leadership incorporated blog

February 11, 2013

How smart leaders unintentionally murder successful outcomes

In the mid-1990s, the murder rate in Minneapolis was higher than New York’s. Things were so bad, people referred to the city as “Murderapolis.”

Today, that rate has dropped by 60%. How did they do this?

They gave high-risk teens an A.

I’m referring to the concept of “Giving an A” described by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander in The Art of Possibility (Penguin Books, 2002).

The idea is to assume that everyone is an “A student,” — even violent teens in Minnesota. You can see it in the core goals of Minneapolis’ program:

  • Every young person was supported by at least one trusted adult,
  • Intervention at the first sign of risk,
  • Focus on getting kids back on track rather than giving up on them,
  • Recognition that violence is learned; that there is a larger system at work.

This program assumed that every kid was deserving of support, intervention, training, trust and belief.  And it produced a dramatic result.

This same concept can make a big difference in the growth and effectiveness of your organization.

When we approach poor or underperformance from a stance of judgment and blame (the equivalent of assuming people are F students), what happens?

  • We become blind to root causes
  • We repeat the same patterns of poor performance over and over
  • We send discouraging messages to individuals that undermine their ability to recover
  • We send the team a message that blame is an organizational strategy, setting the stage for increasing blame in the place of problem solving
  • We increase costly drama and politics

When take the opportunity to assume that everyone is an “A student” it generally leads to the opposite actions:

  • Looking for root causes and creating more lasting solutions
  • Sending a message of support and expectation to the person that tends to increase effort and commitment
  • Establishing an organizational culture focused on attacking problems and not people, which increases trust, safety and retention
  • Reducing costly drama and politics

Meet Gordon, the VP of R&D in an information technology company.

Gordon lived in a constant state of fury brought on by Joan, one of his project directors. He had no patience for hearing that yet another of Joan’s deadlines had been missed and the raft of excuses that would follow. Their relationship had deteriorated to the point where they were barely communicating. He was ready to issue her a Performance Improvement Plan that would allow him to finally let her go at the end of 60 days.

He was giving Joan an F.

When I was brought in to coach Gordon, the conflict with Joan surfaced as one of his biggest challenges. When I asked Gordon how he would approach the situation if Joan were an “A student,” he realized that in his quickness to assess Joan as a underperformer, he had not once had a straight conversation with her about the challenges she faced.

Gordon uncovered that the issue was not with Joan but with another department Joan’s group was dependent upon for data.

By giving the other department an A in his negotiations with them, Gordon was able to work out realistic deadlines and help them in resolving a bottleneck that was consistently keeping them behind schedule.

Do you want to be right or do you want to be productive?

When I present this concept, I’m often asked, “When can I give someone an ‘F’?”

This question asks, “When can I blame?” My response is “Never!”

Blame never leads to the best possible outcome.

This does not mean you won’t give people honest and constructive feedback. It also doesn’t mean that you won’t hold people to the highest standards. Or even sometimes let an employee go.

You may take the very same actions when giving a person an A as you would have when giving them an F. Yet, the quality of the experience of those actions will be completely different for all concerned — in ways that support rather than undermine growth and success.

The concept of assuming people are “A-students” actually makes it easier for you to effectively hold someone accountable, as well as to support them in creating the outcomes your business needs.

One more distinction: you may be tempted to reframe this as “giving someone the benefit of the doubt.” This takes you halfway there, but still begins with doubt.

Giving someone an “A” begins with trust. And trust leads your organization down a very different and much more productive path.

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August 14, 2011

Inspired to Succeed: Leading superstars (and others) behaving like idiots.

Ridiculously common leadership challenge:

That rising star you promoted into a management role, what a mistake! He’s throwing his weight around. She’s behaving unprofessionally. He’s demoralizing the staff. She’s creating conflict. He’s just not getting the job done.

So what do you do?

Traditionally, if we don’t ignore the situation or promote the person (which happens more often than you might think), we confront. We yell. We threaten. We paper the file. We discipline. We demote. We fire. We have that difficult conversation. That’s what accountability is, right?

Not necessarily.

Accountability is us taking responsibility. Us, being accountable.

Every day companies take people who are excellent at what they do and promote them into roles that require they do something more. They assume that people will naturally be as good at the new role as they were at the old one, without recognizing that the new job requires completely different skills and perspectives.

Bad management behavior is a sign of someone who’s drowning — and may not even know that swimming is required, much less how to do it.

As their supervision, their failure belongs to us. It is our job to lead even our leaders.

Should they know better? Maybe. But if they don’t, you are just fighting reality.

Is it understandable and even justified, to discipline these rogue managers? Maybe. It’s just not effective.

Let’s look at how traditional discipline works. We’ve all been there. How do you respond when you are slapped down? Do you push back? Become defensive? Resentful? Do you go underground? Does your confidence take the hit?

Even when people are open to feedback and want to do better, traditional discipline creates an extra layer of fear, defensiveness, and judgment that ultimately gets in the way of performance.

As leaders, what we had better want, even though we may lose touch with it in the moment, is for our people to truly succeed so that our organizations will succeed along with them.

Business is a team sport. If we want to grow, we need to develop and support our players.

Here’s a more effective approach to creating true and sustainable accountability in managers (and others) who disappoint:

1. Take responsibility. Don’t just push people into the deep end of the pool to sink or swim. Supervise and fine tune and guide and coach. Let them struggle — that’s how they learn — but don’t let them go under and certainly don’t let them drown anyone else to save themselves.

2. Align with the person you’re disappointed in. It’s counter-intuitive. We believe we need to confront. Yet, frontal attacks are always met with resistance. So instead of initiating a losing battle, create alignment.

This does not mean making unacceptable behavior okay. It simply means playing on the same team. Instead of standing in front of an employee and pushing them backwards; metaphorically, come around behind them and support their forward movement.

3. Direct their vision to the future. Speak to what is needed. Speak to what’s possible for this person in this role. Speak to their ability and your commitment their success. Be clear about what success looks like in this position in this organization, so they know what’s expected.

4. Build on what’s working. Focusing on what’s wrong keeps you stuck in what’s wrong. Cutting people down doesn’t build them up. Start from what is going well and focus on adding what’s needed. Ask them what support they need.

5. Do not do the work for them. If the support they request removes their responsibility or opportunity for learning, firmly decline and refocus. Empowering and facilitating is the shortest path to growing a stronger company.

6. Have them evaluate their own progress. You evaluate their evaluation. True accountability is helping a person hold him or herself accountable.

7. If you can’t do this, one of you needs to go. That’s right. If they can’t achieve the clear expectations with this kind of support, more often than not, they’ll leave on their own.

On the other hand if you can’t be this kind of leader, what hope is there for your organization?

Make the time. It’s worth it.


October 4, 2010

Inspired to Succeed: 6 ways to get your innovation wheels turning

Recently I’ve had the great honor of working with a brilliant client who is the head of R&D in an organization that develops and manufactures medical devices. I’m supporting him in creating a culture of innovation in his company. So I’ve been spending a lot of time reading and thinking about innovation lately.

There are plenty of thought leaders out there who will tell you that innovation has become more essential than ever to the survival of every organization. All you have to do is look at the rate of change happening in virtually every field to know that if you aren’t riding the wave, you will be left behind. People’s needs are changing. Fast. And not only will your current competition be working hard to beat you to the solutions, new businesses will spring up with new ideas as well.

Change is the new status quo and innovation is the vehicle that allows you to ride that change.

Now, when most people talk about innovation they mean changes in their products or services. Innovation can also refer to your methods of delivering that product or service. Or your ways of getting and keeping business. Or the way you approach virtually any aspect of your business model. And innovations can be suggested by or inspired by anyone inside or outside your business…not just the “creative” people.

So the first thing to do to get your innovation wheels turning is open your mind, break through any limiting thoughts and broaden your description of what innovation might mean for you.

By the way, innovation is a relevant concept even if you’re in transition right now. Because the old ways of looking for work don’t work anymore. Those who are open to creating new approaches will prevail. (For more on this, visit http://www.layoffbounceback.com.)

Whether you are a solopreneur, or leading people in a global conglomerate that employs millions, the basic principles for encouraging innovation are the same:

1. Articulate your desire to innovate and your reasons why. Don’t just assume that anyone (including yourself) will automatically shift into a state of innovation without encouragement, reminders or connection to the vision. Put it in writing. Speak it frequently.

2. Create space. Innovation doesn’t like to be crowded. Schedule empty time for yourself and your people to allow the kind of thinking that leads to innovation.

3. Encourage failure. And then drop the word “failure” from your vocabulary. Failure = Learning. Learning leads to new approaches. New approaches lead to…you guessed it.

4. Reward new thinking, whether it moves forward or not. Don’t forget to reward yourself as well as others! Make new thinking synonymous with success and you will have many more new ideas to build success with.

5. Encourage play. Play is critical to innovation. It relaxes the mind and encourages new pathways for thought. Provide yourself and your people with the tools that encourage play. This might look like paper and markers, clay, building blocks. It might also look like a field trip to an art museum or other places where you can be inspired by the ways others have thought outside of their boxes.

Try something new this week and feel free to let me know how it goes.

August 30, 2010

Inspired to Succeed: : 9 Ways Smart Leaders Lose Peoples’ Respect and Loyalty

This week I observed as the leader of an organization in a team meeting made a series of common mistakes that are practically guaranteed to annoy, offend, alienate and otherwise reduce the likelihood of building loyalty in the team.

I can’t imagine that she had anything but the best of intentions. Yet, these common behaviors are likely to undermine her objectives.

Here are some guidelines that may help you to not make similar mistakes:

DON’T be deceptive about your purpose. When you lead people to expect one thing and deliver another you erode their trust.

DO think about how your words will land with others, what those words will lead people to expect. When in doubt, get feedback.

DON’T focus more positive attention on long-time members. This is just as true in a business as in a membership organization.  It’s easy to think that you want to honor your most valued team members first and most and that this will encourage others to get involved.  However, what this really does is create separation and often makes newcomers feel as if there is a closed circle to which they are not welcome.

DO welcome newcomers first. Make them feel special. Give them the opportunity to introduce themselves or share. Then when you honor those on the team, it feels inclusive and not exclusive.

DON’T make assumptions about the motivations and knowledge base of the team. People come to your business or organization with a wealth of experience and know-how. And they each come with their own motivations. When you assume and get it wrong, they will feel they don’t belong.

DO be aware of your assumptions. Check with the group to see what they know, what they want, what they have to offer.

DON’T bring limiting beliefs into the mix, if possible. Others may not share these beliefs. Nothing will alienate someone faster than a mismatched belief system.

DO work to become aware of your own limiting beliefs, especially in areas relevant to your organization.

DON’T hold yourself up as a role model. Even when you have accomplished miracles and it would benefit people to follow your lead, standing at the front of a room speaking about yourself as someone to emulate is a turn-off. This doesn’t mean you can’t share your experiences and knowledge.

DO be a role model. However, focus your attention and energy on your audience and not on yourself. Know that there are other possible paths to success than the one you followed.

DON’T hold yourself as separate from the team. This is closely related to the last point. When you hold yourself as a role model, you see yourself as being ahead of or better than those you are leading or hoping to lead. They will feel that separation and the best among them won’t follow.

DO see yourself as part of the team. Recognize the value others have to bring, and not just selective others, but each person present. When you acknowledge the possibilities in everyone, many more people will step forward to own and create those possibilities.

DON’T make a negative example of someone in the room. This makes everyone feel uncomfortable. And diminishes trust. If you do this to him today, you could do it to me tomorrow. It will make people hesitant to speak up.

DO make positive examples of people in the room. If a negative example needs to be made, fall on the sword yourself, telling a story from your past. Or generalize, making it clear that many people have made this mistake.

DON’T parent people. Forcing them unnecessarily into actions, not giving them choice and autonomy will do one of two things: It will send the independent thinkers running, it will encourage the rest into co-dependent relationship with you.

DO invite people to experiences. Create a safe space for them to learn and grow and participate. It may take some people longer to step forward than others. Or they may contribute in other ways. When you create the room for all kinds of people and all kinds of participation you will also create incredible respect, loyalty and new possibilities.

DON’T speak down to people. Don’t use your position, authority or celebrity to make them smaller. No one wants to feel small.

DO think the best of people. The excellent book The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander (see link below) suggests that you “give people an A.” Assume the best and most of the time, you will both be better for it.

The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life

August 22, 2010

Inspired to Succeed: Why New Hires Fail 46% of the Time

An associate of mine was meeting with a business owner whose business was struggling.

He mentioned how onboarding principles might help her. She paused for a second, gave him a strange look, and asked, “Does it really work?”. He replied emphatically that it does. She then asked, “Do you use it with all the employees?” He responded that he requires onboarding of everyone in the company now, and they love it! “They do???” she asked, seemingly stunned.

At this point my associate looked at her right hand man who had his head down and was shaking it back and forth. He said, “Eric, she thought you said water boarding.”

She wasn’t alone in not understanding the meaning of the term onboarding. I often find that people who have years of business experience have never heard of this practice of supporting a hire or promotion in making a successful transition into their new position.

So, it’s not surprising that 46% of new hires fail within 18 months. Only 19%  achieve unequivocal success. The training most people receive upon starting a new position tends to focus on procedures and technical skills. But only 11% of people are let go because they lack technical skills. Competence doesn’t even make the top 8 list of reasons people fail.

How about you?

In your career, have you ever been let go less than 18 months into a job?

Have you ever been in a position without quite fitting in or figuring it all out?

Or perhaps you’ve been the one who hired a disappointment, but you put up with the situation anyway, perhaps for years?

What was the cost to you? To others? To the organization?

  • Financially?
  • Emotionally?
  • In lost productivity?
  • In lost opportunity?

Onboarding makes a significant difference in helping people avoid the main causes of failure: (note many new hires fail for more than one of the reasons below)

  • 75% of new hires fail because they don’t fit in with the organizational culture
  • 52% of new hires fail because they are unable to build a support team around themselves
  • 33% of new hires fail because they don’t understand expectations and prioritize accordingly
  • 26% of new hires fail because they can’t accept feedback
  • 25% fail because they lack political savvy
  • 23% of new hires fail because they’re unable to understand and manage emotions
  • 17% of new hires fail because they lack the necessary motivation to excel
  • 15% of new hires fail because they have the wrong temperament for the job

Most people don’t just naturally know how to manage change and transitions well. And most managers don’t know how to help others transition effectively, either. Many companies have no process in place for the successful assimilation of employees into the company.

Onboarding is about shortening the learning curve. Being brought onboard to an organization (or any new situation, really) in a deliberate and thoughtful way. Onboarding takes into account all aspects of the experience ahead. It supports both organization and individual by planning for success and anticipating breakdowns. It addresses the building of emotional intelligence, communication skills, relationship development and early and consistent wins, to name just a few of the areas generally overlooked in hiring.

And it compares very favorably with waterboarding as a tool for leading change.

*Statistics come from: 1) a Leadership IQ study of 5,247 hiring managers from 312 public, private,
business and healthcare organizations. Collectively these managers hired more than 20,000 employees
during the study period. 2) a Manchester Inc. Study of executives in Fortune 1000 companies

June 1, 2009

Devastating mistakes businesses make in today’s economy: #1

Cutting with a blowtorch instead of a laser. In the epidemic rush to cut staff, it’s shortsighted to let essential talent go. As a result, over 50% of workforce adjustments do not achieve their intended objectives. Too often, the company finds itself without the resources to recover and build for the future.

Solution: Think before you cut. Don’t automatically assume that a layoff is the best way to reduce operating costs. And don’t offer incentives for leaving. The best people will go, knowing they can find other work. The weakest will remain.

Sharon Rich is the founder of Leadership Incorporated and Layoff BounceBack. Her companies offer coaching and training programs designed to empower organizations and individuals in transition to create successful futures.

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