When Engagement Won’t Save You

Engagement is important, but it can’t solve everything…


In the world of enlightened strategic leadership, the topic of employee engagement comes up.

A lot.

But, like so many good ideas in the world ranging from fried foods to financial derivatives, it has to be taken in moderation and in context with other good things.  Why?

Well, employee engagement is, at some level, a luxury.  Sure, there’s a base level of dignified square dealing that a company has to provide to maintain its employee base.  But, the actions that go toward fostering an engaged workforce or an engaged team can be dangerous in the wrong circumstances.

What circumstances are those?

First of all, it’s very, very tough to engage yourself out of a hole. Hard situations require hard decisions made by small groups.  The best Scandinavian consensus driven managers know that when hard times hit, engagement has to take a back seat. Deciders have to decide.  If your company is failing and you are surveying your employees, maybe you aren’t focused on the right things.

Second of all, engagement activities won’t work for you if you are disingenuous about them.  You can have all the free lunches and free snack bars you want, but if people think they are being played, your engagement strategies won’t make you Google…ever!  If you are offering a free t-shirt to your employees and they are spun up about your corporate jet and ten-thousand dollar watch, engagement strategies can backfire.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, focusing on engagement as a way of ignoring your strategic elephants is a bad thing. If you go rah rah when everybody else knows you should be hunkered down, you will look like the fool.  Good work forces appreciate honesty.

And perhaps that the point here.  Employee engagement is absolutely strategic, but it won’t “win” for you any more that a fantastic marketing campaign can win without a fantastic product.  In fact, just like marketing, it can backfire on you.

If your employee engagement plan is merely a topical salve or the business equivalent of whistling past the graveyard, re-think it!

You can’t engage yourself or your company out of a hole.

The Pain Of Mourning Alone…

It’s the death you mourn alone that hurts the most.


I have to warn you up front: this one is going to read more like a philosophy statement and less like a statement on leadership or strategy than my usual posts. I hope you’ll understand.

A year or so ago, I had a conversation with a crusty, tough, absolutely stoic executive. He had completed countless restructurings, fired and hired multitudes of people, and extracted value from untold situations that others might not have been able to find. He had been through many tough times as an individual and as a professional, and I had never seen him respond with any emotion, much less sadness.

And then he told me about the death of his dog, and he crumbled. He told me what a mess he was at the death of his longtime companion, how he had been reduced to tears at even the thought of losing his pup. It was enough to make me go home and contemplate…

Without resorting to psychoanalysis of this particular case, let me just put it this way: It’s plausible to say that the most acute pain one can feel is the pain of mourning alone, the pain of not having others to share grief with. It’s the pain that nobody else can understand, because they never experienced the subjective joy that has been lost.

But why write about this on the blog of a strategy consulting firm? Good question. I’ll give you two examples of why this lonesome mourning is relevant to top-level strategists and executives. First though, let me let you in on a secret:  Senior executives have to deal with many lonely circumstances.  Understanding that executives mourn completely alone on some topics is tantamount to understanding their role in the world; to those below, the CEO looks like he has it all, but you may not know what he’s dealing with behind the scenes.

What?  No way.  You’d take a half-mil a year to be lonely any time, am I right? Well, sure.


But suppose that behind the scenes, your board or your CEO is actively working toward removing you from your position in the firm; while you’re conducting your day-to-day duties both pleasant and not, you know there’s a target on your back, and no one else does. Maybe some of you would be perfectly comfortable with having to glad-hand and present to the crowd of employees while knowing that your board or CEO is in the process of seeking your silent ouster, but some of you would not.  Either way, the emotional work required to maintain “state” duties while being silently attacked is an example of the emotional work of mourning in solitude.  That is, it’s a pain unlike any other, and part of it is that you’re experiencing that pain alone. The more you as the executive like your role and your team, the harder it will be for you to go through this alone.

In addition, the (solitary) pain for you increases the more ham-handed your board or CEO is in seeking your exit.  Having witnessed about a half-dozen botched senior executive firings from various points of view, I can tell you that there are both dignified and undignified ways to achieve a desired departure.

Which brings me to my second point.

Strategy involves big decisions including big resource moves, and sometimes, these kinds of decisions do involve putting people on islands and forcing them to deal with their plights alone.  It may be the sales leader who’s losing a territory, the executive who faces reassignment or termination, or the machine operator who now has to go from running a beloved machine to managing inventory.

All of these persons could–not necessarily will but could–have to go through their own personal mourning periods, alone, and you as a leader can recognize their losses and respect their dignity or dismiss them with no concern. Choose dignity. You never know when your executive decision has just murdered the pet of some otherwise stoic and crusty-tough player on your team, so it might be best for us to think about that when we foist change on our organizations.

This is not to say, “Don’t change.”  It’s to say, “Don’t be a jerk about it,” because you don’t know what others are going through, and—for you yourself as well as for anyone affected by your decisions—it’s the death you mourn alone that hurts the most.



What Makes a Great Company?

Enduring companies share some common traits.  How’s yours doing?


When do companies become great? When do they become bigger than the person who leads them, bigger than their stated purpose or their value to their customers?

When do organizations become enduring?

It’s a question I ponder quite a bit. After all, our firm, WGP, is explicitly focused on “enduring” performance for our clients, and that sounds all well and good, but how does it happen?

Enduring organizations come in many shapes and sizes, but the truly enduring organizations I have been around or have been a part of have a few things in common. I think endurance comes from a number of things, so my list is incomplete, but it has to be.

The first aspect is vision. Proverbs 29:18 says “Where there is no vision, the people perish…”  Think about that for a second: Thousands of years ago, a lack of vision was attached squarely to death. The same is true in modern institutions: when there is no binding vision, fragmentation occurs; people find their own vision, and institutions suffer. Vision is about a state of arrival, except you may never arrive.

The second aspect is an overt lack of self-centered leadership. These leaders are harder to find these days, but it’s not impossible.  By lack of self-centeredness, I do not mean lack of self-interest; I don’t know that a leader who is not truly self-interested can thrive in modern institutions; a commercial mindset depends on an understanding of value and trade, which involves self-interest at some level.

What I mean by self-centeredness, or rather, the lack of it, is that there’s a stage when really effective leaders realize they have “enough” power, influence, money, or responsibility, and they become sharers: They are no longer focused only on their individual goals.

An iconic story on this note for me came from the primary builder of McKinsey & Company, Marvin Bower. I never met Marvin, but I came into McKinsey when people still knew him. The story is that when Marvin Bower turned 60, he sold the shares he owned–a substantial number–back to the firm at book value.  He could have easily sold his shares for market value, but that would have forced the firm into debt.  This truly massive gesture was one of a leader who had moved on from self-centered to merely self-interested; he worried about self-centeredness and what it could do to the firm he built. In his words to that firm:

“Have we begun to think too
much about money because
we’ve got so much coming in?”
he asked. “People who make a
lot of money get to thinking
about having four homes to keep
up, or maybe they want a yacht.
If an individual consultant has
to make a professional decision
on the spot and he has too many
obligations, I worry that he is
likely to make a decision to attract
a client who shouldn’t be

Check the last few words there:  Marvin Bower worried that self-centeredness could allow a consultant to attract a client who shouldn’t be attracted.  Money is a powerful motivator, but it isn’t the only healthy focus of a business. When seeking to build, find leaders who are primed to maintain a healthy self-interest, not those that are self-centered.

The third aspect is a healthy engine for developing leaders who think critically. It is fantastically hard for institutions that have grown as personality cults or follower farms to endure. Why? Because they create workforces that are devoid, nay, avoidant of critical thinkers. And, they create “leaders” who learn to spend their time in court politics and scapegoating versus actually solving problems and capturing opportunities.

One large company I had the privilege to get to know well was built by an iconic and temperamental leader. Everyone deferred to him on every detail. The rub?  He wanted to have great leaders around him; he actually wanted the engine to develop leaders, so he invested in human resources and performance management nirvana. But he wasn’t comfortable with his people thinking on their own, so he was unable to get out of his own way. This chairman, CEO, and absolute monarch built a company that was exceptional and generally well-respected but that struggled to develop leaders under his reign.

Ironically, the business itself had exceptional leadership disciples. People were motivated, smart, and able, but they just didn’t take much initiative in true leadership instances because that was the head guy’s job.  The company, a multi-billion dollar firm in the construction services industry, was filled with leadership ability and completely devoid of leaders, which happens if you have no engine for developing leaders who think and act critically.

The fourth aspect is a deep sense of “who we are.”  The greatness of a company is backed by a culture of alignment around greatness and by great defenders of the faith in that culture. Southwest Airlines has this culture: Everyone in the company knows that quality of customer service, on-time performance, and other aspects of great are expected of them every day.

But what gets missed is that Southwest had amazingly effective spiritual leaders in Herb Kelleher and Colleen Barrett for many years. Never lacking in willingness to tell others what she thought, Colleen would very explicitly ensure that the boundaries of Southwest’s culture were clear and attended to; she defended the faith for years and years.  Enduring companies tend to have people like this–people who, without demeaning others or making it a big deal, rule with an iron fist on culture, values, and boundaries.

The fifth aspect of endurance is a healthy focus on performance. Enduring organizations understand what feeds them, and they reward it well. Yes, they even do this in the short term, and they do it well.  For instance, aggressiveness in meeting short-term financial goals can be purposeful, for, e.g., freeing enough cash to invest in new projects or to restructure to ensure new capabilities or meet new markets. Enduring organizations have strategic rationales for short-term performance that, once thresholds for survival and fair returns are met, go to more than simply meeting metrics on a scoreboard.

Which brings up a sixth and final musing on what makes enduring organizations enduring. For this, I use an old Greek proverb:

Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they will never see.

That is to say, great institutions become great when the oldest among the population act on behalf of people who they may never meet. They place investments that pay off over decades; they take a flyer here and there. Honda has its first corporate jet in the market today: It was marketed first in 2015, but the project started in the 1980s!  What kind of journey must that have been?

Separately, I had the privilege of working at a private manufacturing firm, Milliken & Company, for a while. Milliken’s corporate headquarters is situated in the midst of a beautiful arboretum, which serves as a very cool metaphor for endurance. Over the course of decades, the company’s iconic leader, Roger Milliken, played out his passion of planting trees: He planted trees whose shade he knew he would never enjoy. Such “noble” trees are a fantastic metaphor for building an enduring company.

Enduring organizations have such planters in their midst, and that’s likely what makes them great.  If you’re in a company where the old men have decided to focus their endurance on merely surviving to retirement, consider what that means: If your old men only worry about getting to their own finish line, your organization’s culture and leadership have failed.

These are only reflections from my own experience. Enduring organizations arise for many reasons, and even if just one of these aspects is not enough, a few may be. One thing is sure, however: endurance is threatened when these aspects are not there.

What do you think makes the difference?

Say Hello To Integrity Guy

Here’s to Integrity Guy.  He has integrity.  Just ask him.


This one is simple.

Integrity is important. Talking about it?  Not so much.

Let me introduce you to “Integrity Guy.” You probably know him.  Hey, he might be you.

Who is “Integrity Guy”? He’s the guy who espouses integrity in everything he does.  He has it; just ask him.

He’s the one who will be sure to say things like “we never lie or cheat.” And “act with integrity.” And “those guys have no integrity.” And the always imploring, “we have to have integrity.”

In every easy instance, he holds out his integrity as impeccable.  When the chips are down, he especially  holds out his integrity as impeccable. But you’ll never be able to tell by looking at his actions.

Have you found him yet?  He’s probably working not far from you.

Integrity Guy.

He wears integrity pants to work every day, he drives an integrity car, and he sits at an integrity desk.

And what’s wrong with that? Well, nothing… Except let me tell you a little secret about Integrity Guy:  The more he lauds his own integrity, the less he’s aware that he actually lacks it.

Yep, you got it.  “I only act with integrity” is actually a risky mantra. Why?  Because cognitive dissonance being what it is, our minds are great at twisting our desires, deeds, and deductions to fit our own view of integrity.

In other words, if Integrity Guy goes around convincing himself of his integrity (or ethics, or good looks, or any other laudable quality) by repeating it to himself, he becomes blind to the times when he falls short of his lofty self image.

I stabbed my boss in the back?  Nah, I was just telling the truth to those other folks.  I have integrity, remember?

I sold out my friend?  No, no, no, personal gain had nothing to do with it.  You forget that I have integrity.

I’m not a team player?  Well, you’d better look at the rest of the team–they don’t deserve my integrity-laden presence.

I lied to close that deal? No, it wasn’t a lie; I just knew more than the other guy.  I have integrity, don’t you know?

Integrity Guy–all he needs is a trademark.

He often sits right next to I-Never-Lie-Guy and around the corner from I-Only-Do-The-Right-Thing Guy.   His desk is adjacent to the desk of Ethics Guy as well.

When we espouse Integrity, Ethics, doing the right thing, or any other categorical imperative, we can only do so with a heart that allows us to go home each night and ask ourselves if we really lived up to our own standard.

So now let me introduce you to I-Really-Want-To-Have-Integrity-Every-Day-But-Sometimes-Fail Guy.

He’s a good friend and businessperson, and you will know him by his actions.

The Cage of Our Own Logic

Logical simplicity is a cage that holds the strategist captive.


So many of us want to “optimize” ourselves, our companies, our careers, our families.  We want to find the thing that will allow our success (that one degree, that one tool…) and build on it.  Or, we want to find the thing that holds us back (a particular bias, a person in our organization) and eliminate it.

We want to optimize, but we want it to be simple.  As a matter of fact, the more senior we get in business, the more “simple” we tend to want things.  We want to ensure we can boil things down to a root cause and fix it, but we also want to be able to take really complex ideas like “how to transform a company” or “how to engage a workforce” and turn them into pithy phrases, like “be the change you wish to see in the world.”

In other words, and unfortunately, the more senior we get, we choose to avoid getting into the weeds of issues, and decide to skim the tops of them. In the process, we start to accept “simple.” Simple is, in almost any strategic context, insufficient.  In the big leagues of business strategy, the simple ideas played out years ago.

Simple is some other guy’s luxury. When we start to accept simple, we lose the fortitude to push to simple’s sophisticated cousin:  Synthesized.

Now, wait a minute, you might say. Synthesized vs. simple?  are we splitting hairs?

No.  Let me show you why.

Imagine your strategic issue as a birdcage constructed of wire. Your goal is to ensure a sound birdcage…to keep birds in. So, what do you do?  You examine the wire, right?

Wrong.  You examine the cage.  The unit of analysis was never the wire.

But, far, far too often, strategic analyses within complex organizations take the shape of examining the wire.  They focus in on a single tool or system (like an HR system or a Six Sigma curriculum) as the salvation, and fail to acknowledge (or in the best cases pay only lip service to) the integrity of the system overall.

Simplicity (we’re going to fix our HR system) takes the place of synthesis (we must have an easy organization to work with).

So, why the rant on this topic?  Easy:  We have to stop looking at the simple answers as though they are easy, and the systematic answers as though they are hard.  Many hundreds of millions of dollars have been wasted on consultants, advisers, and project teams installing the latest ERP system because doing so was the “simple/easy” answer.  Simple/easy is pretty darn hard when it’s un-tethered from overall strategy.

The answer to strategy that involves examining the wire vs. the birdcage will always be easier; and is often quite logical in a vacuum.  Go install tool.  Go look at market.  Go make an acquisition.  All are perfectly logical.  All make good, simple sense.  All are destined to fail if pursued alone.

It’s not the logic of the wire itself that makes a birdcage sound.  It’s the soundness of the alignment of the many wires that comprise the cage.  We must, in other words, not let the logical focus on a single, simple “solution” take our eyes away from the broad strategic intent we are implementing.  Many, many smart people fall into this trap.

A sound strategist can’t mistake logical simplicity for strategic synthesis.  In doing so, the logical simplicity becomes a cage, but it’s a cage that holds the strategist captive.


What Is A Leader, Really?

In a world dominated by prescriptions and pithy sayings about how to be a good leader, sometimes you only need to act to be a leader.


What is a good model of leadership?  Quick, tell me. Strengths based? Fear based? Skill based? Self leadership? Team leadership?  Enterprise leadership? Level 5 leadership?

I’m reminded today that sometimes, the key to leadership is not to find your leadership “model” but instead to simply practice leadership. In other words, I can describe to you what a level 5 leader is, but I can’t really teach you how to become one; you have to act on that yourself.

For the record, “level 5 leaders” come in a few different flavors.  I’ve always been partial to the John Maxwell definition:  People follow you because of who you are and what you represent.

After countless discussions with hundreds of people in management, rank and file, and executive roles, I can boil leadership down to one thing:  Action.  Leaders take action.  Now, they might take action to prevent someone else from making a mistake, but such an action is still action. Sales leaders find ways to sell. HR leaders find ways to enable organizational effectiveness. Research leaders drive action toward breakthroughs.  Action is the common thread.

But what often passes for action is actually position.  Calling a meeting is certainly an action, but it isn’t capital “A” Action; it’s merely an act of position or power.  Leadership, like the prime mover on a locomotive, is about action that compels others to action.

So what brings this to mind?

For years, I have been fascinated by a couple of guys who call themselves Team Hoyt.  Dick and Rick Hoyt have completed more than 1,100 endurance races together since 1977, including dozens of marathons and 6 Ironman distance triathlons.

The catch?

Rick is a quadriplegic with cerebral palsy and Dick is his dad.   One day, Rick told his dad that he wanted to run a race, and Dick obliged, pushing Rick for 5 miles to come in second to last.  Rick told Dick he enjoyed racing, and the rest is history. Here is your link, see for yourself.

What model of leadership do Dick and Rick Hoyt represent?  I’d argue it’s one of action.  Personally, and as a father, I get breathless watching this father’s dedication to his son’s enjoyment.

Dick took Rick’s motivation and made it his own.  He became the engine for decades of amazing feats.  He is the model of action that I think many leaders miss out on, carrying someone less capable but feeding off of the act of service and the enjoyment it brings.

In our own lives, we may read all the books we want on leadership and take all the advice we can get on the topic, and I’m all for that. But we may also make all the excuses possible about how our team wasn’t skilled enough or we missed out on the right hire. We might also just be frustrated with our organizations, but none of that will get you anywhere.

We talk about servant leaders, but we rarely talk about servant competitors.  Dick Hoyt is one, and you and I can be, too. Just find the inspiration you can find, and use it to put yourself in action.