Is your team political and cautious or authentic and courageous?

Most teams avoid the tough, uncomfortable conversations. In most cases, team members tend to delay or avoid giving honest and direct feedback and coaching to each other. People especially avoid giving negative criticisms and feedback – even if these are necessary and would make a difference.

Even when team members do attempt to say what’s really on their minds, their lack of courage often leads to things being said in such a diplomatic and sugarcoated way that the impact of the message is lost in its tepid delivery.

While at times diplomacy works and it may allow team members to address some problems efficiently, many critical issues demand an energy, passion and direction that cannot be gained from adherence to cautious, “be careful” behaviors.

For example, when a team needs to make tough decisions around budgets, resources, headcounts and other areas that require prioritization and tradeoffs or are considered power and status currency, people have to have dialogue in an open, honest, courageous and effective way, with no compromise or taking the safe way out.

Despite all of the theories explaining the complexities of team effectiveness, from my experience, 95% of the challenges, problems, and dysfunctions existing within teams are due to team members simply being afraid to ‘rock the boat’ or resigned about their abilities to make a difference.

I am sure many leaders would deny it’s the lack of willingness to speak up that leads to conflicts, lack of alignment and collaboration, and status quo.  They would rather blame others for their unfavorable circumstances and for their lack of open, honest, authentic, courageous and effective conversations.

Even at the highest levels, leaders fear giving straight feedback and rocking the boat for fear of failing or being viewed as incompetent, trouble makers or as selfish. I have also seen leaders unwilling to make themselves vulnerable out of a fear of being viewed as soft, weak, or ineffective. Alternatively, they are so convinced nothing will come of any heroic efforts that they succumb to the pervasive mindset of, ‘Why stick my neck out?’ and it’s political adaptive maneuver, ‘Pick your battles’.

The consequences of the politics and caution are grave. Here are some examples which I am sure you can recognize:

  1. Team members make tentative and contingent commitments by saying yes and agreeing to decisions they are not fully aligned with. They then go off and do their own version of the commitment made, blame circumstances when they fail to live up to their part of the commitment or say “I was never fully on board with this.”
  2. Team members tolerate confusion and misunderstanding in discussions and then use those as justifications when things don’t get done.
  3. People see that things are going to breakdown, and they don’t say anything about it.
  4. People have negative points of view or criticism about their colleagues, or even their boss, which undermine team trust, but they don’t confront them.
  5. In meetings, team members know that there is an elephant in the room and something is not being said, but they don’t want to be the one to bring it up.
  6. ‘Yes’ does not mean ‘yes’, ‘no’ does not mean ‘no’ and a ‘promise’ is not a ‘promise’. Instead, people sit in the meeting, choosing what they say or don’t say based on being politically correct or covering their asses. Everyone knows there is no real alignment or agreement, but no one will say it.
  7. Rather than confront a colleague directly with their concerns, team members engage in undermining backchannel conversations about their fellow team members or their departments.
  8. Team members spend a great deal of energy looking over their shoulders, being suspicious about others’ agendas, and overall protecting themselves from being screwed over or surprised by others.

But in order for any meaningful dialogue to take place and key objectives to be met, team members need first be honest with themselves about their authentic feelings and thoughts and then muster up the courage to communicate them to the team at large. This includes saying those things that leave one afraid of being blacklisted and unpopular and pissing other people off, including the boss.

And just how does one get the courage it takes for this authentic conversation to take place? It is not, as popular opinion would have it, by having no fear, but the exact opposite.

Courage lies in embracing the fear, acknowledging it and speaking up anyway. In fact, the prerequisite for courage is fear.

If you’re not afraid to speak, you don’t need the courage to do so.


The key steps for transforming your organization

At any given time I am typically involved in several transformational initiatives around the world. Some are local in nature, and others are global. Some are very complex and others more straightforward.

The goals and context of each transformational initiative can also be different:

  • Some are going through major organizational restructuring and they want their people to accept and own these changes quickly.
  • Some want to grow their market share from #5 to #4, or even to #1.
  • Others feel their cultural values, spirit and pride have deteriorated and they want to ignite and energize their workforce again.

The dictionary defines transformation as:  A thorough or dramatic change in form or appearance.

All successful transformational initiatives take the organization or team from one state to another.

For example:

From a culture of cynicism, resignation and discouragement – to a culture of enthusiasm, passion, high energy, and pride.

From teams working in siloes, hiding and looking out for themselves – to a dynamic of genuine cross-function alignment, collaboration, trust and sense of “we are in this together”.

From people blaming others when there are issues and behaving like victims who can’t make a difference – to a state in which everyone feels empowered to think and behave as courageous owners who take risks and do the right thing.

So, what are the key principles and steps that must be in place for any transformation to succeed?

Step one – Own the need for change.

Every change has to start at the top!

So, if you want to succeed make sure that your leaders own the need for change. This includes the leaders acknowledging what has worked and what hasn’t worked about the organization – and also what has worked and what hasn’t worked about the leaders themselves.

Step two – Build your leadership team as a high performance team that can lead a bold transformation.

Leading a transformation effort is not an easy mission.  In fact, things often get worse before they get better.  So, the top team has to be ready to climb this mountain. The senior leaders have to be prepared to stay the course.

Step three – Create a bold strategy that is BOTH truly transformational, AND that every leadership team member owns with 100% commitment and accountability.

You need a bold strategy for the transformation effort in order to be clear on where you are going and what success looks like. If you articulate a clear vision and strategy you will be able to engage others in your bold journey. However, if your leaders don’t fully own the strategy, they can’t expect others to do the same.

Step four – Get the middle managers to co-own and co-lead the transformation.

The middle managers are a critical link in the transformation chain – because they sit between the strategy and its execution.

If the managers are on-board they will go out of their way to break down silos and drive a new level of cross-functional collaboration. But, if they are not… they’ll play along and say all the right things. But they’ll find subtle ways to undermine the effort…AND…they’ll be the first to blame others and say, “we told you so…”

Step five – Get the employees on-board.

When you have the leadership team and managers genuinely on-board you will start seeing a tipping point.

Getting the employees on-board is much easier, because all the employees want is to do a great job and be part of something great. They don’t want to be stuck in silos or be pawns in political games that are often imposed by their managers and leaders.

Step six – Align your key stakeholders and customers with your transformation.

When the entire team is on the same page, you will want to start aligning your interactions, partnerships, collaborations and expectations with your stakeholders and customers.

Step seven – Execute and stay the course.

Now that you have all the pieces in place it is all about execution, staying the course, addressing obstacles and pursuing opportunities – with discipline – consistent with your new future.

If you execute step seven well and stay the course, you will create a new state. As the dictionary defined it: A thorough or dramatic change in form or appearance.

And, this new state will begin to have a life of its own, or what I call: Irreversible Momentum.

Buckle up!

Is your team a high performance team?

What is a high performance team?

A lot has been written about this topic. I would like to keep it simple.

For me a high performance team is:

  • A team that is truly cohesive, aligned and trusting
  • Everyone has each other’s back and people feel they are “in this together”
  • Team members address and discuss any topic, no matter how difficult – in an open, honest, authentic, courageous and effective way
  • People give feedback, coaching and hold each other to account
  • Everyone is comfortable taking a stand and being explicit about what they are committing to
  • And lastly – there is no tolerance for gossip, blame and negative conversations

So, how do you develop a High Performance team?

Here is a simple and powerful four-step approach for starting the process:

Step One – Choose high performance:

First, you have to make sure your team members genuinely choose to become a high performance team. Becoming a powerful team is no small mission. It requires a huge commitment. You can’t assume that people want it enough that they will do whatever it takes. Also, if you are the leader or manager of a team, you can’t mandate it.

Once you have determined that your team members are genuinely on-board and committed to doing whatever it takes to go the whole way you can begin the forming work.

Step Two – Take stock of your starting point:

In order to reach the next level you have to first take an honest look at your starting point; at your current reality – especially the areas where you and your team members have the biggest high-performance gaps.

It’s not enough to just be honest about the gaps. You have to own them too.

Team members that keep blaming others or circumstances for their lack of team effectiveness will not be able to become a high performance team. Why? Because one of the key characteristics of a high performance team is its members’ ability to always take responsibility.

By owning, I do not mean that you team members have to beat themselves up or feel guilty, you have to be able to see your circumstances at least from the standpoint that you and your team members had something to do with your lack of high performance.

It would be much more powerful if your team members can look beyond and take full responsibility for their misbehaviors. For example: instances where people didn’t communicate or collaborate; they looked out for their own agendas; or they sold out and didn’t act with courage.

Step Three – Create a bold strategy for becoming a high performance team:

A team can only become championship team if its members are aiming for a championship, and they have to rise to the occasion in order to win it.

So, in order to become a high performance team, your team has to create a bold vision and strategy; one that would require you to interact and operate at a significantly higher level than you ever have.

Obviously, your vision has to be desirable. But, it also has to represent a stretch end-result that, even though your team members don’t yet fully know how to achieve it, you all believe it is achievable.

If you do a good job in this step, everyone should feel excited about the aspirational future they created.

Step Four – Align on ground rules for working as a high performance team:

Once the external game is set up you should spend some time on your team’s internal game. You and your team should align on simple and powerful ground rules for how you will work together as a high performance team.

You should think about things like:

  • Addressing issues directly and quickly and not letting issues fester
  • Speaking with one voice
  • Recognizing each other’s efforts and achievements

Team principles and ground rules are a great way to cement commitment and begin to turn commitment into action. Keeping the ground rules simple, clear and plain language – not PPT language – will make them more powerful.

In this step you should also discuss anything else your team members may need in order to feel equipped to stay the course, no matter what, and deal with the inevitable ups and downs of your future journey.


In conclusion

I have helped teams reach high performance many times, and to be honest, taking this game on is demanding and challenging. However, it is also very energizing and rewarding. In fact, through this process, I have seen many teams generate amazing spirit that led to extraordinary results.


Are you coachable?

When it comes to coaching, it’s important to remember:

  • Not everyone wants to be coached
  • Not everyone needs to be coached
  • Many have no control over who they coach and who coaches them

As a people manager, there is often an expectation that you coach and mentor members of your team. However, being someone’s boss always doesn’t provide a sufficient foundation for successful coaching. There are other factors at play that more determine the outcome. So setting yourself up for success can make the difference between a positive outcome and failure.

As a coach with over 30 years of experience, I have many success stories, but I also have had some notable challenges.  Here’s an account of one such challenge and some practical tips for you to apply ahead of your future coaching assignments.

As part of a large change initiative I was coaching a senior executive in a global service organization and it was not going well because the executive was not behaving in a coachable way.

Even though he said he needed and wanted coaching he wasn’t behaving accordingly. He hired me and paid good money for me to coach and guide him. But, he just wasn’t listening openly, considering and examining what I was proposing.

Every time I suggested that something was not working with the way he was leading or managing he immediately justified himself. Pretty much every time he didn’t like or agree with what I was saying he became defensive and argumentative. In fact, our conversations often ended by him saying: “well that’s just YOUR opinion!”

Even though he insisted that he trusted me and he kept asking me to continue, it was quite evident that he had a very hard time surrendering to my coaching and he did not empower me as his coach.

The challenges were even greater!

This executive was the leader of a significant change initiative that required everyone to think and approach things differently. He himself had to change his leadership style in some fundamental ways in order for the change effort to work. However, because he was un-coachable he also wasn’t willing to reinvent himself and that was hurting his organization and his own brand.

In addition, his lack of being open to coaching was undermining his own ability to mentor, coach and develop others. And, because he wasn’t willing to expose himself to new ideas, gaps and ways of doing things he couldn’t enroll and demand of his people to do the same.

The worst was that because he had a reputation of being highly opinionated, self-righteous and not open to criticism and feedback people around him avoided pushing back, giving him feedback, bringing bad news and telling him how they really felt. You can imagine the inauthentic, ineffective and compromised environment that that dynamic created.

How many times have you tried to coach someone and found him or her to be un-coachable?

What did you do in that situation? Did you stop the coaching? Or did you simply ignore all the signs, continued to plow along and settled for your coaching not making a difference?

My recommendation is: Never compromise! Only coach people who are coachable.

If you sell out on this principle, your coaching attempts will fail, you won’t make a difference, the effort will frustrate you and drain your energy and your reputation may be hurt because people may think “you failed to get the job done.”

So, how do you determine if someone is ready for coaching?

Here is a simple checklist to guide you to coaching success:

1 – Do they have a big enough challenge, opportunity or commitment, for which they need coaching?

Make sure they have a reason for needing coaching. Don’t coach someone who doesn’t have something important enough at stake 

2 – Do they genuinely want coaching?

Never coach someone who just wants to “check it out,” or someone who says, “my boss told me to get coaching.” Make sure the person you are coaching genuinely owns their need and desire to be coached.

3 – Do they choose you as their coach?

It’s ok if they want coaching but for whatever reasons they prefer someone else to coach them.

4 – Do you choose them as someone to coach?

The fact that they want you as a coach doesn’t guarantee that you want to take them on.

5 – Are the ground rules clear?

Create clear ground rules around the logistics of the coaching engagement, as well as the behavioral aspects.

In my example the senior executive clearly needed coaching. However, in spite of saying that they wanted coaching and wanted me as their coach, they didn’t act that way.   Just by being honest about these two principles I could clearly see that we simply didn’t have the condition to succeed.

I ended up firing the executive from our coaching engagement. In doing so I used the principles of the checklist to convey, without any frustration or emotion, why I no longer was willing to coach him. That move probably made a bigger difference than all my attempts to coach him combined.

So that you don’t have to learn the hard way, take advantage of my experience.

Before you begin coaching a new client, employee or peer, carefully work through the checklist above.  This will help ensure that you fully understand the person you are considering coaching and can determine whether they are coachable from the outset.


Are you dreaming big enough?

Most teams approach strategy development by looking in their rear-view mirror.

Starting from their present reality, they review their past successes and shortfalls. They analyze their capabilities and means. And, based on that analysis they project their expectations into the future – typically coming up with ‘best case’, ‘worst case’, and ‘most likely case’ scenarios.

Sometimes teams benchmark other companies in order to understand industry standards so that they know how high to aim. Benchmarking is often a limiting exercise, as it is merely another way to shape your aspirations based on the past – this time another company’s past.

There is nothing wrong with this approach if your business is mature, predictable or you are operating in a status quo pace. However, if you want to take your business to a new level and achieve much bolder results – this approach will not suffice.

When Kennedy declared in May 1961 that the USA would put a man on the moon and bring him back safely by the end of the decade, many people around him were very skeptical because most of the crucial technologies and organizational structures necessary to achieve his bold vision and strategy did not exist.

However, Kennedy’s future-based vision and strategy brought about a new stream of events and priorities, that ultimately enabled the USA to fulfill his bold vision and strategy.

The way Kennedy approached strategy is much more powerful and compelling than the way most companies and teams approach strategy. He went straight to describing the future state he was committing to in a very simple, clear and powerful way: ‘Man on the moon and back safely by the end of the decade’.

He did not look to the past to determine if his vision was feasible. In fact, after consulting with Vice President Johnson, NASA Administrator James Webb, and other officials, he concluded that landing an American on the Moon would be a very challenging technological feat.

But Kennedy didn’t approach his declaration casually. He didn’t put it out there and then stand aside to see if it would work. Instead, he marshaled his resources to pursue his dream, fulfill it and prove his vision right!

And as we all know, the Man on the Moon story had a happy ending, as Kennedy’s goal was achieved on July 20, 1969 when Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong stepped off the Luna Module’s ladder and onto the Moon’s surface.

Create your vision

You can use the same approach as Kennedy used to create your own team or personal vision.

Start the vision development by placing yourself in a future time. Then, from that place, articulate the outcomes and future state that you are committed to. Then think your way back from that future state to the present, in order to create your milestones and execution plan.

So often teams try to derive realistic objectives by running numbers and trying to foresee all the circumstances that could affect their outcome. I strongly advise against that!

Make sure your strategy development exercise is not merely an accounting exercise, informed by a bit of leadership. In fact, do it the opposite way. Make sure your exercise is a leadership exercise, informed by a bit of accounting.

The accounting part helps you bring some realism, feasibility, confidence and believability to your bold future vision. When Kennedy promised the Moon, even though the key technologies did not exist, he was encouraged by the fact that the USA was leading the global space exploration race.

However, if your goal is predicated too much on accounting assumptions, this will diminish your ambition to the mere predicable. And, if your goal becomes too realistic and doable, it will lose the exciting thrill and adventurous feeling associated with taking on something that has never been done before.

In addition, if your vision is conditional upon certain predictions and assumptions, the minute these circumstances evolve and these assumptions change the entire vision could become invalid.

I have had the chance to help teams and individuals generate bold strategies for many years. I have seen a great number of them achieve extraordinary results beyond their expectations this way.

People always emerged from this exercise extremely energized, with high levels of ownership and commitment every time.

You should try it within your own team and in your own life!