When one more is too many, what do you do?

Focus need not be only about doing less.

Geoff Wilson

Focus is a frequent theme in our work.  Often, action-oriented teams do what they do, which is to take on more and more “things” until the collection of things is basically overwhelming. When organizations place one management layer of achievers on top of another management layer of achievers, the result can often be a cacophony of initiatives…each with a purpose and all generating tension against one another.

In the most mature organizations, the tendency of achievers to stretch toward more and more things is bounded first by a few good leaders who decide what not to do and second by processes that force choices early and often.

In less mature organizations…cacophony.

So what is that organization to do?  As with almost anything, the first step is to admit it.  If you can list a dozen initiatives that you are working on, you likely have a problem. I often tell executive teams that 3 – 5 active initiatives are plenty (a lot, even) for any management team.  That’s in the context of teams that can list a dozen or more active initiatives.  And, of course, all the initiatives are important.  All of them need to progress.  We must make progress on cost structure and product development and accounting systems and talent sourcing. So, admit it when you have a problem.

The second step is to actually define what focus is.  Is it truly doing fewer things, or is it about ensuring that the things that are done in the organization are done in the right place in the organization? All the example initiatives I listed in the paragraph above are likely important at the same time.  Of course they are…all of those elements are about running the business.  The problem is, many of them should belong to a person or team, not to the entire organization.  There may be a natural owner of the work that is not the executive team.

You don’t often really need to have the entire management team engaged in the accounting system rebuild, but often they are. And, thus, I see it frequently:  Senior managers scurry from one steering committee meeting to another, without having real context on any one initiative to be a clear contributor.  They have their hands in many pots, but have no idea what is for dinner.  Why not try to leave some things to the organization? Too many people get worried about focus because they think it leads to accomplishing less.  Once you factor in your ability to delegate, it’s just not true.

After you have the first and second steps completed, it’s time to actually focus.  This involves at least four decisions.  First is what to delegate.  Second is what to do now.  Third is what to do next. And fourth is what not to do at all (explicitly).   If anything is still standing alone after those four filters, then the answer is likely to get help. Why? Because it usually means you have other root issues–like not being able to delegate because you don’t trust your people or because they haven’t earned your trust.

If your management team or organization lacks focus, try to organize a bit to get through these few steps and decisions.  Your company will thank you for it.

What do you think?  

The bare essence of professionalism

The bare essence of professionalism is reliably doing real work on the right things, and doing it well.

Geoff Wilson

One of the benefits of my position as a management adviser is that I get to see a lot of different management and leadership styles. And I get to see them from all perspectives: executive, buyer, seller, consultant, adviser, subordinate, and superior to name a few.

As I think about the most effective people I know–that is to say the most effective professionals I know–I have realized over time that the key to enduring professional success tends to be a simple word: reliability.  The funny thing about reliability is that it is timeless.  It doesn’t depend on your experience level, it doesn’t depend on your topical expertise, it doesn’t depend on your role. It simply depends on your dependability.

Why do I write this?  Because I get to see the outfall of unreliable professionals all the time. These are the consultants who talk a big game but who don’t do real work to back it up (the “one-hit wonders” of the consulting profession).  These are the managers who set aggressive, unreachable deadlines for themselves and therefore can’t be counted on to deliver.  These are the employees who never met a deadline they couldn’t silently stretch or break–while their leaders silently watch them fail because why bother?

These are the professionals who look and feel like they have something better to do than work on your problem or the task at hand.

The essence of professionalism can be encapsulated in a timeless quotation from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  This particular quotation was the favorite of a beloved football coach of mine, and it’s one that has informed my ideals for a very long time.  It goes like this:

“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’”

That means if you are called on to deliver the next M&A deal for your company, you think Michelangelo. It means if you are a mid-career manager who suddenly has to step in and own the financial model, you think Beethoven. And it means that if you are a seasoned professional who suddenly has to create that pitch deck when nobody else is available, you don’t think about how you no longer have those skills or how you are better than this work–you think Shakespeare.

In short, the professional mindset is one that doesn’t get bogged down in what work is “beneath” him or her.  It’s the one that finds the work and figures out a way to do it for real.  It’s comfort in doing the little things that build to a big thing. And it’s being known for reliably applying that comfort. It’s reliably doing real work on the right things and doing it well.

That, my friends, is the bare essence of professionalism.

It’s an ideal that I always aspire to.

What do you think?  What would you add as the essence of professionalism?


Really smart people try to do too much, and that makes them look stupid

Why the proliferation of initiatives does not make you look smart, motivated, or aggressive.

Geoff Wilson

“I have too much on my plate.”

You probably hear that from people occasionally, but you rarely if ever actually hear it from the highest performing people.  And that’s the problem this post is about: When smart people try to do too much, it makes them look stupid.

If anything, one old management adage is “if you want something done, give it to the busiest person in your organization.”  Why?  Because, well, the busy people are the ones who are always finding a way to get things done.  And there’s a ton to like about that platitude.

But, as with all platitudes, there’s a ton of insight left on the cutting room floor. If you want something done, find someone who is smart, focused, and motivated.  Sure.

But if you really want something done well, find someone who is smart, focused, and motivated and then help them manage their workload appropriately. Smart, motivated people have a really hard time saying no to things.  And smart, motivated people often have a view of others that leads them to think others should be as smart and motivated as they are (and therefore have all the capacity they have).  This leads the smart, motivated, and overcommitted leader to proliferate initiatives ad nauseam.  

And that reality leads to big problems as you promote your smart, motivated people up the chain.  The problems look like executives who take on too much, and consequently ask their organizations to take on too much.  It looks like endless lists of initiatives, all running concurrently.   It looks like a mess of execution because everybody is scrambling to do too much.

And finally, it looks like really smart, motivated people experiencing failure as leaders because of the very virtues that got them to their leadership role in the first place.  Being smart and motivated leads some managers to take on too much, which leads to point failures in execution or in organizational leadership, which leads to the manager looking stupid.

The solution if this is your peccadillo?  Find that sounding board who will help you focus on the critical few things that matter and drive the organization to them.  Unfortunately, in an age where “more is better,” all too often those sounding boards have the same incentives as you do as a manager: To recommend more and bigger, not less and better.  If you can find an adviser or mentor who helps you know when to slow down and focus on fewer things, you’re already ahead of the game.

What do you think?  How do you find a way to ensure you don’t take on too much? 


Old CEOs and bold CEOs

A recent HBR articles hints that those who make it to CEO fastest aren’t always the best case studies.

Geoff Wilson

Perusing the business press recently I came across an article on the Harvard Business Review website by a couple of partners at talent advisory firm ghSmart.  I’m partial to a lot of the tools and techniques that Geoff Smart and his firm have developed over time. And, I have found that management teams I work with who employ those techniques generally improve their approach to talent evaluation and elevation. This one left me…wanting, however.

The article is titled “The Fastest Path to the CEO Job, According to a 10-Year Study.” In it, the two authors outline how pedigree isn’t really all that for those who rise to the CEO role the fastest.  These so-called “CEO Sprinters”–the people who get to be CEO faster than the average time-to-office of 24 years–get there by taking big risks. The authors’ insight into these “sprinters” amounts to this:

“We discovered a striking finding: Sprinters don’t accelerate to the top by acquiring the perfect pedigree. They do it by making bold career moves over the course of their career that catapult them to the top.”

And to follow that up, the article outlines three archetypal “bold” moves: jumping to a much smaller role or company, jumping on a much larger role than they were nominally prepared for, and inheriting and sorting out a big mess.  It’s very tough to call that a blinding insight. I would go so far as to call it a dangerous one because it ignores all the potential outcomes of such risk taking.

The reason it’s dangerous goes all the way back to an old saying in the aviation world that goes something like this:

“There are old pilots and there are bold pilots…but very few old, bold pilots.”

That is to say, that for every CEO who is lauded for the career-making “bold” (risky) move to something smaller/bigger/messier before it was time, there is likely a vast number of mid-career managers sitting around wondering why they took that kind of risk.

In other words, when we evaluate CEO Sprinters for what made them successful, and point to bold moves, we have to account for the risk inherent to such bold moves and for all the “sprinters” who never made it. Or else, we are just evaluating a gamble.  We aren’t evaluating a skill.  That’s, after all, what a great–truly seasoned–CEO does in real life.  They don’t take bold leaps willy nilly. They evaluate risks and returns…and make decisions accordingly.

I liken the HBR article referenced to a never-written article on how to play winning blackjack that points to how the “big winners” in blackjack made very large bets at very opportune moments.  Sure they did.  But a lot of people who followed that strategy–in fact if you believe in statistics almost all who follow that strategy–lose…bigtime.

If you are reading this post and thinking about your career “catapults,” I’ll encourage you to think about taking calculated risks, not gambles. That means that the core insights of the HBR article are, in fact, pretty cool; but they need a healthier dose of realism to be actionable.

So, don’t just look at anecdotal CEOs who have “made it” as role models for how to make it. Just because your CEO made his name be moving his family to Myanmar and turning around a manufacturing plant there doesn’t mean that the path to CEO is through malaria and dengue.

He might have survived a really stupid career move.  Sure, you can make it to CEO quickly by making a series of risky, possibly stupid, but lucky career moves…but you won’t necessarily stay there long.

And, that’s just it: survivorship bias is endemic to evaluating those sitting in such rare roles. You might say that there are old CEOs, and there are bold CEOs, but very few old, bold CEOs.

What do you think? 

Are you a micromanager? Oh, I hope so…sometimes

Micromanagement is a bad thing…until it’s not.

Geoff Wilson

Micromanagement has a really bad reputation.  But, is it deserved?

The term conjures mental images of a manager standing over the shoulder of a subordinate, hand on the subordinate’s mouse, clicking on a graphic to put it in the right place NOW.  Or, you imagine a manager who constantly lays out task lists and methods of doing the tasks for every member of the team.  Or, you see the manager who questions every decision of his subordinates. Why did  you spend $15.09 on pens last month?

Micromanagement as a term elicits the image of a bad manager.  And while that reputation is in some ways well earned, I think that the truth of the matter is that “micromanagement” can actually be a smear used by frustrated subordinates against managers who actually care.

Here’s why:

A great manager understands the needs of her people.  I’ve used the skill / will matrix in the past, with its management imperatives.  It gives a good indication how to handle different employee skill and will (that is, drive or energy) profiles. Here it is.

See that lower left quadrant that says “direct” for low skill, low will people?  That’s the “micromanage” quadrant.  In other words, whatever you call it, a good manager knows when it’s time to lock in and direct, micromanage, task, or otherwise be all-up-in-the-grill of a subordinate who is either (1) untrusted or (2) not up to an existing, critical task.

Anecdotally, I have seen far more trouble conjured up by managers who didn’t know how to lock in on task when the time comes.  So-called players’ coaches are great when it comes to ensuring “happiness,” but it’s the rare players’ coach who can be a players’ coach with every player and still be successful.

This post comes from the question of a colleague on my own style of management…and whether I’m a micromanager.  The only answer I could dig up was “not generally, but specifically, possibly, yes.”  I’m a big believer in allowing talented people to run and only adjusting course.  I’m also a believer in being very specific with inexperienced people.  Where the pain comes in is when a “talented” or “experienced” person gets a lot of rope and tangles himself with it, and I follow up with a whopping dollop of micromanagement.  That hurts, because it’s a clear signal that the person wasn’t up to the task, and I was asleep at the switch.

In other words, you may dislike micromanagement, but it’s a pretty darned good indication of how your talent is regarded and how much trust you have from your manager.  Before smearing your manager with the term, consider whether your manager is simply a mission-oriented manager who had  to micromanage you.

What do you think?  Is “micromanager” a justifiable epithet or simply another management hat of an effective leader?

Contemplating the clean slate as a part of your business strategy

When in your planning cycle do you wipe the slate clean?

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of sitting through a planning session with a client management team. The team defined a new direction for its product management function. The old structure worked well during an earlier phase of the company’s growth but was now taxing very senior resources who needed to re-deploy their time. So, the team needed to build a new structure for the new phase.

It was time to wipe the slate clean and draw up a new structure.

The conversation got me thinking about the question of when to start with a clean slate.

When do you start over?

When do you fire yourself and start again?

When do you throw out the old and begin again with the new?

While I’m a big fan of the tried and true, it’s clear that “doing things the way we’ve always done them” can be antithetical to the needs of today’s strategic management environment. So, when do you know it’s time to wipe the slate clean? I’ll lay out three areas, and then leave it at that.

First might be the most obvious:  You’ve kept doing what you do, and aren’t getting the results that you need.  This is the old “definition of insanity:”  Doing the same thing and expecting a different result. It’s probably time to wipe the slate when results just aren’t adding up.

Second is a little tougher, but it’s one we face every day:  You have adequate results, but the ideal state would be so much better.  Transformation in “ok” times is perhaps the most challenging. It’s probably good to pick one or two “ok” areas of your business on a periodic basis and wipe the slate clean just to test the “ok to better” opportunity.

The third is the toughest, particularly for stretched organizations:  You are getting great results, but at the expense of higher use of the talent as you have it currently deployed.  Ever see the organization where the most talented person does everything?  Or, have you ever seen a high performing business unit whose massively talented leader can’t get a promotion because his bosses don’t want to lose the local performance?  This is one of those issues.  If your most talented people could be re-deployed to improve overall results, but at the expense of locally great performance, it might be time to go with a clean slate.

In a lot of organizations, this is the time of re-setting budgets for the coming year.  Is it time to wipe the slate clean in your organization? Are there parts that deserve the clean slate treatment?  Are you brave enough to try it?

What do you think?

I learned this from my worst bosses…

Even the worst bosses teach you things.  Here are a few from my experience.

Have you ever had a bad boss?  I don’t mean somebody you just didn’t click with, I mean a really bad boss.  They didn’t have to be a bad person (though they might be).  They just might not have been competent bosses.

That ringing a bell yet?

The cool thing about a bad boss is that short exposure to one can actually make you a better leader.  Seeing what “bad” is is almost as valuable as seeing what “great” is when it comes to leadership. I’ve learned a few lessons from bad bosses.  Here are some that are the lessons that come to mind.

Never throw things.  I once had a boss whose tantrums were epic.  You just waited for something to hit the floor or wall.  I had another boss who already had a bad reputation and who “playfully” threw something at a person who asked him a question, only to be thought of as attacking the person physically.  In both cases the intimidation factor wasn’t good for team morale.  If you must express your displeasure physically, consider clenching your teeth or at least throwing things in the privacy of your home.

Never use physical means to stifle a conversation. I once had a boss who would raise his hand into people’s faces when he thought they should stop talking.  He might as well have just turned his back on them. Needless to say he was an ineffective leader.  If you must cause someone to stop talking, consider thoughtfully asking a question directed to another person in the room instead.

Never start a feedback conversation with a speech about why you are right. Feedback is about giving and taking.  I once had a boss who thought it smart to start any feedback conversation with a preface that sounded like “I have a lot of experience on these issues and you do not, so let me give you some feedback.”  Talk about killing the give and take…Consider offering the feedback and the rationale for it, instead of your resume.

Never go passive on topics of compensation or promotion. I once had a boss who was very busy.  They were too busy to discuss HR matters.  That led to very long times between discussions of critical compensation issues. If you want to lose your team, ignore them when they bring up comp issues.  It’s ok to say “no” to the discussion, but not to ignore it.

Never play games with your subordinates. I once had a boss whose go to question when a subordinate brought a problem to them was “what have you tried to do so far?”  That is a fine question; but it was used as a sort of lever to get to a “more work” answer vs. a “I’ll help you solve the problem” answer.  The subordinate could say “I’ve tried A, B, C, and D” and the boss would answer with “well, let’s not talk until you’ve tried X, Y, and Z as well.”  While this may sound helpful, it actually was utterly demoralizing because the staff new raising any issue only resulted in more work vs. possible solutions.  Consider offering feedback and support on what has been tried vs. just assigning more work.

Now, to be clear, these lessons are a bit nuanced.  I’m also in no way innocent of them. I’ve thrown things a time or two (no, I’m not proud of it). These are also items that are somewhere between great manager who does everything right and psychopath boss. If I’ve had a boss who slept with a subordinate and cheated financially, do I really need to list that as “what not to do?”

How about you?  Do you have any “bad boss” stories that come with lessons?  Consider sharing them. 

Strategy requires naming your organization’s elephants

You know there’s an elephant in the room. You don’t have a strategic plan until you’ve been unreasonable enough to name it.

Geoff Wilson

Imagine a corporation’s strategic plan that has all the check-the-box elements required of it. It has a market definition, a strong fact-based trend analysis, a good view of where the business competes and against whom, a nice vision for the future, and even a neatly tailored set of strategic actions to get there.

The plan leverages all the disruptive, innovative, differentiated, mindful, action-oriented, blue-ocean, globalized, core-competence-on-steroids buzzwords and frameworks that the executives and their underlings could find.

It’s beautiful. The board eats it up. And … it’s entirely incomplete and insufficient, to the point of being dangerous. It will not only be in the dustbin in a matter of a year or so (in some cases right after the board meeting), but it will also become a subtle punchline that denigrates the notion of strategic planning for those who are its victims.

OK, that’s the scenario. If you’re an executive of any significant seasoning, you’ve seen this movie before. Let’s look at why this happens.

Why strategy is all too often left incomplete

Strategy of any type—from checkers to chess and football to financial engineering—requires a brutal assessment of the problem at hand. That problem may be definable in broad terms like “growth,” “profitability,” and “market share,” but I doubt it.

The strategic problem is, more often, just a tad more subtle. It revolves around specific, granular realities in the business and competitive landscape. Often, the realities are directly known—even quantified—but they may not be discussed.

To be sure, some executive teams surface problems easily. The problem may look like a cost disadvantage, an aging workforce, a competitor’s new product, slowing salesforce productivity, or any number of other specific issues that when placed in the blinding flame of the corporation’s or business unit’s tidy grand strategy will extinguish it. These teams, typically through lots of practice, talk plainly. They spot the elephant in the room, and they name it.

Other executive teams like to nurture their elephants. They see issues like new-program and M&A failures as things to punish soundly in the hierarchy while excluding from high-level strategic discussions. They find scapegoats at a moment’s notice (and even sometimes name their scapegoats before things turn bad). They very often know there’s a problem, but they lack the courage (or, perhaps more often, have too many competing incentives) to name the elephant. The elephant goes on living, breathing, and sucking the life out of the company’s strategy with its prodigious trunk.

That’s why strategies are incomplete. In the midst of tidy stories of leverage, innovation, and creative competition is an elephant sucking the life out of performance and sustainability. It’s the elephant without a name.

So, what to do? 

Let me put this simply: Name your elephants. Get help if possible.

Ideally, you identify them with names and numbers. Most business problems can be stated in quantitative terms. Think you have a capital-allocation issue? Check whether your return on invested capital is too low (or too high!). Think you have a salesforce issue? Selling opportunities per rep can lead you to the answer. Worried about an aging workforce? The numbers don’t lie. Competition eating your lunch? Look at the numbers for market share or Net Promoter Score to see what the market says.

I’m being simple here because naming your elephants doesn’t require a full-blown study.

But there’s a catch: Senior management must be open to discussing elephants. If naming elephants runs counter to incentive plans or egos, you’re likely pushing the proverbial rope up a hill. Motivated board members sometimes fail to name elephants when faced with management who won’t play along. And if that’s the case, you can imagine what happens in the same circumstances to people lower in the hierarchy.

A practical view of how to do it

In our work at Wilson Growth Partners, we focus intensely on establishing fact-based views of our clients’ strategic elephants. It’s our goal to name the elephants alongside management in order to build a complete view of corporate and business-unit strategy. One method I’m fond of is working with senior leaders to establish expectations for performance alongside capabilities required, and forcing (yes, forcing) a candid discussion on the gaps in both. Many elephants reside in those gaps.

Elephant hunting has to be done deliberately and early in the process. And even in the best-resourced organizations, it’s the one action that often can’t be done by internal resources in a strategic-planning process. An independent, objective advisor can name elephants that management and boards simply can’t. Outsiders can be just unreasonable enough to bring up the hard stuff (as they should).

Now it’s your turn: What examples of destructive elephants have you seen? How have you seen teams name their elephants (or not)?

How to keep culture from crushing progress

Big ideas aren’t enough to change things. You need powerful sponsorship.

This anecdote has played out more times than reruns of the original “Star Trek” series, so bear with me as I set it up.

The situation

Geoff Wilson

A highly motivated, energetic, experienced new hire is brought into the organization as an agent of change by the business unit’s president. The new hire is brought in because she thinks differently and has rich and relevant experience in organizations that look the way her new organization’s president and leadership team say they want the business unit to look over the long term. She is the poster child for effective organizational change leadership in appearance, word, and deed.

The new hire does what all highly motivated, experienced hires do: She gets to work. Carrying the president’s imprimatur by virtue of being hired, she starts propagating new ways of doing things—perhaps on processes like project management or in performance areas such as pricing or cost efficiency. She’s driven. She’s smart. She’s organized. She’s logical. She’s practical. She is, quite possibly, right.

The president of the company, sensing the strong glow of a great hire, lets her “do her thing” without guiding or intervening. After all, that’s what great leaders do: They let great people go “do their thing.” Right?

The organization’s leaders quickly sense a world of pain coming from changes to the ways things have always been done. The changes aren’t necessarily bad—just different.

Fast forward to a year later. Our motivated change agent is watching the clock. She’s waiting for 5:48 p.m. every day (that’s just late enough to not signal that she’s thrown in the towel). Her great ideas sit on white boards and in documents across the organization. But progress has been slow. She’s figured out that the organization really didn’t want all of her resume—just a few parts. Her job is easy. Her life is hard.

The leadership team, having figured out that she had no power in the first place, decided that the change agent’s recommendations, while smart, were too painful for them to implement. They have marginalized her through passive and deliberate pseudo-compliance and back-channel opting out. When one functional leader delays participation with good reason, the rest simply follow suit.

The president has entertained every grievance. By making backroom agreements on who needs to comply and who doesn’t, he has undermined the change agent—unintentionally, but still.

The organization likes her. But, hey, “Those great ideas could never work here.” And besides, the president sure didn’t seem to mind that key leaders opted out.

The president wonders why there hasn’t been more traction on his new hire’s ideas, but in reality, he just likes the fact that the business unit is performing well this year and that everyone will achieve nice bonuses.

The change agent polishes up her resume.

When our once-motivated, now-crushed change agent leaves for greener pastures, the organization gives itself a self-righteous pat on the back. See, they were right all along.

The change agent and the president (if he is a person of vision and integrity) wonder what happened.

Here’s what happened

First, the president quickly moved from a position of obvious sponsorship (he hired the change agent, after all) to a role of spectatorship. He removed the most important tool in his change agent’s toolkit: the lever of executive sponsorship.

Second, the change agent—armed with the confidence that her ideas would work and work well—fell into the trap of idealistic pursuit vs. practical and pragmatic progress.

Both have ignored the practical realities of power—call it influence, pull, or realpolitikThey misjudged the power of an organization’s culture to reject even the best ideas in favor of the status quo. They let the organization and its culture crush a valuable addition to its midst.

Don’t kid yourself: Culture is heavy. The weight of any organization’s culture will crush any change agent.

So what?

There’s no such thing as a “fire and forget” change agent. The agent—whether in the form of an initiative team or a seemingly heroic individual like our anecdotal new hire above—must have real power.

In any change program or worthwhile process, there comes a point in the organization’s journey where the broad population realizes that change is hard. They have an “Oh, shit” moment. At that moment, there must be enough momentum and felt need (or other sources of power) to move the change forward. Otherwise, change won’t happen.

In turnarounds, the momentum and felt need is easy. Either we perform or we’re gone. The change agent can drive change with that implication alone.

In improvement situations, the reality is far more nuanced. Going from good to better is hard. Really. How often do you see people who are in great shape make a New Year’s resolution to get in better shape? Not often. They make choices that diversify their focus vs. intensifying it. They want to spend more time with their kids, take up art, or shoot for that promotion at work. Their health is secondary because, well, they already have health.

That’s the problem with change in organizations performing “OK” or, especially, performing great but in an unhealthy manner (a diversified business with a few bright spots that carry the portfolio comes to mind). The organization—convinced it’s “doing alright”—sees the change as an annoyance. This is especially true in the absence of a transparent agenda. And that’s where power comes in.

Executive sponsors and change agents have to agree on the source of power that will ensure the change. And they must follow through on it!

The agenda must be explicit and have teeth. The change agent has to be able to walk into any room with the full blessing of power, and with a ready set of implications for non-participants and opt-outs. But the change agent should never have to articulate them!

For the other leaders in the organization, opting out must be a visible, deliberate action that is advertised to the highest levels of sponsorship. Opting out has to have consequences. Or else, why bother?

Practical points

Cognitive dissonance being what it is, human beings aren’t wired to admit that they individually are the problem. Chances are, you read the anecdote at the beginning of this article with a real notion of who the victim was, and the victim probably looked a lot like you. The reality is that all parties in the anecdote hold responsibility. So, here are some things to do about it:

  • Sponsoring executives have to stay engaged and deliver their positional and personal influence through their change agents. Tell the organization that the agent has power and why. Never, ever leave that communication to the change agent. Define—honestly—the agenda the agent is working to implement. And, for goodness’ sake, don’t undermine the change agent by entertaining back-channel grievances and allowing one-off deviations from the plan without explicit, advertised, and good reasons. Sponsor the right behaviors through influence or force.
  • Change agents need to clarify the source of their power. Can they state in a short sentence what would keep the organization from opting out? Are the power dynamics such that the change agent is set up to fail? Remember: Idealism is great, but not sufficient. Just going and doing a good job is not enough if the power structure isn’t in place.
  • Group or organizational leaders have to own and explain their priorities. To be sure, there are myriad good reasons—ranging from timing to talent—for opting out of change initiatives. Handled transparently, these reasons can be managed well. If handled passively or through backroom deals, however, opting out sends a signal to the rest of the organization (that doesn’t have such good reasons for it) that opting out will be tolerated and accepted. So, why bother?

If you deploy change agents, be sure to back them with enough power to make them effective. Practice sponsorship, not spectatorship. Define your agenda. Lead. Clear the way.

If you’re a change agent, be sure you have enough power through sponsorship to achieve what the organization expects you to achieve. If you don’t have it, get it. Can’t get it? Move on.

What do you think?

The cure that kills

Corporate change programs can be toxic treatments unless heavily dosed with honest communication.

Geoff Wilson

Early in my career, I had a conversation with a mid-level manager (let’s call him Carl) within a large company undergoing a tense operational change. Carl was responsible for multiple small sites in the organization’s footprint. He led tens of people. It wasn’t hundreds or thousands, but still significant.

I was a fledgling consultant to top management at Carl’s company. My team was focused on designing the approach to the company’s change. In my conversation with Carl, I asked how things were done and what would help with the change.

The conversation was productive, but then Carl paused. I now know it was the pause that comes before someone actually breaks through the facade of their professional life. At that point in my career, however, I just thought he was thinking.

Carl then laid it out there: “All these corporate programs—I can’t tell which way things are going or why we are doing what we are doing.” He paused again, and then unleashed the words that have stuck with me ever since: “It makes you feel like a beaten dog. You flinch every time the corporate hand comes toward you because you are more used to it beating you than it helping you.”

And there, my friends, was a life-changing moment. It was life changing for two reasons:

  • Carl was an honest guy. He was trying to comply with corporate mandates—and was getting crushed in the process. He lacked access to any rhyme or reason for the change.
  • I had a core belief (now solidified) that no senior executive walks into the office seeking to foist valueless initiatives on his or her people for the sheer joy of creating confusion and frustration. (Side note: After years as an advisor and executive, I’ve known one or two executives who propagate valueless initiatives for the sake of their own ego, but not as real sadists. The end result is the same, but the intent isn’t)

In Carl’s case, the two sides of the circuit—top management and line leaders—had strong values and desires to do great jobs. But they weren’t connecting. The missed connection was consequently crushing drive and initiative where it was needed most.

In other words, initiatives, mandates, and highly valuable corporate performance programs driven from the top looked—to those most needed to buy into them—more like beatings than opportunities. They were systemic “cures” handed down from corporate offices that could literally kill local energy and focus. The programs dulled the edge of the very people meant to be sharpened by them.

Not only that, but the entire situation very quickly made senior leaders look like the “doctors” in this post photo. Not folks you’d seek out for a cure, eh?

In the history of medical science, many so-called cures have proven lethal not only to diseases, but also to patients. The history of cancer chemotherapy is rife with such instances. Actress/playwright Anna Deavere Smith deftly illustrated this concept in her solo play “Let Me Down Easy” when she wrote that cancer therapy is “like taking a stick and beating a dog to get rid of fleas.”

Corporate change programs—especially the big ones—sometimes have the same feel: indiscriminate cure targeting incorrigible disease launched against unassuming patients. A stick swung against the body, and then again but in a different way. Again. And again. And again. Striking nerves and tissue they don’t intend to strike, but doing damage anyway.

It’s a way of targeting performance that is often effective but sometimes lethal. Corporate change programs, like a stick used to beat a dog or a powerful chemical used to decimate a disease, can be a cure that kills. But the analogies break down at that point.

Why? Because we as corporate leaders are able to package and prepare our patients for our cure in a way that no canine or cancer patient’s body can ever be readied. We can turn the stick into a staff, or the chemotherapy into a nourishing concoction.

How? We can use the power of “why.” We can communicate not only what’s coming, but why it’s happening. We can explain the meaning of the action and its upside for stakeholders. In the cases of the worst outcomes—change programs that have necessary but terminal impact on some individuals—we can quite literally let those afflicted down easy.

We just need to take the time to do it. And do it repeatedly. And then to do it again. But how? Simon Sinek’s TED talk that encapsulates the concept of “starting with the ‘why'” is a helpful guide. For leaders to inspire action and minimize confusion, angst, and ultimately departure, we should ensure that the “why” reaches everyone the change impacts.

Summarizing change in a change story is a great way to start. Delivering it personally is even more captivating. Living the change out visibly is the ultimate approach. But there’s a catch: If you as an executive leader don’t change at all OR you change too often—especially if your “why” keeps changing while the world around you isn’t—you’re just swinging the stick in a different way.

Being outstanding at operations one quarter, great at growth the next, and excellent at efficiency the following only serves to show that you’re untethered from principle. That, or your principles aren’t what you’re packaging into your “why” to begin with. Either way, you resort to more of the same—except now, instead of death by confusion and randomness, you’re propagating death by disingenuousness.

Don’t be untethered, and don’t be disingenuous. You have to have vision and integrity.

Change leaders of all stripes: Stop beating your dogs. Use the power of preparation and communication. Drive performance by leading with the “why.”

Prescribe a cure that cures by preparing people for the treatment.

What do you think?