Are you failing often enough?

Strange question, you may think, and you are probably right. I don’t mean it literally.

However, I am sure you would agree that people who make bolder decisions and choices; people who go for it ‘all out’ tend to have a higher risk of failing. In fact, the bigger you play in any area if you fail you will most likely fail bigger.

In contrast, people who play small and safe tend to avoid failures and if they do their failure is much smaller.

So, perhaps the right question is: “Are you playing big enough?”

What’s big enough? There is no objective definition or metric. Each one of us has to determine that for ourselves.

However, there are a few guiding principles that I would believe most of you would agree to.

  1. Do you have a vision for your life? It doesn’t have to be fancy. It could be any type or level of articulation of your desired future outcomes, commitments, ambitions, desires. Many people don’t have any of that. It takes courage to dream, desire and want. It takes greater courage to declare it in public. By doing so you are positioning yourself in the world as an optimistic, positive and committed person, rather than a resigned, cynical and negative person. As a result of you raising the bar on your brand, people will hold you to a higher standard, they will expect more from you and they will judge you more harshly if you don’t live up to your declarations/commitments.
  2. Are you taking action consistent with your life vision and commitments? My youngest daughter who is studying psychology at university reminded me this week that wanting something is much easier than actually going for it. In fact, she gave me examples of people we know who keep talking about what they want, but they don’t take any actions to pursue it. Again, it doesn’t have to be fancy. You could start with small steps in the right direction. In fact, walking before you run is a good strategy. When it comes to action, the direction of your action – ensuring that they come from your commitment – is more important than the quantity or magnitude of your actions – at least in the beginning. It doesn’t take courage to want. It does take courage to take actions.
  3. Are you pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone? Once you have got the basic and psychological needs of the survival pyramid down you could start pushing yourself to perform at a higher level. Eleonora Roosevelt’s quote says it quite eloquently: “Do one thing every day that scares you!” If you are doing something, which takes you out of your comfort zone and your stomach is turning, that is probably a good indication that you are playing big enough.
  4. Are you celebrating your accomplishments and successes? From my experience, people who acknowledge, own and celebrate their accomplishments and successes tend to be more positive, happy, fulfilled, powerful and effective! It makes complete sense if you own your accomplishments and successes you are owning your greatness. You are self-empowering yourself. You are promoting a personal brand of someone that is bigger than their circumstances. As a result, you will strive for more, be more open to taking risks and have more confidence in dealing with obstacles and challenges. If you avoid owning your accomplishments and successes, you are fostering a scarce, circumstantial and small self-brand. Great people accomplish great things. Small people don’t accomplish much.
  5. Are you confronting, owning and learning from your failures? As I stated above, if you play big and go beyond your comfort zone you may fail more often and even bigger. However, if you have the courage to confront, own and learn from your failures falling isn’t that bad. In fact, every failure is the opportunity to learn from your shortfalls, put in the corrections and grow.

You can grow from successes and/or failures. So, perhaps my initial question “Are you failing often enough?” isn’t that farfetched after all.

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!

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!

 

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 is it so hard to integrate newly acquired organizations?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

Promise results or don’t promise at all!

I was coaching the marketing department of a global technology company in coming up with its strategic plan. They had identified their key strategic areas and were working on articulating the outcomes they wanted to achieve in each area. However, in several of the areas, instead of coming up with clear end results, they identified activities.

For example, instead of promising to grow the number of customers and potential customers who are signed up, and actively contributing to their user-group community to a specific number, they promised to increase the number of events in which they promoted the community. Instead of promising to increase the number of high-end industry events they are invited to speak at to a specific number, they promised to increase the number of training classes they would offer to train people to speak. And, instead of promising to be recognized by the key relevant CEOs as one of the top thought-leaders in their field, they promised to drive a vast list of PR and social media activities including the number of followers on Twitter and LinkedIn, the number of press and analyst briefings and more.

Whilst all these activities are important as part of the means to get to their desired end, they are just that – the means, not the end itself.

This mindset and approach of focusing on the activities that would achieve the results, rather than on the results themselves is very common in organizations. The explanation I often get to this is something to the effect of “We can’t control the results. We can only control our activities…

The problem with the activity-based approach is that it creates a lot of busyness, but after a while, people tend to lose track of what all the busyness is for in the first place. In fact, after a while, people can’t tell the difference between activities and results.

In addition, the focus on the means (activities) versus the end (results) hinders the ability of the team to assess the effectiveness of the activities and if they are in fact achieving the results, and make any necessary changes. Most organizations are good at adding activities, but they are not good at stopping them.

Lastly, the activity-based approach undermines the team’s culture of accountability. Real accountability is always for clear results. It promotes a mindset of overcoming any obstacles. The activity-based approach tolerates and nurtures a culture of circumstance limitations, self-protection and excuses.

At first, I thought that the activities-based approach is more common when outlining a strategy for more subjective business areas like “brand awareness”, “team culture” and “customer satisfaction”. However, my experience has shown me that it is often the same when dealing with the most objective areas such as: “revenues”, “profitability” and “market share”.

In the world of strategy, there seem to be two schools of thought:

Promise your desired results and then put the activities in place to fulfill them.”

Promise the activities that you assume and hope will fulfill your desired results.”

Unfortunately, the second approach seems to be much more prevalent, most of the time in most organizations.

Why is this the case?

My favorite explanation is: It is much easier and safer to promise activities than results. Less risk and responsibility. Less need to challenge the status quo, think outside the box and come up with new ways to do things. And, you are off the hook for the most important piece – the actual outcome!

Another popular excuse that people give for focusing on activities and not results is: “You can’t measure areas such as “brand recognition”, “team culture” and “customer satisfaction”.

But, that is not true! You can measure anything that is important for you. You just need to understand that there are no right or wrong, perfect, and/or factual measures. When it comes to measures you need to choose something that is meaningful to you and then take ownership of it.

In my work with organizations, especially when creating bold future-based strategies teams often create new metrics for new areas they want to take on. It is actually quite refreshing to think differently about new areas, rather than trying to force old metrics on them.

To conclude, in today’s world where opportunities are abundant, resources are scarce, competition is fierce and everyone is looking for ways to scale and do more with less, you can’t afford to waste time and cycles on activities that may or may not deliver the results you want.

Your job as a leader is not to track and report on activities. It is to cause results.

So, if you are not going to promise to cause specific results, don’t promise anything at all!

6 essential steps to help you reach your next level

A lot of my one-on-one coaching work is focused on helping leaders and professionals take themselves, their environment, performance, and results to the next level.

Whether you are a beginner or veteran at your game, there are clear, powerful and practical principles that if you understand and follow will help you reach your next desired level:

  1. Get clear on your desired end state. Project yourself into your future – at least a year or two from now – and envision that you have achieved your desired end state. Then, describe what your success looks like. Write it down as clear and vivid as you can.
  1. Visualize how you are behaving and performing in your new future state. When you visualize your future, take notice of how you are behaving and acting in that reality. Pay special attention to areas where you are doing things differently from today. Record a few practices and behaviors that you can start applying today in order to start driving and drawing your desired state to you.
  1. Start behaving consistently with your future state now. Start applying the practices and behaviors that you outlined in the previous step in your day-to-day routines. Every time you find yourself regressing to old habits, stop, acknowledge it and correct yourself back to behaving consistently with your list of future reality practices.
  1. Get people around you to support you. Just like a world class athlete wouldn’t dream of reaching the Olympics without a support structure, don’t try to go the next level alone. Don’t keep your commitment and project a secret. On the contrary, share it with the people you trust and ask them to be your committed ‘partners in crime’; to look out for you and support you to stay the course, especially when the going gets tough and old habits kick in. The fact that you include them in the first place, will cement your commitment and put you in a more determined mindset. Especially, when they actually start holding you to account, even if it may be uncomfortable, it will make a significant difference.
  1. Start recording accomplishments and wins that are consistent with your future state. At the end of each day or week reflect on what you have done and list all the specific areas where you have had wins and made progress consistent with your desired practices and future. Don’t be concerned with the size of the wins/progress or if others would recognize or appreciate them too. Any win that has meaning to you, no matter how small or big, counts and should be included in your list. In fact, the more accomplishments and wins you record (or “collect”) the better.
  1. Own and represent your progress. Always speak about your journey to the next level in a powerful, positive and empowering manner. People tend not to take responsibility for their growth and greatness. They tend to always keep one foot in the back door, just in case they’ll fail. They say things like: “Things are going well… BUT… I am not there yet!” They emphasize the “I am not there yet” more than “Things are going great.” Don’t do that! In fact, do the opposite. Acknowledge and share your progress with the people you trust. Keep reminding yourself that progress promotes and invites more progress and the opposite is also true.

These last two steps are often most underestimated, ignored and/or avoided. In order to drive and materialize your new future state most effectively, you need to have the right mindset and behavior. Listing and acknowledging accomplishments and wins will empower you to overcome any skepticism and/or doubts and replace them with genuine enthusiasm and confidence about what you are creating. The more you believe in the viability of your aspiration the more you are likely to stay the course to its fulfillment.

While these steps may not come naturally at first, they will over time.  Make them your new normal, for they are essential when it comes to taking your game to the next level.

How to drive strong ownership, commitment, accountability and passion in your team

As a leader – here are five practical things you can do to deepen the level of ownership, commitment, accountability and passion in your team:

  1. Make sure people are engaged in setting the goals early on. This practice would most likely be applied differently depending on the size of your team, and how dispersed it is. In a small team, it is easy to engage people in the strategy or goal-setting exercise. In a large organization, this principle will have to be implemented in steps. Step one – would be to get your senior team engaged and aligned. Step two – bring the middle managers on board. And step three – update and include the rest of the team. The application may be different, but the principle of engaging everyone in the goals early on is always relevant. This is because the more people feel listened to and engaged in setting the goals the more they will feel a sense of personal ownership and accountability toward them.
  1. Promote a culture of open, honest, authentic and courageous communication. The more your people feel they can speak their mind, especially addressing what is not working the more they will naturally gravitate toward feeling and behaving like loyal owners of the business. Regardless of what senior leaders often think, people will only speak up if they believe their leaders genuinely want them to. If you want to deepen ownership and accountability throughout your organization, you have to start with yourself and your senior leaders. You and your leaders need to show that you are open to honest dialogue, including feedback and criticism about yourselves.
  1. Instil the language of accountability as the norm. The language of accountability sounds and feels very different than the typical language of compliance that permeates throughout most organizations. In an environment of compliance, people tend to tolerate and indulge in excuses, justifications, blame and reasons why things can’t be done, why they didn’t get done or why they aren’t done with excellence. In contrast, the language of accountability is all about clarity and action. People make clear requests and promises. And these get responded to with clear and authentic acceptances, declines or counter-offers. People always know where things stand and they value integrity and honesty over appearances and political gain.
  1. Deal with failures, mistakes and shortfalls in an empowering way. In most organizations when people underperform or fail, senior leadership tends to look for someone or something to blame. The problem is that when people feel there is a witch-hunt going on to find a scape-goat they react by hiding, protecting their behinds, even lying. As a result, teams often don’t get to the source and root-cause of the failure in the first place, so they find themselves repeating the same failures in one way or another over and over again. If you want to create an environment of authentic accountability deal with all failures, mistakes and shortfalls only in an empowering way – don’t entertain the ‘blame game’. In fact, don’t be concerned with ‘whose fault it is’. Instead, be obsessed with learning from past failures and correcting the issues. Ask your team questions like: “What was missing?”, “What was in the way?” and “What can we change, correct and improve?”. You’ll see that your people will be excited to contribute to the investigation and as a result, you’ll come up with new ideas and solutions that will take you to new heights. In addition, you will strengthen your people’s sense of ownership and accountability to your vision.
  1. Highlight, recognize and celebrate displays of accountability. Most leaders don’t do a great job of acknowledging and recognizing their team members for a job well done on any day. I am not referring to the formal corporate human resources recognition programs that occur at best once a quarter or a couple of times a year. I am talking about creating an environment of day-to-day verbal recognition. People respond extremely well to genuine recognition. It makes them feel noticed, appreciated and valued and that causes them to want to do and contribute even more. If you want to create a powerful culture of ownership, commitment, accountability and passion, go out of your way to recognize small, medium or large displays of ownership and accountability. Make it a daily routine and practice. It’s so simple!

While I have directed this list to “leaders” and “managers”, these topics are so universal and basic that anyone in the team, no matter what level or position, could suggest them, promote them and bring about positive change with them…. especially if they are eager to make a difference and are willing to be courageous.

Don’t confuse communicating with generating commitment

Town halls, road shows, all-hands meetings, and webinars are all popular vehicles for spreading the word and gaining buy-in once the strategic plan has been crafted. Most senior executives will tout these communication efforts as a critical step in helping the organization understand what the strategy means, and what role each person plays in bringing it to fruition.

But while these types of events can generate a significant amount of energy and excitement, they also contain pitfalls that can lead to cynicism rather than commitment.

One of these pitfalls is the mistaken belief that staff are empty vessels, just waiting for the word from above about where the company is headed and what they should be doing to help it get there.

Far from being empty, people are already full. Full with frustrations and disappointments about what executives have said they were going to do in the past and what they actually did. Full from promises made and not kept, and full from accepting requests to get involved in a company strategy and then being ignored when times got tough.

Employees who have been around have little time— or tolerance — for fanfare and hype. What employees want to know is that their bosses understand, and are committed to addressing, the challenges they face in putting a strategy in place.

Take three real examples:

  • In one of the organizations I supported, employees complained that a certain supervisor was a tyrant. However, management didn’t listen. Nothing was done and no one held that person accountable for not demonstrating the values that the senior team were promoting.
  • In another organization, employees expressed frustration that the systems that they had to work with were broken and inadequate, but management seem to ignore the impact that this had on the team, and they didn’t manage the situation or make the proper investment to set things right.
  • I have seen many instances in which employees were caught in the crossfire of feuding bosses, and yet the senior leaders of the company left them to their warring factions instead of intervening and letting everyone know that political gamesmanship won’t be tolerated.

Only by listening to what the employees are saying, with both their words and behaviors, will leaders become aware of and able to address the issues that are preventing them from embracing the strategic objectives management is asking them to pursue. When this type of listening happens, and action is taken, commitment to the strategic plan follows suit.

Like strategy – town halls, road shows, all-hands meetings, and webinars will only be as effective as the environment and atmosphere inside of which they are conducted. If senior management has a reputation for being credible, competent, courageous – specifically open to hearing the truth and dealing with the tough things heads-on and caring, people will wholeheartedly get on board. But if not, then no amount of fanfare and hype will suffice.

 

Are you making a difference in meetings and conversations?

Two of the biggest complaints I often hear in organizations are:

  • “Our meetings are not productive”
  • “We have too many meetings”

The irony is that in many – perhaps in most – cases the biggest complainers are also the ones who are the biggest creators and perpetrators of this problem.

I was facilitating a strategy creation meeting for a global technology company with 30 of the top leaders and managers of a service department that was going through significant change.

People had traveled from all corners of the world to attend this four-day meeting. Needless to say, this was a critical meeting at a critical juncture for the department as they defined their long-term vision and strategy, as well as their short-term priorities and initiatives.

As with most strategy creation sessions, the debate was dynamic and lively. We moved from breakout discussions to collective debates, illustrating ideas and positions on white boards, and overall people felt passionate about the topics.

There were, however, around 5-6 leaders/managers who didn’t engage very much. They sat at their tables, computers open, heads down attending to email. From time-to-time, they lifted their heads to listen to the debate only to return to their busy work soon after.

When asked numerous times to close laptops and put away their mobile phones their response was either denial, stating that they were “fully engaged in the debate” or they would close their screens for a few minutes only to open them and continue their delinquent activities soon after.

I facilitate and attend a lot of meetings and unfortunately, I see this behavior pervasively.

What a waste of time and money! To have traveled all that way and then instead of completely immersing themselves in the conversation, making a difference and collaborating with colleagues to shape the future and destiny of the organization, to spend most of the time doing the same mundane things that they could have stayed home to do. What a rip-off and missed opportunity for them, their teammates and the company!

And, even if you didn’t travel at all; even if you just walked a few paces from another office, it is still unacceptable to sit in such an important meeting, that requires everyone’s undivided attention and not contribute in the way you can.

Let’s be honest – you can’t make a difference if you are not fully engaged in the conversation. Especially in a strategy creation type of a meeting.

So, to all those who claim that they can fully engage in, and contribute to meetings while doing email, or scheduling other parallel calls and meetings and then going in-and-out of the meeting to attend to these, I say

“Stop kidding yourselves!”

It’s not that everyone in the meeting has to talk. In fact, in the meeting described above, like in many meetings, probably 50-60% of the participants actually talked. However, at least 80% of the people were fully present and engaged. They were listening actively and attentively, nodding their heads, raising their hands when we were asking for alignment and moving around the room with the debate, to and from the breakout sessions and whiteboards without missing a beat. It was clear to everyone that their attendance and presence at the meeting, no matter how quiet, was powerful and made a difference.

I am confident that these people will leave the meeting clear about the outcomes and how the team derived them, and fully aligned and on board to own and drive the next steps. I am not so sure about those who were not all there.

The punch line for me is: Multitasking is a myth! If you want your meetings to be productive make sure that everyone (and I mean everyone) in the meeting is off their computers and phones and fully engaged in the conversation the entire time.

And, if you make sure that all your meetings are productive, I promise you that people won’t feel like there are too many meetings. In fact, they will start looking forward to productive meetings that move things forward and make a difference!

Stop trying to predict the future!

Every year, executives around the world go through the customary tradition known as ‘strategic planning’. They emerge from days or weeks of meetings with a sacred document that — if adhered to — will increase their sales, make their services shine, engage their staff and secure their future. Well, that’s the story they tell us in business school anyway.

But unfortunately – as Professor Robert Kaplan of the Harvard Business School and his associate, David Norton of the Balanced Scorecard Collaborative tell us – as much as 90 percent of all corporate strategies fall short of their stated objectives.

From my many years of global experience, helping executive teams generate a clear and compelling direction for their organizations, I have observed several key misunderstandings and myths that lead to wishful, wasteful, or less-than-worthwhile strategic planning efforts and outcomes.

One of the biggest myths is that in order to create an effective and relevant strategy you have to be able to accurately predict the future in terms of market, technology and/or consumer trends. Many executives seem to believe this.

But, nothing could be further from the truth. In today’s rapidly changing technological, consumption, and economic environments, no one has a crystal ball, and no one knows what the future will bring.

In the last few years, we have probably seen more examples than ever before of the predictable not materializing, and the unpredictable becoming reality.

In today’s world, it’s often the new, unknown, small players that burst into the market unexpectedly and overnight they dictate new consumption and business trends, and how we live our lives. Take as an example the likes of Uber, Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Paypal and many other ‘use-to-be startups’.

So, any attempts to predict the future could easily be misleading and lead to misjudgment and failure.

Unfortunately, many executives still believe that there is a “right” strategy for their organization and their job is to identify and capture it. They believe that if you get the content of your strategy right, the success of that strategy is a foregone conclusion. They assume that the substance of the strategy must be composed of realistic objectives based on the most accurate and valid data and information. In many organizations, this belief leads to “analysis paralysis”.

Those who try and get the future right typically do so by analyzing the past. They create their strategic plans by looking at their rearview mirror. They determine their future goals by benchmarking and analyzing their own, as well as others’, historical performance and trends. That often leads to merely repeating past cycles and trends.

In addition, what goes unrecognized and unaddressed is that no strategy can ever be right or reasonable enough to account for all the events that might emerge on the road to its fulfillment. Therefore, perfect content, as a path to success, is an illusion and leads to increased investment of resources in the pursuit of the one true strategy that will win the day.

In reality, any strategy is only as good as people’s ownership and commitment to its fulfillment.

Even the most accurate and well-crafted plan will fail if people don’t own it and take accountability for delivering it. Therefore, you are better off having 100% ownership for a strategy that is 80% accurate, then have less than 80% ownership for a strategy that is 100% accurate.

Of course, you need a healthy understanding and respect for past and present trends. I  believe there is plenty of experience, expertise and smarts in most organizations. However, as Alan Kay, ex-Apple Fellow, said,

The only way to predict the future is to create it“.

The most powerful strategies are informed by the past, but influenced and driven by future thinking. This means a team envisions the future, takes a stand, and commits to a direction and destination as a responsible, plausible, and a calculated risk. Then everyone commits to that destination – not because it is perfectly accurate, but because they believe it is the right future to pursue.

The process of creating a powerful and effective strategic plan should not be an accounting and forecasting exercise that is informed by some leadership, but rather the opposite – a leadership exercise that is informed by some accounting and forecasting. It requires not a calculator, but the courage and conviction to inspire everyone to be their best and get on the same page.

As Academy Award-winning director Francis Ford Coppola famously said:

 “The first step in making a great movie is getting everyone involved to be making the same movie.”