Is your team evolving by default or are you shaping it by design?

I was coaching the senior members of a new leadership team of a mid-size technology company on developing themselves a strong leadership team. We were in a collective discussion about “What is your role as a leadership team?” and people were expressing their views. At some point in the conversation, I shared some of my own thoughts and recommendations about what the role of a strong leadership team could be.

I included things like:

Ensure that the strategic commitments and objectives of your organization are alive and meeting their results

Ensure that your people are in great shape from a professional, productivity, development and motivation standpoint” and

Ensure that you, yourselves are operating and being viewed as a highly effective leadership team.”

One of the team members responded by saying: “But, aren’t all of these role definitions basic expectations of any leadership team, so these go without saying?

He was right. There are some fundamental commitments and accountabilities that any leadership team should naturally be in charge of.

The problem, however, is that in so many cases – perhaps in most cases – there is a significant gap between expectations and ‘shoulds’, and the reality. Simply said, most leadership teams don’t adhere to these basic expectations.

For example:
In so many organizations when the strategic objectives are being paid lip service to, behind expectations or not met, the leadership members avoid calling it out or they simply engage in blame and excuse conversations as much as anyone else.

So many times when the organization goes through significant changes, like restructuring or downsizing and people are startled and traumatized by these events, the leadership team members are too busy looking out for themselves and the people that are close to them, rather than ensuring that all their people are in great shape.

And, in many organizations, the leadership team is not considered a ‘highly effective leadership team’, in fact in most places, people point to the leadership team as the team with most dysfunctionality.

So much for expectations!

Why is this the case?

Because most leadership teams evolve by default.

Most leaders approach evolving their team, consistent with what the management books say. They bring their team members together once or twice a year to engage in a ‘team building exercise’.  As many of these exercises are really good, the leaders leave them feeling energized.

However, the fierce reality and circumstances set in very quickly and in most cases the team building event at best remains as a remote memory in the rearview mirror.

Most leaders relate to building their team as an event rather than a process that requires as much ongoing focus, commitment, priority and investment of time, energy and funds, as any other mission-critical business process. Most leaders bring their people together frequently to react to tactical challenges. However, they relate to spending strategic and development time with their team as a ‘nice to have’ and ‘luxury’ to undertake if and when time, resources and circumstances are favorable. But, not as a necessity for maintaining and growing the entire competitive culture, performance and forward view of their organization.

If you want to build a powerful team you can’t bet your success on expectations and hope. You have to shape and build your team by design.

This means team members need to come together and agree on the exact type of team they want to be. There isn’t such a thing as “it goes without saying”. They have to articulate their role explicitly. Furthermore, their role must reflect the reality they are committing to deliver and cause. And, yes, they need to promise it.

Articulating your role as a leadership team through the language of “Ensuring” is very powerful. As a team, simply ask yourself “What future are we promising to ensure together?”, it orientates you around results not activities and it shapes a relationship of ownership with these results.

If you are promising to ensure a set of outcomes, that means:

  • You are accountable for these outcomes
  • You give up the right to have excuses, and
  • You are all in this together to bring about the outcomes you promised.

When it comes to powerful teams, you can’t beat that!

It’s always the time for straight talk!

I was coaching two senior executives in improving their trust, collaboration and communication. They were the heads of two businesses that had to work closely together. In fact, the success of the entire company depended on it.

They were both seasoned, effective and knowledgeable executives who commanded large organizations and achieved great results. Both were highly respected within their respective teams as well as among their peers.

However, they had very different personalities and styles, and they had an acrimonious relationship for a long time.

Even though their team members had to work closely together, the two executives went out of their way to minimize their interactions and limit them to mission-critical activities. Many times they dealt with issues, conflicts and opportunities via email rather than walking down the hall to each other’s office to talk.

While the business continued to push forward, the two executives continued to avoid dealing with their personal conflicts, lack of trust and overall contentious relationship, even though it negatively affected the people under them, as well as the overall effectiveness of their company.

When I talked with each of them alone, they always had blunt criticism and negative comments about each other, as well as an ear-full of stories and examples to justify and back-up their sentiments. But, when the three of us got into a room together, their accusations always seemed watered down and they were no longer communicating in a straightforward, bold and honest way.

In addition, every time one of them criticized the other in front of me, I would ask them, “Have you told your colleague how you feel and what you want/need?” and if the answer was “No!” (as it often was) I coached them to go do so.

On several occasions when one of them would report: “We had a blunt conversation and I told my partner exactly how I feel and what I want,” the other would contradict the story and say: “We talked, but we didn’t discuss anything new.” It was as if they were living on different planets… definitely living in different conversations.

When I have challenged leaders for not communicating directly, openly or authentically sometime they would fess up and acknowledge: “I know! I chickened out at the last minute…” But, many times they attribute their lack of following through to the circumstances: “We didn’t get to it…”, “We didn’t have time…”, “It wasn’t the appropriate time…”.

I see this type of dynamic happening in organizations all the time. People can engage in straight talk with me, but then when they talk to the person with whom they have a problem or need to have the blunt and direct conversation, they sell out and water the communication down.

Does that ever happen to you?  Why does this happen?

From my experience, this happens due to one of the following reasons:

  • People are not clear about what they want to say. When people ‘beat around the bush’, stumble on words, or when they are ‘lost for words’ it is often simply because they don’t know what they want to say. Many times, people enter conversations feeling confident about what they want to say, but then during the conversation, they become overwhelmed or simply realize their thoughts are still half-baked and unclear. Some can power through it and use the chaotic space of the conversation to form their thoughts. However, many don’t feel comfortable doing this.Many times people are unclear about what they want to say because they haven’t taken a stand. It’s not that they are confused. It’s that they haven’t made a choice about where they stand. The minute you become clear about what you believe and want, you always find an appropriate and effective way to say it.
  • People are not willing to own what they have to say. Sometimes, expressing what you feel and/or what you want could be uncomfortable for a variety of reasons. Perhaps, you don’t want to hurt someone else’s feelings or you are afraid that if you say something tough they may retaliate with something that will hurt your feelings too. Perhaps you feel guilty for having such strong criticism or emotions about another, or you are simply trying to avoid conflict. When people are not willing to own how they feel, their feedback or what they need, they tend to not speak up or water down their communications.
  • People lack the courage to express what they want to say. At some basic level, communication always boils down to personal courage. First, having the courage to be honest with yourself about what you feel and want. Then, having the courage to express what you feel and want to others without filters. Also, having the courage to be open and vulnerable, including listening openly with your ears and heart to what someone else is saying and receiving their feedback.

So, next time you find yourself stuck or lost in a conversation ask yourself: “Am I really clear about what I am trying to say?” or “Am I avoiding owning what I have to say?” This will help you move forward.

Promise results or don’t promise at all!

I was coaching the marketing department of a global technology company in coming up with its strategic plan. They had identified their key strategic areas and were working on articulating the outcomes they wanted to achieve in each area. However, in several of the areas, instead of coming up with clear end results, they identified activities.

For example, instead of promising to grow the number of customers and potential customers who are signed up, and actively contributing to their user-group community to a specific number, they promised to increase the number of events in which they promoted the community. Instead of promising to increase the number of high-end industry events they are invited to speak at to a specific number, they promised to increase the number of training classes they would offer to train people to speak. And, instead of promising to be recognized by the key relevant CEOs as one of the top thought-leaders in their field, they promised to drive a vast list of PR and social media activities including the number of followers on Twitter and LinkedIn, the number of press and analyst briefings and more.

Whilst all these activities are important as part of the means to get to their desired end, they are just that – the means, not the end itself.

This mindset and approach of focusing on the activities that would achieve the results, rather than on the results themselves is very common in organizations. The explanation I often get to this is something to the effect of “We can’t control the results. We can only control our activities…

The problem with the activity-based approach is that it creates a lot of busyness, but after a while, people tend to lose track of what all the busyness is for in the first place. In fact, after a while, people can’t tell the difference between activities and results.

In addition, the focus on the means (activities) versus the end (results) hinders the ability of the team to assess the effectiveness of the activities and if they are in fact achieving the results, and make any necessary changes. Most organizations are good at adding activities, but they are not good at stopping them.

Lastly, the activity-based approach undermines the team’s culture of accountability. Real accountability is always for clear results. It promotes a mindset of overcoming any obstacles. The activity-based approach tolerates and nurtures a culture of circumstance limitations, self-protection and excuses.

At first, I thought that the activities-based approach is more common when outlining a strategy for more subjective business areas like “brand awareness”, “team culture” and “customer satisfaction”. However, my experience has shown me that it is often the same when dealing with the most objective areas such as: “revenues”, “profitability” and “market share”.

In the world of strategy, there seem to be two schools of thought:

Promise your desired results and then put the activities in place to fulfill them.”

Promise the activities that you assume and hope will fulfill your desired results.”

Unfortunately, the second approach seems to be much more prevalent, most of the time in most organizations.

Why is this the case?

My favorite explanation is: It is much easier and safer to promise activities than results. Less risk and responsibility. Less need to challenge the status quo, think outside the box and come up with new ways to do things. And, you are off the hook for the most important piece – the actual outcome!

Another popular excuse that people give for focusing on activities and not results is: “You can’t measure areas such as “brand recognition”, “team culture” and “customer satisfaction”.

But, that is not true! You can measure anything that is important for you. You just need to understand that there are no right or wrong, perfect, and/or factual measures. When it comes to measures you need to choose something that is meaningful to you and then take ownership of it.

In my work with organizations, especially when creating bold future-based strategies teams often create new metrics for new areas they want to take on. It is actually quite refreshing to think differently about new areas, rather than trying to force old metrics on them.

To conclude, in today’s world where opportunities are abundant, resources are scarce, competition is fierce and everyone is looking for ways to scale and do more with less, you can’t afford to waste time and cycles on activities that may or may not deliver the results you want.

Your job as a leader is not to track and report on activities. It is to cause results.

So, if you are not going to promise to cause specific results, don’t promise anything at all!

6 essential steps to help you reach your next level

A lot of my one-on-one coaching work is focused on helping leaders and professionals take themselves, their environment, performance, and results to the next level.

Whether you are a beginner or veteran at your game, there are clear, powerful and practical principles that if you understand and follow will help you reach your next desired level:

  1. Get clear on your desired end state. Project yourself into your future – at least a year or two from now – and envision that you have achieved your desired end state. Then, describe what your success looks like. Write it down as clear and vivid as you can.
  1. Visualize how you are behaving and performing in your new future state. When you visualize your future, take notice of how you are behaving and acting in that reality. Pay special attention to areas where you are doing things differently from today. Record a few practices and behaviors that you can start applying today in order to start driving and drawing your desired state to you.
  1. Start behaving consistently with your future state now. Start applying the practices and behaviors that you outlined in the previous step in your day-to-day routines. Every time you find yourself regressing to old habits, stop, acknowledge it and correct yourself back to behaving consistently with your list of future reality practices.
  1. Get people around you to support you. Just like a world class athlete wouldn’t dream of reaching the Olympics without a support structure, don’t try to go the next level alone. Don’t keep your commitment and project a secret. On the contrary, share it with the people you trust and ask them to be your committed ‘partners in crime’; to look out for you and support you to stay the course, especially when the going gets tough and old habits kick in. The fact that you include them in the first place, will cement your commitment and put you in a more determined mindset. Especially, when they actually start holding you to account, even if it may be uncomfortable, it will make a significant difference.
  1. Start recording accomplishments and wins that are consistent with your future state. At the end of each day or week reflect on what you have done and list all the specific areas where you have had wins and made progress consistent with your desired practices and future. Don’t be concerned with the size of the wins/progress or if others would recognize or appreciate them too. Any win that has meaning to you, no matter how small or big, counts and should be included in your list. In fact, the more accomplishments and wins you record (or “collect”) the better.
  1. Own and represent your progress. Always speak about your journey to the next level in a powerful, positive and empowering manner. People tend not to take responsibility for their growth and greatness. They tend to always keep one foot in the back door, just in case they’ll fail. They say things like: “Things are going well… BUT… I am not there yet!” They emphasize the “I am not there yet” more than “Things are going great.” Don’t do that! In fact, do the opposite. Acknowledge and share your progress with the people you trust. Keep reminding yourself that progress promotes and invites more progress and the opposite is also true.

These last two steps are often most underestimated, ignored and/or avoided. In order to drive and materialize your new future state most effectively, you need to have the right mindset and behavior. Listing and acknowledging accomplishments and wins will empower you to overcome any skepticism and/or doubts and replace them with genuine enthusiasm and confidence about what you are creating. The more you believe in the viability of your aspiration the more you are likely to stay the course to its fulfillment.

While these steps may not come naturally at first, they will over time.  Make them your new normal, for they are essential when it comes to taking your game to the next level.