision-making, seamless coordination, effective risk identification and mitigation and execution around a well-defined problem or set of problems, are missing in action when it comes to the senior managers in a firm.

Certainly, there may be collegial and even timely and effective operational dialog, that’s often about as far as it goes. The tough topics of strategy (what to do and what not to do), execution (how to best go about it) and talent (who to develop and how) go missing. When faced with the high-altitude and rarefied air topic of strategy, group cohesion is nowhere to be found.

Two Big Challenges on the Road to Senior Management Team High Performance:

-Challenge #1: moving beyond the myth that team members can or should “leave their functional hats at the door.”

While many a CEO has implored or commanded team members to do just that in the hope that the right type of group dynamics and behaviors will emerge, you might as well ask people to pop open their skulls, remove their brains and personalities and leave them in a bin by the door to be reacquired later. We all rely on our prior experience as our key frame of reference and, after years of working and learning and succeeding, this prior experience is a core part of the value each individual brings to the group.

The challenge and the real opportunity isn’t to change the individuals, but to breathe life into the group’s reason for being. Instead of asking the team members to sublimate their own identities in favor of the group, the CEO and participating executives are better served by striving to cultivate a clear group identity that leverages those individual experiences and skills.

Let everyone keep their hats on, please, and shift your focus to Challenge #2.

-Challenge #2: Creating clarity around the purpose of the senior management team.

It’s common for CEOs and senior managers to suffer from the malady of expecting too much out of this group as a team. While it may seem counter-intuitive to reduce the scope of responsibilities of the group of people who are typically at the top of the compensation food chain, clear focus and accountability are required to  improve “team” performance at this level.

In Bob Frisch’s excellent book on this topic, Who’s in the Room? How Great Leaders Structure and Manage the Teams Around Them, he offers a cogent solution to this dilemma. Frisch suggests there are three unique conversations this group functioning as a team is uniquely qualified to conduct, and the expectation for their teamwork should be focused squarely on these three items:

1. Developing a shared view of where the organization needs to go and why.

2. Managing a prioritized set of strategic initiatives designed to get there.

3. Managing dependencies within and among initiatives to ensure their success.

Frisch offers that many management teams perceive they are dealing with these issues, but in most cases, they are engaged with each other not on the core issues of strategy and execution and talent, but rather they constantly drift to the safety of operational issues. These are comfortable to talk about in the precious moments when they are together as a group.

So, what’s a CEO and team to do?

5 Ideas to Begin Building Senior Management Team Performance:

1. Identify, discuss, debate and strive for a common understanding around Bob’s three tasks (or my version: strategy, execution and talent). Challenge each other to define what these issues mean for the organization and very importantly, what they mean for the group and their work activities, together. In my experience, it’s almost always best to use an outside facilitator to ensure that the issues inherent in the 3 core tasks are turned over, turned inside out and fully digested. (The outside facilitator can and should cry foul when the group drifts or stops short of completing the tasks. He/she can also make certain the dead rat in the room is tossed in the middle of the table for everyone to process on and deal with.)

2. Design the team. Answer the following: Who’s on? What should the group look like as a performing unit? How will the group monitor and evaluate progress and performance? What are the standards of performance and participation that are acceptable? What supporting mechanisms are necessary for team success? What’s the role of the leader (typically CEO) as it relates to the core priorities and activities? How will decisions be made? How will the group members take the issues back to their respective teams and then ensure coordination across groups? How will group members hold each other accountable? (Again, an outside facilitator experienced in herding executive teams is an important success factor in this situation.) 

3. Create time. It’s essential for senior management groups to carve out regular team time dedicated solely to those limited few priorities. Simply allocating time for big picture thinking and dialog at the annual and mid-year off-sites is missing the point. You cannot promote high performance at the senior level unless the group is working together regularly. In my experience, most senior management teams are “too busy” to make the time to focus on what should be their top priorities. Don’t fall victim to this trap.

4. Ensure separation of church and state. Keep operational issues out of Big Picture time. It’s tempting, it’s convenient and it’s wrong. Build a protocol and routine that accommodates the need to deal with operational issues and focus team time on team priorities. This point is violated regularly, and it’s always a mistake.

5. Keep the work moving beyond the executive meeting. The senior management meetings are the beginning not the end of the work that the executives need to be doing together. The CEO must ensure that discussions on the core priorities keep flowing after the retreat and well ahead of the next session. It’s a process, not an event.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Building high performance at the executive group level starts with clarifying the reason for being of this team (beyond functional leadership) and then designing the performance characteristics and protocols necessary for the team to succeed. This takes focus, deliberate effort, vigilance and stick-to-itiveness on the part of all team members and particularly on the part of the CEO.

Next up in the series: the sticky topic of team make-up and chemistry.

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 Art’s latest book: 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.

In Pursuit of the High Performance Senior Management Team: Part 1

ArtofManagingNote: this is the first of a multi-part series exploring the issues, challenges and opportunities for senior managers to strengthen group and organizational performance. Whether you are CEO, a member of the senior management team or, someone on the rise and aspiring to this level, the content we’ll explore on teaming, power, politics, strategy and execution are relevant to you.

Part 1 sets the stage for our on-going discussion.

Let’s start with the contention that a high performance senior management team is one key component of effective and sustained organizational performance and organizational health.

While not a researcher by background and sensitive to the human propensity to recreate the fundamental attribution error, I’m comfortable through many years hanging around, leading, guiding and generally working with senior managers in all manner of firms and industries stipulating that there is a relationship between this group’s performance in several key areas and overall organizational health.

More specifically, when the individuals who comprise the senior management team unite and focus on executing around a limited number of critical priorities, including strategy clarification and communication, execution coordination and talent selection and development, the rest of the organization is better positioned to perform at a high level.

Easy to write. Not so easy to realize in practice.

If I had a dollar for every CEO who has confided to me that he/she isn’t satisfied with the performance of their senior management group, I would be at least a good dinner and a few bottles of great wine richer.

The CEO concern is typically in the neighborhood of a nagging belief that organizational performance is being left on the table due to lack of alignment. The most commonly described issues or obstacles include personality conflicts, political gamesmanship and communication challenges.

Most CEOs are quick to highlight a perceived lack of trust between members as a contributing cause of poor management team performance as well. Of this grouping of issues, trust is perhaps a core contributing cause of team dysfunction and the rest truly just symptoms of poor team leadership and development. Ironically, the team leadership/development is on the shoulders of the complaining CEO.

Hackman’s Conditions for High Performance Team Development:

The recently late J. Richard Hackman devoted a career to studying teams and his five conditions for high performance are minimum table stakes for team development at any level. They are:

  1. A clear and compelling purpose
  2. The right (and clear) team membership
  3. Expert coaching
  4. Enabling structures
  5. Supportive organization

In almost every case of the frustrated CEO or perplexed management team member, one or more of those conditions are absent.

While developing an understanding of the conditions for successful team creation is a core part of this series, it’s useful initially to explore some of the most common areas where senior management teams flail and fail. A good understanding of the tripping points is important to building a program for successful team development.

4 Key Areas Where Senior Management Teams Fail and Flail:

1. Failing to establish an identity as a team at the senior level. The lack of team identity at this level manifests itself in a grossly tactical focus at the expense of the heavy lifting of direction (strategy), resources and execution and talent development. While the group meets from time-to-time, there’s little integrated work around what should be the core priorities of the senior management team: strategy, execution and talent.

2. Hiding behind collegial dialog. It’s impossible to drive business without robust dialog on the big issues. This is the uncomfortable vetting of different viewpoints and interests and the honest admission of weaknesses and blind spots with the need for individual and functional improvements. Many senior teams remain collegial and tactical in their discussions, preferring the safety of this environment to the perceived dangerous chasm posed by the hard issues in front of the team.

3. Failing to work at improving team performance. It’s unlikely that a group of high-powered and successful individuals will automatically coalesce as a team without addressing Hackman’s core issues above and without working hard at building trust and moving beyond the comfortable content to the hard issues facing the business. This is difficult work…and it often requires taking a leap of faith to engage professional guidance (Hackman’s coaching component). Instead of this heavy lifting, most senior managers meet and report and discuss, but few integrate their efforts to team.

4. Expecting too much teaming. While this might seem contrary to the core premise here, the reality is that there is a limit to the concept of “team” at the senior management level. Laser focus on the big, critical issues is much more important than promoting the belief that the people have to perform like a team for every single organizational issue. The executives are functional leaders responsible for promoting execution within their own tribes, and the concept of team is capable of being pushed too far around the executive table.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Most senior management groups are teams in name only, but not in performance. Sadly, the costs to the organization of this failure to coalesce at the senior management level are heavy.  Great functional performers are not automatically great team players, and the hard work of moving from a team by name to a team in performance is just that, hard work.

The first step is recognition.

Up next in the series: creating the senior management team identity.

More Professional Development Reads from Art Petty:book cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register here

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out Art’s latest book: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development.

Order one or both books for your team. Contact Art.

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

Sears CEO: “We have a profit problem.” Really?

ArtofManagingIn an article in the Sunday Chicago Tribune, Edward Lampert, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Sears Holding Corp offers, “We don’t have a sales problem. What we have is a profit problem, and that’s what we’re intending to address.”

Mr. Lampert, I respectfully suggest that you have a lot of problems in your shrinking, unidentifiable former retail empire. However, characterizing the situation as a profit problem is off the mark.

Profits are the outcome of creating value for your customers. Konosuke Matsushita, the industrialist founder of Panasonic Corporation described profits as, “the reward accorded management by consumers satisfied with a product.”

You have a management problem, a big “M” marketing problem, a relevance problem, a business model problem, a competitor problem and a myriad of other problems, but in no way, shape or form do you have a profit problem.

You have a profit symptom.

Lack of product is an outcome of poor management.

I wish you well on what must feel like a nearly impossible task. Gone forever are the days when Sears was the go-to store for everything and everyone in the middle-class. As a child growing up in the 60′s in Chicago, our weekly trips to Sears are permanently and fondly embedded in my mind as a part of my heritage.

K-Mart seems invisible in a world filled with Amazon, Wal-Mart, Costco, Sam’s, Target and Bed and Bath stores.

Your organization has at its core a “reason for being” problem.

Get that right and the profits will flow.

Leadership Caffeine—Experiment More and Prosper

image of a coffee cupYou get absolutely nowhere except tired by running in place.

In many environments, it seems that we’ve routinized creativity in leading and managing key activities and developing talent right into oblivion. It’s death (or at least plodding slow performance) by routine.

A Few Examples of Death by Routine:

Talent Development-What I See: promotions and professional development are reserved for the annual performance review.

Talent Development-Reality Check: there’s nothing sacred about the moment in time during each year when HR is interested in dealing with these topics. Great managers and leaders operate on a perpetual clock and calendar when it comes to defining and implementing professional development programs, and when a promotion is merited, it is given, regardless of some artificially imposed cycle.

Talent Development, Part 2-What I See: talent and career development activities focus almost exclusively on getting to the next rung on the ladder.

Talent Development, Part 2-Reality Check: the best talent development work you’ll be part of (either as a manager or as the one under development) involves exposure to new experiences. For some reason, the idea of job or assignment rotation seems to have disappeared from our corporate cultures as managers strive to move their team members upward from position to senior position to extra senior position. Silo politics, unenlightened management and general lack of creativity are reasons for the absence of assignment rotation. Bring job rotation back in your environment and reap the benefits!

Fresh ideas Team Leadership-What I See: the person with the most seniority, the boss, or the one with the biggest title is automatically the team leader. This one feels like a throwback to the biggest kid on the playground gets to pick the teams.

Team Leadership-Reality Check: the real team leaders should always be the people who are best at working with other people.

Marketing-What I See: marketing activities and programs are carried over from year to year in what is one of the most egregious acts of corporate anti-creativity that results from spreadsheet-focused budgeting processes. Do you really need to invest in that same tradeshow or that same ad space year after year after painful, boring year?

Marketing-Reality Check: just because your competitors are doing it doesn’t make it right. Budgeting and planning are important, however, failing to rethink your approach to engaging and delighting your clients and engaging new clients is a systematic failure of marketing management and shows a wholesale lack of creativity.Try something new by building white space into your plans and budgets to experiment with marketing approaches. Create your own events instead of only attending industry events. Add a twist to freshen up otherwise stale activities. Marketing is too important to not be in a perpetual mode of experimentation in pursuit of improving the ability to find and acquire and keep customers.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Defense of the status quo is too often the driving force behind a firm’s processes for managing, leading and cultivating talent. Institutionalized approaches to planning and dealing with talent issues are the tools of those who count beans, crunch numbers and have an irrational need to jam everything into order and routine and predictability. Unfortunately, the world is not orderly and it is most certainly not predictable.

Practice the fine, comfortable art of routine at your own peril. Experiment and you’ll fail from time-to-time, but that failure puts you one step closer to doing something new, different and hugely valuable for some one, some team or some firm. Experiment more and prosper.

More Professional Development Reads from Art Petty:book cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register here

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out Art’s latest book: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development.

New to leading or responsible for first time leader’s on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.