Wish you were here

Humans are wired to be at the same campfire.

Geoff Wilson

We are seeing a lot of consternation in companies these days around the topic of remote work and so-called “back to the office” movements.  Remote work among knowledge workers has been a viable topic for decades, but really came into its own when “everybody” in a knowledge-work role suddenly had to be remote during the COVID pandemic.

Such a mass adjustment to norms came with a lot of warm, fuzzy feelings about how effective people can be while working remotely with today’s tools.  Indeed, for the first months of the pandemic, the effectiveness of remote work was one of the few areas of general consensus in an otherwise uncertain environment.

But what has followed has been mixed, at best.  It slowly began to surface that “cheating” was happening if not common. Some people took advantage of remote work to work multiple “full-time” jobs.

On the other side, many business functions actually became more productive in a remote environment.  When we consider certain business functions as essentially piecework, we can see a great advantage to sending piecework back into the cottages. A worker charged with auditing accounts isn’t likely to be any more or less effective at such an individual activity while doing it with the same tools remotely. And, they don’t have to commute.

But this post isn’t about cheating, or managing, or outright fraud (which you are if you aren’t telling your multiple employers that you are overcommitted…but I digress).

This post is about culture.

Humans are strange animals.  We are tribal by nature.  We operate in a cognitive fog of trust, and love, and social proof, and mutual support.  We work for the common good in small groups. We become self-involved and selfish in large groups. We care less as social distance increases.

Such is the reality of the human condition.

And, we depend on actual…interpersonal assessments of these social aspects to form culture.  So-called “social cues” are tremendously important to establishing social consistency.

No matter how much we adjust to the amazing tools and technologies intermediating our remote lives–and I for one am fond of telling people I am remotely kicking them under the table, for instance–we can’t replace the whole-bodied experience of being there IRL (that’s “in real life” for you Gen X’ers like me).

Remote culture-building removes almost all of this. It’s reductive to a face on a screen or–worse–a disembodied voice.  It’s fully intermediated by technology.  And, it largely eliminates serendipity.  All of these things, disembodiment (“is he actually listening?”), intermediation (“you’re on mute” and “sorry you’re breaking up”), and lack of serendipity (“this meeting ends in 5 minutes”) can combine to completely distort culture.

All of this is to say two things:  No matter how much you try to engineer culture in a remote environment, you will fail if you are trying to engineer the same culture you would have had in an in-person environment. And, human cultures are fundamentally in-person.

Yes, that’s right, you’d better change your expectations if you are going to “stay remote.”

We are wired to be around a campfire.  We are wired to hunt and gather and dine together and engage in small talk while working in the fields or while stalking dinner.  We are wired to hear and feel and see and…smell each other as humans without some “greater power” interceding or masking our own often already-masked and insecure presences.

Your culture CAN survive being remote. But, the deeper human aspects will erode with a sort of half-life.  I have no idea how truly fast-paced cultures like the large consulting firm I was a member of for years could even survive for a few months in a virtual work environment.  So much of that type of culture is conveyed “in the team room” and the workforce turns over so quickly that culture can be shattered in a matter of months if extreme care isn’t taken.

If your company is slower moving and has less turnover, people will still remember. But remembrances fade.

As somebody who struggles mightily to ensure enough alone time in a life that rarely affords it, I can tell you that being “in-person” is not an all-the-time thing.  But it is a critical aspect of building warm, supportive, team-based cultures. And, warm, supportive, team-based cultures will be very important in a future where most any truly remote-piecework style jobs are likely to be automated.

Human factors–culture–will be the deciding factors for the future of competition. This is true whether managing a workforce or selling the next big deal.

So, what’s a leader to do?

Well, if you are leading a remote workforce, be sure to create more campfires and gatherings to build culture.  These so-called wastes of time can be foundational to building mutual support and acceleration.

If you are leading a hybrid workforce, the mandate is similar:  Be sure your pieceworkers who are off in their cottages get called back to the mothership frequently.

And, if you are leading a team that’s together, be sure you reinforce the benefits and expectations that together should bring.

What do you think? How do you see culture impacted by presence?

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?

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?

The importance of doing career due diligence

A little research and a few hints are plenty when you’re looking for your next job.

Geoff Wilson

Picture it: You’re thinking about joining a new organization. You just so happen to know a few people with very solid inside knowledge of the organization. One of them gives you this pearl: “On a scale of 1 to 10, the leadership team you would join is a solid 8—but the leader is a 4.”

What would you do? You might say “8, wow. That’s pretty good. I could do much worse.” Or you might say “Ugh, a leader who’s a 4. Back to the drawing board.”

Here’s what I’d tell you …


Any leader who has engendered enough bad will to have innocent observers rate them a 4 probably deserves elimination from your solution set. Of course, I write this with the assumption that you have other options; if you’re desperate, take your chances with a bad leader. After all, bad leaders deserve to have teams of desperate people.

Why does this matter to your career? Because a little due diligence is a good thing.

I’m actually wary of people who take jobs without asking questions. Like, really wary. Scary wary. Why? Because a person who will take a job with you without a question asked is probably just looking for a job. And you know what? There are lots of jobs out there.

People with purpose ask questions that relate to their purposes. I’ve had people ask questions about firm strategy, the career path, and even faith in the workplace. None of them were off-putting; these people showed sincere curiosity about where their own skills, purposes, and beliefs fit. But people without purpose just ask for offers; they don’t do any due diligence.

And those candidates deserve no offers when it comes to professional roles. “Ouch,” you might say. “What about junior people who don’t know any better?” Yep, they get a pass. But anyone who’s been around the block even once should know better.

I know of an executive who left a role with a firm after years within it, and the particular role he left was open and advertised for months and months. He constituted what I would consider a juicy due diligence target. Why? Well, he was there for all the world to see, regardless of what he could or couldn’t say about the role. He did, in fact, receive dozens of calls about the role and the organization. While I’m not sure how he talked about the role to those who were interested, I do know one thing: The person who actually took the role never called him. That would be a glaring red flag for me if I were filling the role. It says a lot about the depth of curiosity of the person who took the role, doesn’t it?

It’s not a sin to ask questions about a role that might be offered to you. And if you encounter resistance from your potential future organization when you do ask questions … run away! Any team that questions your motives for doing due diligence on them, particularly if you’re a very senior executive, doesn’t deserve to attract top talent.

Go ahead and look them in the mouths. Gift horses, they ain’t.

What do you think? Have you ever encountered resistance from an organization when you asked about it during an interview cycle? 

Avoid the fifth stage of organizational (in)competence

Arrogant incompetence is a barrier to learning and strategic execution.

Geoff Wilson

On some level, every strategic leader must have a healthy appreciation for social science and psychology. Success is elusive without it. But what happens when the best that psychology has to offer actually fails?

Picture it: You’re working to ensure that a key manager in your organization executes on a project that will deliver the five key customers you absolutely must have to make plan this year. You provide all the tools, resources, and feedback that a person in the role needs, but they just don’t get through. The manager, convinced of her correctness, takes the project off the deep end. It fails, and so does your plan.

Sound familiar? I’ll bet it does. But what happened? I’ll put it mildly: You probably never learned that there’s a fifth stage of competence. And it’s the most insidious one.

I’m a huge fan of the four stages of competence learning model. The gist of it is that we progress through four phases of capability with any skill. The stages are:

  1. Unconscious incompetence: We don’t know what we are bad at, or even why it’s important. We must recognize that we might have a gap.
  2. Conscious incompetence: We realize we are bad at a skill, and why it’s valuable to improve at it.
  3. Conscious competence: We learn a skill “with reps,” as it were. We concentrate on being good at the skill.
  4. Unconscious competence: The skill is second nature and embedded. We are free to learn other things.

Those stages are outstanding, but there’s another one. Let’s call it Stage Zero: Arrogant incompetence. This is the stage where the manager’s ego lets her think she has it together, without even needing to consider that she might be wrong.

Arrogant incompetence is the realm of people who can’t stand to be critiqued or judged. It afflicts entry-level hires and CEOs alike. You see it when the entry-level hire bristles at feedback—and when the CEO ignores sound advice. It festers in organizations that close ranks to outsiders when their performance is poor.

Arrogant incompetence destroys trust. It is the opposite of truth-seeking.

Why is this important to know? Well, you’re likely reading this because you have an interest in strategy, and strategy means putting people in position to affect change. If you place your bets on people who choose arrogance over inquiry, you’re taking chances on those least likely to accept feedback, seek progress, and positively impact your organization.

The fifth stage of incompetence is a barrier to the flexibility required in today’s strategic organization. Avoid it at all costs.

What do you think?  

Doing hard things means good things for business

Managing core tasks is important but expected. Greatness lies in facing true challenge.

Geoff Wilson

We spend ample time in strategic discussions talking about challenges and how to overcome them. Challenges exist within the market, organization, product development, sales, and myriad other business strategy topics. The conversation then turns to incentives, and it all gets muddled.

Things get murky because we often confuse the incentive to overcome a challenge with the incentive to “look like you’re doing something.” And that’s where this conversation gets very personal.

I know people who have worked their entire lives on straight salary (or even hourly wages) who will risk their jobs in the name of doing the right thing or simply taking on a new challenge. That is hard.

I’ve also known individuals who have had tremendous financial incentives—amounting to multiples of their salaries—whose go-to moves were delaying and deferring decisions for the sake of prolonging their reign. That is easy. The difficulty lies in knowing both which person you are (a) led by and (b) modeling yourself after.

Most who know me know that I detest using chess as a metaphor for strategy. The game is too constrained. All the moves are mapped out. The board is obvious. Chess is tactics, not strategy, as I’ve previously written. However, the world of chess holds many valuable tools and ideas for strategy. One of those is the Elo rating system.

The Elo rating system was devised years ago to help predict player strength without requiring every player to play a series of matches against one another. The key to the Elo rating system is how strength points are traded. When a strongly rated player beats a weak player, the strong player gains minimal points, and the weak player loses minimal points. But when a weak player beats a strong player, the strong player loses many points while the weak player gains many. Accomplishment in the face of difficulty is highly rewarded, whereas flubbing the easy stuff is mightily punished.

This is your career in a nutshell. People are (or eventually will be) looking at the challenges you face and your relative performance on them. If you’re great at accomplishing things that should be easy for you, that’s fine and good. Now stop patting yourself on the back and find your next true challenge.

Few things are less compelling than a person who talks about their great work on low-difficulty endeavors. If you want to be great, do hard things well. This is true for yourself as an individual, and it is true for your business.

If you lead a business in a sector where table stakes include on-time product delivery, you deserve minimal credit for achieving on-time delivery—it’s merely expected of you and your business. Don’t bother to tout your “great” performance. Go find a way to deliver on time and redesign the product for future customer needs. You are fighting last year’s war. Move on to the next one.

If you’re a five-year professional who does a magnificent job of keeping a filing system in order, you (again) deserve little credit for getting it right. That’s expected of an experienced person. Find a more compelling challenge to solve.

As I noted in my example of executives seeking to extend their reigns, the chess world has struggled with the trend of highly rated players avoiding competitive play in order to protect their ratings. According to the previously linked Wikipedia entry, “…the rating system can discourage game activity for players who wish to protect their rating…”.

Knowing this, you want your reputation and rating to be fresh, so you have to think about your “masterful” self or organizational performance as having a rating that is in constant deflation since the last time you set the bar. And you have to evaluate your people in the same way. “Emeritus” is a title that should be awarded with grudging irregularity in today’s business world.

But here’s the real key to all of this: Be sure you don’t flub the easy stuff while you’re seeking that next big challenge. You must do both. Losing on product-delivery performance while you’re transforming your company is a classic “executive” example. Failing at basic time management while trying to do a bigger job is a classic “individual” example. They’re the kinds of things that get people fired.

Keep in mind, the more experienced you are—the higher your Elo rating—the less points you gain for doing things that inexperienced people do, too.

You want good things? Do hard things.

What do you think?

Talent or Motor?

Don’t underplay the intangibles–motor matters.

One of the more useful metaphors used in the American Football world is the concept of “motor.”

Anybody who has been inside of football at the highest levels has heard a very particular description of players that is, perhaps, the highest compliment there is to an individual’s character as a player… “He’s got a great motor.”

It’s actually kind of a funny phrase to think about, as if some guys have better engines inside their bodies than others. But, it’s one of the more honest assessments that can come out of a scout’s mouth.

Why?  Because it cuts through the crap.  A guy can be 6’6″, leap tall buildings and lift elephants; but if he plays with “no motor” he’ll be an also-ran.  Professional football’s history is littered with magnificent physical specimens who have been outplayed by shorter, fatter, weaker teammates with bad bodies, stiff joints, balding heads, and great motors.  In fact, one of the dirty little secrets of the National Football League is that for every “best athlete” on the field, there are probably a half dozen or more so-called “high motor” guys who couldn’t win a footrace.

Count on it.

High motor guys may not have the most talent, but they get the most out of what they have.  They are, in a broader vocabulary world, tenacious.  They are relentless.  They are dogged. They are aggressive, earnest, forceful, focused, incessant, persistent, ceaseless, and unremitting.

You get the picture.

Why this matters to you as an executive.

In forming highly executable strategic plans, we always end up in the discussion about talent.  A given organization having the talent to execute a given strategy is not…a given.  So, as practical practitioners, we focus in on the who once the what and when are coming into focus.

Unfortunately, talent discussions can focus in on tangible qualities of individuals and ignore intangibles.  In other words, talent discussions focus on a guy’s time in the footrace vs. productivity on the field.  Only, in a corporate environment, this looks like “where he went to school,” “what degree he has,” “who he has worked for,” and “what business he has been in.”  vs. “what he did to change things while there.”

People with motor in the business world make things happen as individuals.  They may be system players, but they rise above others and show what they can do through their tenacity and relentlessness.

And, you can see it from the earliest points in their career.  High motor professionals do things that others don’t.  They deliver work beyond their years.  They teach themselves.  They think about issues even when they are off the clock. They care about their work as a reflection of themselves. 

In your strategic planning, don’t forget the talent.  In your talent planning, don’t forget the intangibles.

Motor matters.

What do you think?

Got Talent? Prove it.

Talent can only look good on paper for so long.

I happen to follow a certain college football team that has been in the process of breaking in a new quarterback while having–at the same time–one of the most exciting backs in the game. The new quarterback looks good on paper: Big guy, good athlete, strong arm.

Half a season ago, the new quarterback (and, no, there’s no reason to get into names because that would be personal and there’s too much press on these guys as it is) was coming along very slowly.  He wasn’t showing much, but made a few plays.  The coaches would say he was “doing what was needed” while the superstar back did his job and basically carried the team.

Only, the back couldn’t do it all.

And, the quarterback–when asked to do more–hasn’t been able to deliver.  The so-called smart money is starting to move from the incumbent new guy to “player to be named later.”

The quarterback, able to ride along with great talent, didn’t have to make many plays.  But, when it came time for him to actually carry the team, he hasn’t been able to do so.  It’s a truism in sports just as much as it is in business:  When bringing new players online, it’s good to develop them slowly. This is especially true if you can surround your new players with great talent.

But, eventually, the new players have to answer the bell…on their own.

This post is about answering the bell.

The “point” of this post for management and boards

Developing players is a critical part of any manager’s role in an organization. And, knowing whether you’ve chosen the right players is a substantial part of any executive’s or board member’s role.

So, what does my little football vignette tell you?

1. Developing players slowly is fine, but you have to have a glimpse.

Just like the quarterback in my story above, it’s fine to place a new executive in a role and let them get used to the organization and culture before making decisions. It’s fine to move people into roles slowly.  But you have to see something of substance during the transition.

You have to see them want to make a decision or two.

Ask yourself:  Have I seen a glimpse of the production I need from this new player?

2. Surrounding new players with supportive talent is great, but the new player has to bring something to the table.

I’m a big fan of “scaffolding” new hires and new executive teams with supportive structures that get them up to speed. In the story above, our new quarterback has an all-America back in the backfield with him.  That makes things easier.  Surrounding new executives with talented people who provide data, insight, direction, and suggestions goes a long way toward “apprenticing” great new talent.  But, how the new player responds to the scaffolding can be instructive.  You’ve placed a new executive at the head of a team of high talent sales people. Do they start to bring anything to the table, or do they just “hold office?”

If they just hide (or just warm their seat), especially behind other talent, then you need to know that.

Ask yourself: Does the new player produce without leaning inordinately on the talent around them?

3. Eventually, everybody is exposed.

This may be the most important point. In fact, it’s the point that prompted the post.  Eventually, your player’s talent will be tested.  You will have to have your player stand up in front of your board or a key customer and perform.  They will eventually have to answer the call.  Their scaffolding will be stripped away, they will have had enough time to absorb and reflect. They will be laid bare.  What happens then? If you are counting on an incompetent hire–whether it’s your account manager in sales, your VP of HR, or your CEO–to hide forever (or even just until you retire), then you are playing with fire.

Eventually, everybody is exposed. Some are exposed faster than others.

Ask yourself: Will my new player survive exposure as the individual talent they are supposed to be?

4. Other people are watching.

Your new player may take longer than you planned to develop. That can be ok. Unless they are exposed early, timing can be flexible. You hire a new guy to do a bunch of M&A work, and it takes years to get off the ground. That can be fine.  But…and it’s a big but…you have to watch out for collateral damage.  A CEO who comes into a new company with board mandate but without much vision or knowledge can only survive for so long before the executive team and the organization realize the new emperor has no clothes. Same can be said of any new hire or new player.  I’ve witnessed senior leaders who make no decisions of any substance due to their own lack of conviction and knowledge.  They wander hither and yon without any real point of view–letting the rest of the team do the real work.

One senior executive I spent some time around spent more time contemplating the design and furnishing of facility renovations and figuring out ways to manage around board meetings than he ever spent on business strategy, customer value propositions, financial plans, or anything else that might have been “strategic” to an executive of his standing.  Whether through lack of insight, energy, or ability, his “happy place” just wasn’t in actually doing the job of a a senior executive. His people knew it, and it hurt.

If you are the person who hire the “hither and yon” executive, you have to know that such hires reflect on your own competence.

Ask yourself: Is my new hire hurting my organization and my own reputations via his own incompetence?

So what?

All of this is to say one thing:  In the world of strategic management, player selections can only look good on paper for so long.

The players eventually have to show glimpses.

They eventually have to carry the load on their own.

They have to survive exposure.

Your performance depends on it, not to mention your reputation.

What do you think?

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…