Leaders Must Say Thank You

Put simply…”Thank You” is a key part of leadership.

I’ll keep this one short.  The turkey is in the oven and all the sides are either comfortably prepared or queued appropriately.

In the midst of a holiday focused on giving thanks, I thought it apt to put in a plug for “thanks” as an element of leadership we mustn’t overlook. And, as is always appropriate when it comes to simple notions and time constraints (yes, I am actually cooking at the moment), I’m going to borrow a quote.

About 20 years ago, I stumbled upon the book Leadership Is An Art by former Herman Miller CEO Max De Pree.  Mr. De Pree’s book has been one of the foundational influences on my personal leadership vision; and I love to see it on the shelves of people I know.

But, I digress.  In the midst of the book’s preamble is a simple quote that lays out what I believe to be one of the most elegant notions of leadership in an ocean of attempts at elegant notions of leadership.  It goes like this:

“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor. That sums up the progress of an artful leader.”

I have digested this quote from many different perspectives over the years in trying to progress myself and the people I lead into a state of “artful” leadership.  It covers strategy, servanthood, obligation, and–perhaps most importantly–progress.  We never arrive.  It’s safe to say that I love this quote.

For the purpose of this post, it’s the bookends of leadership that De Pree defines that really stand out.

At the front is defining reality.  Without it, one is not a leader.  The leader’s definition of reality–where we are, where we are going, and the pressures and risks we face–is fundamental to leadership.  It establishes “we.”  It provides the touchstone for all other activity; and it’s the alpha and omega for any strategy.

It also lets those being led know that the leader is, in fact, a leader…not simply someone executing on somebody else’s vision and doing a job for a paycheck.  Just doing a job for a paycheck is the realm of high functioning managers and mercenaries. Mercenary cultures grow when leaders have no vision. Mercenary culture is incompatible with the notion of leadership as defined by Max De Pree simply because he starts it with vision–reality defined.

At the back–the last responsibility of a leader–is to say thank you.  Leadership…true leadership…is not finished until those being led have been thanked for their contribution to the effort that “we” have put forth.  Sure, thanks can come in the form of money, but I have to insist that a thank you cannot be simply monetary. Cash is necessary, but insufficient.

Thank you.  It’s integral to leadership.

As we celebrate this holiday…this season that focuses nominally on thanks, let’s focus on what it means to incorporate thanks into our leadership philosophy.

Happy Thanksgiving to my U.S. readers.  And, for all of us…let’s take De Pree’s definition of leadership to heart.

When the Core Cracks

How’s your team doing…Really?

In the world of Collegiate football, we saw an interesting lesson on team yesterday.  It goes to the notion of “Core Cracking” first put forth by longtime NBA coach Pat Riley years ago…Namely that when the core of your team cracks, you are in trouble.

The Story:

The defending national champion and erstwhile Big 10 juggernaut Ohio State Buckeyes endured their first regular season conference defeat in years yesterday.  The Buckeyes fell to the Michigan State Spartans 17 – 14 on a last minute field goal.  Close game, worthy opponent (well, worthy to all but the most insufferable Buckeyes), tough loss, great team.  Not much to argue there.

However, after the game, the team’s core cracked.  Elite Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliot attacked his coaches’ play calling acumen in the press and announced his intention to leave the school for the professional ranks.

“Honestly, this is my last game in the Shoe, I mean, there’s no chance of me coming back next year.”


“I deserve more than [12] carries. I really do. I can’t speak for the playcaller. I don’t know what was going on.”

That was followed quickly by the announcement (on Twitter, of all places) of last year’s hero quarterback, Cardale Jones, that he would not return to Ohio State.


This has resulted in some amusing posts and analysis, like this doozy from Lost Lettermen:

But, there’s more to this story.

A quick analysis

I’m not one to elevate 18 – 22 year old young men in entertainment industries to hero status.  Full stop.  That’s why you rarely see me leverage college sports in discussing leadership and strategy.  Young people are…young.  It’s clear that Elliot and Jones were both very disappointed in a tough loss; and they put their disappointment on display in some very public ways.


They also displayed a very important leading indicator of a team core that has cracked.  They brought things out of the locker room that would have best been handled inside it.

They also betrayed a more selfish focus in a very public forum than one would necessarily expect from team sport athletes and entertainers.  They showed, in moments of honesty, that it was time to move on.

To be clear, that’s fully okay.  It’s also not a team mentality.

Applications for us all

Any one of us is at any point a team member or leader. That applies to family and it applies to work.  We lead or are part of teams.

But a team isn’t just a group of people doing their jobs.  It’s a group of people doing a job.  Note the difference.

When you cultivate a group of people who focus on doing their jobs, and who focus on the paycheck that job gets them, you have only cultivated a means to an outcome.  A team, with all its implications of loyalty, leverage, and performance, is far, far more than that.

The Ohio State University has had an outstanding football program for a long time, and is really more the object of this post and not the subject.  The subject is team.  If you have a team, it has a core.  If that core cracks, you no longer have a team.

When your most senior leaders repeatedly reference their own self interests, their own careers, and their own intentions more often than those of the overall organization…Well…

Dear Strategist: Euthanize Your Gerbils

When it comes to strategy…  The first thing we do, let’s kill all the gerbils.

On the heels of an article I wrote a couple of weeks ago titled “Being Strategic Means Naming Your Elephants,” I thought it useful to go to the other end of the spectrum…

Do you ever find yourself focused on the wrong things?

It’s ok… Admit it.

Sometimes we all get focused on things that don’t really matter to our missions.  They come in the form of shiny objects or minor brush fires that we chase to either develop or quash.

An old colleague of mine once referred to such things as “gerbils.” Gerbils are small, hairy, cute, hungry, and long-tailed. In other words, gerbils are a waste of time.

And we need to euthanize as many of them as we can.

First, a little background from my own professional life

As someone who has historically kept a very full calendar, and who continues to do so today, I have an interesting means of testing where I spend my time…  I can simply look at my calendar.

A couple of years ago, while serving as an executive in a diversified firm, I did such an analysis of my time. I was able to pull my calendared time into a spreadsheet, categorize it, and look at the results. For the record–or perhaps the hall of shame in some people’s books–the analysis covered 1,943 work hours over the course of 272 days. That’s an average of 7.14 hours a day, including weekends…about 50 hours scheduled per week.

I found that a significant minority of my time was being spent on activities for a function that was outside of my own organization’s mission.  It was remarkable to see that being “helpful” and focusing on what was at any moment labeled “important” in the micro led to what an objective observer might call a dilution of mission through allocation of time available in the macro.

To be clear, I found the split of time rewarding because I was able to get things done. I was able to help people.  I was running to fire, helping where the help was needed most.

And I was probably wrong.

I shared the analysis with other key executives and with my team and quickly explained what I saw as “wrong” with my time allocation.  I then set about to do more of the things that were important to my own mission, and to do less of (or delegate) those things that were not important.

I guess you could say I set out to euthanize the gerbils in my own agenda.

But teams and corporations have gerbils, too…and that’s where this gets juicy.

Gerbils in your company

Gerbils, like the unnamed elephants that I mentioned in my previous animal-analogy post, suck the life out of your agenda.  They tend to come in the form of executive flights of fancy or risk-averse “toe in the water” efforts.  They, by definition, are:

  • Small – They generally don’t “move the needle” for the agenda they embed within.
  • Hairy – They come with risks or needs for attention that are completely out-sized to their impact.
  • Cute – For some reason, they tend to captivate attention…examples are new products that have no market or initiatives that are vain pursuits.
  • Hungry – They eat a lot of resources to execute, and those resources have a much higher return on investment when deployed elsewhere.
  • Long-tailed – This is where the gerbil analogy really takes flight–your gerbils have long tails…they last a long time…they are persistent.

With that description, are you seeing any gerbils in your company’s corporate agenda?  Perhaps it’s a new product that’s eating up time and money that should be used to grow the company elsewhere.  Maybe it’s a cautious deployment of resources in a sub-scale manner against an opportunity that management just isn’t sure about.  Maybe it’s an initiative focused on engaging employees that the employees already view as a cynical ploy.  Maybe in your company it’s the kabuki theater of strategic planning itself that is a gerbil.

You get it?  Small, Hairy, Cute, Hungry, Long-tailed…akin to worthless.

In the midst of a strategy development discussion, a leadership team of one mid-sized company found 130 strategic initiatives to place on its agenda.


It’s a rare management team that can generate much less manage 130 truly strategic initiatives.

Time to kill some gerbils.

But how?

Some of your are sitting and thinking, “Yep, I see the gerbils in my company’s agenda,” but you may be missing the point:  Gerbils exist at all levels of abstraction.  For a corporate leadership team, a gerbil could be a sub-scale acquisition millions of dollars in size but made for looks, not impact.  For a business unit leader, gerbils might be a product launch hundreds of thousands of dollars in size that is already DOA.  For an individual, it might be the waste of time on Facebook or useless blogs (not this one, others…).

Gerbils are everywhere, which is why I started with the personal anecdote.  If you can become better at finding the gerbils in your own agenda, you can get better at finding them in your company’s agenda.

All this means is that one person’s elephant is another person’s gerbil.  A circumspect leadership culture acknowledges this.  They also realize when they need help. A healthy fact base (like my calendar exercise above) can give them a start.  When it comes to corporate agendas, sometimes they simply need an outsider to help structure and organize the discussion. Sometimes they need outsiders to bring the fact base to bear.

Your mileage may vary.

In our practice at WGP, we have engaged with clients looking for structural support on their corporate and business unit agendas.  In this type of engagement, we play a challenging and facilitative role for management.  We have also engaged deeply with corporate teams and business unit teams who need a more intense and full understanding of facts and options.

In any event, a great strategist focuses on naming elephants and murdering gerbils.

May you have success in doing the same.

I would love to have your thoughts on this topic in the reply section below.



Hiring For Smarts Isn’t What You May Think It Is

Only hire people smarter than you, but know what kinds of smarts you need…

In the modern corporate environment, far too many executives are bent on taking the notion of “hiring people smarter than they are” to the extreme.  In doing so, they create talent cultures where glib, facile intellects have an advantage over specialists of all sorts; and this is a problem for strategy creation and execution.

These cultures will take an un-apprenticed person with a generalist skillset (or, in some cases, merely a strong presence) and explain away deep functional deficiencies as “flat spots” to be rounded out.  They will concurrently ignore deep specialists without the glib (and, yes, I do mean this as a pejorative–as it very much is) facade and deem them not fit for higher office due to capability deficiencies.

They make depth and breadth equal partners in talent evaluation structures, and then overweight breadth in the actual evaluation. In doing so, they cast off expert talents in favor of generalists ones.  They get it all backwards.  In spades.

Why it happens

This problem goes back to a notion whose origin is unclear to me: “Only hire people smarter than you.”  I agree with this… No, really, only hire people smarter than you!

It’s a good policy.  Sure, on its face, it’s a ridiculous notion. It’s one whose logic leaves the smartest people in the most junior roles, and a team of ignoramuses in the C-suite.

In a seminal Harvard Business Review article called Hiring For Smarts, author Justin Menkes reinforced the notion that intelligence rules. Hire for it.

But to think that way too purely misses the point.  The people you hire need to be expected to develop more depth than you have at something. That something may be as straightforward as managing your calendar or as complex as negotiating cross-border partnerships.  People who work for you don’t have to be broader than you, but they should (eventually) be deeper than you at something. They have to be smarter than you or they won’t provide you real effectiveness.

In other words, if you only hire people who look like you but who are only slightly less capable than you at everything you do, you are either (1) running an apprenticeship shop (and that’s fine), or (2) really not a good hiring manager.  If you are hiring apprentices, that’s fine, but you need to acknowledge it.  More common is reality (2).

Some common reasons for these deficiencies 

So, then, why are so many executives, even those who are otherwise avowed technocrats, failing so miserably at this by over weighting degree, background, and a glib social presence on their way to hiring generalists that have nothing special to contribute to the team?

Here are a few reasons:

  1. They cultivate a magnificently flawed hiring processes:  Without a doubt the most common reason is that hiring processes place more focus on personality and presence than capability and competence.  To be sure, rapport is important in an interview. But, capability profiles can’t be dismissed in the interest of rapport. Some firms solve this with tests, some with good cop / bad cop interviewing approaches, and still others (the world class ones) with interview approaches that are very common and calibrated to find both rapport / fit and capability.  If your hiring processes solve for glib generalists that look like mini-senior executives, then that’s what you will get.  Unfortunately, those profiles are too often the most difficult to upskill to the needs of their next job.  Like it or not, technical competence is much harder to gain in a short time than boardroom presence, and a lot easier to justify in the after action report on a bad hire.
  2. They are scared as hiring managers: The second most common reason for the misapplication of the “hiring for smarts” notion is that hiring managers are actually afraid of hiring people with more knowledge than them. They continually hire technical lightweights because they are afraid of bringing a threat to their own well being into the organization.  So, they explicitly hire for nice looking generalists who seem very smart but who lack depth.  If your hiring managers tend to be the experts at vetoing recommendations from peers who review their candidates, you might have this in action.
  3. They propagate tyrannical management practices: The third reason I’ll give is actually the extreme other end of reason 2. This one is the hiring manager who only wants things done a certain way (whether that way is good, bad, ethical, or unethical), and will hire absolute blank slates–or, simply yes man versions of themselves–to do it. These hiring manager profiles are common, and come with significant downside.  If your hiring managers pound the table against the notion of bringing in people with strong experience from elsewhere because it “won’t fit,” you might have this dynamic in place.  You also might have someone concerned that an outside expert could find the cracks in their empire. Watch out.

So What? 

The “so what” to this post is right there at the top.  Hire people for their smarts, but know what kind of smarts you need. Try the old double blind test:  If you strip out the name, education, and company names from the resume, does it still suit your needs for a sufficient and smartly deep person?

Why am I writing on this?  It may read as very “HR-centric” and perhaps outside the scope of a practice that is focused on strategy and performance.


Good teams build great strategies.

Good teams are built through great hiring and promotion practices.

And…Too often, today, so-called “great” hires are judged by their cover letter, brand names, and presences and not a thorough vetting of their C.V. and true special qualities.

I’ve yet to see a good team built exclusively from very smart generalists.  The best of teams have a strong vein of hard won experience and depth within them.  They also have a strong willingness to listen to that experience.

I write this for the CEOs and senior executives in my life and practice, but certainly these thoughts apply to anyone charged with building a team through hiring.

Hire people smarter than you.  Just make sure their smarts emerge from functional or technical depth, and you will be ok.

Good luck, and please share any thoughts you have!