How good is your strategy?

I was supporting the senior leadership team of a global service provider in taking their game to a new level. As part of my preparation for the work with this firm, I attended a PowerPoint presentation of the global vision, mission, and strategy of this firm.

It was spectacular both visually and in terms of its content. It was simple, clever, it used catchy phrases and it incorporated a few cool visual effects. It was one of the best I have seen (and I have seen many), I was impressed!

Then I started the work with the team, and I cannot begin to tell you how dysfunctional these leaders were. They had significant trust, cohesion and communication issues between each other, which also trickled down to their functions. They had many conflicts, which they avoided dealing with, they did not collaborate well, and they definitely were not aligned on their strategic objectives. Needless to say, the did not live up to their spectacular vision and mission.

There was such dissonance between their impressive strategy presentation and the way they actually behaved.

This senior team is no different from so many other teams I see. Obviously not every senior leadership team is highly dysfunctional. A few are really great, a few are really bad, and most are mediocre or average at best.

This dissonance only emphasizes the premise that any vision, mission or strategy are only as good as people’s relationship with them. By relationship I mean the degree that people genuinely understand, believe in, are committed to and feel a sense of personal ownership and accountability toward them.

Coming up with a spectacular strategy and PowerPoint deck is so easy and common. Transferring the words from the slides to people’s hearts and minds is the most challenging, but exciting tasks leaders have.

Unfortunately, I meet so many senior leaders who seem to be stuck in traditional, old-school thinking. They seem to believe that if they communicate their vision and strategy to their people – in a PowerPoint deck, no less – their people will automatically get it and own it.

But as we all know, nothing is further from the truth. Managers and employees don’t buy into strategies just like that. They have to be enrolled; they have to understand the business rationale and logic – the “why are we doing this?” They want to feel confident and be inspired, not merely taken for granted. And, they want to know that their leaders have what it takes to follow through and lead the strategy to conclusion, no matter how challenging the journey may be.

There is always pressure on senior leaders to provide leadership, not merely hide behind their rank and authority. Leaders need to inspire and bring their personal charisma, courage and stand to the game. Not every leader gets it, is committed to it and/or is capable of it.

Therefore, when answering the question “How good is your strategy?” you must include two dimensions: The content and context of the strategy.

The content means – is there is a clear, precise, robust and well-structured game plan (strategy, objectives, process, structure, etc.) that everyone understands the same way?

In so many organizations this seemingly common sense and simple step is not achieved in a powerful and effective way. Typically, the strategy is too high level, vague or conceptual, and different team members have different ideas, interpretations, agendas and priorities about the direction, methodology, process, and destination.

The context means – is there is a team dynamic (culture, environment, mindset etc.) in which everyone can truly be open, honest, authentic and courageous; an environment in which people feel “in it together”, even if they don’t all report to the same boss, which is the case in any matrix management environment; an environment in which everyone is excited about the game and feels genuine ownership commitment and accountability toward the bigger success?

Addressing the content alone will at best produce a dynamic of unenthusiastic compliance (and often frustrations, fear, and resignation). This will be insufficient for achieving a new, more powerful game. Alternatively, attending to the context alone will also not work because un-channeled enthusiasm will not be productive and effective, therefore it will not sustain as well.

When you examine the strength of your strategy don’t underestimate the value and importance of these two dimensions. A successful strategy relies 30% on its content and 70% on the context inside which it is being executed.

A strong context can compensate for weak content. However, strong content will not compensate for a weak context.

 

Do you know when to ’empower’ and when to ‘command and control’?

In most organizations, a leader who manages in a command and control style is frowned upon and branded as an uncaring tyrant who doesn’t listen to people and doesn’t empower them.

While, people’s negative reaction to a top-down command and control leadership style is understandable and most often legitimate, there are times in which a command and control approach is the most appropriate and effective. In fact, at times it is necessary.

Take as an example the new CEO of a large global financial service organization. When he took the helm of his organization, he soon realized that he inherited a bigger mess than he anticipated.

The financial performance of the company had been on a downward trend for the past three years. Customers were losing confidence. Investors were becoming skeptical, and all this was reflecting badly on the stock price.

The internal picture was not any prettier. The culture of this firm was siloed and political. Regional, Global and Headquarter functions were not communicating and collaborating in a cohesive and effective way. There were cliques with different agendas, no one wanted to make the tough or selfless decisions and there was no sense or practice of holding anyone to account. Needless to say, things were steadily deteriorating.

The lack of agility and accountability started at the top. Many of the senior executives were nearing retirement, they felt entitled and cared mostly about self-preservation. As a result, there was no sense of real ownership, accountability or urgency to fix things and turn the company around.

The new CEO didn’t waste much time. He fired a whole bunch of senior leaders and replaced them with leaders who were ambitious and eager to succeed.

He took away most of the authority from senior managers and he insisted on being involved in all key decisions. Any executive that wanted to drive a project or strategy had to pass it by the CEO first, and any departure from that policy was treated with harsh consequences. People learned very quickly that with this CEO they had better ask for permission because if they don’t, they won’t get forgiveness.

Needless to say, people were upset and there was a lot of complaining. This CEO was definitely a shock to the system. But he didn’t really care about how people felt. He continued to single-handedly govern, control and drive the decisions and activities of his large global organization.

In the first year, the decline in performance slowed. In the second year, the company broke even and in the third year, they made a small profit, which was a major accomplishment.

The external winds started to shift. Customers were more satisfied, investors felt more optimistic and the employees started to notice too. They weren’t happy, but there was less complaining and morale was a bit higher.

Command and control is a very targeted management/leadership strategy. When applied appropriately and effectively it can help you turn things around. However, when you have succeeded to turn things around, you need to adjust your strategy from command and control to empowerment; to rebuilding trust, cohesion, and open communication. If you fail to do that your command and control methods that helped you achieve success could easily and quickly destroy it.

In Ecclesiastes, Chapter 3, versus 1-8 there is a passage/poem that starts with:

For everything there is a season and a time…”

Well, there is a time for empowerment and there is a time for command and control.

You just need to know when to empower and when to command and control and have the foresight and wisdom to know the difference.

Do you have an attitude of gratitude?

My mother taught me to be polite and say “Please” and “Thank you” when interacting with others. I am sure yours did too.

However, there is a much greater potential power in acknowledging, recognizing, praising and thanking people than good manners.

Committed people who aspire for excellence tend to often be too self-critical and also too critical of others. We tend to focus on what isn’t working, what is wrong, broken, bad and negative more than on the good things.

The critical perspective is often legitimate – meaning, people and teams could do better – and if you are level headed about criticizing yourself in an authentic way without taking it personally, it could be empowering and motivating. It could make you want to strive to do better.

However, let’s be honest, most of us are not super great at being motivated by criticism. We tend to feel invalidated and as a result, we lower our sights and become more resigned and cynical about what is possible for us. And for those of us who are better at it, we also need some positive reinforcement from time to time.

Acknowledgment, recognition and praise highlight the greatness, affirmative and positive in people and teams.

Highlighting what is good and positive is so easy to do. It doesn’t cost a dime and it makes so much difference. However, most people suck at it.

Why?

Either because they are stingy or because they are lazy. Yes, you heard it right, stingy or lazy.

The stingy have a ‘zero-sum’ mindset. They believe that if they make other people’s brand greater it will inevitably make their brand lower. This comes from a cynical point of view that “There is only a limited amount of greatness, recognition, compliments, and praise to go around, so I want it all to myself…

The lazy misunderstand the essence and magic of acknowledgment, recognition, praise, and gratitude altogether. They think it about it as conveying information or data. If you ask the lazy “Why don’t you recognize the person who did all these great things for you?”, they would say: “Well, I already told them how great they are last week. I don’t need to tell them again. They already know it.

But acknowledgment, recognition, and praise are not at all about sharing information or data. It is about touching people’s hearts genuinely and profoundly.

When you acknowledge, recognize and/or praise someone sincerely, from your heart, it goes directly to their heart and soul. It makes them feel unique and special; it makes them feel seen and heard; it makes them feel valued and valuable; it uplifts their spirit and energizes and empowers them.

Highlighting the greatness in others requires courage and generosity.

The good news is that there is never a scarcity of what you can recognize others for. You can acknowledge them for their spirit and heart; for their effort, dedication and behaviors; for their achievements and results. You just need to get over your potential stinginess or laziness.

I recommend you take on a practice of acknowledging at least one person every day and see how people react and what magic it creates.

The only advice I would add is that when you recognize someone, talk to them not about them.

For example, if you want to recognize your co-worker Joe, in a team meeting, don’t look at the rest of the team and say: “I would like to recognize Joe for staying every night this week to help me complete project x…“. Instead, look at Joe and say: “Joe, I would like to recognize you for staying every night this week to help me complete project x…”.

If you start practicing and adding this muscle to your daily routine at first it will feel like a technique. However, the more you practice the more it will become a part of your DNA; Just the way you approach relationships and interactions.

Needless to say, recognizing and praising people doesn’t cost a dime, but it can provide priceless value and impact.  Try it and see for yourself.

 

Do you talk about your issues or not?

When it comes to communication and conversation, especially about the more sensitive, touchy and uncomfortable topics there are two types of leaders: the “Let’s talk about it… type and the “Let’s not talk about it and it will go away…”.

Let’s be frank, no one looks forward to, or enjoys discussing the tough topics such as “What is not working?”, “Who is not doing their job properly?” or “Who is accountable for the failure in results?“.

People especially don’t like to talk about these topics when they know or suspect that their people are frustrated with, or blaming their leadership, performance or behavior.

However, some leaders seem to be braver, more mature or more responsible about their role and duty to foster an environment of frank conversation.

But more importantly, not talking about it doesn’t solve the problem, it pushes the problem and people’s frustrations under the carpet, so they are not visible and apparent. But that doesn’t make any of this go away, in fact, it makes things worse because it forms an undercurrent of unspoken negative chatter that wastes energy and time that forms a sentiment of resignation and cynicism.

Let me share two true stories…

The CEO of a global service company was a powerful leader who knew exactly what he wanted and how he wanted things to be done. He commanded his organization and executive team with an iron fist and because he had such strong industry knowledge, he wanted to be involved in, and control pretty much everything.

He was convinced that his leadership style was very successful because the company was doing better in terms of performance. Therefore, he had little patience for varying or contradicting views, especially critical feedback about his decisions or leadership methods.

There were many significant organizational, operational and customer issues and problems in the company, but the senior executives were very reluctant to bring them up because every time they attempted to do so the CEO would play down the issues and shut down the conversation.

Under this CEO the company reached a plateau, which it never overcame. While the business results improved, the CEO was unable to transform the culture of his organization. The levels of cynicism, resignation, and fear to speak up deepened and the company continued to be very political and siloed.

In contrast to the first story, the CEO of a global telecommunication organization, in this second true story, was a very bold, passionate and inspirational leader. He believed in teamwork and communication and he promoted that environment throughout his senior executive team and his entire organization at every opportunity.

In fact, when he as much as suspected that teams were not discussing or addressing the real issues that were preventing effectiveness or success, he was not shy to summon the relevant leaders and compel them to start talking.

However, his hands-on approach frustrated some of his executives, as they felt that he was too involved in their business and interaction with their peers. When the CEO picked this frustration up, he brought up the conversation at his next executive team meeting.

Despite people’s uncomfortableness to give him the feedback the CEO encouraged his leaders to communicate courageously. The senior team had a very open, honest and productive conversation, at the end of which the executives took responsibility for the fact that they were not promptly addressing issues between their functions. They committed to doing so. The CEO committed to taking a step back in his interference in his leader’s interactions.

Things visibly changed for the better and the CEO and many of his executives continued to remember these conversations as a milestone in the development of the executive team.

No doubt that the “Let’s talk about it” route is often harder, more uncomfortable and at times messier and more chaotic. However, it is a more powerful and effective route and it makes a bigger difference to the culture and performance of the organization.

 

Are you controlling or empowering?

I don’t think I have ever met an executive, leader or manager who didn’t pronounce the importance of teamwork and collaboration, then express their commitment to building that environment around them.

Unfortunately, I have met quite a few executives, leaders, and managers who said it but when the moment of truth arrived, they were too closeminded, proud, self-righteous or afraid to let go of their control and truly invest in, promote and leverage the collective power of their team.

These leaders when in public took every opportunity to express platitudes about “we are stronger together”, “the power of teams” and “feedback is a gift“.

However, when their team members wanted to have real, authentic and courageous conversations about the topics that were important to them, these leaders were very quick to shut down the conversation in a defensive and passive aggressive way.

For example, the Head of HR in a large global technology company launched a company-wide initiative to build a more honest and engaging culture. However, her own organization probably had one of most political, passive-aggressive and siloed cultures in the company, and many of her leaders blamed her lack of willingness to deal with conflict and have uncomfortable conversations, for it.

When it came time to implement the cultural change in the human resources organization the HR leader asked her leaders to invite a few second level HR managers to give both her and them some feedback and input about how the rest of HR were feeling about the culture.

The managers were asked to be honest about the perceptions of their teams, but when they described the senior HR leaders as operating in an ivory tower, disconnected from the rest of the HR team, the HR leader became visibly upset and defensive.

The open conversation quickly shut down, the honesty evaporated, the senior leaders were embarrassed, and the second level managers left shaken by the traumatic experience.

The meetings had a lasting effect on the HR team. As the word quickly caught on about what happened in the meeting, people concluded that it was dangerous to speak up and give critical feedback to the HR leader. The negative feedback didn’t stop. In fact, it increased. It just went underground, making the HR culture even more toxic.

Leaders who want to control everything give feedback to others, but they do not want to receive feedback themselves, especially critical feedback about their leadership behavior and style or any project or program they feel identified with.

Despite their declaration to the contrary, they don’t trust others, they believe they know best and they are smartest. In fact, it is more important to them that things are done exactly the way they want them to be done than it is to promote and develop the spirit of ownership, commitment, accountability and innovation among their team members. By design or by default they foster a culture of compliance, not ownership. Around them, the likelihood of a team member coming up with a better solution or outcome to a problem, or a better way to achieve something is slim.

The people who work for these leaders are very smart and perceptive. They don’t listen to what their leaders say, they watch how their leaders behave. They get the inauthenticity and hypocrisy. They don’t dare bring it up or challenge it for fear of retribution. So, the frustrations, disappointment, and criticism go underground, to the ‘around the cooler’ gossipy backchannel conversation.

Leaders who want to control everything seem to be oblivious and insensitive to the negative undercurrent. For them, as long as people do what they are told things are progressing well. In fact, for them, if there is no bad press means there is no bad news.

However, people don’t forget the traumatic passive-aggressive moments. These become the corporate scars that remind people to “Be careful”, “Not rock the boat” and “Pick their battles” because “Nothing will change anyways“.

While on the surface things may seem to be going well, this passive-aggressive environment is exhausting, discouraging and demotivating.

And, have no delusions, it has a direct consequential toll on performance too.

Are you having courageous conversations?

I’d like to share three true stories with you…

True Story One:

In a very large global financial service organization there was a strategic conflict between one of the lines of business and the regions, who were selling its products. The regions felt they were different. They knew their territory and customers best, so they wanted to control the sales process. But the business unit believed their products were meant to be sold through a consistent global program, which only they could do. Needless to say, this caused a lot of conflicts, tensions, and stress among the senior leaders. It was causing even more anxiety at the middle managers level as they felt stuck between a rock and a hard place, feeling political pressure to pick sides between the senior leaders they reported to. And, most of all this conflict was hurting business productivity and results.

Everyone acknowledged that this was a big problem, but the CEO didn’t seem to get it. He kept claiming that things were clear, while at the same time telling both sides what they wanted to hear.

At first, the senior leaders tried to bring the issue up at the senior leadership team meetings. However, the CEO refused to engage, so, it didn’t take long before the leaders simply stopped trying to bring it up. They continued to discuss the topic in the ‘around the cooler’ gossipy back channel conversations.

This continued on for a long time… Why?

True Story Two:

A large global technology company acquired another large competitor and was in the midst of integrating the new company. At the most senior leadership level, there were challenges as the existing and new leaders didn’t see eye to eye about important strategic decisions.

The senior leaders held several meetings to get aligned on key strategies and priorities. However, these meetings didn’t go well, and the leaders remained divided, cynical and not on the same page. The lack of alignment at the top affected the performance of the entire organization. Engineering and Product blamed Sales for the problems and Sales blamed everyone else.

Everyone was frustrated about what was going on, including the CEO, the senior leaders, the middle managers, and the employees, but, no one stood up and screamed: “Enough Already!!!” Why?

True Story Three:

An almost fatal accident on the factory floor uncovered significant safety issues that were a result of people cutting corners and not complying with the safety protocols.

The CEO launched an investigation which revealed that the issues that led to the accident were caused by the fact that at the end of the quarter management was driving production so hard in order to meet quarterly quotas that managers prioritized volume and speed over safety. Everyone knew that closing the line would hurt production quotas, so supervisors turned a blind eye to safety compromises.

The investigation also disclosed that the workers knew that this was going on; they understood the risks and consequences of an accident. In fact, many workers discussed these problems among themselves…

But they didn’t bring it up to their supervisors… Why?

Almost every day I meet executives, leaders, managers, and employees who are extremely bright, smart, and knowledgeable. Many describe to me with great insight, confidence and passion the issues, problems, barriers and also opportunities their organization faces. In fact, I often hear about the root causes of many of the issues, and what needs to be done.

However, when I ask these leaders and managers: “So, what have you done about it?” or “Have you brought it up to your superiors?“, they often turn white and acknowledge in an embarrassed kind-of-a-way that they have not.

When I ask “Why?”, they begin struggling, squirming and stuttering, they usually finally admit that they weren’t brave enough!

So my question to you, when you’re faced with challenging situations – are you having courageous conversations?

 

Are you addicted to your smartphone?

I spent a few days on the beach in Miami with my wife, and I couldn’t help but be shocked by people’s behavior with their smartphones.

My day started early at the gym with a small handful of exercisers. Even at 7am many of the exercisers were glued to their smartphones for the entire duration of their exercise. People were walking on the treadmill and cycling on the bike while being completely immersed in their smartphone for 90 minutes, without lifting their eyes from it.

At breakfast I saw a few couples and families sitting around the table, everyone with eyes glued to their smartphone as they were eating, with an occasional brief exchange of looks and words.

And, then at the beach, so many people sitting in their beach chairs glued to their smartphones for hours at a time. I even saw a few people walking on the beach holding their smartphones in front of their eyes literally walking and typing. I’m not sure how they managed to watch where they were going.

And then again at the restaurant over dinner, same behaviors.

I don’t know what the official statistics are of daily smartphone usage, but assume it is very high. In fact, I would bet some people spend 60-70 percent of their day glued to their smartphones. And, to be clear, the people I saw were not all teenagers or young adults. Some were clearly in their 40s, 50s, and 60s.

This is our modern, enlightened society.

If modern, enlightened means not being able to put your smartphone down and control your usage, not being able to make eye contact and/or converse with your loved ones, and/or not being able to simply be present in the moment in order to ‘stop and smell the roses’ – then, count me out!

Please don’t get me wrong, I love technology; I depend on it; I can’t imagine being without my computer or my phone for even one day. My entire life is entangled in technology – my personal and business calendars, my food and exercise apps, my immediate and extended family WhatsApp groups, my personal and business contacts, my emails, texts and more…

However, I don’t want to be so consumed by my technology that I am unable to function without constantly glancing at my smartphone. I don’t want to be impatient and anxious to receive the next message; I don’t want to worry that if I go off the grid for an hour or two, I may miss something. I want my technology to be my tool, resource and support mechanism, not my addiction. I want to control my impulses, I don’t want my impulses to control me.

Call me old fashion, but when my kids come over and we spend time together I want us to just be with each other and catch up, without smartphones. The same with my friends. I want to have quality time with my wife without either of us thinking about or looking at our smartphone. I want to exercise and do yoga without being concerned about missing out on something at work while I am nurturing my body and soul.

My wife often challenges me to eat my salad without dressing and to try other foods without sauce or gravy, in order to remember the taste of vegetables, grains, and meats in their natural and pure form. To be honest, I don’t love doing that because I have become used to the taste of meat with honey mustard or fish with Hollandaise.

However, when it comes to my connection and quality time with my wife, kids and loved ones I will do my best to keep our relationships as natural and pure as possible.

 

Shift the conversations and the results will follow

I can’t say enough about the power of words and conversations. Changing certain conversations can change the course of your direction and results for the better or worse.

People say that “Talk is cheap“. That is not true! Talk is very powerful, but we tend to make talk ‘cheap’ by speaking in ways that either don’t make any difference or that undermine what is important to us.

For example: If a commitment we have or a project we are working on isn’t going well, complaining about it, or blaming others for why it isn’t working won’t make a difference and won’t change anything. In fact, it would most likely make things worse. Blaming others may be based on a legitimate reason, but apart from making them wrong and making you right, it won’t change the outcome.

Alternatively, feeling bad or ‘guilty’, or beating yourself up and blaming yourself is the opposite side of exactly the same thing – undermining and doesn’t make a difference.

People also say:

Actions speaks louder than words

Well, that is not true either. Words are action and action depends on words to make it most effective and impactful.

For example: If a Rabbi or Priest pronounces you and your spouse “Man and wife” your life just changed. If a judge declares you “Innocent” or “Guilty” that will affect your world. And, if the president of your country declares war against another country, that will affect your life too. Words are very powerful. They shape and alter the course of our life.

Alternatively, if you take an action with the intention of helping someone, but that someone doesn’t interpret your action consistent with how you intended, most likely you will create upset or other negative effects. The road to failure and disappointment is often rife with good intent. Or as we sometimes refer to it: “Doing the wrong thing for the right reasons”.

The power of words and conversations manifests in organizations every day. If you go to any organization and you pay attention, you would hear, see and sense it. In some organizations the conversations circle around victim conversations. People whine a lot, complain, blame and make excuses a lot. In other organizations, there is zero tolerance for excuses and blame. Instead, the conversations orient around commitment. People don’t care about who’s fault it is. They only focus on conversations that make a difference like: requesting, promising and declaring commitments. These two sets of conversations are drastically different and you can clearly hear them in both the formal and informal conversations in any organization, and see them in people’s actions and behaviors.

I have worked with organizations that were dealing with very challenging market conditions. When I came in to help them people were complaining about their circumstances, making excuses and blaming other functions in their organization for their struggling performance. When we shifted the internal conversations and rhetoric from “excuses, justifications, and complaints” to “declarations, requests, and promises”; from “cynicism and resignation conversations” to “holding each other to account and highlighting successes“, their performance and results started to shift too.

I have also seen organizations that had very strong market conditions. They tried to launch new initiatives and ideas, but because their internal conversations stayed cynical, complacent and circumstantial they didn’t succeed, they didn’t stay the course and they couldn’t leverage the tailwind they had to achieve the growth they wanted. Instead of taking responsibility for their behaviors and failures they continued to blame the market and their competitors, and they stayed stuck.

The moral of the story is:

Words and conversations are powerful actions – if you shift the conversations and rhetoric in your team, your behaviors and results will follow.

However, actions without conversations are not as powerful – if you keep doing more of what you have done, and even try new things, but you don’t shift the conversations to be more commitment, ownership, and action-oriented, your results most likely won’t shift much either.

The power is in the conversations, which is good news, as it is not that hard to shift conversations. Focus on shifting your team’s conversations to be consistent with the type of dynamics, behaviors, and results you want, and see what happens.

 

Don’t forget to count your blessings!

This week, Americans are celebrating their Thanksgiving holiday. I am not an American, however, I love Thanksgiving and the opportunity it gives us to formally ‘give thanks’. We don’t count our blessings nearly enough and we definitely don’t express gratitude to the people we respect and love enough. We all could do a better job with this, no matter what country we live in.

There is a quote from Swindoll that I like that says:

Life is 10% what happens to us and 90% how we react to it.”

On a daily basis, we deal with circumstances and situations that give us the opportunity to choose our outlook, mood, and course of action. Sometimes we relate to our circumstances as a misfortunate, and, as a result, we feel disappointed or discouraged. At other times, we relate to what life dealt us as fortunate and therefore we feel victorious and energized.

When we view the glass as half empty, this perspective pulls us down. It colors our experience of everything. Have you ever noticed that when you are upset about one thing, you tend to see other things as not working, too? Alternatively, you only focus on the bad things and ignore the great things?

However, when we focus on the glass being half full, this perspective uplifts, empowers and energizes us. We see all the good things and opportunities around us. Have you ever noticed that when you feel great about something that is important to you, you tend to have much more tolerance and acceptance of the things that are not going well?

We are often so consumed by, and reactive to the minutia of our daily life that we forget that we really have a choice about how we view, relate and react to things around us.

The reason I love Thanksgiving so much is that this holiday is a time formally designated for seeing the ‘half full view’ and the positive things around us; a time to be grateful and thankful, and a time to express our love and gratitude.

Most of us spend too much of our days being negative and cynical about things.

The world would be a better place if more people expressed more appreciation and gratitude more often.

Regardless of where you live, I wish you an authentic and meaningful Thanksgiving holiday! May you use this holiday as an “excuse” to give thanks to everything and everyone in your life that you appreciate, love and respect.

Don’t be lazy, don’t be stingy and don’t take any of it for granted.

 

Agreeing to disagree is always a cop-out

Too often I see the following scenario: A team meets to discuss issues that are critical to the organization’s success. The conversation goes on and on without resolution, as different people have divergent opinions about the best course of action. When the leader tries to bring it to a conclusion, they are no closer to alignment. They leave the meeting “agreeing to disagree.”

Such meetings are worse than a waste of time, in fact, they can actually damage the organization, which is then no closer to making the necessary decisions and assuming responsibility for them. People stay within their comfort zones at the expense of moving the organization forward in new and dynamic ways.

Take as an example a successful technology company that was trying to take its game to the next level. One of their biggest challenges – and opportunity – was to get all their business units and functions working together in a more cohesive and aligned way. Instead of interacting with customers with one voice, different sales and services groups were promoting their own agendas, often competing with other internal groups for customers’ mindshare and business. Cross-selling was suffering and a lot of potential revenues was left on the table.

The senior leadership team of this company made many attempts to get on the same page. They scheduled many long and exhausting meetings, but these perpetuated the vagueness and didn’t create clarity and alignment. Leaders left these meetings with different understandings and expectations and every time issues came up and a leader would say “But, we agreed on this!” a colleague would respond with “We never agreed on this!” Needless to say, this company was not going to the next level any time soon.

Why does this happen? It is either because leaders lack the courage to drive clarity in the face of controversy, or they lack the understanding of their role as leaders, or they lack the ability to effectively manage conversations.

True leaders know how important it is to have an open debate with honest, respectful listening because there is rarely a single right answer to any dilemma or question. They are able to elevate their people to set aside their personal egos, agendas, and preferences to align with the collective wisdom of the group. They instill in their teams a real commitment to the type of conversation that leads to making choices, aligning behind those choices, and taking responsibility together. This requires courage.

There is never a justification to leave a conversation agreeing to disagree. It is always a cop-out!

Of course, some topics are complex and may need a number of meetings to gather the necessary input and to digest it as a group. But paralysis by analysis is always an excuse to avoid taking a stand. And, the cost of lack of decisiveness, accountability, and follow-through is cynicism, resignation, and stagnation.

Achieving extraordinary results requires the ability to align on goals. Agreeing to disagree precludes that. Organizations that achieve 100 percent alignment behind a goal that is 80 percent right have a much greater chance of success than those where people are divided behind a perfect goal. Compromise too often means that some of the people are 100 percent behind one point of view and others are zero percent. How motivated are those ‘zero percent people’ to work towards the success of a goal they have not endorsed? They are the ones watching and waiting to say: “I told you so”.

Obviously, it is scary to step up to the plate and take full responsibility for a goal or direction that is uncertain, controversial, difficult to achieve, or politically incorrect. Making choices means eliminating alternatives. But when team members do find the courage to make tough choices, they are immediately more powerful. They are able to apply their energy towards proving their choices right rather than wasting energy on proving that others are wrong.

 

Is your team’s communication candid, transparent and courageous?

Most teams are not good at having the tough, uncomfortable conversations, even if it is necessary for a really important cause. Furthermore, most people are not good at giving honest and direct feedback and coaching to others, especially if it involves negative criticisms and feedback, even if it would make a big difference.

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

At times being diplomatic can be an effective approach. It may allow you to address a delicate problem with a teammate in a more sensitive way, which will make it easier for them to hear and own the issues. However, some critical issues demand a more direct and candid approach that cannot be gained from being cautious or politically correct.

For example, when a team needs to make clear and tough decisions about topics such as where to cut costs and/or reduce budgets or headcount, where to invest and whom to promote. These are decisions that require team members to prioritize and make trade-offs. These are decisions that require team members to put their personal agendas, survival, and egos aside and do what is best for the company or team.

As we all know, this is often easier said than done. Size of budget and/or organization are considered power and status symbols. Typical corporate mindset is often “if you have less money or people you have less control, power, influence, and status.” Therefore, contrary to any politically correct statements leaders may say about looking out for the good of the team first, most are not inclined to give these up too quickly, at least not without a fight. Needless to say, these type of discussions have to be open, honest, direct, courageous and effective in order to make a difference.

From my experience, 95% of the challenges, problems, and dysfunction that exists within teams are due to one of two things:

  1. Team members lack the courage to rock the boat. They are afraid to piss others off, get into trouble, lose credibility, appear as troublemakers and/or fear they will look foolish.
  2. Team members are resigned about their ability to make a difference. In most cases, people have tried to raise issues before or they’ve seen others do it, only to get shut down and perhaps even blacklisted, so they have concluded that it is best to play it safe, pick their battles and let others take the risk.

I am sure many leaders would deny this very simple analysis of why so many teams lack power. It’s the lack of courage to speak up that leads to conflicts, lack of alignment and collaboration, and status quo. Most leaders would rather blame others or their unfavorable circumstances for their lack of open, honest, authentic, courageous and effective communication.

You would think that the larger and more complex the organization the more critical it would be for the senior most leaders to communicate in the most direct and effective way. After all, these senior leaders are typically more seasoned, experienced and mature in leadership and the senior executive team is where all the different functions and businesses come together. Unfortunately, this is not the case. In so many senior executive teams the level of siloed behavior and avoidance of direct and blunt communications is baffling.

In fact, in many senior executive teams, the inner expectation is that each senior executive will run his/her division and colleagues won’t interfere with each other’s areas. The unspoken rule seems to be: “You don’t call me on my stuff and I won’t call you on yours…” The exception to this rule is when the CEO believes in the power of team and he or she insists that their senior team members behave as a real team. I have worked with different CEOs including the ones that invest in building their team and generating candid, transparent and powerful communication, they are refreshing to work with.

The consequences of cautious, politically correct communication include things like:

  1. Team members make tentative and contingent commitments by saying yes and agreeing to decisions they are not fully aligned with. They 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 break down, 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 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.

I am sure you would all agree that the cost of lack of candid, transparent and courageous conversations is grave. So, why is this the norm in most companies? We all know the answer: it is an easier and safer behavior. It allows us to avoid ownership and responsibility. We may feel bad or guilty, but these are easier to confront and experience than fear.

That’s why courage is so important. Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather it is about 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.

Here are two final tips:

  1. If you focus on yourself and your own self-preservation you will hold back and let your fear run the show. However, if you focus on your future and what you want to achieve it may empower you and give you more courage to step out of your comfort zone and communicate on your future’s behalf.
  2. There is a powerful quote widely attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, which I love, that will enable you to strengthen your courage muscles: Do one thing every day that scares you.”

 

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!