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.

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.

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Art of Managing—Sometimes You Have to Slow Down to Go Faster

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.

Today’s management literature is filled with references to speed. If we’re following the trends, we’re all growing more “agile” and likely “lean” in the process. We’re working in “sprints” and “bursts,” and of course, we’re “teaming” whenever possible.

Other firms are “reacting aggressively” to competitor moves and one CEO I was talking with described a “blitzkrieg move” (lightning warfare) into a new market segment. Another top executive emphasized wanted his team to be more nimble in response to competitor issues.

All of this motion may be helping our waistlines, dancing moves and cardio health, but I’m not convinced that speed is always the right answer.

Sometimes you just have to slow down to go faster.

4 Key Situations Where Pausing Before Acting Makes Good Business Sense

1. Hiring Key Talent. While you might be critically short of talent in certain areas of your business, this is one area where haste will indeed make waste that you can ill afford to create. Hire slow. Get to know your candidate over time and in multiple settings. Work hard to assess mutual culture fit and involve the candidate with his/her potential team members. The opportunity cost of a poor key hire is too big to let the need for speed govern your actions.

2. Learning to Better Understand Your Customers/Prospects. Surveys, focus groups and executive customer visits are no substitute for taking the time and doing your best imitation of an anthropologist, observing customers or prospects in their natural settings. Watching individuals interact with your offerings or, better yet, trailing them for a period and cultivating a deep understanding of “a day in their life,” is a slower moving, deliberate process that has the potential to gain more insights and ah ha moments than a lifetime of online surveys.

3. Responding to Competitor Moves. While this might seem like the perfect situation to employ instantaneous response, there are many situations where a pause to better understand the move and cultivate a thoughtful, complete response may be in order. If your competitor is playing checkers, you might want to redefine the game as chess. The danger on one hand is being lulled into an unwinnable and ongoing set of tit for tat moves that destroy value for both firms. Also, a good competitor will throw strength against your weakness and if your response is from that perspective, you end up chasing your tail for a long time. Consider a broader response. Use your superior understanding of your customers to redefine your package of offerings. Kick back with something you do very well that is meaningful to your clients and let your competitor chase you. In most cases, simply matching a response is a fool’s game.

4. Restructuring the Team/Organization. This is one that some firms engage in like clockwork, and while organizational design is indeed a competitive tool, it is one to use sparingly and only based on a crystal clear strategy. Too many firms restructure first and then look for the strategy, when the right approach is to do just the opposite. Beware the temptation to simply move boxes on charts and think you are solving something. Most often, you’re not.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I prefer adjusting my team’s cadence to the demands of a situation over an ungoverned pursuit of speed. And yes, sometimes the cadence is fast…quick cycles, sense and respond, but in the circumstances above and many others, good managers see the risks in speed and the gains from slowing to consider the next actions. This coping with speed places huge pressure on top management to clarify strategies and goals and for all members of a firm to strive to connect their work and their pace to the bigger picture. While speed is inherent in our world, sometimes it truly pays great dividends to slow down and assess the situation.

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.

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.

Leadership Caffeine—Breakaway Leadership Part 2

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!

In the first post in this blended, Leadership Caffeine/Art of Managing series, I focused on leadership and management behaviors that stifle or derail efforts to escape the gravitational pull of the past as organizations work to achieve what Geoffrey Moore calls, Escape Velocity.

In the words of that business pundit, Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us,” when it comes to building new on top of old (For those too young to have met Pogo, he was a popular newspaper cartoon character from another era.)

In this post, we look at behaviors and approaches that YOU and your management counterparts directly control that contribute to success with this challenging endeavor of building something new while managing the existing legacy business.

8 Ideas to Help Improve Your Odds of Success in Building the Future:

1. Create organizational awareness and understanding of the new endeavor. Every day. Seriously. I’m invoking Kotter’s dictate that, “in times of change, you cannot over-communicate.” Every time a firm’s senior leaders stop working at this, the cultural storm clouds emerge. Take care of it. Daily.

2. Position the new and legacy efforts as two equally critical but very different endeavors. It’s true. The existing business pays the bills and funds the future, while the new endeavor strives to ensure a future. One is no more critical than the other. They are both critical. Share the over-arching strategy (or opportunity) far and wide; create an understanding of how the firm will execute on the opportunity and share results, good and bad. Help the entire organization become invested in the success of the new endeavor!

3. Share the cool new toys! New endeavors often introduce new processes or approaches to innovation, development and market testing. Find opportunities to cross-train and cross-pollinate new approaches with legacy teams where appropriate. I’ve seen this most often in the move away from waterfall development to an agile approach. Frequently, all teams can benefit from understanding and learning to apply the new techniques.

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management terms4. Recognize and manage the inertia of your legacy business in creating new opportunities to invest. Your product managers will naturally identify opportunities to improve existing products and introduce new offerings into legacy markets. Marketing associates will find ways to spend their budgets in pursuit of the business, and rarely do the volume of development asks or marketing opportunities shrink of their own accord.

Senior leaders must manage the incremental requests with a clear filter and a firm hand. See also points 1 & 2 and recognize that creating context for “No” on new requests is critical to avoiding a cultural rift over the team with the shiny new toys and the other team with yesterday’s retreads.

5. You get what you measure…use the right progress measures. Moore does a good job of reminding us in Escape Velocity that you cannot measure new ventures with the same metrics you apply to existing businesses. New ventures are about engaging innovators and early adopters, gaining feedback and step by step, increasing activities, pipelines and then dollars and profits. We expect our existing businesses to quickly translate activities into revenues and profits, but the new ventures have to grow into those measures.

In larger entities, particularly holding companies and conglomerates, there’s often little consideration for the meaning of the numbers in cells on a spreadsheet…it’s up to you and your peers to establish this understanding and ensure proper context for costs without revenue that occur in most new endeavors.

6. Be prepared for the “Stuff Happens” phase. I don’t care how well you define the project and anticipate risks, something always happens that the team did not anticipate. The unknown-unknowns bite hard, and it takes leadership to stand firm in the face of the onslaught of finger-pointing and second guessing, and prevail. A senior leadership divided against itself will not stand. (OK, sorry President Lincoln.) The firm’s senior leaders and the new venture’s executive sponsor must fight the knee-jerk reactions and guilty before proven innocent tendencies of others vying for resources.

7. We think, therefore we are prone to errors and traps. Be merciless about avoiding group-think, dodging escalation of commitment and side-stepping other group and individual cognitive decision-making traps. Use outside perspectives to challenge your strategy and your assumptions. Promote outside-in discussions with target audience feedback and competitor analysis. Ask others to frame your perceived opportunity in a different way and challenge them to identify alternative approaches. And importantly, cultivate the leadership team dynamics needed to ask hard questions about insights, direction and strategies.

8. Avoid starving the new endeavor. One of my favorite managers often intones, “We’ve been doing so much for so long with so little that we can now do absolutely anything with nothing.”  He always gets a laugh, but it’s no laughing matter when promising ideas die on the vine due to lack of care and feeding. If you’re making a courageous leap to push into a new arena, back it with the people, equipment, tools and organizational support needed to improve the odds of success.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

This is a big topic contained in a couple of small posts. Many organizations never move beyond the business that made them successful. They are yesterday’s name brands and tomorrow’s answers to trivia questions. The effort required to add something new in an environment of existing (or old) is not to be trifled at. Use the ideas here and in post #1 as prompters and engage in the hard discussions and invoke the courageous leadership it takes to move beyond the gravitational pull of your firm’s past.

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.

Strategy and Category—In Pursuit of Growth

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

I reference Geoffrey Moore’s 2011 book, Escape Velocity regularly in my management writing because it is in my opinion the most relevant and useful book on strategy in the past few years. (I hold Rumelt’s Good Strategy, Bad Strategy in high regard as well.)

Moore takes on THE major strategy issue faced by almost every successful organization with a bit of history behind it…dealing with the need to escape the gravitational pull of the past in search of new sources of growth.

It turns out, most of us aren’t much good at pulling this off…thus the tremendous volume of once good and now gone organizations. (One only has to look at the news to see the fortunes of category creators…the struggle of emerging firms and the painful struggle of once successful organizations to survive. For the latter, think Radio Shack, which did a remarkable job lampooning its irrelevance in a Super Bowl commercial last week.)

Chances are your organization has plans to “change” and as part of your strategy, you have the challenge to identify and capitalize on new sources of growth.  Those concepts make for pretty slides and create head-nodding executive and boardroom presentations. Actually doing the work is as I’m sure you know, far from simple.

Enter Moore.  He offers some priceless assistance in turning those inside-out strategy discussions and budget-driven investment plans into outside-in, investor and future focused discussions and actions.

Along the way, he proposes a Hierarchy of Powers (HOP), a framework of frameworks that articulates where firms can build or leverage “power.” The framework is quite simple and quite sophisticated all at the same time. The hierarchy is: category power, company power, market (customer segment) power, offer power and execution power. Category power is the focal point initially, and the subject of Chapter 2, which is frankly an MBA course in strategy all alone.

A Few Key Takeaways on Category Power:

1. Category power is the number one predictor of financial performance. Participating in growth categories harnesses secular growth that once gone is not easily replaced. The rest of us are left with cyclical growth (mature markets) or low or no growth created through consolidation and cost cutting (declining markets).

2. Helping our firms move successfully into growth categories is one of our core tasks as managers and executives, yet much of how we manage, plan, budget and commit gets in the way of moving from mature categories into newer and foreign growth categories. This gravitational pull is the enemy of finding new growth.

3. In support of the prior point, how we shepherd (measure, manage, structure, account for) growth categories is different than how we manage mature or declining businesses. It takes extraordinary effort and a different set of rules to enter and succeed in a growth category

4. Categories should be viewed and managed like a portfolio and most of our portfolios are out of balance, with too much emphasis in slow-growth, mature or worse yet, declining markets and no credible source of emerging or growth businesses. We’ve got to balance the portfolio or suffer the consequences.

5. Leveraging Category Power is the number one way to achieve Escape Velocity from the shackles of our past.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The words around change and new and growth are always easy, but once we blend people, culture, and operating practices into the mix, everything about change becomes very, very difficult. This simple concept of shifting into newer and higher growth categories as legacy businesses sustain or decline is in fact profoundly difficult for most every firm and management team, yet this is a key task. The dominant logic that delivered success in the past no longer hunts in this foreign land. We need new ways, new people with new skills and agreement on the right measures for the right situation.

This task of helping your firm find and move into new categories defines the essence of your role as a senior manager. The task will draw upon all of your skills to promote vision, motivate change and foment learning. It’s hard, good and essential work. And there are no books with the answers, but Moore certainly helps us with the questions.

Big topic, small post. I’ll be back with more.

Additional Resources:

Geoffrey Moore speaking on Escape Velocity at Stanford (55 minutes well invested!)

My Leadership Caffeine podcast interview with Geoffrey.

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.