Friday, December 31, 2010

Accepting fear will allow you to move foward in your business

My father was visiting over the holidays and reminiscing about his days as a Navy pilot. Being eighty eight years old and a WWII veteran, he is part of a small and shrinking group of men and women who came of age during a time of war.

As a carrier pilot in the Pacific theater, my father had to learn how to manage his fear. He describes his first carrier landing as the most terrifying experience of his life; one he recalls vividly today. There are no heroic images in his recollection, only feelings of paralyzing fear and disbelief. Is it really possible to land a plane on what appeared to be a “matchbook bobbing and weaving" on the surface of the ocean?

When his wheels first hit the deck and the arresting wires grabbed the tail hook, he realized it was possible; he had made it. His fear transformed into belief and the elation of accomplishment took over.  He said: “Once I admitted to myself that I was terrified, a sense of relief overcame me and I believed I could do it.”

Many executives don’t like to admit they are afraid. Instead of managing their fear, they pretend it doesn’t exist. Unfortunately, this denial prevents them from taking important and decisive action; they never “land the plane!"

Not landing the plane includes among other things: sticking with a strategy that is successful today, when all indications point to it failing tomorrow, keeping quiet on a point of principle to avoid “ruffling feathers,” waiting too long to admit to a mistake, and delaying action on popular yet poor performing executives. Any of these mistakes can cause your leadership to “crash into the ocean.”
Admit to yourself that you are afraid. Even better, admit to someone else you trust and respect. Accepting fear is managing fear. It allows you to make the tough calls, move your business forward, and bring the plane in safely.

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Career Ladder

My latest article in Supply Chain Quarterly Magazine. Cick on one of the icons above or go to my profile to print/download or share. Enjoy!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Accept Reality---and do something about it....

In Dickens’ famous story, A Christmas Carol, Scrooge must face his past, present, and future.  As he travels through his life, we experience a story of scornful failure followed by undeniable redemption.  We see early on that Scrooge has lost touch with what really matters; because he has accepted a cynical world view, he is left old, alone, and bitter.

During his time with the Spirit of Christmas Present, Scrooge is confronted by two of the most intense characters in the story.  When the Spirit opens up his cloak, sitting at his feet are two dirty and frightened children; the boy’s name is Ignorance and the girl’s is Want.  When queried by Scrooge, the Spirit provides some clear direction: “Beware of them both and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.  Deny it!”

While up to interpretation, it appears that from the Spirit's viewpoint ignorance and denial are two sides of the same coin.  If you deny reality and claim ignorance, suffering is a certainty.  For anyone in business, this advice should resonate loudly.  

The business world is strewn with the bodies of leaders who chose to deny reality and paid the price.  We all want to hear good news. We don’t like the trouble and emotional angst that comes with problems.  However, not facing reality can cost you dearly.  Competitors that are underestimated will eat your lunch; under-performing executives left in place hurt morale; questionable ethics that aren’t challenged have painful consequences.

However, even Scrooge found redemption! By facing the impact of his denial and ignorance, his spirit rose from the ashes.  It is never too late to ask the tough question and to challenge your own actions.  This is what great business leaders do and their companies thrive.  

The good news is we can all learn from Scrooge. 

By accepting reality and doing something about it we can achieve great things.  

Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Common Sense---a (business) notion that has been around for a long time...

Ben Franklin often spoke of common sense with such notable quotes as "If you would be wealthy, think about saving as well as getting” and “Creditors have better memories than debtors." 

Ben’s practical approach to life was admired by many and certainly has much to teach us about executive leadership.

In business, complexity is the enemy of common sense. When business ideas are allowed to flourish in the form of highly complicated and confusing concepts, common sense is often a casualty. Complexity hides basic truths and we don’t have to look very far to find examples

Senior executives must constantly be on guard for ideas that are too hard to explain, are expressed with emotion rather than logic, and are pitched with certainty, often by individuals convinced of their superior intellect.  “Trust me on this one, I completely understand the issues.”   To ensure common sense prevails you should:
o     Ask pointed questions and listen carefully.  Questions are almost always more useful than statements.  Poor listening is behind many bad decisions.

o     Encourage aggressive debate and give your team permission to engage in conflict when considering important decisions.  Let them know it is okay to “get into it”, notwithstanding personal attacks.

o    Seek input from diverse sources both within and external to your organization. Check out your thinking with those you trust to tell you the unvarnished truth. 

o    Recognize the natural role your emotions play in decision making. Emotions can override judgment; learn to question your emotions.

In business, common sense is an important litmus test for good decision making.  By asking questions like, “Does the idea pass the reasonableness test?"  

Would I do this with my own money?  
Can the idea be expressed simply?  
Is it supported by facts? 

These are the kind of questions Ben would likely ask.  

We would all do well to heed his wisdom; it is as relevant today as it was 250 years ago.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Comfort Zones

“Past performance is no guarantee of future results.” This disclaimer is no doubt familiar to anyone who has ever invested in a mutual fund. When I saw this disclaimer the other day, I thought about my clients and the discussion we often have about Comfort Zones. I've also written an article* devoted to this important concept published in the November (2010) issue of the Supply Chain Quarterly Magazine.

You likely arrived in your current position on the back of some real assets, like your ability to get into the details or make quick, effective judgments. Now let’s assume your responsibilities significantly increase. Perhaps you’ve become the CEO of a much larger company or the president of a global division with international range and scope. Will doing what you’ve always done, in the same way be a successful strategy now? Most likely, the answer is no. You need to avoid the trap of falling back into your comfort zones. To do this, you must be self aware and willing to adjust your approach.

As responsibilities increase with your changing role, it’s easy to confuse a strength with a liability. This is especially true under pressure. Behavior that may have served you well in the past may not be appropriate in your new higher level position. When you lead from the top you must work through a team of senior leaders who represent you, extend your reach and give you leverage. The behavior you want to rely upon to lead senior officers is different (in important ways) from the leadership behavior you used when you were one of those senior officers. This is probably the number one cause of CEO failure and there are examples of this in the business press every day.

This “Comfort Zone Trap” is not just a bad habit. It can be a fatal flaw. As you evaluate your own leadership style, you might look for this trap as a real opportunity to improve. 

*Read my article:  Are Supply Chain Leaders Ready for the Top?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

In Business, You Get What You Expect

Clients sometimes say to me, “this organization is just too political.” At times it gets more specific, “that guy is a political animal."   With some folks there is resignation:  “I’m no good at politics; I need to get out of here!”  Politics are considered frustrating and counter-productive, which is often true.

In the business context, the word “politics” certainly has its negative connotations.  It stirs up images of the “yes man” (or woman), the “back stabber” (driven out of control by ambition), and the individual that says one thing and does another.  Why does anyone put up with this?  

The answer is simple:  You can’t avoid it. 

Anyone with kids has seen this play out from the earliest years.  Our twins were keeping score when they we two years old.  If you complimented one, you were neglecting the other.  At two they were competing for power in very simple and effective ways.

A business leader is expected to bring in the best talent, create a high performing organization, and hit the numbers.  In the “thrust and parry” of competition, there will be winners and losers.  No matter what, politics will be hovering around. 
So what should a leader do?  It is all about keeping it simple and clearly communicating your values.

People will model your behavior.  If want to minimize the impact of politics, be clear about what’s important.

Here is a simple exercise.  

Write down on a sheet of paper a single word you associate with a “political” organization. It should reflect behavior you have seen with your people.  Then come up with its opposite.

For example:

Negative                     Positive

BS                                Straight Talk

Showboat                    Team Player

Blame                          Accountability

Following this example you would simply, concisely, and frequently communicate to your organization that you value and expect: Straight Talk, Team work, and Accountability. In every interaction, you would consciously model these behaviors.  With the passage of time, the values will become second nature; most employees will be able to name and describe them. 

With all of the management theory and programs available regarding “culture change,” it's easy to forget the simple fact that really do you get what you expect!  If you want to minimize the negative effects of Politics, be clear about your values. Your folks will appreciate it.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Why Should Anyone Trust Your Vision?

I recently commented on a post (11/3/10) by John Kotter--Harvard Business Review Blogger: Why Should Anyone Trust Your Vision.  He brings up an interesting point about how and why leaders now need to engage their people in the decision-making process, to get their buy-in, in order to get the job (of change) done. I thought I'd share my comment here on my Blog:


Thanks for bring up this issue. No doubt, getting multi-levels of the organization deeply involved in developing and debating the "vision" (and most other things for that matter) is THE way to go. I've seen it drive great results as a corporate officer and now as an executive coach. However, I would like to address another dimension of the breakdown of trust. If I assume that the same top management team who was in place during the debacle is the team in place now, it is time to "own up". Nothing much matters if they don't. When we were young, most of us were taught to "own up to our mistakes and learn from them." This simple axiom must be embraced for any leader who wants genuine credibility. So, what is the implication? The leadership team in charge during the “great decline” needs to take visible ownership for mistakes made and ask the rest of the organization to do the same. It might start with this simple statement: "We blew it. We made assumptions that were flawed and lost sight of our values. We forgot what made us great and were seduced by short term gains. Now we need to focus on the solution and ask that all of you play a role in returning our company to greatness." Now, talk is cheap. The action that follows this admission must address the right issues and involve the entire organization. I see all too often that the insecurities (egos) of top leaders prevent them from seeing reality. They forget about the power of empathy. They forget to ask, “If I were one of these employees, would I trust this leadership team?” This is simple stuff, but it separates the great leaders from everyone else. 

Be sure to read John Kotter's complete post at:

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Executive Challenge: Bouncing Back

The Executive Challenge: Bouncing Back

Bouncing Back

Most of us can remember a time from our childhoods when we failed. Maybe we lost in the final round of the spelling bee, forgot our lines in the school play, or cost our team the championship game. At the time, those failures felt devastating and in some ways they were. However, most of us learned early on that failure is essential to winning.

As adults, we often forget this simple yet powerful lesson. In the business world, we are trained to despise failure, and for good reason. It can cost you dearly. However, since failure is unavoidable, we must develop the fortitude to learn from it, even if it turns our stomach. Like many things in life, the idea is counter intuitive. By learning to accept failure, we actually set ourselves up to win.

The ability to fail, feel the sting, learn from the experience and bounce back is a hallmark of great leaders. Call it compulsive but great leaders analyze a failure down to its smallest components. In the search for something positive, and to alleviate the pain, they dissect the miss in search of any grain of insight that can make the glass half full.

Bouncing back and learning from mistakes is an acquired skill. Most of us aren’t born with this ability; we learn from our experience. Great leaders remind themselves of the lessons learned at the knees of their parents, grandparents, teachers, and other influential people in their lives. Most important, they remind their people of this simple truth: bouncing back is actually bouncing forward.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Keeping it Simple---Simplicity is a Competitive Weapon

Business leaders often talk about the need to simplify.  Complexity can be like a mutant cell reproducing rapidly and absorbing everything in its path.   Things get so complicated that dense power point slide presentations, exceedingly long meetings, and complex vocabulary proliferate.

Of course, at the deepest level, complexity exists in everything around us.  Even single celled amoebas, some of the most basic life forms, are rather complex critters.   However, when most of us learned about them in elementary school, we didn’t need to comprehend their every physical process to explain what made them so unique.  While sitting in biology class and bored out of my mind, I even took notice of the teacher’s simple message:  “amoebas are single cell animals that reproduce without sex.  Now that’s memorable!

In today’s business environment, it’s become more difficult to “get to the point” amid the onslaught of complex ideas and concepts. 

What to do?  

Business leaders must impress upon their people that simplification is a way of life; it is an expectation.  This requires instilling core beliefs like, ‘simple isn’t dumber, it’s smarter.”  Most importantly, senior leaders must “walk the talk” by demonstrating this skill themselves. 

Simplicity creates velocity.  

Simple ideas can be communicated and acted on more quickly.  They are less prone to misinterpretation and encourage inclusion by ensuring more people comprehend the idea.  Simplicity creates more passion, commitment, and achievement. 

Executives that value simplicity can be heard saying things like:

“What is your key point in one or two sentences?

“No more PowerPoint, tell me in one or two typed pages!”

“How would you describe this concept to a child?"

Simplicity is a competitive weapon.  

Companies that value simplicity move faster than those that don’t.  

Embrace simplicity and great business results will follow.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Bracketing: A critical executive leadership skill

On June 6, 1944 General Eisenhower had spent the last two days agonizing over the inclement weather that was putting the largest invasion in history in peril.  By waiting for optimal weather conditions, he would lose the advantage of surprise.  The Germans would be able to develop a line of defense and build up their forces. Worst of all allied troops, who had been anxiously awaiting the call to attack, would be forced to linger; morale would certainly suffer.

However, by attacking now the storm and fog could significantly disrupt all air and sea operations.  Eisenhower could end up failing on a monumental scale.  We all know what happened, Ike gave the go-ahead and the rest is history.  He addressed his officers calmly and confidently saying, “I am quite positive we must give the order. I don’t like it, but there it is….”

Imagine the stress and the real fear that Eisenhower was managing. How could anyone facing these potential consequences maintain composure and appear confident when so much was on the line? 

The answer is found in a key leadership skill called “Bracketing.” Bracketing is the ability to put tough feelings and emotions aside, knowing that you will return to them at the appropriate time.  It allows you to focus on the moment and maintain your composure even when your “insides” are troubled.  It doesn’t deny feelings; rather, it allows you to manage them appropriately.

As a business leader, you must be able to bracket your emotions.  If not, your emotions will get the better of you; your critical thinking abilities will be negatively impacted.  More importantly, those around you will become confused as they witness that your facial expressions, body language, and demeanor seemingly are disconnected from your words.  They will be distracted wondering what is wrong with you and your message will be lost.

Bracketing takes practice. Prior to addressing an individual or group, spend a moment to consider your emotional state.  What is really going on?  If you are feeling angry, stressed, tired, or distracted, accept it.  Then, imagine putting these emotions on a shelf you will return to later.  Ask someone you know and trust to observe you and provide feedback on your performance.  

Eisenhower believed that great leaders aren’t born, they are made.   One of the leadership skills he employed was bracketing.  Eisenhower was able to hone this skill so effectively that, even under the most trying of circumstances, he was able to instill faith and confidence in those under his command; and, in so doing, changed the course of history. 

Friday, October 15, 2010

Getting Past the "But We Already Tried That" Response - my comment to a post by John Kotter on his Blog on (Harvard Business Review)

Getting Past the "But We Already Tried That" response is fantastic piece by John Kotter on the Harvard Business Review HR Blog this month and (this is how I commented directly to him on the blog on10.14.10) this is a great example of how execution can get bogged down.  

Another variation of this "block" is to say, "great idea lets study this issue in more depth and get Joe, Bill, and Mary's opinion. Then you can bring it back to us and we can discuss it again."  This delay strategy often has the same effect as an outright block and can be harder to counter because it is disguised as prudent and thoughtful.  

In either case, it can be effective to  immediately establish what YOU AND THIS GENTLEMAN BOTH AGREE ON.  Then, invest some time offline to resolve the issue. This reduces defensiveness, establishes common values, and protects what might be fragile egos.  

It might go something like this:  "Joe, thanks for your thoughts.  They are really helpful.  Do you agree that it made sense to at least explore this idea because of its potential to drive productivity?  Okay, so I would really appreciate the opportunity to meet with you after this meeting to discuss the issue further.  Are you open to investing some time?  Great, I know we both want to improve this business."  

Now if Joe doesn't agree with the basic need to vet this idea, try another more general outcome, like, " I know we both want to see this business improve."  There are times when a little diplomacy can go a long way.

You and your team have been wrestling with the problem of increasing efficiencies without a big budget to make it happen. You've been authorized to look at every aspect of the process. One particularly enterprising young woman on your team has found that a complicated safety inspection procedure that was put in place fifteen years ago is no longer necessary because the parts that required inspection no longer exist in the product now being produced. And yet workers are holding up the production for the required amount of time in order to get sign-offs anyway.  Great! Simple! We get rid of this inspection process for parts that don't exist and increase productivity by 15%!

Not so fast.
When you bring this insight to the management committee, one grizzled fellow says, "That won't work. We tried that five years ago and the lawyers wouldn't let us take it out of the subcontract." Now, this particular grizzled fellow is used to having his words taken as law. Everyone defers to him because he has been around a long time, is in a position of power, and knows a lot about the ins and outs of the critical and complicated production paths.

What do you do?

Certainly you could try to argue your point, but you don't have all the facts of what actually happened five years ago and past experience has shown that arguing with this fellow can be a dangerous activity.

The basic comeback for "We tried that already and it didn't work" is to say something like: "That's a good point, but that was then and this is today. You know, things change. They always do, for all companies everywhere. We don't make the exact same products. Our customers are changing" [or other basic, clear, facts that illustrate how things have changed]. "I'll make a call to the lawyers today, just to be safe" [if you haven't already done so, which you may have] "and if there's a problem with doing this now, we'll try to solve it and get right back to you. But we need the 15%, right? So unless the lawyers scream, why don't we agree now to go forward with the plan. I mean, it really is a terrific idea."

You must
never get sucked into the black hole of "what happened 5 years ago." He may have more facts than you do, and make you look as if you didn't do your homework. (Of course it's always a good idea, as part of your preparation, to learn about earlier similar efforts and why they didn't work out.) The real danger, though, is getting drawn into a distracting conversation that goes on to the point where the idea is put aside because you've run out of time on the agenda. Or that the ensuing discussion either bores or confuses people so that they give up and lose interest.

"We already tried that" is one of the familiar attacks I've seen many times over the years. Be prepared for it, and mold your response to your own particular situation. What are some of the variations on this attack that you have seen?

John Kotter

From a leadership perspective, Exxon can't hang with Apple...

It is noteworthy that Apple's success has been propelled--even during a deep economic downturn-- by a relentless focus on providing highly distinctive products that consumers don't yet know they need. Once they have them, they can't live without them.This speaks to marketing and innovation savvy that is rivaled by few if an other companies, US or foreign. On the other hand, Exxon's market cap has benefited largely due to the surge in oil prices. No doubt, Exxon is capitalizing on the smart bets it made a decade ago. However, from a leadership perspective, Exxon can't hang with Apple. In Exxon's case you have an undifferentiated product that is driven by supply and demand. In Apple's case value is created by truly "changing the game" in its market space. If Exxon were like Apple, it would be innovating aggressively on (and away) from its core product which is under siege on all fronts.
In response to Patricia Sellers' "Postcards" Blog post on 10.13.10 (on Fortune/
by Patricia Sellers
This morning, as Apple (AAPL) shares neared $300, a Postcards reader, gslusher, weighed in on a post that Jessica Shambora, my Fortune colleague, wrote in October 2009 about the world's largest stock-market capitalizations. Amazing to see how Apple, in less than a year, has vaulted just behind Exxon Mobil (XOM)...on its way to be THE most valuable company?
1. Exxon Mobil $329.44 billion
2. Apple $272.73 billion
3. Microsoft (MSFT) $214.87 billion
4. Wal-Mart (WMT) $196.08 billion

If one wants to be "global," put PetroChina above Microsoft at $232.42 billion.

To think this all started with two guys building computers in a garage...

Friday, October 8, 2010

Remember the power of your silence

I was at the NSC conference in San Diego last week and someone approached me with a question regarding the critically important skill of listening. It seems this executive has been struggling with this skill herself and has noticed that her team has the same challenge.  In her case, she was courageous enough to describe a costly mistake that she personally attributed to poor listening. 

“It is hard to listen when your lips are moving.”  Many of us were lucky enough to hear these words of wisdom (or something close to them) early in our careers.  They speak directly to the all important issue of listening. Listening is without question the most important leadership skill and it should represent +80% of your communication.

When some senior executives think about communication, they have visions of standing at the podium for the big meeting or presenting to the board, financial analysts, or any number of other important groups.  In these forums, the executive’s speaking abilities are showcased. “Wow she can really captivate the crowd” or “He can really think on his feet”.  These are great compliments; but there are better ones like: “she asks great questions” or “he listens to my every word and makes me feel like I’m the most important person in the world”.

Great leaders recognize the power of their silence.  They live to ask good questions and listen intently.  They also understand the deep impact listening has on every individual they encounter.  They know that great listening defines great leadership.

Listening skills can be learned.  They relate closely to understanding and honoring your role as a leader.  Great leaders are great coaches.  A leader’s role is to help the team get to the best answer…not come up with the answer.  When the leader forgets this, you can be assured that lips are moving more than they should.  Unintentionally, the leader has abandoned being a coach and in the process, confused his/her people.

You can read books, look at videos, go to seminars and use other learning aids to improve your listening skills.  Here is another simple tactic.  When your lips are moving, ask yourself if you are being a player or a coach and remember the power of your silence.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Approval vs. Respect

In the The Tao Te Ching, roughly translatable as The Book of the Way and its Virtue (written around 600 BC),  Taoist sage Laozi dispenses a simple bit of wisdom: “Care about people's approval and you will be their prisoner.”  These are strong words about a human tendency we all need to guard against.

In business, we sometimes forget that respect is much more important than approval. There is a kid inside all of us and when someone in authority or influence approves of us, we feel good.  Perhaps we made a good decision or hit an important goal.  That is human, positive, and understandable.

Unfortunately approval can also be addictive.  In an attempt to get that “approval rush,” some executives find themselves looking for ways to “score points” with those around them.  It becomes their singular purpose.

While this approval seeking may reduce insecurity, it actually results in a loss of power.  External approval becomes the only way to feel good; plans, actions, and decisions become consciously or unconsciously biased towards securing that approval.  High stress situations usually make this tendency worse.

Respect is different.  Respect is about having the internal fortitude to feel good about your leadership, even when others in power positions disagree with you.  It is about being held in high regard because of your innate abilities, overall track record, and courage.  It is paradoxical that when you stop caring about approval, respect often increases.

Approval seeking is normal.  It has been with all of us since we were children. Don’t underestimate its allure; it can creep in unnoticed and brutal honesty is the only antidote. 

By questioning your motivations regarding a given course of action, and testing your true objectives against real business priorities, you can avoid the “approval trap.”   By doing so you'll be able to stand behind all of your decisions--regardless of what others may think-- because that is what true leadership is all about!

To your success,