The Leaders Notebook

Hard questions, ambiguity and opinion for leaders

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PonderThis: Why the Soft Stuff is Not Soft

May 13th, 2011 · PonderThis, Sliding Down the Razor Blade of Life

I still hear the term “soft stuff” in reference to organizational effectiveness work.  Naturally I do not think so.  And just as naturally, a large percentage of the business community still feels that they can lead solely based on the balance sheet.  Every once in a while however, we get a very clear lesson in why things like integrity, clear and meaningful values and straight shooting are anything but soft.  Today, there are two in the press.

Does anyone think that either Facebook or Burson-Marsteller will survive the current brouhaha over an anonymous smear campaign aimed at Google without any impact?  First they undertake what is a project so underhanded that the client remains secret (a violation of professional standards in the PR world).  Then when it becomes public, the finger pointing begins- each throwing the other to the ravenous crowd.  Oh, they will both provide some sacrificial lamb and go quiet after a formal announcement about how shocked they were to see dearly held values trampled on so heinously.  And Facebook will not see a mass exodus of people who do not want their personal information associated with a firm so underhanded.

But at the best, there will be companies who will not want to do business with Facebook based on this kind of back-door dealing.  And although many will anyway simply because of the amount of money to be made, they will do so more cautiously, making the dealings more challenging and expensive for Facebook.  The attention of investors and the press is short term- but the payback is long term.

And while The Donald may or may not be wealthy enough to not care at all about the impact on his brand, this kind of behavior will not encourage either his presidential aspirations or future business dealings.

I do not think that history will view either Facebook or Trump as paragons of values based leadership.  And these actions are appallingly extreme.  They are likely to end up as the kind of exercise that consultants love to do using Enron’s values from 2001.  But if you think that having clear values and a culture of forthright communications is soft, well- we all get to write our own history in some ways.

PonderThis is published to arrive in your RSS/ mailbox on Fridays as a concept to ponder over the weekend and goes to thousands of subscribers on 4 continents.

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PonderThis: When a Good Idea Gets Off the Leash

April 28th, 2011 · PonderThis, Sliding Down the Razor Blade of Life

New ideas are exciting.  That burst of energy and excitement that comes with a concept that will (or even might) be a game changer is intoxicating.  And in cultures that are often very action oriented, change leaders want to get moving quickly.  I have written here before about the cost of jumping to action without fully understanding not only the outcome we want to create- but what it will take to deliver on that promise.

Billions of dollars are lost every year on projects that are killed by resistance before they even get fully implemented.  But what about the full unanticipated consequences of success?  If you read here regularly, you are familiar with the statement that any asset overused can become a liability.  The same is too for a great idea that gets off the leash.  Planning should include understanding the risk of what happens when the new idea is out of control.

The recent brouhaha about Apple’s location services is a great example.  The idea of enabling a device to navigate and locate itself has tremendous commercial and societal value.  But what else will it do beside just allow the user to get directions or tag a location?  Do you think that engineers might have looked for a different architecture for storing location information if they had anticipated the lambasting Apple would take in the press?  Both Microsoft and Google have faced similar challenges about how they use location data.

But the biggest winner (loser?) is TomTom, who were thrilled to be more or less under the radar when it came out recently that they were selling location data from their GPS devices to the Dutch police, who used it (including speed estimates) to set speed traps!

In the planning process, we will often “invite the devil to dinner” to run implementation scenarios.  We want to know what can go wrong so that we can cut our losses or even back out when we go live with a new system or process.  To avoid the kind of exposure we are seeing today over location services, have that dinner party early.  Here are a few questions to ask during the vision process:

  • What happens if this process/ technology/ idea gets off the leash?
  • What is the most heinous use for this we can imagine (feel free to be really slimy here)?
  • Assuming we were willing to suspend any corporate and personal values- how can we make the most money with this?
  • What could this idea do that would make me really angry to know it was doing it to me?

Happy planning!

PonderThis is published to arrive in your RSS/ mailbox on Fridays as a concept to ponder over the weekend and goes to thousands of subscribers on 4 continents.

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Greg Mortenson- What to do When We Discover Our Leaders are Flawed

April 24th, 2011 · Sliding Down the Razor Blade of Life, Thoughts on Life and Leadership, Uncategorized

How do we respond when we discover that leaders whom we admire are not what we thought?  What happens to the good work done when a leader is shown to be flawed or corrupt?  Moreover, what does our response say about us and our commitment to our own values?

By now, the news of Greg Mortenson’s expose’ by 60 Minutes is all over the web.   And for those who eye CBS’ journalistic style with suspicion, there is a more penetrating case made by Jon Krakauer in his e-book Three Cups of Deceit.  Mortensen’s initial response has been to go on the offensive, but with little data to back up his position and a set of statements designed more to absolve him of responsibility than prove innocence.

The gauntlet has been thrown down and the battle lines drawn.  But as with any battle there will be collateral damage.  In this case, the damage will be not only to the Central Asia Institute (Mortenson’s charitable organization).  It will be to similar organizations to which donations will likely fizzle.  It is impossible to predict a number, but there are girls who will not be educated in Afghanistan- each of which represents a brick remaining in the 6th century wall of cultural ignorance.

How do we respond to a role model who is not only found to have feet of clay, but to be fast and loose with facts and other people’s money?  No doubt much of the world be focused on retribution, blame and the outrage at feeling duped, which will likely require ritual razing of the Central Asia Institute’s headquarters and some form of public castigation for those involved.  Yet even Krakauer says in the 60 Minutes interview that Mortensen “…is not Bernie Madoff.  Let’s be clear.  He has done a lot of good.  He has helped thousands of schoolkids in Pakistan and Afghanistan… Nevertheless he is threatening to bring it all down… by this fraud and by these lies.”

I am personally saddened by this revelation.  I have admired and written about Mortenson’s story on this blog and in other venues.  So I feel somewhat embarrassed and exposed.  Nothing in my leadership studies has led me to a framework or tool for an issue like this- so I have chosen to go where I often suggest leaders I coach to go for wisdom- my own values.

Whether Mortenson expanded on he truth and how much are not important to me.  I was enamored of the Mortenson who was dedicated to seeing girls get educated in a land where it may be their only hope.  That hope is what I choose to focus my energy on.   I will see to it that Entelechy Partners will fund as many loans that support independence and education for women and girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan, through our KIVA micro finance team, as we can find.

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When Reacting is a Good Thing

March 16th, 2011 · Great Questions, Sliding Down the Razor Blade of Life

One of the fundamental leadership tools I employ (The Leadership Circle Profile-360) contrasts the time, energy and focus of attention an executive devotes to creating a new future with reacting to current reality.  After all, a leader must be leading somewhere and that means investing resources and attention in that vision.

But it is also clear that the ability to react with swift sure action is critical when the situation calls for it.  If you are the SVP Tech Ops for a bank and your servers are down at 8PM- that is the time for a full court press to get back in operation and be able to process transactions.  The government response to the recent disaster in Japan is an example of what happens when leadership Is hamstrung in too much consensus.

This article in the New York Times describes the detail of the situation and the history.  The net-net is that the institutions that historically would be stepping in to take charge are mired in a culture that requires so much advise-and-consent that it is impotent in the face of a disaster of this size.  I am not pointing a finger here.  I do not know what organization is prepared for that level of devastation.

Those of us in the leadership development business get enamored sometimes of the focus on a goal or outcome.  So many coaching assignments are about helping those with a tendency to micromanage let go of the need to control and direct.   The Holy Grail becomes the ability to be that forward thinking leader whose eyes are focused on both the feet of the organization and the path ahead.  But as we have seen so often, an asset overused becomes a liability.

The challenge that we see in Japan is a reminder that sometimes, having a clear head and a clear path to action can be every bit as much an asset as having long sight and a systematic approach.

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PonderThis: How a Leader Becomes a Leader

March 10th, 2011 · Follow the Leaders, PonderThis

One of the questions that often comes up in leadership development is whether leaders are born or made?  Is all the effort to develop leaders worthwhile?  Sometimes I feel like Woody Allen’s character in Stardust Memories- interrogating super intelligent beings who tell him “You are asking the wrong questions.

For a radically different approach to understanding the various paths to leadership, get your hands on a copy of Kevin Sheehan’s A Leader Becomes a leader2Leader (True Gifts Publishing, 2007).  Do not look for a formulaic step-by-step guide here.  This s a collection of stories.  Sheehan retells the experience of leaders, drawing on a wide range of examples.  Some are biographies that you would expect to see in such a book: Abraham Lincoln, Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Bill Gates.  But many others are examples of leadership that approach the topic from a wholly different perspective: Georgia O’Keefe, Neil Armstrong and Billie Jean King.  The stories are fascinating.

But the true power of the book is in the way the narratives are organized.  Each represents what Sheehan calls a Virtue of Leadership.  So Mother Theresa is no surprise for compassion.  Neither is Ruby Bridges for courage.  But Sheehan also gives us John Coltrane for intensity, Louis Armstrong for joy and John Lennon for creativity.  These Virtues are then organized into the various paths taken to leadership- intentional or not.  It makes for a very thought provoking read and an entry into the domain that rises above questions of linear process.

If you are fond of the list books (The five absolute rules of this, or the 10 undeniable principals of that) you will be out of your element here.  This is a collection of stories that asks us to view with softer eyes and a greater appetite for ambiguity- and will provide great food for thought if you wish to ponder leadership as a way of being.

For a more current view into Sheehan’s thinking, and that of others he as attracted to write on the subject, visit the newly launched leadership portal site:

PonderThis is published to arrive in your RSS/ mailbox on Fridays as a concept to ponder over the weekend and goes to thousands of subscribers on 4 continents.

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PonderThis: The Cost of Not Listening

March 3rd, 2011 · Follow the Leaders, PonderThis

I generally stay away from “postmortem” work, but a client recently asked me to look into what was behind the failure of a sizable process change they had attempted.  I talked with sponsors, end users, members of the project team and heard all the usual stuff.  But it was in an all but accidental conversation in the cubicle of the senior programmer who had worked on the code that the bottom line became clear.

He had the cartoon you see here (from XKCD) printed and framed by his desk.  “We had to either sprint our way through what was a sloppy job or find that anything we built well was obsolete.  It was very frustrating and several of my best programmers have since quit.”

We followed the question back the business analysts to find out why requirements were so volatile.  The lead analyst (who has also accepted work elsewhere) was crestfallen about the project.  “It had real potential to make a big difference- but we could never get the SVP to be clear about what she wanted.  We had to build something for her to react to- and her reactions were almost always different every time- as well as different from what her people wanted.”

The SVP is not going anywhere but was equally frustrated.  “They saddled me with this project even though I thought it was a waste of time.  My initial thought was to get a planning group to flesh it out and take it back to the COO since it was his idea.  But he was impatient to get the work going and went back to his usual mantra:  ‘We are a hit the beach culture.  Just get it started. We can build the bridge as we walk on it.’   Hey- he is the boss.”

That landed me back in the office of my sponsor- the COO.  I walked him through the entire cycle, starting with the XKCD cartoon and landing on his desk.  He took the news stoically and thanked me for my effort.  That was about a month ago.  I visited him again this week in New York.  On his desk is a framed version of the comic with the number: $19,275,000 and the phrase: “The Cost of Not Listening”.

I would bet on him getting it better next time!

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PonderThis: “Show Some Leadership!” The New “That’s not Fair!”

February 24th, 2011 · PonderThis, Sliding Down the Razor Blade of Life

In years of leading executive discussion groups and off-sites I have come to expect that most attempts to define leadership end up with(or at least pass through) a nod to Justice Potter Stewart, who is known for the concept of “I do not know how to define it- but I know it when I see it.”  (A true reading of Justice Stewart’s remarks and intent can be viewed here.)  That same inability to point to a specific definition allows for some very creative uses of the word leadership.  Sadly, it has become the “That’s not fair” of modern politics.  Think I am wrong on this?  Google search turned up 103 million references for “show some leadership”.

As young as 3 or 4, my son knew that when kids say “That’s not fair” it usually really meant “I am not getting what I want.”  Children learn early that a direct statement of what they want is easy to dismiss or ignore.  But, in our desire to teach fairness and equanimity to our kids they reach for the juvenile “f- word”.

When I hear a politician or other public figure, usually pointing the finger at someone else and saying that he or she should “…show some leadership…” it is really a translation for “he or she should do what I want.”

For every conservative who calls on President Obama to  “…show some leadership and cut spending further” there is a liberal who opines that President Obama should “…show some leadership and get serious about the environment.”  Behind each statement is the unspoken but very loud assumption that the speaker is absolutely, undeniably and beyond a shadow of a doubt- right.  In my view- they are more self-righteous.

Look at what is happening in Wisconsin.  Both sides virulently argue that the other should show some leadership.  Well, that is what they are both doing.  Skilled or not each side is leading toward a change that they passionately believe in.  When “show some leadership” really means “agree with me” there is not much common ground to stand on.

Sad to say businesses are not immune from this issue.  Disagreements about budgets, priorities and strategies often start with the challenge that no one is willing to consider that others have a valid point of view.  From that perspective, debate becomes diatribe and little gets resolved.  Truly high performing teams know this.  They debate and even advocate passionately until a decision is made.   Like the decision or not, in making it the team leader has shown leadership.  In the best teams, from that point forward, everyone lets their upset go and gets on the bus.

PonderThis is published to arrive in your RSS/ mailbox on Fridays as a concept to ponder over the weekend and goes to thousands of subscribers on 4 continents.

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PonderThis: Google in Egypt- Testing Corporate Values

February 11th, 2011 · Follow the Leaders, Playing a Bigger Game, PonderThis

I have often railed here about the cynicism and negativity created by hollow corporate values.  But today we get to see the power of a core principal when it survives the stress test.

Google has a lot at stake in Egypt.  It remains to be seen if the uprising, in part started and led by their executive, Wael Ghonim, will fail or drive Hosni Mubarak from the seat of power he has occupied for decades.  But even faced with the possibility of losing the Egyptian market and any others that cascade from a bad ending for the protesters, Google is taking their core value, “Don’t be Evil” seriously.

This is not a surprise.  Rather than buckle to China’s censorship rules, Google left.  And let’s not be too Pollyanna-like here.  Losing a market the size of China or Egypt has a serious impact on revenue and share.  So what does Google get for the cost of sticking by “Don’t be evil” even (and especially) when it is hard?

Whether the uprising is a win, lose or draw, the Google’s employees are likely to be proud of the stand that the organization has taken.  Only time will tell how this event and others like it to come will impact culture.  Some extremists on company blogs think that Google should be doing more to support Ghonim.  But my bet is that supporting their executive’s right to take a courageous stand and a leadership role in making history will pay rich dividends.  Google has been careful to publicize that Ghonim is acting as a private citizen.  They are not exactly thumping their chest with pride over his actions- but neither have they done what most US companies would have- told him to stay out of it and keep his mind on cash flow.

But even with this balanced response, the core value that Google trumpets, “Don’t be evil” is made credible even when it is hard.  Values are easy to write and easy to support in times of plenty and calm.  But they prove their mettle, and that of the enterprise, when they are tested in tough times.

The WSJ’s John Bussey summarized the usual response from US businesses doing business on the global stage:

As the world marveled this week at the remarkable story of Wael Ghonim, the Google manager who helped organize a popular rebellion in Egypt, a great sigh of relief could be heard rising from much of the rest of American business:

“I’m glad,” came the exhale, “the guy doesn’t work for us.”

What does your company’s core value say about you?  What would it mean to live by that value if it was your employee fomenting revolution against what may be a restrictive regime that is also customer?

Those of us who work with corporate values regularly know the cynicism caused by well written but meaningless values.  Enron’s Statement of Values (as published in their 1998 annual report) is famously quoted with derision and irony.  But it remains an excellent exercise to take your values down off the wall on a regular basis and ask if you would stand by them even if it cost the firm money.    Here are a few other useful questions to help you test your relationship and commitment to your organization’s values:

  • If I were starting a new business tomorrow, would I adopt this value no matter what the industry?
  • Would I change jobs before giving up this value?
  • If I had all the money and time I needed, would I continue to apply this value to my daily activities?

Not a bad thing to ponder over the weekend.

PonderThis is published to arrive in your RSS/ mailbox on Fridays as a concept to ponder over the weekend and goes to thousands of subscribers on 4 continents.

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If You Are Going to Apologize- Apologize

February 7th, 2011 · Playing a Bigger Game, Sliding Down the Razor Blade of Life, Uncategorized

Another Super Bowl has passed and once again it seems that there is more commentary and furor on line over the commercials than what was actually a pretty good football game.  By now we have come to expect the exploitation of women from Go Daddy (although they may have reached a new low this year).  And I thought that the ads for Cheetohs were a shameless attempt to get attention at any cost.  But the one that struck me as odd at the time- and has seen the most Monday morning controversy- was the ad for Groupon.  Have a look here if you missed it.

The set up simply did not work.  So, we now have a laboratory to see how to deal with a very bad and very public decision.  Andrew Mason is admittedly not your usual CEO.  He may not own a suit and tie and the roots of his company are in social action.  Given the amount of money that they raise for charitable and social action causes through their business model, I have to give him the benefit of the doubt.  And of course with no inside track I, like everyone else who was not part of the project, can only guess at what went wrong.  Except of course for what has happened since- so let’s work with that.

Mason put up a blog post to try to explain away why they ran an ad that angered the very public they depend on to support their business as well as their charitable causes.  Given his sincerity and the slack he likely gets for not being a greedy win-at-all- costs CEO, it will probably be fine.   Early responses on his blog are mostly balanced to favorable, if a little lukewarm.  Still, I think he missed an opportunity.

The issue over the ad was not rational- it was emotional.  Yet Mason spends paragraphs making a rational case for why they did what they did and why they thought it would work.  He goes on to explain how partners in their giving enterprises agreed and supported them.  But the upset was just that- an emotional response.  After watching the commercial a few times online, it gets easier to make the logical connections- but in the moment of truth, when the spot aired- the response was emotional.  Anyone who has ever been in a spat with a spouse or friend knows exactly what the impact of a logical argument is when anger is high.  The upset only escalates.  What would have been different if Mason had answered anger with actual contrition first?  If you are going to apologize, do it directly and without watering it down with logic.  Then if you want to make a rational argument- and given their dedication to charitable giving it seems in order to me-  go for it.  Mason never actually apologizes- which leaves the upset unacknowledged.

For more on the power of a proper apology, have a look at this post from May of 2009.

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PonderThis: Not Left or Right… Forward

January 7th, 2011 · Follow the Leaders, Organizations at Their Best, Playing a Bigger Game, PonderThis

I have been reading the start up information on a group calling themselves “No Labels”.  They seem to be addressing not the issues themselves, but the way that we, through our media and government, address those issues.  I find myself hopeful that the organization will be a call for change in the way we debate and decide.  It is probably a good sign that extremists on both sides have condemned them.

I am not one to proselytize for any cause or point of view and usually avoid politics here.  But I can get very passionate about even the faint hope of a process of debate based in evidence over hyperbole, advocacy over coercion, and a culture of listening and collaboration.  Who knows, we might even return to a time when members of congress with opposing views could be friends rather than needing separate green rooms at the talk shows.

Each time I hear a politician talk about ‘…what the American people want…”, I cringe.  That politician is usually only listening to the people who want what he or she wants- and that means somewhere near half of the country also disagrees.  Until we go after the conditions that insist on polarized points of view and the demonization of anyone who disagrees, we are going to be stuck with a system that cannot engineer and execute solutions.

And we cannot blame the politicians without looking in the mirror.  Our elections last year had the net effect of emphasizing the extremes and lowering the number of moderates- changing what should be debate to diatribe and reframing.  As long as voters on both sides focus on a one sided view of the world, our elected officials will follow suit.

This kind of extremism does not work in the corporate boardroom- I am not certain why we think it will succeed in Washington.

If No Labels can be a voice for a new process, then I can be a hopeful fan.

PonderThis is published to arrive in your RSS/ mailbox on Fridays as a concept to ponder over the weekend and goes to thousands of subscribers on 4 continents.

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