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 “good” good enough for you?

Here’s my high-level assessment of corporate and business teams:

  • Many, perhaps most are dysfunctional or mediocre.
  • Some are good.
  • Few are excellent.

Unfortunately – this report card doesn’t directly correlate with business results.

I say “unfortunately” because pretty much every team talks about wanting to become more effective and some version of moving from “good to great” yadda, yadda, yadda.  However, for most teams this desire lives as a “good idea”, not a “must do”.

If only great teams produced great results it would be easier for the dysfunctional and mediocre, and even good teams to confront and own the consequence of their inadequacy.

But, things don’t work that way and there are a lot of dysfunctional and mediocre teams who still achieve good, even great results.

Part of the problem is that we use a very narrow definition of what constitutes “Great results”. For the most part, it means – revenues, profitability and stock performance.

Contrary to what many executives say about people being their most important asset, there are simply too many examples of companies… well-known companies… who are obsessed with achieving great financial results while treating their people like crap.

There are only a few truly excellent teams because there are only a few truly excellent leaders who care not just about the bottom line, but also about the corporate culture, their people and the way team members interact and go about performing their work.

These leaders don’t tolerate or settle for less than excellence in all aspects of their organization, including in areas that don’t require it in order for the company to succeed, or areas that are not visible to everyone. They don’t cut corners because they relate to excellence as a value, an end, not a means, and the best and only way to do business. They also don’t use cost as an excuse for not driving excellence.

It is always easier to help teams who are dysfunctional to move from “good” to “great” when things are dysfunctional everyone is anxious and on board to turn things around, fix the problems and get the company out of a bad predicament.

But, helping the “good” teams move to “excellent” that is the hardest challenge, because when things are good people often settle and feel that good is “good enough”.

I was working with a technology company that was going through a decline in their corporate culture, business results and brand. When I started to work with them all the executives and managers were eager to turn things around. It wasn’t easy for them to face reality and own their predicament, but when they got over it everyone was on board for the intense remediation plan we put in place for the following year. The plan worked and after a year of quarterly meetings and task forces between them, the company started to turn around. In fact, at the end of that first year, they had achieved the best results in their history, their reputation in the market had improved dramatically and the overall the mood and spirit, at least at the managers and executive levels were at an all-time high. People felt great.

Everyone knew that the recovery plan was a two-year to three-year plan. Everyone signed up for that at the outset. However, the second year was very different from the first one from a commitment and energy standpoint.

The minute the results turned the corner and people felt good they started to get lax and complacent with the program. Meetings were delayed or cancelled, deadlines were not driven or met and overall the humble, self-reflective sentiments that I heard when we started the process turned into more arrogant rhetoric about how they were better than everyone else in the market.

One of the reasons most dysfunctional teams don’t sustain their peaks and breakthroughs when they reach these is because they get lax and complacent and they start losing ground again. I have seen it happen so many times.

“Good” is the enemy of “Excellence”, good makes people complacent, lazy and comfortable. Because there are so many dysfunctional and mediocre teams out there, the good ones stand out as better. Many justify their lack of drive for excellence by explaining that they are better than their competitors. Some are best in their industry.

But, “Better than good” is still a long way from “Excellent”. In addition, you could be better than everyone else around you and still not even close to what you could achieve.

So, you have to decide – is “good” good enough for you?

Stop Prioritizing and start Promising!

You would think that getting your priorities straight would be the answer to the overwhelming, stressful burden of too many commitments, too little time and scarce resources.  Well, you may want to think again!

Setting priorities is definitely a solution, but it isn’t the most powerful and effective one.

You write down everything you are supposed to do, want to do, said you would do and have to do. You then take that list and through some form of screening criteria, rank each in order of importance, sense of opportunity, urgency or obligation. You then tackle each item on your to-do list in order of importance starting with the “A” priorities then, as time and capacity permit, getting to those ranked “B” and “C”.

From a practical content standpoint, this method sounds very clear, logical and effective. However, in reality, things often don’t work out according to our lists. In addition, from a mindset standpoint prioritizing often gets us to compromise and sell-out too easily and quickly. .

Take the following real story (fictional name):

George was a very ambitious, driven and impatient sales manager. He had many things he wanted to achieve in his professional and personal life. In fact, he wanted to achieve everything right away. But he knew it wasn’t realistic, so he made a list of his six commitments and prioritized them from first to last. At the top of his list was to achieve a record sales year with his team, in the middle he had going to the gym at least 3 times a week and at the bottom, he had dating and finding a relationship.

His first priority was all consuming. He worked 80-hour weeks in order to achieve his sales goals and when he got to the weekend he was so exhausted that most of the time he simply couldn’t get himself to go to the gym, never mind going on dates. At first, he was frustrated with his inability to get beyond his first priority to the others. However, as time passed the frustration turned into resignation, apathy, and skepticism. He simply stopped believing that he could have a life beyond achieving his sales goals.

Every time one of his friends or family members would ask why he isn’t exercising or dating he would blame his work for it. In fact, when he would socialize with some of his other professional friends who had the same predicament he had, they would often talk about how “you can’t have a personal life while having a successful career, especially being a successful sales manager.” They all believed that.

In contrast, Kevin, a mid-level lawyer was also very ambitious and driven. He was putting in extreme hours hoping to become a partner. He was completely dedicated to his professional success but, like  George, he wanted a life beyond work.

Prioritizing and Promising are two completely different approaches to achieving your goals. They evoke and compel a significantly different mindset and behavior.

Prioritizing evokes the mindset of “I’ll do my best and if I can’t get to the other priorities it’s because the previous ones took too much of my time and effort…

Promising evokes the mindset of “I’ll keep my word no matter what. No excuse is acceptable…”

It is much easier to prioritize than to promise. The prioritizing approach has a built-in tolerance and acceptance to excuses, justifications and copouts. That is why when you don’t live up to your commitment it is so easy to say things like: “Something more important came up” or “I didn’t get to it because I was too busy with something else…”  After all, like in George’s story, it is acceptable that if you are so busy in your work you won’t have time to exercise, spend time with your wife or husband and/or kids and do other things that are important to you.

Neither of these approaches guarantees success. However, promising is a much more powerful approach.

It evokes a higher and more authentic mindset of ownership and accountability and it makes you much less determined and limited by circumstances. No matter what circumstances you have to deal with, when you make a promise you tend to not get stopped by these.

Making promises about what you will fulfill in your commitments could be more challenging because you have to be honest with yourself and own the truth about what really is important to you. You have to take a stand and not sell out on it. This requires courage. As my friend’s 8-year-old son said to his dad: “Daddy if I make you a promise, I’m going to keep it.”

I don’t know about you, but if I am going into battle with someone, I want them fully committed, not merely “doing their best…”. You are only going to get that level of relentless commitment from someone who has promised to do something.

No one keeps their promises all the time. Hopefully, we will keep them most of the time. However, there will be times when we won’t. That’s a fact. However, by making explicit promises you carve-out a clear path for action and fulfillment. This reduces the chance for surprises, excuses, and drama, especially when challenges arise.

While the dialogue around priorities is often a one-way street – you decide what your priorities are and you are the one to tell others that “you just couldn’t get to it today” the dialogue of promises by design is a two-way street.

Promises are really only effective if you make them to someone. In fact, if you promise your entire family that you are going to lose a certain number of pounds (weight) in the next 6 months, it’s probably going to be more powerful and effective than if you tell one person or tell no one at all. The minute you make a promise to others you are now tied at the hip. The promise is no longer just your commitment – it becomes our commitment. The success of this project is now our success. The dialogue of promising evokes a much deeper and more powerful dynamic of open, honest, courageous and effective communication, and trust. It also generates a stronger sense of bond, partnership, trust and owning each other’s success with the people you promise to.  A joint approach is more effective and fulfilling than going it alone.

When people have a more earnest relationship with their promises it causes two things.

First, they are much less casual about saying “I promise” than the myriad of ways people add a priority to an already overflowing list. “I’ll do my best”, “Let me see what I can do”, “I’ll get to it as soon as I can”, “I’ll try”, “Leave it with me”, and many other half-hearted statements that fill the conference rooms and corridors of corporations.

Secondly, when people make a promise to do something, and at some point, prior to the time it is due they realize their promise is in jeopardy of not being fulfilled, they are far more likely to reach out to the receiver of that promise and attempt to negotiate – in advance – a mutually agreeable solution. Together people can figure out alternative ways to fulfill the same commitment with new or different promises. This also strengthens the partnership and trust between the promise maker and receiver.

Obviously, if you don’t do what you say repeatedly your credibility and sense of partnership with others are likely to suffer. However, when you keep using the “lower priority” excuse and you assign the blame for not living up to your commitments elsewhere, it will also undermine your own sense of possibilities, ability, and power to make things happen and have the life you want.

The point of prioritizing is not to avoid responsibility and make excuses for the commitments you make, but rather to be more effective at making and keeping commitments. This being the case, making and managing promises, rather than hiding arm’s length behind “not-up-to-me” excuses of “priorities changed” puts us in the driving seat,

Which of these approaches appeals to you most?


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.”


How to build a High-Performance Team

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

For me a high-performance team is:

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

So, how do you develop a High-Performance team?

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

Step One – Choose high-performance:

First, you have to make sure your team members genuinely choose to become a high-performance team. Becoming a powerful team is no small task. It is a challenging roller coaster ride with some high points and many low points along the way. It requires a huge commitment. You can’t assume that people want it enough that they will do whatever it takes. Also, if you are the leader or manager of a team, you can’t mandate it.

At the middle manager level, you don’t need to have every manager fully committed to high performance. You need enough of the managers; a critical mass. However, at the senior-most leadership team, nothing less than a genuine commitment by 100% of the team will be enough.

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

Step Two – Take stock of your starting point:

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

It’s not enough to just be honest about the gaps. You have to own them too. Even if you didn’t start or cause them; even if they began a long time before you came on board.

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

By owning I do not mean that your team members have to beat themselves up or feel guilty. You have to be able to see your circumstances at least from the standpoint that you and your team members had something to do with your lack of high performance.  Perhaps you caused it. Perhaps you tolerated it. Perhaps you were blind to it. But, you had some role in it, especially if it has been there for a while.

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

Step Three – Create a bold strategy worthy of high-performance:

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

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

Obviously, your vision has to be desirable. But, it also has to represent a stretch end-result that, even though your team members may not yet fully know how to achieve, you all believe it is achievable.  Make sure you also design and outline the plans for executing and delivering on your plan.

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

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

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

You should think about things like:

  1. Addressing issues directly and quickly and not letting issues fester
  2. Speaking with one voice
  3. Recognizing each other’s efforts and achievements

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

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

I have helped many teams reach high-performance, and to be honest, taking this game on is demanding and challenging. However, if you stay the course, it is actually very energizing and rewarding. In fact, people often remember these bold initiatives as the highlight of their career.


Are you willing to go beyond your comfort zone for the good of the team?

I cannot tell you just how many times I have witnessed the following dynamic in organizations: Managers and employees sit around a meeting table, nodding in agreement as their leader explains the plan for a critical change initiative.  Once the meeting is over, people push back their chairs and drift back towards their desks.  As they congregate at the water cooler, they open up to each other: “What a pile of crap!”, “That’ll never happen!”, “I can hardly wait until the weekend!”.

Within hours (or less…) these mischievous comments go viral throughout the organization and cynicism, sarcasm and resignation become rampant. As a result, people start paying lip service to the organizational mandate.

Meanwhile, their unsuspecting leaders leave the same meeting believing they have done a great job of communicating their strategy and getting their people on board.

Have you ever experience this type of dynamic?

Nothing will undermine an important strategy, initiative or the culture of an organization more effectively than a lack of employee ownership and alignment.  If employees are expressing criticism and skepticism about their leaders and the initiative in “around the water cooler” conversations that is a sure sign that they are not on-board and not aligned with the company’s strategy.

So many leaders and managers simply don’t get it. They think that what people tell them to their face is what they really think. Sometimes that is the case. However, so many times it isn’t.

There are two types of conversations taking place in every organization at all times – one is spoken; what people say out loud. These are often the diplomatic and politically correct spins on the truth. The other is unspoken. It’s what people only say in private to those they really trust.

When leaders don’t create an environment that fosters genuine openness and honesty people go underground to converse.

Instead of addressing the important opportunities and challenges out in the open they cover their behinds, blame others for things that are not working well, or they simply become silently frustrated and resigned.  When they have to, they go along and pay lip service to the authorities. They say only what they believe to be politically correct and safe.

As a result, far too many leaders simply have no idea what their people are really thinking and saying. In fact, many mistake fear and compliance for commitment.

It takes courage – on both sides – to create an environment of blunt honesty.  Leaders must be willing to hear the undiluted truth, and employees must be prepared to express it.  It takes two to tango, however, this has to start and be encouraged and promoted from the top.

Leaders who learn to listen carefully and engage in blunt and meaningful dialogue with their people will find that the investment of time and effort is highly worthwhile.  Over time, people will rise to the occasion, abandon the back-channel conversations and start addressing challenges and opportunities head-on.

In fact, even if the strategy is not optimal, if managers and employees feel they can make a difference and their leaders really want to hear what they have to say, they will go out of their way to make sure it succeeds.

But, in order to succeed both leaders and employees have to go beyond their comfort zone for the good of the team.


Why is the why so important?

I was working with a team inside of a large technology company that was going through a lot of organizational change. In fact, for the previous three years or so every year they had another big leadership role shift and following that there was always a corresponding reorganization and some layoffs. I could tell that people were getting weary of it all. Every wave of change left people somewhat disoriented and many repeatedly felt like they had to start building things all over again, which was a disheartening feeling.

During my long-standing engagement with this team I had many opportunities to asked its leaders and managers to explain the reasoning behind, and purpose of the changes. These were very committed, loyal team members who were with the company for many years. In many previous change events, I got clear answers to my questions. However, this time was different. They couldn’t tell me why the current changes, which were shaking up and disrupting the company, were needed and what their purpose was. As I travelled across this global company I got similar responses of lack of clarity and confidence.

I have seen companies get away with significant corporate change, reorganization, disruption and turbulence, even repeatedly over several years, when leadership was able to clearly convey to its team members, mainly their leaders and managers, what their future destination and strategy is, and why the changes, that are making everyone’s life more difficult today, are necessary in order to achieve a better, greater desirable future for everyone.

But, in this case, the why wasn’t clear to people, and many, perhaps most seem to be more irritated, frustrated and disheartened by the change than before.

Have you ever experienced a major change in your company that affected your ability to fulfill your job, and you didn’t fully understand or agree with the need for this change?

With every change, there is the what, how and why.

What will the change look like?

How will it work and affect me?

Why are we doing it in the first place?

The what and how provide people with clarity on the process, timeline and what is expected of them. Think of it as clear marching orders. That is important in order to drive efficiency and effectiveness and avoid operational and implementation confusion and chaos.

However, the what and how do no generate personal buy-in, ownership and confidence. Only clarity regarding the reason and purpose can provide that. That is the why.

From my experience, buy-in and ownership are the most important things for change, and often the most difficult thing to universally achieve. In fact, the bigger, longer and more complex the change, the bigger the understanding, buy-in and ownership of the why need to be.

Context is a very powerful phenomenon. It gives people trust, faith and confidence, as well as patience, tolerance and sustaining power in the greatest challenges and toughest times. It doesn’t cost a penny to explain to people and enroll them in why the changes are necessary. It takes a powerful conversation.

If you want to drive change in your organization, make sure everyone at least understands and respects the why. If you want to drive the change in a high-performance manner, make sure people also believe and buy into the why.

Be careful what you wish for…

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

Here are two real stories…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how do you do that effectively?

Here are a few practical tips:

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

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

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

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

Say what you will do and do what you say!

Are you tolerating the blame game?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop using the “S” word!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, how could you change this predicament?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are your leaders all in?

Building a high-performance culture in an organization is a daunting undertaking. Anyone who has taken on such a commitment on would attest to that fact.

You are never going to get it perfectly right. You need nerves of steel and a combination of conviction and drive together with patience and tolerance for a messy process.

The main reason, of course, is that people are different, with diverse personalities, styles, and commitments. The likelihood of getting everyone in the organization to commit to the change, growth or success you are trying to implement is slim to none.

At the level of the employees, that’s OK. In fact, even with the managers, you don’t need to achieve 100% ownership and commitment to your goals. As long as you achieve a critical mass of buy-in and commitment with your managers you will have enough steam to succeed in your endeavor.

However, when it comes to your senior leadership team you must have 100% ownership, alignment, and commitment among 100% of your senior leaders toward the change, growth, and success you are trying to achieve.

If the head of the organization or team can’t completely enroll his/her leaders in his/her commitments, objectives and execution strategy you can bet that the effort won’t succeed.

A committed and determined leader will do his/her best to enroll, inspire, engage and even demand that his/her leaders own, lead and drive the new direction.

However, if the leader doesn’t succeed he/she must have the courage to make the tough decision to replace the leaders who won’t step up with ones who will. Nothing less than 100% ownership and commitment at the Leadership level will suffice to achieve a high-performance game!

Unfortunately, many organizations and leaders don’t seem to understand this simple nuance of total commitment. They underestimate how critical this point actually is, or they lack the courage to make the tough, uncomfortable, disruptive, unpopular decisions in order to achieve that 100%.

Many CEOs like their leaders on a personal level, which make these dilemmas even harder. In many cases, the CEO has been ‘in the trenches’ with his/her team members for a long time, so there is a bond and a sense of loyalty between them. That makes matters more difficult too. In other cases, certain people whether committed or not are a source of priceless knowledge, experience, and expertise. So, the idea of letting someone like that go or even upsetting them by merely changing their role in order to give way to someone more suited to the cause is understandably challenging. However, if a CEO wants to build a high-performance culture and game, he/she must be willing and able to make these calls in order to build a genuinely committed team around him/her.

Take as an example the struggles of the CEO of an up-and-coming technology company that was on a path of significant growth. He had just acquired a couple of companies in order to expand and strengthen his product and services platform. He was under tremendous pressure from his board to continue to manage the company’s aggressive growth, while at the same time integrate the companies he had acquired. The combination of significant growth and change was putting a lot of pressure and stress on everyone.

Needless to say, this was the time for his senior leaders to come together in the most unified and aligned way in order to lead and drive the opportunities and challenges of the change in the most cohesive, effective and rapid way, whilst continuing to unify and motivate the overworked and stressed out managers and employees.

However, this was not the case. Most of the senior leaders clearly understood the need for strong unification at the leadership team level, and they made attempts to bring the senior team together. However, a couple of the most senior leaders in the team who were also the CEO’s favorites, and who enjoyed the special attention and ‘privileges’ that relationship afforded them, were cynical about spending the time on teamwork, so they blocked these attempts to rally the leadership team.

Even when the pressure was mounting, as company performance was declining, the CEO did not take action to bring his senior team together, and/or coach and discipline the troublemakers.

He continued to interact with his senior leaders on an individual basis, which resulted in him working harder but his leaders working in silos. He talked about the need to increase scale and productivity, but his actions missed out on the opportunity to share the load with his leaders and elevate their individual and collective ownership, effectiveness and productivity at such a critical time.

Any organization is a reflection of its leadership team. The culture of your organization will only be as strong as the culture, behaviors, attitudes, and dynamics within your senior team. If you want to build a high-performance team in your organization start by modeling this behavior and dynamic with your senior leaders.

When it comes to ownership and commitment within the senior leadership team of your organization, don’t give your leaders discounts; the team is either all in or they are not in at all!