Leadership Culture – What is Yours?

An interesting discussion this morning – how the world in which leaders are working is evolving so rapidly.  When we think about organizations, and their development, in reality we have only a few elements to work with: strategy, structure, process, people.  Figuring out how to align these elements, within the external environment that is relevant - to achieve the organization’s goals  – is what the work of leaders is all about.

Leadership culture can play a major role in establishing – and often even more important – maintaining this alignment over time.  Culture can be simply understood to be the “expected behavior;” what do I expect of others, what do others expect of me, and what do I strive to do myself.  Culture is what fills in the gaps when new things arise, when the process has not been defined.  These are increasingly the issues that leaders deal with, as the reality of internet time infiltrates every nook and cranny of organizational life.

So, have you and your team reflected on what Leadership Culture you have?  Is it the one you set out to create?  What are you doing to evolve it as the needs of your team and your organization evolve?

Ask yourself – what behavior do we expect of each other as leaders?  What do other team members and partners expect of us?  Is the reality matching those expectations?  Has the world in which we are operating changed in such a way that we need to alter our Leadership Culture to keep up?

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Strategic planning – is it outmoded?

“Why do strategic planning?  Things are just going to change, anyway!”

Improving business performance is what every executive is trying to make happen.  Busy executives are faced with the question of how to apply their scarce resources to produce this result.  Many ask – why bother with strategic planning – we will just have to throw it out when something changes, so, isn’t it a waste of time?

OK – you’ve got me here – I am going to defend the value of strategic planning – after all, that’s one of the main areas where I am working with organizations.  I wouldn’t be doing it if we don’t see real results.  We do, and you can see them, too.

Here a few things to think about, if the question about how much effort to put into strategy work is one you are weighing:

1.  “Planning” – no word seems to conjure up more confusion than this one.  For so many the word “planning” brings back bad memories of a heavyweight process, involving endless weeks of manipulating spreadsheets, Microsoft Project – or other tools that, in the end, can become so overwrought with detail and cumbersome that they are of no real use.  The end results become static, “shelf documents.”  In fact, they are rapidly outmoded and turn out to be a big waste of time.  Low return-on-effort.

The fact is that “planning” – maybe it needs to be thought of with a “little p”  – does not need to be this way at all.  What is much more appropriate for most organizations today is a lightweight process that is based on establishing adaptable decision-making guidelines.  This kind of “little-p planning” approach is based on the field of “decision-making under uncertainty.”  It is much more about putting you in the “ready position” – like in tennis – so that you are as well-positioned as possible to return the ball, based on the most likely path it will take.  This approach uses hunches as well as known patterns to create a probabalistic view of what may happen in the future.

Could other things occur – certainly.  Just as in tennis, the server can change things up and do something completely unexpected.  But, if the objective is to be better positioned than not, we know that it is possible to improve upon a “random” position through this kind of planning.

The other key component to this is “skill.”  I’ll stick with the tennis analogy – but, for those who enjoy other sports analogies, the same is true. The more strokes and plays you have in your bag – the more practiced they are – the higher level of proficiency you have – the better prepared you will be to deal with whatever comes at you.  So, the other part of ”little p planning” is to figure out which capabilities and skills you need, and make sure you are as prepared as possible.

2.  This is where the “strategic” part comes in.  How you determine which decision-making rules to consider, and which skills and capabilities you need – these are based on your “strategy.”  Strategy is the answer to the question: “How will we do this?”  It presumes you have selected a goal.  Once you have selected a goal, in fact, there are better and worse ways to go about achieving it.  Those ways constitute your “strategic alternatives.”

Many who use the term “strategy” today may not realize the origin of the word to describe the planning done by generals in military battles.  Rather than convey a vague or gauzy, futuristic kind of planning, in fact, the essence of a strategy is to be able to conceive how a series of future steps – conducted with varying levels of uncertainty – will get you to the goal.  It is specific, it is actionable.  Understanding the different scenarios, when to switch and when to stay the course – all of these are what great strategic planning in today’s dynamic and uncertain world are all about.

Rather than being an impediment to managing in today’s uncertain business climate, well-done strategic planning is a tremendous aid to improving business performance.

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Communicating the “Big Picture” More Effectively – Using the Perceiving Dimension of the MBTI®

Tim is growing more frustrated and perplexed.  The general manager of a small, growing organization, he is trying hard to communicate his strategic, Big Picture vision for the organization to his leadership team, but does not think that he is being heard.  He does not see his communication influencing his team as he expected it would, and is wondering what to do about it.

A very useful tool for improving communication is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator ®, or MBTI ®.  The MBTI creates a foundation for understanding our personality preferences, which greatly influence our behavior – in particular, how we communicate.

Having a CEO, like Tim, who is looking after the long-term opportunities and potential of the organization by focusing on and communicating a vision is a great asset to any organization.  At the same time, many of those on the management team of such a leader often spend their time – and focus their energy – in exactly the opposite corner of the spectrum.  Charged with making things happen, these leaders are often consumed with the specifics of the here-and-now.  This is natural, when you think about it, because these different styles are highly complementary, and ensure that the organization is paying attention to both the long and short term needs.

However, these differences in focus can lead to major communication problems;  the way of understanding what is important is opposite, as is the type of information that is sought out to aid in that understanding.  If you have ever been in a strategy conversation where one side is saying “but, we never have done that before,” or “sounds interesting, but we don’t know how to do that,” while the other side is saying “this is where the future is going,” “of course we have never done it before,” then you have experienced this communication disconnect.

While not always the case,  behaviors often do reflect type preferences.  In our example, the difference between the big picture thinker and the here-and-now doer could well reflect a difference of preference on the dimension of the MBTI that is call “Perceiving.”  This dimension has to do with how we take in information.  For a person with a preference for “iNtuition,” it is common to be focused on a big picture view, often based on concepts and theories.  On the other hand, a person with a preference for “Sensing” is more inclined to perceive situations based on specific data and real-life experience.

There could be many reasons why Tim’s communication is not connecting with his team.  If it turns out, through an MBTI Team analysis, that we have a significant difference in Perceiving preferences, this provides an actionable clue to help Tim communicate more effectively.  And, it’s not hard to do.  Rather than simply communicate his “big picture,” Tim needs to make the effort to connect his vision with the here-and-now reality of his team.  If he does not know how to bridge his vision to their reality – this is the perfect time to find out.

By role-modelling a willingness to listen to his team and adapt his communication style, Tim is also showing his teammates that he is open and willing to take steps to make communication work better.  This can only encourage the others to follow suit.  The great upside potential of this change in communication will be that Tim may hear new information that he never received from his team.  There is a very high liklihood that by incorporating his team’s perspectives, he can further improve his big picture vision.

As simple as this change is, it often does not occur.  Becoming aware of underlying type preferences will enable teams and their members to make simple changes that can dramatically increase communication and improve organization performance.


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Gaining Team Commitment to “Team-Building”

The most important element in capturing the team’s commitment to a team-building program is that they can see that it will benefit them or things that they care about. Managers who are thinking about doing “team building” are typically coming from one of two perspectives:

1)  Solve a problem. Often management falls back on “let’s do a team building exercise” when things are not going well, as a substitute for management digging in with the team and solving the problem. If a consultant (either internal or external) is called in to help, the first thing he/she should do is a diagnosis with the manager and the team, to determine what steps are needed.

At some point in dealing with the issue, team building exercises may be appropriate, including using MBTI or other assessment tools. But, these are not a panacea and are not a substitute for the hard work of management to diagnose and solve business issues. Rarely are they where you would most appropriately start an intervention. A team with issues needs the sessions to address the business issues directly and offer business solutions. When you do this successfully, you will find more openness to assessments, organization development sessions and the like.

2)  Improve Skills.  The second reason that team building sessions are held is to build capability. In this situation there is not an immediate issue; management is thinking they want to build the capability of the (often well-performing) team. Often this comes about as part of a planned program. So, the agenda is about improvement.

Here the key to team engagement is for the team to see that the activities will provide a benefit that they value. The way to understand this is to work with the team to see what interests the team members. So, you should do a discovery process in this case, too. Too often well-intended management-mandated training achieves only compliance because there has been no buy-in by the attendees – they see no value. Even worse, they may question why training is needed, since they are well-performing, and see it as a time-consuming distraction.

Successful engagement and commitment from the team comes down to management’s relationship and credibility with the employees. The work needs to go in for the benefit to come out. If management relationship and credibility is lacking, such that the team is resistant to the idea of the suggested team building session, the best thing to do would be to direct the training effort first to the management team, understand where the relationship with employees is lacking, and focus on improvement there.

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Why being a coach is a good investment for managers

“Coaching” is a word that is thrown around all the time in the business world.  The perspective is, generally, that “coaching” is a management style that is more welcome by employees, than, for example, telling/showing them what to do.  I’d like to explore this concept a bit more, because, the answer is not all that straightforward.  What we will explain is why coaching for performance is a great investment for managers.

First, we need to clarify what we are discussing with the term “coaching,” specifically, what is “performance coaching?”  In most management situations we are not talking about a process known as “executive coaching.”  This is generally either a remedial or developmental intervention to assist a high potential, relatively senior manager develop needed interpersonal behaviors.  This is a very specific kind of coaching, more akin to psychology, and very often delivered by trained psychologists who specialize in this discipline.  Nor are we talking about “career coaching.”  This is an important need for many employees, but one that the person’s manager may not be well suited to deliver.  Career coaching is similar to career counseling, in which the best direction for a person’s career is determined.  Like with executive coaching, often assessment instruments are used to provide guidance to the employee about his/her skills, interests and so forth.  If the employee is not in a position they enjoy, but performs well, it may be difficult for the manager to have the objective perspective that career coaching demands.  Career coaching is also best delivered through specialists.  So, there are specialized forms of coaching that are not something that a manager would routinely be expected to deliver. 

Then, what are we talking about?  Something that faces every manager every day – is “performance coaching.”  I think this is generally what is meant when the word “coaching” is used in business. Here the issue for the manager is to determine what the employee needs in order to work to his/her full potential.  This is a basic task of management.  It is the manager’s role to work with the employee to determine this, and to make sure the employee is adequately prepared to succeed in their job.

The term, “coaching,” has been adopted into the business world from sports.  Let’s look at how the word coaching is used there.  First of all, the operational manager of the team is actually called “coach.”  And, I would maintain that “performance coaching” in the manner described above is exactly the role that the coach fulfills for his/her team.  In the sports world it is clear that athletes need to both learn and drill on the basic skills, which is achieved through telling and showing approaches.  Once the basics are mastered, the athlete is also then “coached” in how to improve their performance of the basic skill, how to interpret it and how to adapt the skill in different situations.  Multiple managerial styles are used.  The “coaching style” – giving support and advice, is used alongside the basic tell/show training.  The coaches job is to integrate these styles, based on what the player needs.  Noone would suggest that a  sports coach substitute inspirational lectures for basic training, or subtle hints for an honest and direct assessment of a problem – the point is that multiple styles are necessary to develop the full potential of even the most talented player.  Read the books written by the great coaches — how to do this is what they are talking about.

In the business world, somehow,  a “coaching” style of interaction with employees (vs. “telling” or “showing”) has come to be seen as a panacea for all modes of management interaction with employees, which it is not.  This happens when we confuse the idea of being a coach – who appropriately uses different styles and approaches - with a managerial style of advice and support, often termed “coaching.”   Situational leadership  is a methodology that has been developed to guide managers through the thought process of what style of interaction an employee needs from them.  To summarize, the most effective approach is influenced both by the nature of the task and the maturity level of the employee with respect to meeting the needs of the situation at hand.  A true “coach” understands how to select the best style, and needs to work at it to get this right.  I would maintain there is no more important work that a manager can do than learning how to be an effective coach.

 It is my experience that the reason coaching by managers is not more widespread is that many managers do not understand how coaching works, and are often not trained in how to perform coaching effectively. They rightly perceive that the “coaching style” is not a panacea, and they confuse this with becoming an effective coach who uses multiple styles.  Therefore they do not coach, because they lack confidence that they will be successful in improving the performance of their employees with this approach. Most people, especially under performance pressure, resist using approaches that they are not confident how to do, or that they will work. This is why so much money is wasted on lessons to improve the golf swing, for example ;-) .  Just like it can feel better when you are standing on the tee to let your old swing rip, it can feel better to a manager to use the managerial style that is most comfortable to them, rather than focusing on what the employee really needs to perform best.

I sometimes hear the argument that coaching employees is a waste of time, that what works best is to tell people what is expected of them as clearly as possible and let them figure it out.  Why open the door to a dialogue with an employee when what matters, in the end, is just getting the job done, they argue.  The idea that you waste time improving someone’s performance through coaching makes no sense to me. If through this process the manager learns that the ability and/or desire of the employee is limiting his/her success in their current role, that is a valuable realization for both. In these cases, the win-win position is to have an honest dialogue with the employee about the situation and face up to whatever the issues are. If they cannot be resolved so that the employee can be successful in their current role, it is again a win-win situation to find a way for them to move on to something more suited to their situation and bring in someone who can excel. Conversely, if the employee improves, through your coaching, to the point that they outgrow the potential of their current job, you have the opportunity to move them to a more impactful role, grow your organization to match their growth, or, let them move on to something that will be more fulfilling. I guarantee that if the latter happens, you will have a friend and ally for life in that person who has benefitted from your coaching skills.

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Dilemmas in Implementing Change

I recently responded to this question – “What dilemmas have you faced when implementing change to a process or a system?”

Change has become a constant in organization life, due in large part to the combined elements of continuous technology change in the world outside the organization, and the intensive, continuous internal pressure for productivity improvement that characterizes global competition.  An Associated Press release today points to a problem that workers are having as the recession creates a new version of their old job – one they are no longer qualified to fill.  This is because jobs have been reconfigured to require more skills and more flexibility, in the search for higher productivity.  “There are jobs available, but the worker just has to have more skills than before,” siad Mark Tomlinson, executive director of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers.

If you are managing this kind of change in your organization, you may face the dilemma of how to make the change effective, and still retain valued members of your organization.  For this to happen, it takes individual members of the organization supporting what you want to do.  If that does not happen, the change you seek will not be as successful as you envision.  

A  perspective that might be of help to you is to think about the intrinsic motivation of the members of your organization. What is important to them?

When change is introduced in an organization, the impacts on individuals typically vary considerably. If someone is being successful the way things are now, there is an understandable skepticism about what the change may mean. While it may be, this kind of response does not necessarily reflect a selfish view — the person’s contribution to the organization is what they may be thinking about, at least at first, and their concern may emanate from not knowing whether they will perform as effectively in their redefined role (or have one). Their intrinsic motivation will have alot to do with how they see the change.

Effective change management programs figure this out as part of the planning. Sometimes the answer is not what management wants to hear. In other words, sometimes management wants to make a specific change, but it is clear that, for a significant number of other members, the proposed change is going to be difficult, or worse. This type of situation has been predominant in change efforts during the last decade, because many of them have been to implement business reengineering, downsizing, outsourcing. Most existing members in the affected part of the organization quickly figure out the personal consequences for themselves. This may not be aligned with how they want to be rewarded in their role in the organization. If this occurs with a significant number of the members – it is typically characterized as “resistance.” What then ends up happening is that the “change management” process becomes focused on how to minimize this resistance to the change, as opposed to using what has been discovered to figure out a change that fits with the intrinsic motivations of the organization members.

Management needs to be realistic in managing its change initiatives in how they will affect individual members of the organization. Understand that most are likely to be behaving very rationally from their own perspective. Naturally individuals will find others who share their perspective. If you do not address this, you will not bring these individuals along with you in your change process, no matter how well “managed” it may be.

Management needs to analyze the longer term strategic implications of change. If management decides to make significant changes that are unaligned with the intrinsic motivations of a significant number of the organization members, they must understand that they will most likely not effectively engage these individuals in the change.

The alternative is to be open to the ideas of the organization members, who may have ideas that management never considered.  Challenge them with the result you want to achieve, and use their creativity, together with your own, to collaborate in producing an even better solution — one that you may not have thought possible.


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Conflict Management – A Big Lever for Improved Performance

Many of us underestimate how big a role conflict management plays in everyday work situations.  But, if you stop to think about it for a minute, you will find that the need to manage conflict is something that occurs all the time.

If someone pops her head into your office and says: “I wonder what you think about that idea I mentioned the other day?”  – how do you respond?  Do you respond differently depending on whether you agree with the idea, or not?  This is a situation where your preferences and ability to manage conflict comes into play.

Conflict is simply defined as a condition in which the concerns of those involved in a situation differ, and appear to be incompatible.  Research has shown that each of us generally has an approach that we normally prefer to use in handling conflict — our conflict management “preference.” 

Let’s use the above example – someone pokes her head in your door to ask a question – to illustrate how this business of conflict management preference might work.  We’ll look at three different responses that might occur, from the perspective that, at this moment, you don’t agree with the idea. 

  •  Response 1:  One approach that you might have is to work toward resolving a conflict by asserting your own position.  In this case, you might respond to the question by saying:   ” I’ve been thinking about it.  In fact, I think that this other approach (the one you think might be better), might be worth considering.  Let me explain why….”
  • Response 2:  Here’s another approach – to find a compromise position.  If this were your preference, you might say:  “I’ve been thinking about how your idea would work with another idea I’ve been considering.  Here’s a way that I think we could satisfy both.”
  • Response 3:  As a third example, you might be someone who has a preference to manage conflict by accomodating  it.  Even though you don’t really think her idea is very good, you don’t have a better idea to suggest–at least for right now.  Why rock the boat if there’s not something better?  Besides, you like to cooperate whenver you don’t really feel differently.  So, you say: “It sounds good!”

So, here’s a little quiz – Which of the three responses indicates a more postitive attitude to accepting the original idea? 

Would you be surprised if it were Response 1?  It might be.  Counter-intuitively for most of us, the first response might signal a more open attitude than the other two.  This person might actually think the original idea is quite good, but is just not convinced and wants to put it to the test.  What this person may value is the opportunity to debate one idea vs. the other as a way of discovering the best one.  

The lesson?  How we manage conflict with others can as much reflect our approach, as it does the content of our ideas.  What seems like agreement may, in fact, be someone simply avoiding or accomodating conflict.  What might sound like disagreement might simply be someone who values testing ideas and has many of his own to test with.

To find out more about conflict management, visit my website.


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