Tuesday, December 19, 2006

She's So Bad

I understood instantly what my daughter meant. The person to whom she was referring was really good at her chosen vocation. It’s a comment not lightly given. We admire it when we see it. Such talent! Conventional wisdom though stops us from seeing virtuosity as a possibility for many. After all, isn’t being outstanding at something usually the result of a natural gift? Current evidence points to a rosier possibility. There is a growing consensus among cognitive psychologists that “bad” is not confined to the few.

Here’s the rub: there’s no free lunch. High level performance in a particular field (or domain) requires a lot of hard work—endless hours of practice and experience. It takes at least ten years on average of daily, focused practice to attain a certain level of mastery.

It’s not just rote practice, however, that distinguishes the good from the great. It’s deliberate practice---gradual improvement of performance during extended experience. It is attained by setting explicit goals (performance outcomes) just beyond one’s level of competence, practicing the new, desired level over and over again (learning strategies), getting feedback on the results (from self and others), adjusting the learning plan and repeating the cycle again.

Ultimately, the journey to becoming a master and retaining mastery lies in deep learning. Reliable concepts and solution procedures for a wide range of situations are literally quickly at the finger tips of the masters. We’ve seen this with Tiger Woods who is adept at recovering from any and all dilemmas on the golf course. Despite his stellar and astonishing performance, commentators often mention that he’s never satisfied, always wanting to get better. Tiger’s a consummate learner self-propelled and surrounded by coaches who are themselves masters—both of these conditions are essential as it is difficult to see oneself clearly.

You might be thinking that this is fine and dandy but it does not apply to leadership. Or, put another way: how can this be relevant to such a diverse field as leadership? True, there’s a vast amount of knowledge and skills to tackle. At the same time, we are each a human laboratory in which we’re doing very well in some areas and not so well in others. That narrows the skill areas on which to apply hard work.

To get better, the first step is to identify which of the many leadership or management skills need our attention. The choice is based on feedback from others, our own self-knowledge from what works/doesn’t work in daily practice and information about best practices. The next step is to go into overdrive on deliberately practicing selected skills---performance goals and learning strategies that stretch us a little, repetitive practice and so on.

In your role as a leader-manager, you can encourage this same notion of deliberate practice to those whom your coach and mentor. It’s a more sophisticated twist on “performance management”. The idea is applicable to both hard and soft areas of practice provided a process is in place for frequent follow up---annual or twice a year sessions just won’t cut it.

Why is mastery worth pursuing in leadership? We know when leadership is lacking and it’s often not pretty. It’s costly and wasteful when leadership has failed or is muddling along. As we are confronted with more complexity, uncertainty, instability and conflicts in values, the pursuit of superior achievement in leadership looks better than the options. If high performance is truly available to the many, it makes sense to head in that direction. The result could astound us.

Hope is like a road in the country.
There wasn’t ever a road.
But when many people walk on it,
the road comes into existence.

--Lin Yutang

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Power Distance Enlightens Managing

As the population becomes more diverse, the challenge for everyone in working together productively skyrockets. There are so many factors interacting, it’s hard for leaders and managers to see clearly let alone get results that stick. Blindness to the subtleties is not an option when engagement is the new desired norm and disengagement of too many a persistent reality.

Power distance is one way to better understand the underlying subtleties of today’s working and learning environments. It refers to the extent to which the less powerful members of an organization or institution expect and accept that power is distributed unequally. For example, does an employee (or student) value a dependent or interdependent relationship with a manager or teacher? What does the manager/teacher value? It’s all relative though as the style of the person in the authority position (learned from cultural background and working experiences) affects what the employee or learner perceives and values.

Let’s look at this more closely. According to researchers from the Netherlands, Gerte Hofstede and Gerte Jan Hofstede (Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind), there are three dimensions of power and authority that reflect employees’ views:
>the frequency with which they are afraid to disagree with their managers (very frequently to very seldom)
>their perception of a manager’s actual decision making style (for example, autocratic, majority vote, consultative)
>their preferences for a manager’s decision making style

Apparently, there is a close relationship between the reality employees perceive and the reality desired. If employees are not afraid to speak up and their bosses are generally not autocratic or paternalistic, the employees prefer a consultative approach. If employees seem less inclined to disagree with their managers and the latter are autocratic or paternalistic, employees express a preference for bosses who decide autocratically or paternalistically.

So which comes first, the cart or the horse? The working environment as experienced through the style of the leaders (those who manage as different from individual contributors and front line personnel) matters.

This begs the question: how does a leader-manager know where he or she sits on the power-authority scale? Without such knowledge, and given that employees tend to mirror what they are experiencing, the manager is left in a blind leading the blind situation.

The findings from countries provide a useful starting point. The different national cultures in which people grow up affect the mind set around power distance. Based on Gerte and Gerte’s research on IBM employees in 74 countries, most Asian, Eastern European and Latin American countries have high power distance values (higher acceptance of inequality between managers and direct reports). There are lower values for German-speaking countries (Austria, Switzerland and Germany), Israel, Nordic countries (Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland), the United States, Great Britain and its former colonies (Canada, New Zealand, Ireland and Australia) and the Netherlands (but not for Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium). These findings can be used as a general rule of thumb to know where you are as a manager in relation to the people who report to you.

Rather than accept them at face value, better to use the idea of power distance as a framework for discussion. As a manager, ask how your direct reports view power distance (chance to disagree with you, your style, what they prefer) and negotiate a relationship that fits the issues to be resolved.

Keep in mind that there are sub-cultures within every grouping. For example, generation influences the desire for equality too. Demographers are quick to remind us how the Echo generation---those born between 1975 and 1990--- as a whole have a very casual attitude toward supervisors. That implies a narrow power distance perspective which could potentially conflict with some members of other generations who have a more formal attitude toward their bosses. Thus, this needs to be tested and taken into consideration by a manager in calibrating expectations.

Making our mental software----how we think, feel and behave---more conscious is a critical skill of effective leader-managers. None of us can ever figure out accurately where a person comes from on power distance or on values. It is a constant challenge to know ourselves, the virtues with the vices. We can, however, engage in fruitful discussions to table the different views and find areas of commonality.

Enlightenment about self and others increases the odds that the right decisions facing any group or team will emerge despite the formidable complexities of the problems to be solved. Leaders who strive to understand how power distance is helping or hindering creative discussions in their workplaces will see a little more clearly.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Napping as a Competitive Advantage

As one who is often sleep-deprived, I am perpetually drawn to articles on the subject whenever they appear in the media. With daylight savings time upon us, the media provided its annual commentary on the subject. After reading that sleep-deprivation measurably reduces IQ, and that we are not acting fast enough to account for this in our places of work, I am convinced that institutionalizing napping needs to go down on each leader’s priority list.

Before the advent of the light bulb by Thomas Edison in 1910, our forebears slept routinely up to 10 hours a day. We’re down by 30 per cent on average now: between 6.9 and 7.5 hours a day. Sleep researchers generally agree that anything at or below 7.0 hours interferes with our ability to think.

According to Stanley Coren’s research at the Human Neuropsychology and Perception Laboratory, University of British Columbia, if we sleep only seven hours per day, we lose one IQ point each day and it’s cumulative. For each hour short of seven hours sleep, we lose two more points. Over a week, that adds up!

Aside from the health hazards of sleep deprivation, for example, weakening our immune systems, we can assume no organization escapes the consequences in the work place. Collective organizational IQ is compromised.

One antidote is to make napping an acceptable practice. Sleep researchers have long known that our natural circadian rhythms show dips in energy and alertness in the early afternoon and late evening. Yet, we seldom account for this from a policy perspective in our workplaces.

Back in ancient times, they speculate that humans did not necessarily sleep for long times, perhaps to accommodate to the dangerous and uncertain environments in which they lived. Instead, they engaged in polyphasic sleep: lots of short naps throughout the day.

In our modern, fast-paced and frequently tumultuous environments, calling on our ancient habits, may be timely to support not thwart our evolution. Powernaps do help us regain our energy, improve our moods and in the organizational sense, buoy our ability to think and decide. The researchers contend that as little as a daily 10 minute nap can turn our declined performance and attention around.

Some organizations have taken this to heart but the majority has not despite the strong business case presented by sleep researchers. Not surprisingly, the largest obstacle is social: misperceptions about the work ethics of nappers, fears that people will abuse the opportunity, and assumptions that there is no time in the work day to nap (our type “A” personalities). But, we do provide people with time for coffee-breaks and lunch. Thus, there is room already in the way our work days are structured to include a nap.

The researchers estimate that it will take about 20 years before napping becomes widely acceptable in the workplace. Enlightened leaders have an opportunity to seize the moment sooner. In the ever-tightening labour market, making napping an acceptable part of the culture, is a sound attraction and retention strategy. If budgets and space are tight, people will find ways to nap without an investment in sleep rooms or reclining chairs. A more welcoming environment for napping can be built over time, as budgets allow.

No matter the age or stage of life, such a policy has great appeal. At an individual level, personal health and happiness and a feeling that the organization cares will all be enhanced.

Like most innovations, especially at the novelty stage, not everyone will take advantage of permission to nap with no strings attached or career limiting consequences. Even if 10 per cent do, that will go a long way toward offsetting the extent of the weekly IQ deficit of the organization. By association, more nappers and fewer tired people means that the decision making quality may be less compromised and the workplace more fun. Now that’s real competitive advantage!

Monday, October 09, 2006

Cultivating the "Nobel" Leader

‘Tis the season for Nobel prize winners, that special class of thinkers who share important commonalities with great leaders: intellectual curiosity, independent thinking and a strong tendency to challenge conventional wisdom. Their collective virtue is a model for the world, including leading and managing any organization or nation. It is unfortunately in short supply, not because of genetic deficits. Blame the habits of the mind---a learning deficit.

The biggest barrier to the “Nobel” approach to leading and managing, by far, is the tendency to believe “facts” that conform to our views, even in the face of conflicting information or outright contradiction. We see this played out in the newspapers every day with many political leaders—at our peril. Insufficiently swift action or lack of attention to urgent issues such as global warming, infrastructure development and maintenance, poverty, the safety of our food supply and the sources of violence and terrorism dominate the airwaves today. Through neglect, squabbling and short term thinking they are becoming bigger not smaller problems. The issues would likely not have grown to their level of the magnitude and seriousness if the “Nobel mind” prevailed. As analytic rigor is a redeeming feature of those who win Nobels, how can we get more of it in the leadership domain for the good of all?

This year, when the Nobels were awarded, I noticed something I had not before. They run in families. From my undergraduate science days when I was fortunate to be taught by a number of outstanding professors, including Canada’s own Nobel winner in chemistry, John Polyani, I remember the Curies the most. Marie and her husband Pierre shared the physics prize in 1903. After Pierre’s untimely death, Marie went on to win again eight years later for chemistry. In 1935, the family garnered a third Nobel and a second in chemistry, by daughter Irene Joliet-Curie and her husband Frederick Joliet. All Nobels related to the study of the behaviour and synthesis of radioactive elements which are now the back bone of many medical procedures. This year, Roger Kornberg won the chemistry Nobel forty seven years after his still living Dad did in medicine. As with the Curies, their research fields overlap, this time in gene research. In the history of Nobels, there are six pairs of fathers and sons, four married couples and two brothers who have won Nobels since they started in 1901. If we add collaborative partnerships, the numbers greatly multiply.

The dynamics of the environment, therefore, have played a role in nurturing the habits of great thinking. Certainly, the American dominance for Nobel prizes this year suggests this too. To borrow from the language of software programmers, is this “scaleable” in organizations? Why not? The habits---questioning one’s own assumptions, testing pre-conceived notions in the field, replicating findings as well as generating novel ideas---are not difficult. Any leader-manager can become a more powerful “Nobel” thinker simply by deciding to be one. One role modeler leads to another. The culture shifts. The organization gets much smarter!

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Being Prepared for the Unthinkable

We grew up with fire drills in the schools that our young minds thought were a bore although it was nice to get outside. In our post 9/11 world, we are now confronted with the call to add another drill: practicing a plan of action when someone terrorizes us with guns or any other behaviours that threaten our security and safety. In the aftermath of the Dawson College tragedy in Montreal where an alienated 25 year old male randomly shot at anyone in his path, I am struck by the lack of preparedness of the administration and teachers.

One rationale mentioned in the media was that such an act was “a rare occurrence”. True enough as the statistics bear out. But, when it happens and people are severely injured or lose their lives, the price of not planning for something that in all likelihood will not happen seems too steep.

As we know, such random acts are not confined to schools. Any place where people meet and work is a forum for a disturbed individual. Thus, our workplaces are as vulnerable as schools. To what extent are we prepared for the kind of act that occurred in Montreal?

Generally we have learned from history turning the lessons into “for the public good” legislation and a myriad of bargaining unit agreements. In the interests of healthier learning and workplace environments, educational institutions and many others have voluntarily put into place harassment, bullying and other related policies and practices to underscore management’s commitment to our safety and security. However, it’s my guess (I have not done the research), that we are less consistent across the board on emergency plans and drills for dealing with dangerous individuals who can do extreme harm in a matter of minutes.

I refer more to low cost, low tech means than to building design, door systems, cameras, metal detectors and additional security personnel. Months ago I happened by chance as I was surfing TV channels to catch a documentary that is relevant to this subject. It described the training that some US schools are providing to staff and students on what to do if the Dawson College scenario occurs. The preparedness plan primarily focused on having a mental plan of action---recognizing quickly what is unfolding and making wise decisions on the spot to reduce personal danger. In reading the newspapers and watching the TV coverage, teachers at Dawson College seemed woefully unprepared to provide the necessary leadership to handle the crisis. I am assuming that there were no drills pertinent to that type of scenario to help them automatically spring into action.

Good fortune and the quick action of the Quebec police proved that taking the lessons of history seriously and creating a better plan of action do produce better results. In this case, less lives lost and fewer people with physical injuries.

It is a sad commentary on the world today that multifaceted “disaster management” is rising higher on the priority list for leaders. Our front line emergency personnel and disaster specialists are well aware that an emergency plan is only the tip of the iceberg. With no shortage of disasters from which to draw lessons (9/11, Walkerton, SARs, AIDs, Katrina, various terrorist plots, global warming…), leaders of all stripes are increasingly recognizing that a systemic approach is the most effective. Prevention, preparation and smart action combined strengthen the robustness of solutions to big issues. On the flip side, too much/too little attention to one part of the system reduces the opportunity for solutions that work both in the short and long term.

Hence, “seeing the whole picture” (or being open to exploring it) is a more pressing skill for leaders in our current world locally and globally. As James Lovelock said in 1979 when he coined the term “Gaia” to describe earth as a single, planet-sized organism where all things are interconnected:

“There must be an intricate security system to ensure that exotic outlaw species do not evolve into rampantly criminal syndicates…”

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Focus on What You Want

At this time of remembrance, it’s easy to see the world as unfriendly and the challenges of life as insurmountable. In organizations where things are not going your way, the lure of seeing the issues not the opportunities looms large. But the flick of a switch can shift you to a place from which all issues seem only as points of learning not obstacles to be overcome.

Focus on what you want. Albert Einstein is often quoted as saying that when you passionately believe in that which does not exist, you can create it. I like the follow up: “It’s on the way” because no one can dissuade you.

I also like the implication---there’s nothing to fuss about.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Examining the Unexamined

Do leaders get the performance they expect from those who report to them? Known as the “Pygmalion effect”, the answer from numerous studies remains a strong affirmative. Does forced ranking, made famous by Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, result in higher productivity? That is, managers rank 20 per cent of employees as A players, 70 per cent as Bs, and 10 per cent as Cs. The Cs get fired and the lion’s share of rewards go to As. The answer from the research is a resounding no. The forced ranking in fact negatively impacts employee engagement, collaboration, trust and productivity.

You might say: “I’ve been duped!” Well, no---you just did not ask enough questions, test the assumptions and do your own field tests. You may also have been influenced by the oversupply of business books—30,000 + according to Barnes and Noble and Amazon with around 3,500 new ones each year.

Given the complexity of today’s business environments, it’s getting harder to transfer success methods from one organization to another. Healthy skepticism is in. Careful field work and pilot tests, long a tool of scientists, to prove that something really works are also in. We’re now calling this approach, “evidence-based management’ akin to “evidence-based” medicine that McMaster University’s David Sackett has promoted successfully for many decades along with others such as, Dr. David Eddy, a heart surgeon and health-care economist in the United States.

Take a scenario from my experience. The kind, gentle and apparently wise Executive VP asked us to determine a prominent high tech firm’s success formulae for integrating new technology companies into its culture and operations. Through our research we discovered that the other tech company had a sophisticated and focused method for welcoming and integrating newcomers. It also had a very different history---it had grown through acquisition from its inception. Our client organization had not. Different cultures and histories—like comparing apples and oranges.

We recommended great caution. Our client said, “thank you very much” and proceeded to buy high tech organizations at a breathtaking pace. Its top lawyer exclaimed to us several months later: “we’re underwater”. That very strategy was instrumental in reducing the firm to a shadow of its former self. The cost and rapidity of the acquisitions made the firm extremely vulnerable when business conditions took a nose dive.

At the time, we did not realize the significance of our research. We were doing our “thing”—being scientists and working within the constraints of our client wanting an answer fast. We did our due diligence on the secondary research: what the literature did and did not tell us from multiple fields. We knew the client organization. The members of our research team combined had both deep and broad expertise. But, we had no time to test our conclusions in the field. We were aware the client was searching for the methodology of the other—the intent was to implement it.

In retrospect, even if we’d made a big fuss and insisted on seeing the President, we would have been rebuffed. We know this now from having since talked with several executives who were part of the President’s inner circle. He wanted proof his views were correct.

Unexamined ideologies can produce “train wrecks”. We’ve seen this with all aspects of the management of Katrina, the hurricane that destroyed New Orleans. With incentive pay, the field is littered with large disasters such as Enron (motivating executives with stock options) and smaller failures in many organizations that attempt to entice more productivity out of employees when they have little control over the results. In economics, many theorists still believe people in organizations and society act primarily out of self-interest because we are hard wired that way. Considerable research paints a more nuanced picture: self-interest is learned and varies widely across people, groups and countries. This is a far more optimistic picture and it provides significant latitude for leaders to work with.

Let’s look at a few examples in more detail.

Back to forced ranking. According to the July 24, 2006 Fortune magazine, Jack Welch remains adamant that “weeding out the weakest” is best for the organization. He exclaims, “The Red Sox and the Mets are not putting on the field guys in the minors. It’s all about fielding the best team…..the cruel system is the one that doesn’t tell anybody where they stand.” But, I say, what about all those other sports team examples, where the raw talent wasn’t obviously present and yet great coaches created great teams?

It’s true that people want feedback even if it’s negative. However, the feedback can be flawed if a manager is working from unproven assumptions or an absolute belief system about the world and how it works.

Hmmm. I wonder what Jack thinks of his successor’s approach. Jeff Immelt has kept the idea of ranking but has added a new system of rating---red, yellow, or green---on five leadership traits. Employees are rated against themselves, not one another. Immelt does not mention getting rid of the bottom 10 %. Instead, he says he’s focused on building a team.

What does the research say on this topic? It cannot be explained simplistically as the limitations of forced ranking depend on a combination of factors. The leader’s theories (assumptions or ideologies) plus the organization itself figure in the conundrum.

As mentioned previously with the “Pygmalion Effect”, a leader’s theories of performance and ability become self-fulfilling. According to Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton’s research described in Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense, if a leader believes that ability is fixed and communicates this, employees will gage performance as related to where they fall with respect to their native intelligence (or, simply to the expectations of the leader-manager). On the other hand, if a leader views performance as more adaptable, employees will tend to see tasks as learning opportunities not tests of competence because of their so-called pre-ordained capabilities.

On the organizational side, NASA’s space shuttle program amply points out that being smart is not enough. Talented people cannot succeed in a flawed environment in which resources, help from colleagues and infrastructure are obstacles to success. For example, over 15 years of research in the auto industry underlines the importance of de-emphasizing status among employees. The lean or flexible production systems characterized by teams, training and job rotation result consistently in the building of higher quality cars at lower cost. This does not refute that there are differences in performance among employees. The system aims to help all employees perform better than they would within a culture that pits one against the other according to criteria which are suspect.

But wait. Smart and skilled people do fuel performance. Jim Collins Good to Great research found that getting the “right people on the bus” is more critical than strategy. Michael Schrage humorously points out that “a collaboration of incompetents, no matter how diligent or well-meaning cannot be successful”. We should not assume, however, that the top 10 per cent are “were it’s at” and the heck with the 90 per cent who don’t qualify.

Talent isn’t fixed, although IQ and conscientiousness are strong predictors. Just as important, talent depends on how a person is managed or led. Exceptional performance, according to Pfeffer and Sutton, happens when people work hard, have good coaching and believe they will keep getting better. We see this in many fields of endeavour: natural gifts cannot be manifested without lots of practice. It takes about 10 years of daily, deliberate practice to become a superstar, as University of Florida’s Anders Ericsson has found. Thus, leader-managers have a key role in hiring talented people and helping them become superstars.

Even creativity research supports this contention. Teresa Amabile and her colleagues in the Spring/Summer 2006 edition of the University of Toronto’s Rotman Magazine explain that people’s subjective experience at work matters as does the emotional side of their organizations. “Positive affective experience is related to outcomes such as job satisfaction and how creatively they will think on the job”. They found that when reactions to ideas are encouraging a virtuous cycle of creativity is established (and vice versa).

Albert Einstein said that “not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” Many centuries before, Plato spoke of wisdom: “knowing what you know and knowing what you don’t know”. In these complicated times in which we live, a more conscious effort by leaders in all fields to “examine the unexamined’ will help us move forward not backward.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Watching the Dance from the Balcony

“I don’t have enough time to think” is a common lament of many managers. The day-to-day realities intrude. It’s hard enough to stay on top of the “urgent-urgent” priorities let alone reflect. This is stressful because we know that sitting back and taking stock of what’s going on must be done to guide day-to-day decisions. In fact, our complex, interdependent working environments demand that we use our critical thinking hats more to tackle the messy issues that confront us.

But how can we rise above the fray? A thinking tool such a “watching the dance from the balcony” can help.

The emerging view of leadership is that it is less about power and persuasion and personality and more related to guiding a group to make progress on issues without known solutions. This requires a “birds eye” view of the “social system” that is at work: competing assumptions, values, attitudes, behaviours, knowledge about reality and interdependencies that help or hinder moving forward.

One way for a leader-manager to “get a grip” on this is by going to the balcony every once in a while to view the situation as a whole. Sample questions to ask include:
What’s going on here?
What patterns am I seeing?
What assumptions might not be right?
Who is influencing whom?
What further digging do we need to do to get at the “truth” of the reality we face?
How are we managing the emotional environment (the key resistance to change)?

Better still, ask the group the same questions. It will help everyone develop a higher order of wisdom bringing each person’s attention and focus to the issues and interactions that matter.

This going back and forth between the balcony and the dance floor, as Ronald Heifetz of Harvard University explains, is THE single most important tool for leaders anywhere to master. It is an invitation for people to get “out of their minds” to “think about their thinking”.

In our busy working lives, this does not take much time. It is no different than building in more exercise to our days to have more energy and alertness each moment.

Monday, May 15, 2006

"The Best Boss I Ever Had": What's the Secret?

In a chance encounter with a bank employee in the mezzanine of an aging suburban mall, I heard the same phrase for the second time in as many months and only the third time in my career—“she’s the best boss I’ve ever had.” Referring to her manager with whom my mother and I had finished a meeting moments before, I couldn’t help ask: “what does Janet do that makes her your ‘best boss’?”

My first impression over the phone should have been a clue. I had phoned someone else to make an appointment. Although polite and helpful, Pat sounded tired and flat. She could not fit into our schedule because she was going on vacation. I thought: “I think you need it!” But, she asked, “Would I be willing to meet with another staff person who was filling in for her?” to which I quickly agreed. She put me on hold. Within seconds a new voice full of energy, lightness and gaiety vibrated over the line. The appointment was made, the required papers for the meeting clarified, and a best wishes for the day mutually shared. Later, I mentioned to my mother: “I think you’ll like Janet.”

How many of us can count beyond the fingers on one hand the “best bosses” in our lives? Over a long and varied career, before I set up my own organization, I had only one. I have used the same phrase verbatim to describe him when discussing “great leadership” with my clients. What is this about?

My first meeting with Dr. Warren was, like Janet, over the phone. I was making a “pitch” for him to hire me as the first nutritionist the organization had ever had. I was only 22 years old and miserable in my current job. I had phoned several other Medical Officers of Health in and around Toronto. Unlike the others, he immediately warmed to the idea, sight unseen. The only trouble was that he had no money in the budget. But, he promised to think about it. Yeah, right!

He was a man of his word though. Unbelievably, he found money to send me back to school to do post-graduate studies, so that I would more closely meet the job’s requirements and to give him time to budget for the position. Almost two years later I landed on his doorstep to start what proved to be a rewarding, exciting and challenging job and a boss-employee partnership that resulted in a number of innovations in the organization.

How was I so lucky? I know he inspired me with his faith in my capabilities. He never let me down when the going got tough. He rarely said, “Yes, but.” He coached me on the politics of the organization. He gave me constructive feedback, even if I didn’t like it. He went to bat for me on new ideas when others weren’t so enthusiastic. I felt cared for and respected despite being a “newbie.” I believe he was the same with everyone, as he led an organization that was a leader of change in those days. I was at the right place at the right time with the right boss! To my delight, many of his innovations have stood the test of time.

Years later, my early memories come flooding back, no less in a funeral home. As I greet the crowds of people who are paying their respects for my Dad, I listen intently to their warm, funny, poignant and complimentary stories. “He was the consummate professional.” “In spite of his high profile, he made me feel welcome even though I was a ‘greenhorn’.” He had faith in me, trusted me.” “He was inclusive, a great mentor.” “He was a man of integrity and principles.” “He stood up for his staff.” “He was warm and generous.” “He was meticulous, always well-prepared.” “He was a fierce competitor not against others but against himself.” “If it was O.K with him, it was O.K.” “He set the foundation that still exists to this day.” One former employee, in particular, wanted to talk at length to me because my Dad was quite simply, “the best boss he ever had.” He left the funeral home in tears. Little did I know that I had a role model on my doorstep, but what do daughters really “get” about the jobs their fathers do? Maybe it explains my abiding interest in the subject in some unconscious way!

We met with Janet in a windowless, utilitarian room off the reception area of the bank. In person, she exuded the same vibrancy, smiling, making eye contact with each of us and graciously extending her condolences. We had no sooner gotten down to business than another staff member (the person we met later in the mall) came to the door with an urgent message. After Janet excused herself to take the phone, we knew something serious was amiss.

On her return, we learned she had moments before lost her sister-in-law to cancer. We were now in a different place---a shared experience. We offered to postpone the meeting. “No”, she said. “Let’s complete the task and then I will begin to mourn.” Such composure! But, as she worked with us, I noticed a slight tremor in her hand when she offered us a pen for signatures. Her demeanor was more subdued, yet still much more upbeat than many. Tears welled up in her eyes every once in a while. We soldiered on together.

In the mall, Iris told me why Janet was the “best boss she had ever had.” “She always has time for everyone.” “She shows respect for me.” “She listens.” “She’s great at multi-tasking.” “She takes care of us.” “She’s positive.” “We can depend on her.” “She’s a wonderful mentor.”

What is at the heart of “best boss”? I believe it is an abiding real regard for another beyond yourself and a willingness to work side-by-side (not one above the other) with a belief that something better will be created together. A “best boss” is no slacker either modeling what is expected of everyone else. At the same time, a “best boss” isn’t perfect. For example, Dr. Warren was disorganized. However, he made sure he had a well-organized team around to make up for his lack in that area.

No matter who we are, we each need support (emotional and structural), encouragement, and individualized attention to rise to the next level of our capabilities. That means not only a strong respectful relationship with our “boss” but one from which we learn.

The research supports this conclusion---how a manager relates (builds relationships) can affect up to 70% of group performance. Shall we surmise that this applies to the individuals making up the group?

That’s the secret---relating, one person at a time.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Expediters Motivate

The data continues to pour in about disengaged workforces. For the last half of the 20th century, we referred to whether an employee was “motivated” or not. Now we speak of “engagement”. Either way, the surveys say that with few exceptions (such as the most admired companies to work for), we’re doing an abysmal job of fostering the spirit of employees. This message just will not go away despite a long ago awareness by the top management of organizations that something must be done. The irony is most managers themselves are caught up in the ennui. They too could do with a boost.

Take some of the latest research. According to Gallup’s semi-annual Employment Engagement Index, about half of employees have “checked out”. In Towers Perrin’s 2005 Global Workforce Survey of 85,000 people, only 14 percent of all employees worldwide were highly engaged in their job. The number was 17 percent for Canadians. Equally as compelling, Sirota, a New York-based organization, reports that from 2001 to 2004, 85 percent of the 1.2 million employees surveyed at 52 primarily Fortune 1000 companies suffered steep declines in morale after an initial “high” of enthusiasm in the first six months of employment. Mid-career employees—those between 35 and 54 who make up approximately half the workforce in North America--- are getting a bit grumpy too. An Age Wave/Concours Group/Harris survey in June 2004 of more than 7,700 U.S. workers found that only 43 percent are passionate about their jobs. They have the lowest satisfaction rates with their immediate managers and the least confidence in top executives. Why can’t we get this right?

Decades of research from multiple sources underscores that regardless of personality, age, education, tenure or position, employees are most frequently motivated (or engaged) when they feel emotionally connected to their organizations. The fastest way to being connected is through their bosses—that relationship can make or break “motivation”. Let’s call such bosses “expediters” because they treat employees as customers, helping them to get their jobs done.

It’s not easy to be an expediter. My head spins with all the suggestions I read in the various research reports. But one that caught my attention is Jerald Salacuse’s contention is that we’re now in an era of “leading leaders”---smart, talented people who wish to be treated more like peers than employees in a command and control work environment. This requires “interest-based leadership” in which effective leaders tailor their approach in one-on-one meetings to the particular situations they face. One thing is for certain: what works is leadership “up close and personal”. This resonates with Daniel Goleman’s message about the importance of emotional intelligence for leaders or how they handle themselves and their relationships.

Deep down the design of our brain accounts for our reliance on connectedness. The open-loop nature of our limbic system which relates to our emotions means we depend a great deal on external sources to manage our emotions. There’s nothing automatically self-managing about our feelings. We are sharply attuned to our environment. People in work groups “catch” feelings from one another. Cheerfulness and warmth are more catchy than irritability. Laughter creates a spontaneous chain reaction. Leaders who are interested rather than interesting feed our brain’s need for “limbic locks”---direct emotional connections, brain to brain.

If the emotional connectedness aspect of a leader is the source of being an expediter, how does someone like our new Canadian Prime Minister stack up? I had some fun with my leadership class at McMaster University by asking the participants to rate Stephen Harper’s “motivation index” on a scale of 1 to 5 with 1 meaning “very unlikely to motivate” and 5 meaning “very likely to motivate”. They used as background information his five priorities, a range of media reports on his leadership style and Sirota’s research on motivation (see http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item.jhtml?id=5289&t=organizations&iss=y). After considerable debate and discussion, sometimes heated because of different political beliefs, the group of almost 30 seasoned managers gave Harper a 2.75 rating. Despite the recognition that he’s projecting the appearance of taking charge, the group expressed the concern that his pacesetting/commanding style may not work in the long run. His way of leading, in their assessment, does not build a positive working culture.

Fred Emery would agree. As a renowned social scientist more than 50 years ago, he noted that tightly managed organizations (most often named as bureaucracies) are the cause of individual frustration, anger, contempt and other negative feelings. He further explained that in flatter organizations where responsibility for coordination and control is located with the group of people doing the work, employees are motivated to do their best and to cooperate out of self-interest. Overall, it is a healthier, happier workplace more often characterized by mutual support and respect.

For those who like things neat and tidy, this conception of how to motivate might appear too risky, too unstructured and laissez-faire. However, the irony is that accountability and taking responsibility are more effectively self-managed when bosses position themselves humbly as leaders of leaders. Walt Whitman echoed this art of conversation as the “right voice”:

“Surely, whoever speaks to me in the right voice, him or her I shall follow.”

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Hillier's Mountain to Climb: Every Leader's Dilemma

The shadow or light of leadership beckons with each act. General Rick Hillier is battling that zone: is he right or wrong in his bold view of Canada’s role in fighting terrorism? Can he convince all the right constituents that his vision is the right one? Can he successfully climb that huge mountain to reach a new plateau toward more safety and security for the planet? It’s quite the balancing act and one which all leaders face in complex environments.

I ask the question, not to debate the answer, but to examine how a leader leads so that we see in his determination for action leadership of the “light” variety not the “dark”.

There’s no doubt that Hillier believes with great passion and certainty that Canada’s efforts in a far flung corner of the world are necessary to make life better for us as well as others. Like the United States’ Lieutenant General Russel Honore who deftly led the National Guard to work kindly and effectively with the people of New Orleans during the Katrina disaster, Hillier is a man of action on the ground shaped by years of experience. He’s been there seeing what it takes to change the world. Emboldened with that resume, his soldiers are willing to listen and learn. Add to that his visibility and accessibility. So far, Hillier has a winning formula for convincing the troops that their mission matters.

He’s also “over the store” minding operations. From what I read, Hillier has taken umbrage with spreading resources too thinly and approaching new realities with old methods. He stresses prioritizing so that the military can excel in the missions chosen at home and abroad. He’s constantly battling for the equipment and training to support the few goals not the many. He has encouraged soldiers to open up their minds to what works, to throw out what they learned if it doesn’t fit with the situation. That point was well made in Mitch Potter’s recent article for the Toronto Star. A recurrent message coming out of the heart wrenching description of his “embedded” experience this past month was that the rule book had to be thrown out with the tribal and guerilla warfare in Afghanistan. Learning on the run and crafting strategy accordingly is the nature of the new reality.

I am reminded that failed CEOs all have one thing in common: they did not get things done. Great visions, but rotten execution. We cannot accuse Hillier on poor execution. But, he’s far from reaching success. Hiller’s ultimate mountain to climb is Afghanistan’s success at resisting progress.

It is downright depressing to read of Afghanistan’s miserable history. It seems that no nation has succeeded to date in helping ordinary Afghan’s lead a peaceful co-existence within their country and with the world. It’s true with the help of the UN and NATO, much has been accomplished in 4 ½ years to suppress, investigate and incapacitate terrorists sourced out of Afghanistan. The UN and NATO are the necessary driving forces and the backbone for rebuilding the country—Hillier is a key operational leader who without them would have no hope in succeeding. Thus, collaborative leadership of all the right players is a must for successful large scale change.

But the real test is village by village change, just as change in an organization is one work group at a time. That’s where Hillier and his troops can make and perhaps are making the ultimate difference. We know from the horrific ax attack on an unsuspecting Captain Trevor Greene that the strategy is fraught with peril. However, there is no trust without nurturing relationships and for that we must give the Canadian troops under Rick Hillier an A for effort.

Finally, there is always the nagging question: how long is this going to take? In North America, we are programmed for short time horizons. We want results fast. In complex situations worthy of our attention, constant persistence does create change. But like James Collins’ use of the flywheel metaphor, it takes time. His research on good to great companies underlined the power of continued improvement and the delivery of results. Tangible accomplishments, often incremental in the early stages, help people “see and feel the build up of momentum.”

Well, Hillier has made it plain that a ten year time horizon is likely. Given the historical intractability of Afghanistan, he’s probably erred on the light side! Regardless of his accuracy on the time required, he’s still faced with a significant problem: he has not gotten the message out clearly on the tangible results accomplished to date.

Change of any sort is difficult even when it is so obviously necessary. None of us wants terrorism to grow and infect our well-being. Our confidence has been shaken by many events since 9/11 and it’s still shaky. No doubt, the intentions of the UN and NATO are noble. Our previous Liberal leadership at the federal level was convinced of the necessity for action in Afghanistan and so are the Conservatives, as Stephen Harper’s surprise visit to that country demonstrates. Such solidarity sends strong messages to us.

Now, to continue with the road ahead, we need something more to convince us that we can help in making a difference. For ordinary Canadians, the “help” might only be moral support. It’s time for Hillier to use his media savvy to communicate any and all tangible results. Hopefully, he’s already well into doing that with his troops otherwise they will be hard pressed to carry on. For the rest of us, we’d like to hear too so that we can see and feel the light not the darkness in such a monumental undertaking.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Smart Strategy, Olympian Results

The forty one per cent increase in Canada’s medals at the Olympic Games proves that smart strategy does work. No rocket science here—set the stretch goal (own the podium: finish third by getting 25 medals) but don’t just pray. Walk the talk with serious investment in the athletes. Too bad it took us so long but better late than never.

Australia woke up to the value of “strategic planning” almost 40 years ago when its athletes fell short in the 1967 Olympics. The Australian Institute of Sport is touted as a model for other countries, particularly in golf, which is now an official Olympic sport.

What did it do to get at least four times the number of golfers in the Masters in comparison to Canada? Australia deliberately tackled the issue on a number of fronts: recruit top athletes, provide them with access to top facilities and coaching, increase cash support and opportunities for getting experience and deepen the research on human performance and technology. Never let up. Learn as you go. Keep the funding flowing Presto! Significant and positive change happens.

In its wisdom, Canada took notice. In preparing for the 2006 Olympic Games, our Olympic Committee leaders adopted or intensified the modeling of Australia’s ideas, including those of other successful countries, and the rest is history. The enlightened policy of the same resources and access for both sexes paid off in spades, proving that investment in human potential without judgment can be a win-win for all.

These Olympian results---24 medals with a phenomenal showing by women---demonstrate clearly the power of leadership. With golf as a new Olympic sport, and the more focused and wise leadership mindset on what it takes to succeed, we may have the pleasure of a second Canadian winning the Masters sooner rather than later.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

When the "Vision Thing" Skipped Town

Somewhere in the multitude of Prime Minister Paul Martin’s priorities, a vision lurked. Occasionally, it would shine through, like “a new deal” for cities. Then, it would disappear among the chaos of other competing issues. Martin’s loss underscores the importance of inspiring those he serves with a clear and compelling vision and staying the course. Paul Martin succumbed to the complexity of the task.

George Bush senior made light of vision being a critical tool for an effective leader. Was he right? Time has proven otherwise. He underrated how much we look for a vision to organize the challenges that confront us. It’s no different than finding a thesis for an essay. The message must be clear and supported by the evidence! Thus, the complexity becomes less of a fog. Hope springs forth. Some possibilities may come to pass.

Take the “new deal” for cities. The wording evokes times past when, for example, U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (F.D.R.), renewed and rebuilt the American economy to pull it out of an internal war: the 1933 depression. A new deal worked then. Why not now? The times and the challenges are different. Economic development is the common thread, now as then.

Does the vision capture complexity? You bet! A new deal must address both the hard and soft challenges. Improvements to infrastructure, roads, transit and policy tools for raising money to fit local needs go hand in hand with social infrastructure opportunities. They include better day care, affordable housing and tuition, security of neighbourhoods, more attention to the needs of youth at risk and access to health care. Paul Martin could have lived off that vision perpetually and touched many of the issues that create angst among voters.

In the absence of a vision, the change agenda of other political leaders filled the void. The issues must migrate somewhere. Like water, they followed the path of least resistance, to the leaders who could package them more effectively. Now, they await being organized into an understandable framework (a vision) that resonates across boundaries and grabs the energy of people. It will not be enough to talk only of change.

Sounds simple, but it is not. The vision must be rooted in reality, addressing problems that, if eliminated or reduced, would create a more livable environment for many (in an organization, in a community). A vision of worth also stretches our minds. When our rationale selves say, “No, we can’t do this, it is impossible”, the leader says, “Yes, we can. Let’s give it a try and see what happens.” That’s when creativity steps in and people literally invent how to get there!

A vision is useless without focused action (or execution of a few major priorities). The world is awash with failed CEO’s who talked but didn’t walk. A vision must be rich with images of what could be, like Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream”. At the same time, that same leader must work hard to transform the dream into concrete benefits. We know that King’s dream continues to this day to drive us toward a better world. We do need mega-doses of patience because big dreams take time.

To be sustainable, a vision must reflect positively the soul of the deliverer: is he to be believed? Does his passion shine through, like a cause and a calling? Does it honour common purpose, or the invisible leader, as the 1940s management guru, Mary Parker Follett emphasized?

The vision must also “align” with the core beliefs and values of the leader. If they don’t, people will instinctively “smell a rat”.

Annette Simmons explains in The Six Stories You Need to Know How to Tell,
“People don’t want more information. They are up to their eyeballs in information. They want faith—in you, your goals, your success, in the story you tell. It is faith that moves mountains, not facts. Facts do not give birth to faith. Faith needs a story to sustain it---a meaningful story that inspires belief in you (the leader) and renews hope that your ideas, do indeed, offer what you promise. Genuine influence goes deeper than getting people to do what you want them to do. It means people pick up where you left off because they believe.”

I would add that facts are important or put another way, some show of the evidence (the lessons of history, sustainable “best practices”, current problems) is necessary to justify the direction. But, in the context of Simmons comments, they, the facts, have no relevance without a vision to frame them and trust in the leader’s integrity.

Therein lies the real dilemma for any leader---presenting oneself as having a soundness of character that is “integrated”. To integrate, is “to form, coordinate, or blend into a functioning or unified whole” (Webster’s Ninth English Dictionary, p. 628). This implies a self-knowledge, a world within us from which vision is shaped. In Blake’s words:

In your own Bosom, you bear your Heaven
And Earth & all you behold: tho’ it appears Without,
It is Within (Blake, 1965, p. 223).

In his research on the longevity and success of organizations in Good to Great, James Collins discovered that great companies are internally driven and externally aware. This mirrors Blake’s “take” on personal success.

Paul Martin’s demise may be a function of having his integrity driven too much by “externals” and not enough by his core—who he really is.