50 Best Leadership skills
The leadership of the company needed to work with the leadership skills of the software teams to transform their mutual ability to deliver great software on time from troublesome to tremendous.
I was working with an organization to improve its technology development process, which was going too slowly for the CEO. The problem was not that the goals for improvement were too aggressive. It was the constant destructive conflict due to a clash of the Titans.
Whenever the CEO met with the leaders who worked with him, each meeting was filled with arguments that had repeated themselves many times over. There were passive-aggressive personal attacks in those meetings and in the hallways. Sarcasm was becoming the common way to discuss other leaders and their initiatives.
His biggest frustration was that in the past, this behavior pattern had been rare. The majority of the leadership team was the same group of executives who had stayed with him through much of the journey of the whole organization from start-up to success.
They struggled for years simply to survive as a business. During those years, the team members worked hard together to overcome the challenges before them.
His leaders had engaged in conflicts in the past; however, they had always been constructive. They battled about ideas, but in the end, they came to agreements that were better than the ones they had before.
In the struggling days of the start-up, they had to work in temporary trailers in a field. The trailers were often way too cold in the winter and way too hot in the summer. They worked long hours.
Now, they were in a real building that the company owned. The company had grown to over 500 people. They started out making customized software for select customers. They now had a product line with multiple customers. They were successful.
Their behavior had changed, and the CEO wasn’t sure why.
He asked me to help.
The Case of the Clash of the Titans:
Finding the Root Cause
To find the root cause, I interviewed each of the leadership team members, including the CEO. I asked each of the three questions:
What were three highlights that were personally meaningful to you in the last ten years of the organization?
What was the overall goal of the organization in those ten years?
What is the overall goal for the next ten years?
The answers to these questions soon formed a pattern. Within a week, I came back to the CEO with the root cause behind the troublesome team dynamics.
Everyone had the same answer to the question “What was the overall goal of the organization in those ten years?” The obvious unifying goal was often stated as a single word: survival.
The stories people remembered very fondly from the previous ten years were all about overcoming tremendous obstacles to survive difficult situations. The organization almost ran out of money multiple times.
They almost lost key customers multiple times. They had all crammed into hot, badly ventilated, cheap trailers to get the work done in relentless hours of overtime. Together, they had overcome each of those challenges to survive.
There was a very telling thing about the stories of the past. None of the stories that people remembered fondly were about the previous eighteen months. All the stories were from before they had finally achieved economic success. They now had large, steady customers.
They had secured significant funding. There had been no recent danger of running out of payroll or of losing customers.
What were the goals for the next ten years? People had wildly different answers. The most common answer was “I don’t know.” The root cause of the trouble became clear. In the past, the conflicts were constructive because they were all headed for the same goal of survival.
All the decisions had time limits. The conflict was about how to get there. Those conflicts produced positive friction. Then, a decision was made and they moved. Success from each survival instance built trust in each other to face the next survival challenge.
Now the team was without a compelling organizational goal. Coupled with the lack of that compelling goal was that any dead-lines the team faced now were not real compared to the adrenaline rush of knowing that unless they did something miraculous, they would run out of money by the end of the month.
The leadership team had run a ten-year journey of survival. They had now crossed a line. They had arrived. However, they were now thirsty for something . . . something more.
The Need for Mountains
In 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition became shipwrecked. It took 500 days for the commander and his crew to reach safety while living in the harshest conditions our planet has to offer. Years later, though, Shackleton returned to the Antarctic on another expedition, and most of his crew joined him.
They went back because they recalled the freezing, starving, dangerous journey as one of the happiest times of their lives. It wasn’t just that they relished the challenge, it was that they remembered overcoming the challenge as a team.
There is a need for challenges as high as mountains. There is a need for people to gather together and work toward a great goal. There is a need for quests.
If you see people having the same arguments over and over and again, it is almost always a battle about what the next steps should be, or what the overall solution should be. The root cause of this repetitive argument is not about being deadlocked on which solution is superior.
If those people battling took time out of the battle to dig deeper they would often find that the individuals deadlocked have different goals in mind. They are headed to different destinations.
Even organizations in the midst of the survival journey are better off if they set compelling goals. For example, Shackleton set a compelling goal before his crew when it was clear how dismal the situation was. Other Antarctic adventures with similar mishaps had resulted in few to no survivors.
Everyone on the crew knew this. Before they set out Shackleton set the clear goal. He said with great conviction that everyone would make it back home alive and it was up to everyone to make that come true. After 500 days everyone did indeed make it home. Alive.
Along the way, many of the men kept journals. In spite of the freezing conditions, in spite of the long dark days, in spite of hunger, this was an entry in Dr. Alexander Macklin’s diary, which matched many others, “It has been a lovely day, and it is hard to think we are in a frightfully precarious situation.”
In some ways, Shackleton had it easy when setting a clear compelling goal. Survival as a goal was obvious. If your organization is successful and survival is a given, the need for compelling goals is even more critical. But how do you set a compelling goal when the obvious one of survival is no longer there?
What do you do as a leader when success, by itself, is not compelling enough?
Seven Ways to Create Compelling Goals
Start with the “big why.” Why is your goal important to you? Even more important, why is it important to your clients? Why is it important to your employees? You can set goals for a period of time, for a project, or set the stage for creating a new organization. Whatever you set a goal for, start with the big why!
Make your goals about going somewhere inspiring. Too often, managers put forth goals about “not doing” something. We are going to “stop providing bad service” is not nearly as compelling as “customers will call other people to tell them about the service we provided them.”
Be fearless in your challenge. Outright impossible goals are depressing; however, goals that are outrageously hard and very worth doing are inspiring. Leaders are too often anxious about setting hard goals.
They want to make the workplace fun. They may fear attrition or complaining. Fear not. People want to climb the metaphorical mountains that are important. They will invest in the leader who believes they are capable of the difficult journey.
Create goals that are worth the journey. Goals that are worth the journey are the perfect complement to being fearless about the challenge you set forth. The goal may be difficult.
It is possible that we may fail to meet the full extent of the goal. Nonetheless, with great goals, everyone knows it is worth the journey. They know that they will personally be better for it because they were part of the journey.
The famous goal to “put a man on the moon by the end of this decade” was hard, was exciting, and to the United States, was worth the journey.
Work on language that will create visceral emotion. Think about emotions. How can you state your goal so that it will evoke an emotion that people understand, care about, and will remember?
Instead of saying, “We need to ensure that we deliver on time” say “We are the exemplars of our industry. Our customers will know that we know more, care more, do more about delivering great value to their needs than anyone else ever can.”
Leave room for people to take their own meaning and ownership.
Be ambiguous in details on purpose. If you provide too much detail, it leaves no room for the imagination to take hold. It doesn’t leave room for a dialogue.
Steve Jobs once told a team that he wanted the “buttons to look so good on the screen that people would want to lick them.” It is visceral, exciting, and worthy. It is also so ambiguous that it leaves room for people to be inventive.
Use your goal to engage in dialogue. People often complain about ambiguous goals. But that is the secret ingredient to great goal statements.
When a goal is put forward and there is no dialogue, there is no way to truly know if it was understood or even heard! When teams engage in the dialogue, even to complain, they will start to figure out what the goal means to them and how they can contribute.
The goals you provide are not the end of the conversation but a compelling start to the conversation. Done in this way, ownership of the goal grows throughout the organization. Further, the results the leader is seeking also grow beyond original aspirations.
Pointing the Battling Leadership Team to a New Challenge
The company I worked with had achieved success. Yet the members of the leadership team were like a sailing ship on a becalmed sea. It seemed that they were not making progress toward anything!
These squabbling, dysfunctional titans did not need a team-building event in the desert. They did not need trust-falls. They did not need training on how to speak politely to each other. They needed a quest that would challenge them intensely. Further, it had to be a quest they believed in.
The CEO worked to create compelling goals that would engage the leadership team and the whole organization in a new quest. The CEO and I worked together to create a speech to set the stage for the next step of his company’s journey.
In creating the speech, we worked to follow the hidden structure of many great speeches. That hidden structure is to draw three distinct, inspiring lines for the listener.
These three lines represent where we have come, where we are now, and where we need to go. For example, in JFK’s famous speeches about putting a man on the moon, he recognizes the past and how very far we have come to reach today.
He then goes to the future and draws a compelling vision of where we can go. He returns to the present day and notes the big gap between the current state of the U.S. capacity and how much growth is required to put a man on the moon. He then returns to the past and says we can do it because look what we have done before.
The CEO gathered the entire leadership team at an offsite event and set the stage for what was to come. He said:
We have come a long way. We remember the various times that we almost went out of business. We remember sweating in the trailers in the farm field we used for offices, putting in long hours across nights and weekends to pull off the impossible.
It was worth it. We have arrived. We are out of danger. Looking backward we can see that our journey was the hero’s journey. We had to battle the equivalent of ogres, trolls, and various other monsters to survive.
We did survive. I am personally relieved to be at a place where we have many loyal customers. We have a payroll in the bank well into the future. We have loyal, enthusiastic people working for us. We actually have a real building! We have now arrived.
We are not done. It is time to thrive.
We are not going to be the Chicago Cubs, who last won a World Series in 1908. For our industry, we are setting our goals to be akin to the New York Yankees history in baseball. We are going to from this day forward build our organization to produce multiple championships.
The heroics that got us to this place are amazing. It will take more than that to go to the places that we can go. It is what we learned on that journey that will enable us to do so much more.
I have a set of outrageous goals I am going to lay out for us. They are about our technology, about our industry, about what we can really do for our customers.
This workshop we are about to do is to take those goals I have and for us all to wrestle with them. I want us to make them more outrageous. I also want us to create the start of the plan of what we must do to achieve them.
The CEO then went on to lay out his critical three goals about what he wanted this team to achieve in the next five years. He made his goals concise, memorable, visceral, and sufficiently ambiguous.
They spoke to the passions of his leadership team and were indeed outrageously hard. The goals pointed to new marketplace segments and also outlined some new product lines that would be extremely hard to create.
After his speech, he had each of the leadership team members take time to speak about the goals including what they would mean to them personally to be able to engage in this quest.
He wanted to know how they could make those goals more important, more exciting to the organization and to each of them as leaders. What could they do to contribute?
The ensuing discussion was passionate, exciting, and filled with laughter. I must note that there were some arguments, but the arguments were constructive and built toward a better, clearer, more exciting set of goals.
The CEO gave them a mountain to climb.
It was not the end of conflict for the team. However, it served to transform the conflict from destructive to constructive. The CEO and his leadership team followed through and made sure that transformation was tremendous.
Having clear, compelling goals for people to work toward is key to preventing trouble from arising. It is also essential for being able to deal with trouble more effectively when it does arise.
For this blog’s reflection points, I encourage you to engage in the following thought experiments.
Do you have any symptoms of trouble that point back to a lack of compelling goals?
What is the current compelling vision guiding your organization?
Is it clear to others?
How can you tell?
Set Expectations of Excellence
As a leader, you need more than a compelling mission for your organization. If you tolerate sloppy work or bad behaviors, your lack of action normalizes those behaviors.
Exceptional leaders are fearless in setting their expectations of excellence in clear language before and during a project, as well as in the way they handle deviations from the expectations they have set forth.
If a leader sets forth an expectation that “Quality is job number one” but has no repercussions when there are constant quality problems, then that expectation is just something written on the wall.
Deviations must be handled with sound judgment, especially when you say that you actually want to go against your definition of good for a specific case. If an organization consistently makes a decision to go against its own definition of good, then one of two things is very wrong: the definition or the ability to judge.
The trick we face then is to be able to set our expectations wisely so we can have a much better chance of getting those true expectations met, or even exceeded.
Also, we must ensure that the expectations do not limit leaders in their ability to apply judgment to specific circumstances without undercutting the expectations they have set forth.
The Case of Teams That Are Late with Quality Issues
You may have a friend whom you can always count on to be on time. You may have a friend whom you would be surprised if they were ever early. A division I’ll call TopShelf was the always-late kind of friend.
TopShelf was a division of a company located in San Diego, California. It created custom hardware-software applications for clients of the overall company. The division was composed of ten development teams with a total of 400 people.
TopShelf had a compelling vision of where it wanted to go. It knew what it wanted to create. Customers did eventually like and use what was created, but only after multiple problems were solved. Just because the customers liked the product did not mean they were happy with TopShelf management.
Customers were unhappy because they never knew when to expect a delivery and because when they received a delivery they knew that they would be spending at least a few days and sometimes longer sorting out quality problems before they could actually use the software.
TopShelf leadership realized that the company had a significant problem. The leaders saw that all their software development teams were delivering late with quality issues. If it was just one or two teams, it could be a problem with that specific software area, or with that team.
However, because it was across the board, leadership knew that it was an issue that had to be solved at the leadership level. Somehow, they were at least part of the cause of the problems.
The key thing the executive leadership needed to figure out was how to properly define what guidance to give and what questions to ask to provide the proper expectations of excellence. They wanted to make sure that what they asked for was also what they really wanted and needed.
The TopShelf executives were faced with one of the most frustrating issues listed in the taxonomy of trouble. Yet, they were getting exactly what they were asking for. The problem was that TopShelf’s ability to commit to and deliver high-quality content was dismal.
The leaders realized a very important point. If all teams are delivering well except for one team, the problem is likely within that team. If all teams are delivering inconsistently or poorly, as in this example, the trouble lies within the leadership.
TopShelf was not alone. Many leaders become frustrated by problems their own language creates. TopShelf suffered precisely from that problem. All its managers set expectations for project kickoffs with very similar language. The most common phrases were:
I want the most aggressive plan you can build. What is the earliest date you can get this done?
Hurry up and get this to test so we can start finding the defects!
When teams presented their plans, the management often told them that the plans were not aggressive enough, and they asked for earlier dates. The teams said, “We will try.”
When a team makes a plan that truly is “as aggressive as possible,” the only possible positive outcome is to deliver exactly on time. The likely outcome is to deliver late—which is what these teams did.
When managers asked about progress, they did not ask questions about quality. They just asked how close the teams were to delivering to test.
The teams did do what they were asked to do. They created what they called “happy plans.” If everything went perfectly well and there were no interruptions and no changes needed then they could maybe deliver to that date. They built a plan where they could never finish early.
The situation was made worse by the statement about hurrying the product into testing. The team did exactly what the leader asked for and skipped solid development practices and hurried it into the test. The testing process took a long time because there were so many defects to find.
Using testing to find and fix problems is the slowest way to build a high-quality product. It is extraordinarily hard to predict how long testing quality will take. The other problem is that testing alone was absolutely insufficient. Quality issues always escaped.
The results were not what they wanted, not what they needed.
They were, however, absolutely what they asked for.
The Carpenters Did What Was Asked of Them
TopShelf’s problem was very similar to the issues I had with the carpenters I hired many years ago.
My nineteenth-century house had a lot of character and of course, required a lot of work as well. During this period I hired a number of carpenters. For some reason, they all were unable to meet the needs I had. All the carpenters had the same issues! This alone was a warning sign that I should have noticed.
They would often start the job and then disappear for days. My house would be in disarray for long periods while I waited for them to finish. I would hurry them up and sometimes that worked, but if I pushed too hard, they finished but left my house a mess that I needed to clean up.
One day I had the sudden realization that the problem was me. I usually started the initial contracting session with language like this: “I want this job started as soon as possible. When can you start?”
Their usual answer was that they could start tomorrow or next week. They were good to their word and did just that. And the job would take weeks of them stopping in for a few hours here and there.
I realized that the problem was what I was asking for.
I changed my language and questions with the next project with a carpenter whom I had worked with before (and thus had had all those issues with). But this time I said, “I enjoy your company very much, but not the disruption to my house. I want you to start this job when you can be here without interruption.
I want the job done well, but in fast contiguous days. Also, do a great quality job. I want the house to be better and cleaner than when you started. This is different from what I asked for before, and this is very important. Can you do this?”
This initially confused that carpenter, and subsequent carpenters and plumbers. They had not heard that language before. However, each subsequent contractor provided me with dates they could accomplish this amazing feat.
They all delivered per my expectations. Although the “start date” was much further in the future, the actual work finished faster. Moreover, the disruption to my household was greatly reduced.
I was delighted that I finally figured out that I had been hiring the right contractors all along.
Thoughtful Creation of Expectations of Excellence
Whether you desire to reset expectations or you are forming a new organization or simply a new team, the creation of your expectations of excellence should be done in a thoughtful manner. The following are considerations in forming your expectations of excellence.
Consider the Context of Your Organization
What is the organization’s vision and mission? Are you leading a group in a risky new enterprise or is this a critical project building on existing technologies?
What things are most important for your organization to avoid? What are the most important values you want your employees to demonstrate?
For example, I worked closely with an organization whose mission was dedicated to connecting young people to the natural world. Its key interest was setting expectations around the skills and behaviors of the instructors who would be working with young people in outdoor wilderness programs.
The results were very different from the times I worked to do this in high-technology development organizations.
The outdoor wilderness group focused on personal energy, learning, high ethics, and extraordinary outdoor experiences. The high-tech companies’ expectations were focused on collaboration, high quality, and high-performance standards related to customers and products.
Take a View from the Outside Looking In
Another important view of your context is to take a virtual step outside your organization and look at it as would your customers and the general public.
For example, looking at Apple from the outside, we know from the company’s marketing and actual products what it wants to be known for. It wants to be known for excellent design and high-quality products that work together well in a whole ecosystem.
From all the blogs written about how Apple works, we know that those expectations of excellence are very well defined for the organization. The bar is set high.
What attributes would you like your organization to be known for? Consider what it may be known for right now. Are you happy or is a change needed? Top Shelf executives did this exercise, and it was a humbling experience. This was a key driver for them in establishing a new set of expectations of excellence.
Engage Key Opinion Leaders in the Conversation
Whether you are doing this for the first time or trying to inject new energy into what you already have, it is vital to not do this alone. Seek a conversation with people you trust both inside and outside of your organization.
Inside your organization, you want to engage in a conversation that helps form and develop your ideas.
Also, by engaging in the conversation you are setting the stage for your key internal opinion leaders to make your expectations of excellence be part of the fabric of how they think as well. They will own those expectations and help them come true.
Engage in conversations with people external to the organization. How do they view your organization now? Do they see you the way you see yourself? Engage them to make your relationship stronger. Also, engage them to clarify your thinking and your confidence in what you believe.
Make Your Expectations Concise and Memorable
I was once asked by an organization to help get a project back on track that was very off track. I asked the executive in charge to make his expectations very clear to the team.
I quickly found out what part of the problem was. He came into the team meeting and started to show a slide deck of 200 slides of his expectations for the initiative.
The team struggled through the next full day of planning.
I left the meeting, went back to the executive, explained the problem, and suggested that he return and write his top five expectations on the whiteboard. After we discussed this for an hour, he was ready.
He came back and wrote his expectations on the whiteboard. The team discussed those expectations with vigor. After he left the room, the team had multiple breakthroughs and developed a plan of attack that everyone, including the executive, was excited about.
The slogan “Quality is Job #1” is concise, and in many ways it is memorable. That is important; however, without proper detail behind it, it is unlikely to make any difference.
You must provide examples of what good is when you say the quality is job #1. Leaders should be ready with examples of what they mean by quality, especially for the most important aspects of their organizations. They also should have examples of ways that quality can be measured.
TopShelf Defines What Good Means for Their Division
TopShelf’s leadership team followed the steps outlined in the previous section. The process was extremely valuable in establishing improved relationships with their customers and with TopShelf team members.
No one likes delivering late. The team hated making a low-quality product just as much as the customers hated receiving it.
The work the TopShelf leadership team did was to get everyone aligned on what made good sense for the business and to set the foundation for how to follow up.
The following is a summary of excerpts from the key expectations that now formed the foundation of work everyone was expected to achieve. “We will delight our customers.”
We want our customers to smile when any one of our employees walks into their offices. We expect our customers to know that when they receive a new release of software it will meet their expectations of content and quality.
Everything we do should focus on our customers’ experience. When a team is building the plans and designs for the customer, they repeatedly ask themselves, “Will this help the customer with its problems?”
When we do the designs we ask if this design will help our customers do better work. When we review and test our ideas, we will think about if our customers receive this, will they smile?
“Our focus is on speed to value.”
The whole world seems to be focused on going faster. Our speed has a purpose. That purpose is to give the best value we can at the fastest speed possible. When we examine how to pursue our objectives we will work to ensure that they look for the biggest value we can bring our customers.
We will look at design alternatives that provide a focus on that value, but further focus on our ability to deliver with speed.
We will look at methods that enable our teams to focus and provide incremental releases with increasing value.
We will use data to ensure we understand where our bottle-necks are and know if we are addressing them. We have more than a need for speed. We have a creed for speed.
“Quality is our top key to speed.”
Quality problems lead to customer dissatisfaction. Speed doesn’t matter if we crash.
Also, quality problems lead to many of us being engaged in rework. Every time we engage in rework we lower productivity.
We will consistently invest in training to develop our abilities in our domain, our methodologies, and our customer needs. We will use data to understand where any of our quality issues are and work to catch them earlier and easier in our process.
We do not expect to be able to prevent all defects, but we do expect that we will all work to have a smart focus on quality such that it is a key for us in customer delight and key for us in maintaining our speed to value.
“The dates we provide to our customers are sacred commitments.”
Thus, the dates you provide to leadership must be credible! These dates must be commitments to yourself, to me, and, most of all, to our customers.
The message is simple: Make commitments you can keep. This message does not contradict the need for speed. You must build smart, aggressive plans. Smart plans mean that we have pushed ourselves to look at every possible way to deliver value to our customers as soon as possible.
Once we have made a smart, aggressive approach to delivering value, we are focused on making a smart commitment. A smart commitment means we look at all the risks; we look at our historical data for how long things take. We take into consideration all the other commitments we have already made.
No surprise is a key element of this. Teams need to track their plans closely such that when the inevitable problems arise, they can address them early. If there are going to be problems with making a date, there is an early warning.
If we make proper commitments, we should rarely be late. We should often be ready to deliver earlier than the commitment we made.
There are no benefits to delivering late. There are many benefits for delivering early.
TopShelf executives did two very important things. They began to ask for what they really wanted and needed.
They became experts at setting their expectations of excellence. They also gave their teams expert help in raising their skills on both planning and quality practices. They made it clear what good would look like and followed up with detailed examples.
Since those changes, the teams have consistently delivered on-time, high-quality releases. Further, the client list for Top-Shelf has grown significantly. Regardless of whether the culture matches what is written on the walls, what is important for you as a leader is to be very clear on your own expectations of excellence.
Good managers know what is written on the walls. They might even do a reasonable job of trying to ensure that those things are true.
Exceptional leaders stand out because they will go beyond the stated organizational values and make them their own. The examples provided so far in this blog are from leaders who worked to get their own expectations clear.
The expectations they set were personal. These leaders also ensured that everyone in the organization they were leading knew that those expectations were important.
Set the expectations you want from your organization. If you make it clear that you expect troublesomely, you will get it. If you make it clear you expect tremendously, there is no guarantee, but you are much more likely to get tremendous. The key is to make it personal and make it important.
Consider your own expectations of excellence.
What are disappointments you have had for whatever it is you are leading?
For these disappointments, take a moment and reflect on what role you may have had in setting expectations to get exactly those disappointments.
What are your personal expectations of excellence?
How do you let people know what your expectations of excellence are?
Expecting Excellence Every Day
What happens in the halls and in meetings and many other interactions in the organization define the true expectations of excellence. If those interactions are not congruent with what is written on the walls, the hallways will win.
As a result, people will become cynical and leaders will have a more difficult time managing trouble. It is much harder to point to what good is with inconsistent reinforcement of the organizational expectations of excellence.
When the formal expectations of excellence match the daily interactions, a powerful foundation is formed that enables the whole organization to rise to expectations of excellence.
What is happening is that the leaders are not just creating expectations of excellence, they are consciously forming a culture of excellence that makes the desired behaviors of leaders and team members a natural experience of how they do work. This is the key to preventing trouble from occurring in the first place.
This foundation also makes it much easier to transform trouble to tremendous whenever trouble does occur.
Consider the difference when a troublesome person such as the maverick, the cynic, or the diva is the only person behaving poorly in the organization as opposed to being just one of many problematic people. It is much easier to point to that single person as a problem.
As a leader, you are much more likely to get what you want if you know what you want and you ask for it. It is most powerful when you have multiple ways and opportunities to reinforce those expectations.
The culture of an organization is formed by a number of common interactions that occur in that organization every week. Which of the following interactions in your organization support or detract from your expectations of excellence?
The formal expectations of excellence. What is often written on the walls? Do you have a sign on your wall that says “Quality is Job #1”?
How projects are started. The way in which projects start is a spoiler alert for how projects actually run. Do you ensure that projects start exceptionally well? Or is it more like the way I used to encourage the carpenters to get started, in a hurried messy way?
Project review meetings. Do the meetings focus on reinforcing your expectations of excellence? Or does the focus neglect nine of your ten items and just focus on one specific trouble area?
For example, if the quality is your number one priority, but all the questions you ask about are scheduled, you are undermining your number one priority.
Weekly (or even daily) status meetings. Are the meetings repetitious and dull? Do the topics have a rotation to ensure that all areas of expectations are addressed periodically?
How meetings are run. Are the meetings run in the way you want projects to run? Do they start on time and end on time? Are people treated in the way you expect clients and other stakeholders to be treated?
How bad news is received. If bad news is always received with anger, it is likely you will not be told the bad news as soon as you should be.
Formal reward and recognition. What happens when fire starters are rewarded for their heroic firefighting? What criteria are your formal rewards and recognition based on?
Do you find ways to be able to thoughtfully represent the values you want to be emulated? If your number one value is teamwork, are teams or individuals more likely recognized?
The training budget. What do your training budget and process say about your expectations of excellence in regard to the skills you want your group to have? What roadblocks, such as an insufficient budget for classes and too many levels of approvals, have you put in the way of training?
How easy or hard it is to get the resources you need to do the job
How hard is it for people to get the tools or other resources needed to do their jobs or improve the performance of the jobs they are doing?
In some organizations, the process of getting new tools or other resources is a complete mystery. If the process is a mystery, it’s less likely anyone will ever ask. This may save expenses, but it is very costly in productivity.
Project postmortems. Too many organizations call project postmortems “write-only documents”; that is, someone writes them, but no one reads them. How project postmortems are done and how the results are used can be a key definer of an organizational culture.
Yearly performance reviews. Sometimes these are key drivers to how people think about their jobs. Sometimes they are just an annual annoying check-box event that leaders and team members get through as quickly as possible. Yearly performance reviews can be dangerous when given specific results are tied to large bonuses.
These are too often tied to one measure at the exclusion of others, which in turn drives the leadership behavior in the wrong direction. How do they work in your organization?
You most likely can make the list longer. The point is if you take the effort to define what good is for your organization if you define your expectations of excellence, the interactions that happen daily and throughout the year should also reflect those expectations.
This blog focuses on a few of the key interactions that drive the creation and nurturing of a strong organizational culture.
The Rock and Roll Rhythm That
Like it or not, meetings set the tone for an organization. If they drone, they can drain the energy from an otherwise good organization. In contrast, if meetings pulse with energy, the potential for greatness grows.
A key part of exceptional leadership is knowing this, taking ownership of it, and working to constantly refresh and improve the drumbeat that drives organizations. Take a moment and consider the following questions.
How many meetings per month do you regularly attend? •
How many times do you leave meetings feeling energized? •
How often do you feel like you lost a bit of your life and want that time back?
I have conducted surveys similar to this in many organizations, and the percentage of meetings that are labeled as energy draining is depressingly large.
It is not because people do not know how to run meetings. I was once asked to come to an organization to teach a class on how to run meetings.
I asked the group of thirty leaders to break into groups of six and provide me with their top recommendations on how to run great meetings. As expected, the leaders did an excellent job and provided the well-known list of best practices for running great meetings.
They knew how. The question was, “Why didn’t they do that?” There were many answers, but the solution was simply that they needed to go beyond the basic best practices of sending out agendas, making sure each agenda has a purpose, starting on time, ending on time, etc.
They needed to become masters of the rhythm that drove their organization. What follows are the keys to mastering your ability to drive the organizational rock and roll rhythm you desire.
Take Ownership of the Meetings You Own or Run
This may seem obvious, but it is too often not. I once conducted a survey of all meeting attendees on the value of a weekly two-hour meeting that twenty people attended.
The survey came back with 100 percent of the people saying the meeting had no value to them, including the chair of the meeting. It turned out they all inherited this meeting from previous leadership and it kept going for two years with no value. It was immediately canceled.
This may seem like an outlier, but it is not. Many of the people who talk to me about poor meetings are those who own them. They seem to have forgotten they can and should take control.
Introduce Variety into Your Meetings
Vary the rhythm. Many weekly meetings are the same every week. Unless your desired outcome is boredom, vary it. Rotate agenda items. Consider different styles for the weeks.
A steady purpose is important, but you can achieve the purpose in many ways. Many leaders doing this build a list of potential meeting topics and styles for those topics. Before each standing meeting they pick which ones are most important to set the pace for that day, that week.
Consider the Types of “Feelings” You Want Your Meetings to Produce
Do you want your meeting to have a calming effect? Are you looking for the meeting to produce clear action and commitment to those actions for the upcoming week? Do you want to set the stage for breakthrough thinking?
Having the forethought to consider this before your meetings and achieving what you set out to represent a truly exceptional difference between good management and great leadership.
Conduct Anonymous Surveys
Periodically, conduct an anonymous survey with questions similar to those provided at the beginning of this section. Find out what people really think. Work to become a master facilitator. Once you achieve that, keep working toward better. The difference it makes for setting the organizational culture is critical.
Recognize Results, Not Sweat
Fighting fires are admirable unless you created the fire in the first place. Too often, teams are rewarded for fighting fires that they started. Consider this organization, in which two teams were doing very similar work and leadership wanted to build a culture of delivering great products on time with high quality.
The Firefighting Red Team had followed the old culture of hurrying up and getting their product into the test phase. The test phase was taking a long time because there were so many defects to find.
They released to customers and the customers were calling leadership team members to get the problems addressed and fixed faster.
The Red Team project leader was often before the organizational leadership, giving status updates on how his team members were fixing the problems and the actions they were taking to recover the schedule. The Red Team was working significant extra hours finding and fixing defects.
All the Red Team members were extraordinarily proud of how responsive they were. They went into work early and they left late. They complained about dealing with customer phone calls on weekends, but they complained about pride.
It was obvious to all that the Red Team was working exceptionally hard to delight the customers. You could see the sweat.
Meanwhile, the Green Team project leader encouraged her team members to work differently. They did prototypes they reviewed with customers. They did detailed designs that they inspected in detail for correctness. Team members diligently discussed and reviewed each other’s work to ensure the highest quality.
Testing of the product found no defects, nor did the customer. This customer also called organizational leadership. Unlike the other customers, this customer called just once, and it was to say thank you.
The Green Team project leader was only occasionally in front of the organizational leadership team. Her reports were often succinct, with the basic message that everything was on track to an early, successful delivery. The Green Team delivered on time, with extra content, no customer problems, and lots of customer delight.
There were only occasional late nights and weekends. Team members were proactive in talking with the customer about possible issues. They were responsive, but it was not visible unless you watched closely. There was no sweat.
Consider that you are the leader of this organization that had the Red Team, the Green Team, and various other projects. Be aware that there are many project leaders and many team members who are watching your leadership for what defines success in this organization.
As the leader, these are the critical questions that you would face in this situation.
Does the Green Team or the Red Team leader have the most name and face recognition among your leadership team? Consider also the overall organization.
Which team leader and which team are most likely to be publicly recognized and perhaps rewarded?
Which team leader is likely to be promoted?
Unfortunately, in too many organizations the Firefighting Red Team is rewarded and publicly recognized for its great effort, for its sweat. For example, in one organization after the product finally was released to the field, months late, the Red Team was given a big thank-you-for-the-extra-effort party.
The Green Team wasn’t invited. The Green Team leader in that example soon left to join an organization that recognized her abilities. Meanwhile, the Red Team leader was promoted and encouraged firefighting (and thus, albeit indirectly, fire starting) in all the leaders who reported to him.
In the rarer elite organizations, they reward the results, not the sweat. In those organizations, they hold up the Green Team results as the exemplar that they are shooting for. They hold lessons-learned sessions where the Green Team project leader and key team members present a “how we did it.”
The Green Team project leader is promoted. The results here are more teams that follow the exemplary model of high-quality, on-time results that delight the customer consistently.
Leaders will continue to practice those behaviors for which they are promoted.
These actions are critical leadership moments that have a great effect on the long-term future of the organization. Consider the organization you want. The key challenge for busy leaders is to be able to see past the sweat and be able to recognize the results.
Use Skills Gaps as Opportunities to Grow the Culture You Need
There are times when you put up the high bar of your expectations of excellence and people simply cannot reach it. The way to keep the bar high is to give people the skills they need to reach it.
First, determine if it is a problem of talent. For talent, I am not referring to skill, but the ability to learn, the ability to excel in the domain the employees have chosen. If you are engaged in improving your organizational culture and find a gap with individuals who were successful before, it is almost certainly not a talent problem.
If it is not a talent problem, it is more likely either a skill or attitude problem. Note, however, that sometimes an attitude problem is masking a skill shortfall because many people are afraid of saying “I don’t know how to do that.”
If it appears to be an attitude problem and you cannot tell if it is a skill shortfall. Often, this will resolve the situation with either an “Okay, I will do this” or the individual being removed from the organization. Sometimes, it results in the confession, “I don’t know how to do this”—which brings us back to this section.
In my experience, most of the time it is not an attitude problem or a talent problem. It is simply that people in the organization have not been asked to do work in the way leadership is now urging.
For example, when TopShelf managers put forth their up-dated expectations of excellence, they really were asking people to work differently. Their first expectation of “delight the customer” was not new. Everyone knew that was the top priority before, and it remained the top goal.
That goal was at least partially successful because customers did love the features of the product, even if they didn’t like the quality issues or the lack of predictability on commitments made.
TopShelf was now also asking for things that the members of the top shelf division had not done before. They had not made sufficiently detailed plans to be able to make accurate commitments before.
This called for a set of planning methods that no one had undertaken before. Also, the majority of members had only done work where testing was the sole way to develop a product. TopShelf was again asking for new methods to be applied.
To be successful in getting your organization to be successful at meeting your expectations of excellence, you must provide the opportunity of time and resources to learn new skills. This includes various shapes of training and the opportunity to fail— and learn from that failure.
The following are five ways to build skills in your organization to meet the high bar you are setting.
Gathering the team and having everyone learn the basics of a planning methodology is often an excellent place to start in skill building.
When planning for a training budget and selecting who to give the training too, stay focused on your key purpose. It is not simply acquiring, for example, a course on planning; rather, focus on your culture and the specific success you desire.
Coaching moves the action from the classroom to the actual work. When organizations are working to acquire new skills, an expert who has achieved the results you are looking for in multiple organizations is the expert you are looking for.
The coach needs to be with the people learning the new skills. The more often the coach is there for critical events to provide strong detailed guidance, the more rapid the improvement will be.
The best experts customize all the coaching to be focused on achieving the results within your specific organizational culture. It should not be focused on achieving fidelity to a specific methodology.
Too often, leaders are successful infidelity to a methodology and completely miss the value the project is supposed to be providing.
While coaching can be quite a labor intensive for the coach, mentoring is where an expert provides occasional guidance. Mentoring is often more focused not on acquiring specific skills but on helping leaders better execute those skills to create the environment, and the culture, they desire.
In the top shelf example, the leadership team had an expert mentor providing the leadership team itself guidance. They also had an expert coach provide foundational training followed by on-the-spot coaching for major events.
4. Clear Role Modeling
TopShelf leaders had to face themselves in the mirror when looking at the organizational performance. As stated before, because all the teams were delivering late, that pointed to the leadership. When the leaders looked closely at the problem, with the mentor’s objective help, they saw that they were asking for the wrong thing.
They also saw that they were role modeling the wrong thing. They were consistently late to meetings that they had arranged with their project leaders. They often showed up unprepared and sometimes even asked “Why am I here?” when they had asked for the meeting in the first place.
TopShelf leaders knew that to have their teams perform to their expectations of excellence, they would also have to change.
5. The High Bar, Mistakes, and Learning
The final critical enabler to learning is this trifecta of values. As stated before, if you want to learn to occur, you must hold up the high bar of your expectations. This must not relent even when teams are falling short. Do not reward the sweat. Reward the results.
Do not punish falling short. There will be shortfalls, but from each shortfall, there will be learning—because you will always encourage learning with key questions about how the individuals and teams will improve with the next iteration.
Let us have no illusions or platitudes around it. If we strive to be exceptional leaders, we will engage in bold projects, and bold projects are not safe. They have risks. There will be failures and they will hurt.
Further, as leaders, we will strive to mentor, coach, prod, and encourage those who follow us to excel at the expectations of excellence we have established. Some will fail. It will hurt.
I have not met any leaders who haven’t had large, public failures and have not experienced the pain of frustration and sometimes embarrassment of that failure burn through them.
The key action of exceptional leadership, when confronted with failure, is to gather the great from the shrapnel of failure. The challenge is to use the experience as a learning opportunity for yourself and the whole organization.
Consider the case of a failed project I witnessed, which I call the “Case of the Team Divided.” The project team was about 100 people in a very large high-technology company of over 50,000 employees.
The team started well with great energy. The team was rich in cultural diversity and included many of the brightest people in the company. The leadership had given this team the task of building a new paradigm of technology to base future products on.
Unfortunately, the project team had a small schism occur early in the project between two of the strongest technical people on the project. One person preferred a rapid prototyping method he called swashbuckling speed.
The other lead technical person was looking to follow a rigorous engineering process. Which was correct? It was never resolved, and the small schism grew into a giant emotional chasm as the project progressed.
The first major technical review failed horribly. The team missed on their promises of what content would be delivered. Further, it didn’t work. The anger and finger-pointing among the team members were evident in the room with senior managers attending.
They did not disband the team. They used the following steps to bring the team together and as a way for the leader and the team to gather the good from the shrapnel of their failure.
Gather the People
The key for a successful learning event is to set a meeting on the calendar with ample time to work through the key lessons learned.
This should incorporate the original idea for the project, the key assumptions the process was based on, the planning process, and the skills and talents of the people working on it. People should properly prepare and be ready to celebrate the learning to take place.
Team members were reminded in writing and at all-hands meetings preparing for the post-mortem about how it would work and what the goal was. There was not any punishment, but there was a high bar set to figure out how to fix it. The team gathered. People were worried, but also optimistic based on the tone the leadership set.
Take a Moment to Recognize and Whine About the Failure
I know Edison said that each light bulb that didn’t work was progressing. However, out of those 10,000 “successful” failures, I expect there were at least one or two bulbs flung against the wall in frustration. Whining breaks are an important element of failure!
Start the meeting with time to recognize any of the pain associated with the failure of the project. Make it quick, though— there is real work to do.
The facilitator set the stage for team members to speak personally and specifically about what the failure meant to them. It was not to be a blame session disguised as a whine. It had to be focused on personal experience alone.
The swashbuckling proponent shared how embarrassing the failure was to him and how he felt he had been a contributor to the failure. The rigorous engineering zealot shared a similar story.
Many team members contributed to this segment. In a de-brief later, attendees commented that this was the key section to the successful recovery. It was not sufficient, but it started the path to success.
Triage the Failure to Find the Great, the Useful, and the Horrible
Hopefully, after the whine break, everyone can put emotions aside. This step is a scientist’s view of the failure. I have not yet seen a project where all elements of it were a failure. Triage the elements and find which parts are great, which parts are perhaps useful, and which parts belong on the refuse pile of historical interest only.
The team was able to triage fairly quickly. The group used data to understand which of the technical components were ready for production, which components needed work, and which ones to throw away.
Increase the Value of Your Process
The next step is to reflect on the process used for the creation of the project thus far. See where any holes in the process have contributed to the failure. Seek ways in which you can increase the value of the process, even if that increase in value is finding your way to failure faster!
The team members came to the recognition that some of the components required the swashbuckling prototype approach and others needed the engineering approach, and always there was a point where they needed to come together. The schism was disappearing.
Do Not Make Your Development Process Risk Free
Avoid the critical mistake of trying to make the process risk free. Many processes become large, unwieldy, and so completely safe that the bold has been completely squeezed out. They were so safe they were doomed to fail.
Think of 100+ Ideas You Can Build on the Rubble of Failure
The keystone habit of this action of exceptional leadership must be the ability to generate lots of new ideas based on what you just learned.
The team members walked into the postmortem workshop depressed about the failure and worried about the future.
They left the workshop with over 100 ideas of how to move the project forward and plans for 30 of them to be put into immediate practice. The schism was on the way to disappearing. They were ready for the challenge.
Conducting a postmortem of failures in this way rewards your expectations of excellence. By involving others, you ensure that each person is learning his or her own lessons as well as the lessons from others.
If failure is not dealt with in the proper way, it often leads to many of the worst traits from the taxonomy of trouble. Punishing the failure will lead to an abundance of cynicism. Ignoring the failure will make it seem that success and excellence are not important.
Doing a proper postmortem propels your organization forward with style!
Consider the list of interactions that strongly affect an organizational culture. They are repeated here for your easy reference.
Project review meetings How projects are started The formal expectations of excellence
How meetings are run Weekly (or even daily) status meetings
How bad news is received
The training budget Formal reward and recognition The questions asked by leadership in the hallways
Project postmortems How easy or hard it is to get the resources you need to do the job
Yearly performance reviews
I encourage you to talk with a peer and discuss the following questions and your answers to them.
Which of these factors are the most important influencers in your organization?
How do you know? What evidence do you have?
What are the interactions happening in those important areas? Are they supporting the expectations of excellence or having the opposite effect? Considering the most important influence points, what actions can you take to help further create the culture of excellence you desire?
Exceptional Starts Lead to Exceptional Results
When I was learning the deep strategy game of Go, my mentor told me, “From a good opening, you can lose. However, from a bad opening, you cannot win.”
At the time, I thought her little gem of wisdom was just too negative. We can have a great opening and still lose. Okay, that is true. I don’t like it, but it is true. I struggled, however, with the thought that “from a bad opening, you cannot win.”
On examination of many situations, I found that she was, overall, right. Yes, against a poor player, I could often overcome even a very bad mistake at the start. Playing with good players, it was extremely rare that I could win when I made even minor missteps in the opening. I never recovered from a large mistake.
This is also true when considering how projects or other initiatives start.
Starting a project poorly leads to having to do significant rework later and being constantly behind expectations of schedule and quality.
In addition to resulting in constant stress for the project team, projects that start poorly very seldom fully “win” by delivering all expectations on time or early and de-lighting both team members and customers.
What happens when you start a day waking up behind the planned schedule? Often it results in rushing out to work behind expectations, leaving you almost certainly tired, stressed, and worried about what was forgotten.
You hope the day will end better than it started, but it is rare that those days rate high in joy and productivity.
The same is true for a longer period of time, such as a sales quarter. If you start with significant mistakes, such as a horrible transition between customer relationship management tools with incorrect data and angry salespeople, or a problem that’s carried over from the previous sales period, it’s tough to recover even in three months.
So, my Go mentor encouraged me to take my time at the start of the game to think things through properly. She noted that the best Go players would often spend about two hours on the first 50 moves of the game and spend the remaining two hours on the remaining 200–300 moves of the game.
If you want exceptional results, start toward your goals in the manner you expect to reach them—exceptionally!
The Exceptional Start Challenge—the Problems of Starting Poorly
When a project starts poorly, what problems usually follow? Think of a few answers and then compare them to the ones I hear regularly in my leadership seminars.
The project immediately gets behind schedule. This is often true because the team was given a schedule, but even when the team members come up with their own dates, if the project starts poorly they are already behind.
Stress levels ramp up quickly. This often causes conflicts that take time away from progress.
Teams are forced to take shortcuts to make some visible progress. This causes the team to have to do significant rework later to fix the problems they created. Often, the later rework costs more than the original start of the project.
Frequent status updates and requests for recovery plans begin to take up significant time for the leadership of the project and often many other team members, especially the experts. This all takes time out of actually making progress.
The project and the leadership are almost certain to face credibility issues with others in the organization as well as with the executive team. There will be questions, both about why the team is behind and why the team has a bad attitude.
On a personal level of leadership and team members, there can be a loss of will. People will start to lose faith that their mission can be accomplished. People will stop asking for what is really needed; they will just show up and do the work. They won’t put in the extra thinking required to do it well.
If there are opportunities elsewhere in the organization or in the general area’s labor market, projects that start poorly and don’t recover fast enough will face the extra the problem of attrition of top talent.
Projects that start poorly take longer than projects that start exceptionally well. Projects that start well will quickly bypass projects that started earlier, but poorly.
So how do projects start right?
The Exceptional Start ChallengeHow to Start Exceptionally
Start by thinking about what you should do. Here, again, are the most effective answers from my seminars.
Have a clear purpose for the project with clear priorities. Why is this project important to the organization? How urgent is it? Are there limits to effort and cost expense that would make it worthless? It is important to have at least an initial high-level answer to these questions and most likely others as well.
Even if the project is an exploration of a possible new marketplace, the project must have a clear purpose defined for the beginning as well as an end result of success in mind.
Understand how important this new project is in respect to the current portfolio of projects. Is this a tactical urgent response to a current problem? Or is this project intended to be a strategic development to bring new value to an existing or new marketplace? Is this more or less important than current projects?
Choose a project leader whose set skill is commensurate with the project’s overall importance to the portfolio of projects. If this new project is strategically critical and challenging, it is wise to put someone in charge who is ready for the challenge.
Expect leaders to negotiate before the start. The project sponsor who is funding the project should expect the project leader assigned to his project to negotiate. Their mutual expectations must be explored in a way that they are made very clear, such that the differences that appear will be in sharp contrast.
I expect the leader responsible for any project to ensure that the project is starting from a foundation for greatness. If there is no negotiation, this is a clear indicator that no thought has been put into that very foundation.
Start with a small team. Too often, projects start with teams that are way too small, and sometimes with teams that are way too big. Typically, starting a project exceptionally means establishing a strong foundation to add other people to later.
Starting with a small team with the attitude to start the project correctly will make the project go faster and faster as the right team members are added.
Start with the right leadership sweet spot for the type of project.
Test pilots who love trying out new prototype airplanes are not the perfect candidates for making regular flights between Rochester and New York City. If your project is exploring brand new technology and marketplaces, you want a leader who is fearless about being wrong and learning quickly from taking those risks.
If it is a project to build on a current technology for new features or services for a well-established customer base, you are not expecting multiple experiments that could be wrong.
You want a leader who will ensure that the current technologies continue to work well for your customer base. Look for the right type of leader for the project context.
Start with a good social mix. Many people taking part in these exercises have noted when executives assigned people who were known to never get along to start a project.
You can start with a volatile mix, but if you are going to start that way, you’d best have a very strong leader who knows how to make the inevitable conflicts consistently constructive. Again, you can start with a volatile mix, but personally, I would save adding those ingredients until a bit later in the project.
Time the start to enable momentum to build quickly. Many of the items on this list are based on the experience of starting up projects poorly. Many times, projects start poorly for the simple reason that no one looked ahead to see obvious conflicts that should have been anticipated.
A common example is starting a project two weeks before a long holiday season and having everyone come back after the holidays to find they have to do almost all the start-up work over again.
When you are deciding on a specific start date to gather the people, make sure there are ample time and low conflicts for the leadership and the team to start exceptionally.
Do you agree with this list? What items would you change, add, or delete?
Most importantly, for your organization, how many of your initiatives start with the criteria you believe are needed to start a project to be great?
I have asked this question in multiple workshops, and in every single workshop, a mystery has been exposed. The attendees had always created a list very similar to the one I presented here. Yet, their answers were that the vast majority of the projects in their organizations started poorly.
This was hard for me to believe, so I asked the attendees to create a matrix of the criteria they defined and score multiple projects against the criteria. The detailed results showed the truth of their statements.
There were occasional projects that scored well on six of the eight criteria listed here; however, the vast majority scored poorly on most of the exceptional start criteria.
There appeared to be a mysterious barrier between the leaders and what they know and what is actually done to start initiatives well.
The Exceptional Start Mystery Explained
We know that we should start projects well. Yet most sponsors of projects fail to do so. Most leaders who are given a project to lead accept the bad start, often without question.
Even if they do question it, most eventually just agree to “do their best.” We know that if a project starts this way, it will have bad results later. Yet most organizations do this.
The explanations I have heard from many leaders are very similar.
Explanation #1: We Had a False Understanding That Starting Projects Earlier Would Mean They Finish Earlier
Many people have explained that they believed that starting things earlier meant they would be done earlier. There is truth in that if you start earlier correctly, and then run the project well, the initiative will be more likely to have earlier success.
This belief is dangerous, however, if you believe that it means starting projects as fast as possible, no matter how poorly, means finishing earlier. It does not. Starting early incorrectly will not have the desired effect.
As noted previously, it leads to rework, conflict, multiple project delays, and many reasons for the project actually finishing later than if the team waited and started the project correctly.
Explanation #2: The Critical People Needed Were on Other Projects
The second most common reason stated for starting projects poorly was that the leaders did not want to move resources from current projects and initiatives until they were complete. This often led to starting projects with the less busy people—who were usually the people with less experience and skills.
So even if it did many other things correctly, the project still started with a poor base and had subsequent problems, making it difficult to achieve an exceptional finish.
Explanation #3: We Just Had to Get It Started
The third most common reason given for starting poorly after I asked the question “Why did you start if you knew it would be a problem?” was a very honest response. Many leaders have admitted to knowingly starting projects poorly just to get them started. They did so for political reasons to show progress.
It was the only way to stop having to give status reports when they were constantly asked: “Did you start project X yet?”
If you know how to start projects correctly, and most people do, those are just excuses. They are not the real root causes behind starting projects poorly. The following are the real root causes.
Many leaders do not have sufficient self-confidence to say with great assuredness what the right thing to do is.
They have irrational doubts such as “Maybe this time, starting early even with the wrong people and with insufficient resources, will have really great results.” If they said it out loud that actually would help them!
FEAR OF UPSETTING PEOPLE
Starting new projects correctly sometimes means that you must take time and money and resources from other projects. This often means either delaying the start until key people are done with existing projects or delaying the new project.
Both of these call for making trade-offs and dealing with a number of people who may be very attached to the status quo. Fear of causing this conflict stops many people before they even ask.
FEAR OF FAILURE
If a new project is worthwhile, it is likely to be a project with risk. There is a possibility of failure. The proposition of a new project is saying “Let’s start this new project with benefits that may never come to fruition while upsetting the current projects that might be doing just fine with a bet on the future that we might lose.”
There is some reality to those problems. But they can be overcome with the right mindset and with mastery over the proper sequence of steps for an exceptional start.
The Mindset Required for Starting Projects Exceptionally
Changing the mindset changes the actions taken. The following are the key mindsets to fully acquire that will make starting projects exceptionally natural and as expected. Doing so will make you exceptional among leaders.
A Commitment to Excellent Results
The first critical mindset element is committing yourself to excellence. You may think you do this but re-examine this.
Commit yourself to be part of projects that will have a positive impact, projects that will provide great value to those who are part of them and the customers of the products or services provided.
This commitment means that you will consider closely how to start these projects well. This commitment will be true for your thinking if you are a sponsor of the project (you’re paying for it!), or the leader of the project, or even a team member of the project. If you have this commitment you will be ready to speak and have your voice be heard!
Consider the TopShelf executive team from the previous blog. If you asked any of the team members if they were committed to excellence, their answers would have been “of course!”
The results betrayed that commitment, however. They had to change not just what they did but how they thought to get the great results they achieved by the end of the blog.
A Focus on Realistic Expectations
The next critical mindset is to be realistic about the situation. In being realistic, there may be many challenges. Do not let the challenges define your response. Do not let the challenges you face kill the effort before you begin.
Face the challenges realistically. Choose to start small with a focus on a simple, powerful value as opposed to starting with all the ideas you have.
No Is a Powerful, Positive Word
Accept in your mind that no is a powerful, useful, and actually positive word. The lack of ability to say “no” is what drives many projects to start so poorly.
The leader did not say “no” to other projects. The leader did not say “no” to starting a project with incorrect expectations or resources. By not saying “no,” leaders are saying “yes” to trouble. By saying “no” to other projects to enable a new project to start well, you are saying “yes” to building rapid momentum to success.
Commitment to a Learning Journey of Starting Well
Commit yourself to learn how to start projects well. This whole blog provides many ideas. I am sure you have many more ideas. Each person’s style and the situation is different. Develop your own process for starting projects. Be like a scientist and observe the results and adjust your process to achieve better results.
Accept that this is a learning journey, a journey of mastery. On this journey, you shall have bad starts with bad results that are fodder for learning.
You shall learn how to say “no” in ways that will make people say “thank you.” You will learn the starting process that works best for you. You will learn how to teach others the benefits of the starting game, and how to master it themselves.
Clean Starts Versus Restarts
It is exciting to start projects from scratch. Often, we do not have that opportunity. It is much more likely that leaders are involved with long-term projects or long-term teams, or that they inherit projects already in motion.
Many leaders find it rare to start a project from scratch. It is even rarer that you get to start a brand new project and have that be your sole focus.
Also note that even if your project started well, it is likely there will come a point when the team’s plan and also the team itself may begin to deteriorate and even fail. It is not just about starting. It is about keeping it fresh and alive and driving toward an exceptional finish.
Here are some typical examples in which situations may need a restart.
You inherited a project underway, and it is behind expectations.
You are given a new project, but it is supposed to use old technology, perhaps even a defective base to build on top of.
You are given a new project, but you are given it with a customer base that is shrinking while the expectations are to grow the base.
It is not a new project but one you have been leading and no matter how well it started, there are problems cropping up.
It is a project you have been leading and it has been going fine, but now you are ready to add forty people to the team and that should be treated as a new start.
The project is actually going very well, and it is simply time to shift into a higher gear. This too is time for a restart.
Consider, for example, a project that had started exceptionally. The team was doing very well at the two-month point.
Team members developed small, usable products, which they tested with a number of ideal customers. Some of the ideas they tested were considered great by the customers, while others drew big yawns.
They were also ready to add team members. Meanwhile, outside their control, the marketplace the organization was targeting had added a new competitor. It was time to accelerate the timescale.
The team executed a number of steps to restart the project. Because every situation really is different and calls for your judgment to be applied, you should customize the steps to your situation.
Put dedicated days on the calendar for all the steps that follow. For many organizations, this is harder than actually undertaking the steps. It is difficult for teams in motion to stop and engage in these planning steps again.
Nonetheless, this planning is work that must be done. If you watch team sports on television you know that calling a timeout is one of a coach’s most strategic methods. Use it!
Have the executive team revisit the goals with the project leadership. What has changed? Are the goals still valid? What needs to be changed?
Determine whether the leadership of the project is still approx private. This is a critical step that is often overlooked. Some leaders, for example, are perfect for the start-up stage and not so good at the detailed work needed to take a product to production. This pause to restart a project is the perfect point to consider this.
Analyze where you have been and where you are. This is typically a day-long event with some pre-work and post-work. I like to engage as many of the involved executives, project leaders, and team members as appropriate. What were the accomplishments?
What were the disappointments? What is the data telling us? Oh, so many questions to go through. Done well, this leads perfectly into the next step.
Do a restart with more detailed planning sessions. At this point you may have different team members, you may have different goals, and, certainly, if you are more than two months into a project, your short-term plans are either finished or now just wrong.
The sessions to make plans will reinvigorate the team and give it a clean start. If the team was behind before, it no longer is. It can now start with a fresh opportunity to win.
The Case of the Problematic Diva Solved by Starting Exceptionally
Josh worked in what I shall call the Bridge the World organization. It is a midsize organization with about 5,000 people.
It builds projects for the government that need to be sustainable not just for a few years, but for a few decades. Josh had worked on a number of what was called “team of one” projects in which he created custom solutions as quick wins for the customers.
No one knew it yet, but by working in isolation on those projects Josh had become a diva, and he was about to be a problematic one.
The organization was preparing to kick off the Hot Metal project, and the leaders were going to start this one correctly. They had recovered from the “Case of the Team Divided,”.
After discussions with me, they were ready to try a different method to starting projects as a way to set the stage for excellence and as a way to see trouble early.
Set Project Goals
The members of the executive team spent two hours to put together their goals for the project, both the long-term goals and the goals they had for the initial stage of the project. They were ready to invest in a new product suite, based on new technologies, to provide value to their existing customers in an unprecedented way.
They believed that this new product could result in millions of dollars of additional revenue. The executives put together an idea of when they would like the final product ready for market and an initial set of ideas of what the product would do.
However, they did not stop there. They also set out objectives for rapidly building some prototypes so that they could test the premise of their product ideas with customers as quickly as possible.
They also wanted the team to discover if they were realistic or unrealistic in their schedule ambition for achieving a full feature set delivered to the customers.
Select Project Leadership
This step was a significant challenge. The leaders examined their existing project portfolio and looked hard at how important this was compared to the existing projects.
They forced themselves to rank them by comparing income from the projects for both today and the future, based on projections. They also looked at projected investments to keep the projects alive for the future.
The challenge they faced was that the projects were all important. However, most of the other projects were important tactically. They were to keep today’s customers happy. This project was to create a new marketplace and future revenue to replace what they expected would be diminishing revenue in other areas.
They also talked to many of the project leaders and technical experts in their organization. They soon realized that to build the right project leadership team, they would have to take the most experienced team leader from their previous most important project and get her to become part of this project.
They made the hard decision and reassigned her to this new project. They knew that this would have immediate detrimental effects on the existing projects. They planned for this and put supports in place, and they did not do the denial they did in the past that they would have “no negative effect.”
Negotiate with the Project Leader
Here is where many projects fail to start properly. Not this time. The executive team expected negotiation and got it! First, the project leader they selected was not happy about the idea of re-assignment.
She said she would consider it after she studied the project ideas and got some questions answered. She wanted to be absolutely convinced that this project would be set up for success if she accepted the assignment.
The executives wanted and accepted this dialogue. They worked with their Hot Metal team leader to determine the right team members. She wanted a small team of eight people across three of the other leading projects.
She was looking for the right technical mix. They asked her to consider the social mix as well, which led to one adjustment. The executives again were ready to take a productivity decline in these other projects in order to get a good start to the new project.
They repeated this socialization process with each team member. They wanted each person to accept the responsibilities for this new project. Note that Josh was part of the team the leader requested, and he happily took the assignment.
The final thing she negotiated or, rather, stated was to make clear that there were no committed dates until her team finished a detailed planning session.
The Detailed Planning Sessions
If you haven’t done this in your organization, you really must. This step is the absolute best way to find out what trouble you may encounter on the project later and also figure out ways to prevent it from leaking out in the actual project work.
The leader put her team in a weeklong working session where they had to do multiple things. The executives kicked off the session with their aggressive product goals and marketing goals. The team now had to respond with a realistic plan on how to achieve this.
This meant that the team members had to grapple quickly with concepts of what the design of the product would be, what strategy they would use to build the initial iterations, how long it would take, and who would do what work when.
I love these planning sessions because they bring out great emotions, conflicts, and, even better, great ideas. Team members debated multiple ideas, confronted each other with challenges for those ideas, and ultimately tried to settle on a plan for how they would accomplish the goals as well as what they would need from management to do this.
They failed to achieve consensus on an approach for developing the project and how the tasks would be divided. It was a mess, and Josh was in the center of it.
Josh wanted everyone to follow the method of developing projects he had been using on his very short “team of one” projects. Even when the rest of the group disagreed, he persisted and persisted loudly.
This was on day 3 of the session. The problem had first appeared on the second day of the planning session. On that day, the team was dividing up key roles by volunteering who would be responsible for the main areas of responsibility for the project.
Josh was certain that either he should have the four key leadership roles or that they were not necessary. The team did not allow Josh to do this. Josh relented, but with some anger.
This problem was now back in focus again. A team member complained that Josh was being a diva. Josh said jokingly that he would be happy to play the role of diva.
Josh was starting to get some of the younger team members to gather around him. He was charismatic. Other team members were getting quite angry about the situation. The team leader saw that a schism similar to that of the other project was quickly forming.
The team leader stopped the session and told everyone to take a one-hour break except for Josh. She discussed with Josh the team goals and that this had to be a team project and not a Joss project.
Josh kept insisting that everyone else was wrong. The team leader knew that the group was more important than Josh. She did not see any sign from Josh that he would take the “improve” option.
She made the decision that he would not be part of the team but would continue on small projects as a “team of one.”
The organization did need those projects as well. She asked if he would like to be a consultant on the new project and provide his technical opinions and expertise at the request of the team. Josh wasn’t happy about this, but the team leader was firm.
The planning session continued without Josh. The team leader quickly put the Josh issue into the past. She explained her decision and said the most important thing was for this team to be a team. She put them right back to work on making a plan they believed in.
The team members jelled around a plan they believed in. Josh actually did provide input, and the team listened to and incorporated many parts of it.
It was important to the Hot Metal team leader to get a reasonable plan. What was more important to her was getting a team that was committed to the plan. The planning session turned out to be a model for how the work would be done.
It set the stage for how the team members would work together and showed the limits of what the team leader would allow and not allow.
The team had a fast, exceptional start. If this was a track race, they were off the starting line and running fast.
How often do you start projects exceptionally? To ensure that you are being realistic with yourself, list the projects you believe started exceptionally. If you want to go deeper, rate how well the project started compared to the eight items listed in the section “The Exceptional Start Challenge—How to Start Exceptionally.”
What are the barriers for you starting projects exceptionally?
What steps will you take to raise your success rate of starting projects exceptionally?
Lead Leaders: Growing Proven Ability
The most fundamental problem of leading leaders is that they can be unleadable too and in whole new ways. As one CEO told me, “The higher up a manager is in the organization, the more fog there is around that manager’s performance.
It is very hard to judge how well they are doing.”
The problem with the fog is it takes longer to see if the leader is the root cause of the problem.
The Case of the New Leader as a Maverick
Jane was the division leader of a growing $100 million business. Her division employed about 500 people. She hired Tom as one of her leaders after an extensive search to find the right skill set.
Tom had lots of ideas that fit what Jane wanted for the business. She knew that with his ideas and experience he would help take the company to the growth she envisioned.
Over the initial weeks, Jane noticed significant indicators of trouble.
She noticed that people came out of meetings that Tom ran looking dejected, not excited.
She overheard a loud discussion between Tom and one of the people who worked directly for him. The loudness did not bother her, as she had engaged in many passionate debates her-self. The tone seemed wrong, however, and she did not hear anyone else being that loud, just Tom.
She had an instinct that the energy level of her team was getting lower. She could not yet quite articulate why she felt this way, but she knew to listen to her inner wisdom.
Jane knew that she had to act. The question before her was what specific actions to take and how to take them. Leading leaders is not a lot different from leading individual team members, but there are enough differences that the whole topic deserves special consideration. Jane became worried that Tom fit the model from the taxonomy of trouble called the maverick.
The Special Challenge of Leading Leaders
Leading a team where everyone works with you personally has many challenges. Typically, the ability to lead people personally and directly will begin to rapidly diminish at X number of people. The X number will vary with the leader, the people, and the situation. I have not personally seen that number exceed thirty people.
Note that I am not talking specifically about how many people are directly reporting to a manager on an organization chart. That situation does apply here; however, I am talking more broadly.
For example, there are people with very few others directly reporting or even none reporting to them on an organization chart. Yet, often these leaders are responsible for initiatives that involve over 1,000 people.
Thus, there are many situations where a leader will be leading a very large body of people. These people may include individual contributors, team members, and leaders.
In many situations, you may be leading leaders of leaders. Although there are many similarities between leading leaders and leading individual contributors, there are significant differences that deserve consideration. The following are the key differences. There is increased distance between you and much of the work.
Thus, you will often be one or more levels removed from where the trouble is and even distant from the indicators of trouble. There could be troublesome projects or people who could be a risk for your whole organization. The good news for you is that the leaders you are leading should take care of it without needing your intervention.
The question is whether they are doing so fast enough. If the leader is not dealing with the trouble or dealing with it incorrectly, how would you know? And what actions should you be taking, if any?
You do not know how the work is actually done. The skills that are involved in large initiatives are very diverse. Good leaders may actually know the names of even a thousand people who work for them. However, they will not know all of their backgrounds, nor will they know the details of how the work should be done.
Troublesome leaders have a large impact. If a leader is the one creating trouble, the depth and breadth of the impact of the trouble grow significantly. The impact of that problem is amplified in a number of ways. First, it is likely that the trouble is affecting significantly more people than when it is caused by an individual contributor.
Second, the impact lasts much longer. A leader always has an impact on the people he leads. The impact lasts longer than the tenure the leader has with those individuals. What lessons have the leader’s followers learned? Are those lessons good for the organization?
Your breadth of responsibility increases. Many good managers find that they are like the legendary vaudeville act of the plate-spinning madman.
That person gets plates spinning on a tall stick and then runs from stick to stick to get and keep more and more plates spinning until many crashes, with much laughter from the audience. The same happens to many leaders without the laughter around them.
With great power comes great . . . pressure. The more you are responsible for in leadership, the more intense the pressure most people feel. More and more people are looking for you to make decisions.
This includes the people you are leading, the people who sponsor you as a leader, and your peers as well. The impact of these decisions is greater. It is likely that if you are leading leaders, you do feel that pressure. Remember that the leaders you lead also are feeling their own.
There is an increased need for autonomy among the people whom you are leading. This is true when you are “simply” leading team members. It is even greater when you are leading leaders.
The more responsibility they have, the more autonomy those leaders require and should have. People need the space and capacity to make their own decisions, to make their own mistakes, and to complete excellent work, with a sense of great personal satisfaction that “I did it all by myself.”
Set Your Specific Expectations for Leadership Excellence
In many organizations, it is obvious to almost anyone when there are troubles in the ranks of leadership.
One example of an obvious symptom of trouble is destructive conflict among leaders that leads to conflicts between the teams that they lead. Another symptom often seen is where individuals who work in a matrix organization get different priorities and directions from the different leaders they work with.
In the organizations where there is a significant issue in the leadership, the most common root cause is that the leader of the leaders has not clearly thought about the expectations for how the leaders working for them should lead.
If they have thought about those expectations, they are not acting upon those thoughts. Even if there is a strong idea, it has not been clearly articulated. This is the most important preventive measure in ensuring that the leaders you lead will more likely be tremendous than trouble.
Some leaders think that their expectations should be obvious, but unfortunately, they are not obvious. There is a great diversity of ways to lead. This is one of the reasons why there are so many blogs about leadership!
Also, within that diversity of ways to lead, exceptional leaders know that different circumstances call for different styles of leadership. The key is to make your expectations of leadership known.
What follows are my personal expectations of leadership excellence. It is fine if you wish to start with my list, but the most effective expectations are those that are specific and personal to you.
Make the noble purpose of the organization your own. In Lisa McLeod's blog Selling with Noble Purpose, she shows with stories and hard data that organizations that clearly articulate not just their purpose, but also purpose that has meaning to the customers, do better in the marketplace.
What truly motivates people is typically not money. It is critical for the leaders to engage each other in conversations about the purpose of their organization and of each of the projects that make up their mutual success.
For example, in the medical device industry, there is considerable work in the best organizations to ensure that everyone knows that the primary concern is to treat patients expertly and safely with the equipment they create. They are aware that the customers of their systems could very well be themselves or their children.
Take the long view. As a leader of leaders, you must have a longer view than any of the leaders working for you. The CEOs of larger organizations must be focused on creating next year’s business while other leaders focus on delivering today’s products, services, and promises.
To be clear, I expect everyone to be engaged in thinking about the long-term success of the organization. Each leader must be able to articulate the direction the company is going in and how the success of today contributes to longer-term potential.
The ability to provide services to customers is constantly changing in all industries. Besides being focused on satisfying today’s customers, leaders must be looking to the distant horizon.
Your job as a leader is to grow the talent of the organization.
John Wooden won a thus far unmatched ten NCAA basketball championships as a coach. Whenever he was asked what was the most important factor, he replied without hesitation, “having the most talented players.” Hidden behind that short quote are very important concepts. The first is that you want to recruit and acquire talent.
That is obvious. The more important concept is that it is your job as a leader to grow the talent of each individual whom you lead. It is your job to provide each person you lead with inspiration, guidance, discipline, correction, training, and, most of all, the opportunity to make mistakes and to excel.
Expect the leaders who work for you to challenge you. If I am making decisions about our direction that you disagree with I would expect you to challenge me. I prefer you challenge me politely and be able to back it with facts.
If you can’t do that, and you only have an emotional gut feel, I still expect the challenge. Further, if I ask a leader to deliver a project with a key set of attributes by a specific date and that leader doesn’t challenge me, that leader has made a commitment.
I do not expect that we will always have harmony. I expect constructive, collaborative conflict. Each of you who are leaders has significant talent and ambition. I expect each of you to have more ideas than we could possibly accomplish. I expect my leaders to be competing for the rare top talent performer positions in our organization.
I do not expect harmony. However, I will not tolerate destructive conflict. We will argue our positions with data, facts, and intuition. I expect that some of the discussions could be loud and emotional. We will stay focused on our common goals. We will make decisions through a process that strengthens our relationships and trust in each other.
Get things done. You are still responsible for the ultimate success or failure of the overall group and initiative. Is that enough said? As an individual contributor, you are responsible for getting your stuff done. As a leader of individuals, you are responsible for getting stuff done through the people you lead.
As a leader of leaders, you are absolutely still responsible for the success and failure of each of the leaders you are responsible for. I challenge each leader to get things done while growing the talent of his or her teams and collaborating with his or her peers. It is a high bar of excellence. I expect nothing less.
The most critical part is that exceptional leaders know what they expect, and they let the leaders they lead know what those expectations are.
Trouble Spotting: The First 100 Days
Setting clear expectations of leadership excellence clears much of the fog that obscures your view of a leader’s performance. This, of course, is not the whole story. The next step is to follow through on those expectations in a way that ensures that your expectations are being met and, better yet, exceeded.
There are two distinct phases of spotting trouble with the leaders you lead. The first phase is when they have just come under your leadership. Many people consider the “first 100 days” to be the most critical. I believe that number varies considerably with the pace and stress of your own organization. The second phase is, naturally, the ongoing work of leadership.
The following are techniques for spotting potential trouble in the first phase of a leader joining your organization.
Ask them to report on the strengths and weaknesses in the organization that they are joining.
When a new leader joins you, I would recommend you set the leader on a mission to interview as many people as is rational in both the team of people they will be leading and across the whole organization. This provides a unique opportunity to do multiple things.
First, you can get a fresh perspective on how the organization is performing. Second, you will be able to quickly judge much of the leader’s character and how she thinks about things from the report she provides you.
Third, you are providing the new leader a rapid socialization into the organization. Fourth, you are setting the expectation clearly and strongly that you listen to the people she is leading and working with.
I would do this even with people who were already in the organization and are being promoted to new positions.
It is perhaps even more important in these situations. They will think they already know about the organization. Taking this listening tour will provide each of them with a whole new perspective.
Moreover, people who have been promoted often have a hard time getting other employees to think about them as having this new role in leadership. The listening tour rapidly changes that perspective.
Start the leader with a difficult challenge.
I encourage you to give new leaders difficult immediate challenges with clear sets of expectations and deadlines. I also prefer that they will need more than the team that they are leading and have to collaborate with others within and even external to the organization in order to meet the challenges.
You may consider this “throwing someone in the deep end to see if he can swim.” You would be correct. The timing for doing this is perfect at the beginning. Typically, when you bring a new person to work for you as a leader, this is the time when you can provide the most attention to him.
The more important thing is that you really do want to know not just if he can swim but how he swims and if there are any troublesome attributes. This approach will help you see any of those troubles and see them early.
Engage them in conversations about the most difficult challenges they are most likely to face while leading in your organization.
If you have been leading the overall organization for any length of time, you will most likely know where the trouble spots are and what issues are almost certain to arise. Provide possible scenarios to new leaders and ask them how they would respond to the situations if they do arise. Provide examples of what has happened in the past.
These conversations are fascinating. You will learn a considerable amount about how these new-to-you leaders think. You will learn about how they are likely to handle situations.
Also, your conversations will be active opportunities to model how your working relationships will be. The way you provide guidance here will be a model for how you will provide guidance later.
Each of these techniques helps prevent trouble and identify trouble spots early.
Trouble Spotting: Ongoing Leadership
After the initial new-to-the-organization phase, a pattern for how you work together will be established.
As the leader of leaders, you will, of course, have many things to do. You won’t have the time even if you had the desire to be constantly investigating whether your leaders are doing a great job. In fact, you are expecting it.
However, you still want to be continually honing your trouble-shooting radar. All the techniques in that blog still apply. You want to be able to see trouble coming and be able to deal with it before it is obvious. It is obvious you have trouble when you repeatedly have issues with on-time, quality deliverables.
It is obvious when the top talent in the organization is complaining about a leader, and even worse when these talents are fleeing the organization to find better leadership.
Here are a few specific ways to determine whether there is trouble before it has greatly impacted your organization.
The leader’s negative attitude days are noticeable. Consider the impact when one of your leaders is cutting off other leaders or their own team members in conversations. Consider how it reflects on you if a leader you are responsible for is dismissing other people’s ideas or concerns with no conversation.
It is amazing to me how many leaders tolerate leaders who work for them and display such negative attitudes. I know there are reasons to be cynical or sarcastic. I know that some days are worse than others. I know that sometimes, one can feel like a victim and just need a minute or two to whine that it is unfair that some negative thing happened.
Do not tolerate this as a daily habit, nor even a weekly habit. If leaders are acting that way with you or in the meetings you are leading, it is likely to be happening even more in situations with the people they lead.
The energy levels of the teams they lead are lower than the rest of the organization.
It is important to watch the energy levels of your leaders and of those whom they lead.
As I noted in a previous blog, it is important to walk around and talk to people. You can also notice the energy levels. Be careful not to react to a single set of events or days but do watch the trends over time.
If a set of people seems demoralized, it is almost certain to be that they are, and it is their leader’s responsibility to address the situation. Circumstances do not make up the motivation level of the team. It is always the leader.
Engage in a listening campaign.
Ask team members how it is going and then listen. It is surprising to me how many organizations have situations where leaders feel it is inappropriate to walk around and ask about how projects are going.
They do not want to undercut their leaders. I understand that, but you are not undercutting anyone if you are giving advice or direction.
It is your responsibility to understand how your organization is working. It is actually fine to ask people directly how well a leader is performing. If you have concerns, ask before they are in your office telling you why they are quitting.
Transforming the Maverick into a Positive Power
In the opening of this blog, Jane, the division leader, had a problem with her new manager, Tom. Her perception was that Tom was being a negative force in her group, but it was not clear.
The following are the actions Jane took to grow Tom into the leader she needed him to be.
Determining If Her Concerns Were Real
Jane’s experience with Tom was very similar to situations I have helped other managers with. In those instances, I worked with the managers to attempt to remedy situations where top talent was already complaining, with some even leaving when a newly hired manager turned out to be a disruptive force.
I say “attempt” because when it is already that late, it is a difficult challenge. Often we have been successful, but never nearly as successful as when catching the problems early.
In Jane’s case, she acted before she had significant problems. First, she talked privately one on one with her top talent. She stated her observations about meetings and her concern about the energy level of the organization.
She did not name Tom as the main source of her concern. She simply asked people whether they noticed anything and if so, what they thought the cause was.
The answers confirmed her fears. Tom was being a maverick for change without any respect for the status quo. Tom had no patience for listening to other people’s ideas. He did not show any respect for learning what was good about the existing systems.
It seemed all he could see were the problems with how things worked. He was often right but not in a helpful way, not in a way that would build the team. He was instead building resentment toward himself and the organization.
Determining the Root Cause of the Situation
Jane did not need any other confirmation or evidence to act. She considered letting Tom keep going to see if he would figure it out by himself. She also considered encouraging each of the people with concerns to talk to Tom about their concerns.
Neither of those options satisfied her. The investment her company made to acquire Tom was both time-consuming and expensive. It would be even more expensive to allow the situation to continue just to confirm if her fears were real, or to let Tom figure it out for himself.
She scheduled a private meeting with Tom and prepared her concise, nonjudgmental concerns to discuss with Tom. She noted her observations. She also reported the key points she heard from people she talked to in the organization. She did so without identifying the people.
This meeting led to a lengthy series of discussions between Jane and Tom throughout the week. They ended up canceling many meetings because they knew they needed to remedy a few problems and they needed a plan to do so.
Building Jane and Tom’s Bridge to Success
The first problem they had to remedy was the broken trust between Jane and Tom. Tom’s initial reaction to Jane’s comments was some denial and some anger. Jane was deeply concerned about this. She wanted Tom to take the issues seriously and act upon them. She started to lose trust that Tom would do well in the organization.
Jane was focused on building a loyal customer base and creating a great workplace culture. She brought Tom in because of his experience in helping organizations keep pace with a growing customer base.
However, this meeting caused her to wonder if he was bringing the strict disciplinary cultures of his previous organizations, which were not known for having great workplace cultures, to her organization.
In their ensuing conversations on this topic, Jane realized that she had not had a discussion about her expectations of excellence in leadership for her organization. She discovered that
Tom believed that he had been hired as a “turn-around manager.” He assumed incorrectly that the organization was failing and that rapid changes needed to be put in place and enforced.
This explained many things. They then discussed Jane’s expectation for Tom, which was to help the company accelerate growth based on the current success. This delighted Tom and led to completely new discussions with great insights from Tom about the stresses that would come with rapid growth.
Tom apologized for how he had been approaching the situation. To rebuild the bridges that Tom had broken, they designed a listening campaign.
The Listening Campaign
The final part of the bridge to Tom’s success was the listening campaign. Tom realized that he essentially needed to reboot his relationship with many people in the organization.
Tom had not employed the listening campaign at the start of his new role in Jane’s company that I detailed in the previous section in this blog. Tom did this now.
Tom did report that it initially was not easy for him. He realized that his previous roles were under very different circumstances that called for quick actions.
He found that his listening campaign truly changed his perspective on the organization. More important, he found that it established deep trust with those whom he needed to work with to grow the organization. The most excellent news is they did.
The theme of this blog is growing the ability of leaders. Almost anyone who is in a leadership position has great ambition. There is a desire to stretch and grow. Our job as a leader of leaders is to give them the opportunity to do so. It often means staying out of the way and sometimes providing just the right guidance.
In many ways, this is the definition of mentorship. This blog’s reflection points focus on mentorship.
Think of the most powerful mentor you have had in forging you to be the leader you are today. What was it that made that relationship special so you were able to learn so much?
In the mentoring you have done, have you been as good as or better than the best mentors you have worked with? What are the key things you could do to improve your mentoring by an order of magnitude?
In what ways could you grow your own skills by mentoring others?
If you have managers reporting to you, which ones could use help?
What is stopping you?
Leader, Lead Thyself:
Consider the stressed, tired, overwhelmed manager. Will she notice the early warning signs of trouble? Will he be able to handle the situations from the taxonomy of trouble in a way that transforms the troublesome to tremendous? How can you handle the maverick, cynic, or diva when you are consistently having a “difficult day” yourself?
It is possible, but it is also unlikely.
If you truly want to be an exceptional leader who can consistently provide great value, to have a positive impact, and even to transform troublesome situations to tremendous, then the focus must start with your inner game of leadership.
The following are some of the symptoms of someone who has not yet taken control of his or her own leadership.
I have worked with many leaders who identified deeply with this list of symptoms. Many of them were actually very good leaders. Nevertheless, they often felt like they were constantly battling to accomplish what needed to be accomplished.
If you are like these leaders, you rated most of these items as “often” or worse.
The rest of this blog describes a number of mindsets and methods to take full ownership of your leadership.
Find Your Leadership Sweet Spot
On a tennis racquet, there is a miraculous zone known as the sweet spot. If, when swinging your racquet, you miss the sweet spot it will jar your arm, and you are much more likely to miss the spot you are aiming for. Further, missing the sweet spot repeatedly will tire you more quickly.
When you hit that miraculous spot, your body follows through swiftly and smoothly, and the ball is much more likely to spring off your racquet with great speed toward the spot on the court you desire.
The sweet spot on a tennis racquet is where multiple forces are designed to come together to create a harmonic response.The same is true for leadership. When you do work that misses your leadership sweet spot, it is jarring and more quickly drains your energy. When you do work from your sweet spot, it provides more energy to you than you put into it.
This is also an intersection of three forces that you can control to come together to create a great harmonic response. Let’s look at these three elements.
Passion. This is the type of work that energizes you. You like this style of work and like doing the work in this area. This is the work that puts a smile on your face. You know you are passionate about an area of work when you find that when you are engaged in its time can pass quickly without you noticing.
Competence. Competence is simply having the skills needed to make the work successful. When you have passion and competence the work done will provide you with great pleasure and pride. You may not necessarily start with the skill level needed, but if you have the passion it is likely you will acquire it. Further, it is likely you will keep improving.
Value. To do work that truly energizes you in the long run, the work that intersects with your passion and competence must also be work that provides value to others.
Exceptional leaders are very conscious of what work fits in their sweet spots and what does not. They will work to create ways to grow their sweet spots.
They will also try to attract the work they want to go to the center of their leadership “racquets.” When I have mentored leaders to take more control of their own leadership, this is often one of the first things we work on.
I ask them to track a week of their activities and to note which activities feel like they are hitting the sweet spot and which activities are jarring. People find this a surprising exercise because they are always learning things about themselves and their work that they didn’t know.
Many who have done this exercise learned that there are other factors that affect their sweet spots. Everyone agrees that the three listed are critical. Some people have found other things that are important to them as well, such as the physical work environment, the people they work with, or the financial stability of the organization.
Some discovered that they have more than one sweet spot. They uncover different areas of work where passion, competence, and value intersect. Many learned that their sweet spots evolved over time. After a period their passions changed and, thus, unlike a tennis racquet, their sweet spot moved!
Most importantly, they learned that they can make their sweet spots bigger! By taking ownership of their leadership, they guided more work to hit their sweet spots. As they grew better at this, they found ways to also grow their sweet spots through more passion, more competence, and more reciprocal value to those they served.
How to Supercharge Your Energy
Are people more likely to be drawn to a happy, positive leader projecting energy or to an obviously tired and stressed leader?
The answer is quite obvious. Yet, most people act as victims of their own energy levels. So many leaders have told me “I would have gotten more sleep if . . .” or “Those meetings I attend drain me, if only . . .” or “The weeks are so stressful, I am completely drained by the end.” The list of excuses for a low energy level is a long and tiring one.
Exceptional leaders are energetic. Certainly, exceptional leaders do get tired. It is not that they are all endowed with a natural gift of infinite energy. The difference is that they have endowed themselves with a very specific gift. This is the gift of finding the best ways of energizing themselves and avoiding the things that drain their personal energies.
Consider what happens when we have lower energy, or even feel tired:
We work slower.
We get more easily distracted.
We are more easily stressed.
We make more mistakes.
All of which means we work slower on the next day cleaning up those mistakes.
All of which could lead to not sleeping well and sleeping less.
Which leads to lower energy, which leads to more stress, which leads to an endlessly exhausting loop.
When people are feeling relaxed and energetic, they typically have a much more productive time. The following things generally result from working from a place of high energy:
Less rework caused by previous problems created when tired.
People enjoy being around you.
You sleep more soundly as there is less stress.
All of which leads to higher energy, which leads to an endless energizing loop.
Anyone who has been on an airplane knows that the flight attendants always encourage the passengers with the standard speech:
“In the event of a decompression, an oxygen mask will automatically appear in front of you. If you are traveling with someone who requires assistance, secure your mask first, and then assist the other person.”
I have been told by a friend who is a flight attendant that you must do this because once that mask descends there are less than eight seconds before you are unconscious. Putting your oxygen mask on first is a good idea and a good metaphor for a crisis situation.
For daily living, it is more useful to think about your personal fuel management system. Consider your fuel tank, your reserve systems, and how to keep them near full fuel and what to do when you are running low.
It is up to us as individuals to take control of our “fuel management system.” Be aware of the energy boosters. Be aware of the energy drains. Be aware of the size of your fuel tank. Take actions to improve. Each investment in improving this system will pay back many times over!
There are four key ways to master ownership of your energy levels:
Do things that energize you. This is not as obvious as it sounds. It takes the effort to recognize the activities that give you more energy both inside and outside of work.
The real trick is consciously taking the time to do those things. Too many people fall into habits of convenience (such as, “Oh let’s just watch another movie,” instead of taking a walk through the woods).
Track the things that fall into your leadership sweet spot. Track the things that energize you and the things that drain your energy. Doing this for a short time will provide insights that may surprise you.
Manage the energy drains in your life. Are there activities you do at work that seem exhausting? Are there people you sometimes interact with who just seem to drain your energy? Exceptional leaders are very aware of these and use various techniques to minimize the energy drains.
Make a list of the drains and brainstorm ways you can counter their effects or reduce how frequently these occur. This may seem selfish but decreasing the energy drains and increasing your happiness and energy is a gift to everyone!
Be prepared for energy dips. The first two items are proactive actions you can take. Even with those actions clearly, managed, there are times of the week, even during each day, when it feels that your energy has just fled.
Be prepared. Carry your favorite energy snacks. Hydrate. Take a brisk walk. Make some of your one-on-one meetings walking meetings. What are your best techniques?
Give yourself the gift of empty spaces. Some good managers are proud of being too busy to get enough sleep, to go for walks, or simply to pause and stare at a distant horizon. The exceptional leaders cherish these moments and work to create these spaces for themselves, often on a daily basis.
Some good managers believe it is a badge of honor to be tired and stressed, as it is an indicator of how hard they are working. Meanwhile, the exceptional leader is like organized lightning, with both a calming presence and an intensity that raises the whole energy of the situations they engage.
I know which leader I strive to be.
Which leader do the people around you think you are?
Take Control of Every Week
Hopefully, you see the wisdom of taking control of your leadership sweet spot and of supercharging your energy. To best be able to take control of those keys, you must take control of your time.
The best way to do this is to have a regular planning process. I personally have a process for planning a very long period of time, such as a decade, one for planning my year, one for my month, and also one for planning my week.
If you can’t control the time in your week, the rest won’t matter. Your weekly personal planning process should focus on controlling (or at least greatly influencing) where the time in your week goes.
This example process has ten steps.
Relax into the week. Take time to consciously prepare your mindset for the week. It is useful for many people to have a key phrase or two to be a reminder of traits they are working on.
For example, some leaders simply use this step to remind themselves how the week ahead is a choice of what things they choose to do and the attitude they bring to how they will do those things.
Review and refresh upcoming family events. Many leaders who have excelled at work find that they need to put family events first on their planning processes or they make costly mistakes in squeezing out some of the really important things in their lives.
Look ahead at least two months and determine if there are any major things you want or need to do for the benefit of the family.
Look at the upcoming week and think about family. Refresh in your mind upcoming events. Add any new events if needed. Note any actions taken at the end of your planning session.
Look at your main upcoming work goals and events. It is so easy to get pulled into the mundane of the day to day and lose track of where you really want to go. Look ahead. Think about your major goals. Think about major events. Note if there are any significant things you need to do this week.
Review your calendar for the upcoming week. Review the events already on your calendar. The upcoming week has almost certainly had more requests come in for your time via meetings or requests for you to do specific things.
It may have grown over the weekend. Note which of the items are in your sweet spot and fitness goals, which ones really don’t, and which ones fall into a bit of a gray area. You don’t need to decide yet!
Consider your key stakeholders. If you are a CEO or a project leader, you have key stakeholders who can help or hinder the initiatives you have in mind. Determine whether there is anyone you should contact this week to build momentum toward your goals.
Take a moment to consider those you lead. How is the group energy? Are there any spots that you are concerned about? Are there any people who could use some “trouble prevention” or “trouble correction” actions?
Note that in all these steps you should be thinking about whether you can ask others to help you. Asking for help is one of the key steps for growing your leadership sweet spot.
Consider the specific things you are working on. Is progress on track? Is any extra effort needed in key spots? Should you be asking for help in any areas?
List the most important positive impacts you will have this week.
Think about the positive impact you plan to make this week. Think about how to make that impact with the least amount of effort and time. Focus on value and return on investment of your time.
Make the list realistic for the week based on the most important areas. It is great to add stretch goals. Even with those stretch goals, ensure that you are leaving open space on your calendar for those things that will come up.
Make your list of “No, that will not happen” and either send or prepare to provide your polite words of “No thank you.” Again, this may sound selfish, but saying “no” to obligatory meetings or to less important meetings is not selfish.
You are focused on energizing yourself and your organization. The exceptional leader accepts the reality that all of your “to do items” will not fit in a week. You also know that you can have a positive impact every day.
Plan how to start the week with great momentum. Start every week with a quick win that makes a positive impact. It helps others and gets the week started in the absolute right direction. It is more likely to happen when you plan for that to happen!
This list may seem like it will take more than one hour. Leaders who do this for the first time discover that it does take more time.
The challenge is getting a system in place that helps keep the most important things in mind. Further, you may need to train others in your organization about how you have updated how you “own” your week.
After the start-up period, it takes less than an hour. The return on your energy is well worth that time!
Improve Your Ability to Improve
Two years ago I gave a speech to an audience of about 200. Afterward, I had a nice line of people coming up to ask me some detailed questions. The last person asked me a question that made me laugh out loud after I understood it.
She said: “How did you do that?” I thought she meant the stellar results I had helped an organization achieve, which was the focus of my talk.
She explained more. She wanted to know “How did you give a speech where you were so comfortable, were interactive with the audience, answered questions the whole time, still hit all the important points, finished on time, and made me laugh?”
This made me laugh out loud for a couple of reasons. First, I am not sure that the guy who fell asleep in the third row, fourth from the left, about eight minutes in and didn’t wake up until the final applause felt the same way!
I also laughed because I still remembered my first public speech, which was a mess, both in content and in my sweaty panic.
The quick answer I gave was simply, “I decided to become excellent at giving talks. That is the best place to start.” After I made that big decision, I started to work at it. I am now very comfortable at giving talks, and I do feel confident that they are usually good.
However, I am not done working on this skill. I will get better, and I have specific plans on what things I will do to accelerate that improvement.
The reason I am confident that I will get better is that the skill I have been really working to master is how to accelerate my ability to improve at anything!
Improving your skill at “how” to improve is the most powerful of all skills to master. Improving your ability to improve leads to making your leadership sweet spot bigger and more powerful. It leads to higher-level energizing partnerships. It leads to improvement in all areas.
The exceptional leader looks at all the problems and obstacles he faces. He thinks about what the common denominator is for all those problems. He looks in the mirror and smiles because he knows that common denominator is him.
The exceptional leader knows that he has the ability to improve.
And we can all improve in that skill. The following are the keys to taking ownership of accelerating your ability to improve.
Start with a clear intention and belief. If you have something that you want to improve at, decide to get better. Believe that you are absolutely capable of getting better.
Better yet, believe that because of your intention, you are already better just by being aware of the need, and having the desire. Write down your goals for getting better and why it is important to you.
Determine some indicators of success. Your intention will be made much stronger by thinking about what it means to be better and asking yourself “How will I know that I am better?” When I decided to get better at giving public speeches I had a few simple ways to know if I had actually improved.
For example, in the first speech I gave, I saw people quietly (and not so quietly) slipping out the back doors of the room. In more recent speeches, I have had people tell me that others had texted them to come to see my talk, which was already in progress. It is important to have external indicators that you indeed are improving in the direction you desire.
Decide what things you will do differently. And then, do those things differently. Doing the same thing the same way over and over again will get very similar results. So, when you decide to get better at something, think about what things you will actually change and what things you will try.
You can do this immediately, even without a mentor or by reading a blog. I am going to recommend those, but there is no good reason I can think of to wait unless you are parachuting or racing cars or the like!
Learn from success and from successful failures. Celebrate both. Successful failures are failed attempts where you learned something. Note that also means you could have failed successes, in that you didn’t learn why you were successful. So keep learning. Celebrate both! The better you get at celebrating failures the faster you will learn.
Watch others, both the good and the bad. As soon as I decided to get great at giving speeches, it changed my speech-watching habits completely. I paid more attention to all the speeches I went to—the good and the bad. I made notes about each and why I thought they were good or bad. This gathering of experience helped me accelerate my progress immensely.
Find exceptional mentors. Seek people who are better than you are and ask how they mastered that which you wish to master. If they seem to be a good fit, ask them for their help.
How do you find a good mentor? Read blogs and write to the authors. Ask others who you see are good at what you want to improve at. Talk to them. Get their advice.
Create safe places to try new methods. If you have no fear any place can be safe. However, I think it is still a good idea to have a testing ground. You can role-play with trusted peers.
Or you can seek a community of people pursuing a similar quest to improve. For example, Toastmasters is a community where many find a safe place to improve at giving speeches. You can create your own safe place by accepting that you can make mistakes and it is okay.
Be willing to make public mistakes. If you are trying new methods, it is very possible that the first couple of times might feel awkward and might even look awkward. You might feel less competent.
You will make mistakes even when you are good, so really don’t worry about it. If you can accept that public mistake-making, you will be much more likely to learn, celebrate, and accelerate your improvement.
Treasure empty spaces. Truly great ideas for improvement come when you have successfully emptied your mind from worries and distractions and enabled your mind to be open to new ideas that are hidden within you. Use meditation, long walks in nature, watching bad movies, heavy exercise, listening to great music, or anything that helps you be receptive to new ideas.
Relax into the joy of learning. I remember vividly the first day my daughter learned to walk when she was about eighteen months old. Within two hours she was running barefoot across stones yelling “ow, ow, ow” and laughing the whole time.
Learning new things and doing things new ways can be itself a great reward or it can be a stressful trudge. Choose the joy path! Truly relax into the joy of learning new ways.
Take Ownership of Your Leadership:
The Secret of Managing Up
If you have mastered all the items in this blog, you most likely have also discovered this final secret. We go to work because we choose to. We work in the organizations we work in because we accepted positions there. No one forced us to do the work that we do. The person you really work for is you.
I find that the people who have truly accepted this idea deal with the most common difficulties in simple, eloquent ways. The following example provides a template for how to transform troublesome stakeholders above and beside you into tremendous collaborators.
The Case of Too Many Bosses
When you have multiple stakeholders, it is rare for those stakeholders to agree on what your top priority is. Managers doing this poorly react to whoever is the loudest on that day.
The other poor reaction is to simply work harder. These are reactions based on fear of repercussions from taking ownership of personal leadership power.
The proper action is to recognize that if there is no agreement on your priorities, then the only one who is going to set them is you. The fact is, you are already doing that, even if it is based on the process of “who is the loudest.”
If you take ownership of this reality you can set the priorities and then publish what the priorities for the organization are.
The next step is to provide a way for new priorities to be set. Work with the multiple stakeholders so that they know the challenges each of the other stakeholders face. Provide a process for them to come to a consensus on how they can change the priorities of the organization you lead.
The final key to this is that you are one of the stakeholders for your organization. Take ownership of your leadership power.
It is your choice to make.
Owning your personal leadership power is the most powerful tool you will ever have in transforming the troublesome to the tremendous.
Do you own your power of leadership? Consider the following questions.
Track the things you do for a month. How much of the time do you feel like you are working from your leadership sweet spot where you get more energy out of the activity then you put into it?
Do the people you work around look at you as “often over-whelmed and stressed” or more like “organized lightning”?
Do you generally take control of where your time goes? Are others getting great impact and value from the time you are spending?
Have you consciously worked to improve in any key areas? Do you have a process for improvement that you are improving?
What steps are you taking to improve your ownership of your leadership?
Closing Notes on Transforming the Troublesome to the Tremendous
If you have had enough years in your career, it is almost certain that you have at one point played the role of a maverick, cynic, slacker, or diva.
Perhaps you have been part of firefighting projects or on projects that were consistently late, often with quality issues. Perhaps people who have worked for you thought you provided too little or sometimes too much guidance, bordering on micromanagement.
I know that at various points I have played those roles. Fortunately, whenever I have been in those roles in the early part of my career, I had excellent leaders who provided me the wisdom, guidance, and sometimes firm direction of how to work toward excellence. I thank those leaders.
It is important to remember that we have most likely been the difficult person before. It does not mean that we ignore the problematic behaviors when they occur. It is helpful to remember that the guidance we have been provided in the past is the guidance we must be able to mindfully provide to others.
This is important. As managers, as leaders, we must never waiver in our obligation to the mission we are engaged in and the group we are leading. Our obligation is to the group as a whole, which means sometimes we must provide tough guidance to those who are hindering the progress of the whole.
To me, we also have an obligation to each of the individuals, including those troublesome ones, to provide guidance that comes from compassion and a willingness to help. I once gave heartfelt advice to an employee. He had a choice to improve or move. He did not choose to improve.
I accepted that honesty, and the integrity of our friendship lasted beyond the working relationship. He called me about fifteen years later and said “Okay, Alan, I am ready to work with you to improve on the suggestions you had for me. I get it now.”
Every time that there is a troublesome person or situation, it is an opportunity to help someone grow—and perhaps even ourselves. It is an opportunity to transform the troublesome to the tremendous.