Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Global Leadership: Grit and Persistence

On 29 Ocotober I did a blog entry on the importance of persistence to success.  In it I highlighted Angela Lee Duckworth's research and work.

Just last Friday Professor Michael Roberto highlighted some additional recent published work on this subject this time focusing on how children succeed.  The author, Paul Tough, ultimately argues we aren't doing enough to encourage this quality in children.  Professor Roberto argues it's also true in adolescents and adults,.

Professor Michael Roberto's Blog: The Power of Grit: Paul Tough has written a thought-provoking new book titled, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character .  

Monday, November 19, 2012

Leaders Don't Need to Add to the Excitement

In times of stress and uncertainty, staff need calm, confident leaders.  They don't need leaders who "add to the excitement" by emphasizing the urgency or criticality or the risk and uncertainty the organization faces.

This was certainly true in a military context where risk and danger are inherently part of daily life, whether  in garrison or deployed.  I found it was also true in the private sector.  There are a number of things that evoke stress in the private sector workforce.  Poor business results, reductions in force, projects that are overdue and/or over budget, mergers and acquisitions and reorganizations all have the power to paralyze a workforce.  Workers seldom need to be reminded of the seriousness or urgency of a challenge.

What they do need is calm, confident leaders who are open, honest and keep them informed.  Silence in times of stress can be just as corrosive to morale as emphasizing the urgency of a situation.  Everyone wants to be in control and some of the situations I've described above can make them feel out of control.  They look to a leader to help guide them through the uncertainty and turbulence,  even if the outcome isn't in their favor.  Keeping people informed when the rumors are swirling is especially important.  Staff will make up a story to fill an information vacuum based on prior experience or fragmentary data.  De-bunking rumors can become a full time job.

A leader cannot over-communicate in times of stress and change.

Friday, November 16, 2012

"The truth springs from arguments amongst friends"

The truth springs from arguments amongst friends-David Hume

Sometimes I think there is a mistaken belief that collaboration is all positive energy....visions of people enthusiastically building off each other's contribution to achieve some breakthrough solution.
More often, breakthrough solutions are the result of the creative tension that comes from disagreement.

Tom Crouch's biography of  Wilbur and Orville Wright, The Bishop's Boys iillustrates this point vividly.  He describes their journey to master manned flight in great detail.  His description of their search for a solution to propeller design is illuminating.  He quotes from an article they later published:

"With the machine moving forward, the air flying backward, the propellers turning sidewise, and nothing standing still, it seemed impossible to find a starting point from which to trace the various simultaneous reactions.  Contemplation of it was confusing.  After long arguments we often found ourselves in the ludicrous position of each having been converted to the other's side, with no more agreement than when the discussion started"

A witness to the discussions described them.  Crouch quotes Charlie Taylor "Both boys had tempers.  They would shout at one another something terrible.  I don't think they really got mad, but they sure got awfully hot."  

Crouch summarizes:  "The arguments that shocked Charlie in fact allowed them to explore every facet of a problem.  Their ability to defend a point of view with real passion, while at the same time listening to the other fellow's opinion, was an essential part of the process."

What does this story mean to a leader?  I think there are a couple of lessons.  One is disagreement among a team on complex issues is a good thing.  In fact, on a well constructed diverse team it should be expected.  When I was leading teams, if we closed down too quickly in agreement on a complex issue I intentionally kept it open.  Closing down too quickly is a warning sign you may have not fully explored every facet of a problem.  My blog of 15 October highlights the use of Devil's Advocates in this role.  Another lesson is that showing emotion and passion on an issue isn't to be discouraged...it's to be expected.    My last point, is the importance of the ability to respect the other person and listen, even when emotions are running high.

It's the leader's role to orchestrate the balance between agreement and disagreement, to tolerate the tension that emerges from passionate disagreement, and to ensure all points of view are aired respectfully.  Great teams are not characterized by a lack of conflict.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Global Leadership "Every time you walk past a mistake, you have just set a new standard"

I'm not sure when or where I picked this truism up...clearly it was in the Army at some point.  There are a couple of important messages embedded in that slogan..

One is that what you do is more important than what you say as a leader.  In many organizations, leader development is so good that just about everyone says the right things.  Staff, however, watch a leader's behavior to determine what they really intend to enforce. If you tell everyone that wearing of Personal Protective Equipment(PPE) is mandatory, yet walk past someone not wearing a hard hat or reflective vest and don't say anything, your actions have just set a new standard...wearing PPE isn't important.  If you see someone smoking in a designated non-smoking area and don't say anything, you have just set a new standard.  If a driver gets in a vehicle on company property and doesn't fasten their seat belt and you see it and don't say anything, you have just set a new standard.

A second point is that first line leaders play a primary role in work-place safety.  Yes, Health and Safety professionals play a role, and yes, compliance with regulations is important and yes, senior leaders show their commitment by personal involvement....all of that is true enough..  However front-line leaders are most likely to see mistakes and make the on-the-spot correction and enforce standards.

A final point is staff don't go around looking for ways to avoid standards.  They get in a hurry, they have multiple priorities, they've taken shortcuts before and nothing bad happened so they take them again.

Being the "standards police" isn't the most fun part of being a leader but it is part of looking out for the welfare of those you lead. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Culture Change-"Act Your Way Into Being"

Long ago I became an adherent of systems thinking. One of the fundamentals of systems thinking is that "structure drives behavior".  The iceberg metaphor is often used to understand those structures that are both visible in an organization and those that are invisible..."below the water line".  I used this model some months ago when writing about diversity.  I offer it again in a slightly different context
In systems thinking theory, behavior follows these structures, both those above and below the water line.  Let's take organizational reporting lines as an example.  The reporting lines structure driver is basically  that the person who does your annual performance appraisal and determines your salary and bonus heavily influences your behavior.  Those reporting lines can be configured to optimize a function, or a region or a global strategic business unit.   Many global organizations try to mitigate optimizing one way or the other by creating a "hard" reporting line as well as a "dotted" line...just another example of a structure.  Likewise an organization's values..."honesty, integrity, respect for people" as examples, are drivers of behavior.  The process of resource flows...people and money...also drive behavior.  I'll not go through every element of the iceberg...just summarize by saying that systems thinkers believe that behaviours are driven by by those structures both above and below the water line.

When it comes to those things below the water line, I've come to believe there is more of a dynamic relationship between behaviors and structures.  It's just as important to behave your way into thinking differently as it is to think your way into behaving differently....to act your way into being.

The US Army of the early 1980's was in the midst of a huge transformation.  It had gone from a draftee Army to an all volunteer force; from an all male force to one with both men and women; it was on the way to recovery from drug and race problems that plagued it in the 1970's.  In addition, there was a new doctrine and strategy that called for changes to organizational structures, equipment, training and ways of leading.  One vestige of the "old Army" was the attitude towards alcohol.  Drinking at lunch in moderation was acceptable and 25 cent drinks at Friday night happy hours were common. Alcohol offenses were not condoned but handled at a local level with no career consequences.  Gen John Wickham, the then Chief of Staff of the US Army, realized the Army was no longer the domain of single men living in barracks and male career officers and non-commissioned officers but necessarily more family oriented.  He set out to change that attitude towards alcohol.  He chose to change the behavior and the above the water line structure, in order to change the underlying structure.  "One strike and you're out" became the standard for officer alcohol related offenses, discounted drinks at Army facilities were halted, drinking during duty hours was banned and to reinforce this behaviour, he severely punished a well regarded general officer early in the campaign to reinforce acceptable behavior.   Over time, those stories, norms and unwritten rules became the drivers....but he started with the behavior.

What's this mean to a leader?  It means you have to do both things.  Yes, you have to change the underlying structure to get lasting change but that can take a long time. You can influence the speed at which this takes place by expressing and reinforcing the desired behavior in the short term.  As examples changing behaviors related to Safety, Graft and Corruption and the proper balance between Deliver of Results and Values can be immediate.  Over time those changed behaviors will become the underlying structure.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Performance conversations: "Most Leaders are Wimps"

Not long ago I was having a conversation with a very experienced senior executive coach.  We were discussing common issues, one of which was a leader's unwillingness to confront under-performance.  As he said "I can't believe how wimpy so many leaders are".  For my international readers, "wimp" is a slang American English term used to describe a timid, cowardly or unadventurous person.

There's a recent Harvard Business Review blog with data to support this observation.  Over the last two years they have surveyed over 5400 upper level managers in the US, Europe, Latin America and Asia-Pacific.  46% of those surveyed are rated as "Too Little" when it comes to "Holds people accountable-Firm when they don't deliver".   As they say:

 "Remarkably, the result holds up no matter how you slice the data — by ratings from bosses, peers, or even subordinates. It holds up for C-level executives compared to directors and middle managers. It is about the same in different cultures too; although accountability is a bit more common in some countries than others, it is still the most neglected behavior within every region we have studied."

If I go back to the "Delivers Results, Values" matrix I introduced last week it would suggest there are a lot of people in the lower right hand corner of the matrix...Low Delivery, High Values.  It also might suggest why it is managers are so reluctant to confront the High Delivery, Low Values leader in the upper left quadrant....high delivery leaders are so rare it no one wants to really know the "how", even if they are suspicious of the means to achieve the result.

The HBR authors hypothesize a number of reasons this may occur.  In the end, no matter what the reason it leads to overall business under-performance and mediocrity.  In their words:

"The unfortunate consequence, however, is that no matter what short-term costs an upwardly ambitious manager avoids by not playing the sheriff, they are overshadowed in the long run by the creation of a culture of mediocrity and lackluster organizational performance. Add this up over time and across departments and business units and the aggregate costs of neglecting accountability can be staggering for everyone"

This is the time of year when many annual performance conversations take place.  In the best companies... the winners.... leaders will have the tough performance conversation.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

In Flanders Fields: Remembrance Day and Veteran's Day

When I was living in The Netherlands, my wife and I took the short drive to Ypres, Belgium to observe Remembrance Day ceremonies there on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month...the moment in 1918 when World War I officially ended.

The ceremonies honor the more than 300,000 British Commonwealth soldiers who died in the five major battles that took place in the Flanders fields nearby.  The ceremony itself is conducted under the Menin Gate, located at the east edge of the city at the beginning of the road that took Allied soldiers to the front.

On this gate are inscribed the names of 54,896 commonwealth soldiers who perished in nearby battles and whose bodies were never identified or found.  Another 34,984 names of the missing are inscribed in the nearby Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing.  Each Spring during planting season, many of their remains emerge in the nearby fields, 94 years after the fighting stopped.

After a parade of military representatives of commonwealth nations and appropriate remarks, red paper poppies are released through an opening at the top of the gate while a bagpiper band plays "Amazing Grace".  Watching those poppies drift slowly in the autumn wind to the haunting notes of that hymn remain one of the most moving moments of my life.

Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae of the Canadian Forces wrote the poem "In Flanders Fields" in 1915.  It had long been observed that red poppies seemed to grow over soldiers graves.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Lt Col John McCrae-1915

Florence Green, the last surviving veteran of World War I passed away in February of this year.  No matter what you may call it, on this day, Remembrance Day in some countries, Veterans Day in others, let us all remember the sacrifices of those who have selflessly answered the call and those who continue to do so.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Global Leadership: Values and how you treat people

"When you  are with your people, they will treat the product as you say.  When you are not with them, they will treat the product as you treat them".  Sign in Kansas City Ford Assembly plant circa 1999.

I saw this sign on a benchmarking visit with some other Shell Executives as we were exploring how best-in-class organizations shared successful practices.  I think the quote is especially relevant to those in global roles, primarily because almost by definition, you are not "with them" as they go about their daily tasks.

Yesterday, I introduced the Delivery vs Values matrix.  I've also seen it referred to as the "What gets done" vs "How it gets done" matrix.  Most businesses have well developed metrics, tools and reporting systems that provide routine data on what gets done...the degree to which business targets are being achieved and commitments are being kept.  There are seldom as many feedback mechanisms on how things are getting done...the values piece. That means the leader has to be especially pro-active to make sure he understands the "how".  The 360 evaluation, with anonymous feedback from peers, subordinates and managers is one such tool. 
Doing it annually in conjunction with the performance appraisal is one successful practice I've seen.  Some companies have an employee survey than can also be an important source of data when used properly.  A poor safety record or spike in recordable safety incidents is also often a sign of a leadership problem.  It's almost axiomatic that a well led organization is a safe one...and vice versa.  Excessive employee turnover or sudden departure of key staff is another cause for inquiry.  Good HR staff are usually very capable of conducting exit interviews with departing staff and debriefing the leader on the outcomes.  It's also almost axiomatic that people don't quit jobs, they quit supervisors.  Site visits can also be an important data point.  If the local manager appears anxious when you engage with his direct reports or insists on absolute control of the agenda, where you visit and who you talk to....alarm bells should go off.  Informal social events help inform what the overall working climate is.

To be clear, I'm not suggesting a leader "go looking for trouble" or that any of the indicators I've listed above are sure-fire indicators of a problem....but they are signs that a leader needs to dig a little deeper into the work environment..  I am suggesting that most systems don't automatically provide the leader with all the data they need to come to an informed conclusion on how things are getting done...if the organization's values are being supported as results are delivered.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Global Leadership: Managing Performance-Delivery vs Values

One of the difficult challenges facing a leader is evaluating the performance of his direct reports.  In my experience there are two big dimensions to be considered .  One is  delivery....did the person deliver the results promised?  Second,  does the person lead consistent with the organization's  values?

When Jack Welch was CEO at GE, he had a simple framework to help him think through some of his more difficult people issues.  He described it in his 1991 annual report and it is further described in Noel Tichy's book, The Leadership Engine.  Tichy covers it in his section on "Edge"...  the ability to see reality and act on it.  It's not new and not complicated but I've used this framework a lot in talent conversations.

A 2X2 matrix showing these dimensions looks something like the one below.  Delivery is on the vertical axis, values on the horizontal.

 Welch placed his direct reports in one of the four quadrants.  The upper right, those who deliver and do so consistent with your values, are easy.  They have a bright future and should be sponsored for advancement.  Likewise, the lower left quadrant is easy but unpleasant....they must be moved on.  On the lower right are those who operate within our values but just don't deliver.  They deserve a second chance and a thoughtful but direct "how can I help?" conversation. They may need executive coaching, skill development, practice, resources, supporting talent...even a lateral change in assignment. They have to move at some point to the upper right quadrant.  You can't indefinitely carry good people who lead in the right way, but just can't get it done.  The urgency of the need to improve results to be part of the "how can I help?" conversation.

I think the most difficult quadrant is the upper left..."Delivers Results, Low Values".  As Tichy says: "This is the individual who typically forces performance out of people, rather than inspires it:  the autocrat, the big shot, the tyrant.  Too often, all of us have looked the other way, tolerated these managers because 'they always deliver'....on the short term."

Because it's so difficult, you don't have to look far to see how prevalent tolerating "High Delivery, Low Values" is.   From financial services scandals, to rampant college football recruiting and improper payment violations, to military officer misconduct... we see evidence every day.  My final two points are great leaders don't tolerate low values performance. They don't look the other way.  They ask questions when they know something isn't quite right.  They pay attention to employee surveys and do 360 evaluations when their instincts tell them something is wrong.
The last point is the low values leader is always exposed eventually.  It may come out after they depart or sadly, after they have been promoted, but it always comes out.   That's when the "If you knew about this, why didn't you do something?" questions start.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Global Leadership-Recognition and The Personal Touch

Last week I had the pleasure of re-visiting an organization for which I had previously exercised leadership accountability.   It was really pleasant to see so many people who are as much friends as they are former working colleagues.

During that visit a woman who had been a direct report of mine at one time told a story of how I had written her a short, encouraging note at a particularly difficult time.  The business she supported was making the transition from an autonomous country operation to a regionally-aligned global one; it was in the midst of a major acquisition; and it was growing dramatically through organic investment.  She had her hands full and was doing a fine job managing all the tensions that came with that kind of business turbulence.  After a series of site visits, I wrote her a short encouraging handwritten  "you're doing good, stay after it, call me if you need more help" kind of note.

Last week, she shared with others around the lunch table how much that note had meant at a particularly difficult time....an old fashioned hand-written note that she posted with a stick pin over her computer screen.  It became a source of encouragement for her during a difficult time.  She's been promoted since then and undoubtedly will several more times in her career.

The purpose of blogging on this subject isn't to promote what a great leader I was.  It's to reinforce that the personal touch is an important part of leadership.  For me it took the form of a simple handwritten note in that case. There is something tangible and personal about a handwritten note that doesn't come through on email or a phone call.

Too often we think only of tangible rewards that accompany recognition...monetary awards, or time off or off-site celebratory activities.  Clearly those things have their place in the portfolio of reward tools in leader's kit bag.  However, a full kit bag includes the personal touch and can be far more impactful than any tangible reward. The colleague who got that note from me is still telling stories about it almost five years after the event.  

Friday, November 2, 2012

Global Leadership: Developing Leaders who can balance Global and Local

Leaders in global enterprises often find themselves in the middle....caught between global initiatives that often involve standardization....and local customized practices that work in a specific country or line of business.  Some of my earliest blogs covered several dimensions of the globalization, standardization, customization dilemmas leaders face.  The blogs of 13, 14, 15, 16, 20 and 21 March all explore the challenges in some detail.  If you haven't had a chance to read those, it might be worthwhile to spend a few minutes doing so. 

In this blog I intend to address how it is leaders develop the skills to deal with those dilemmas.  At the heart of it is the leader must be able to both amplify messages going up the hierarchy and rationalize messages coming down the hierarchy.  By that I mean that leader in the middle...somewhere between the field and the corporate center.... needs to be an articulate spokesman to the corporate for the challenges of local implementation AND an articulate spokesman of the corporate benefits of standardization.

So how does the leader develop the ability to sort out the natural resistance to change from legitimate concerns?  How does she acquire the ability to understand and articulate the business case for standardization?  I think the key issue is credibility with both audiences and the way that credibility is established is by service at both levels.  The leader needs to be able to say "I've been in the trenches like you...I know what it's like"  One of the most effective leaders I saw in Shell was an expert at this.  When he talked of the challenges in a refinery, everyone in the audience knew he'd been there... at 2 in the morning with a difficult, dangerous task in front of him.  You could see smiles and nods..."this guy gets it''.  Likewise, that leader in the middle needs to understand the pressures, challenges and politics of life in the corporate center.  It's all too easy to throw rocks at initiatives that are only remotely beneficial at the local level.

I believe the only real way to develop these skills is by assignments at multiple levels in the organization.  Professional development should start at the lowest levels of the organization whether it is a platoon leader in the Army, an HR manager in a refinery or a petroleum engineer in Oman.  Once leadership potential is identified then assignments should include both corporate center and field exposure and increasing levels. Stated another way, if you start out in the corporate center, you never develop a real understanding of the challenges in the field; if you spend all your time in the field you never really understand the unique and necessary challenges of the corporate center.  For those who would like to take a short-cut...travel and meetings and increasingly sophisticated technology solutions don't cut it...it's insufficient to bridge the gap.

My summary is a global company needs talent management processes that take into account an individuals background, their potential as a leader and ensures exposure at multiple levels for those destined to lead in the organization.  In addition, those aspiring to leadership roles need to understand there are mobility requirements that come with increased responsibility.  If one is to progress in the organization it's likely to demand more frequent movement of the household and the challenges that can create to family life.