How different will the future be?

When COVID was in its infancy, and we were all just starting to understand its scope, longevity and impact on the world, the hope of most businesses was to be able to continue to conduct business with minimum challenges and interruptions.

Most businesses moved to a virtual model smoother than they expected, and in the beginning, many, perhaps most, found the virtual model surprisingly effective. In fact, as I wrote in my blog on June 17thWill you lead or lag the virtual revolution?” many companies started to see that in many ways working virtually is even more productive and effective than the way they worked before when everyone was working from the office.

However, like any dramatic change, the pendulum that swung one way has started to return the other way. Recently we began to hear new tunes in the media, for example, the Wall Street Journal article on July 24th titled: “Companies start to think that remote work isn’t so great after all” in which the sub-title concludes that: “This is not going to be sustainable.

I hear similar things directly from clients who are getting fed up of working at home. As to be expected, they miss their daily personal interactions, which were making them feel more connected and collaborative.

Virtual work was initially viewed as a temporary measure; a response and reaction to COVID. But, given all the virtues companies are discovering in virtual work,  perhaps it shouldn’t be.

It seems that the issue is not “office” or “home”. There is enough evidence that suggests that we can be productive in either/both modes of work, or be unproductive in either mode of work. I see many teams that are dysfunctional and unproductive, even when all team members work in one office space.

Years of office work has generated an abundance of management, motivation and productivity-related practices that are deeply rooted in most organization’s culture. Many management books have been published on these topics, and people are used to working in particular ways.

However, even with all the collective experience of working in the office, leaders still have to invest time and effort to motivate their teams and drive productivity in order to avoid ineffectiveness.

It would be unrealistic to expect that companies could effectively shift from office-work to home-work at a blink of an eye. At the same time, it would be a mistake to ignore and discard all the golden takeaways from having worked at home.

It’s not ‘one or the other’, but rather companies should find a new way to balance and integrate working in the office and at home.

Google recently announced that it plans to keep its employees working from home until summer 2021. Other companies have also taken similar long-haul stands about virtual work.  Why? First and foremost, to guard the safety of their employees.

However, companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, Cisco and others know that people can be productive and happy working from home if they are managed appropriately. Just like they had to invest in management structures and practices to keep their workforce productive and happy in the office, they will have to invent new ways to do the same for a workforce working from home.

The practices may vary but the need to continue to manage, motivate, develop and hold to account remains an essential aspect of the success of any company whether its employees work in the office or from home.

Look out for the coming wave of management books written about how to keep your employees happy and productive working from home.


Are you developing your team and for the right reasons?

As COVID progresses, leaders need to continue to develop their teams. In fact, in some cases, team development may be more important than ever.

It seems that the leaders who developed their teams before COVID continue to do so with extra passion, while those who didn’t invest in development before or did it sporadically and/or poorly, continue in the same way.

Which category are you in? Are you developing your team?

If so, are you doing it healthfully and for the right reasons?

One of my long-time clients is the CEO of a growing global service company. I have known him for more than twenty years, I love and respect him, and I have worked with him probably four or five times over these years, depending on how you count…

The way it typically works, since our initial work together, is that he calls me up about every five or six years out of the blue. I am always excited to hear from him. We get on a call where he catches me up by sharing the tremendous commercial success and growth of his firm since we last saw each other. He is always very vocal and appreciative about my contribution to him and his teams over the years, and then he says something like, “But, I am having similar issues with my team as I had in the past…”.  He goes on to share how his leaders feel he is too commanding and controlling, not empowering enough, that trust is not high, people do not own his aggressive strategy… yadda, yadda, yadda… He typically ends by saying, “I know you told me to continue to develop my team, but with all the new acquisitions we have made and growth I dropped the ball…

He then asks me to help him again to restore trust, alignment, ownership in his team and develop and build his team to become an effective team again, promising, that this time, he will stay the course. But, so far, this same pattern just keeps repeating itself.

I have a few great clients who are the same. They relate to team development as merely a means to an end; a solution to a problem. They apply the principle “If it isn’t broken, don’t touch it”.

When they feel their teams are doing well – and by that, I mean achieving their business goals – they don’t spend a minute thinking about their team’s development. But when they feel trust, alignment, communication, morale are deteriorating in their team, they panic and react by bringing in help.

There is nothing inherently faulty about this approach. Unfortunately, many of these leaders pretend like they are genuinely committed to ongoing team development. They say all the right things, but when push comes to shove, they fold and abandon the development cause without hesitation.

Building a team is often a messy and uncomfortable endeavour. You have to deal with people’s feelings and frustrations. As their leader, your people often have criticism about you and the way you do things.

When you develop your team, you need to be willing to look at yourself in the mirror then own and address any leadership and management deficiencies you see. That is not easy, even for the strongest of heart. So for the faint of heart, it is often the trigger that causes them to quit the development program.

Contrast this with many other leaders I know, and you probably know some too, who view developing their team as a high priority; a value; part of their on-going, never-ending role.

These leaders understand that development is a journey, not an event; a marathon, not a sprint. They stay the course of team development and coaching and don’t let circumstances, challenges or mood swings interfere.

They never ask: “Does my team need development?” They only ask: “What is the next level of development my team needs next?”. They invest as much of their time, focus and passion when their team is doing well and meeting all commitments, as they do when the team is not, and they expect their leaders to do the same with their own teams. This mindset creates a culture of ongoing improvement and excellence, which to be frank is entirely missing in most companies.

In fact, the teams who view team development as a natural and integral part of their routine are the teams most open and susceptible to breakthroughs.

They are also the most nurturing and enjoyable teams to belong to.


Are you energizing and inspiring your people?

Some time ago, in a meeting I was facilitating, people were going around introducing themselves. One of the long-time veterans of that organization stood up and introduced himself in the following way: “My name is Bill. I don’t remember how long I’ve been here, but I have 64 months to go!”

You would think that Bill represents a small minority of cynical people. However, my experience says otherwise. Unfortunately, I find cynical and resigned people at all levels of all organizations.

When I ask senior executives, “How are your people doing?” I often get a stock answer of, “My people are excited and in great shape.” However, when I interact with the organization, I often find people to be uninspired and uninspiring.

The bar for what passes as ‘inspired and energized‘ in corporations today seems to be quite low.

Oddly enough, many leaders still do NOT seem to view the creation of inspiration as a critical aspect of their roles or the success of their business. Some believe it’s a ‘nice to have,’ but many still think it is not up to them to inspire. A few even view inspiration as irrelevant altogether. Many leaders often believe that the only or main thing that truly motivates people is pay, objectives, compensation, and bonuses.

Quite frankly, I believe that money as the most significant source of motivation is a big myth!

Please don’t misunderstand me; I am not disparaging pay, compensation, or bonuses. They are indeed an essential part of any motivational strategy. However, I have seen situations where people could double and triple their bonus if they collaborated and worked together, but they still stayed siloed and didn’t work together. On the other hand, I have seen situations where people had no financial incentive to collaborate, but they still did the right and best thing for their own success and satisfaction, as well as for their company success by collaborating with genuine commitment and passion.

My point is that being energized and inspired is something that comes from within, not from external circumstances. Yes, external stimuli can help, but ultimately they are not the primary source of how people feel and act. When people feel included, valued, cared for, and that they can make a difference, they can’t help themselves but get energized and inspired. And, because any organization is always a reflection of its leaders; inspiration and energy has to start and come from the top.

So, how can you, as a busy leader energize your staff on a day-by-day basis and make sure people are not cynical? Here are a few simple tips to start you off:

  1. Show up and listen. I have often heard the complaint in organizations that leaders and managers simply don’t listen. If you want to energize your people spend some dedicated time each day, week or month walking the floors, showing concern, interacting with team members, asking people how they are doing and what you could do for them. And then follow up with whatever comes out of those interactions and conversations.
  2. Follow up and follow through. So much of the cynicism that people have comes from a lack of follow up and follow through. Teams make decisions, and then there is no follow-up or follow-through. Leaders and managers promise things, and then they don’t do what they said, they don’t acknowledge this and/or change their promises. When it comes to acknowledging what was promised, following through, and doing what you said, there is no difference between big strategic promises and small tactical ones. If you don’t follow up and follow through even on the small things, people will become skeptical and cynical around you.
  3. Praise, recognize, and thank people. I have written so much about this. It doesn’t cost a penny to say, “Thank you!” every day, and it goes a long, long way to engage and motivate people. One of the biggest complaints in organizations today is the lack of recognition. Well, if you want to energize your people and avoid cynicism, go out of your way – every day – to praise, recognize, and thank them. In fact, always recognize people in public and criticize them in private. This way, they’ll feel respected and trusted.
  4. Encourage new ideas. There is always more than one way to get anything done. In addition, different people have different ways, ideas, and styles about how to effectively make things happen. As long as the objectives and key ethical values are clear and adhered to, it’s actually healthy to allow employees some room to innovate. And, it goes a long way to increase ownership and defeat cynicism.
  5. Encourage, promote, and reward high ownership and accountability. People who are making a difference from time-to-time make mistakes. The only way to avoid this is to play so small that your mistakes are irrelevant. When employees play big, the impact of their mistakes tends to be big too. However, responsible people go out of their way to learn from their mistakes and correct them. By showing them that you respect ownership and accountability, they’ll play even harder, bigger, and with more commitment.


Are you a micromanager?

Employee performance is directly linked to their sense of ownership, commitment, and accountability for the success of their organization. Their passion, ownership, commitment, and accountability is reduced when they feel distrusted, disrespected, and/or under-valued by their managers and/or by the senior leadership of their company.

By micromanaging their people, managers generate an environment of compliance and fear, which causes employees to play it safe and “cover their behinds” instead of stepping up and going beyond the call of duty to drive progress, overcome obstacles and pursue opportunities.

Most managers who micromanage their employees suppress their spirit and performance. That in itself is a bad thing. But, it is also the wrong focus. Instead of trying to control their people, managers should be providing leadership and confidence to their team; they should be highlighting their strategic objectives and priorities and inspiring their employees to take them on. They should also be ensuring that their people have the wherewithal to execute and succeed.

In fact, micromanagement puts in motion a destructive vicious circle: The manager relates to his people as uncommitted, incompetent and/or unreliable. The people, in turn, play it safe and don’t take ownership, risk, and accountability. Results suffer. This confirms the manager’s point of view and he continues to micromanage.

Most of the time the issue lies with the manager. Managers who micromanage and control their people do it because of their own insecurity and fear of failure and not because their employees are, in fact, incompetent, uncommitted, or unreliable.

If you think about it, the only time micromanaging can be an effective management strategy is when the manager truly trusts his or her people, AND their people know it. In this condition, people won’t feel belittled and disempowered by their manager’s inspection of their actions and achievement.

If you are a manager (or part of a team) and you want to strike a healthier balance between trusting and inspecting without suppressing your reports or peers, you must put the following building blocks in place and manage them effectively:

  1. Build a team that you genuinely trust in terms of commitment and competency. Use this foundation to establish a dynamic of authentic, honest, and courageous communication within your team.
  2. Communicate and enroll/align your team members around your future vision and objectives. Make sure all your team members clearly understand and are on the same page about your shared future. Make sure they feel genuinely passionate about it, committed to it, and accountable for it.
  3. Orient your team members around results and deliverables rather than tasks and activities. In order to build an environment of real accountability. Accountability can only exist when people publicly promise clear, measurable results, and they expect to be held accountable for them.
  4. Ensure that roles, responsibilities, expectations, and processes are completely clear to all team members. This is to eliminate the chance of ambiguity, confusion, excuses, or the mischief of the popular finger-pointing game.
  5. Put in place a simple and effective mechanism/process for tracking all key commitments, deliverables, and promised results. Make sure to check-in on a monthly and quarterly basis.
  6. Lastly, recognize people who step up in attitude, behavior, performance and/or results. Don’t be stingy or lazy about recognizing the people who step up. If you apply the same passion for recognizing people as you do to micromanaging them, it will help you strike a positive balance.

If someone is not performing up to an agreed-upon standard or expectation, you must be willing to have a straight and honest conversation with them.  This conversation will either need to elevate the individual to a higher level of performance or make it clear that they are not up for the task, and they should be replaced. But, make sure to give people a real opportunity to understand, own, and do something about their poor performance.

If you build a strong team dynamic, where people own the game and communicate in an honest and direct way, you will either not need to micromanage, or if you still continue to inspect on a regular basis, people will not feel intimidated, invalidated or discouraged by it.

Always remember – that in the absence of genuine ownership, commitment, and honest communication, no amount of micromanagement will be effective anyway.


Is your team extraordinary? If not, do you know how to make it so?

If you want to know if your team is ORDINARY or EXTRAORDINARY simply ‘put your ear to the ground’ and listen to the internal conversations that are taking place within your team.

In an ordinary team when people deal with challenges and new opportunities, the conversations are often oriented around how hard it will be, why it won’t succeed, what are the barriers and problems that will get in the way, and whose fault it is that these problems are in place.

Eavesdrop on people’s ‘around the cooler’ conversations and you will most likely hear phrases such as: “This sucks!”,”You would never believe what happened to me today…”, “They only care about themselves…” and “It’s all their fault…”

You will hear a lot of complaining, judging, invalidating, blaming and winning.

The mood and spirit that accompanies these conversations is often sarcastic, skeptical, resigned and negative.

People’s behaviors and action follow the same tune. In ordinary teams there is no sense of urgency to keep commitments, meet deadlines or get things done, people comply with the minimum standard necessary to keep their job, but they don’t go out of their way to ensure their customers are delighted.

In fact, as stated above, people often blame circumstances and other teams or leaders for why things move slow and they are unable to drive progress with greater speed and efficiency.

In ordinary teams, people tend to take other people’s efforts and contributions for granted so you won’t hear a lot of “Thank you!”, “You did a great job” and “I appreciate your contribution!”

However, in an extraordinary team, people think and talk quite differently about their circumstances, challenges and opportunities.

People don’t indulge in blame, fault or victim-type conversations. They don’t cover their behinds when things don’t work and they don’t let their ego get in their way,

In fact, if you listen in to the ‘around the cooler’ conversations in an extraordinary team you will hear conversations that are oriented around “What can we do about it?”, “How do we breakthrough?”, “What is missing or in the way?” and “How do we fix it?”.

No matter how challenging things are, people quickly take ownership of the challenges and opportunities and they only tolerate conversations that make a difference and focus on moving things forward.

In an extraordinary team, people go out of their ways to recognize and thank their colleagues. “Thank you for doing a great job“, “I appreciate your help” and “I couldn’t have done this without you” are the daily expression of gratitude and acknowledgment.

It is extremely difficult to change people if you believe they are sarcastic, cynical, circumstantial and negative in nature. However, it is much easier to change the conversations people are engaged in.

You have to start by paying greater attention to and having a greater awareness of what comes out of people’s mouths, including your own. Most people don’t have strong awareness in this area. They tend to express negative and undermining opinions and views about areas that are important to them as if these are undisputed truths. The consequence is a loss of possibilities and ability to shape or change their situation and future.

When you consider the cumulative effect of conversations in a team setting, the impact and opportunities are significant. In fact, you can use team conversations as the lever to elevate your team to extraordinary levels. And, extraordinary teams generate extraordinary results.

When an entire team is negative you can be sure to have a very toxic, suffocating and unproductive environment. However, if everyone talks in the same positive, empowering and effective way you will experience a different-level of collective power. If you keep that focus going over time, you will reach new heights of high performance.

Power requires rigor and discipline. Make sure commitments, timelines and expectations are clear and bold. And, make sure people hold each other to account for their commitments.

Don’t be fooled by appearances. People often say the right politically correct things in public and then they pay lip service to their pronouncements in their actions.

Pay attention to what people actually do after they speak and also how they speak behind the scenes. The ‘around the cooler’ chatter is often more impactful on shaping the mindset, spirit, and mood of the team.

Enroll people in speaking and acting in a way consistent with their vision and commitment. In fact, hold them to account and encourage everyone to do the same.

By changing the talk in the team from “Why we can’t…” to “How can we…” you will start changing the attitude and culture of your team toward extraordinary.


Do you love your job?

Early in my career, I was facilitating a manager meeting at a manufacturing plant. There were about 100 people in the session and the managers were going around introducing themselves, one-by-one they stood up and shared a few personal things about themselves.

At the far-right corner of the hall sat a supervisor, from simply observing his demeanor and everyone’s attention on him I could tell that he was one of the factory veterans. At his turn, he stood up and introduced himself using the following words:

My name is Bill. I don’t remember how many years I have been here, but I have 64 months to go!” and he sat down. There was then awkward laughter in the room.

Can you imagine Bill’s mindset as he gets up in the morning and comes to work each day? It seems to me that the definition of his attitude is “Doing Time“.

He probably had a calendar hanging in his locker and every day he would cross off another day until his “release“.

In a different example, I have a client friend that every time he describes his job to me, he refers to it as his “eight-hour inconvenience“. At first, I laughed when I heard his words. However, after hearing them a few times it started to appear quite tragic. I actually started to feel sorry for him.

First of all, no one works eight hours these days. Most of us spend most of our life at work. Second, who wants to come to an ‘eight-hour inconvenience‘. I don’t know about you, but I want my job to be my eight-hour bliss, self-expression, kicking-ass, having fun and making a difference.

Third story… I have a personal friend who every time I ask her how she is doing she gives me the same answer: “The same shit different day…” Painful!

Let’s be real, not everyone loves their job. If you are one of the people who loves their job, consider yourself very lucky and blessed. It’s a privilege.

Some people find their calling and self-expression in their occupation and job. But others don’t. For some people, their job is purely about the salary. They need the job to pay the bills, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Coming to work to pay the bills is a noble and honorable reason to work.

My father in law used to say “No matter what your occupation or job is, any employment honors its employee“.

However, if you want to stay powerful, centered and present at work and not lose yourself, I recommend you adhere to the following principles:

  1. If you love your job, count your blessings, be happy and make the biggest difference you can.
  2. If you don’t love your job make sure you can genuinely choose your job, own your job or at least accept your job.
  3. If you can’t at lease choose, own or accept your job – leave your job and find another job that you can either love or at least choose, own or accept.
  4. Under any circumstances, do not accept or tolerate suffering.

It takes a certain level of numbness to stay at a job you are suffering in.

It’s like when your immune system is weak, the body is susceptive to disease. When you are deadened, you lose your self-expression, joy, creativity, and power. As a result, you are much more susceptive to become cynical, resigned, negative and a resentful victim.

It takes commitment and courage to not accept and buy into resignation, cynicism and the victim mentality.

There are two types of people that you could surround yourself with:

  • Those who are negative and cynical victims, who frequently complain and blame others
  • Those who are not interested in drama and mischief, and always take ownership and look to learn from their successes and failures.

The former will drain your energy and do everything to drag you down with them. The latter will support you to stay centered, strong and true to your greater self.

I am sure you know who to hang out with….

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.


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.

If you don’t have a clear outcome and someone who owns it, you have nothing!

I was supporting a group of senior leaders in a global technology company to create breakthrough projects in a few key areas of their business in which they wanted to elevated performance. As a kickoff, I asked each of the project teams to present their ‘Starting Point Status’.

Different projects were at different stages of maturity. However, they all shared a few common mistakes.

One team outlined several initiatives, but it wasn’t clear what was the overarching outcome of their project.  So beyond the individual outcome of each initiative, I couldn’t tell if the initiatives they’d taken on were the right ones for this breakthrough project.

Another team outlined the outcome of their project, but when I asked who was accountable for that overall outcome they stuttered and started to tell me what each project will do and what each function in the company will do to support it. Not what I was asking…

The third project team had a clear outcome and they had outlined the owners of the overall project as well as the different initiatives that supported it. However, when I asked if all the leaders who were listed owned their role and felt passionate about it, they acknowledged that in some cases not and in other cases, they picked leaders by assumption based on their functional role, without talking directly to these people.

All the projects were very strategic to the company as they spanned across multiple functions. In one case, I asked the entire group of senior leaders to share and acknowledge the level of belief, ownership and passionate within the senior team about the project. It became clear quickly that the level was not strong.

The fourth project leader stood up and acknowledged in a heartfelt way that the area they were trying to turn around was an area the company has repeatedly said they wanted to fix but had failed to do so. It wasn’t hard to detect that the same powerful project elements were missing here too.

Generating breakthroughs is both an art and a science.

The art part is people’s personality and style, and their ability to inspire motivation and confidence in others to believe in a bigger cause and follow them to achieve it.

The science part is a few elements that make or break any breakthrough effort.

If you want to structure your projects to achieve breakthrough-results make sure you have the following elements:

  1. An overarching measurable outcome for the project.
  2. A clear and genuine owner for that overarching outcome. You cannot assume this. Someone has to stand up and declare: “You can count on me to ensure this outcome will be achieved!” This doesn’t mean that the project is their problem, or that they have to do everything. In big complex projects, there are multiple people and functions who are involved. But, one leader has to be the driving force.
  3. A passionate belief by all team members in the purpose and importance of the project and in the fact that it can be and will be achieved.

You can view this as the classic “What?” – “Who?” – “Why?”.

People jump to activities and plans too quickly. Why?

Because it is easier to identify activities and plans than it is to confront ownership and commitment.

I have seen elaborate plans be presented so many times. These are often misleading because it appears the team is on top of the project, whilst in reality, they are generating a lot of activities that won’t necessarily hit the mark.

If people don’t wholeheartedly believe in the project, in its purpose and reason for being, as well as in the fact that it can be and will be achieved, you don’t have a strong enough foundation to drive a breakthrough.

And if you don’t have a clear outcome and someone who owns it you have nothing!


Do not be afraid of the roller coaster of taking a stand

Taking a stand is like putting on a fresh pair of glasses. You start seeing things more clearly.

I was working with the middle managers of a global technology-based company. This group was suffering from a lack of internal cohesion and trust, plus communication issues between its members. These negative dynamics had been going on for so long that it was hard for the managers to tell if their trust issues were coming from personal relationship issues or from the fact that businesses and functions were simply not working together cohesively and effectively. However, one thing was clear to the managers – that their issues were hurting productivity, business results and morale in their wider organization.

In our meeting, the managers decided to tackle their problem head-on. They had an honest conversation in which they took stock of their issues and frustrations. They talked about the type of peer and functional dynamic they wanted to have in the future, and at the end of the day, they took a bold stand to make a significant improvement in their trust, cohesion and communication dynamics. Everyone left the meeting feeling good and committed to drive the change they wanted.

When we met again 60 days later to follow up and continue the process people were somewhat deflated and resigned. When I asked why they stated that since our last meeting things actually got worse, rather than better.

When we probed deeper we discovered – and they all acknowledged this – that things didn’t, in fact, get worse, in fact, they got a little better, However, because their level of tolerance and patience for the issues became much lower, their issues felt more painful.

This is a typical dynamic when you take a stand!

When you have tolerated a state of dysfunctionality in an area that you care about for a long time you tend to become cynical and resigned about change. If you experience an “Aha moment!”, or an epiphany, or a paradigm shift you will start seeing things differently. As a result, you will become excited and hopeful about the change you want. It’s like having an awakening from a state of numbness. However, with the awakening comes a renewed sense of responsibility and ownership, which will inevitably make you less tolerant to dysfunctionality.

The more you understand this dynamic the more effective you will be at navigating through it without invalidating your stand, the change you want or your journey to get there.

So, how do you push on and materialize the changes that you took a stand for?

By speaking, behaving and acting consistently with your change.

What does this mean?

Speaking differently:

When you take a stand to create a better future state, the way you speak about it will have a big impact on your ability to realize it. In a different company, I was attending a meeting where team members were reviewing a bold project they took on to improve their operational processes and efficiency. Throughout the presentation, the project manager kept making undermining comments about the project, such as: “This project is so challenging and hard…” and “We are doing our best, but not sure we can make it…” He kept referring to his future as “If we make it…” versus “When we make it…” He may have thought that these comments were charming, but I wanted to scream: “Why do you keep second-guessing your commitment?!”, “Why are you conveying such an undermining perspective about your future?!”,”Stop speaking like that!”.

Let’s be real – there are no guarantees that you will succeed in realizing any commitment or stand. In addition, you should not be inauthentic or lie about challenges and difficulties. However, there is always an empowering authentic way to account for the challenges and still speak powerfully about the future you have taken a stand about.

Acting and behaving differently:

Once you take a stand for a better future, put yourself in that future state and use that future state as the reference for defining your actions and behaviors. Ask yourself, looking from the future backward toward today, “What actions and behaviors should I start, stop or do differently?”.

Don’t guess or speculate. Let the future guide you in determining what new behaviors you should adopt and practice.

Make a list of these actions and behaviors, especially the new things and then do what you know is needed. Actually, start doing things differently and stop things that don’t support your new future.

Starting, stopping and changing actions and behaviors is often not easy. Old habits tend to pull you right back toward them. However, the more you make your promised changes public the more you will close any possibility of hiding or retreating. Make sure you build the support structure of committed people around you who will remind you, hold you to account and not buy into your excuses if/when you renege on the behavior changes you have committed to.

By understanding what you should expect when taking a stand, you will increase your possibilities, choices and power to create a desired future that is greater than what is going to happen anyways.


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.”


Don’t overlook the power of authentic conversations

I was participating in a meeting of the senior leadership team of a leading technology company. The leaders were discussing important strategic and operational topics that are critical to the future of their business.

At some point, I looked around the table and at least 50% of the leaders were looking down at their smartphones, probably responding to emails or something like that. In fact, throughout the entire meeting, this was pretty much the case. This is not an isolated dynamic for this team or company. It is pretty much the norm in most or all meetings of most teams and organizations.

From time to time the CEO would stop the flow of the conversation, put his foot down, and ask everyone to get off their phones in order to fully be present in the debate. At times he even expressed frustration with this people’s lack of attention to the conversation. However, nothing seemed to really change. The leaders would lift their heads up for a few moments, they would say something like: “I am listening and fully participating…” which, of course, was complete baloney because no one can be fully present in two important conversations simultaneously, only to go back to emails when the debate went on.

It was exactly the same in another larger meeting in another company with more than forty managers. However, every time one of the participants spoke in an authentic way, with passion from their heart, whether an authentic expression of frustration, fear or enthusiasm, it shifted the mood, spirit, and attentiveness of the entire room instantly. Everyone stopped all side activities, raised their eyes from their devices to the person speaking, and fully listened and were present to what was being said.

In one instant, when the group was discussing how to bring to market a new service, one of the managers who was an introvert yet highly respected stood up and expressed her frustration about the fact that for the longest time she had single-handedly handled this service without the support of her colleagues. In fact, she expressed her experience of “having felt alone for a long time…”. As she was speaking the room turned silent. Everyone was fully attentive in the moment in this rare and powerful conversation. After she completed and sat down others started to stand up and share their authentic feelings too. Her authentic expression gave others the courage to do the same and the meeting became much more authentic and powerful, with fewer distractions and focus on emails.

I have witnessed many similar examples of strong group attention and engagement in meetings and conversations when people showed the courage to share their genuine feelings about things like: “uncertainty about the future”, “fear of failing” and “excitement about a new direction”.

It is a known fact, that if you want to enroll, engage and/or mobilize people to any cause speaking from your heart in an authentic way makes a bigger difference than lecturing, preaching or scolding. I have learned this as a parent too.

In a corporate environment courage and authenticity are rare, but when they occur they transcend seniority and authority. In other words, even the most junior employee speaking the truth about a challenge or opportunity with courage and authenticity can make a bigger difference than a senior manager who says all the right corporate things. I have seen it many times.

So if you want your meetings to be more effective and powerful, and your people to be more present and engaged give people plenty of opportunities to express themselves, and most important – encourage, promote and recognize courageous, authentic expressions and conversations.