It takes more than understanding change to achieve it

I was invited to help a large global service company transform its bureaucratic, siloed and slow culture into an agile, cohesive and innovative one. In order to learn about this company, I interviewed around thirty managers and employees at all levels.

They all pretty much told me the same things and highlighted the same issues, challenges, and obstacles that were getting in the way of greater performance and change.

They all acknowledged that the organization was too siloed, that managers were too focused on their own area and not enough on the greater success. They all pointed at trust, alignment and communication issues between functions and businesses that were causing tensions, conflicts and hurting effectiveness and costing opportunities and results.

These issues, challenges, and obstacles had been around for many years and everyone knew it. In fact, people frequently expressed frustration about them in around-the-cooler conversations. Everyone sincerely wanted to change them. However, all this didn’t translate to new behavior and change.

Why?

Because understanding and knowing doesn’t produce doing and changing.

I didn’t make this up. Look at our normal day-to-day life. For example, we know we should exercise, eat healthily, balance our personal and work life, not stress out about unimportant things. By golly, we even want to do better in all these areas and more, yet we still continue to do what isn’t working for us.

If you want to change your culture and team dynamics you have to go through a transformative process that is emotional, not merely intellectual. You have to follow three steps: Clear, Create, Commit.

Clear the old dynamics. This means engaging in a brave and honest conversation about what is working and more importantly what isn’t working between teams and levels. It has to be a collective conversation. You have to enable a safe environment for it, and people have to be allowed to communicate and be heard without judgment, arguments, push back and consequence. Just speaking, listening and being heard. You can think about this as emptying the glass.  

Often, people have to communicate their frustrations and concerns and feel heard in order to get beyond them and move on to a new space.

Create and build new dynamics. When the glass is empty you can start filling it with new substance. In fact, you can only really create a new culture or team dynamic and sustain it, when you truly start from a clean slate. If you do the first step well it will enable that. In this step you have to engage in a collective team conversation focused on imagining and creating ideas and possibilities about how you could and want to operate as a team. Things like: (1) open, honest, authentic, courageous and effective conversations, (2) appearing everyone as one team with one voice, and (3) addressing all challenges in a win-win way. The possibilities you create should strike a healthy balance between being aspirational and realistic.

Commit to new behaviors, actions, and results. Committing stakes you to the new and better future state that you desire. When your team members promise each other to start behaving and interacting in a more transparent, candid and brave way it raises the collective bar and changes the expectations, interactions, and conversations within the team. It’s public, people can hold each other to account and no one can hide. If you stay the course and follow through on your commitments the new behavior and actions will start becoming the norm.

So, for a successful transformation of culture and team dynamics remember to clear, create & most importantly commit!

Don’t underestimate the power of intention

I know too many people who don’t have the reality they want personally and/or professionally and they constantly complain about it, blame others or the circumstances for it and overall give excuses for it.

In fact, when I asked one of them the question “How are you doing?” their response was: “Same shit different day!” I have heard different variations on that theme from others…

Contrast that with a real-life story (no names) with two chapters:

Chapter One:

A sales team that was struggling with making their sales targeted numbers for a long time wanted a break. They had enough of wallowing in their sorrows. They wanted a breakthrough; they wanted to start winning and move from a survival mode to a thriving and abundant mode. So, to make a long story short, they had a “come to Jesus” meeting in which they all committed to a future (with specific details) that included making or exceeding their goals every quarter with more and bigger deals. They acknowledged that they had fallen into a “victim mentality” and they committed to stop complaining, blaming and justifying. This commitment was a big deal for them! The first quarter they came close, the second they made it and by the third quarter, they exceeded their results.

Needless to say, everyone was elated. However, with their new success came a lot more work and the new work was much more intense and demanding then they had been used to.

Chapter Two:

After two very successful quarters of record sales results, people were feeling the strains of the long hours and hard work. They had to hire many more people to accommodate their growth, but that was taking longer than everyone had hoped so the brunt of the hard work fell on fewer people.

Everyone felt the stress of over the lack of work/life balance. Even the people who were around before the success had forgotten where they came from.

When you walked the halls of this team you started to hear disgruntled team members engaging in negative conversations again – complaining, blaming and justifying their frustrations. Unfortunately, with time the negativity only increased and with it ownership, dedication and quality deteriorated.

When the team lost its first customer everyone brushed it off and attributed it to the circumstances. However, when their downward trend repeated itself and they had multiple issues with other deals and customers, which lead to them missing their sales results again, it was too late to turn things around.

Commitment and Intention are so powerful. You can understand this phrase, but if you don’t “get it”, trust it, apply it and live it this won’t make a difference.

The punch line is:

If you are dealing with a bad situation or reality and you complain about it you will most likely continue to have that bad reality. I am sure you would agree…

If you are dealing with a bad situation or reality and you commit to changing it, and then you start speaking and acting consistent with your new commitment, it will only be a matter of time – “when”, not “if” – you will turn your predicament around.

However, if you succeed in turning your bad predicament around and you go back to complaining about what you got, or what is not working, it will only be a matter of time – “when”, not “if” – you will lose what you created and return back to your old state…

Even if you don’t understand how intention works or if you don’t believe that intention works – it still does!

You can either embrace the concept and figure out how to use it to your advantage, or you can reject and dismiss it and then you will lose the competitive advantage and power that this powerful principle could give you.

If you want your people to live the values, live them yourself!

Every modern organization has cultural values that outline the type of culture and behaviors the CEO and his or her senior executives want to drive in their organization.

The CEO and senior team are typically the ones who stand on the stage and share the values. Most CEOs only mention the values a few times a year in the formal company-wide events. In many cases, this happens because their human resource leader or communications manager adds it in their presentation deck.

Some CEOs really care about the values. They see them as their personal endeavor; perhaps the legacy they want to leave behind them. These CEOs find any opportunity to mention, repeat and reference the values in day-to-day business conversations; when they criticize, coach or discipline their people, as well as when they recognize and praise them.

Everyone in the company knows where their CEO and his or her senior team stand regarding the values. They know if the values are merely another corporate slogan the senior team pays lip service to, or if the CEO and his/her team take them personally and they are sincerely passionate about them and committed to driving them. It’s easy to tell by watching actions, not words.

I was working with a CEO who was very passionate about the values of his company. Everywhere he went in the company, in all meetings and calls he would bring up the values in some relevant business context. When a product didn’t meet the deadline of being released to the market and he found out that the teams that were supposed to collaborate in order to get it done didn’t do a good job, he made a big stink about people not living the collaboration value. When his leaders would come to him to complain about other leaders he would coach them in the context of living the value of ownership. And, when the sales team overcame big challenges and achieved a great outcome at the end of the quarter he went out of his way to show everyone how it was because people were living the ‘we get it done‘ value.

Everyone knew that the values were the CEO personal pet peeve. People respected it, but more importantly, everyone felt compelled to get on board with the CEO and make the values the company’s norm. They were very successful at it.

Unfortunately, in so many companies the CEO and his or her team are the biggest offenders of living the values.

To state the obvious, if the values are Teamwork and Ownership and everyone can see that the senior leaders are highly political and siloed people will roll his or her eyes at the values. If the values are Candor and Transparency and people are afraid to give the senior leaders feedback and bad news because they won’t take it well, people will be cynical about the values.

Judging by their behavior, it seems that many executives think that they can drive the values by standing on a stage once or twice a year and saying all the fancy slogans with gusto and then going back to their day-to-day lives with minimal attention to the values until the next big fanfare. Nothing is further from the truth!

If the CEO wants to create a new culture based on values such as: Collaboration, Personal Responsibility, Excellence, Innovation and Care, he or she has to:

  1. Make these values a priority as high as achieving the revenues or profitability numbers of the company.
  2. Put in place the same robust programs, routines, incentives and practices to continuously promote, foster, reward, nurture and sustain the desired behaviors.
  3. Establish the same level of inspection touch-points to ensure clear changes and improvements are being made.

Making the values a part of the culture is an ongoing process and journey, not an event. It takes dedication and work. It definitely won’t be achieved by reciting slogans!

To the CEO and his or her senior leaders I would offer the following advice:

If you want your people to live the values, live them yourselves!

 

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.

Why is the why so important?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What will the change look like?

How will it work and affect me?

Why are we doing it in the first place?

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

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

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

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

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

Be careful what you wish for…

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

Here are two real stories…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how do you do that effectively?

Here are a few practical tips:

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

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

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

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

Say what you will do and do what you say!

Don’t forget to enjoy the journey toward your destination

I was coaching a senior executive who was not demonstrating the leadership that he had wanted and that people expected of him in his senior position. During our session, he shared his disappointment and frustration with the fact that he had recently turned 50 and he hadn’t reached the level of promotion that he had wanted. It seemed that his miss behavior was a reaction to his sudden realization and panic that “he was behind on achieving his life goals…”.

As ambitious members of a modern and demanding society, we have the tendency to go through life with the sense that we are “not quite there yet”. We set goals for ourselves and then along the journey we often forget that we are the ones who set these goals. We fall into the trap of feeling that we are behind and/or that only when we realize the goals we set we will have truly made it, and then we can truly relax and enjoy our life to its fullest.

The entire “retirement” concept is predicated on this premise – we work extremely hard throughout our life, often sacrificing and neglecting key areas like family, marriage, health and recreation, in order to achieve financial and professional goals that would allow us to get to that stage in life where we can retire and then “truly start doing what we love to do”.

I love and resonate with this quote from Fr. Alfred D’souza::

 “For a long time, it had seemed to me that life was about to begin – real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way, something to be got through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, a debt to be paid. Then life would begin. At last, it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life”.

We so often equate our material achievements and success with our self-worth. We get caught in the hamster wheel of jealousy and competitiveness, and even when we do reach certain milestones we don’t take the time to appreciate and celebrate what we have accomplished. Instead, we move right into the next goal and the rat race continues.

And let’s be honest, the dominance of social media doesn’t help at all! In fact, it only makes the pressure and stresses greater. Instead of only seeing our neighbor’s new car, we are now exposed to thousands of online “friends” who display their lives. No wonder we often feel like the grass is greener on the other side.

Throughout our prime years, as we are working our butts off, we feel like “when we get the next promotion… close the next deal… make the next million… buy the house or car of our dreams” or “get our children through college or married…” – “THEN life will truly be great”.  But then when we reach a certain age we start talking about our life in terms of “the good old days”.

So if throughout our life we feel that “someday” we will start living and then at the prime of our life we feel like “the good old days are behind us”.

When is it our time? When do we ever enjoy today… the moment???

If you understand and appreciate the strong tendency we all have to focus on our future goals and ambitions at the expense of living and enjoying the present you could develop some practices and habits that will change the scale. Here are some ideas:

  1. Keep reminding yourself that you are the one who created your objectives and expectations in the first place. As the author of your future, if you find your goals and timelines to be too daunting and/or stressful change them to ones that empower you.
  2. Acknowledge your accomplishments – every month, week and every day. Focus more on your progress and what you have accomplished, and less on your gaps, deficits and what you haven’t achieved.
  3. Make sure to set time in your busy life for activities that empower you… If you are a workaholic take time for great vacations. If you are married and/or have kids make sure to spend quality time with them on a regular basis… force yourself to do that….
  4. Anticipate now what you will regret in the future if you don’t do or say, and do it today!
  5. Avoid falling into the trap of comparing yourself and your life with others… or even worse, being jealous of others.

It’s now or never… literally!

Can your team handle tough conversations?

If you want to know how powerful your team is, just see how team members deal with sensitive and tough topics.

Sensitive and tough topics are any subjects that require the leaders and team members to put their own personal feelings, egos, and agendas aside for the greater good of their company or team.

It could be anything as big as deciding which team to invest in, which team member to promote or re-allocating people and budgets from one leader’s team to another. It could be something as trivial as giving honest feedback to colleagues, your boss or subordinates about poor performance.

When it comes to sensitive and tough conversations the line between big and small topics becomes blurry because people often tend to take even the most insignificant topics personally, which leads to out of proportion reactions and behaviors.

In powerful teams, members never lose sight of the bigger picture. They put their team and company first and they always strive to do the right and the best thing for the collective cause.

In powerful teams, people don’t hold back their punches when it comes to discussing and debating the tough and sensitive topics. Teammates may fully ‘go at it’, push back and disagree with other team members, but they continue to listen to each other, consider each other’s views and they never cross the line of interacting in a disrespectful way.

At the end of the conversation or meeting when the team or their boss makes a decision all team members genuinely align, own and support the verdict, whether in their personal favor or not. When they go back to their respective teams they represent the decision as their own in a united front with their colleagues.

I have seen some great teams that exemplify this behavior. However, I have also seen many teams that don’t. I think it would be safe to say that most teams don’t do a great job in dealing with tough and sensitive topics.

Take for example the senior leadership team of a large technology company. The company experienced serious growing pains after achieving the best performance year in their entire history. As a result of their sudden surge of business, they simply couldn’t keep up with the demand. They were not set up for the next level of service and support.

Instead of coming together to find a solution and make the necessary changes to accommodate the growth the senior leaders blamed each other for the crisis. Finger pointing led to defensiveness and the hostility grew. There was even a traumatic screaming match in one of the leadership team meetings, which resulted in some leaders outright stopping to speak with other team members.

It took the leaders a long time to turn things around, and the process left internal and external scars. Key customers felt frustrated by the fact that the company didn’t deliver its obligations on time, and managers and employees felt frustrated about the petty and immature manner in which their leaders handled the crisis.

In a completely different example, the senior leadership team of the HR function of a large global company was having an honest discussion about the state of morale of their wider team, including how to motivate their staff after several rounds of company layoffs. The leaders invited a few next level managers to the meeting in order to describe the state of affairs, especially to their boss who they felt wasn’t as connected to the reality of her organization.

The managers were blunt. They painted a dire picture of HR managers and employees who felt uncared for, demoralized and disconnected from headquarter and the senior team.

The leader thanked the managers for their honest feedback, but when they left the room she turned to her leaders and scolded them for allowing their managers to feel and express such negative feelings and views. It was apparent to all that the head of HR took everything the managers said personally. Needless to say, the level of fear increased exponentially from that day on, and the ability of this senior team to discuss and address the real tough and sensitive issues decreased.

Let’s be honest, addressing the tough and sensitive issues in a productive, constructive and respectful manner (no matter what), takes leadership maturity and courage.

Unfortunately, too often there isn’t enough of these qualities even in the most senior teams.

 

Stop having objectives if you are not going to explicitly promise to fulfill them!

All teams have objectives or outcomes, which team members usually believe in, aspire to and want to deliver. However, not all teams have the same relationship with their objectives and outcomes.

Most leaders and teams seem to believe that if their objectives are well articulated and clear enough they have a greater chance of succeeding.

That is not necessarily true. Yes, it makes a difference that an objective or outcome is well articulated. However, I have seen many teams with well-articulated outcomes achieve mediocre traction against their outcomes. In contrast, I have seen teams with mediocre level outcomes achieve extraordinary traction and results against their outcomes.

Why?

Most leaders and teams seem to believe that when they articulate a set of objectives, inherent to them is a genuine relationship of ownership, responsibility and accountability toward them, by those who created them.

When teams set their objectives – at the end of the process they don’t typically have a conversation that goes like this: “So, is everyone in this room promising to fulfill these objectives?!” I venture to say that people would take offense to such a conversation, and what it implies or questions about their commitment.

However, if this conversation did take place I am sure most people would push back and say: “We can’t promise to fulfill the objectives… we can only promise to do our best… or carry out the actions we believe would/should fulfill our objectives…

I get this valid push back. There are no guarantees and no one can promise to fulfill any type of future. However, there is a nuance here that makes all the difference. It is between having a relationship with your objectives of “doing our best…” or “carrying out the actions…” and “explicitly promising to deliver the outcome itself…

The word “explicitly” is key. Leaders and teams seem to have a paradigm that objectives come with a built-in feature of a relationship of ownership and commitment toward them.

I know it sounds ludicrous when you read it on paper. However, if you judge by leaders’ reaction to lack of ownership and commitment you would realize that they expect it. They think that ownership and commitment are implied.

But, unfortunately, as we all know, nothing could be further from the truth. Ownership and commitment are never implied. If you don’t explicitly discuss, declare and create them, they do not exist.

To add insult to injury – there is no point in having outcomes at all if you are not going to promise them. Without an explicit promise, outcomes are like a sales boat sitting in the middle of the ocean without the necessary wind to drive them to their destination.

In order to promise an outcome, it has to be clear and measurable. Sometimes teams justify their lack of rigorous thinking with the excuse that certain areas simply can’t be measured. This is never true. You can measure anything that is important to you. You could use existing, new, objective or subjective metrics to do so. However, as long as you and your team members are aligned behind, and own the measurable outcomes you have chosen you are in good shape.

Metrics should never be an afterthought. A powerful outcome doesn’t have metrics associated with it… it actually is a promise of the metric. There are no outcomes independent of metric and there is no metric independent of outcomes.

Outcomes without metrics are general, ambiguous and at best they determine direction. Metrics alone merely explain how you intend to measure your outcomes, but they don’t stake any actual outcome, therefore they are interesting but useless.

In addition, metrics are past looking.

I worked with a team that felt strongly that in order to manage their services effectively it was important for them to track certain metrics. So they picked a few that were important and every quarter they would report out to their boss how they were faring against their metric. Some quarters their results were slightly up and other times it was slightly down. Tracking their metrics allowed them to compare the last quarter with past quarters and explain away why things were going up or down. After a few quarters of repeating this process, they also added to their presentation their prediction of how the next quarter should be, based on past performance.

This is a classic example. If you explain the past for long enough and you don’t promise a different future instead, your explained past will become your future outcome, by default.

When you promise an outcome, you are creating the future and staking yourself to it. The word and concept of promising make your objectives very personal. It doesn’t mean that you will always succeed. There are no guarantees.

However, would you rather have your team members coming to work each day with a relationship to their objectives as a set of outcomes or, as their outcomes, which they are promising to cause?

I think the answer is clear!

Move your orientation from Activities to Outcomes, then Breakthroughs

I was participating in a performance review meeting with a successful division of a global technology company. In this meeting, the team members responsible for leading the key strategic initiatives were updating the entire management team on the status and progress of their initiatives.

With slight variations, pretty much every presenter jumped almost immediately into the details of the metrics they are tracking, the status of these metrics and the activities their initiative team is involved with.

None of the presenters provided any higher level context on the purpose and objectives of their initiative, or where they aim to take it. Based on these updates you could tell how efficient the team was at tracking the metrics and activities they chose, but not the impact and value of their initiatives, or the greater potential of their initiatives to reach a new level in the future.

Many leaders and managers have the same tendency to jump right into activities. I see it all the time. In fact, many leaders think that the higher purpose and objective stuff is “fluff” and “nice to have”.

These leaders are so mistaken! They are oblivious to a different level of powerful strategic approach.

When it comes to creating and achieving powerful strategies and extraordinary results, there are three levels of the game a team could be operating at: Activities, Outcomes, and Breakthroughs.

Activity-Orientated

Most leaders operate at the activities level. Managing and tracking activities is the easiest and safest strategic approach. You think about where you want to be and then you identify and commit to the activities that you assume and hope will get you there. In many cases leaders don’t even spend much time on where they want to get to, they just identify activities, because that is what they are most familiar and comfortable with.

In the activities approach, there isn’t typically a conversation about commitment, and if there is it is about promising to carry out the activities. People tend to take on comfortable, familiar and realistic activities in order to reduce the risk of challenging the status quo or thinking outside the box.

In the performance review meetings, the activity oriented leaders give a detailed account of what they have been doing and what they will do moving forward. In this approach, success is ‘ticking the box’ on on-scheduled activities.

What can happen is that you carry out all the activities and you still don’t achieve your results. Usually, when that happens activity-based leaders come up with excuses or they blame the circumstances and others; things like: “We did our part but they didn’t do theirs” and “We were on track but the circumstances changed”.

If you push on the activity-oriented leaders to promise the end results, not the activities to get there, they typically get nervous and defensive. They would tell you something like “How can we promise outcomes that we don’t have enough control over“.

Accountability for Activities is no accountability at all!

Outcome-Orientated

Leaders who focus on outcomes want to know “What are we out to achieve?”. For them, the activities are a derivative of the outcomes, not an end in themselves. As, the circumstances or the status of the outcome change, so do the activities.

I work with a powerful technical leader who has become outcome oriented. Every time one of his managers gives him a report on what they are planning to do he stops them and asks: “What is the outcome you are going to achieve with all these activities?“. As he has shifted his managers’ orientation from activities to outcomes, they have been able to elevate their results and impact.

Outcome-oriented leaders want their managers to promise outcomes, not activities. This shift is a big step up. Sometimes the outcomes are clear but many times they are not, and the team needs to engage in a deeper and more powerful strategic dialogue to align around what they want their future state to look like.

You can only reach the breakthrough level if you are oriented around outcomes.

Breakthrough-Orientated

If you move from “What will we do this quarter?” to “What outcome will we achieve this quarter?” you are making a big step forward, but it still doesn’t mean you have taken the game to a new level. In order to generate a breakthrough mindset and conversation, you need to promise an outcome that is beyond what is predictable; you need to put a stake in the ground for a bigger, bolder future that requires you and your team to think, behave and work differently together. You need to ask: “What breakthrough outcome are we going to cause this quarter?“.

You could call it a stretch goal. However, in most organizations stretch goals are driven down from above. If you want to create a breakthrough orientation in your team you need everyone to think bolder and believe that they can shape their destiny, set the bar and achieve more than what is predictable.

As Alan Kay called it:

The best way to predict the future is to invent it!

The most powerful leaders feel comfortable to promise a bold future state and trust themselves and their teams to get there without knowing how to do so in advance.

You can do it too!

Why are leaders so afraid of facing issues?

I am all about empowering people and I do everything I can to ensure people always leave any work I do with them feeling more empowered, hopeful, enabled and energized than they came in.

The dictionary defines empower as:

Make someone stronger and more confident, especially in controlling their life and claiming their rights.

It takes different approaches, methods and conversations at different times to empower different people.

Sometimes you have to reinforce what people are naturally strong at and what they are doing well in order to empower them. Sometimes, this means reminding them of how great they are.

However, at other times you may need to shake people up and help them confront their gaps, shortfalls and issues, in order to remind them not to sweep issues under the rug.

The same is true when dealing with team culture. Sometimes you need to acknowledge and promote the strengths of the team and at other times you need to support the team to confront its issues and gaps.

Many leaders are not comfortable or good at dealing with issues, so they prefer to avoid them and only deal with the positive things.

There are a few basic reasons for this, such as:

It is too confronting. Even if the leaders didn’t create the issues, it is their unwritten duty to take responsibly. Leaders know that their people will typically associate the issues with them, so many of them take it personally and become defensive. When it comes to owning the issues and taking responsibility it is too challenging for them, so they simply avoid it.

They don’t know how. So many leaders have scars and traumas from past incidents where they tried to resolve conflicts and challenging issues honestly and openly in a team meeting, and these meetings turned into unproductive bitching sessions. As a result, they cringe every time they have to deal with another big issue, so they simply avoid it.

They believe that avoiding issues works. Many leaders actually believe that by acknowledging or bringing up the issues they augment them, rather than put them on the table to be addressed. They also believe that if they talk for long enough about the positive things these topics will grow and the negative things will disappear.

But, unfortunately, that is not the way it works.

Yes, sometimes less significant issues can dissolve by themselves when you leave them alone. However, this is a rarity when dealing with issues that are meaningful for people. For the most part, when you have deep rooted conflicts, as well as alignment and trust issues in your team, they don’t tend to go away by themselves.

In fact, when you ignore or avoid negative dynamics and issues they tend to grow beyond proportion and gain a life of their own. Over time the unaddressed and unresolved issues form an undercurrent platform that cultivates cynicism, resignation and passive-aggressive behavior, and this dominates the culture.

When leaders talk about promoting and building upon the good things like teamwork, trust, cohesion and accountability people roll their eyes because they know that this is not the way their leaders behave.

When leaders come across as only being willing to focus on positive things and not the issues they create a compliant and inauthentic culture around them.

Employees who feel they can’t discuss the issues or provide honest negative feedback and criticism to their leaders or to other people or groups, just take their frustrated feelings underground.

And, if someone musters the courage to tell leadership ‘that the emperor has no clothes’ they are likely to get the wrath of passive-aggressive reaction. I have seen it happen too many times.

Every subtle or blunt negative reaction only sends an even stronger message to the troops, that if they want to keep their jobs, they should shut up, be careful and play the corporate game. Most leaders who behave this way don’t even realize the negative impact of their leadership philosophy and behavior on their people because no one employee in their right mind is likely to take the risk of telling them how it really is.

In order to promote and build upon the positives and strengths, you have to first ensure there is genuine permission, freedom and openness to discuss and address the weaknesses and issues too.

Developing people and teams always has to be done in a powerful context of respect and empowerment, not criticism and ridicule.

However, if you create an authentic environment in which people and teams can discuss both what is working and not working, there is so much that they could learn and benefit from both sides of the equation – from improving their natural competencies and strengths, as well as developing new competencies and strengths that excite them, benefit them, and they could become good at.

Only in this type of authentic and unrestricted environment can you build a strength-based culture.

To succeed you have to be a courageous leader!