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!

Are you able to unplug and disconnect?

I just returned from a successful winter vacation at a great beachside resort. I say “successful” because being the proud workaholic that I am I determine the success of my vacations on my ability to unplug, disconnect and truly rejuvenate.

A long time ago I concluded that when I really want time off, I have to spend it in a place that supports that cause; a place where I don’t need to carry a wallet, buy food and drinks; a place that doesn’t have easy access to internet or internet at all.

Unfortunately, in today’s digital era it is becoming increasingly challenging to find places that don’t have internet. We can’t even escape from it on flights anymore. There doesn’t seem to be many places left where you can hide from the rat race these days.

In most companies, it’s accepted, even expected for people to continue to work or stay connected while on vacation. Most professionals find it hard to disconnect, even if their company doesn’t require them to stay in touch. Even if you love your work, it requires personal determination and discipline (for us fast-paced workaholics) to truly disconnect and unwind.

Personally, I need this physical and mental disconnection every so often. In addition, unplugging has greatly contributed to my business success. These periods of time off have provided invaluable opportunities to think, reflect, gain new perspectives, take stock of progress, create and plan for the future.

As my wife and I were sitting on the beach and by the pool, I was blown away (though not surprised) by the number of people of all ages who were constantly glued to their smartphones.

I could tell most of them were not just taking photos or videos, they were doing emails and/or interacting with Facebook, Instagram, and other social media apps.  Many of them were just with their swimsuit and smartphone. Some were standing on the beach with their feet in the ocean and their eyes glued to their smartphones.

It was the same way at the restaurants during breakfast, lunch and dinner – people sitting around a table, each glued to their phones in their private virtual world, consumed by what was on their screen rather than ‘being’ with the other people in their company. I would predict that in some cases they were texting and posting with each other, rather than looking each other in the eyes and having a conversation.

Why would you spend the time and money to travel away from your home to a beautiful isolated beach destination, with different scenery, climate, and atmosphere in order to merely continue with the same routine and behavior that you do at home?

And, if you take a vacation and spend the majority of your time and attention on your device, when do you actually get time to enjoy and reap the benefits of your vacation?

I am not naïve, and I pride myself on being open-minded and not judgmental. I understand the modern digital age we live in. I take part in it every day. I can’t live without my iPhone, iPad, and laptop too. I fully get it.

However, I try very hard to manage and control my smartphone usage and not allow it to manage and control my life. It seems that so many people have reached an unhealthy point, and this vacation again validated that.

In fact, it often seems to me that some people are more focused on showing off their life than just living it.

Some people may push back and say, “Being on my smart device doesn’t take away from my vacation, it enhances it,” or “It doesn’t distract me, it helps me relax.”

I don’t buy it! 

When you are consumed by your smart device, you are not fully present in the moment with the people and activities around you. It is as simple as that. We live more in our conversational worlds than in our physical worlds.

For example: Leaving behind an unresolved issue or upset at work could ruin your entire vacation because you constantly think and agonize about it. Participating in a conference call while driving your car on the highway dangerously takes your attention from the dynamics on the road because you are so consumed by your conversation.

How many times have you seen someone board a plane plugged into a conference call, speaking loudly, even about sensitive things, without any regard for the people around them?

When you are on your smartphones 60-80% of the time, you can be fully present with your immediate environment only 20-40% of the time – at best.

Don’t take this the wrong way, I value the digital transformation, I try to take the fullest advantage of technological innovations and smart devices and social media have already brought many benefits to my life.

At the same time, I also see the negative effects of technology – mainly with people being so preoccupied with their devices that it undermines their ability to relate, communicate and drive intimacy with others.

Where are you on this spectrum?

Are your commitments strong enough to justify your time?

Do you have a commitment to any of these things: To be healthy and fit? To advance at work? To have a nurturing relationship and/or family?

Are you spending enough time doing the things you want and need to do in these areas in order to be as successful and happy as you would want?

If not, are you one of those people who say: “I know, I have to find the time to exercise…” or “I have to make the time to spend with my family…”???

Too often I hear people give the excuse of “I don’t have the time…”, “I can’t find the time…” or “I need to make the time…” when they don’t live up to their prime commitments.

I understand how busy people feel. I talk to so many busy people who want to do things in other areas of their life and they feel that “they don’t have the time for that commitment.”

Perhaps people who don’t have enough time for their commitment, don’t have a commitment at all!

Perhaps you need to look at the commitment and time equation the other way around:


It is not that you don’t have enough time for your commitment, but you don’t have enough commitment for your time.

Time is an interesting phenomenon. Every hour of the day is equal in length as the next hour. However, our experience of an hour could be quite different depending on the circumstances and what we are up to. Not for naught, people say: “Time flies when you are having fun” or “Time moves at a snail’s pace when you are not enjoying what you are doing”.

I live in Canada, and every year around January my wife turns to me and says with a sigh, “This winter is so long. Seems like it is taking forever.” In fact, we are in that phase right now… And, around mid-to-end of July, she says in a panic: “I can’t believe how fast the summer has passed by. I wish I could slow down time!”

I have noticed that on the day before the weekend or a vacation when I feel like “I must get everything done in order to have the peace of mind during my time off”, I seem to be much more productive and I have much more time to spare too.

If you Google “People are most productive when they are happy in their lives” you’ll find a host of articles and surveys that provide more insight into this topic.

Perhaps if you really want to be healthy and fit or have a very intimate relationship at home you should think about how serious you are about your commitment. Be honest about it. Is it something you “must” achieve, or merely a “nice to have”? If it is a ‘nice to have’ you most likely won’t have enough time for it. However, if you honestly declare that being healthy or intimate are critical to you in order to live up to your most precious values, make the commitment and then live by it.

Pick a few commitments that are “must haves” and create the time for them in your calendar. Schedule the activities associated with fulfilling your top priority commitment in your calendar – for example: exercising 3 times a week, date night with your spouse, quality time with kids, etc.

Then, keep your schedule, “religiously” no matter what. Don’t cancel your exercise or time with your kids because of workload.

Say no to others who want to double-book things with you when you have personal activities planned. Be kind, firm and responsible about it and offer alternative times.

I am not saying that it is easy to manage multiple commitments in a busy life with high integrity. However, I can promise you that if this is important to you and you take it on after you get through the initial phase of – doubting, feeling like you are dropping the ball and perhaps anxiety associated with all that – your activities would start adjusting themselves to your new routine. Most importantly, you will start seeing and experiencing the benefits of fulfilling your commitments and that will give you a tremendous amount of added sense of happiness, confidence and self-fulfillment.

Remember, people always find and make time for things that are really important to them.

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.


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!



If you don’t have goodwill, you don’t have anything

When making agreements with others what is more important, having an ironclad contract or an atmosphere of goodwill to live by?

Obviously, the right answer is “both” However, hypothetically, if you could only have one, which would it be?

Any agreement is only as good as people’s intentions to live by it. That is the reason when there is lack of goodwill people say: “This agreement is not worth the paper it is written on.”

People are so smart. They know how to go through the motions and pretend like they are committed to an agreement while doing the minimum to live by it. They always have excuses and blame circumstances and others for their lack of compliance.

Yes, you could always carry out legal or disciplinary measures if people don’t comply with the written letter. In some situations, especially when you don’t care about a positive future relationship with that person, that may be the right way to go.

However, in a team environment where you still have to work, partner and collaborate with that person the next day, that approach won’t be optimal.

Take for example the story of two senior executives who were the heads of the two most important divisions of a global technology company. Their divisions had to collaborate on a daily basis in order for the company to succeed, but they didn’t. The reason being that the two executives didn’t get along. Needless to say, this caused a great deal of conflict, tension, and dysfunctionality in the company, and it hurt business performance and results.

The executives were intelligent senior people. They understood the negative consequence of the status quo both in terms of undermining results, as well as in the toxic atmosphere it created within their team members. However, they couldn’t get over themselves and their personal issues in order to interact with genuine respect.

They brought in a professional mediator who worked with them for more than a month to write up a contract outlining how they and their respective organizations would behave and treat each other. The mediator pulled teeth to do this, but through sheer determination was able to produce a coherent contract, which both executives signed.

Do you think this ended the issues?

Of course not. The back-stabbing innuendos, lack of sharing information, subtle competition and trashing each other with customers and other undermining behaviors continued. In fact, they were even fiercer.

In contrast, take another two executives in a different company – one was the head of enterprise customers and the other of small business customers. Given the nature of their customers, they had disputes on a regular basis about which customer belonged to each of them and which deal should be counted against each of their sales quotas. But, they never made it or took it personally. They always worked it out. Sometimes one of them won and another time the other did. They kept it as amicable and fair that they could without having anything written between them. They also went out of their way to help and recognize each other. It was 100% goodwill.

When goodwill is 100% authentic it doesn’t matter how detailed or ironclad the contract is. But if you don’t have goodwill at some level it doesn’t matter how clear and detailed the contract is.

So, in conclusion, it is better to have 100% goodwill and 60% ironclad contract, than 100% ironclad contract and 60% goodwill.


Courage makes the world go around

W.H. Murray, the leader of the Scottish Himalayan Expedition that pioneered the path to the top of Mt. Everest, knew something about COURAGE.

He shared his experience in a known quote, which I really love:

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness.

Concerning all acts of initiative and creation, there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans:

That, the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamt would have come his way.

I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets: Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.

As far as I can tell, from many years of experience working with people, as well as from my own life experience, if you want to generate a high level of success at work or in your personal life, courage is always going to be the single most critical ingredient for achieving that.

Courage comes in many forms, expressions and styles. Sometimes standing boldly for what you believe and fully expressing yourself with a loud voice is an act of courage. However, sometimes remaining thoughtful and calm in the face of turmoil or adversity is an act of courage. In other times allowing yourself to be vulnerable and/or to listen to other’s views with openness and generosity requires courage too.

Being ‘courageous‘ is very different than ‘being fearless’. The dictionary defines fearless as: ‘Lacking Fear’. But, if you are courageous it does not mean you lack fear. On the contrary, you need to be most courageous when you are most afraid. Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather embracing your fears, no matter how daunting, and behaving in a way that is true to your values and commitments anyways.

The good news is that we all have the innate ability to be courageous. We can bring forth courage and live courageously at any time, no matter what our circumstances are.

What we sometimes seem to forget, however, is just how powerful and magical courage really is. Perhaps that is why we don’t rely and bet on it as much as we could and should when we want to make big things happen.

Early in my career when I was struggling with achieving my sales goals, my mentor at the time told me something that stayed with me my entire life. He said,

“If you do the right thing for long enough you will eventually always get the outcome you want.”

I believed him and it worked. I became the most productive and successful sales leader in the company. I have experienced this principle time and time again in multiple areas of my professional and personal life and I have seen it work in the lives of others too.

If you are willing to be courageous, take a stand for what you want and then stay the course by living, acting and behaving consistently, sooner or later the circumstances will line up with your stance. As W.H. Murray put it in the 3rd paragraph of his quote: Providence will move too.

Yes, you need to believe in yourself and your ability; you need to have faith for this to work. If you stay cynical, negative or sarcastic, the circumstances will prove you right. You know how the saying goes: “Be careful what you wish for!”

When you avoid taking a stand you can easily feel lost, ineffective and uncertain about your direction or pursue, as well as less confident in your ability to achieve what you want. You can more easily fall into a waiting mode, hoping that someone else or something external will clarify things for you. People ask me all the time questions like: “What should I do?” as if there is a right answer. Or they compare themselves to others, looking to imitate or surpass others. Unfortunately, too often I see people pursing “should” goals and dreams that they don’t authentically feel passionate about.

So, if there is no right or wrong answer to the question: “What should I do?” and no one can predict the future, how can you know what direction and goals to pursue?

Alan Kay, ex-Apple fellow answered this question most clearly and powerfully, in my mind. He said:

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

He meant, you just need to take a stand. Even if you only have a sense of what you want and are committed to, take a stand. Even if you are open to more than one direction and you are undecided, take a stand. Always take a stand, write it down and share it with others who are committed to you.

Taking a stand requires courage. It seems that most people who avoid it do so because they are afraid of the future, not because they have no idea of what they want. They simply question or doubt their ability or chance to achieve it.

Inaction can be deadly when it comes to success or having it all. In order to become confident in, and proficient at the game of courage, you need to practice on a regular basis. Eleanor Roosevelt gave very practical and powerful advice on this. She recommended to:

“Do one thing every day that scares you!”

Courage makes the world go round. It inspires, enables, pushes and reminds us to pursue our dreams and never give up. And, when we remain true to our self, we are always the happiest.

Are you having or avoiding the courageous conversations?

The senior leaders of a large and successful technology company I was working with wanted to improve their overall effectiveness as a team, including their communications and meeting productiveness.

The leaders acknowledged that their conversations and meetings were not effective and that included:

  1. The short-term fire-fighting always took over meeting’s agendas and the team never got to discuss the more strategic topics of opportunity and change
  2. When the leaders did get to the discussions the same few team members always dominated the conversation and other team members felt unable to contribute
  3. The team debated issues endlessly without reaching conclusions, alignment and decisions
  4. Important decisions that affected everyone were made behind the scenes with the same few inner circle team members, and
  5. When the leadership team did make a collective decision (especially change-related) leaders often didn’t comply, follow up and/or reinforce these.

The senior leaders were frustrated with their colleagues in the team. However, for the most part, they all blamed their boss, the CEO, for not making the meetings productive, and not empowering his senior leaders to make the key decisions.

Meanwhile, the CEO was even more frustrated. He expected his leaders to communicate, collaborate and work together behind the scenes between the meetings in order to address and resolve issues, align on strategies and plans, and hold each other to account for decisions that were made in prior meetings. Instead, the senior leaders were escalating all the tough issues to him, expecting him to resolve and make the tough decisions, even on issues the leaders were fully capable of and empowered to solve.

Because the leaders were not having the important and often tough conversations among themselves the leadership team’s meetings were unproductive because most of the time was spent reviewing and reacting to updates and reports, as well as confirming decisions and talking about other mundane topics that could have easily been handled between the leaders elsewhere. Needless to say, the leaders were complaining about these meetings too.

In short – The leaders were simply avoiding having the courageous conversations.

I see this dynamic at all levels of seniority in most (perhaps all) organizations. Leaders want things to change, they want more empowerment, responsibility, involvement and authority, but they are not willing to step up and have the courageous conversations that come with the territory of higher responsibility and empowerment.

Yes, courageous conversations can often be messy, unpredictable and uncomfortable; they could cause tensions, conflicts and even deteriorate trust temporarily or permanently. But the cost of avoiding them – for the leaders – is not being able to provide leadership, make the difference and drive change. And, for the organization, the cost is not functioning on all cylinders.

So, how do you change this?

It starts with leaders owning up to their avoidance of the courageous conversations and perhaps also to their lack of courage. It takes authenticity and courageous to admit that you haven’t had courage. Most leaders won’t do this. Instead, they typically come up with circumstantial excuses and justifications such as “it wasn’t the right time for the conversation,” or “We were too busy to talk today” or “I need to get them in the right mindset”.

Admitting that you have been avoiding the courageous conversation is a courageous conversation in itself, so it is a great start for generating change. Honesty and ownership always bring about fresh beginnings, which afford us the opportunity to reaffirm our commitment. In this case, it is our commitment to being a courageous leader.

That may be enough to get you back on the horse. However, being a courageous leader is a new space for you, you should make a list of some practical actions and practices a courageous leader would carry out and then take on the commitment to start behaving accordingly, even if you have to “fake it till you make it” in the beginning.

The great thing about being a courageous leader is that it is completely within our reach; we have the entire wherewithal to step up to this standard. It is simply a matter of making the choice, taking the stand and getting into action consistently.

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!

Taking responsibility makes the difference

I was working with a large technology company on transforming their organizational culture and elevating their business results to a new level. We started the change initiative with the senior leadership team, getting each of the leaders to whole heartedly believe in, and own the process and its objectives.

We then extended the process to the top 100 senior managers by holding a multi-day session that also included the senior leaders.

Like many companies, there was history and baggage with regard to change. There were past attempts to improve the basic organizational dynamics that everyone was frustrated about, such as transforming the silos, politics and ‘blame game’ between functions and levels into genuine alignment, trust and collaboration, bringing clarity to everyone’s roles and responsibilities, and changing the overall sentiment in the organization that the senior leadership was not ‘walking the talk.’

In that initial session, the managers had the opportunity to express to the senior leaders what they were most frustrated about and what they wanted to see a change in, including in the way the CEO and the senior leaders behaved and operated. The senior team listened openly and together with the managers they committed to improving things.

The managers left the session really excited and hopeful about the future. However, they also left with high expectations of their senior colleagues regarding the continuity and follow through of the process.

The senior leaders were determined to drive changes in culture and business processes and performance. They set up task teams to drive the strategic commitments and they started – slowly but surely – to upgrade and change key employee related policies and processes.

The problem was, however, that the senior leaders did not do a good job communicating down to the managers what they were doing and the progress they were making. The managers who took part in particular activities knew only about those activities, and those who weren’t actively involved had no awareness of any progress. And, even those who saw segments of the progress felt it was too small and too slow.

With no communication and updates, managers became increasingly frustrated, skeptical and discouraged about the change. Negative hallway chatter increased and there was a growing sentiment of criticism and invalidation of the senior leaders and the change initiative for its lack of traction and progress.

Needless to say, even though the CEO and senior leaders felt good about the progress in the change initiative when it came time for the next in-person session with the managers, they were extremely nervous and worried about their ability to re-engage the managers in the next steps of owning and leading the change.

This true story does have a good ending…

The meeting with the managers was very successful because instead of ignoring sentiments and putting on a fancy presentation, the CEO and his senior leaders generated a dialogue that was very honest, authentic and courageous in which they referred back to the initial meeting and acknowledged what they had committed to at the time. They also shared what had progressed since the beginning, and also what hadn’t. They recognized the managers for the progress and took responsibility for what hadn’t progressed, including the lack of communication and update along the way. They also, committed to specific areas to tackle next in order to accelerate the change.

Not only did the CEO and senior leaders take responsibility, but they did it in a genuinely open, vulnerable and courageous way. This touched the managers and enabled them to get beyond the past, quickly and regain their faith, commitment, and ownership in the future of the change.

From the several lessons I took from this powerful, inspiring and transformational event, I want to highlight two:

First, it was another reminder of just how powerful and magical open, honest and courageous communication and dialogue can be.

Second, that no matter how challenging or frustrating things may be, when leaders take responsibility for what they said and committed to, what they have done and what they hadn’t, in a genuine and courageous way, this transforms almost any level of skepticism and doubt below them.

In fact, if I had to capture the blueprint of the conversation that makes the difference it would look like this:

  1. Acknowledge what you committed to in the first place, including what people may have expected out of what you said.
  2. Share what you have done, achieved and accomplished and where there have been small, medium or large progress.
  3. Acknowledge what you have not done, and do it without excuses, justifications or stories.
  4. Commit to what you will do moving forward in order to continue to drive the commitments you promised in the first place.
  5. Invite you managers or team members to join you and co-own the game moving forward – But, DO NOT start the process with step 5, because without taking responsibility first for past successes and failures you don’t have a high chance to succeed.
  6. Keep your commitments. Learn from the past, correct errors and improve your process.

People will forgive you once or twice. In fact, they will trust you even more if you demonstrate learning from history, especially your mistakes and failures. However, if you don’t, you will lose the trust and your credibility and it will be extremely difficult to recover from that.

You cannot bypass the truth!

As I have repeated many times in previous blogs, if you want to fix/transform any dysfunctional or unwanted organizational condition or dynamic you have to start by being honest and telling the truth about the problems.

There is no way around it – no matter how challenging it may be!

I was working with a leading telecoms company to elevate their performance to the next level. As always I started with a cultural analysis and the results revealed significant issues: silos instead of collaboration; politics instead of transparency; lack of alignment between functions and levels; plus a lack of unity within the senior leadership team itself.

As I began the transformational phase of the process I shared my cultural analysis findings with the senior team and managers effort. Whilst everyone understood the list of issues (as the output came directly from their feedback as participants in the process), it was hard, especially for some of the senior leaders, to fully accept, embrace and confront the dysfunctional reality.

In fact, a few steps further into the process when I wanted to bring the list of issues up again in order to create a plan to address them there was reluctance and resistance from some leaders to do so.

The leaders didn’t want to bring up and discuss the dysfunctional issues again because they were afraid that by doing so they would be taking the organization backwards and making things worse. The leaders believed that by not discussing the issues they would simply disappear or their negative impact would be contained or minimalized.

And, surprisingly the HR leaders and managers, whose role it is to nurture and improve the corporate culture, were most adamant about not resurfacing the issues.

Unfortunately, I experience this exact dynamic in quite a few companies.

The logic of “If you can’t see and hear the problems they don’t exist or they don’t negatively impact the organization” is fundamentally flawed, undermining and dangerous to any corporate culture.

In fact, not bringing up the issues and talking about them makes things much worse, rather than addressing them head-on.

If you understand corporate culture at all you know that when employees feel they can’t publically bring up the painful issues that they then don’t discuss them at all. On the contrary, they simply go underground to express their frustrations and this directly impacts the culture. Negative background chatter becomes rampant, people become more skeptical, cynical and resigned, issues are avoided and things get worse.

This undermining dynamic is the ‘kiss of death’ to any change initiative and negates everything that a change initiative is typically about.

The senior executives can keep saying all the right things about the importance of change. However, contrary to their declarations, their reluctance or inability to deal with the negative issues sends a covert but clear and definitive message to all, that the change initiative is a farce and that the senior executives don’t have what it takes to lead it.

And that is exactly what happened in the organization I described at the start. No matter how much change and progress they were actually making, every time I went to their offices, people would pull me aside and give me an earful about how nothing is changing, and the leadership team isn’t living up to what they said and they don’t have the courage to drive change.

This prevailing mindset was like a cancer to the initiative, and it was very hard to change people’s mindsets, because, to be frank, they were right – the senior leaders didn’t demonstrate the courage to deal with the most important problems, most of which stemmed from their own divided and dysfunctional behaviors.

Everyone knew all this, however people blamed others for the situation, and everyone felt powerless and frustrated.

Unfortunately, I see this type of dynamic in so many organizations.

Why are people so reluctant to allow the prevailing problems and issues to surface?

The main reason, plain and simple, is lack of courage! However, it goes beyond that. People don’t know how to deal with the negative issues and problems, which are often loaded with ego-based emotions and blame.

In next week’s blog I will complete this account by sharing a simple, yet powerful approach and process for addressing and transforming issues, problems, and dysfunctional realities.

Stay tuned!

Slogans or Reality?

I was speaking at the annual sales kick-off meeting of a growing successful global telecommunication company. This event was impressively managed with main stage events, breakout sessions and a barrage of high-end social activities.

Like similar events, the themes were catchy, motivational and relevant. The messages were powerful and well presented by the senior executives, and the presentations were effective at inciting and pumping up everyone to do their best in the coming year.

At the end, the event scores seem to be high, the senior executives left feeling great, and judging by the high energy, everyone seemed to be on board. A picture perfect reality.

Companies invest so much money in these mega events. They hire the best production companies to ensure things run like a Swiss clock, and there are always inspiring themes and slogans to incite commitment and urgency among the troops – things like: “This is our time!”,”Winning together!”, “Our time is now!”, “Be the change!” and “The future is here now!”

Big stage presentations are often highly inspiring and exciting, as this is the opportunity for the CEO and his or her senior executives to shine by patting themselves and their teams on the back for great performance and progress. It is also their chance to show their human, personable, vulnerable, charming, funny and visionary side. And, to top it all off, there is usually a great guest speaker to help drill down the corporate messages and inspire the troops.

I have attended many of these events, and they are always excellent!

And then… everyone goes back home and sooner or later (usually sooner…) things pretty much go back to the way they were before – politics, silos, blame, infighting, victim mentality… yada, yada, yada. The slogans remain slogans and the reality remains reality.

What a dismal predicament!

Why does this happen?

Is it inevitable?

It is not that the slogans are flawed or that those who are presenting them don’t genuinely believe them. It’s also not that those who are receiving the messages aren’t listening or they don’t care.

The reason is – executives focus too much on the content and they don’t focus on the context inside which the content is being received, assimilated, and implemented.

What determines if the slogans will remain slogans or if they will change and/or become reality is the context inside which people absorb, interact, behave and perform.

For example, at a different event I attended the CEO stood in front of her entire sales team and asked everyone to take full ownership of the company goals. She urged everyone to not be afraid to bring issues up and do whatever it takes to fix them in order to succeed. She even showed a slide with an up-side-down organization chart that had the CEO on the bottom and the sales employees on the top – I have seen leaders use that trick several times. She accompanied this with: “I am at the bottom of the pyramid. My role is to remove barriers and help you win. I work for you…” However, this same CEO and some of her executives were known for micro managing the day-to-day, including things like scrutinizing people’s expense sheets and giving them a hard time when they overspent on customer related activities.

I am sure the CEO meant every word she said on stage. However, anyone with a healthy sense of reality knows that no one in the audience took her comments seriously. In fact, people rolled their eyes, looked at each other and whispered cynically: “Whatever…”

While the CEO wanted to deepen ownership and commitment, her comment and more importantly her lack of awareness of the perceptions people had about her and her team, actually weakened it. She was too focused on getting the management text book messages right, rather than on how people would perceive and receive them.

This CEO is no different from so many others I have seen. Executives think that they can stand on a stage once or twice a year and say all the fancy slogans with gusto, and then go back to micro managing the day-to-day, and that will drive change. Nothing is further from reality!

If the CEO wants to create a new culture of “Transparency”, “Honesty”, “Courage” and “Winning Together” he or she has to make this a priority as high as achieving the revenues or profitability numbers of the company. He has to invest and put in place the same robust programs, routines, incentives and practices to continuously promote, foster, reward, nurture and sustain the desired behaviors. Elevating your team culture is a process/journey, not an event. That is not a slogan!

Peter Drucker, the great business management guru, once said: “Culture eats Strategy for breakfast.” Believe me, that is not a slogan. It is the inevitable reality, that for some reason many CEOs, even if they understand it and can repeat the slogan, still don’t seem to get and adhere to.

Size Matters!

Whilst working with a leading regional technology company, I was supporting the Sales and Services teams to help establish greater clarity about their roles and responsibilities in order to reduce overlap and infighting and increase alignment and collaboration between these teams in the marketplace.

After a few sessions, we got it right and it was time to update the company’s senior leadership team, as well as the entire middle manager forum on the newly established role definition and rules of engagement that the team created. However, some of the Sales and Services senior leaders expressed reluctance to share the details with that wide of an audience.

They were concerned that if too many people get exposed and involved in the dynamic between Sales and Services, everyone will meddle and want to influence things and this will complicate and slow things down. As one of the leaders put it

“As long as the Sales and Services leaders understand the rules that is all that matters. It isn’t anyone else’s business.”

I have witnessed this type of mindset quite a few times before. Many executives often believe that when it comes to critical business discussions and decisions (including strategic planning), these important debates should be conducted as an exclusive affair.

Their logic is that the fewer people who are involved in the process, the easier, smoother and faster it will be. As such, they often limit participation to a small group of business unit heads and/or the strategy development group.

However, making key decisions and/or putting together the strategic planning team is not a matter of finding the perfect size of group — it’s about gathering together the right people.

Remember, any decision, direction or strategy is only as good as the context inside which it’s being received, owned and executed. Therefore, in order to make the best decisions and create the most powerful strategy with the strongest sense of ownership and accountability for execution, you must include both those individuals who have the best expertise about where the organization needs to go and the people who are going to be involved in, support and implement the agreed upon direction and objectives.

While some impatient executives might see this broader inclusion, for example of support functions such as Human Resources and Marketing as slowing things down, slower, in this case, will inevitably be faster where it counts most. This is the case since doing things right from the start saves time, money, and prevents having to do things all over again when people are only paying lip-service to the execution further down the road.