6 Challenges Today’s Executives Face

Periodically, I’ll post on some of the implicit but common executive challenges I observe while carrying out my practice.  This is one of those posts…

The context of this post is simple:  I have the opportunity to work across numerous executive teams and within institutions of various sizes.  In nearly every case, individual leaders consume themselves with how different their organizations or their problems are.  I figured I’d take a moment to reflect on some of the common themes that I see leaders dealing with.  Perhaps it will strike you in a way that’s helpful.

So, here are six challenges that executives I’ve worked with face–whether they know it or not–and an accompanying quick note on ideas to overcome each of them.

The Six Challenges

1. Ego Depletion

The Challenge: We have only a limited capacity to make considered, controlled decisions.  But, many of us (you and me) have an unlimited number of decisions we could make in a given day.  Executives have a relentless access to decisions. The pace of information flow these days enables it.  If you are like me, you probably get up and check email sometime in the morning, starting the flow of decisions you must make.  You also (possibly) check email at the end of the day, and fire off a few more decisions or opinions.  In between, you’ve probably had to make decisions all day.  Such is life, but if you think about your ability to make decisions in a given day as finite, you’ll understand the concept of Ego Depletion.  You may laugh and say you know people whose egos never deplete, but still.

Ways to Overcome it:  This one is easy and hard at the same time.  Delegate choices.  Be deliberate about the scope of decisions you’ll take.  Keep your focus on the major things in your professional (and personal) life.  Know what matters to you (and, hopefully, it’s not everything).  Alsoand most critically, realize that your capacity to ponder and decide on minutiae may be exceptional, but that you–as executive–can deplete the capacities of the people around you.  Yes, you can exhaust your subordinate’s ability to make good decisions simply by placing too much focus on things that may not matter much.

2. Separating Signal and Noise 

The Challenge: We face a tremendous amount of information flow that amounts to noise in our daily professional lives. By noise I mean, literally, junk that has no meaning or implication for work or play.  Examples that executives face include internal rumors, short term changes in customer behavior, and macro-level news that people will view as significant, but whose impact is negligible on daily business.  The challenge arises when executives feel the need to justify a response or reaction to the noise.  One of my favorite momentary pastimes is to flick the “Stocks” app on my iPhone a few times a day and get a look at the headlines for the S&P 500.  Without fail, the headlines attempt to explain a 0.50% change in the market index.  It’s linked to jobs, or Greece, or some other secular trend.  It would be amusing if you didn’t actually think about the people spending their lives conjuring such headlines.  Folks, sometimes it’s just noise.  Know the difference.

Ways to Overcome it:  I’m a fan of the old Army saying “Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, and three times is enemy action.”  It’s okay to level yourself out and wait out the first bit of information as potential noise.  Practically speaking, when presented with challenging but not-yet-significant information, be willing to ask “what would make this information more than just noise?”  Know when enough is enough.

3. Making Talent Mobility an Advantage

The Challenge: In the immortal words of Billy Joel:  We Didn’t Start the Fire.  Talent mobility is not really new anymore; but the amount of information that talented people have at their fingertips has changed drastically.  What this means is that the most driven, talented individuals–usually the ones who actually know their value in the marketplace–are much more likely to vote with their feet.  This challenge is common, but it’s increasing as talented people have more and more access to inside information on both their own company and companies they might consider joining.  The implication of this challenge is that some employers will suffer mightily from adverse selection as their best employees decide to ply their trades elsewhere.  The current generation of 50 something’s may cling to the notion of loyalty as something an employer gets value from, but younger workers are starting to know better. Your cost of talent is high if you can’t engage people and propagate vision. It is infinite if you are dishonest and people catch on.

Ways to Overcome it:  In reality, talent mobility is only a challenge to companies and leaders who place limited focus on engaging and exciting people.  Companies who have great places to work will get richer because they will have a lower cost of talent.  Companies who can no longer hide their really bad workplaces will get poorer and engage in more mercenary practices to attract talented people.  Propagate a vision, engage people, know what they think.  Most of all, seek understanding. Listen.

4. Avoiding A False Sense of Disruption

The Challenge: Make no mistake some sectors are being disrupted mightily, and the challenge for executives is how to move faster.  Still, there is an unhealthy proportion of executives out there who, like Don Quixote, are out tilting at windmills when it comes to disruption.  They are looking for a disruptive fight at the expense of handling daily business.  So much ink is drained on the topic of disruption, innovation, and creativity that the average executive sees it as a panacea; when in reality–and in the average business–there is far more value in having a healthy business with solid people, processes, performance, and prospects.  True disruptive innovation takes a long time in MOST sectors.

Ways to Overcome it:  First of all, you need to know what disruption really is.  Are you truly changing the basis of competition, or are you simply selling that notion.  When it comes to disruption, be careful not to assume your sector is different in terms of the pace of change without testing the notion.  Know that investments in disruptive business models and technologies are important, and needed; but be sure to pursue them as a piece (often a small but focused piece) of a healthy business portfolio.  Saying that you are going to make a business healthy by creating the next better mousetrap ignores the history of disruption.  Avoid the false security it provides.

5. Avoiding Tyrannical Short-Termism

The Challenge: Short-termism is the opposite challenge from the “False Sense of Disruption” outlined above.  Because I see many different companies in operation, I see both of these faces show themselves. Sometimes they show themselves within the same company.  The challenge here is that executives, faced with near term earnings targets and expectations; actually underinvest in capital assets and innovative improvements to process, product, or people engagement.  They lack an emphasis on longer term, disruptive, or even incremental business model or product improvements because they can’t afford them. In reality, they can’t afford not to have them in the portfolio.

Ways to Overcome it:  A balanced portfolio is the key here.  The average executive gets this notion; but the average executive also needs someone to keep him or her honest when it comes to rationalization of investment levels in new or interesting businesses.  Typically, this challenge rears its head at the margin.  It’s in questions like “Do we really need to have that many sales people pushing our new product?” or “Does that expensive training program really need to be held this year?” Keep people close who can argue for the balanced portfolio.  Oh, and listen to them.

6. Making Strategy Flexible

The Challenge: I am approached monthly by companies that desire a way to think about strategy differently.  They want a strategy.  The biggest challenge of strategy formulation, however, is breaking through the mindset that a “strategy” is a set thing.  Set piece battles are getting increasingly rare in business (they will exist as long as privileged assets exist, but that’s a different post).  The proverbial strategy in a booklet gathering dust on the shelf is proverbial because it has happened far too often. Usually, this occurs when a strategy is built to placate senior management or a board vs. to truly inform the approach to business.  This is a continuing challenge for executives.  Strategy is not deterministic.  It is subject to random changes. It is subject to competitive moves.  It has to be adaptive.  Executives face the challenge of making it so.

Ways to Overcome it:  Strategy is a living thing.  The first way to overcome this challenge is to embrace the adage that “no plan survives contact with the enemy.”  In business it’s perhaps more polite to say “no plan survives implementation intact.”  Strategic plans are no different, so start with that in mind. Understand the boundaries within which a given strategy remains intact, and the triggers that would make a refreshed or different approach appropriate.  This is a big challenge, and one I have spent a lot of time on in the past several years.

There you have it.  Six challenges that I see as pivotal for current executives.  If I’d had more time and a better text editor, I might have made this shorter, but I hope you get the gist.

I’d love to have your thoughts.

When Jazz is Your Leadership Style…Leave the Symphony!

If you lead like a jazz artist, then trying to conform to a leadership culture that runs like a symphony might not be the best thing for you or the organization.

I was reminded last night of a fantastically prescient article written by John Clarkeson, former CEO and Chairman of The Boston Consulting Group.  It might be useful to you.

Here’s the link.

Written in 1990 and entitled Jazz vs. Symphony, the article starts with an ominous set of questions…

Is there a leadership crisis? Are we really lacking executives to lead our organizations into the twenty-first century? Or are the specifications for the job changing: should we reexamine what kinds of leaders our organizations need?

Clarkeson then goes on to compare, with compelling anecdote and imagery, the leadership styles of the past (the symphony conductor) with what he poses as the leadership style of the future (the jazz ensemble leader).

He states–in 1990 no less–that the accelerating pace of change will make room for creative leaders who don’t have all the answers and who understand the quirks, nits, and foibles of their teams without demanding that their team be functional robots.

His outline of the “Jazzy” leader and their impact on teams is excellent.  He writes:

Leaders will be in the flow, not remote. Teamwork and cooperation will increase at the expense of individual competition. Cooperative support will moderate anxiety and encourage risk-taking. Talented people will be attracted by the ability to see and influence the whole process, to learn from other knowledgeable people, and by the opportunity to create and grow.

More importantly, he gets at what leaders really must do in order to embrace the Jazz metaphor.

Leadership will flow to those whose vision can inspire the members of the team to put their best abilities at the service of the team. These leaders will create rather than demand loyalty; the best people will want to work with them. They will communicate effectively with a variety of people, and use the conflict among diverse points of view to reach new insights. They will exert influence by the values they choose to reinforce. They will make leaders of their team members.

Note those concepts:

“Leadership will flow to those whose vision can inspire…”   It doesn’t flow to those who see it as a matter of position.

“Leaders will create rather than demand loyalty…”  Loyalty is a two way street.

“They will exert influence by the values they choose to reinforce.”  In other words, stated values flow less and less from a company and from textual artifacts and more and more from the actions of its leaders (even behind closed doors).

“They will make leaders of their team members.”  Leadership comes with an imperative to develop people as much as to direct them.

Clarkeson’s concepts hit home for me because they get at the most basic question of a person’s fit within a given organization’s leadership culture.  To be sure, 25 years after the publication of this delightful article, there are still a LOT of symphonies out there.

The imperative for you and for me is to know the difference between joining a symphony and joining a jazz ensemble.   Specifically, it gets at the question of whether one can be a Jazz musician in the symphony.

And, I’m not sure.

I suspect that Duke Ellington–the giant of jazz that Clarkeson cites–could have held his own riffing with any given philharmonic orchestra. But, I doubt he would have been special.  His lasting impact on music comes from his ability to adjust, cajole, entertain, grow, and create… Not to conform.

In Clarkeson’s words:

…he would offer up a scrap of an idea, suggest in general what he wanted, and then rely on his players to take cues from each other and to fill in their parts as they thought best.

His players were good but not without equal. He knew their quirks, their gifts, their problems, and he encouraged them to learn to do things they didn’t think they could do. Some players came and went, but many stayed for years. They developed through their membership in the group, and they learned from each other. Most of all, their capacity for innovation grew as they built on their cumulative experience.

I suspect that the moment a hypothetical symphony conductor attempted to stuff Duke in a chair and cut off his avenues of creation, he would have voted with his feet.

There, my friends, is the message.  If you and I aspire to play in a symphony, so be it.  Find a symphony.  Many, many leadership cultures still look to a single conductor for “truth” and bear the scars of such approaches in terms of wasted talent and difficulty adapting to change.

If we, instead, hope to play in a jazz ensemble; then let’s find one.

I suspect there is great pain and frustration awaiting a person with a jazz philosophy who chooses to play in the symphony.  In fact, I’ll bet that when such a thing happens…It’s all about the money.

Perhaps we should reflect on two implications of Clarkeson’s article for us as individuals:

First, the article was written 25 years ago, and there are still plenty of symphony conductors out there in leadership. Change toward a jazz style is slow and you likely won’t make it happen unless you are the key leader.

Second, which follows from the first: When jazz is your thing…leave the symphony behind.

Just for fun, and in case you never had a sense of what jazz can do; I’ll leave you with a short Duke Ellington piece.


The Pornographication of Motivation and Values

Distilling motivation to dollars, penalties, or positive thinking may leave something out…

A day or so ago, I came across a post via my LinkedIn feed.  It has now disappeared, probably to protect someone’s sense of career risk.  But…

The post, entitled “Stop Living Your Life Like a Motivational Poster,”  is about how the whole motivational poster and quote industry is dangerous because it leaves out essence and authenticity while peddling positivity and motivation.  The author states:

I truly believe that to keep ignoring every emotion that does not fall into the positive category is at best unhealthy , and at worse can lead to feelings of inadequacy- that your [sic] somehow strange, not good enough, not strong and self controlled enough to ‘think yourself positive’

The post touched off a minor candle fire of discussion on LinkedIn.  And, there’s something hiding in that post for those of us working to perfect (if “perfect” is a possibility) strategic leadership.

Namely, that something is about how the insidious drive to simplify, distill, and extract the essence of motivation can leave out critical context to the detriment of individuals and organizations.

That context might just be how challenging the circumstances were for a leader whose wisdom gets distilled into a motivational witticism.   Mohandas Gandhi’s “Be the change you wish to see in the world” quote is used incessantly by folks who probably don’t understand the massive hardship Gandhi went through to have the credibility to deliver it.

Perhaps more importantly, however, the context can be the values and constructive intent that get left to the side of a motivational incentive.

But, why the link to pornography? 

So, I roped you in with a reference to porn, and now I need to make the link.  To do so, I’ll use a quotation (irony, yes, I know) from Pope John Paul II. He said:

There is no dignity when the human dimension is eliminated from the person. In short, the problem with pornography is not that it shows too much of the person, but that it shows far too little.

Did you get that?  The problem isn’t that pornography reveals too much of the context, but that it reveals too little. Removing the context removes the dignity.

That’s what you and I as strategic thinkers and leaders need to reflect on when it comes to motivating others.  Are we distilling motivational text, structures, and systems down to quotes, numbers, and dollar amounts that remove the context (and the dignity)?

In short, are we making fundamental values a transactional thing that can be priced away?

Three areas where this may matter to you and me:

While the habit of distilling away contextual values in pursuit of efficiency and impact is something to watch out for in all parts of life, I’ll reflect on three areas here that matter.

1.  Motivating your organization:

There’s a very large market for organizational motivation diagnostics and techniques.

This market will only grow as Millennials become more and more disconnected from the values and realities of the older generations who (in many cases) manage them.  If men and women are from Mars and Venus, Millenials and Baby Boomers are from different galaxies.

Practitioners refer to this area of organizational practice as “engagement,” but reality is that this is all about motivation toward the goals of the organization as a whole. Like the article I linked in the opening of this post, “engagement” techniques and programs all too often fall into the trap of trying to distill a multi-faceted, highly personalized issue down to a few pithy drivers.

This is a noble act, to be sure; because engagement does matter.  Still, these programs turn on the distiller and invariably come up with programs that get at only one or two of the fundamental things that people think about when they think about engagement.

In your organization, one person is most engaged when thinking about building the value of the organization he works within.

The next thinks primarily about impact on the customer.

Another thinks it’s all about himself.

The next thinks its about doing good for society.

Still another thinks its about her working team.

Research shows that people split evenly on these 5 factors when selecting the one that motivates them.

When you look to engage your organization, or even your immediate team; you have to factor in this diversity of drivers.  Distilling down to a focus on team building activities or greater community involvement or quotes about whether it’s “good for the customer” will only touch the tip of the iceberg.

2.  Financial incentive structures 

There has been a decades long move toward greater tying of daily activity to monetary incentives.

This trend has slowed somewhat in recent years as so-called “pay for performance” or “penalty for performance” has time and again created unintended consequences and malicious gaming from the shop floor to the c-suite.

When we distill mission critical and values-driven activities like safety or quality monitoring down to financial incentives for attainment of certain standards, we introduce a very challenging set of defining moments for our people.

By defining moments, I mean a choice between two highly conflicting fundamental values.  Do I report that safety incident and take the hit on my bonus, or do I conceal it and get paid?  Do I report the customer complaint when my customer satisfaction rating is at the threshold of my bonus payment, or do I just forget I heard it?

These are fundamental contextual issues that get lost in the distillation of motivation to a single- or even multi-point-formula.

A great and commonly cited study that gets at this particular point involves a set of day care centers in Israel.  The study found that when there were no financial penalties (and therefore no economic incentives) for leaving children beyond the day care centers’ 4pm pickup time, parents rarely were significantly late.

However, once a financial penalty for late pickup was introduced, parents were late much more frequently.

The study shows the types of unintended consequences that can happen when a financial incentive is put in that allows people to replace a moral or ethical one.

People see the price of their ethical lapses, and can judge accordingly.

If I’m a parent operating under a social contract that says 4pm is the pickup time and leaving my child any later means a teacher has to work overtime because of my lateness, I take the moral impact into account.

If the social contract is changed to a financial one, then the price I pay for my lateness is clearly outlined and transactional. The day care center makes it easy for me to forget about ethics and just pay the fine.

This is all kind of cute when it comes to a day care center.  But, imagine what happens when you place a price on values driven behavior in a safety program, or customer service, or (shudder) healthcare programs.

Price is a clear motivator.  I’m a huge fan of price–except for when the cost of inaction is priceless.

3.  The continuing emergence of aggressive short-termism

The place where distillation of context is perhaps most dangerous is in the boardroom and c-suite.  The emergence of aggressive short-termism as a de facto course of management comes directly from the pornographication of motivation.

Boards, being limited in what they can measure when it comes to the health of an organization (though less limited than most boards realize), resort to distilled measures of current profitability and cash flow.  These measures, while absolutely critical to performance, are devoid of the context necessary for the long term stewardship of capital resources.

They are indicators of current vitality (just as a patient’s pulse rate is); but they leave out important contextual risk factors (like whether the patient is a smoker, obese or anorexic, and/or exercising regularly).

Once again, price matters.  When a senior executive can look at the price of his or her action in the short term and see the financial payoff, there becomes a transactional aspect of stewardship that boards must be vigilant about.  This is particularly key when vesting structures align such that executives’ short term actions are monetized at a much greater rate than actions that affect the long term.

So what? 

I co-opted the pseudo-term “Pornographication” because, first, I think it’s a pretty amusing term; and second, because I think it says something about what can happen to an activity (whether that be sex, love, or motivation) when essential contexts are removed and only a most basic “basis of arousal” is left for consumption.

As strategic leaders, board members, and managers; we must be careful to think through the contextual consequences of distilled incentives.  The value of an enterprise depends on considered choices about some things (like safety programs or long term investment) that can only by measured by conjecture.

Watch out for the oversimplification of complex motivational issues.

Context matters.

What To Do When You Can’t Save Everyone

In times of strategic tension, change, and stress; be sure to use the strengths you have to create the value you can.

This post was inspired by some commentary on a prior post regarding strategic cost reduction efforts.  In the course of thinking through the comments I received, I realized that there is a real gap in knowledge on some of the pitfalls that come with good, honest, and necessary restructuring activities.

If you read no further, read this:  In times of really hard choices about cost reduction, leaders, particularly mid-level leaders, can become so fatigued that they stop managing for value and start managing solely to the numbers.  It’s incumbent upon all of us as executives, advisors, and leaders to watch out for these attitudes of fatigued resignation.

The Insight: 

In the lives of nearly all business leaders comes a time when hard personnel choices have to be made.  Very few leaders escape it.  Even well known, visionary growth titans like Steve Jobs (who chopped Apple to a fraction of its workforce in the 1990s) have to experience these times.

But what happens when leaders having to make such choices to preserve value instead start making them out of a sense of resignation and duty?

They stop focusing on the value remaining, and start focusing on themselves…getting their job done.

And, then you start to hear a familiar refrain used by exhausted, resigned leaders facing tough choices.

“Well, we can’t save everyone…”

In the business environment, we often use such thinking to cope with making the hardest personnel decisions.

Constraints are real, and we all face them at some point.

However, you and I have to be careful not to let a truism about not being able to save everyone mean that we harden and decide not to save anyone.  Such a tragic false dichotomy has, in my experience, reared its head far too often in organizations making hard choices; and it results in the demoralization that people associate all too often with cost cuts.

Leaders harden.

They stop coaching.

They stop caring.

They “do what they are told.” And, often, nothing more.

They stop, in other words, leading.

I have witnessed, firsthand, fantastic people leaders turn into cold, distant souls following years of having to make challenging cuts.  The stress and pressure along with the cognitive dissonance of removing livelihoods to save corporate life build until each further action comes with that lament…

“You can’t save everyone.”

Yes.  But you can try to create a valuable solution that saves someone.

Think about how to redeploy, re-think, and, above all, sell!  Be willing to stand up and look for value.

An Applicable Parable:

One of my favorite apocryphal  parables touches on this topic. It is referred to as The Boy and the Starfish.

It goes like this:

While walking along a beach, an elderly gentleman saw someone in the distance leaning down, picking something up and throwing it into the ocean.

As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, picking up starfish one by one and tossing each one gently back into the water.

He came closer still and called out, “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”

The young man paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean.”

The old man smiled, and said, “I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?”

To this, the young man replied, “The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them in, they’ll die.”

Upon hearing this, the elderly observer commented, “But, young man, do you not realise that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can’t possibly make a difference!”

The young man listened politely. Then he bent down, picked up another starfish, threw it into the back into the ocean past the breaking waves and said, “It made a difference for that one.”

The boy in the story took a bit of energy to save a few starfish from certain death.

Others thought he was doing fruitless work.

He knew he was making a difference.

So What?

Times of crisis or stress or pressure are the times we must think about how to create value the most, even in our own small corner of the world.

Other leaders may look at you and say “why bother? You can’t save everyone…”

When you face them, know that you can’t save everyone; but don’t use that as an excuse to keep from saving anyone.

I’d enjoy your thoughts and comments.

Avoid The Focus Group of One

The broader your sphere of influence, the broader your sphere of listening has to be. Don’t let conviction get in the way of listening to others.

Mature professionals listen.

But, on the path to maturity, those same professionals learn to trust their gut, rely on convictions, and assert.

This is nothing new:  You become truly effective by moving from a regime of telling to a regime of asking.  In making this shift, you learn more, you lead more, and you do more.


Many leaders who are very effective at listening to those around them make a mistake that only tends to come from the isolation that leadership brings.  They stop (or never start) listening to people who are two and three levels removed from them.

The lesson here is this:  As your sphere of influence expands, your sphere of listening must expand in kind. 

This concept is especially critical when you contemplate so-called transformational changes to your organization that can impact customers, employees, and other stakeholders.

Why?  Well, it stems from a phenomenon I’ll call the “Focus Group of One.”

A focus group is a gathering of a group of people, usually from a target demographic, intended to collect impressions about an issue, product, or strategy.

When you make assumptions about how your decisions will impact not simply those who meet with you regularly, but also those in the field, stores, plants, or factories; you can fall into the trap of using your own intuition and experience as a guide instead of collecting impressions that may differ from your own.

You use a focus group, it’s just a focus group comprised of your own experience over time–the many different “selves” from your experience–instead of a focus group of people facing the impact of your decisions here and now.

“When I was a salesperson, all I cared about was making my numbers; and I didn’t want the distraction” might be a refrain a CEO would make when deciding not to extend training to a portion of his sales force.

This can have negative consequences.

Why?  Here are a few ideas:

  • People are different – People have different wants and needs than you do, and you should beware making decisions based on what you want and need.
  • Experiences are different – People have different experiences in the field, plant, or line than a given executive might have had.  The mere fact that the executive is an executive may show that his or her experience was different (or coddled) and a bad reference case for making decisions today.
  • Your recollections change – You may forget what it was like in the field.  You may only remember the wins and forget the hard times. You also, given your experience, probably ended your time in the field pretty well.  There is a cognitive bias called peak-end bias that shows how our brains tend to remember the most intense part of an experience, and the way we left it.  We forget the run-of-the-mill times; and generally you as an executive are making decisions that affect the run of the mill.
  • You are muddled by your biases – Knowing the right thing to do and overcoming your incentives to do otherwise can be very, very challenging. If you face a defining moment that can have big impact on your organization, it might be best to listen to those impacted first.

So what?

To get out of the focus group of one, you can employ a few different methods:

Easiest is to just go and listen to folks.  That takes time, and in some organizations comes with a substantial hierarchy filter.

Next would be to listen to those closest to you on their impressions of the impact.  But, keep in mind they are biased as well.

Finally, and probably most effective, would be to send a few trusted agents into the field to gather real impressions of possible changes.  Reflect on them.  Then make the decision.

Don’t fall into the Focus Group of One trap.  Listen to those you lead.

Please share your thoughts and experiences on the impact of and how to avoid this trap.