Stop wasting time in worthless meetings

I was working with two different organizations that were going through significant growth and change. One company had completed its second acquisition of a large competitor and was in the midst of integrating teams, products and strategies to optimize this significant change and growth.

The other company had done such a great job in their core business of selling machines and hardware that they were expanding their market reach into adjacent areas of software development and consulting. This change required new capabilities, skills, processes and mindset.

Needless to say, in both cases, there were many complex details for the leadership teams to debate, make decisions about and iron out both in their growth and change strategy, as well as in its execution. In both cases, decisions were not being made fast enough.

The leadership teams of both of these companies had a similar routine of holding a weekly call for about 90 minutes each, where leaders, in turn, shared updates on the activities they were working on. These weekly calls were mostly oriented around updates and sharing with little-to-no interaction or debate. In fact, most leaders didn’t find these weekly calls very productive and critical, so throughout the calls, they were busy doing their emails while the call was going on, so they weren’t even paying that much attention to their colleague’s updates to begin with.

Needless to say, these weekly update calls were not the forum where the leaders could debate and dig into the big topics of challenges and opportunities that were affecting everyone’s day-to-day life given all the massive growth and change they were going through.

Every one of the leaders in both companies felt a burning need for their leadership team to spend quality time together in order to debate the urgent topics that were on their minds, but they had no other meeting scheduled beyond the weekly calls to do that in.

The leaders actually did have plenty of opportunities to meet each other in-person in their quarterly business reviews (QBR) and other company functions, but these always included many other participants beyond the leaders so there was no opportunity for alone time for the leaders. They occasional dinners together as a leadership team also didn’t provide the opportunity for meaningful debates.

Everyone was frustrated about the lack of quality leadership team time, but no one did anything much about it. When I asked why the leaders don’t schedule additional leadership team meetings people responded with: “We are too busy with the day-to-day” and “We can’t find the time….”. When I challenged them they added and explained: “We have too many other meetings that are filling our schedule, that are a waste of time; things we could cover via email”

I see this exact same dynamic with so many companies!!!

The “We don’t have time” excuse is exactly that – a lame excuse and a cop out!

It’s actually worse, the need for the leadership team to spend quality time in order to debate and address the big challenges and opportunity of their growth and change is real and critical. It is not a “luxury” or “nice to have”. It is a “must” and a “leadership responsibility”. Not doing it is unacceptable.

The solution is actually quite simple and straightforward:

  1. Have the courage to stop/cancel all the meetings that are unproductive and not a good use of time.
  2. Share information that could be shared/updated via email – via email.
  3. Schedule meetings with enough time, on topics that are important. For a company that is going through significant change, the leadership team should meet no less than once a quarter for one or two full days. In some periods/phases of change, even that is insufficient and the leadership team should meet every month or every other month.
  4. Make sure the important meetings are productive, with clear objectives, agenda and someone to manage/facilitate them. Don’t let them decline or get out of control.

If you stop the ineffective and worthless meetings and you make sure the important meetings are productive and worthwhile people won’t feel like there are too many meetings. They will simply see these as “what we do to be successful”

 

How to sustain your excitement with the change you want?

Have you ever attended a really powerful and great strategic planning meeting at work where at the end of the meeting you felt truly excited, inspired and hopeful about the new future direction? But then you returned back to your day-to-day work environment and it wasn’t long before the routine, workload, churn and perhaps cynicism around you set back in and you lost that sense of optimism and excitement that you had in that meeting?

So how do you sustain your excitement toward a new direction or the change you want to bring about?

Here are a few practical suggestions:

  1. Speak to as many people as you can about it. The more people you will inform and engage in the new future the bigger the conversation you are creating around you about the future. The more participants and “partners” you have in the new direction the easier it will be for you to stay focused and excited about it.
  2. Reference the new direction or strategy in every conversation or meeting. If you believe in the future and you find it relevant, the best way to keep it alive is to keep bringing it up. Keep it real! The more you reference the new direction and strategy the more real you will make it for yourself and others.
  3. Look for opportunities to declare and reaffirm your commitment to the new direction or strategy. The more you speak to people about the new direction and declare your commitment and stand, the more your commitment will empower and energize you back.
  4. Establish clear and effective action plans to achieve and drive your new direction and strategy. Your declarations will strengthen your sense of purpose, your energy and your mental resolve. Clear plans will compel you and others into action. Declarations without action plans tend to feel hollow and they tend to die off. Action plans without clear purpose and context quickly turn into uninspiring busywork. The combination of both purpose and action is very powerful.
  5. Acknowledge, recognize and praise others who stand for, reference and live up to the new direction and future. Basic leadership is to lead by example. A higher level of leadership is to promote others to do the same. A powerful way to do that is to acknowledge, recognize and praise leadership and future-based behavior in others. This practice will also, come back to empower and energize you too.

Declaring your commitment and what you stand for provides you the opportunity to express yourself, be courageous and authentic. Doing these will most definitely empower and energize you.

We are often consumed in our day-to-day by the same concerns, worries and anxieties that come from our past. By focusing on, promoting and staking yourself to the new future direction and strategy you are shifting your orientation and reference point from the past to the future. That shift is real and it will elevate your energy and excitement.

Most people are most happy, energized and alive when they are true to themselves authentic, courageous and self-expressed.

I hope you can you find all these on my list.

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 focusing on lagging indicators!

I was supporting a technology company that was going through tremendous growth and change. They had ripped apart and restructured their entire business and they were working very hard on integrating the new pieces.

Even though they were going through all this change they were given no relief from achieving their bold sales numbers. What made things worse is that they had fallen short in their few previous quarters. Needless to say, the pressure and stress were very high. Everyone was focused on achieving the next quarter’s results.

But, a growing number of leaders were becoming frustrated. They felt that the short-term focus was part of the problem. They believed that the team’s single focus on the next thirty-day and ninety-day results was perpetuating the short-term challenges and problems that were causing the continuous shortfalls. The short-term focus was preventing the team from coming up with longer-term strategies that may not help in the near future but would lay the foundation for elevating the team out of its predicament in the longer run.

It was hard for this team to change its mindset.  Many leaders felt that if the team doesn’t make its short-term results the company won’t have a longer-term future.

Have you ever been in a situation like this? Where your existing results were in jeopardy and even though you knew that reacting to the poor results in the short term would be a mistake you couldn’t help but do so.

I see this dynamic in organizations all the time.

Many leaders don’t seem to understand that their business results are lagging indicators, therefore focusing on them, or reacting to them is the wrong thing to do.

You don’t want to focus on the lagging indicator. You want to focus on their source.

Context is the source of results.  In organizations context manifests through the culture of the organization: how people at all levels, functions and locations behave and act, what people consider possible and impossible, achievable and unachievable, and the degree to which people feel that they matter, they can make a difference and they can affect and change things.

Leaders who understand this know that they have to focus on and nurture their people’s ownership, commitment, empowerment and motivation. Everything else falls out of that.

If your people are frustrated, they feel like the company is not doing the right things and they can’t speak up or influence and change that, they’ll leave or worse – they will stay as skeptical, cynical and resigned team members. You can be sure that if this happens the results will start stalling or declining – it’s not a matter of if, only when.

But, if your people feel genuinely excited and committed; that they matter and they can make a difference, they will own the objectives and they will go the extra mile to reach them. And, if the results are declining, they will work together in a very transparent and candid way to get to the source of the issues and turn things around.

Your people’s level of excitement, commitment and ownership, as well as their clarity of destination and sense of empowerment to make the difference in achieving it, is your leading indicator of success.

Strong results will dry up when the context is weak. On the other hand, a strong context will overcome any bad results! And, don’t get confused about the benchmark: you could be better than your competitors, even the best in your industry and still be much less than you could be.

If you and your team are clear about who you are, what you stand for, what you are committed to, and you have a plan, and then you and your team act and behave consistently with your commitments, values and plan, it is only a matter of when, not if you will achieve what you want.

The universe three tests rule – a Fable:

A team of professionals who were successful for many years in their craft decided to take their game to a new level. They took on a bold stand and aligned on a set of audacious objectives to leap themselves beyond anything they have ever done or achieved before.

The universe listened to their declaration and said skeptically: “I have heard so many empty declarations. What is different with this team?

To check them out, the universe threw at them a few small obstacles and challenges to make their new endeavor more challenging.

The professionals remained calm and collected, they stayed the course, overcame these small curveballs and moved on.

The universe took notice, but it wasn’t overly impressed. “Beginner’s luck,” it said as it released a bigger wave of issues and problems for the professionals to deal with.

These bigger obstacles definitely raffled the professional’s feathers. They scrambled and struggled to overcome the problems. Their partnership and trust were strained. However, eventually, they figured it out and continued forward with commitment and resolve.

OK, you have my attention!” the universe stated. “Now let’s see if you are truly for real.” The universe unleashed issues, challenges, problems and unfavorable circumstances bigger than the first two times combined.

The team scrambled and struggled. Their performance and results declined, some of their people gave up and left, and their own partnership, trust and belief in the future were significantly strained. But, at the end they endured, they figured it out and continued forward with commitment and resolve.

The universe, who was taking notice the whole time finally exclaimed: “Yes! You are for real!” and then everything began to change. Instead of issues, problems and obstacles, the universe started sending favorable incidents, meetings, material assistant and circumstances that the team couldn’t have anticipated would come their way. As a result, they started to gain momentum towards their desired change and eventually achieved it.

The End!

Most teams give up too quickly!

Their first mistake – they focus on the results, which are lagging indicators.

Their second mistake – they don’t focus on nurturing people’s commitment, ownership and empowerment, which are leading indicators.

Their third mistake – they don’t stay the course for long enough to pass the universe three tests and get to the other side, where they could reap the rewards.

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.

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.

Are you owning your personal power?

I was working with a senior leadership team of a successful technology company that was dealing with great change as a result of changes in their market and the way their customers wanted to partner with them to purchase and consume their offerings.

The stakes were high and the senior leaders had to make some big and bold decisions about how they will organize their company differently to accommodate this change.

The good news was that the company had a strong portfolio of offerings that was relevant and desired by their customers. The bad news is that this organization and leadership team had a long history of working in a particularly siloed way. While teams worked well together, each business and function had a lot of autonomy to do things the way they wanted, and overall the organization was quite siloed.

The future opportunities and challenges required a significant internal change both in mindset and structure and the leaders were in a meeting discussing this.

After presenting and summarizing the market changes that lead to the change, the leader asked people to state their views about how the organization should restructure its business and functions.

Through my one-on-one conversations prior to the meeting, I knew how individual leaders felt about the required change, including which groups should grow, which should shrink and which should be closed altogether in order to enable new groups to be formed.

However, in a typical diplomatic and politically correct fashion none of the leaders fully expressed their views. It wasn‘t that no one said anything of substance. It was more that most of the leaders danced around the topic a bit speaking in a conceptual and hypothetical manner instead of jumping straight to the heart of the matter with concrete ideas and proposals.

In fact, the one leaders who had a reputation for being blunt and disruptive did what he always does – he expresses a blunt view. However, because his colleagues already related to him as the “blunt” “disruptor” “controversial” and even “troublemaker”, his comments didn’t make the impact in terms of encouraging others to speak more courageously or actually shaping the direction and decisions.

I wasn’t surprised because unfortunately, I see this dynamic frequently in teams of all levels. People tend to water down their ideas, commitments, feedback and/or criticism when they talk to colleagues, boss or even subordinates.

Why does this happen?

I believe the main reason is that people don’t own and don’t take responsibility for their power to influence, shape the future, drive directions and make a difference.

If you don’t own your personal power, you are likely to hesitate to express your big ideas, negative feedback or bold requests of others.  You may speak freely in private, however, you will hold back in public.

Some people may push back and say something like: “It’s not that I don’t own what I have to say, I just don’t trust my teammates or our team environment to hear what I have to say in the right way…” Well, if you don’t trust your team or team environment and you do own your power to make a difference start with an honest conversation about the trust. It all boils down to the same thing.

This may seem a bit simplistic, however, if you net it out I find that it all boils down to courage. Having the courage to look inward and be clear about who you are, where you stand and what you want to drive, achieve and say, even if it may be scary or uncomfortable for you or the people receiving.

Many times, people talk before they are clear about what they want to say, so they tend to speak in circles or stumble on words. This is not because they are not smart, they don’t command the language or they are lazy. It stems from the same space of lack of ownership –  they haven’t taken the time to get clear about, and own their stand and position. Most of the time it doesn’t take a lot of time to make a choice and take a stand. It could, however, take a lot of courage

So, next time you find yourself uncertain or stuck in a conversation ask yourself:

  • Am I clear about my stance on this topic or conversation?
  • “Am I clear about what I want to say?” You can be clear about what you want to say but not yet sure about how you will say it… no issue there as long as you don’t use the latter as an excuse to sell out on the former.
  • Am I willing to own what I have to say with no compromise or excuses?” OR, “Am I willing to own my power and ability to make a difference?!”

This will help you move forward.

Why is it so hard to integrate newly acquired organizations?

I read a staggering statistic which stated that upwards of 80 percent of mergers and acquisitions (M&A) fail to fulfill the strategic goals that justified the merger and/or acquisition within the expected timeframe. What is even more shocking is that in many cases, the resulting organizations are less effective and less successful than the original two by themselves.

My personal experience and observation have led me to believe that this repeated failure is almost always due to the fact that most teams and organizations focus almost exclusively on the content and process but they don’t invest enough time and effort on the cultural, personal and human aspects of their integration. This almost always leads to a reality in which the acquiring executives end up with a well-articulated plan that doesn’t work because it is disconnected from the actual reality.

Even though I hear more and more executives acknowledge that the biggest challenge in integrating an organization they have acquired is “People” and “Culture”. That declaration is rarely reflected in their priorities, investments and actions.

I have supported many integration efforts and I have found that there are four areas that are closely related, that if addressed effectively – no matter how large or complex the M&A may be – could ensure a much more successful integration of the newly acquired organization:

  1. Establish an environment where people can communicate and dialogue about the M&A in a candid, authentic, courageous, and effective way. M&A efforts are often stalled or undermined because the executives try to quickly address the redundancies, overlaps and duplications. This includes the nuts and bolts of reorganizing, restructuring, scaling and letting people go inside an environment and atmosphere of mutual suspicion, guardedness, and defensiveness, as well as lack of trust, respect, candor, and authentic communication. Trying to do things fast often slows them down because people say all the politically correct things, but when they can’t really express how they feel, they walk away paying lip service to whatever has been agreed to.
  2. Elicit genuine ownership on both sides for the success of the M&A. In most M&As, one party feels ‘taken-over’ or victimized by the other. While this dynamic is understandable, it undermines the ability of both organizations to succeed in their integration. From the start, it is critical for the leaders to create an environment in which everyone on both sides of the aisle genuinely owns, feels committed to, and is accountable for the success of the integration process and its outcome.
  3. Enable both parties to complete their respective pasts in an honorable and empowering way. Each team or company has its own unique legacy of culture, brand name, competencies, ways of doing things, heritage and identity, which its people often feel proud of, and attached to. In order to move forward with a new shared identity, people need to ‘complete their respective pasts’ – or differently said ‘grieve for the end of an era.’ When both sides – especially the acquired – feel respected, heard, considered, included, recognized, and validated for their legacy, it creates space for all parties to enthusiastically partner in order to make the next chapter bigger than anything any of them have achieved in their past.
  4. Align the newly combined teams around a shared future and identity that embody the best of both cultures and operations. To create a reality where the new whole is greater than the sum of its historical parts, the two organizations or teams have to articulate and align on a new bold and compelling shared future. Both parties have to equally own, feel committed to, accountable for and energized about their new joined future. Unifying the teams around a shared future and identity will immediately create genuine excitement and urgency on both sides to clarify, align, streamline and scale roles, functions, structures, and responsibilities. When creating the future, it is important to consider and include the positive attributes and uniqueness of each organization in order to avoid the trap of one company feeling crushed by the other.

There’s no doubt that it is hard to integrate newly acquired organizations. However, there are some basic common-sense things that could be done to make the task more successful, that in most M&As are still not being done.

If executives stop paying lip service to the cultural, personal and human aspects of their integration and they start putting their money where their mouth is, I am confident that we will start seeing the grim M&A statistics change course.

Be careful of the two-headed monster!

Accountability is one of these corporate concepts that could make a great difference in almost every aspect of any company’s culture, performance and business results. Unfortunately, in most organizations and teams ‘accountability’ is simply not practiced or effectively promoted and nurtured.

In fact, in most organizations, there seems to be awkwardness when dealing with accountability.

In some organizations accountability is not a big topic. People don’t bring it up and they don’t even expect it. This is simply because they don’t know how to approach it or bring it about.

However, in most modern organizations people do bring up the topic of accountability on a regular basis. Unfortunately, the fact that the concept is being talked about doesn’t mean it is present as a behavior. In fact, in most organizations accountability lives as talk and no action.

People talk about accountability mainly when they want to criticise, complain, blame others or just blow steam when they are frustrated about the fact that things are not moving or changing fast or effective enough, and when they feel that no one is doing anything about it.

Contrary to what leaders often say, they seem to be ok with the lack of clarity and enforcement of accountability. But, at the same time, they also seem to feel personally attached to and identified with their titles and what they are allegedly accountable for.

Because of that, calling people to the carpet and holding people to account, especially when they didn’t do what they promised, is often not an easy or comfortable conversation to have. In fact, even assigning accountability or enrolling people to take it in the first place requires a level of commitment to high performance, clarity, and courage that to be honest even senior leaders often don’t have.

Sometimes when organizations don’t want to confront the topic of who should be accountable for specific activities they come up with a compromise of assigning two leaders to be accountable for the same team, project or task. In most organizations, this model of accountability is typically referred to as ‘two-in-a-box‘.

In most cases, the ‘two-in-a-box accountability’ model is a sellout; the wrong answer for the wrong reasons. More importantly, it doesn’t work!

I was working with the marketing function of a large global technology company. When it came to managing and storing their own data, as well as their customer’s collateral, they had a fragmented model in place, where multiple teams were responsible for managing different parts of the information. Needless to say, this was not efficient, people were confused both internally and externally about roles and responsibilities, and these dynamics caused tensions between team members.

The leader of the organization decided to make a change, so he gathered his senior leadership to discuss who should be accountable for this area. To be fair, managing and sorting this volume of information and data is a complex and challenging task so the discussion wasn’t an easy one and it took time. However, the fact that different leaders had personal agendas about how this should go, only made things more difficult.

The team didn’t reach a conclusion and the senior leader, who didn’t want to dictate a resolution, instead created a two-in-a-box model by assigning the accountability to the two leaders whose jobs were closest this field. These were also the two leaders who competed for the role.

Things only deteriorated from there. Instead of trying to work together the two-in-a-box leaders continued to work in silos without much sharing and collaboration. As a result, the lack of clarity about roles and responsibility only deepened, team members and customers didn’t know who to go to for different information and solutions, resentments grew, and productivity plunged.

Trust me, this is not a one-off scenario.

No matter what rationale senior leaders come up with to explain and justify their compromise, when you strip it down, the reason is typically avoiding the tough conversations and tough decisions, which may upset one leader when you give him/her the accountability and/or upset another leader when you take away his/her accountability.

After all, if there is 100% clarity and transparency, and everyone knows that you are or are not accountable for a certain area, this could have implications on your perceived status and importance in the organization.

So, contrary to what they often publically declare, leaders opt for generalization and vagueness rather than clarity and transparency.

Unfortunately, the consequences of this lack of clarity are dear, including politics, stagnation, and erosion of trust and confidence in senior leadership.

Do you think that if leaders truly confronted and owned the consequences of their lack of decisiveness and clarity they would change their ways?

Don’t stop while you are ahead

Most teams make the classic mistake of taking their foot off the gas in their change initiatives when things actually start to change. They commit to change, work hard to make changes and then at the most critical moment when things start to improve and change, they abandon the rigor, discipline and focus that brought them to the change in the first place.

This is a typical human behavior that most or all of us are guilty of from time to time.

How many of you can relate to the following example: You decide to lose weight and/or get into physical shape. You sign up to the gym, hire a personal trainer and perhaps even a nutritionist and off you go. You make a big effort to stay the course, you are zealous about complying with your exercise and healthy eating routines and you make sure to not get distracted or discouraged by challenging moments. It takes time, and at first, you don’t see the benefits. However, after a while your efforts pay off – you start to feel and see the difference. Your body looks trimmer, you feel lighter, you are eating healthier, and overall you are on a new trend. You feel amazing because the progress you made is beyond anything you have done in previous attempts.

BUT then, at the height of your success, you start rounding corners. You skip gym sessions, you stop being strict about what you eat and you allow old habits to creep in. At first, you justify your lapses with excuses such as: “I am doing so well, I can afford a little indulgence”. However, before you know it you are well on your way downhill, you have ruined your new established discipline and routine, you are eating badly and gaining weight again and the worst things is you have become cynical and resigned again.

What most teams go through when taking on fundamental culture and behavior change is the same dynamic.

Unfortunately, the reality relating to change initiatives is even more dire. Most teams don’t even stay the course in their change initiatives for long enough to get to the stage of seeing real changes. The sadder news is that the few fortunate teams who do reach change, don’t do a good job at turning their new reality into the new norm.

Why?

The simple answer is that most teams simply don’t understand and appreciate the source and nature of change.

The source of change is sustained commitment in action. This means declaring your commitment and then forcing yourself to behave consistent with it, no matter what. This inevitably involves doing things you are not used to doing, you don’t feel comfortable doing, and you don’t enjoy or feel competent doing.

In the health example, this means things like: eating healthy, counting your fat or calories, and going to the gym 4 times a week, rain or shine with no excuses.

In organizational change this means things like: telling the truth about what is not working – including about yourselves, discussing it, promising specific actions to fix it, meeting on a frequent basis to track progress and take accountability, no matter what, listening to others’ feedback, and continuing to identify the next areas for change.

Sustained means staying the course, but not just when you are hoping for change. The most important time is after you already see the benefits of change.

Don’t confuse the talk about commitment and the actions of commitment. Commitment without action is worthless. In fact, it is worse than no commitment at all.

The nature of change is that the minute you stop focusing on and nurturing the source the benefits will cease and you will start declining.

It’s like a flower, the minute you stop watering and nurturing the roots, the flowers will wilt and no new flowers will blossom.

Seems simple enough, right? Leaders understand this conceptually, but most don’t seem to get it or embrace it. That is why the minute they see results and feel good about things they abandon the uncomfortable hard work and start believing that things will stay changed without the rigor, discipline and focus that took them out of their comfort zone but brought them the benefits of change in the first place.

A CEO that I worked with summed it up very eloquently: “Everyone wants the benefits of change, but no one is willing to do what it takes!

 

 

Stop expecting what you haven’t been promised

Having hopes, dreams, and expectations is a good thing, for the most part. However, sometimes having expectations can be a source of disappointment and frustration.

We have expectations in most areas of our life. At work, we expect our boss and colleagues to treat us a certain way. And we expect that things that are not working well in the work environment will get addressed and fixed in a timely manner.  In our personal relationships, we expect our partners to treat us lovingly, and with respect and generosity.

In fact, if you self-reflect I am sure you’ll see that most of the time in most key areas you have clear images and standards about how things should be and what they should look like.

Sometimes we explicitly express our expectations to others. However, more often than not we either describe them in diplomatic ways or drop hints or simply not say them at all.

When our expectations aren’t met, we tend to get upset, disappointed, frustrated. resentful, and angry. We also tend to complain and criticize those who didn’t do what we expected.

If we are honest with ourselves, we may realize that in many cases – perhaps in most cases – our disappointments are not based on the fact that someone explicitly promised something to us and didn’t deliver, but rather on our own personal expectations, standards, hopes and wants.

We often complain about things that we have no legitimate claim over because no one promised us those things. If someone did promise something to us and they didn’t live up to their promise and deliver, we would have the right to complain, but absent that premise, regardless of how strongly we feel that “they should have done it”, our expectations remain just that…

I was coaching two senior executives in a successful technology company. They were the heads of the two biggest sales divisions in the company. These two sales divisions had to collaborate on daily bases in order to pursue, close and execute deals. However, they also needed to abide by clear role definitions, in order to avoid stepping on each other’s toes in the marketplace. Striking that balance often proved challenging. The two executives had very different management styles and temperaments, which often caused them to clash when they had to deal with the inevitable challenges, disputes, and disagreements between the two divisions. Needless to say, their level of personal trust and communication wasn’t high.

They had many complaints about each other, which they often voiced even with their subordinates – about lack of honesty, courtesy, respect, transparency, and collaboration.

One of the executives kept complaining about the fact that his colleague was not including him in new opportunities and leads in a transparent way. But, the other insisted he was doing his best to do so. When I asked if they have created clear and explicit expectations about how to work together, and if they had made specific promises to each other on what they could be counted on for, the frustrated executive said “No” and added

“This is basic stuff. My colleague should know how to communicate and how to include me”

– as if there is some universal truth about how to work together effectively.

Once the executives learned to make specific requests for what they needed from each other, rather than merely expect the other to behave according to their standards, things started to work much smoother.

The good news is that there are effective and empowering ways to turn unfulfilled expectations and illegitimate complaints to effective and accountable actions and results. Here are some practical suggestions:

  • Every time you are frustrated, disappointed or upset about unfulfilled expectations in any area, ask yourself:
  • “Are these my expectations OR did someone actually promise these to me?”
  • If someone actually promised you something, don’t complain. Instead, hold them to account. You have the right and responsibility to do so.
  • If you want an expectation to be fulfilled in a certain area, look for someone who can promise what you want and explicitly request it.

It can be very energizing to have dreams, hopes, and desires as long as you don’t get trapped in the vicious cycle of unfulfilled expectations. You can start by simply abiding by the simple commonsense rule:

Stop complaining, being disappointed or upset about unfulfilled expectations that nobody explicitly promised you.

Is your team evolving by default or are you shaping it by design?

I was coaching the senior members of a new leadership team of a mid-size technology company on developing themselves a strong leadership team. We were in a collective discussion about “What is your role as a leadership team?” and people were expressing their views. At some point in the conversation, I shared some of my own thoughts and recommendations about what the role of a strong leadership team could be.

I included things like:

Ensure that the strategic commitments and objectives of your organization are alive and meeting their results

Ensure that your people are in great shape from a professional, productivity, development and motivation standpoint” and

Ensure that you, yourselves are operating and being viewed as a highly effective leadership team.”

One of the team members responded by saying: “But, aren’t all of these role definitions basic expectations of any leadership team, so these go without saying?

He was right. There are some fundamental commitments and accountabilities that any leadership team should naturally be in charge of.

The problem, however, is that in so many cases – perhaps in most cases – there is a significant gap between expectations and ‘shoulds’, and the reality. Simply said, most leadership teams don’t adhere to these basic expectations.

For example:
In so many organizations when the strategic objectives are being paid lip service to, behind expectations or not met, the leadership members avoid calling it out or they simply engage in blame and excuse conversations as much as anyone else.

So many times when the organization goes through significant changes, like restructuring or downsizing and people are startled and traumatized by these events, the leadership team members are too busy looking out for themselves and the people that are close to them, rather than ensuring that all their people are in great shape.

And, in many organizations, the leadership team is not considered a ‘highly effective leadership team’, in fact in most places, people point to the leadership team as the team with most dysfunctionality.

So much for expectations!

Why is this the case?

Because most leadership teams evolve by default.

Most leaders approach evolving their team, consistent with what the management books say. They bring their team members together once or twice a year to engage in a ‘team building exercise’.  As many of these exercises are really good, the leaders leave them feeling energized.

However, the fierce reality and circumstances set in very quickly and in most cases the team building event at best remains as a remote memory in the rearview mirror.

Most leaders relate to building their team as an event rather than a process that requires as much ongoing focus, commitment, priority and investment of time, energy and funds, as any other mission-critical business process. Most leaders bring their people together frequently to react to tactical challenges. However, they relate to spending strategic and development time with their team as a ‘nice to have’ and ‘luxury’ to undertake if and when time, resources and circumstances are favorable. But, not as a necessity for maintaining and growing the entire competitive culture, performance and forward view of their organization.

If you want to build a powerful team you can’t bet your success on expectations and hope. You have to shape and build your team by design.

This means team members need to come together and agree on the exact type of team they want to be. There isn’t such a thing as “it goes without saying”. They have to articulate their role explicitly. Furthermore, their role must reflect the reality they are committing to deliver and cause. And, yes, they need to promise it.

Articulating your role as a leadership team through the language of “Ensuring” is very powerful. As a team, simply ask yourself “What future are we promising to ensure together?”, it orientates you around results not activities and it shapes a relationship of ownership with these results.

If you are promising to ensure a set of outcomes, that means:

  • You are accountable for these outcomes
  • You give up the right to have excuses, and
  • You are all in this together to bring about the outcomes you promised.

When it comes to powerful teams, you can’t beat that!