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Challenge yourself to set down your smartphone

I just returned from a lovely summer vacation at a nice beachside resort. Being the proud workaholic that I am, (I love what I do!) I use these vacations to unplug from work. I, personally, need this disconnection physically and spiritually. Additionally, unplugging greatly contributes to my business success. These times off provide invaluable opportunities to think, reflect, take stock of progress, and to create and plan for the future.

As my wife and I were sitting on the beach and by the poolside, the number of people constantly glued to their smart devices struck me; people of all ages, from all walks of life – fathers, mothers, their kids. In fact, with many guests, it seemed as if they were on Facebook, email or Instagram nonstop.

It was the same way at the restaurants during breakfast, lunch and dinner – people sitting around a table, each in their own world, glued to their personal smart device, consumed by what was on their screen rather than who was in their company.

So, when do these people actually enjoy their vacation?

I am not naïve, and I don’t mean to be narrow-minded or judgmental. I understand the modern smart digital age we live in. I take part in it every day. I use my smartphone too, when not on vacation. In addition, I have three kids who are, or were, teenagers. So, I fully get it.

However, I try very hard to manage and control my smart-device usage and not allow it to manage and control my life. It seems that so may people have reached an unhealthy point, and my vacation people-watching experience definitely confirmed that.

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 people are consumed by their smart devices, they are not meaningfully present in the moment with the people and activities around them. It’s as simple as that – when they are on their smartphones 60-90% of the time, they are fully present with their immediate environment only 40-10% of the time.

Don’t take this the wrong way, I try and take the fullest advantage of these innovations and I value the transformation technology, smart devices and the digital and social media environment is bringing to many areas of my life.

At the same time, I also see the negative affects of technology – people being so occupied by their devises that it compromises their ability to relate, communicate and drive intimacy.

Where are you on this spectrum?

Photo by: Johan Larsson

How to start a great blog

I have had my blog now for around four years. As I have expressed before, I love writing and I love my blog.

Taking on the practice and discipline of writing on a frequent and regular basis has inspired and forced me, in the best way, to look inward in order to bring forth, articulate and share new leadership ideas and insights that would be relevant and useful to others. My blog has become my catalyst for new thinking and a key platform for expressing my Self, adding value and making the difference I want to make. It has also deepened my self-confidence and sense of who I am and my purpose.

Over the last few years, as social media has become more prevalent, I have had an increasing number of people ask me for my advice and tips on how to start a blog.

To be clear, I am not an expert in blog writing or social media. In fact, I am using a great professional social media group that is guiding and coaching me on how to take my content to the next level and engage with my audience.

However, because I am passionate about writing and blogging, and because I feel I have learned some great lessons over the last few years in blog writing, I want to share this with you and dedicate this post to the topic of: how to start and maintain a great blog.

Here are a few simple tips:

1- Make sure your blog has a clear purpose, direction and scope. The more focused your blog is, the more effective it will be – for you as the writer and for your readers. The purpose of your blog should be narrow enough so that you and your readers understand what is in-scope and what isn’t. However, at the same time it should also be wide enough to allow for different shades and subtopics inside your main purpose and scope.

To get clear on your purpose, direction and scope of your blog you can ask yourself the following types of questions: What will my blog be about? What will I write about? In what area do I have something unique to say? In what area do I want to make a difference and have something to say? What can I contribute that others (readers) would resonate with and be interested in?

2- Make sure your blog has a clear name that reflects what it is about. After you get clear on the purpose, direction and scope of your blog you should give it a great name. When naming a blog, make sure that the name effectively reflects your vision for your blog. When people read or hear the name of your blog they should be able to instantly “get it.”

There are no rules, however, my guidance is that names like “Living Life,” “Social Media” or “Wealth” are too wide and include too much. However, names like: “Healthy living,” “Living Courageously,” “Growing your Business with Social Media” “Making a Difference with Social Media,” “Constantly Growing your Wealth” or “Becoming Financially Free” are more effective names. Names that are more verb-oriented are generally more clear, focused and effective than names that are more noun-oriented.

3- Make sure you write on a regular basis. It is more important that you decide the frequency you feel comfortable writing in, and stick to that, than the actual frequency of your writing and posting.

Some people believe that if they start a blog they have to write and post something new every week or even more frequently than that. Obviously, the more frequently you write and post new things, the more dense your output and potential attraction of readers is. However, I don’t believe writing every week or more is a pre-requisite or necessary when you start a blog. I recommend to people to start with writing and posting new things at least once a month.

However, it is more important that whatever you decide, you announce and declare it to your readers and then you stick to it. This way, people start expecting and looking forward to your blogs. You can always increase the frequency of your writing and posting as you get the hang of it. I started with once a month, then I moved to every other week. Now, I write every week. This frequency suits my routine and commitment.

For those of you who feel that you have something to share and give that others around you would resonate with, and find useful, I strongly recommend to take on writing a blog. I hope these few simple tips will be useful to you in your endeavor. Good luck!

Why is straight talk so difficult?

I was coaching two entrepreneurs who were partners in a services business. They were very good at what they did and their partnership made them a lot of money and afforded them great market brand and reputation.

However, they had very different personalities and they had an acrimonious relationship for a long time.

Even though their teams had to work closely together, somehow the two managed to navigate the business conversations and activities while staying clear of the need to directly deal with each other on a personal level.

They continued to avoid dealing with their personal conflicts, lack of trust and overall contentious relationship, even though it negatively affected the people under them, as well as the overall effectiveness of their company.

When I talked with each of them alone, they always had lots of blunt criticism and negative comments about each other. But, when the three of us had sessions together, their accusations always seemed watered down. They were not communicating in a straightforward, bold and honest way.

Every time one of them criticized the other I would first ask them, “Have you told your partner how you feel and what you want/need?” and if the answer was “No!”, as it often was, I coached them to go do so.

On several occasions when one of them would report: “We had a blunt conversation and I told my partner exactly how I feel and what I want,” the other would contradict the story and say: “We talked but we didn’t discuss anything new.”

I see this type of dynamic happening in organizations all the time. People can engage in straight talk with me, but then they water it down when they talk to the person with whom they need to have the blunt and direct conversation.

Why does this happen?

From my experience, it is due to one of the following reasons:

  •  People are not clear about what they want to say. When people speak in circles or stumble on words, or when they don’t know which words to use or how to phrase what they mean it is simply because they don’t know what they want to say. Many times, people enter conversations feeling confident about what they want to say but then during the conversation, they realize their thoughts are still half-baked and unclear. People are also unclear when they haven’t quite taken a solid, final stand on something yet. I have seen this happen many times. The minute people become clear about what they believe and want, they always find an appropriate and effective way to say it.

 

  • People are not willing to own what they have to say. They are not willing to own the tough feedback, coaching, assessment or requests they have of others. This may seem a bit simplistic, however, if you net it out, I find that it all somehow boils down to courage. Having the courage to either dig deep and be clear about what we want to achieve and what we want to say, or actually coming out with it even if it may be uncomfortable to the person expressing or the person receiving.

So, next time you find yourself stuck in a conversation ask yourself: “Am I really clear about what I am trying to say?” or “Am I avoiding owning what I have to say?” This will help you move forward.

4 Steps to ensure mergers and/or acquisitions fulfill their purpose

I often work with organizations and teams that are going through, or have gone through, internal or external merger or acquisition.

Unfortunately, it is a known fact that most mergers or acquisitions fail to fulfill their desired or anticipated potential. I read a statistic, which stated that the archives of the Wall Street Journal show that upwards of 80 percent of mergers and acquisitions fail to fulfill the strategic goals that justified the merger and/or acquisition within the expected timeframe. 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 failure is due to the fact that most teams and organizations don’t invest enough time and effort in the cultural, personal and human aspects of their integration. Rather, they focus almost exclusively on the content and process and they often end up with a well articulated plan that is disconnected from the actual reality.

I have supported many integration efforts and I have found that there are four specific steps that any team or organization can take to ensure their merger or acquisition will work and fulfill its purpose:

1. Establish an environment where people can communicate and dialogue about the merger and/or acquisition (M&A) in an open, honest, authentic, courageous, and effective way.
● M&A efforts are often stalled or undermined because teams and organization try to quickly address the redundancies, overlaps and duplications, including the nuts and bolts of reorganizing, restructuring, and scaling inside an environment and atmosphere of mutual suspicion, guardedness, and defensiveness, as well as lack of trust, respect, and open, honest, and effective communication. Trying to do things fast often slows things down because people say all the politically correct things, but then they walk away paying lip service to the integration effort.

2. Elicit genuine ownership on both sides for the success of the M&A.
● In most M&A’s, 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. Make sure both parties have an opportunity 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 into a new shared identity, people need to ‘complete their respective pasts’ – or differently said: ‘grieve for the end of an era.’ But when both sides, especially the acquired, feel respected, heard, considered, included, recognized, and validated for their legacy, it creates space for all parties to generate the next chapter as an even-greater one.

4. Align the combined teams around a new 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 teams and organizations have to articulate and align on a new bold and compelling shared future which both parties equally own, feel committed to, accountable for, and energized about. 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.

Stop the Passive Aggressive Behavior

In most organizations, passive aggressive behavior is rampant.

The dictionary defines passive aggressive as: a type of behavior or personality characterized by indirect resistance to the demands of others and an avoidance of direct confrontation, as in procrastinating, pouting, or misplacing important materials.

In reality, passive aggressive behavior is actually much worse than this definition suggests.

Typical passive aggressive behavior happens in environments where people don’t feel they can fully express their feelings and thoughts–especially the negative ones. So, instead of communicating openly, authentically, courageously and effectively, people tend to pretend that everything is going well, even when they really feel the opposite – irritated, upset and/or angry about what is going on.

They say the positive, politically correct things out loud in the most positive, politically correct and “respectful” manner. But inside, they feel otherwise. This dissonance between the spoken and unspoken conversations creates tension, stress and awkwardness and people often feel they have to walk on eggshells around each other.

Because people who are behaving in a passive aggressive manner make such a big effort to appear as if they are positive about things, they often feel no one is noticing that they are inauthentic. However, for the most part, everyone around them sees through their behavior.

In a passive aggressive environment, the problems go beyond simply walking on eggshells. People also become reluctant and afraid to push back on sensitive topics, address conflict or hold each other accountable for behaviors and performance. People often say “yes” to things and then pay lip service to these. As a result productivity is significantly compromised and undermined.

Some people behave in a passive aggressive manner because they are afraid of their own volatile reactions to challenging situations. They don’t trust their ability to communicate effectively, especially when it comes to conveying criticism and disagreement. They fear that if they really express themselves, especially their frustration and anger, it will get out of hand. Others are afraid that if they fully expressed themselves they’ll get into trouble with their superiors and as a result their career will suffer. So, people simply avoid conflict and don’t say what is really on their mind. This only perpetuates and fuels the source of the passive aggressive behavior. I see this dynamic at all levels of all companies that I am exposed to.

Pent up emotions, frustrations and unexpressed communications are like bottled energy. Eventually, this energy must be released. The more it stays bottled up, the more likely it is to explode when triggered. This often happens at the most inappropriate times, in the most unproductive ways. When people “lose it,” it usually creates damage beyond proportion.

Other avenues of release for the unexpressed feelings are gossip and background noise. As we all know there is a lot of this going on in most organizations. People say one thing in public and another in the conversations around the cooler. And, again, that dissonance hurts organizational spirit, trust and performance.

So, how do you stop it?

Given that passive aggressive behavior lives in communication, it has to be transformed in communication. This requires leadership, ownership, commitment and courage, first by the leaders and managers.

If leaders are willing to create an open, honest environment for communication where people can fully communicate and express their views, they can stop the passive aggressive behavior. But it has to start with them.

However, if leaders are too afraid to be vulnerable, or they don’t trust themselves to create a more powerful and authentic space of communication around them, or they are simply too caught up in the passive aggressive behavior themselves, nothing will change. In fact, they will continue to be a part of the problem.

They will most likely continue to hide behind their title and authority in order to avoid hearing bad news or criticism, especially about them selves. By doing that they will perpetuate the issues and drive their team to more passive aggressive behavior.

Individual team members can also transform passive aggressive dynamics with other individuals, independent of their leaders and managers. They too have to behave with courage and commitment. They could show up as genuinely open to feedback, coaching and open, honest, authentic and courageous dialogue by enrolling and engaging others to always interact with them that way.

The more trust people create with others around them, the less passive aggressive behaviors will take place.

A manufacturing plant supervisor I worked with once told me: “I make sure to have lunch with my people every day, because people don’t screw someone they have lunch with.”

Become attached to your future, not your past

In 1899 Charles H. Duel, then Director of the U.S. Patent office said, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”

In 1895, Lord Kelvin who was President of the Royal Society said, “Heavier than air flying machines are impossible.”

In 1905, Grover Cleveland, then President of the United States said, “Sensible and responsible women do not wan to vote.”

In 1943, Thomas Watson, then Chairman of IBM said, “There is a world market for about five computers.”

We all say and think things everyday that we sincerely believe to be true, even though they are not true at all.

When we think or say positive things it could be motivating. Even though sometime it could cause us to underestimate what it takes to get something done. However, when we think or say negative things it often limits our view of what is possible and therefore it disempowers us and makes us less powerful.

Our thoughts are not objective. We see things and form views based on our pre-conceived notions. We don’t believe or disbelieve what we see. We actually see what we believe or disbelieve.

We seem to already know how good or bad the future is going to be even though the future hasn’t happened yet.

For example, when people start a new project they often say things like “this is going to be hard” or “it’s going to take a long time.” When they are searching for employment they often say “its really hard to find a job in this field or these days.” And when people are looking for a romantic relationship they often say “there aren’t many potential women or men out there given my age.” I hear these types of comments in my coaching work all the time.

These are all valid perspectives, but they are not facts or truths. And, if we get too attached to them, they often become self-fulfilling prophesies.

It’s as if we are driving toward our future, but without realizing it, we are looking into our rearview mirror. So, everything we see that seems to be in front of us is actually behind us. We think we are objectively working on our future, but we are actually stuck in our past. And, when we keep bumping into objects and/or having recurring accidents and issues we think: “this is just the way life is” or “this is as good as it gets.”

If we were actually driving our car on the highway and we realized we were looking at our rearview mirror, rather than the road in front of us we would immediately shift our view.

Could we do the same in our real life?

If we focused on our future without being distracted by our past we could strategize, plan and navigate more freely and effectively toward our objectives and commitments. We would probably also be able to avoid many of the hurdles and obstacles that impede our progress.

I often hear people say things like “forget the past, discard it, pretend like it didn’t happen…” when giving advice to others who are dealing with a challenging situation. I find that advice both silly and unnecessary. First, it is impossible to forget our past, especially when we have traumatic or memorable events in it. Second, it isn’t necessary to forget it in order to move forward with freedom and confidence.

We all have the ability to become attached to our future while having our past. Unfortunately, most people tend to live in the opposite way – they stay attached to their past and have their future.

When people who are attached to their past face new possibilities they tend to focus on the obstacles and reasons why things can’t be done or why things won’t work. When you try and enroll them in new ideas and possibilities they often respond with “Yes but…we can’t do this because… And, they often refer to the people who are initiating new possibilities as naïve and/or unrealistic.

People who stand in the future tend to be more optimistic and confident. I was coaching a group of managers from two functions in a known technology company who were working on improving their role definition and collaboration.  The dialogue quickly became extremely lively and flowing with ideas. People constantly built on each others’ thoughts and ideas by saying “Yes and…we could also do this and that.” This is a typical dynamic when people stand in the future.

We don’t have to forget or discard our past in order to become our future. In fact, we should always honor, respect and learn from past lessons. But, we shouldn’t cross the line and become too attached to our past. It will limit our ability to create and fulfill great things in our future.

 

Take your head out of the sand

How many times have you participated in a meeting and halfway through it you realized that something important wasn’t being said openly and honestly. You knew that others knew it, too, but no one said anything?

How many times have you seen managers and employees sit around a meeting table, nodding in agreement as their leader explained the plan for a critical change initiative. Once the meeting was over, people pushed back their chairs and drifted back towards their desks. As they congregated at the water cooler, they opened up to each other: “What a pile of crap!”, “That’ll never happen!”, “I can hardly wait until the weekend?”

By the time these underhanded comments go viral throughout the organization cynicism and quiet rebellion are rampant. In this organization, people will definitely be paying lip service to the organizational mandate.

Meanwhile, their unsuspecting bosses leave the meeting imagining that they have done a wonderful job of communicating their strategy, and that people are on board.

Nothing will undermine a strategy or initiative more effectively than a lack of employee ownership and alignment. If employees are expressing skepticism and criticism about their leadership and the initiative in “around the water cooler” conversations that is a sure sign that they are not on-board, and not aligned with the company’s strategy.

So many leaders and managers simply don’t get it. They think that what people tell them to their face is what people really think. Sometime that is the simple truth. But, many times it isn’t.

There are two types of conversations taking place in every organization at all times – one is spoken; what people say out loud. These are often the politically correct things. The other is unspoken. It’s what people only say in private to their close friends and confidants. This is often referred to as the “background noise.”

When leaders don’t create an environment that fosters genuine openness and honesty people go underground to converse. Instead of addressing the important things out in the open they tend to cover their behinds, blame others for things that are not working well, or they simply become silently frustrated and resigned. When they have to, they pay lip service to the authorities, but they say only what they believe to be politically correct and safe.

As a result, far too many leaders simply have no idea what their people are really thinking and saying. In fact, many mistake fear and compliance for commitment.

It takes courage – on both sides – to create an environment of blunt honesty. Leaders must be willing to hear the unvarnished truth, and employees must be prepared to express it. It takes two to tango, however, this has to start with the leaders.

Leaders who learn to listen carefully and engage in blunt and meaningful dialogue with their people will find that the investment of time and effort is deeply worthwhile. Over time, people will rise to the occasion, abandon the background noise and start addressing challenges and opportunities head-on.

In fact, even if the strategy is not optimal, if managers and employees feel they can make a difference and their leaders really want to hear what they have to say, they will go out of their way to make sure it succeeds.

But, in order to succeed leaders have to take their heads out of the sand.

Five practical things any leader can do daily in order to create and sustain an environment of authentic and effective Accountability

In my last blog, Accountability; a privilege or burden? I discussed what accountability truly is or should be.  As promised, I want to share five practical things leaders and managers can do to create and sustain an environment of authentic and effective Accountability.

1.)Make sure people are engaged in setting the goals early on. This practice would most likely be applied differently depending on the size and how disperse the team 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 the entire 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 people in the goals early on is always relevant. This is because the more people feel engaged in setting the goals the more they will feel a sense of personal ownership and accountability toward them.

2.) Promote a culture of open, honest, authentic and courageous communication. Where people feel they can speak their mind, ssssespecially addressing what is not working they tend to naturally gravitate toward feeling and behaving like loyal owners of the business. Regardless of what senior leaders may say, people will only speak up if they believe their leaders genuinely want them to. To do that leaders have to start with themselves. They need to show that they are open to honest dialogue, including feedback and criticism about themselves.

3.)Instill 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 have plenty of tolerance for, and indulgence in excuses, justifications, blame and reasons why things can’t be done or why they didn’t get done. In contrast, the language of accountability is all about clarity of 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.

4.) Deal with failures, mistakes and shortfalls in an empowering way. In most organizations when a team under performs or fails people tend to look for someone or something to blame. The problem is that when people feel there is a 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. 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 people will be excited to contribute to the investigation and as a result you’ll come up with breakthroughs AND you’ll strengthen people’s sense of ownership and accountability to your vision.

5.) 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 accountability go out of your way to recognize small, medium or large displays of ownership and accountability. Make it a daily routine and practice.

 

Empower yourself to have more courageous conversations

In last week’s blog I stated that most people in most organizations avoid having the courageous conversations. They want things to change, they want more empowerment, responsibility, involvement and authority, but when push-comes-to-shove they often have diplomatic, watered-down or politically correct conversations.

In private conversations with leaders, managers, and employees in many organizations, most acknowledge that they are not as courageous as they need or want to be.

So, in this post I want to suggest some steps that could empower people and teams to go to the next level in this area:

First step – Fess up – In order to change their behavior, people need to first own up to their current behaviors and dynamics – in this case to their avoidance of courageous conversations. In so many cases, change doesn’t happen because people are either blind to their shortcomings or they are in denial and don’t admit them.

Second step – Embrace your alternate options – Have you heard the saying: “The truth will set you free?” When most people fess up to their shortcomings, gaps or lack of ownership, authenticity and/or courage, they feel relieved. And from that space, they can start thinking about, “So now what?”How else COULD I act and/or behave?” and “What else COULD I do?” For many people, this new space of possibilities is energizing. However, some people prefer to avoid responsibility; they can’t seem to get beyond blaming others and being victims of their circumstances. One very effective way to take ownership is to consider the “benefits” and “cost” of avoiding responsibility for having the courageous conversations. I have elaborated on this several times in previous blogs.

Third step – Make a choice and take a stand – When people own up to their alternate options, they can make real choices – choices about how they will think and behave differently, and what they will, in fact, do differently. Steps one and two are about completing the past. Step three is about creating the future. Making a choice is, in essence, taking a stand; promising a new course of action, launching a new beginning, and propelling oneself to a new trajectory.

Fourth step – Act and behave in accordance with your stand – Authentic choices lead to new actions and behaviors. People can reinvent themselves by following steps one through three and then beginning to act and behave consistent with their stand. In many cases, when the new actions are radically different from the past ones, people feel somewhat awkward, inadequate, and out of their comfort zone. I often refer to this as being “beginners.” They may even need to “fake it till they make it,” at first. However, if they are willing to stay the course and correct themselves when they stumble, fall or screw up, sooner than later the new actions and behaviors will start to become part of their new DNA.

The technology leaders from last week’s blog managed to generate meaningful breakthroughs in elevating the quality and effectiveness of their teamwork and communication by using these steps and increasing their authentic and courageous conversations. They did it together as a team so this made it easier for each of them to step up.

Today, they look forward to their meetings because at least 90% of their time is focused on the essential topics. People feel they can truly affect change. They had that mandate before, but now they feel they have “each other’s permission” and the environment to effectively do so. As a result, the team members feel much more comfortable to engage in whatever conversations that are necessary to reach alignment and make decisions fast. They also started to hold each other to account for commitments and deliverables much more courageously.

 

Are you having the courageous conversations?

The senior leaders of a large and successful technology company 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 where not effective and that included:

(1) The short-term financial updates and immediate fire drills always took over the 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) people often didn’t comply, follow up and/or reinforce.

The senior leaders had frustrations with, and complaints about other colleagues in the team. However, for the most part they blamed their boss, the CEO for not “making the meetings productive”, and not “empowering the senior team to make the key decisions”

Meanwhile, the CEO was frustrated because his senior leaders were not having the necessary conversations with each other. They needed to work together and behind the scenes between the meetings to confront things, resolve issues, align on strategies and plans, and hold each other to account for decisions that were made in prior meetings.

Instead, people were escalating the tough issues to him, expecting him to resolve and make the decisions, even on issues the leaders were fully capable of, and empowered to solve. As a result, people felt the meetings were a waste of time because most of the time was spent on reviewing updates and reports, confirming decisions and other mundane topics that could have easily been handled elsewhere.

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

I see this dynamic at all levels of seniority in most (all) organizations. People 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 with stakeholders, team members and each other.

Yes, these conversations can 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, not functioning on all cylinders.

So, how do you change this?

It starts with people owning up to their avoidance of courageous conversations. In next week’s blog I’ll share a framework that works for teams and individuals for starting to take on the courageous conversations.

I will also share the end of the story of the technology leaders and how they generated a meaningful breakthrough in their courageous conversations.

 

Stay tuned…

Brutal honesty is not enough.

In my last blog I emphasized the importance and benefits of creating an open, honest, authentic and courageous communication environment in teams and in life. In this blog I want to dig a little deeper.

Living with a courageous and relentless commitment to openness and honesty is a powerful and, in my view, noble virtue. I am not merely saying this because I have personally adopted this commitment in my own life. I am saying it because I have seen the power of openness and honesty triumph over resignation, despair and challenge, as well as nurture opportunity many times. BUT, I have also seen openness, honesty and bluntness deeply hurt and deflate people.

People often think that “having no filter”, “calling it as they see it” and “putting it all out there” are virtues and an asset to their group or relationship. In fact, some cultures – the Dutch for example – pride themselves on their bluntness. When brutal honesty is delivered in a productive manner, it can definitely be a huge asset. But brutal honesty can also be a disaster and an impediment. It can hurt people deeply and leave casualties.

A sales manager at a global telecom company shared with me a story that I have heard in other places before: his boss asked him to represent his country in the weekly regional sales forecast call with the upper level managers. The economic times were challenging and deals were hard to come by, so everyone on the call was somewhat tense and apprehensive, especially his boss’s boss, who was under tremendous pressure from his superiors to perform. When it was time for the sales manager to present he didn’t have good news to share, so not before long he found himself being questioned, grilled and criticized by those who attended the meeting. Needless to say, he left the call feeling devastated and publically attacked, humiliated and demeaned. His boss’s boss had a different depiction of the incident. His take was: “The sales manager came to the call unprepared so I gave him some feedback and tried to help him steer his presentation the right way”.

If openness, honesty and bluntness don’t make a difference and empower people, they are not worth the dignity they stand for and represent.

I have also heard many people equate open, honest and authentic communication to “getting it all off their chest”. In fact, in a recent coaching conversation an executive expressed pride in the fact that he finally mustered the courage to tell his team-mate how he really felt about him, after a long period in which he accumulated pent up frustrations and resentments about his colleague. I empathized with his initial feeling of personal triumph. But when I asked him if the conversation made a difference to address, resolve or change things he wasn’t sure at all. In fact, upon reflection he admitted that the trust and partnership with his colleague didn’t get stronger, and they didn’t come out of that conversation with any tangible productive actions or directions. He left the conversation feeling relief, but his colleague seemed quite upset and disheartened.

Putting it all out there, or getting if all off your chest is the wrong focus. Making a difference should always be the purpose and focus of any communication. It should guide the approach, angle, style and intensity of all our conversations. If making a difference requires being completely open, honest and blunt, then so be it. But, if being completely open, honest and blunt would hurt, insult, demean or deflate the other person, it may be better not to say anything at all.

A friend of mine, who is teaching at a post graduate university, shared with me recently that her new boss adopted the “blunt, no filter” approach, which was less than successful in their environment. Her boss, who came from the finance world, did not take into account the less brutal and more “diplomatic” academic world she was now immersed in. My friend confessed to feeling wary and cautious about bringing issues to the front because of her boss’s unorthodox style.

There are always appropriate, effective and productive ways to communicate, give feedback and express criticism and dissatisfaction – no matter how severe – which elevate and empower people.

What good is it for anyone if people around them are torn down and/or afraid to speak their minds?

Blunt honesty is the right approach both in business and at home.

I love working with leaders who are relentless about driving a culture of open, honest and courageous communication around them. These leaders are about high performance and they have zero interest in, or tolerance for, internal drama or politics. They operate at a high level of personal integrity, authenticity and ownership. And they expect and demand the same from people around them.

They make it difficult – if not impossible – for people to get away with doing the things that undermine and weaken the organization: point fingers, adopt a victim mentality, indulge in destructive politics, and “CYA” (cover-your-ass) behaviors that distract from the goals of the organization.

Even if these behaviors are very subtle, they drain energy and waste everyone’s time. Eventually, people begin to feel that they cannot make a difference, and the organization loses focus and cannot achieve the results it seeks. In today’s environment of growing competition and limited resources, what company can afford this?

Any manager can do this – break these undermining patterns, reverse past damage and create a high performance team dynamic – if they are willing to be a courageous leader, role model this behavior, and call his or her people to account for it too. They need to stand for a new code of rigorous honesty, refusing to settle for less than the truth in an environment where people are used to only voicing what they think their leaders want to hear.

No matter which method they use, leaders must make their unconditional commitment to honesty known, and they must convince their people that they mean it. It’s not enough to declare it. They need to demonstrate through action that they are genuinely open to feedback, criticism and input, including about themselves. As one of my clients once admitted: “It takes 10 rights to fix 1 wrong, and 1 wrong to undermine 10 rights.”

This leadership philosophy of open, honest, authentic and courageous communication can be messy, lonely and painful at times. However, time and again, I have seen it lead to significant transformations inside organizations. In fact, clients have repeatedly shared with me that creating a new level of communication at work has even made them a better person in their personal life, changing the way they relate to their children and their spouses. One CEO even told me, “It saved my marriage.”

I am not a marriage counselor, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But one thing I do know is that when organizations have the courage to face the truth every day, a powerful platform of authentic team ownership, commitment and accountability emerges. The team is then equipped and energized to focus on any challenge or opportunity that lies ahead, no matter how unfamiliar, complex, or difficult it may be. In short, the team becomes unstoppable.