The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations

Strategy without stretch will leave you stranded.


Quick one here: Name one company that is simply living to die; I can probably think of a few, but they tend to have massive regulatory overhang (tobacco companies come to mind).  Now think for a second:  What if your own company’s executive leaders told you that their strategy was to just play out the string?

Play not to get hurt?

Play prevent defense?

Focus only on risk management, not risk taking?

Collect salary and bonus instead of earning it?

What would you think?

Ok, ok, ok, for those of you who said, “I’d think I work for a bank,” I’ll give you style points.

But for the rest of you, I’d bet you’d think that there has to be something more, that there has to be more to a strategy than mere existence.  Right?

If there’s something I learned from a few years playing sports, it’s that playing not to get hurt…playing just to get through it, is in fact a great way to get hurt, and it’s also a great way to hurt those around you. Tentative players on a sports field create injuries.

Weird, isn’t it?

I’ll tell you this as well:  tentative strategies create injured companies. They also create injured careers.

I get to hear executives balance many reasons for being tentative, and they are often very good ones…in isolation. But what shouldn’t happen, can’t happen, is for a strategy to be a roll-up of tentative plans. Sure, you’ll have capabilities that aren’t ready for prime time, and you’ll hold back, but you can’t hold back everywhere all the time. I rarely see a truly tentative strategy, but when I do, it has one common theme:


Yep, that’s right…fear–leaders who are afraid to stretch themselves or their people, who are afraid to try something new.  This is either due to a cultural norm that was hammered into them or a fear of messing up a high-paying perch, but in either case, setting strategy without stretch is essentially betting on the status quo.

The world moves too fast for that; people demand too much more from their careers to stay with you while stagnating.  Your customers won’t even respect your own low expectations for yourself.

So, don’t succumb to the soft bigotry of low expectations in your professional career.

Build some stretch into your strategy.

How about you?  What do you think?  

Benchmarking – how do you measure up?

How benchmarking can leave you on the bench


A few weeks ago, my family and I took a trip to the beach. We arrived in the middle of a monsoon, so I parked quickly in an empty row and dashed into the hotel. The next morning, I looked out of the window and saw, with a mixture of amusement and embarrassment, that I had parked at a significant angle. Not only that, but five cars to the left and two to the right had done the same. My parking faux pas had changed the rules of the game.

Measuring ourselves against others is an inherent human trait, at both a personal and business level. It’s basic risk avoidance. But our choice of comparison could lead to sub-optimal decisions.

When we compare ourselves, we make assumptions. Firstly, as in the case of my parking, we assume that others know what they’re doing. They may not. For example, just because a company is the market leader, it doesn’t mean they excel at everything. They may also have made a conscious decision not to invest in an area on the basis of its perceived strategic importance. Website development for large industrial companies is a case in point.  To them,  the website is often viewed as a company intro as opposed to a key touch point and sales channel. It doesn’t mean it’s not an opportunity for others, though.

We might also be comparing ourselves with the tallest midget, meaning that the entire industry falls short.

Looking at others in the industry is not a bad thing.  It’s the basic tenet of market intelligence.  But challenging the status quo or looking outside our industry could also lead to significant opportunities.  Take Xerox Corporation, for example. Several years ago they were dissatisfied with their their order-fill rate, so they looked at online apparel retailer, L.L. Bean. Turns out they were 3 times more proficient at moving items from inventory to the customer than Xerox.  A visit to  L.L.Bean’s facility helped them understand why and take away ideas that they could replicate.  I hate to reference Apple, since it’s what everyone does, but I was intrigued to learn that their Genius Bar is apparently modeled after the Ritz Carlton’s guest service. Having recently waited 30 minutes just to pick up a new phone, I’m not entirely convinced they’ve nailed it, but they did check me in and remember my name.  No fluffy slippers or mints, though.

So next time you are scanning the horizon for comparisons, think twice about where you look and consider a different direction.

How about you…how do you think about benchmarking as a strategic tool?



Cheap and Costly Leadership

Real leadership has a cost.

What does it mean to practice sincere leadership?

It’s actually a very difficult question to ask, because the notion of leadership gets so diluted across so many different axes of meaning.  Steve Jobs was an astounding leader, and a really bad one. It just depends on which leadership lens you look at.  He was either a fantastic industrial visionary (true) or he was an awful individual leader (probably true, too).

After contemplating cases like Jobs, I think it’s fair to say that there really are two kinds of leadership…let’s call them cheap and costly leadership.

If you’ve made it this far and are of a certain persuasion, you may recognize “cheap and costly.”  That’s because I’ve stolen the notion from mid 20th century Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book The Cost of Discipleship.  In that book, Bonhoeffer outlines two kinds of grace within the Christian faith: cheap grace, which can be “sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares,” and costly grace, which “costs a man his life.”

Cheap and costly leadership are analogous.

Cheap leadership is only winning. It’s the notion of “by hook or by crook.” It’s making your numbers but not your reputation. Cheap leadership is telling people what they want to hear. It’s knowing the price but not the value.

Cheap leadership is handing out books and forwarding memes.

Costly leadership, on the other hand, is winning and building at the same time.  It’s saving something for later.  It’s investing time in both the mission and people. Costly leadership is costly because it takes time.  It’s one on one meetings that do more than check the box on some HR form.  It’s envisioning someone else’s career without doing it to serve yourself. It’s letting people go…and grow…and flourish.  It’s taking the time to think about how your decisions impact others.

Costly leadership is taking that time on a Friday evening when you are utterly exhausted to talk with your team member about his career.

Interestingly, costly leadership is also about delivering a few swift kicks and pointed corrections. Some subordinates may flock to the cheap leaders who never give them real feedback, but their careers will show it eventually.

Costly leadership is what we should aspire to. Why is it costly?  Because it doesn’t have an immediate payoff.  Because it takes time and energy that may not feel on mission.  Because it, in short dear reader, is not about you.

And that may be the final thought I’ll leave you with:  Costly leadership is about what you build, both on the financial balance sheet and the one that shows the people you’ve built up along the way.

Now, it’s your turn… How do you think about practicing costly leadership?  


About That Horse You Rode In On…

What’s your second act?


In 2001, at the time of the 9/11 attacks, it’s arguable that Delta Airlines was sitting in the best position of any other airline in the industry.  With a strong balance sheet and strong industry positioning, Delta was arguably best positioned to weather the impending shocks to air travel that 9/11 would bring.  Only the world changed even more than a strong balance sheet would cover…and Delta’s longstanding brand and culture were forced into bankruptcy.

You could call it a lack of agility.  I might call it a lack of awareness.  The company had seen many changes to airport security and customer mindsets before and was in a strong position.  Its leaders probably didn’t think they needed to change all that much…and that inertia was fatal. Delta’s leaders knew where they were, but failed to understand that how they worked would not work in the new world.

So, as for you: You may know where you are.  You might have a view of your “strategic context.” That’s usually the starting point of a solid strategic plan…assessment of where you are today. The tools are legion: SWOT, MACS, SCP, etc. etc. etc.  Call me, I’ll probably be able to name a few more.

But, strategy isn’t about the tools, it’s about knowing what you want to BE and finding out what you are going DO in order to BE that thing in the future. In other words, it’s about figuring out what the future requires and getting to it.  Having a vision for where you want (or need) to be is all the more important if the world is changing quickly.

So, if you are like the average executive, you’ve probably figured out a play that you run for success. You probably have a routine, an approach to leading people, and a default set of questions you ask…no matter the context.  And, just like the average executive, you probably really can’t figure out how to change your routine.

I’ve got bad news for you…The horse you rode in on is probably tired.

You need a new horse.

So, how do you do find it?

As an individual executive you have to find a source of renewal.  You have to be able to look at the world and try new things.  It’s not a bad thing, and it might even keep you young. That guy who won’t shut up about something new he wants to try?  He might be your key to flexing your muscles a bit.  That advisor who just might have a new idea or two, perhaps you should listen to her.

Organizations are different, and in some ways harder to cause to switch horses. Why?  Well, put simply, they are a collection of individuals.  If it’s hard to get an individual to change, then that level of difficulty is compounded in organizations.  Some executives might be energized to change at one point, while others are not…the whole organization, then, starts to look like a slow speed traffic jam…where some executives are speeding up while others are coming to a stop.

What to do? Half the battle is admitting it. The other half is being thoughtful about how much horse you really have left, and what your next horse really needs to look like.  In our practice, we take the time to listen to the context of an organization before working with our clients on the next step.  If the next step means a new horse, it’s certainly important to know the rider’s style of riding.  Otherwise, the attempt to switch horses will fail.

I encourage you to think about where you are, and (if indicated) be proud of what got you here. But, I encourage you to realize that the horse you rode in on is probably tired.  The chances of that are much higher if you are in a rapidly changing (or shocked) sector.

One thing is certain: the world is change.  That horse you really liked is probably going to mature and decline.  That is true whether the horse is a business, a technology, or even a set of management practices.

You need fresh horses.

Be willing to get help looking for them.

What do you think?  Have you ever seen an organization run out of horse? 

On Weaving Spiders

How weaving spiders can destroy your career, your organization, and your strategy.


Imagine a set of dialogues that goes something like this:

Dialogue 1 – Hotel lounge at an industry conference: 

Jill (a senior manager with a well-known tight linkage to the CEO): “Hey Alex, I’ve been thinking about your career path and how I can be helpful.  We’re sitting here with time to kill… Tell me what you want to do with your life…Just among friends.”

Alex (a seasoned and high performing, but junior manager): “Jill, you know, it’s a tough one.  I love what I do today and could see my self doing this for years.  If it came to truly advancing my career, I would have a very hard time moving to another geography right now to take on a new role due to family concerns, and I certainly wouldn’t take a role that is lower than the one I have now…Just as friends, I’ll tell you that I would have to leave the company if that were the only set of options.”

Dialogue 2 – In the corporate office – 2 months later: 

Alex:  “Hey, Jill, how are things?”

Jill: “Pretty tough. Let me let you in on a secret, but you have to keep it confidential.  You know Bill, over in accounting?  He just got really upset about his lack of career options.  He used you as an example…He said he was a more senior guy than you when you both joined the company 5 years ago, and that he deserved to be advanced beyond you.  Can you believe the nerve of that guy? He’d better watch out.”

Alex:  “Really?  I’ve known him for years.  I’ll have to see what’s up.  Maybe I’ll drop by there to have a chat.”

Jill: “No way, Alex.  If anything, if you ever let him know that you know this, he’ll be even more upset. And besides, I’m telling you this in confidence…right?  Just as friends.”

Alex:  “Okay, but you know, that’s really out of character for Bill…”

Jill:  “Maybe you don’t know Bill the way I do.  Trust me.”

Dialogue 3 – On the telephone:

Alex:  “Hey, Bill…  I need to talk with you.  We’ve been friends for years and I just heard something that I can’t let come between us.

Bill: “Alex, of course.  What’s up?”

Alex:  “Bill, I just heard about your conversation with Jill. I have to apologize that I know about it, but it’s important to me that you and I are above board.  Are you really bothered by my career trajectory?  I mean, I know that you were more senior than me coming in, and I know that I have a more senior title now, but I also know that you are doing a great job and actually making more money than I am… So, I needed to know what gives….

Bill:  “What conversation with Jill?  She and I haven’t talked in more than 2 weeks.”

Alex: “She said you just talked…yesterday.”

Bill:  “Well, that would be tough as I was off yesterday for a colonoscopy.”

Alex: “And, you’ve had no conversation with Jill?”

Bill: “Not a word.  Sounds like somebody has some explaining to do…”

Dialogue 4 – The office hallway:

Jill: “Hello there, Alex,! Whew, I just got out of a meeting with Monica [the company’s CEO].  Wow there is a lot going on.”

Alex: “Jill, I have to ask you something.”

Jill: “Sure, what’s up? I’m always willing to help a friend.”

Alex: “Jill, you said that Bill was upset about me…and I had to ask him.  He said not only was he not upset, but that you hadn’t talked to him.”

Jill: “Alex, how dare you break confidence with me.  Of course he wouldn’t admit that to you.  Bill really does hate you, Alex.”

Alex: “Jill, I’ve been friends with Bill for a decade, you have to understand…”

Jill: “No, that’s not how this works…How dare you!  I trusted you!”

Jill walks away.

Dialogue 5 – The CEO’s office, 2 months later

Monica: “Alex, thanks for taking the time to meet.  We’ve been considering your career path, and I have a fantastic opportunity for you.  We have a role in Argentina championing a new change initiative. I wanted to tell you about it myself!  You can keep the same title, but it does require you to report to one of your peers. I’ve heard great things about you, your willingness to relocate, and your willingness to take a step back in the organization in order to move forward… and this is just the ticket for you!”

Alex: “Monica, I think there has been some mistake… I don’t think this is a good fit at all.”

Monica: “Oh, but this is a done deal.  We need you there. You’ve already said that this is what you want! Jill told me about your conversation…how you wanted new challenges and a faster career pace.  Besides, this is the opportunity of a lifetime.  I have to go now, but I want you to go consider it.”

Alex: “Ok…”

Dialogue 6 – On the telephone, moments later

Alex: “Hey Jill, what’s up?”

Jill: “Alex!  Did you get the word from Monica?  What a great opportunity for you!”

Alex: “Well, not really. And, I know you know why…I told you about my family constraints keeping me from taking a geographic move, and how unattractive a lateral move would be for me.”

Jill: “Hmmm, I guess you have a tough choice to make…I always hate it when people have to leave for the wrong reasons. Talk to you later…That’s Monica on the other line!”

Dialogue 7 – The CEO’s office, 2 months later

Monica:  It’s really unfortunate that we lost Alex.  I tried to give him exactly the career option that he wanted, just like you suggested.  I really liked the guy.  He could have helped us even if he had stayed in his old role!

Jill: Don’t be silly, Monica.  He had some nerve telling me he wanted to move to Latin America and would do anything to get it done then going to you and throwing the perfect opportunity back in your face.  You really don’t need such manipulative people in your midst.  Good riddance!

Monica: I guess you are right.  Thanks for having my back…

Jill: Are you kidding?  Our friendship is so important to me. Thank you for listening to me!

On disordered personalities in your workplace…

What just happened?  Who is the crazy one in the dialogues above?  And how often does this sort of thing go on in our organizations?

I’ll give you my simple answer:  Jill is a weaving spider.  They are more common than you think.

Alex was the mark, the dupe, the victim.  He was the guy who could either be extremely useful in Jill’s web of confidence or, and it happened suddenly when Jill tripped up by attempting to foment discord between Bill and Alex, he would become enemy number 1 because he was suddenly onto her.

The good news for Alex is he got out. Had it not been for his willingness to trust but verify, the revelation from Jill that Bill, his longtime friend, was upset with him might have left him feeling confused and thankful to Jill for unmasking Bill for the “bad guy” he was cast as in Jill’s game. Jill would have had another chip in the game with Alex. Only it backfired on Jill in a minor way.

Jill, instead of admitting her dishonesty when confronted by Alex, doubled down and then resorted to righteous indignation at Alex’s breach of “confidential” information.  She then went on the attack and, because she maintained a web of other “chips” in the game with many others who had not identified her tactics, particularly Monica, she engineered Alex’s exit via the “Great Opportunity.”

There are people, perhaps in your own organization, who thrive on discord.  They thrive on manipulating one person’s perception of another, and in some cases manipulating people into paranoia and instability.  There exists a set of tactics, known as gaslightingthat have been outlined in the research on mental abuse.  The term comes from a 1938 play (coincidentally titled “Gas Light”) about a husband who dispassionately manipulates his wife into believing she is mentally ill.

The tactics are in the toolkit of mental abusers the world over, even those in corporate environments. And, they are often based around manipulating another person’s sense of reality (“Bill really does hate you, Alex.”).  In an office setting, like any other, they depend entirely upon the confidence the mark has in the perpetrator.  In the case above, Alex broke Jill’s gaslighting chain by trusting his own judgment and going to Bill to have a discussion about Jill.  In fact, that single action revealed to Alex all that Jill was about.

Gaslighting is the realm of sociopaths who will manipulate, conceal, appeal to secrets, confidence, and friendship while collecting little tidbits of information (“chips” in their twisted game) that can be used for or against anyone…all while upholding an angry righteous indignation against anyone who questions their honesty or integrity.  Make no mistake, Jill has Monica duped as well, but Monica’s sense of reality is warped by Jill’s ability to keep others at bay and ensure Monica is focused on expediency (“Don’t be silly, Monica” being a great example… Jill might as well have said “Don’t think, Monica.”).

Why write about this?  Well, personalities like Jill’s are fantastic drains on organizational effectiveness. In the case above, Monica’s organization has lost a high potential talent. That is a huge piece of damage to an organization.  Bill will probably leave due to or be eliminated by Jill’s machinations soon as well. So, this is an important leadership and organizational effectiveness lesson in a few ways:

If you are Alex, Bill, or any other bystander, you need to be aware that this kind of personality exists.  When people around you appeal to your confidence for things that really ought to be handled in the open, it should make you wary.  Keep your eyes open for dishonesty and manipulation of all sorts, and challenge yourself not to be blind to it when you are not the mark.  In this case, Alex did the right thing by departing. Monica wasn’t interested in hearing his side of the story because decisions had been made.

If you are Monica, that is, a senior executive who may be being manipulated, the best way to guard against a destructively manipulative subordinate is to actually test for completeness.  Even a strong manipulator can only go so far, and usually, it’s the people deeper in the organization who know how truly dishonest an animal like Jill can be.  If you find yourself with a subordinate who more than a few times gets into “he said, she said” arguments (they will invariably call them “misunderstandings”) with others, you might feel a tinge of concern and go deeper. If you have a subordinate who never lets you out of their sight, you may have a spider near you.  Get a second opinion from someone who might tell you the truth, and be ready to hear the truth.

As a leader, you have to be prepared to hear the truth…Why do I hammer on that point?  Because, unfortunately, true manipulators like Jill are very good at creating self fulfilling prophecies that can make them seem almost clairvoyant about people.  You can bet your bottom dollar that Jill hinted to Monica that Alex was a departure risk before engineering the “Great Opportunity.” So, when Alex left, Jill looked like an expert with amazing organizational feel rather than a manipulative sociopath.  Monica, then, is likely to be blinded by her admiration for what she sees as Jill’s “sixth sense” instead of being justifiably horrified by the truth.

Manipulative, disordered personalities like Jill’s only exist in organizations because they are enabled by apathetic peers and ignorant or opportunistic superiors. The Jills of the world usually have fantastic capabilities (if Jill were not good at surreptitiously managing many people’s realities, then she wouldn’t have risen to senior management), but they foster discord in organizations and in personal lives and can and do lead to the downfall of both.

Be willing to speak up whether you are the CEO, the hapless mark, or an innocent bystander.  It’s time to turn off the gaslights in our organizations.

What do you think about this situation and leadership lesson?  Have you ever had an experience like Alex’s? How would you handle this if you were Monica?  Leave a comment…

Yeah But, Yeah But, Do!

With an overabundance of data and information, we have to find a way to get past “yeah, but” and get to “do!” 


Did you know that some poor soul on the battlefield at Gettysburg left behind a rifle loaded with 23 projectiles? It’s true. When you understand the vast effort required to load a muzzle-loaded rifle, you start to understand the peculiarity of this anecdote.

Now, do you know any poor souls who toil under a leader who is great at loading but never pulls the trigger? You know him… He’s the guy who, no matter what, needs more analysis. He needs more information in order to make a decision. You get the sense that if he were in the middle of the road with a semi-truck bearing down on him, he would ask for an estimate of its speed before deciding to get out of the way.

I’m betting you know this guy.  He is the Fred Flintstone of business… Only he’s always “yeah, but” and never “do.”  Don’t be this guy…

Our current overabundance of data and information allows us the benefit of knowing so much in so little time that we can forget the need to actually act.  Decision makers make decisions.  That means they take information, perceive it, process it, and decide on it.  When you spend too much time perceiving and processing, the battle passes you by.

You end up with a rifle loaded 23 times and never fired.

Not to mention you end up with an organization that is exhausted by all the loading…the constant analysis and responding and delaying and dithering.

As a provider of strategic insight and analysis, I personally wage war against analysis paralysis in keeping to a philosophy of practical strategic impact. Sometimes, this means helping clients acknowledge when they know enough to fish or cut bait.

When is enough enough?  Well, that depends.  In one of my first blog posts, linked here, I went into a bit of detail on Bayesian Inference as a powerful tool for strategic (and interpersonal) analysis. Knowing when you have enough information to make a decision is a critical skill in all leadership positions. In leadership positions that come with the luxury of delay, determining whether to do more analysis really comes down to the return on investment:  Will the new analysis prove or disprove what you substantially already know?

A lot of times, the answer is “no.”

Make a decision.

Yabba Dabba Doo!

I’m curious what you do to ensure you are acting vs. analyzing… Please share.