The Leaders Notebook

Hard questions, ambiguity and opinion for leaders

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Beyond New Year’s Resolutions

January 3rd, 2011 · Follow the Leaders, Great Questions, Playing a Bigger Game

It is that time of year again- New Years means New Year’s resolutions.  Recently my web feeds have been full of cynical articles about why we are so poor at keeping resolutions.  The stories of gyms that are crowded from Jan 1 until about mid February are legion this time of year- and sadly accurate.  But I got to talk to a few people I know who kept their resolutions last year.

Here is the single critical thing I learned from them.  After the promise is made, the easy part is putting a plan together.  The hard part is understanding and embracing the resistance and fear that go with following the plan.  In the absence of some understanding of the emotional desires to NOT change anything, we are stuck with willpower.  Willpower is a great thing, but lets face it.  The “David” of commitment to a significant change in behavior (and usually a relatively new born David to boot) has little chance of winning the battle with a decades-old “Goliath” of emotions that is perfectly happy to have things remain as they are.  Without some knowledge of what makes Goliath tick, our resolutions are out-gunned from the beginning.

Oddly enough, the same is true of major organizational change.  Every year I see client companies stack up a queue of projects to fund for the coming year.  As they decide on the changes they think will most improve the organization’s performance, it is easy to make the plans (if not cheap).  Project teams go to work on plans and budgets and eventually publish a brave vision for the new future.  But most of those projects still end up on the productivity scrap heap.  The published research still seems to tell us that somewhere around 75- 80% of new initiatives fail.

In his book How the Mighty Fall, Jim Collins shows us that the seeds of organizational decline are easily found during the boom times that made such failure seem impossible.  So it is with project failures.  Most companies have a process for planning changes that includes fairly rigorous budgeting; however, what is generally missing is a plan for working with the amount of organizational resistance the change will evoke.  Just because the EVP wants more control on margins does not mean that the sales organization wants to change the way they do pricing.

As any leader knows, compliance by order went out with the Roman legions, assuming it worked even then.  Organizational change leaders would do well, especially BEFORE they launch a project, to fully understand the amount of resistance the proposed change will evoke and begin at the very earliest stages to create a dialog.  Most planning models insert “communications and training” as tactical part of roll out- which is coincidentally where both big change projects and where New Year’s Resolutions die.  And usually by that time, most of the money in the plan is spent- whether it is on the new gym membership or on software licenses for the very people who kill, or at least mortally wound, the initiative.

So- what does that dialog look like?  How do we engage with Goliath?  Execution differs for the New Year’s Resolution and the major change project, but the underlying structure is the same.  It means engaging with those who are not at all interested in the new way of doing things.  The most adaptable model for this I have seen is from Robert Kegan’s recent book- Immunity to Change.  In fact I attended a session at last year’s ICF conference where he walked us thought the fundamental framework tool.

In it’s shortest form, Kegan invites us to explore actively why the change will be hard and what worries us about being successful- or more accurately, about what it will take to be successful.  As with any conversation, if we can enter this dialog without judgment and strive to understand, then the likelihood of a sustainable solution is much higher.

For a fuller understanding of the model, I suggest making a New Year’s resolution to read Kegan’s Immunity to Change.  And while you are reading, think about the conversations with the parts of your organization you expect to change in the coming year.

Happy New Year!

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The Power of Positive Public Discourse

November 30th, 2010 · Follow the Leaders, Playing a Bigger Game, Uncategorized

If you read here regularly you know that I often fret about the polarized nature of public discourse.  We have had plenty of examples of that this week with the new oppositional House and the President ready to square off on tax cuts.  And it is no surprise that the rhetoric of partisan politics, wrapping itself in the flag and in the assumed “voice of the people” has created a stalemate before the talks even begin.

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, I read a wonderful example of the power of informed debate.  There they were, in the pages of the Wall Street Journal.  Head to head opinion pieces by Bill Gates and Matt Ridley on the best way forward for developing Africa.  They disagree, as the headlines (and linked articles) below show:

Gates: “Africa Needs Aid, Not Flawed Theories”

Ridley: “Africa Needs Growth, Not Pity and Big Plans”

I humbly suggest that our nation’s leaders (and those of us who aspire to leadership in any form) take a page from the way these two engaged in this debate.  Here is what I saw that is different in the way the discussion was undertaken:

Both Men Listened to Each Other

Gates had read and clearly understood Ridley’s book on the topic.  He could accurately see the subject through Ridley’s point of view, even if he did not agree with it.  Ridley on the other hand had read Gates’ critique of his work with an open mind and a willingness to concede that perhaps Gates had a point of view as credible as his own.

They Based Their Argument on Fact

An old saw goes that if you give 10 economists the same data, they will come to 10 different conclusions.  Perhaps so, but by starting with facts as the basis for the debate, we avoid positioning and rhetoric dressed up to look like a fact.  No one treats their opinion in these articles as undeniable fact.

No One Claimed Authority That They Do Not Have

Neither writer accused the other of torpedoing any hope of growth in Africa, threatening the world economy, racist desires to suppress developing economies or greedy exploitation of the continent.  Neither man wrapped in any flag, a moral authority or a mandate from the people.  Each treated the other’s point of view with respect and admitted the possibility that it might even have merit.

I could imagine that Gates and Ridley, given some time and resource for the project, could engage in a development undertaking that might find a way forward to speed the sustainable development of Africa.  They may both be entirely wrong.  And of course neither of them are Africans.  But the way that they have engaged, at least in print, demonstrates a leadership capacity for holding ambiguity, listening well and debating fairly that in time gets past politics and positioning to find sustainable solutions.  Debate of this nature has a higher possibility of finding a solution that uses the best ideas from all sides.  In my fantasies, I see our political leaders engaging this way.

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A New Perspective

November 16th, 2010 · Follow the Leaders

I was in Sydney last week and spent an evening at a concert by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.  Based on counsel from those who know the hall, I booked a seat in the choir section, above and behind the orchestra.  I have never had the opportunity to watch an orchestra from the musician’s point of view.  It was a wonderful object lesson in perspective.

I learned a lot about how the conductor interacted with the orchestra that I would never have observed from the distance of the stalls, watching the conductor’s back.  And because there are always concertgoers in the section, we were not a distraction to either the conductor or the musicians.

For decades now I have worked with executive sponsors of change and organizational leaders who want to lead from arm’s length.  “What do they want from me?  I authorized the work.  I write the checks and get a report every quarter.”  When that sort of leader shows up for a project meeting, it is a major deal to the team and his presence becomes the center of attention.  Sadly, that leader will not get the perspective of understanding how the “conductor” of the team or department gets results.

Yes, we can see a lot about how conductors get their results from behind.  But look at the differences evident in 3 top tier conductors and how much more we know about them by seeing how they engage with the musicians that they lead.  Organizational leaders usually know if their reports deliver results- but often miss or even ignore the way those results are achieved.  In the best case, a leaders who does not understand how her directs get results misses out on opportunities to coach.  In the worst, aggressive leaders get results through bullying and manipulation, exposing the organization to high turnover and even legal liability.

A savvy boss shows up to observe often enough to not be a distraction or worry the person running the meeting and as such, he gets to see the how results are accomplished.

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PonderThis: US Elections- We Have Met the Enemy…

November 11th, 2010 · Follow the Leaders, Playing a Bigger Game, PonderThis, Team Notes

We have had a lot of yelling and finger-pointing pretending to be public discourse the last couple of years here in the USA.  Our increasing appetite for extremism and mud slinging may be the single biggest obstacle to finding a way out of the fiscal and social mess we are in.  Perhaps rather than pointing a finger at our elected officials, we need to be looking into a mirror about what we ask of them.  Maybe we should stop asking them to be (or deifying them for being) stubborn, pig headed and self-righteous in order to win elections, and start insisting that they listen to one another and engage constructively.

Rather than a focus on analyzing the problem, Esquire Magazine created a project in October to demonstrate the benefit of solving it.  Esquire invited 4 alums of the US Senate to spend 3 days together with a single goal- balance the US Budget.  On the Republican side: Bob Packwood and John Danforth.  On the Democratic side:  Gary Hart, and Bill Bradley.  Esquire invited Lawrence O’Donnell to act as chair, largely out of his  “…intolerance for bullshit from either side.”  (Yes, several of these men have controversial histories; and, all of them have experience with the challenge that they were at the table to solve.  Read the full article at the link to Esquire below.)

Over 3 days, these 5 men did what Congress should be doing.  They debated, explored, worked with data rather than diatribe or political dogma, listened to each other, made hard choices and walked out with a plan to eliminate the deficit by 2020.  I am certain it is not perfect.  Nor is it the only answer to the Gordian Knot of our current budget issues.  I am equally certain that we would hear howling from the extremists on both sides of the aisle should anything like their proposal find its way to the floor of Congress.  But it remains a clear and shining example of what can be done when the focus is on the issues on the table rather than the next election..

The commission had no need to use the debate to demonize their colleagues.  No one required the approval of an extreme (or extremely vocal) constituent base and as such, no one feared reprisal for actually engaging in a reasonable debate.  There were no cameras or reporters to play to.  Or, as Esquire put it in their usual expressive prose:

“…and unlike the conduct that has come to define our poisonous contemporary political moment, each side would not ascribe the absolute worst motives to the other in order to make its points. No one would be accused of being out to destroy the Constitution. No outlandish conspiracy theories would govern the judgment of the participants. No one’s values would be held as suspect. No one’s very legitimacy would be in question. Rather, these senators were the very picture of spirited and rigorously informed good government.”

I do not feel a strong need to connect the dots here about the leadership content of this project.  Anyone who has sat on a project team, dealt with silos and turf wars or even tried to get a difficult but unpopular project underway knows exactly how this story applies.

The summary of the project can be found on Esquire’s site here, with links to the full article in the November issue.

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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Leading in a Fishbowl: Another Ryder Cup Clinic

October 6th, 2010 · Leadership Lessons from the Links, Organizations at Their Best

Another Ryder Cup competition is history and as usual, the event has not disappointed.  The Ryder Cup is a proving ground, squeezing the best performance from the best players in the world.  It is also a pressure cooker, exposing weaknesses or lack of focus.  And as usual, the Ryder Cup has provided great lessons for leaders- even those who do not play golf.  Here are a few of my favorites from this year’s competition.

Comfort with Ambiguity

The Ryder Cup is a match play event.  That means heads to head, I win- you lose competition.  And while golf is a game of singular performance, match play stresses that your opponent is the other player, not the course.  And since one team is in friendly territory with galleries clearly supporting the home team, while the other is 4,000 miles from home, then the cheering is clearly partisan as well.  There was no mistaking the fact that there were 100 fans of the EU team for every American present.  And yet, they could acknowledge a brave effort, a well-played shot and even the efforts of a vanquished opponent to pull out a win.  Their ability to hold that ambiguity, that “both/and” point of view serves the larger environment for the game without requiring that they give up their clear support for the home team.

Effective leaders know that even if the situation is win-lose (I take your customers, I get to market before you do, I close the big deal you are chasing) that the more effective focus is on winning.  A focus on the other side’s loss is not sustainable and can be in fact a major-league organizational distraction.

I once worked with a CEO of a software company whose initial product created the category (and thereby, competitors).  In the early days, his focus on was the vision for his product and the capacity it could enable for customers.  But as competitors began to push the market, his focus changed.  He took competition as a personal attack and erected “memorials” to those companies in the office lobby.  Soon he talked more about beating them than about his vision for his own company.  While all the competitors suffered in the tech collapse that followed the dot-com bubble, his company exited early, being acquired by a firm from a related market that had already bought and managed into the ground another competitor.

Survival of the Most Resilient

Another big lesson from Celtic Manor is also the need to adapt to change.  After months of planning and strategy on the part of both captains, the weather trumped all.  The storms on Friday forced organizers to change schedules and formats for the event, tossing carefully crafted strategies to the winds.  And it was the team that could adjust most readily who won the day.  It is easy to forget how quickly an event, a new technology or a decision out of our control can change everything.

Some Things are A Mystery

And lastly, I think leaders can take away one of the hardest lessons of all.  Sometimes getting to the core of a problem is just not possible- at least not fast enough to prevent disaster.  The Americans left the course on Friday mid day when the rains hit with their tails between their legs.  They were bleeding all over the course.  But when they resumed play the next day, they were a different squad and ended the first round of matches ahead of the Europeans 6 to 4.  But as those matches ended and the new ones began, two very curious things happened.

The American’s play became uninspired and the Europeans caught fire, annihilating the US.  When the smoke cleared on the next team matches, The Europeans had all but a clean sweep, saved only by one split match and the score stood at 6 ½  to 9 ½, leaving the US team requiring a miracle for the final singles matches.  So what happened?  Did Corey Pavin sneak some magic herb into the US breakfast on day 2?  Did Monty have some secret incantation he could share with the EU team as the momentum turned over?  I have read lots of opinion on this very question.  But in truth, sometimes we do not know what is helping or hurting our efforts at execution.  When it comes down to it, we are dealing with people and people are complicated.  And while analysis may show us in hindsight what caused a meltdown, in the moment a leader must make choices without that information.

In many ways, this is the toughest and most telling test in leadership.  Both Captains showed, in their own ways, that all they could do was remain engaged and look for opportunities.  Corey Pavin’s famous stoic style did not prevent him from being everywhere and ensuring that his assistant captains were there to encourage and provide support.  Monty on the other hand focused on getting the gallery involved, which, in the end, may have been the “secret ingredient.”

Kudos all around for a wonderfully played competition.  Now, the planning can begin all over again for Medinah in 2011.

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PonderThis: What Change? I Did Not See Any Change!

August 27th, 2010 · PonderThis, Sliding Down the Razor Blade of Life

Dan Simons and Christopher Chabris met at Harvard in 1994 and began to collaborate on research about cognition.  Their interest was in understanding how and how well we really pay attention.  Their work demonstrated that we often do not observe change and most often, see what we are looking for.  Our brain fills in gaps or simply ignores information based on what it expects to see.  For leaders, who must make decisions that impact the organizations they lead, paying attention is critical.

Probably most of the readers of this blog have seen the original video.  One of the complaints about the experience is that the video has shown up so often that trying the experiment was nearly impossible.  I am happy to say that there is a new opportunity waiting- especially for those of you who are certain us would have seen everything in the original.  So, here is an opportunity to invest 5 minutes and learn how well your brain really sees.

Go here to watch the original and the updated video.  (They are the first two on the page)  There are a number of other less well known experiments shown on the page as well.

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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Does Robert Dudley Have What It Takes?

July 29th, 2010 · Follow the Leaders, PonderThis

When Tony Hayward took the helm at BP in 2007, he did so in the shadow of Lord John Brown whose departure was hastened by the board based largely on an abysmal safety record.  Hayward was charged with creating a culture of safe operations.  In his first public presentation, Hayward said “…Leaders must make the safety of all who work for them their top priority. My enduring priorities are, firstly, continued improvement in the safety of our operations all around the world.”

So, what happened?  What will Robert Dudley have to understand that Tony Hayward missed?  His first statement as CEO reads almost exactly like Hayward’s, promising that a culture of safety was on top of his priority list as CEO.  And yet Hayward has been unable to move the needle despite awareness campaigns and safety programs.  So, how does a leader in a sprawling enterprise make change real?

I collected a few ideas from clients who have successfully delivered major cultural change and here are a few highlights.

SVP Operations of a national process manufacturing firm in the US:
“An organization the size of ours needs time and constant reinforcement to make the most basic change stick.  In an operational environment that is decentralized like BP, no change will take root that is not adopted and endorsed by front line and middle management.  We integrated our green and safety initiatives into their 360, their performance reviews, their career development and of course the compensation systems.  And we sent 3 long-time SVP’s out the door who gave the program only lip service.”

Program Manager for a major international logistics initiative:
“We suffered through 2 executive sponsors who did not have the chops.  We got a lot done in the design and build out of systems, but we still did not get the business’ attention.  I finally went to the COO and put it on the line.  Either he personally took this on and made it important with unit heads and the admin functions- or shut it down.  After three years I was done being a sideshow.  It took another 18 months but once he started getting serious, so did others who where key to success.”

And my personal favorite from the EVP and Chief Administrative Officer for a global financial services firm:
“We learned the hard (and expensive) way.  Programs that address a change in business process only are cosmetic and not sustainable.  You have to dig into the DNA of how decisions are made.  Think of it this way.  A pregnant woman cannot birth a child just with her reproductive system.  Every part of the body and even the psyche has to change to accommodate childbirth and motherhood.  A safety program will not make a difference as long as it runs against how success is measured- both formally and informally.  The entire organizational culture has to change.”

One of my favorite quotes on this topic comes from Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan in their book Execution, the Discipline of Getting Things Done:

“And never launch an initiation unless you’re personally committed to it and prepared to see it through until it’s embedded in the DNA of the organization.”

That means a willingness to take a deeper and more thoughtful look at what will be needed to bring the change in successfully.  Or as we say in golf- “All the bets are won and lost on the first tee.”  If Mr. Dudley is serious about embedding safety in the DNA of a new BP, we will know it very soon.  If all we see are renewed safety posters and reporting processes… well someone else will likely get a shot at it in a few years.

Given what is at stake, I wish Robert Dudley well and hope he has the chops to get it done.

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.

NOTE: The Notebook will be on holiday for a couple of weeks.  Short of anything irresistible, look for posting to continue after mid August.

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PonderThis: Simple Rules for Getting a Project Started

July 15th, 2010 · Follow the Leaders, Playing a Bigger Game, PonderThis

Getting a project or initiative off the ground is an important leadership competency, and yet may die in the planning process or simply do not gather enough inertia to get off the starting line.  At a meeting this week in Washington, I heard Kim Keenan, President of the Washington, DC Bar Association make a remarkable presentation on the establishment of pro-bono legal clinics in the District.  Her description of the process was a solid primer for getting new initiatives off the ground.

Stay Focused on the Outcome

Ms. Keenan described a number of interesting challenges encountered as their efforts scaled.  Facilities, information, traffic management, promotion, compliance and a host of other roadblocks could have at any time limited or even shut down the program.  The stories of overcoming these challenges were entertaining and inspiring.  It was clearly passion for the outcome that played the key role in finding answers.  A tough challenge can shut a project down, or inspire creativity and initiative- depending on how inspiring and important the outcome of the work is to participants.  Ms Keenans own clear dedication to the vision of the project was both clear and infectious in the room.

Get People Who Care About the Work Around the Table

While no one knew much about how to get started, everyone who was willing to give up time to give up billable hours and get to committee meetings had some interest in the topic.  The challenge of fanning a spark of interest into a flame is far easier than trying to create an initial spark where there is none.

Focus on What You Can Do

Reaching back to her first committee chairmanship, Ms. Keenan described the painful experience of several meetings in which she listened to attorneys arguing for 3 entire meetings about what they could not do, and why they could not do it.  When she realized that it was her job to move the committee along, she changed the game by re-engineering the 80/20 rule.  “Look…” she said.  “We can agree on 20% of this.  Why don’t we just start working on that and figure the rest out as we go?”

I know that I have often written here about projects that failed by rushing to action.  But how long can you imagine a group of attorneys showing up for committee meetings that accomplish nothing?  Getting to action that opens possibilities creates an emotional investment in the work, connecting back to why they were there in the first place

Reinforce the Impact of Small Steps

Ms. Keenan described the impact of getting the first bare-bones clinic underway  by saying “Getting a small step done makes the impossible seem possible.”  The early work of the clinic was by all reports rough around the edges; however, it had two big impacts besides the work itself.  First, judges who had become accustomed to being frustrated by poorly prepared pro-se clients began to notice that people who had been helped at the clinic were better prepared to be in court, which made their lives much easier.  Second, the participants could see the impact of their work and were far more energized by seeing the benefits of their efforts than worried about what was not yet done.

The initial idea was to find a way to help people show up in Landlord/ Tenant court better prepared.  They got a small corner of the court-house and started matching volunteer attorneys with clients in need.  Today, the clinic and several others like it are thriving and hundreds of lawyers donate time and services to assist those who need help on a civil matter but cannot afford it.

Not bad for what started as arguments about what could not be done.

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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The Cost of a Culture of Distraction

July 14th, 2010 · Great Questions, Team Notes

I visited with a client this week in Washington DC where a bet-the-business project team is having a hard time making progress.  They have sufficient resource and skilled leadership.  They have a clear and critical charter and even a sponsor who is willing to go to bat for them when needed.  So, what’s the problem?  Distractions!

The culture of this organization can best be described as “Go-Go-Go!”  And while the project is considered mission critical- the team members are all blood-donor staff.  Each has a full time position to cover as well as their place on the project team.  Add to that the number of daily emergencies and over full meeting schedules and the members of the team are looking over their shoulder all the time for the next incoming round of distractions.

For a demonstration of the cost of distraction, have a look at the video below.

Were you watching for the gorilla?

Dan Simons’ and Christopher Chabris’ famous Invisible Gorilla research was done originally in 1999, but I think that this revisit is even more powerful.  It shows us that we can miss critical information even when we know about and are watching for the distraction- perhaps even especially if we are looking for it.

Simons’ focus is on whether or not people observed details that they were not asked to watch for.  But if I was that team’s sponsor, I would want to know how many people counted the passes accurately.  If a team is so culturally trained to be watching for the budget cut, the deadline change, the scope creep, the waffling sponsor or any of the other common team derailers, how well can they actually do their job?

So what is the take away for leaders here?  I go back to a quote I use often from Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan in Execution, The Discipline of Getting Things Done: “And never launch an initiative unless you are personally committed to it and prepared to see it through until it is embedded in the DNA of the organization.”

It is up to a change leader to ensure that those on the team have sufficient time and overhead to get the work completed, and to insulate them from distractions sufficiently that they are not always looking over their shoulders.

For more information on the work of Dan Simons and Christopher Chabris, visit

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Why General McChrystal Had to Go

June 28th, 2010 · Uncategorized

Any top team needs debate and even conflict- but only at the right time and in the right setting.  That time and that setting are before the matter is decided.

Given how long it took President Obama to set the strategy, there was plenty of time for disagreement and even advocacy.  Great leaders know that this debate helps assure that they have heard and had the opportunity to consider all points of view.  In cases where consensus is unlikely, the debate informs the decision made- in this case by the President and Commander in Chief.  At that point, debate about how to accomplish the strategy should supplant further discussions about the direction.

While clearly a brilliant and dedicated officer, General McChrystal was evidently unable to let go of his strong dissension about the strategy- or his need to be public about it in a number of forums, including The Rolling Stone.    Last October, I wrote here about the 4 toxic team behaviors.  These are the ones that will destroy both productivity and team culture even in small doses.  The team that tolerates them does so at its peril.

To disagree so publicly and with such derision demonstrates 2 of the 4 toxic behaviors.  Even the most skilled team member at a particular job is a detriment to success if he cannot discipline his own communications and attitude, especially in a forum as public as a national magazine.  Ignoring clear contempt and and criticism of the strategy and team members shows tacit approval by the team’s leader or sponsor.  It is an invitation for compromised results.

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