Tuesday, October 10, 2017

First ask “why” … then do it 5 times!

Its interesting how many times I see senior executives (and maybe a few consultants like yours truly) feel like they need to have the answers … all of the answers … and they always have to be right.  As crazy as that sounds, think about your own situations.  Consider how many times you have been in front of a senior exec, a board member, or a highly paid consultant and you DIDN’T expect them to have all the answers.  No leadership team or single executive, nor a board member or board, nor a consulting practice or a single consultant can or ever will have all the right answers.  It’s unrealistic and frankly not appropriate.  What is key is that we need to expect and require those same senior executives, board members, and consultants to ASK the right questions all the time and that process starts, and always starts by asking “why?”

While it may seem simple enough, we often start with the two “wrong” questions if we even start with questions versus misplaced proclamations.  Typically, we start with “who” … (“who’s in charge?”, “who’s responsible for these results,?” “who is working with whom to get this mess fixed?”, and the list goes on.) If we don’t start with the “who” questions, we often go straight to the “how much” set of questions …( “how much are we behind plan,?” how much did this budget variance cost?,” etc.)    I want us to consider that we all need to first start by asking “why”, trying to understand the core issue at hand before we do anything else.  “Why has this situation happened?” or “why is this problem continuing to recur?” or why do you feel we aren’t making progress against our goals?” are all three good places to start.  Using “why” questions is a good way for everyone, senior execs, board members and consultants in particular, to frame the issue at hand and to use the discipline of “questions” to work to gain common alignment on the problem that is trying to be solved.  A HUGE step forward in all strategic work is to define the problem you are trying to solve and to have a common understanding of the problem at hand.

First asking “why” is key and in my experience it is pretty rare especially at senior levels.  While I clearly think it's a “required” first step, it is rarely “sufficient” to do the job at hand … thus my encouragement to then “ask why” 5 times!  While there is no magic specifically in the number 5, there has been a lot of work done in this approach, focusing on the best approach to get at the “root cause” of any issue and the “ask why 5 times” is a fundamental element of that approach.  Pioneered by Toyota in the 1950’s, this discipline/technique has been applied broadly across industries, companies and functions and is one of those fundamental business skills worth NEVER forgetting.  I learned this approach in early training classes at
The Coca-Cola Company in the early 90’s and I still refer back to them today.  The image above is a simple tool that helps the process and I have filled quite a number of flip-charts over the years with these “fishbone diagrams.”  To understand more of the approach, it’s background, and application, take a look at the following link,  https://open.buffer.com/5-whys-process/

Regardless of the intensity of the moment or the risks at stake, work hard to try to start with a question and hopefully that question begins with “why.”  If you can frame the situation with a “why” question, then gather the team to do some “digging” and work your way to keep going, “ask why 5 times” to get underneath the veneer of the problem at hand and have a deeper understanding and deeper alignment on the root cause of the problem that needs fixing!

Monday, October 2, 2017

A tearful morning and an inspiring walk

Waking up this morning, October 2, 2017 I was floored by the reports of the mass shooting last night in Las Vegas.   “Mass shooting”, “lone gunman,” fifty dead,” automatic weapon,” “innocent concert goers,” high capacity clips,” senseless violence,” and may other headlines filled the news this morning.  Filled with shock, anger and deep sadness I began my Monday with a week of work and travel ahead.  Telling Jennie, Marie, and Bryson (via text, he a sophomore at UCLA), that I loved them, I packed my bags and headed to the airport for a flight to Miami.

Once again I looked for a moment of solace at the Atlanta airport and headed straight to Concourse E and the MLK exhibit that includes a replica of the Nobel Peace Prize that Dr. King was awarded in 1963.  I often find my way to this specific spot and you can see my writings on it in previous blog essays.  This morning, after taking a moment at in front of the Nobel medal, I went into the little “interfaith chapel” behind the display.  Sitting quietly in a plastic folding chair, I said a few prayers for the victims of Las Vegas, prayers for their families and friends who are living a nightmare of tragedy today and more broadly prayers for our country.  Senseless death, violence against innocent strangers and escalating hatred and violence CANNOT be the legacy that we leave to our next generation nor a vision of a civilized society that we share with the world.

Sitting in that little while plastic folding chair I pulled up three passages/quotes that gave me strength this morning, each of which I want to share:

  The first being a major passage from Dr. King’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech: 

o   “I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind.  I refuse to accept despair as the final response to history.  I refuse to accept the idea that the “isness” of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts him.  I refuse to accept the idea that man is the mere flotsom and jetsom in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him.  I refuse to accept that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.”

 The second quote is from Gandhi:

o   “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love always won.  There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall.  Think of it – always.”

 The final inspiration is a passage from the old testament, Micah 6:8,

o   “ He has told you O Mortal, what is good and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your god.”

Leaving the little chapel on Concourse E, I decided to walk back to my gate on Concourse A (always good to get some steps in!!) and started thinking about my trip ahead.  In the walkway between Concourse B & A, there is an art installation that mimics a Georgian forest scene, with sculptured leaves, birds chirping, etc.  Not paying much attention this morning, I walked upon a young family who had stopped and the kids had begun “jumping in the raindrops” projected on the floor.  At first I was annoyed that my way forward was blocked but before I knew it two or three other kids, from another family “joined in” and all five or six of them played together in the “virtual rain.”  That moment of the kids playing together floored me and quire literally “stopped me in my tracks.”   Surrounded by the despair and senseless violence and hatred of the shooting in Las Vegas, maybe there was a sliver of hope and inspiration for humanity, exemplified in the children dancing in the “rain” between concourses at the Atlanta airport!

Friday, September 8, 2017

Leading in Uncertain Times

Over the past few years I have had the chance to work with a wide variety of executives across a range of companies and industries.  Ranging in size from an emerging technology startup to a multi-billion $ global bio-tech leader, each of the engagements have been unique and challenging experiences, each with unique situations/dynamics that have required me to learn a lot and to tap into a range of experiences that have spanned my 32+year business career.  While the assignments have varied widely, there is a common thread that has become evident over the past few months.  Each executive (or executive team in some instances) that I am working with this year are facing uniquely challenging dynamics in their space and as they work to finish out 2017 and turn their attention to the year ahead, each of my clients are facing very uncertain times ahead.  It's in this context that I have reflected back, and what to share, a few lessons or focus points that might be helpful for leaders (or leadership teams) who are "navigating the waters" of uncertain times.

Optimism:  When times are uncertain, it is tempting for leaders to become frustrated/negative/cynical as they face the uncertain road ahead.  While tempting, this approach is desperately wrong and damaging to an organization.  Leaders need to work on being optimists and being optimistic about the path forward especially if the road ahead is uncertain.  In a previous essay, I commented on this idea of impact of optimistic leaders in the essay "Optimism, a force multipliers for leaders." (https://fylegacy.blogspot.com/2016/03/optimism-force-multiplier-for-leaders.html  The fundamental idea comes from a quote from former Secretary of State Colin Powell where he connects optimism to morale in the armed forces and how optimism expands the impact of the force deployed. This idea is deeply true in business and especially when things are tough or uncertain.

Flexibility:  It may seem obvious but when you are dealing with moments of change and challenge, you fundamentally don't know exactly what is coming next.  You may be faced with a competitive intrusion, a marketplace shift, an organizational restructuring, etc. and while the dynamics of change and challenge are clear, the path forward may not be evident in the least!  It is in these moments that it is vital for leaders to stay flexible or to "stay loose!"  In a previous essay "Stay loose until rigor counts" (https://fylegacy.blogspot.com/2010/10/stay-loose-until-rigor-counts.html) I comment on the need to "stay open/stay wide/stay loose" in moments of challenge.  Tempted as it might be for leaders or leadership teams to "tighten up" and stay focused on the "tried and true" actions of a business/organization, challenging and uncertain times really call us to stay strategically and tactically "loose" or flexible, being ready to adjust to the unseen changes ahead.

Discipline:  I know that it may seem counter intuitive for me to highlight "discipline" just after advocating "flexibility" but these ideas actually go together well.  Having a regular disciplined process for planning and performance management of a business is very important regardless of the challenges that lie ahead, but doubly so when things are tough and uncertain.  For years I operated a monthly performance management system in past operating roles that worked well over time.  During challenging moments, I "accelerated" the process and moved to a bi-weekly then weekly review process/cadence in order to stay on top of the changes in the business and take action into those changing moments even more quickly.  I wrote about this approach in an early essay, "Ownership, Accountability, & Discipline"  ( https://fylegacy.blogspot.com/2011/10/ownership-accountability-discipline.html)

Focus:  While I am always an advocate of having a strategic viewpoint, my encouragement is for leaders to keep a tight view or focus on the weeks/months and MAYBE quarters ahead when times are uncertain.  DON'T get to far ahead of yourself (or the market) when dynamics are changing.  A long time friend and co-worker suggested to me that leading in business is like driving a car, and you are always needing to keep your eyes "over the horizon and over the hood." At times you need to look "over the horizon" to anticipate and plan for the marketplace ahead, while at other moments you need to look "over the hood," to insure you avoid the pitfalls immediately ahead.  The amazing reality of driving a car and leading an organization is that you actually need to do both of them (over the horizon and over the hood) at the same time to be effective.  See the essay titled "over the hood & over the horizon"for more on this concept.https://fylegacy.blogspot.com/2012/04/over-hood-over-horizon.html ) 

Postscript: As a final note, I want to comment on leadership "posture" in changing and challenging times.  While I don't have a previous essay to reference, I want to suggest that is is important for teams to "see" their leaders in tough times more then ever.  Be present at team gatherings, let the organization see you smile and hear your thoughts on the business today and the road ahead even if the path isn't completely clear.  I have seen leaders literally "hunker down" in tough times, staying behind closed doors, rarely being present or even visible and it is always damaging to an organization.  Think about your "posture" with your team and find ways to let your physical presence reflect your commitment to the themes above!

Friday, August 11, 2017

"Grit"... a Foundation for Leaders

Almost three years ago, I wrote an essay titled "The Importance of Grit"(https://fylegacy.blogspot.com/2014/01/the-importance-of-grit.html , where I discussed the work that Professor Angela Duckworth had done on the role of "Grit" vs. IQ as a predictor of academic success in students.  In that essay, I suggested that this concept of "Grit" not only rang home for me in the academic context that Professor Duckworth referenced, but it was directly relevant to my experiences in business.  Now almost three years later, I am more confident than even that the relevancy and importance of "Grit" in the professional landscape is significant and I want to go further today that we need to think about "grittiness" as a required, "foundational" skill/attribute for leaders.

As a reminder, Professor Duckworth defined "grit" as the combination of "passion, perseverance and stamina," and her research suggested that a student's "grittiness" had a  stronger correlation for academic success than a student's IQ scores.  My professional experience, now for over thirty two years, reinforces this finding in the professional business environment.  The most successful executives, and specifically the most successful business leaders that I have had the chance to work with were not always the smartest folks in the room.  Usually it was a mix of an individual's "passion, perseverance and stamina" (their "Grit"), combined with a unique set of skills, experiences and motivation that won the day.  I don't think this is only true historically.  In today's VERY high tempo change-filled, highly competitive workplace the leaders that are succeeding today need a lot more than high IQ's to find enduring success.

"Grit" for Senior Leaders:  I currently have the chance (and honor) in my consulting practice to work with a number of C-suite level executives across numerous industries and company sizes.  While each individual is dealing with radically different business/marketplace dynamics, a center point in each of my discussions is the need to "persevere" through times of change/challenge and to have the patience and "stamina" to face the truth of the challenges ahead and to lead their organizations with personal commitment/"passion" through the rough spots ahead.  Without realizing it, I have been "coaching Grit" all through 2017!  We can't have a false expectation that any executive is so smart that they can out think the challenges of the marketplace.  Innovation is happening too quickly, competition is moving dramatically, change and challenges are accelerating in ways that senior business leaders will simply not be able to "out smart"!  As an example imagine if you were a senior executive at Walmart or Kroger today.  Five years ago (or maybe even five quarters ago) the idea that Amazon would be a major threat for the grocery dollar in America would have been nowhere on the horizon but earlier this year with the announcement of Amazon buying Whole Foods, the market caps of both Kroger and Walmart took a major hit.  "Smarts" alone will not succeed competitively vs. Amazon, but I assure you that "perseverance" and "stamina" will be required in large supply!

Teaching "Grit":  This idea of "grit" as a foundation skill/attribute for leaders clearly rings true to me. As many of you know, I deeply believe that great leaders are also great teachers, and interestingly my most widely read essay is on that topic, "A teachable point of view"(https://fylegacy.blogspot.com/2009/05/teachable-point-of-view.html).   .  As leaders, we have a huge impact on our teams by what we prioritize and what we reward.  We need to find ways to actually allow our teams to struggle and face challenges, as ways to "build muscle" on "perseverance."  We need to allow competitive challenges or market place dynamics to push our teams into having to endure setbacks over time to "build muscle" on "stamina."  Finally, we need to find the spark of "passion" inside ourselves, and share it openly with our teams, in order to inspire our organizations to have the courage or confidence to step up and share their "passion" for the business/enterprise/brand/mission themselves.  Great leaders are great teachers and we need to find more ways to "teach grit" now more than ever.

This essay could continue, thinking about how to interview for "grit", or how to help frontline leaders foster "grit" among their teams, etc.  My focus today is to suggest that the business landscape ahead will be more dynamic, more challenging, higher tempo, with more change than the landscape historically and now more than ever we need to prioritize organizational "grittiness" in order to create "success" in times of accelerating "change"!

Friday, July 14, 2017

Look through the "other" end of the telescope ...

Across the business landscape there are headlines every day of companies realigning or restructuring their operating models to meet changing competitive challenges.  In some instances it is a retailer closing unprofitable stores, in another it may be a manufacturing entity consolidating their supply chain to improve efficiency and quite literally the list goes on and on.  When companies struggle to compete and “win,” they often look to the well-worn world of realignment/restructuring “consultants” to help them “improve” their operating model with an eye towards future success.  Having seen this trend “up-close” in a variety of contexts, it is tempting for me to “opine” on the mid-long term efficacy of these actions.  Possibly saving that content for a future blog essay, today I want to comment on the very real human side of these actions.

In a moment of coincidence, two companies from my past are executing restructuring efforts this summer and I am hearing from a number of associates/executives “impacted” in these actions.  In some circumstances they are 50+ year-old execs, being offered “early retirement” packages well before their personal plans for retirement.  In other situations, they are 30+ year old execs, 10+/- years into their careers facing the first real “speed bump” of their professional lives, and numerous situations in-between.  This essay was triggered from one such discussion that I had earlier tis week with someone on the younger end of the “impacted” spectrum.

The phone call I received early this week started innocently enough.  The woman on the other end of the line and I had worked together closely for a number of years and have known each other for the past 8 +/- years.  She had recently been “impacted” by a restructuring effort and her job was being outsourced to a third-party company.  (Very common in the restructuring playbook.)  Once we dug through the emotions of the moment, and her sadness, anger and frustration about why this plan even had to happen, she shared the core of her concerns and anxiety.  As part of the process, she was going to have to “interview” with the “third party” company for her old job and that interview was late this week.  The prospect of sitting on the other side for the table from a group of interviewers, each with their “telescopes” (her imagery) zeroed in on her every comment was a bit of a “freak-out.”  Certainly an understandable response!

Pulling out an old essay and encouraging her to “P/B/R: Pause, Breathe, & Reconnect" (see more at https://fylegacy.blogspot.com/2009/07/pbr-maybe-not-what-you-think.html) we talked about the upcoming interview and I encouraged her to “look through the other end of THEIR telescopes.”  Think about THEM and their needs/issues.  Here THEY were, trying to find talent and build an organization to meet the needs of their new client.  THEY needed people like her; people with exceptional track records, strong well-documented accomplishments, with demonstrated leadership talents/skills/etc.! THEY NEEDED HER!!  Looking through the “other end of the telescope,” they weren’t coming to the interview to identify and explore this woman’s flaws/weaknesses.  They were coming to the interview to identify and explore her talents, qualities and experiences.  Once again, they NEEDED & WANTED her to be great!

The phone call closed out a bit after this discussion and she seemed focused and ready with a new attitude toward the upcoming interviews .  While I will be anxious to hear the outcome of the interview experience from my old friend, I am confident that we can all learn a lesson from the “telescope” imagery.  Too often we get “stuck” by looking at the “telescopes” in our work lives solely from OUR end, rather than pausing for a moment (remember “P/B/R”) and working to “look through the telescope form the other end!”