Art of Managing—Moving Beyond A Failure to Execute

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.

Ram Charan writing in his article, Conquering a Culture of Indecision (found in the HBR 10 Must Reads on Making Smart Decisions collection), offers, The single greatest cause of corporate under-performance is the failure to execute.”

While there’s a Thanks, Captain Obvious, feeling inherent in Charan’s statement, it’s his explanation that should give most corporate managers a cause to pause and even squirm just a bit.

I paraphrase: Such failures (to execute) usually result from misfires in personal interactions…and it’s these poor personal interactions that perpetuate a culture of indecisiveness.

Charan goes on in this very useful article to focus on the issue of building a culture to promote the right type of honest, robust dialog that leads to decisions.

There’s little doubt in my mind that decisions are the fuel that creates locomotive power in organizations and that high quality dialog leads to better decision-processes. The absence of timely and unified decisions on direction and priorities, not only sustains the status quo, it creates a corporate trap where people act like there feet are encased in cement blocks. Movement slows and when it occurs, it’s disjointed and short-lived.

The lack of healthy dialog manifests itself in a variety of symptoms in an organization, however, there are three key contributors to a failure to execute that jump out at me over and over again in my travels:

1. A wholesale failure of senior leadership…from providing clarity on direction and strategy to actively working on building and reinforcing an environment that promotes accountability for execution, learning and continuous improvement.

2. The absence of an empowered and unified middle-layer of management. While senior leadership is again at fault here, the layer of mangers in the middle controls the work that gets done in a firm and often has more power than it understands or uses in pursuit of execution.

3. The lack of creative or productive tension or dissatisfaction on the part of the entire workforce that good isn’t good enough, AND the belief that they are charged with the task of doing something about it.

While it’s easy and appropriate to indict senior management for all three of these contributors to poor performance, the issues tend to be more sins of omission than commission.

Most senior leaders care about their firms, their teams and their results and spend their time working hard in the business. And most middle managers work extraordinarily hard to keep things moving, often while coping with being under-staffed and operating in a state of uncertainty over the bigger picture of the firm and its strategies.

Resolving the failure to execute problem is much more like a long-term fitness program than a quick weight-loss diet. It involves changing the thinking about what’s most important for organizational health and success and doing the hard work of developing new habits that support continuous improvement.

It’s the hardest work senior leaders and managers will ever do.

7 New Habits to Help You Move Beyond a Failure to Execute:

1. Start and sustain a company-wide dialog over direction. Everyone who walks through the door in the morning must know where the firm is headed and why. The lack of context for direction and specifically for how team and functional priorities connect to corporate priorities is a guarantee of poor execution. Fixing this starts with the right, regular conversations.

2. Work hard to link functional and individual goals to the corporate goals. While this sounds like some advice from our friend, Captain Obvious, it’s more the norm that I find firms where corporate goals are vague and there’s little cohesion between individual and functional goals and corporate direction. The failure to align here guarantees failure.

3. Move faster and smarter. Redefine the operating cadence to reinforce communication on performance and to encourage learning and improvement. Consider applying Agile approaches to your operations meetings, where reinforcement and focus on priorities occurs constantly and the emphasis is on identifying and solving problems. Frequency, speed and focused built upon a foundation of accountability…priceless. End the debating society culture that pervades most operating meetings and focus on talking about what it takes for the firm to win…one decision at a time.

4. If you are the CEO, rethink your role. Seriously. If you signed on for the job…all of this is on you. You control the corporate agenda, you are a major contributor to forming and framing the working environment and you own bringing clarity and direction to confusion. If you’re not the CEO help him/her succeed with these important tasks.

5. Give the customer a chair in every meeting. Literally. A nameplate at the table, a stuffed animal or a cardboard cutout…I don’t care how you remind yourself that the customer is present, just do it. If the focus is on new markets and future strategies, these new…even blank-faced customers must be present as a reminder that no strategy works and no execution plan is worthwhile unless it aims to do something for someone who can pay you for it.

6. Invigorate mid-level management. Help them recognize their critical role in execution success and ensure that senior leaders, give them support to improve instead of giving them hell when things don’t go right. If this layer of talent is weak, top-grade the talent to build strong management here. These are your future senior leaders.

7. Get the whole company involved in the wins and the lessons learned. Build the excitement and creative tension to improve by celebrating and sharing the small and big victories. The workforce at large has to buy into the idea that execution and continuous improvement are their responsibility. Management must bring this to life by ensuring that the heroic efforts, great victories and even challenging lessons are made visible as part of the daily culture of the firm.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

There are no silver bullets or simple solutions for business execution challenges. It’s a journey that starts with senior leadership and all of management focusing on what counts…giving clarity to direction and goals and working non-stop to support the people working hard every day who help you move closer to your goals. It’s good, old-fashioned, grind-it-out hard work. But once it starts to take root in your culture, the habits of winning take over and the work doesn’t seem so hard. Just exhilarating.

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Art of Managing—Don’t Set Artificial Limits on Employee Involvement

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.

A firm’s senior leaders and managers are supposed to feel the weight of responsibility for the health of their organization. It comes with the job. However, no one suggested they bear the weight of the worries or the burden of finding the solutions in silence and without ample support from the broader employee population.

Too often, groups of well-intended senior leaders and managers spend the lion’s share of their collective energy in discussion, debating and frankly, worrying over issues of direction and performance without drawing upon the considerable gray matter found somewhere outside the conference room doors.

Of course, failing to involve the employees in the business of your business is the mistake that keeps on giving…just in the wrong way. Instead of feeling involved and (here comes that pop management word) “engaged,” individuals are effectively placed on the outside looking in at the corporate walls and wondering what’s going on in there.

In my experience, people do their best work when they have context for “why it matters” and ample input into suggesting and implementing improvements. The “closed door” approach of self-proclaimed “open door” managers is a formula for failure. 

Sins of Omission or Commission? And Don’t Forget to Ask:

Oddly, when questioning a firm’s senior managers about my observation of the citadel like approach to working on a business, I frequently walk away concluding that involvement limitations are more sins of omission than commission. (Although, there are exceptions!)

In some instances, there’s a deep regard for how hard the employee base is working in the business and a hesitancy to ask for more. That’s noble, but short-sighted.

In other instances, I’ve found senior managers who are almost embarrassed to be asking for help on topics that they perceive are core to their jobs. Sounds like hubris getting in the way of common sense.

And for a few senior managers, my highly clinical observation is that it never occurred to them to involve more people to work on the business. Cue Homer Simpson and a loud, “Duh.”

If you are interested in increasing the flow of ideas, improving overall performance and having your employees treat their jobs like they are part owners of your business, it’s critical to get them involved in helping you work on the business. However, getting started can be awkward. Here are some ideas to help you pry open the citadel doors and let in some fresh air and fresh ideas.

6 Ideas to Jump-Start Improved Employee Involvement:

1. Share the targets and the results. The once per year vague recap, usually couched in percentages, doesn’t cut it. Share key revenue, profitability and efficiency targets AND results and explain what they mean to the firm’s situation. Get creative with this. I’ll still never forget the Town Hall Meeting where the CFO played guitar and sang the results. By the way, this is really working when the employees are active in setting the targets and pushing themselves harder to meet the targets than you ever would have.

2. Teach your employees about your business. Take a lesson from Jack Stack in The Great Game of Business. Don’t assume that employees understand terms like EBIT or the various financial metrics you use to report performance. Take the time to teach them what these numbers mean and importantly, how their work impacts the numbers.

3. Share (and ask about) market and competitor dynamics. While it might be tempting to roll out your strategy plan as a first step in getting employees more deeply involved in your business, a better place to start is to help everyone understand more about the markets that you are competing in and moving towards. Use tools like Porter’s Forces or a simple P.E.S.T.E.L. (political, economic, social, technology, environmental, legal) framework to get everyone on the same page. Do this iteratively by sharing the high level view and ask for input at the departmental or team level and roll it back up and make it the company’s view of the external environment.

4. Give your customers a voice. One of the most “engaging” activities you can do is ask for input from all customer-facing groups on what’s really happening in their businesses and with your offerings. Better yet, after asking your employees, bring some customers into the process (interviews, company visits, advisory boards). Ensure that everyone from the front door to the factory floor has access to the customer insights.

5. Begin involving the employee base in strategy. The above items…sharing targets and results, assessing the external environment and cultivating a fresh view from the perspective of the customer are fairly straightforward. Getting a broader employee base involved in strategy is a journey not an event. Explain the present view and then ask for questions and begin to solicit ideas. Involve all of your managers in understanding the firm’s strategy in detail and then work with them to define a mechanism for teaching and challenging assumptions, asking questions and suggesting ideas. I don’t mean to simplify this step…it’s challenging and requires on-going, deliberate work in creating and executing strategy. As needed, ask for outside help to build the right processes and programs to make this meaningful and actionable.

6. Leverage the collateral ideas. Often times, one of the benefits of driving a process with the actions above is a flood of new ideas…many operational and efficiency oriented. Ensure that people and teams have a means for implementing the ideas and then measuring and reporting on their impact over time.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

This isn’t a program of the month, it’s a deliberate and on-going process to gain ideas and input, and importantly to capture more of the creativity, energy and overall gray matter of a team that in the right circumstances, wants to give more. But remember, if you fail to sustain or to leverage the good input you’ll simply exacerbate the problem you set out to solve.

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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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Leadership Caffeine—In Praise of Mistakes Made for the Right Reasons

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine series is over 200 installments strong and is dedicated to every aspiring or experienced leader and manager seeking ideas, insights or just a jolt of energy to keep pushing forward. Thanks for being along for the journey!

The true test of your leadership character isn’t measured by the absence of mistakes, but rather by the mistakes made in pursuit of growth and learning AND how you conduct yourself once you’ve made a mistake.

Show me a mistake-free leader, and I’ll show you someone hiding from the real issues confronting the business: people and strategy.

People:

People are complicated. In spite of the myriad of assessment tools at our disposal, selection is still a judgement call with all of the inherent risks and biases of human decision-making. And the challenge of aligning skills and experiences with tasks while searching for that spark that stimulates people to work at their creative best is truly much more art than science.

You will make mistakes on people. Make them for the right reasons. Taking a chance on good people for the right reasons is worth the risk every day.

Remember, character always gets a positive vote. After a certain age, character is formed and nothing you can do will alter someone’s core character. You cannot change someone. Assess character carefully. Look for behavioral examples around values, and if the view is dissonant, it’s a non-starter.

Passion and desire are powerful reasons to take a chance on someone, even if others around you suggest this person isn’t right for a role. I like betting on the underdog if I’ve done my homework on the individual. Taking chances on people who show that extra spark is part of the essence of leadership. Much like character, you cannot teach passion, you can only help it emerge.

The greatest rewards I’ve enjoyed as a leader come from those people I selected against popular wisdom because I saw something. Of course, “something” is hard to codify and I’ve been wrong here as well. It doesn’t mean I will stop taking chances.

Strategy:

Much like the challenge of selecting and inspiring people to apply their talents, strategy is filled with ambiguity and uncertainty. Choosing what to do and importantly, what not to do is a core management task, yet human judgement in all its brilliance and all of its flaws is once again at the center of strategic decision-making.

Even in our data-driven world, selecting and then executing a strategy is like walking through a minefield on a fresh lava-flow blindfolded. There’s a high probability that somewhere between choice of path and the journey down that path, you will misstep with painful results. Assuming the essence of the strategy is sound, often, you can recover, adapt and proceed from execution missteps. These non-fatal errors are powerful learning experiences, teaching you and everyone around you how to spot gaps, fill in blind-spots and redouble efforts to get execution right.

While many view strategy as an event, with an outcome that is carved in granite and the granite set in concrete, in reality, it is effectively a testable hypothesis backed by a series of experiments. In a military metaphor, you engage in a series of skirmishes designed to test defenses and learn terrain, and then you push to conquer the ground. These skirmishes are the teaching experiences and your mistakes here are part of the process of figuring out how to get it right. The only mistake is not to decide to take action.

The best leaders I’ve worked around understand the need for the missteps. No one actively seeks them out, but they are an inevitable part of the pursuit of success.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The least interesting professionals to me are those who cannot articulate a litany of mistakes on their way to their successes. The absence of mistakes…or, the unwillingness to admit prior mistakes is a character flaw and as mentioned above, there are no compromises when it comes to character. There’s no guarantee that some of your own mistakes won’t have painful consequences. Nonetheless, the mistakes made for the right reasons…in favor of great people and in pursuit of business success, are simply tickets to admission. Pay the price, take your lumps, learn and keep moving.

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Art of Managing—Shiny Objects and the Senior Management Team

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management termsOne of the value killers found inside many organizations is the out of control pursuit of too many new initiatives. The resultant too few resources chasing too many projects, is a sure-fire way to create organizational stress as initiatives fall short, inefficiencies skyrocket and employees, stakeholders and customers grow perturbed.

In one client firm, the sure-fire path to success was to attach oneself to as many high visibility initiatives as possible, in the hope of being associated with the success of one of them. It was a political portfolio game, with most projects flailing and failing. Nonetheless, the politically charged environment and the visible path to success catalyzed a seemingly endless number of new initiatives designed to optimize the visibility and executive attachment of the idea generator without really focusing on solving critical problems.

The root cause of this undisciplined pursuit of new initiatives rests squarely on the collective shoulders of the management team. Both success and struggle are equal opportunity contributors to this situation.

Success generates the ego that tells management, “we can do no wrong,” and struggle or strategy disappointment (either the idea or the execution) generates political flailing that rationalizes the search for a quick fix.

Another team rationalized maneuvers several degrees off of a still-evolving core strategy in the name of revenue coverage. “Until we figure out the strategy, we’ve got to show growth,” was their mantra. Their lack of discipline led to to a collection of disparate initiatives that struggled for room to breathe in an environment where every idea was good and no ideas attached to revenue were turned away. They failed.

Effective management teams learn to recognize the signs of a breakdown in discipline and they redouble their efforts to promote clarity and minimize the tendency to fill ambiguity with unqualified activities.

These groups recognize the dangers of hubris born of success (Jim Collins) or the tendency to flail in search of quick answers when things go wrong. They understand that they are accountable for setting direction and ensuring that each and every choice to apply company resources must create the right kind of value. And they accept that determining just what the right kind of value truly is, is an exercise that can only be resolved through debate and deliberation.

One particularly effective management team holds themselves accountable to evaluating ideas against the filter of,  “Does it create the right kind of value?” They live by the mantra that not every dollar of revenue is created equal, and they’ve learned to separate interesting ideas from ideas that move them closer towards a desired future state (new markets or new customers). They’ve also learned to effectively and passionately make a case for new ideas and then make a decision and move forward. They credit their success to the senior executive who has worked tirelessly to depoliticize their environment and focus them on moving towards the future.

 The Bottom-Line for Now:

Whether you sit on the senior management team or you sit in the middle of the organization where the real work takes place, strive to cultivate intelligent filters for new initiatives. Anchor to key corporate goals and strategies, and always ensure that your initiatives connect to a real customer…not a customer of myth or imagination.

Ideas are wonderful and you don’t want to stifle their generation, however, not every idea deserves to turn into an initiative. Choose carefully. You need just enough to push the team or organization forward and not too many to promote distress. If the people around you are running around trying to keep the spinning plates from wobbling off of their sticks and crashing to the ground, it’s time to reassess.

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.