VIDEO: Leveraging Doubt

Doubt, while annoying and irritating, can be a leader’s best friend.

When a leader hesitates, pausing to consider the assumptions as well as the options, she is doing what the organization needs.

How a leader responds to the second-guessing is a measure of his ability to withstand pressure. Knowing in your heart that you made the best call you could make at the time forms a foundation for going forward.

The leader has only her gut to trust. And when she can look into the mirror and say she made the best decision possible at the time then that is all you can ask.


First posted on Smart Brief on 12/15/2015

You Thing You Have Morale Problems? (HBR)

Originally posted 4.23.2009

President Barack Obama visited CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia the other day to speak to CIA employees. In doing so, the President was doing what every senior leader needs to do in times of crisis: be seen and be heard.

People of good intention from all sides of the political spectrum have different views of the CIA, but inside the agency, employees have been feeling beleaguered and demoralized.

Therefore, in some ways, what has occurred at “The Company” is akin to what is occurring in many companies. It fell to the President, as it falls to all senior leaders, to rally the troops. While debate will continue to swirl around the CIA, what the President said and did at Langley is worthy of study for leaders seeking insight to communicating in tough times.

Come to them. When Director Leon Panetta introduced the President, he noted the employees’ enthusiastic response, “This is a very loud welcome [laughter] to a group that is supposed to be silent warriors.” Employees love it when top officials visit their location. It sends a powerful signal when the leader comes to your workplace. It demonstrates that what you do matters.

Affirm their worth. “You are on the front lines against unconventional challenges,” said the President as he itemized the work the CIA does to “support our troops,” “disrupt terrorist’s plots,” and help “destroy terrorists’ networks.” Therefore, the President said, “You should be proud of what you do.” Employees never tire of hearing their good work praised by people at the top, and need to hear that the work they do is consequential.

Stand with them. Knowing that many in the CIA are feeling under siege for the release of information on the torture memos, the President accepted responsibility for their release. But he made it clear that he would “protect your identities and your security” adding that he “will be as vigorous as protecting you as you are vigorous in protecting the American people.” Employees need to know that executives have their back because all too often when things get hot it is employees who suffer the heat first.

Do not pull punches. The President was explicit in expecting CIA to uphold the values of the U.S. Constitution. By contrast, “Al Queda’s not constrained by a constitution.” He noted that it may seem as if the U.S. is “operating with one hand behind our back.” No matter that CIA has “the harder job.” The President emphasized, “we will defeat our enemies because we’re on the better side of history.” Leaders need to have explicit standards, values and behaviors. Such things reinforce the culture and leaders need to endorse them.

Tough jobs in tough times demand solidarity from top to bottom. Leaders need to iterate what they feel and why they feel it.

Experienced leaders know that speeches may make headlines, but employees do the work. It will be up to the President through his appointed CIA director Leon Panetta to ensure that the CIA adheres to Administration aims when it comes to intelligence gathering. Showing respect for its work is a good first step; what happens next will matter to history.

Leaders can never assume that employees do not want to see and hear them, especially in tough times. What Obama did at Langley, senior leaders need to do in their own shops. Make the personal visit. Shake some hands. Give a pep talk. Take questions. Listen to what people are saying. And when possible, promise a return visit. When times are tough, the leader’s presence is an affirmation that what employees do matters.

First posted on HBR.org on 4/23/2009

VIDEO: 3 Questions to Create Powerful Engagement

Engagement is employees’ commitment toward their work. It is rooted in purpose.

You can begin to establish engagement by asking employees three simple questions.

In this video, I reveal that answers to these questions knit communication and follow-through together in ways that demonstrate that a leader is interested enough to listen, concerned enough to act and willing enough to offer assistance.

First posted on SmartBrief on 12/02/2011

Five Ways to Sharpen Your Communication Skills (HBR)

We need people who can communicate!

Raise your hand if you have heard this line at least a thousand times. In fact, you’ve likely heard it so much that it’s become meaningless. Communication, as I teach and coach, is the glue that holds an organization together. It is the means by which we exchange ideas, learn from each others, and perhaps most importantly, connect to each other.

“Communication and interpersonal skills remain at the top of the list of what matters most to recruiters.” That’s according to the Harris Interactive/Wall Street Journal business school survey published in September 2007.

So why do we ignore the relevance of communication until it becomes an issue? One reason may be because we don’t take the time to quantify what we mean by it.

That’s why I found Adam Bryant’s New York Times interview with Richard Anderson, CEO of Delta Airlines, refreshing. In the interview Anderson proceeded to define his expectations for effective communication.

1. Know the fundamentals. “People really have to be able to handle the written and spoken word,” said Anderson. Express yourself well verbally, as well as on paper or through email. Failure to communicate coherently leaves people unsure of what is expected of them.

2. Think clearly about what you will say. Anderson is not a fan of PowerPoint. Bullet points without a “subject, a verb and an object” do not convey “complete thoughts.” With respect to Mr. Anderson, PowerPoint itself is not the problem; executives who use it as a short-hand for thinking are. Too many managers use it to sketch out thoughts rather than flesh them out.

3. Prepare for meetings. Documents for meetings should be distributed in advance and made clear and concise. Anderson also wants meetings to “start on time.” That’s all part of the preparation process. So often meetings go off track before they begin because managers and employees do not take the time to think about what they will say before they say it.

4. Engage in discussion. “I want the debate,” says Anderson. “I want to hear everybody’s perspective, so you want to try to ask more questions than make statements.” All too often, either due to the press of time or perhaps a feeling of over-importance, executives do not make it clear that they want to hear alternate points of view. Such an approach leads to “groupthink” because no one speaks up.

5. Listen to others. Discussions are meaningless if no one is listening. Anderson does not like to see his managers checking their BlackBerrys in meetings. Doing so shows lack of “focus” and is akin to reading a newspaper during the meeting, says Anderson. As little as we may tend to oral and written skills, we spend even less time on listening. For that reason, too many managers end up ill informed and, in turn, ill prepared to deal with issues that subsequently morph into problems. Time spent listening might have headed off such disasters.

“Measure what you treasure” is a saying used by compensation professionals in reference to aligning rewards to corporate goals. The same philosophy can be applied to communication. If you value communication skills you will recruit, train and hire for it. Oral and verbal skills are a baseline; organizations also need to look at the broader context of how such skills are used to inform, persuade, coach and inspire. That requires years of practice and example. It is up to leaders to show the way by communicating clearly — but also teaching others to do the same.

First posted on HBR.org on 4.30.2009

VIDEO: Why Good Managers Spend Time Out of Their Offices

“The office is a dangerous place from which to view the world.”

That’s a quote from David Cornwell, the great spy novelist who wrote under the pseudonym John le Carré.

Such advice applies not only to spies but also managers. But too often, because of the pressures of time, managers spend too much time behind the desk and not enough time in the field. As a result, they lack the first-hand knowledge that managers need to operate effectively.

In this video, I present tips on what to do when an executive gets outside the office.

First posted on Smart Brief on 1.20.21012

In a Crisis, Avoid Labeling (HBR)

Politicians on the right and left are quick to label issues. For example, some may call federal assistance to businesses “nationalization.” Others may refer to the assistance as “stabilization.” Such labeling is part of the political discourse; it encourages like-minded followership. And therein lies the problem; you speak to partisans rather than to individuals.

Executives need to avoid such political games; they need to reach out to all stakeholders. When times are tough, no one person has all of the answers, but so often the collective intelligence of the organization can suggest alternate ways of thinking. The first step in soliciting new thinking is to stop the labeling game. Here are some suggestions:

Avoid generalizations. Short-term thinking leads us to believe that good ideas come from on high, and dumb ideas come from below. That, after all, is the basis of hierarchy. But when we have witnessed so much organizational failure, often emanating from poor decisions made in the C-suite, it is time to shake up the decision-tree. Encourage people to think for themselves when they approach issues and problems.

Skip the name-calling. Bosses are not idiots, nor are employees half-wits, but all too often we hear slurs from either side. And while it may sometimes make us feel good to let loose with such terms of “dis-endearment,” resist the temptation. Learn to look at colleagues as contributors rather than as two-dimensional cutouts.

Stop pejorative thinking. If a person comes up with an idea that the team has not tried, a common reaction is to say, “no way, no how.” The labeling of a new idea cuts off discussion before the idea can be debated. It may indeed be a dumb idea, but until it is discussed and debated, you will never know. Jumping immediately to “no” is a sign of desperation. It is short-hand thinking that feeds short-term actions that may do long-lasting harm. Ideas for new products as well as process improvement come often from doers rather than managers. At the same time, managers, too, have good ideas. Each needs to listen to the other.

Don’t objectify. President Lyndon Johnson, as noted in the classic text on negotiation Getting to Yes, routinely referred to the enemy as “he.” Although common in military usage, Johnson used the pronoun in reference to the North Vietnamese, the Viet Cong and the Chinese — as if they were a single entity without noting their differences. Same goes for managers who consider anyone who questions a decision as a “dissenter” and automatically on the “other side.” Objectification creates distance between speaker and listener, and thereby hinders negotiation and collaboration.

Of course not all labeling is wrong-headed. After all, brand identification is a form of visual short-hand. When people associate a positive experience with a brand, be it toothpaste or an automobile, they will buy it, tell friends about it, and buy it again. That “labeling” is beneficial.

But when labeling is used for exclusion, especially in terms of people and ideas, then it cuts the leader off from opening dialogue with people who may have good questions as well as some answers. Labeling also erodes organizational cohesion. It divides individuals into “us” and “them” camps. That is destructive and prevents people coming together for joint purpose.

And that may be the differentiator with companies in trouble — good people coming together to solve problems.

First posted on HBR.org 5.04.2009

VIDEO: Replacing a Missing Star — How to Deal with Losing a High-Performer

Sometimes if you scratch beneath the surface of a good team, you might find that team performance depends upon the efforts of one or two high achievers.

That may be OK for the short term, but what happens when one or two of those stars move on?

In this video, I offer suggestions on how to encourage the entire team to rise to the challenge.

First posted on Smart Brief on 2/23/2012

Watch Out for Stress in Your People (HBR)

The man took his job very seriously. He worked hard and rose to the top ranks of his company. When hard times hit, he doubled down his effort and was appointed interim CFO. But as the pressures outside of his company grew, they seemed to affect him personally. He continued to put in long hours. His mood grew more somber, he abandoned his sense of fun, and perhaps worst of all, he felt if he quit his CFO post it would look bad for his company. His boss who liked him and respected his work told him to take some time off. The next day his wife found him dead, hanging in the basement of their suburban home.

Unfortunately this story is true, a condensation of the fine reporting conducted by James Haggerty and Gary Fields of the Wall Street Journal about the death of David Kellermann, acting CFO of Freddie Mac. This tragedy becomes a footnote to the recession that has ravaged not only the careers, but the lives of so many talented employees.

What Kellermann endured is not so unusual on the surface; most senior leaders feel tremendous pressure to succeed, in good times but especially in bad times. The survivors learn to cope; some never do, especially those who have experienced a high degree of success throughout their lives and may lack the resilience skills honed by previous setbacks.

So it falls to management to keep a watchful eye on its employees. No manager should play therapist, but he or she can be trained to watch for the warning signs of extreme stress and depression. The manager can urge the individual to seek help. I’m an executive coach (not a licensed clinician), but here are three stress factors that affect high-achievers and bear watching:

Doing more by working more. When your company is experiencing hardship, it is natural to want to do more to save it. But soon enough you hit the law of diminishing returns. When you log seven day weeks month after month, not only do you cheat yourself of rest and your family of your time, you rob yourself of the opportunity to re-energize, re-group, and re-think what you are doing. You get locked into a trap of diminishing returns.

Losing sense of self. Work is hard. Right now, it’s probably harder than usual. But always we must try to keep it in perspective. If the work causes you to lose your personality, become withdrawn, and lose the sense of who you are, it is not worth it. Your performance suffers and so too do the people who work with you. You need to take a break.

Conflating job with corporate survival. All of us like to think we are important. That’s healthy. But when we think we’re indispensable, or worse, that our job affects the fate of the entire company, then we are crossing into a kind of twilight zone of unreal expectations. Even if you have a high-stakes job, you need to divorce what you do from who you are.

Many of us work long hours, internalize tension, and may feel that we are responsible for everyone else. But when these stress factors interfere with our work and personal lives, we owe it to ourselves to talk to others and consider seeking professional help. Seeking clinical help is not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of strength and profound self-awareness, something all leaders must exhibit.

What we can learn from the Kellermann tragedy is to be more vigilant. Thankfully, most people undertaking high stress jobs do not break down; some actually thrive under the pressure. But no one can handle everything, all the time. Managers need to be proactive, and in times of severe stress, know when to pull people off the line — at least until the stressed individual can seek professional help and find healthy ways to cope with the pressure.

For more on depression, its symptoms and its treatments, visit the National Institute of Mental Health. Additional information on as well as local resources for depression treatment can be found by visiting the National Network of Depression Centers.

First posted on HBR.org 5/07/2009

VIDEO: Leadership Brand Is More than a Buzzword

It does matter what people think of your leadership.

Reputation is essential to getting things done. Because leaders accomplish little by themselves, they need to bring together others for common purpose. How others perceive a leader is important to encouraging a following.

In this video, I offer ideas on how to develop your leadership brand in ways that resonate with your authority and authenticity.

First posted on Smart Brief on 2/17/2102

Four Ways Leaders Can Stay On Top of the Issues (HBR)

“So, if you’re sitting up in your office somewhere, how did people think you or others would know? When we didn’t know.”

That’s former MLB Commissioner Bud Selig speaking at a conference on the state of professional sports hosted by the Wall Street Journal explaining why he and major league baseball owners were ignorant about steroids that altered the competitive balance of the game for more than a decade. While Mr. Selig and others may have been wrong about performance enhancement drugs, he is dead right about one thing: if you stay in your office, you won’t know anything!

Leaders owe it to their organizations to be on top of issues. They do this by being present and available to their people wherever and whenever they are needed. That begins by leaders mastering the issues not just through briefing books but by getting out into the field and talking to people. Here are four ways to do it.

Study up. Know the issues facing your company. In most instances this is pretty easy for most senior leaders because they are huddled in meetings or drowned in briefing books. Their challenge then becomes one of sifting through the tsunami of information and putting it into an intelligible construct that will enable them to frame issues, ask questions, and make decisions.

Listen up. Once you know the background, clarity will come from visiting with key stakeholders, including customers and employees. Customers will tell you in an instant how well, even better how poorly, your product or service is performing for them. Employees, too, when granted permission will talk about what they see and hear. And if they feel safe they may even venture a few suggestions.

Inspect up. Here’s a technique that Franklin Roosevelt used. As an assistant secretary of the Navy in the Wilson administration, he personally inspected ships and ship building facilities. He loved it. After he was crippled by polio, he was not physically able to make the inspections. So, as governor of New York and later president, he asked wife Eleanor to do so. FDR pushed her, as he had himself, to go past the pro forma handshaking to look behind the façade. For Eleanor, it meant visiting factories, inspecting kitchens, and checking living quarters of workers. For managers, it may mean visiting factory floors, talking to customers, and personally using products.

Follow up. There is no use doing your homework if you will not hold people accountable. Winston Churchill, as Prime Minister, was a master at following up on details, getting answers from aides, civil servants and generals to questions he had asked them previously. It is important to act on that information to make certain people follow through on initiatives to which they have committed. Hold yourself and the team accountable for results.

“A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world,” wrote novelist John Le Carre. Le Carre (pen name of David Cornwell) was referring to international espionage, but his comment is equally valid for any senior leader. It is important to make the effort to know your people and their issues so that you are aware of what is going on. You cannot know everything, but a leader must know much about important things all of the time.

First posted on HBR.org 5.11.2009