Be careful what you wish for…

A wise man once told me that there are two things that make people upset – when they don’t get what they want and when they do get what they want.

Here are two real stories…

I was invited to help an organization that was struggling to survive. They had not made their revenue targets for more than two years. As a result, they had to undergo several cost-cutting initiatives, including letting people go. The lack of investment and reduced headcount meant that the remaining people had to do more work. As a result, people felt overworked, under pressure, anxious and stressed with a poor work/life balance. People were resigned and upset, and as you can imagine employee morale and confidence were low.

When I was introduced to the organization, I spent a few days interviewing people at all levels. Even though there was a general atmosphere of gloom and resignation everyone expressed a yearning for a better, more dynamic, active and exciting future of big change and growth.

Contrast that with the story of another smaller company that was doing well but wanted to grow and got to the next level. They were known in their market as a ‘Tier B player’ who can only sell and deliver smaller size projects. They wanted to change their predicament and reputation and become a ‘Tier A’ player with large-scale projects. They gathered their team, aligned everyone around a bold growth objective and started to pursue this new direction.

Through some bold courage and a lot of hard work, as well as a bit of luck too, they landed a huge project – the biggest in their history – which more than doubled their revenue overnight.

At first, everyone was elated. However, as the weeks and months passed and customer demands started to ramp up things started to change. They couldn’t hire new people, train them and make them productive fast enough.

Over the following months, things were deteriorating internally, as people couldn’t keep up with the workload. The company started to miss important deadlines, which made the customers increasingly frustrated. Some good people who couldn’t take it any longer even jumped ship.

When I came in to help this organization most people were also feeling overworked, under pressure, anxious and stressed with a poor work/life balance. They were wishing for a break, relief, sanity, and stability.

Bold and ambitious people always look for bold and ambitious opportunities, problems and challenges to solve. They wouldn’t have it any other way. If you are one of these people, ask yourself the question: If you had a 9-5 job in which everything worked in a completely smooth, effortless and eventless way, would you be excited about coming to work every day, or would you be bored out of your mind and go elsewhere?

While problems are problems and they are going to feel the same in your day-to-day experience – overwork, lack of life balance, pressure, anxiety, and stress – there is a significant difference between problems that stem from struggle or failure versus those that stem from growth and success.

But, for some reason, we tend to overlook this simple truth. We complain and suffer when things are broken/not working and we have to fix them. We also complain when things are so good that they require us to grow, expand and elevate our leadership and performance in order to keep it up.

So, if you are dealing with fixing an environment that isn’t working don’t think that when things get better you will have fewer problems. You will have different problems but not necessarily smaller ones.

On the other hand, if you are blessed with problems that are associated with growth and success count your blessing and don’t think that things are easier in a status quo environment.

The question is not ‘Will you have problems?’ and the challenge is not ‘How to avoid them’. The actual question is ‘What type of problems do you want to have?’

How well are you balancing the strategic and tactical; the new and the old?

I was attending a meeting with the leadership team of a successful technology company that was growing aggressively. The company was barely keeping up with the execution of the massive number of projects they were selling.

Everyone was working long hours and extremely hard every day. Leaders were traveling non-stop visiting customers and installation sites in order to motivate the troops and ensure everything was working as well as possible under the circumstances.

Needless to say, there were many challenges and issues that required the attention of the senior leaders, least of which, the fact that people were burning out and morale was suffering.

This meeting was the first time the entire LT spent quality time together in a long time. It was a much-needed opportunity for them to step out of the day-to-day churn in order to focus on, and address the business challenges and opportunities in a more proactive and strategic way.

The meeting was very productive and at the end of it the leaders faced a dilemma – they all acknowledged the importance of meeting on a regular and frequent basis, especially in such times of significant change. However, they were afraid they wouldn’t be able to meet that commitment because they were too busy.

In a different instance, I was working with a leadership team of regional sales division of a different large technological company. Like any sales teams, the pressure to make the weekly, monthly and quarterly sales number was grueling and constant. When the team had a bad week the pressure increased in order to catch up. When they had a good week the pressure continued to mount in order to keep the upward momentum. There was no release.

What made things worse was that the market, technology, and customers’ needs were changing quite rapidly. As a result, the sales team had to learn how to sell new products and services while at the same time continuing to sell the existing products and services. This was a challenging balancing act in an already stressful environment.

The leaders were challenged with how to lead the transition of the team into the new changes while at the same time keeping their people focused on the existing things. At a practical level, even though everyone understood how critical it was, people were finding it extremely challenging to find time to get away from their day-to-day selling in order to attend training classes and have strategic planning sessions.

Two different examples, among many that I come across, in which leaders need to manage for themselves and their people a balance between focusing on strategic topics, innovations and learning new things, for the good of pursuing a bolder and greater future, while at the same time continuing to dedicate time to the existing activities and initiatives that are still paying the bills. If you have experience in this, you know it is not an easy task.

So how do you do that effectively?

Here are a few practical tips:

  1. Start by envisioning your future state.
    Articulate in writing what success looks like once you have completed the transition/transformation of your team to the future state. Describe it as rich and detailed as possible.
  2. Identify clear processes, practices, and activities from the future state.
    Extract clear practices, behaviors, and activities from the future state. Highlight the ones you believe would make the biggest difference in compelling you toward your future. For example: if generating the future state requires the leadership team meeting in person every quarter or even every month, put it on your list.
  3. Commit to implementing practices from the future stated.
    You don’t need to commit to everything. Choose the ones you want to start practicing and commit to them. Actually declare your commitment explicitly and publically. In the case of the first team, the leadership actually committed to getting together for two-days every quarter. Every member promise to make that a priority and to attend, no matter what.
  4. Keep your commitment no matter what.
    When you commit to the new practices, you are likely to experience issues, challenges, and circumstances that will make you second guess your decision and want to not do what you promised. Be prepared for this. If you promised to meet every quarter, do not sell out, even if you are very busy. Just do what you said and trust your decision. If you have to “go through the motions” or “fake it till you make it” but do not stray from your commitment. I can’t stress this enough!
  5. Stay the course until the new practices become part of your DNA.
    Don’t let your emotions and self-criticism dictate your behavior. You must have faith in order to succeed. If you stay true to your commitment and keep it no matter what you will have a transformation in which the new practices will become easier and part of your new norm.

Generating change is a tough undertaking. It requires commitment, determination, patience and courage to stay the course.

You will go through a roller coaster of emotions. At times you will be sure it isn’t working or even worth it. At other times, you will feel elated about the fact that you stayed the course.

That is why, when it comes to this type of transformation it is so important that you do not pay too much attention to your emotional noise. Instead, stick to the simple principle of:

Say what you will do and do what you say!

Are you tolerating the blame game?

I was speaking with a senior executive in a global company who has a successful division. He described his team in the following way:

I have great, smart and committed people, but we don’t work as a powerful team. Trust is not high, we don’t address big issues well and I am especially frustrated by the fact that there is too much blame.”

I’ve known this executive for many years. He is a great leader, he has always had successful teams and he got to where he is by always achieving strong results. This time was no different. His business results were very strong, but he wanted to make them even stronger by getting rid of ‘the blame game’.

No matter how efficient or successful your team is from a business results standpoint, the blame game is always harmful and destructive. It undermines the team dynamic and creates a stressful work environment. When something goes wrong and there’s a witchhunt for whose fault it is, people react by hiding, covering their behinds, misrepresenting and being cautious. Nobody engages in a productive conversation to learn from past mistakes, which only perpetuates the situation and increases the likelihood the same problems will be repeated.

Unfortunately, most workplaces – even the most successful ones – are filled with people who spend more time and energy trying to avoid blame for something that did – or might – go wrong, than in anticipating and addressing the real problems.

In an environment in which people are too occupied by looking out for themselves and making sure everyone else, especially their superiors, knows that they are not at fault for issues, they also look and compete for credit and praise as evidence of being better than others.

This is because in most corporate environments people are threatened by others getting more credit and praise than them. The unspoken mindset, which shapes behavior is “The better you are, the worse I am”. People fear that others might get advanced and promoted before them. As a result, there is a subtle, but clear, orientation around “Look how great I am”. You can see it in the way people promote themselves and their agendas in meetings, presentations, and one-on-one conversations. It’s a constant wrestle, jocking for positions and status, which is “normal” in corporate environments, but nevertheless quite exhausting.

In this environment its harder for people to be happy with the accomplishment and success of others. Also, they are far less inclined to recognize and praise others for a job well done.

Contrast this with an environment of ownership and commitment, where people are orienting around open, honest conversations that lead to the source of the problems and allow for real resolution and improvement. In this environment, no one is interested in who’s at fault, but rather in getting to the source of problems. In this environment, people are eager to volunteer their insights, observations, and energy in addressing what was missing, what needs to be corrected and take personal ownership for resolving the issues.

In a healthy environment, people are also much more open to receiving feedback and constructive criticism, as the name game is “How can I get better all the time?” rather than a “gotcha” environment where they are consumed by the fear of being caught or penalized.

In a healthy team environment, where people feel they are working together towards a common aim there is no angst about credit and blame. In this environment, people are much more inclined to view others accomplishments as their own; they are far more generous in providing praise and recognition to colleagues.

This produces energy, inspiration, motivation, and a desire to do whatever it takes for the team to be successful.

So, if you want to create a powerful team environment without blame, focus on a few basic things:

  1. Make sure your team has a higher purpose and goal that everyone is clear about, aligned behind and excited about.
  2. Promote a recognition mindset and plan that rewards and promotes authentic, collaborative and courageous behavior.
  3. Put together an incentive plan that supports collective success, in addition to individual success.
  4. Explicitly declare your stance and commitment to building a strong team environment that is based on team alignment, collaboration, communication and success at every opportunity. Don’t tolerate anything else, and be willing to take developmental and disciplinary actions if people behave counter to your direction.
  5. Promote open, authentic and courageous communication around you. Role model this behavior yourself by sharing your thoughts and being open to honest feedback. Empower and encourage your team members to do the same.

Stop using the “S” word!

If I’d received a dollar every time I heard someone say “We should do X…” or “We should stop doing Y…” I would be very rich!

And, if I received a dollar every time the person saying “We should do X…” actually did what they said should be done, I would be broke!

Every organization is filled with good and committed people who sincerely want to be part of, and make a difference in the corporate mission. They also want to be known and feel appreciated and valued for their efforts and contributions.

Let’s be honest, in most organizations, it can be hard to step up, take responsibility and make things better, especially in large complex organizations. As a result, corporations are filled with well-meaning individuals who are scarred from having tried to rise above the morass of politics, silos and turf wars in order to initiate new ideas and ways of doing things – in the service of doing the right thing – only to crash and burn due to management or other functions. It’s no wonder people use phrases like “Career limiting move… to excuse their lack of initiative and innovation. When is the last time you gave someone or received the wise advice of: “Pick your battles!“.

The English language invented a word that supports all the good intentioned employees and managers who care, who see what is needed but are too resigned and/or too afraid to take the risk of putting their behinds on the line for driving change. The word is – SHOULD.

The word SHOULD is one of the biggest scams in the English language!

It is a magical word that makes you feel like you are really taking ownership and accountability while you are actually doing the opposite. The word ‘should‘ keeps you safe and away from taking ownership and responsibility for a real outcome. This word even makes others around you feel that you are taking ownership and accountability… And, when you add the word “we” to the sentence – “We should do X…” it adds the appearance of looking out for the greater good of the company, which further advances your good feeling and brand. However, it also increases the delusion and deception.

The bottom line: Every time you hear someone say “We should do X…” or “We should stop doing Y…” you can bet everything you got that nothing will get done or change!

I know this may sound harsh, but it is not. I believe that most people who say: “We should…” have the good intentions of highlighting the problems and making things better. However, if you want to make a difference you should use powerful words that will help you, and not confuse them with weak words that undermine what you are attempting to achieve.

So, how could you change this predicament?

It’s actually quite simple: Stop using that word “should”.

To be more rigorous: Stop using that word if you want to drive change in something that is important to you.

Instead, if you want something to happen, say: “I will do X…” or “I will stop doing Y…” The word WILL has quite a different impact. It reflects a promise, and as such it actually evokes real ownership and accountability. You may not be able to control the outcomes you want. However, you sure can control your actions. When you promise to do something it is 100% in your control to do it.

Further, unlike the “should” examples above, you can only say “We will do X…” if everyone around you has explicitly promised to “do X” like you. Otherwise, you can only speak for yourself. If you want to enroll others in your commitment you could always invite them or make a request of them to also promise what you are promising. Promising is an individual action.

If jumping from “We should do X…” to “I will do X…” is too big of a leap for you, there is an interim step that may help you get there. You could start by saying: “I want to do X… or “I want to stop doing Y” You could even say “I want us to do X… or stop us doing Y…”

This is not as powerful as promising an action, however, it gives you the opportunity to generate initial ownership toward what you want. If you think this is too easy, think again. Saying “We should….” is super easy. However, saying “I want X…” is often much harder. Try it.

I hope you will take away at least two main things from this blog:

  • Start paying attention and catching yourself and other when you/they say “We should…” Don’t be blind and oblivious to these deceptive words…
  • Don’t let people who are committed to making a difference get away with using the “We should…” words. When they say it, stop them, politely of course, and invite them to promise something powerful.

Two frequent complaints I hear in so many organizations: “Meetings are a waste of time” and “the lack of ownership and accountability.” Well, a huge part of the problem is in how people think and talk. The use of ‘should‘ is a huge source of the letdown in both areas.

Stand for effective communication. Don’t tolerate inconsequential conversations around you. Promote and only use language that actually makes a difference in what you and others want. Finally, adopt the principle that if you can’t find it in yourself to speak effectively, don’t say anything at all!