Thu, Dec 5, 2013
YOU ALREADY ARE AN EXPERT IN CULTURE, RIGHT?
It is no surprise to most leaders that culture matters. Yet in the pursuit of account wins and profits it seems to get lost repeatedly. Since no business can thrive that stays exactly the same, there is always change going on. And how the leader creates and nurtures the culture dictates whether the organization will change for the better and whether the change will be sustainable. Ignore culture at your peril.
WHAT WE MEAN BY CULTURE
It is probably worthwhile to establish some minimum of definitions before diving into actual stories. Culture is these items and more:
- The unwritten rules for success that govern people’s openness with each other, collaboration or silos and more
- The great behaviors that are encouraged and the toxic ones that are tolerated
- It is the spirit that motivates people to make sacrifices or not, whether aspirational or out and out fear
- Who is celebrated, rewarded and promoted all signal and reinforce the culture
- What questions the boss asks first and most often is not lost on people
- How people come and go (selection, on-boarding, dismissal)
- Who teaches and develops people so they grow
Even a team with a great culture within a company that has a not so great culture can outperform expectations. So culture is local as well as “national (company-wide).
And a warning: I have seen very tough bosses who demand the unreasonable establish a positive culture. It is NOT about being soft or touchy feely.
CASE HISTORIES OF TOXIC CULTURES
If every leader “gets” the importance of culture, why is it that:
- A family owned business with a great brand and national distribution loses so many of its best people, has people who tell new recruits they fell like prisoners and work under constant fear with no reward to excel? Where enormous energy is expended on attacking each other? This produces a substandard, uncompetitive workforce and often worsening financial results after awhile.
- A small company in the personnel business starves it of the capital it needs for computers and information systems, refuses to invest in new clients to get off on the right foot? Then blames the people for failing to achieve stretch goals?
- A potentially industry changing health care company just getting its technology to work and winning the trust of new clients is so micro-managed that people wait to be told what to do rather than take initiative?
These companies are good at shrinking their own well-being and financials.
CASE HISTORIES WHERE CULTURE PAYS OFF
By contrast, how is it that:
- A start-up with fewer than 10 employees does the work of 20 or 30 employees, works its way through crises and has at least 4 people who act as leaders at various times, depending on the situation. The founder and his almost co-founder treat the squad as a treasured team with high expectations all around and lead by example. Meetings, such as they are, accord everyone at the table respect for their input.
- A private equity firm is able to attract the best and brightest stars from bigger, more prestigious firms and win deals with ceos who could have their pick of financial sources? They are, simply stated, a better place to work and a better partner. And they are savvy and tough negotiators.
- A company doing $4mm grows to hundreds of millions in revenues and huge EBITDA and the CEO still conducts a monthly class on business himself, sometimes wearing a costume? Continually top-grades his direct reports without using fear as a motivator for performance? Recruits an outsider who is female as president and the entire senior team is enthralled and rallied rather than upset. Focuses the energy of everyone on delighting clients and beating the competition rather than on internal politics and infighting?
ANOTHER WARNING: TRANSPARENCY REIGNS
Your culture is visible to lots of people. What your people say about the company at the barbecue and other social occasions. What is evident from your communications of all sorts. And you have an alumni body no matter how small your company may be.
That’s just my view. What’s yours?
IF YOU WANT MORE ON THIS TOPIC, LISTEN IN TO JIM BLASINGAME’S DISCUSSION OF THIS TOPIC ON SMALL BUSINESS ADVOCATE RADIO SHOW. FIND HIM AT Small Business Advocate
Sun, Nov 3, 2013
THE IMPRESSION YOU MAKE
You make an impression on your boss every time you show up. What will she say about you afterward? What do you want her/him to say?
One of my C-suite clients asked me if there were a book to read on managing upward for direct reports of the CEO. If you know of a really good one, please let me know. There are two videos on Youtube that should stimulate your thinking. One is by Wilymanager:
The other is by leadership professor Todd Dewett:
THOUGHTS FROM A LEADERSHIP COACH
But the question set me to thinking. What would be the table of contents for such a book or pamphlet? Here is what I asked my client (only a starter set for discussion):
That’s just my view. What’s yours?
If you like this post, tell a friend. If not, tell me.
Mon, Sep 2, 2013
THE BOTTOM LINE
Questions can be more important than answers. Good CEOs know this. Among the questions: “What don’t I know that could kill me?” And “Am I pushing too hard or not hard enough?”
BUILT INTO MUSCLE MEMORY
It is NOT that they do it every day, just periodically. Good CEOs challenge their own assumptions and their own knowledge and routinely do it to others. They also imagine scenarios beyond those for which they are planning. “What if….” is a frequent question not only to test assumptions, strategy and plans but also how the organization may have to adapt in the face of change. And peeling the artichoke back until the heart is revealed by a series of “Why?” and “Why you believe that” questions.
The very best CEOs and business owners work hard to develop a culture where it is safe for all to ask such questions, even expected.
In 1988, Richard Neustadt and Ernest May wrote: “Thinking in Time, The Use of History for Decision-Makers.” I find it is timeless (no pun intended). Do I know all I could? How could I find out what i really need to know? Is the analogy in my head a good one or flawed? Let’s decide how to think about “this” before we decide “what to do about this.”
The book is still available on Amazon.com.
That’s just my view. What’s yours?
Tue, Aug 20, 2013
High Stakes Personnel Move By CEO
Even my best CEO clients forget that ten minutes prep for a phone call is just as important as prep for a meeting when there are high stakes. There is an art to concise prep.
This week, one of my long-standing clients sent me reading material in anticipation of a phone call about an imminent high stakes personnel move…two hours before the phone call. An earliler appointment cancelled, giving me a bit less than an hour to read the materials and prepare. All I needed was 20 minutes to ask myself what this was really about, write down a list of criteria for good and bad outcomes, organizational choices beside giving the person broad and sole line authority, a list of constituents affected by the choice and some ideas about key messages.
The client presented his view, then asked for my thoughts. I asked him to do in real time what I had done in prep. The conversation was at high speed and got to a good place in short order. When he decided we were done (before the alotted time was up), he said: “You are either incredibly quick or you came to the call fully prepared. I am focused on results but there is a way to get them with far less collateral damage.”
I told him how I had prepared and for how long. He took it as a reminder for himself. Just because it is a phone call does not mean it is any less important than an actual meeting.
That’s just my experience. What’s yours?
Sun, Jul 28, 2013
THE BAD HABIT
Every once in awhile, one of my CEO clients will reveal she or he has regressed in a behavior in which they have dramatically improved over time. Sometimes it is being dictatorial when another style would get better results, sometimes it is allowing their attention to be diverted from what they know is the most important topic at the time to one of less importance (the “shiny object syndrome.” Or it may be reverting to an emotional response to a trigger they have already recognized and addressed. Why is this an issue for such smart and capable people?
THE ROOT CAUSE
In today’s New York Times, researchers Eyal ERT and Eldad Yechiam observe from playing card experiments that some people appear to be more risk-seeking but it is a nuance that drives the behavior: lack of self-control, aka inability to deny immediate gratification. They cannot resist selecting the option that gives a very large reward once in a blue moon but results in a overall loss in the longer term.
Years ago the Stanford University “marshmellow test” with longitudinal studies was used to demonstrate that children with better postponement of immediate gratification did better in life later on.
Nobody I know is perfect in this respect. The remedy must be to accept some frequency of this behavior, but to work on limiting its expression to low-stakes situations and to understand the circumstances that drive it (stress, perceived time constraints, others with whom it happens repeatedly).
That’s my view. What’s yours?
Mon, Jul 8, 2013
What happened to growth? We can’t keep increasing profit by cutting cost any more. Here is how some leaders think and what they are doing.
Exports disappointing? European business in the doldrums or worse? Domestic spending stilll sluggish and demand off? What are leaders doing about flat sales and not so great profits? Buy it or innovate it. If your pipeline has 100 ideas in various stages and if it is gated for which ideas get how much resources, you can take a breath. If you are in a position to acquire growth, perhaps ok. But if not, …..
ACTIONS BY MY CLIENTS NOW
The CEOs in my Vistage peer advisory group battened down the hatches just before the financial debacle, Today is different: taking new products to market, buying new products from small businesses, acquiring distressed competitors and — new to some — working closely with customers to find out what needs are unmet, what services costier than valued and what defects are worth curing even if the customer has to change a process as well as the supplier. .
One private client is using this period of “unattractive comps” to place a few bets on new products with the earliest chance of success. And setting up a gated process in which a hundred ideas are generated throughyout the company, then subjected to gates that set milestones to stayin the game and get resources. And they are involving customers and
suppliers at various points in the process.
PUBLIC SOURCES OF INSPIRATION
Ivan Seidenberg navigated his company (verizon) through a period that could have led to being sold, shrinking or preparing to be the dominant force they are today. He expains the growth strategy in his video on youtube:
Finally, there was a good article in the HBR years ago that spoke of “profit pools:” areas adjacent to your current business where significant profits may lie. U-haul figured out that packing and moving suppliers were a profit pool and soon they made more money from these peripherals than the basic rental./
ThE BOTTOM LINE
This is no a period to be counting the pennies. Sure, look for step changes in process efficiency. But devote real effort to changes in services and products, new products and new ways to make money.
That’s just my view/. What’s yours?
Wed, Jul 3, 2013
Never have enough time for all you want to do? Putting off really important tasks because you are caught up in day-to-day problem-solving?
THE ROOT CAUSE
Leading a company is hard work, frustrating, uncertain, stressful, time-consuming, even scary at times. Why, then, do so few leaders invest in growing more time for themselves?
My experience suggests two root causes:
1. Fear of consequences of a little less micromanagement
”If I relax 10%, results (esp. earnings) will drop 20%” was actually asserted.
”If I want it done right, I have to do it myself. Or be in the middle of it.”
”No one on my team is good enough to turn loose.”
2. Attitude toward soft skills (think: behavior, motivation and culture)
”It takes too long to change behaviors. We dont have that kind of time.”
”You can’t change people. They are what they are.”
These same leaders say they have no time to reflect, to think about the future of the business. They are continuously involved in the detail, doing part of lower echelon jobs. They never have time for executive thinking, planning ahead, anticipating crises.
SOLUTIONS: “FIELD EXPERIMENTS” TO TRY
Leaders who do invest in growing their time say that leading the business is satisfying, rewarding, energizing, even fun. They view their time as something to grow, requiring a sort of farming: watering and fertilizing the crop, trying different seeds and growing techniques, leaving some areas fallow while tending others.
What do these people do to grow their time? Here are some examples (there are many more) of “field experiments” I have encouraged my clients to try and adapt to their own styles:
- Keep track of how you spend your day (do it each day for a couple of weeks). How much time are you spending in lower echelon jobs? How often do you spend your time doing deep dives (interrogating someone for all the details on a situation)?
- Do fewer deep dives yourself, teach others to do them, then ask them to do it regularly.
- Don’t go first in conversations/meetings. Find out what others think.
- Before any conversation or meeting, “count to one:” and ask yourself: what do I want the person to know, feel or want to do when it is over? what do you want to learn?
- Take some risk in off-loading more to others after discussion of desired outcomes and approaches
- Focus on successes when people make mistakes and they will want to grow instead of avoid stepping up
- Move more quickly to replace people whose intellect just isn’t enough or whose attitude is toxic to others
- Anoint someone to be your #2 and see what burden they can take off your shoulders (they can wear this hat in addition to their day job)
- Hire a #2 if there is no one qualified inside
- After giving people a chance to step up, move more quickly to remove those who are slow to act, reward those who get things done and celebrate them
- Give yourself a written homework assignment, then discuss it with your most trusted, respected team member: My Job As Boss (what must I do/lead in the next 90 days vs. what others can lead/do and keep me posted)
- Give your direct reports a written homework assignment, then discuss it and correct it for waht you believe and how much you trust each individual: “Comfort Zones:Pyramid” (what topics or decvisions should go in each category from the top to the bottom, from the boss does it to I do it but need the boss’ approval to I do it and do not even report it to him/her). There is a memo on this in my faves archive.
- Try to push down the pyramid as much as you can.
– Communicate what you are trying to accomplish in the next 90 days and ask people to propose a change in what they do or how they do it that would achieve the purposes sooner or with lower cost if only a policy or procedure were changed. You may be surprised.
- List the jobs you do, then regularly fire yourself from the ones that can be done reasonably well by someone else (ask yourself each morning: “what must be done today and who else can I get to do it?”)
A FINAL WORD
If this seems to you to include teaching and mentoring and developing people you are right. Excellent leaders know that people development, fostering openness, achieving alignment all take time but grow the discretionary time of the leader as well as everyone else down the line.
RESOURCES FOR MORE HELP
Jim Blasingame, the small business advocate, has a brain trust you an call on. Much of the above was subject of a radio interview with him this morning. For more help, visit him at:
Adam Bryant (New York Times, The Corner Office) often has interviews that address time choices and culture. Go to, for example (but go to earlier articles too:
That’s just my view. What’s yours? If you found this useful, please tell your friends. If you have an idea of how to make it better, tell me.