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.

 

Will you lead or lag the virtual revolution?

Just like the smartphone revolutionized the way we live and do business, it is inevitable that COVID will transform the way corporations work and do their business.

Why is this transformation inevitable?

Survival is a very powerful instinct. COVID very abruptly required companies to shift the way they manage their employees and customers, and the way they conduct their business.

At first, most companies scrambled to stay afloat. But for most, it didn’t take long before they found their new bearing. As I wrote in a previous blog, some companies even excelled in the last few months, finding and creating ways to take their internal and external business to new heights that surpassed pre-COVID times.

Many large corporations are weathering the COVID storm. Others will eventually do the same as well. However, many of the radical changes and innovations that companies had to create and implement in order to survive during the last few months, as well as their benefits, cannot and will not go unnoticed.

Companies are having and will continue to have new realizations about how they think about and manage their business, employees, and customers.

Here are three selected examples out of many more I heard from clients:

  1. “We were afraid of how to stay focused and productive, but we actually managed to be more focused, productive, and efficient working virtually than in the office. We got more things done…”
  2. “We were afraid of how to keep our teams united, motivated and in communication when everyone works from home, but our teams are probably more aligned, united, motivated and coordinated than ever before…”
  3. “We were afraid of our ability to maintain customer presence, value and loyalty due to the fact that everyone was working from home, but it turned out that our presence with, and value to our customers has only increased given the fact that we conducted more virtual webinars, presentations, training sessions and other customer events than ever before…”

The most significant realization for many companies may be that they actually can continue to grow and improve their business with much less overhead, by incorporating a radically different virtual strategy to their business.

Many companies have rejected and resisted programs like working from home or as it is commonly referred to as “flexible work” for the belief that it undermines productivity and effectiveness. I am sure this myth will dissipate across the board.

I know of a few communication technologies companies that have not used their own video and conference call products to run their own business pre-COVID and, during the last few months, they have had to use them to conduct day-to-day work. They stayed very productive during the last few months at home. They and other companies like them are going to start using their own technologies post-COVID.

In fact, for many companies, the use of communication technologies previously had been almost solely to offset and reduce travel costs. In simple terms, instead of people traveling to an off-site meeting/conference in one location, they conduct their meetings virtually and save a lot of money.

Some types of events and meetings are far less powerful and effective virtually, and some are flat out impossible to conduct via video. However, now that companies have experienced the virtues of virtual platforms, they will feel much more comfortable to take advantage of them.

Many companies own or lease a large amount of very costly real estate footprint based on their traditional way of doing business. I am sure many companies will reassess their real estate needs and resize their portfolio, now that they have proven to themselves and their customers that they can be as successful, with a much greater reliance on virtual tools, platforms, and approaches.

Lastly, it seems to me that the virtual revolution will address the gender imbalance in the workplace.  I believe that to a large degree the pre-COVID ‘work from home’ trend was initially promoted and primarily driven by and/or for mothers wanting to continue to develop their careers while having a family and caring for their children.

Therefore, the more the virtual revolution is accepted and takes hold, the more opportunities it will open up for women to take on more prominent roles in corporations. After all, in many of the old-fashioned companies that have resisted enabling working from home, opportunities for women’s advancement have been scarce.

The virtual revolution is inevitable. It is already underway. However, as always, some companies will lead the trend, and others will follow.

Will you be among the leaders or laggers in the virtual revolution?

Success through Rigor, Clarity, and Responsibility

Often when managers and employees feel frustrated about other’s lack of accountability, and they describe the reality as: “They promised to do X and didn’t deliver!” there is more to the story than that.

I have seen many times, in situations of conflict or dispute, person A insisting that person B promised to do or deliver something and simply did not do so, while person B denies ever having made the promise in the first place.

Both parties feel frustrated and resentful. Each one believes their version of the story represents the facts and truth. However, in many cases, when both parties step back, look a bit deeper, and try to view the situation more objectively, they realize that it was not bad intent caused their heartache, but rather the lack of rigor and clarity in their initial interaction.

If you want to avoid the common issues that happen when requesting or promising, there are a few things to pay attention to:

  1. Make sure what you are requesting or promising is clear, understood, and agreed to in the same way by both sides. Often, instead of explicitly spelling it out, people assume the other person knows what they are requesting or promising. It probably won’t be an exaggeration to say that, more often than not, people simply do not understand and/or are not aligned about what is being promised or requested. Needless to say, this causes mismatched expectations, that always lead to upset.
  2. Make sure the time frame of the promise or request is clear. For example, if you are asking for additional resources or budget for a strategic project, be specific about the time frame (the ‘by when’). Don’t leave it vague, or hope they’ll understand your urgency or act on it rapidly. And, if the person you are requesting this from promises to make it happen, “As soon as possible,” don’t settle for the lack of clarity… And don’t fall into the trap of assuming you will get what you need in the time you need it. Furthermore, don’t feel disappointed if your expectations were not met.
  3. Make sure the level of sincerity and commitments toward the promise is explicit. When you make a request and someone responses with “I’ll do my best” or “I don’t see any reason why not,” don’t make the mistake of taking that as an affirmation of commitment. A promise is clear, explicit, and unconditional. This doesn’t mean that a promise is a guarantee and, therefore, will always be fulfilled. However, when someone says: “I promise,” “You can count on me,” or “You have my word,” that represents a much stronger, sincerer, and more committed intention to do what they said. People often avoid this level of clarity because it is uncomfortable, and they fear it could lead to the realization that they may not get what they want.
  4. Check-in, follow up, and support the promise while it is being delivered. When someone promises you something, and they are in the process of working on it, your job is not over. You need to stay engaged and involved throughout the duration of the delivery cycle as a committed and vested partner in order to keep the promise alive. This interaction will look different depending on the nature of the promise and person you are dealing with. Sometimes it may mean checking in on a frequent basis. At other times, it may mean looking the person in the eye at the onset to get a sense of confidence that they really mean it, understood it, and will follow through. The main reason for avoiding this conversation is because it is disruptive and uncomfortable. People fear it could lead to the realization that they may not get what they want.
  5. Manage undelivered promises with integrity. No matter how sincere the promise, it is never a guarantee. Things happen, and people who promise sometimes fail to deliver or change their mind. If you understand and accept that simple fact, you will be in a much better mental place to deal with undelivered promises. For the most part, people know ahead of the deadline that they are not going to deliver what they promised. But unfortunately, while people seem to have no problem not doing what they said, they do have a problem being straight up and upfront about it.

The lack of courage to acknowledge and take responsibility for promises that won’t be delivered often goes both ways – to the one promising and the one being ‘promised to.’ Have you ever been in a situation in which someone promised you something, you had a feeling they may not come through, and still you avoided confronting them about it?

Regardless of your position and seniority – if you are not going to deliver on your promise, letting others find out at the last minute and be surprised is not acceptable. It undermines trust, credibility, confidence, and success.

If you can’t deliver what you promised, communicate in a timely and responsible manner. Then the two of you – together – can figure out alternative solutions and routes to rectify the situation or take a different course.

People want to fulfill their commitments and succeed, but they also can handle the truth, even if it is bad news. By interacting with rigor, clarity, courage, and responsibility, you are promoting respect, emphasizing other’s strengths, and enabling success.

 

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.

How to make your meetings more productive and fulfilling – part one

One of the most common complaints I hear in organizations is “we have too many meetings.” I believe in most organizations there are too many meetings. However, I also believe that what is causing people’s frustrations about meetings is the fact that most meetings are ineffective. They don’t produce enough and they don’t leave people with the experience of ‘time well-spent’ and having produced great accomplishments.

If you make your meetings much more powerful and effective I believe people will feel differently about “too many meetings.”

Here are a few practical tips for making your meetings much more productive and fulfilling:

Focus on achieving outcomes, not discussing topics

This guideline may seem simple and common sense, however, the inverse is true for most teams, as they typically orient their meetings around filling time slots with discussion topics.

It starts at the planning stage. Typically, the head of the meeting gathers from team members topics that require dialogue or decision. He or she then attributes time to each topic on the list and slots them into the agenda, which gets distributed to the team.

I have been in so many meetings that begin with a slide that shows the agenda – the sequence of topics in their time slots.

Furthermore, so often when I ask the meeting facilitator “How did the meeting go?”, he or she says “Great, we kept to the agenda“.

Instead of falling into the trap of filling time with topics, begin each meeting by creating clarity and alignment around the intended outcomes of the meeting. You can do this before the meeting as part of the preparation or in the meeting itself. Always state the intended outcomes in terms of clear end-results, not activities.

Having clear outcomes in front of you throughout the meeting will help you to navigate the discussion and stay on topic, especially when people react to others’ statements and want to steer the dialogue down unproductive rabbit holes or in unplanned directions.

Also, make sure that when you achieve an outcome acknowledge its fulfillment and completion. Don’t just jump to the next one. This will generate a sense of progress and accomplishment, consistent with your purpose.

Spend as little time as is needed to achieve the outcomes

People will discuss any topic for as long or short as the time allocated for that topic – regardless of necessity or effectiveness. Therefore, the shorter the time you can spend on a topic to achieve the outcome you desire, without compromising the quality of the conversation the better.

Leaders often seem to feel that if they don’t have a long conversation with their team about a topic people won’t align, or their alignment won’t be genuine. That is not true. More often than not the only reason discussions are so long and tedious is because the leaders allow that or even promote that.

For example, when presenting a new direction moving forward, I see a lot of leaders present then ask questions such as: “Does anyone have anything to say?”, “Does anyone have a different view?” or “How do you feel about this?”.

These are the wrong questions to ask, and they will most likely lead to a long and ineffective discussion.  Why? Because people always have something to say, and a feeling about everything. You don’t want to hear how people feel about the new direction.

This may seem trivial, but it isn’t – if you ask people to share how they feel or if they have anything to say, guess what – they will. How people feel is not a critical condition for alignment.

Instead, you should ask two more important questions:

First – “Does anyone have any questions about our new direction?” If you feel the need, you could ask someone to share their understanding of the new direction, just to be sure.

Second – “Are you all willing to align with this direction?“If everyone says “YES” you have accomplished what you wanted. If someone says “NO” then you need to continue the dialogue to see what is missing or the way for the unaligned to align.

There is no contradiction between someone saying “I am aligned” and “I still have concerns, fears, doubts, etc.” As long as everyone has the same understanding of what Alignment means you will be in great shape. It means: Owning the decision and/or commitment as my own decision and/or commitment.

Spending as little time as needed to achieve the outcome is only half of the story. Next week I will complete this blog with the second half of my advice on how to make your meetings more productive and fulfilling.

 

Are you afraid to be articulate and clear?

Would you stay on an airplane that was about to take-off if the pilot said the following as part of their pre-flight announcement:

This is your captain speaking. We are about to take off, we’re just waiting for the fuel truck to finish refueling us. They had an issue with fuel earlier on, but I am confident they’ll give us enough fuel for our flight… In addition, as you can see the weather isn’t great out there. Nevertheless, we have a strong aircraft that can withstand the storm, let’s just hope we don’t encounter any lightning…”

Would you put your brain, heart, eyes or any part of your body under the knife of a surgeon who came across in your pre-surgery consultation as lacking clarity, rigor, knowledge or confidence?

I don’t believe you would tolerate any level of approximate or vague measures when your life is at stake. You would want absolute clarity, precision, and transparency.

So, why do we tolerate so much vagueness and lack of clear, explicit and rigorous conversations in business?

This may sound strange to you, but one of the reasons teams find it so hard to drive alignment, ownership and effective collaboration in important strategies and plans is because people simply don’t speak plain English.

I don’t mean that people don’t speak the English language. I mean that people in corporations tend to talk about important things in a conceptual, vague, unclear and convoluted corporate language.

To say it politely, there are too many professional slogans, acronyms, and other jargon, shortcut phrases, and noun-type words and too little plain-old direct, explicit and articulate conversations. I see this dynamic all over the globe.

For example, people say things like: ‘We want to be Best in Class‘, but it is hard to tell if that means ‘best among their peers in the industry’, ‘best among other teams in their company’ or ‘much better than they are today’?

Or, people say: “We need to upgrade our talent”, but do they mean to fire the poor performers, hire new people, train everyone, improve specific systems and tools, or all of the above?

Phrases such as: “operational excellence”, “customer excellence” and/or “enablement” what do they mean??! You may jump and say: “I know what these mean!”. However, I assure you that if I asked another 10 people around you they most likely would have 10 different takes.

Everyone assumes that everyone else understands what is said and what it meant. However, more often than not that is completely not the case.

Then everyone goes off to do things in their own way, and then people wonder why not all team members are aligned, on board and owning the strategy and rowing in the same direction.

There is a big difference between plain language and corporate language. The latter is a language of high-level, implicit and vague clarity.

You would think that with so much at stake within the business world people would want to leave nothing to chance. However, experience shows that leaders actually prefer to leave declarations, commitments, promises and expectations at a general and vague level.

It enables them to stay off the hook and eases the pressure of committing to things unequivocally. After all, if you define things too clearly it becomes crystal clear what you’re saying, what you stand for, what you are committing to, and what you are accountable for. But, if you leave things more general it gives you wiggle room, especially when facing adversity.

At the core, it’s not a language issue. It is a commitment issue.

So often when supporting teams in creating their strategic plan I listen to the dialogue and even though I am not an expert in their field I can immediately tell that their inability to converse in plain language is hindering their ability to think, create and articulate thoughts and ideas effectively.

Simply by asking: “So, what do you mean by that?” everyone realizes that different people have different assumptions and interpretations about what is being said and what it could mean.

My questions are often met with a blank stare or a long-winded response, which only further illuminates the lack of clarity. In other times, I get a barrage of different, sometimes even opposing responses from different team members, which again emphasizes the point.

People seem to be so entrenched in the conceptual noun-based language-style used in PowerPoint presentations that they seem unable to move away from this style when conversing and interacting face-to-face.

The typical corporate language is sufficient for perpetuating the ordinary and status quo. However, if you have bolder ambitions in mind of being extraordinary – the ‘best of the best’ and/or taking your game to a new level, you better challenge the vague corporate language norm and start promoting and demanding a new level of simple, straightforward and rigorous dialogue.

 

Are you a good communicator?

Most people are really not great communicators. They assume that others see things the way they do, and/or they know what is expected of them, so they either avoid communicating or they communicate in an implicit and ineffective way.

Even those who do communicate often, do it in a much less direct and effective way then they think.

I was coaching two very seasoned and successful executives in the trust and communication between them. Each of them commanded a very large and critical division. Their divisions depended on each other for their success and the overall success of the company. Because these two executives didn’t trust each other they also didn’t communicate in a transparent and honest way and this affected the dynamic between their organizations.

One executive, who was harboring resentments and frustrations toward his peer, left our conversation with a passionate determination to have the brave and direct conversation with his peer. A few days later when I followed up with him, he acknowledged that the conversation took place, it was extremely forthright and bold and had a meaningful impact on his relationship with his peer.

I was pleased to hear this, but when I asked his colleague how the conversation went, he had a drastically different account of what transpired. In his experience, his colleague didn’t communicate openly at all or convey anything new or meaningful. From his standpoint, nothing had improved or changed.

I can’t tell you the number of times one person tells me how bold and direct the conversation was, and the second person says that wasn’t at all.

People don’t communicate in a clear, rigorous, direct and/or bold way and when they are called to the carpet, they often explain and excuse it with “It was a misunderstanding…”.

Well, on rare occasions there are misunderstandings. However, most of the time it is not a matter of “Oops!“.

Communication is the most powerful instrument, tool and/or weapon we have as human beings to build, drive, manage and/or destroy things. It is innate in our human operating system.

People simply don’t want to take responsibility for their potential power and impact, therefore they don’t want to take responsibility for their desires, requests (what they want), how they feel and/or what is working and not working for them.

It is easier and safer to stay small. The way you do that is by communicating in a vague, wishy-washy and cowardly way and blaming the circumstances and events for why things are not moving in the way you want.

There is both an art and a science to communicating effectively. The more you understand and practice the science the better you will get at the art.  Here is a quick overview…

There are two dimensions to communication:

The content, which is the words that come out of your mouth; making sure they are explicit, clear and direct. Making sure the receiver of your communication receives then exactly the way you meant them.

The context, which is the intention, purpose and higher messages behind your words; making sure the receiver of your communication gets where you are coming from, what you are intending and how you feel about the words you are conveying.

For example, “Tough love” – you could be upset with someone and convey harsh words without violating their genuine experience of your great love, respect, and care for them. No contradiction.

The is a construct for conducting and managing powerful communications:

If you want to be a powerful communicator all you need in your toolbox are four tools that will enable you to achieve, drive and manage any outcome you want:

  1. Request an action or outcome. If you don’t explicitly ask for what you want, don’t expect to get/have it. Nothing is too big or small to request. This is so simple and so powerful!
  2. Promise an action or outcome. If you want people to listen to you, rely on you and invest in you, make promises and deliver them. As long as you are authentic nothing is too big or small to promise.
  3. Declare your stance. If you want people to know who you are, declare your stance and where you stand in areas that are important to you. Declarations create platforms for requesting and promising.
  1. Express your feelings. If you want people to know how you feel, tell them. Don’t expect them to already know or assume they already know. There is NO Universal Code or Master Manual for how people should behave, respond or react in key situations.

Three basic tips for being an effective communicator:

  1. Over communicate. Most people under-communicate or they don’t communicate at all. Even if it feels excessive to you, most likely it will feel “perfect” for people around you.
  2. Don’t be lazy. Be explicit, rigorous and direct with your communication. Don’t assume they understand what you mean. Go the extra mile to ensure it.
  3. Take responsibility for how your communication is received. After you communicate, ask the receiver to repeat back to you what you said, what they heard, what they understood and what they are taking away from your communication. Make sure it is what you intended.

It takes courage to be a powerful communicator. It takes courage to be powerful, full stop.

First, in the sea of vagueness, a powerful communicator will always stick out like a thorn.

Second, people tend to get irritated by powerful communicators who break the mode of vagueness and bring clarity, rigor, and accountability to interactions.

So, you have an opportunity to take a stand about the type of communicator you want to be, then promise what you will start and stop doing in order to turn your stand into your natural mode.

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!

 

You can’t have your cake and eat it too…

Words are only cheap when we make them cheap.

It’s no wonder concepts like “alignment” “empowerment” and “accountability” are considered faded clichés in most organizations.

This is because leaders have abused these terms for so long by pronouncing them left, right and center at their convenience to present themselves as modern and enlightened leaders only to repeatedly not live up to their declarations and to the promise of these powerful leadership concepts.

Many senior executives say they want to build greater trust with their team, but they are unwilling to invest the time to bring their team together in order to build that trust.

Many leaders say they want to empower their people, but when their leaders attempt to give them critical feedback, they become irritated and angry, which suppresses any space for authentic communication.

Many leaders say they want to engage their people in the mission of the company, but when their people give them advice or bring up ideas for improving things, they ignore these inputs because they feel ‘they know best’.

Alignment and ownership, or ‘command-and-control’. They are mutually exclusive. You can’t play both games. You have to choose one or the other.

Leaders who think that alignment means everyone agreeing with their direction, views and management style and wholeheartedly following them and doing what they say with ownership and passion are simply naïve, disconnected and/or delusional.

If you want to build an environment of genuine ownership and alignment it comes with the price of people being encouraged and allowed to think for themselves, express their views and get the job done with their own voice and in their own way.

Empowerment is not a cliché or slogan from a management textbook, it is a powerful leadership paradigm and approach that is not for the faint-hearted.

If you are so convinced that you know best, you have all the answers, you are smarter than everyone in your team or you are simply too afraid of getting feedback and criticism from your people an empowered and aligned team environment is not for you.

If you behave like a dictator you will trade-off people’s ownership, empowerment and commitment. If you don’t listen, you will surround yourself with people who don’t speak.

The problem is that most leaders know how to play the corporate game and say the right slogans. Some actually drink their own Kool-Aid and believe their own stories. They believe that they are committed to promoting empowerment and alignment around them.

If you want to know the truth, find a way to ask your people. Either directly or through a trusted third party. If you are reluctant to do that you are probably not open to building an empowered and aligned team environment. However, if you are eager to do so, you probably are committed to building an open, honest and authentic team environment.

None of this is set in stone. If you recognize that you haven’t been focused on, or effective at building an environment of empowerment, trust and communication in your team you could always shift gears and start doing so.

However, to succeed you must first be honest with yourself and probably with others too, about the type of leader you have been and who you really want to be in the future. You cannot pretend to be committed to building an environment of empowerment, trust, and communication. Your inauthenticity would be clearly recognized. Some leaders really believe in the command-and-control approach. They have achieved good results with that and they don’t have a desire to change. If you are one of those leaders, be honest about that.

However, if you are committed to leading through empowerment, trust, and communication, declare that, acknowledge your gaps and identify your opportunities and start developing the necessary skills to become really good at it.

 

Can you tolerate things getting worse before they get better?

Consider this rare and true example: A sales team of a technology company was struggling to achieve its objectives. Team members worked long hours, including weekends and holidays to meet their numbers, everyone felt overworked and stressed and needless to say “work-life balance” was a big issue. 

The General Manager of that organization, who was a bold, demanding and strategic leader, came out with an edict to transform his team’s predicament: “No one was allowed to work past 8pm on weekdays or at any time on the weekend.” He made it clear that everyone was still expected to deliver their numbers, and that offenders of his new instructions would suffer the consequence. At first, people were shocked. Many were skeptical. However, after firing the first person who violated his new policy people started to take notice.

In the first month, the team missed its numbers by 20%. Everyone expected the General Manager to cancel his “unrealistic” policy, but he didn’t. In the second month, the results were still around 10% below and only in month three did the team hit its numbers for the first time in a long time. What happened following the third month was quite extraordinary. Not only did the team start to consistently meet its number, but it actually often exceeded its numbers. In addition, something changed in the overall atmosphere within the team. The overall energy, commitment, and dialogue of the team shifted to be much more productive and powerful, and more oriented around how to do more with less.

Unfortunately, this example is indeed rare. Most leaders can’t tolerate even the slightest temporary dip in performance. They panic at the first sign of a dip, and they often react in negative ways that set the team back and send a message that they don’t have the courage and faith to stay the course.

This is especially true in publicly traded companies and the common justification for not taking risk is that it would negatively affect the stock performance.

Case in point, the senior leadership team of a technology company that had acquired a couple of companies and whilst in the process of fully integrating and leveraging its new assets it was struggling to achieve its sales results. After the first missed quarter people blamed it on the integration, so they didn’t make significant adjustments to the strategy. However, when their shortfall repeated itself next two quarters people started to get frustrated and discouraged. Some of the senior leaders urged the CEO to adjust the strategy and make bolder changes in order to plant the seeds for breaking out of the negative vicious circle. However, the CEO didn’t feel comfortable rocking the boat, so things continued to chug along. Eventually, the CEO did listen and make some changes, but he lost a lot of time and the goodwill of his people, stakeholders, and investors.

If you are a status quo leader driving a status quo agenda, you don’t have to worry about doing bold things. However, if you want to take on a bold objective or initiative there is a high likelihood that things will get worse before they get better. It’s not a slogan. If you can’t tolerate the rollercoaster ride, don’t get on the train.

But, without this courage, you will keep retreating backward instead of pushing forward to overcome your courage and resilience barrier.

The good news, however, is that if you do stay the course and reach the other side, things will get even better than they were before you started.

 

Are you just expecting results and progress or relentlessly driving them?

If you want to achieve a bold outcome or drive a new reality and change in 2019, don’t expect your desired outcomes to just happen, cause them to happen!

This statement may sound over simplistic, obvious and common sense to you. However, I cannot tell you how many times when I work with organizations even at the senior levels, where I see people frustrated because they did everything, they believe is needed in order to get the result and it still didn’t happen. Alternatively, they put in place the process, metrics, milestone and/or alerts to achieve the result and they have been tracking them on a frequent basis or they instructed their team members to achieve the result, and then they relied on the same result happening as in the past.

I am sure you have heard people say things like “We should be further along”, “The initiatives are not achieving big enough results”, “We are moving too slow”, and “We don’t see a change in behavior yet”.

If you mapped out the trend of any significant achievement or initiative, more often than not it would look like a horizontal hockey stick. If you have been around, you know that things often do not go the way we planned them.

Sometimes what we wanted, but didn’t expect, happens. At other times, what we were sure would happen didn’t.

With any meaningful achievement first, you need to invest a lot of effort and energy at first without seeing a lot of return and progress. By the way, I said, “without seeing a lot of return and progress…” I didn’t say “without any return and progress actually happening…” A lot is happening, we just can’t see it until things begin to take off.

Expecting progress, change and results is the wrong approach. You have to drive and cause them!

Just like you wouldn’t dig out a flower seed every week after you planted it to see if it is making progress, you can’t second-guess yourself, your direction or your team.

In fact, if you want to succeed in any significant undertaking you have to manage your expectations and have the mindset that your job is not to “see if it will work” but rather to “ensure and prove that it will work”.

It seems that leaders who don’t stay the course when they want to achieve a bold result, always tend to justify their failure with excuses and blame. I often hear them explain their failure with excuses like: “There was too much going on“, “The change initiative interfered with our core business or results“, and “People stopped being on-board“. The quitters worry more about their own personal brand and image and how they will be perceived. They tend to want to cover their behind.

In contrast, leaders who stay the course tend to always look inward at the source of what is working and not working – especially what isn’t working. They don’t care about blame or fault. They only care about how to make sure the promise of the new future will stay alive and be realized.

When things go well, they become nervous and shake people up in order to avoid complacency or arrogance. When things don’t go well, they rally their teams and engage in questions such as – “What are we doing or not doing that is causing this?” and “What could we do differently?”

So, in order to achieve great things in 2019, give up blaming others and circumstances for what isn’t working, and instead take 100% ownership and responsibility to get it done, even if it is challenging.