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The waiting is the hardest part

There is such a thing as strategic patience…

Geoff Wilson

I have a confession to make:

I’m impatient.  It’s a fundamental trait that I have wrestled with for years.  I’d love to think that I’m not alone and that it’s okay because other people are impatient, too, but the reality is that impatience is not okay.

Urgency is okay in most circumstances, but impatience?  Not really.

This reality has smacked me in the face HARD lately due to an adventure I’ve been on for the past 7 weeks.  A minor fall down some stairs left me with a torn quadriceps tendon.  It turns out that this type of injury is one that, while painful at its onset, is really a test of patience.  Following surgery a number of weeks ago I have been set aside, wings clipped and wheels idled, because I have not been able to bend my right leg.

Why?

Because this particular injury–a grafting of a very large tendon and muscle group back to the bony real estate of my kneecap–has to heal before I get to start rehabilitation. Waiting is actually the right thing to do. It’s excruciating.

And that, like many parts of life, brings to me a question:  While most of us want results and we want them now, is it often healthier to be patient? Is patience a strategic weapon?

Yes! Of course it is!  But we forget this so often.

I’ve witnessed executives wreck M&A negotiations by being impatient.  I’ve witnessed sales efforts scrapped by impatience.  I’ve witnessed promising innovations cast aside by–yep, you guessed it–impatient executives.  I’ve seen extremely valuable assets given away for a pittance by executives with a tyrannical urgency to do…something.

But, how do you know when waiting is actually the strategically correct position?

Usually, it’s the correct position when you know that things will sort.  In other words, if you have the luxury of time to wait to gain additional insight or maturity, then waiting is a strategic option that should be considered.  In most of the generic examples in my prior paragraph you see examples where the fear of missing out interjects to drive really bad decision making.

When in doubt, assess whether you have the ability to exercise a real option to wait.  It’s not always the right option, but it is one that should be on the table.

Sometimes, the time to be aggressive is after you’ve let things settle.

What do you think?

How do you respond to adversity?

Things are going to go sideways…so how do you respond?

Geoff Wilson

No strategy survives contact with the enemy.

That’s a timeless truth that, while written for a military crowd, is valid in all parts of life.

If you don’t like that one, how about this one:  “Man plans…God laughs.”

In other words, no matter how much you think you are in control, there are risk factors to any plan that will prove you are not.  These risk factors create adverse outcomes for your business, or maybe your career.  So, how do you respond to them?  How do you handle adversity?

I could riff here about always having contingency plans and ensuring that you have mitigated key risks across the board.  Those things are important and I certainly preach them to my clients.  Still, what do you do when a true black swan risk shows up in your back yard.  They do happen, and the way people respond to them are absolutely defining.

A famous case is the so-called “Tylenol murders” in the 1980s.  Bottles of Tylenol were laced with cyanide by some nut job (yeah, I know, but I can only call them like I see them).  People were dying.  And, what did Johnson & Johnson–the maker of Tylenol–do?  They pulled all distribution, stopped advertising, and recalled all the product from the shelf.  They absolutely gutted what was no doubt a cash cow for the corporation, and in doing so made a widely praised statement to the world that their focus was on product safety above profit.

I suspect that product tampering may have been on J&J’s radar before the incident, and J&J may have had contingency plans. But in any instance, the response to adversity was a defining moment.  Compare that to today’s situation with opioid pills–distributed to the letter and not the spirit of the law–leading to deaths of tens of thousands of people.  It’s not clear that current makers even have internal contingencies. They are being forced into contingencies by legal and social pressures.  Such inaction has defined perceptions of many drug makers lately as well.

What these cases illustrate is that how one responds to adversity usually tracks very closely to what one values.  When things go sideways (or south), you often are left with only your most basic principles to operate from.

As an individual, your most basic principles may be to ensure your family is provided for and your health isn’t impaired.

As an executive, your most basic principles may be to ensure the survival of the company in trying times.

As a board member, your most basic principles may be to ensure that the company operates both legally and ethically in times of strife.

As a strategist who works to maintain a focus on the real world, I can only say this:  Your plans are likely to succeed only partially, and in some instances, they will fail completely.  It’s in the basic values you espouse that you will find your likely responses to adversity.  Instead of the usual approach to management that involves working the business problem from the top down (e.g., forming a commander’s intent and disseminating it), you suddenly have to work the problem from the bottom up (e.g., falling back on the basic values that you have articulated and built into your organization).

If you don’t have a foundation of values that will allow you to clearly lead through adversity, you are likely to fail.

What do you think?

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?

 

Where heroes go to die

For 95 percent of your business, it’s best to put your heroes in the graveyard.

Geoff Wilson

Meet Sam.

Sam is a hero.  She probably lives in your organization.  She’s the one that “gets things done.”

Product not getting shipped?  Sam is the one on the dock.

Work not getting done on time in the drafting room? Sam has uncanny ability to pitch in and get things over the goal line.

Individuals not delivering their work packages on time in general?  Sam will step in, re-cast the process, lay out for the pass, and ensure that the deadline is met.

Sam knows–or at least is known by–the CEO.  Sam has made a living out of making her bosses look great. The people around Sam may not like Sam that much because of how hard Sam works and/or how much Sam pitches in to do their job, but the reality is that Sam has probably saved them from being fired countless times.

Sam delivers. Sam is a hero.

And, in 95 percent of businesses that I know, the need for Sam’s heroism is a problem.

Why?

Because heroism makes for good beer-drinking stories and for really awful business.  It covers up for bad processes.  It lulls bosses into a false sense of security because “we are always on time” when, in reality, processes are broken, and people are left in tatters by the heroic culture.

It also creates single points of failure.  That is, if the hero gets hit by the proverbial bus, the entire system reverts to chaos.  Chaos is not good.  Your best bet in building a strategically sound business is to eliminate chaos where humanly possible. And, that means (oddly enough) eliminating heroism–the ultimate cover for chaos.  I believe that to be possible in about 95 percent of business processes.  The other 5%?  Those are where we all deal with uncontrollable variables like last minute changes in customer preferences or mercurial executives.  For those, I love heroes.

For the rest?  Use your heroes as indicators of opportunity, not as indicators of success.  Know that an effort at the strategic renewal of your company through thoughtful planning and strategic focus should be a place where heroes go to die.

But beware, because the Sams of the world can turn toxic when it comes to putting a bullet in heroism.  In general, heroes really hate business improvement.  Heroes like Sam often (not always) create job security and ego-stroking visibility through their ability to lay out for the pass.  Heroes often hate it when processes are re-evaluated.  They are the first to bring up terms like bureaucracy and waste of time.  They are the ones who (rightfully) will focus everyone around them on the results, but when everyone around them stops to say “let’s fix the process,” they might say “no thanks, I’m going to go get some more results.”  Sam may be rightfully focused on results (I applaud her), but she may also be protecting a virtual fiefdom of heroism when it comes to opting out of the nearer term process fix.

That, my friends, is ultimately not scalable.  And, that can be toxic.  Sam’s a hero, but toxic Sam is merely another form of a high-performing corporate narcissist.

My advice?  If your heroes live anywhere outside of sales or otherwise in direct interactions with your customer, find a way to put them in the graveyard.  In your strategic efforts, take them to the place where heroes go to die.

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?

Two ways to grow in the new year

If you want to grow this year, do these two things.

I confess, this entire new year thing has gotten ahead of me this year.  I thought it was December and now it’s January.

The new year comes with a sense of renewal.  It comes with a sense of burying all that was “bad” last year and focusing on what we want to succeed at this year.  Only, I think that for most of us that is a totally broken approach to growth–whether growing a business or growing a career or growing a skill-set.  We tend to set resolutions that we know we will break. We stretch only to settle back into our old habits before long.

So what is a person to do in order to win in 2018 (which is right now)?

I’ll offer two things that work for me, and that I think can work for most any executive out there.

First:  Focus on the strengths that you can deploy today.  Sure, sure…you know how to find your strengths. You probably have a winning smile and a wonderful personality, but what if nobody is looking or listening?  You have a problem.  You have the same problem if you have a great product in the pipeline that won’t get out until Q3.  It doesn’t matter that you have the perfect strength “coming.”  What you do with what you have today is what matters. So, focus on what you can do…right now.

Second:  Listen to your weaknesses. This is extremely hard for most executives to do–especially those who have mastered the spin of their “greatest weakness” being simply a strength in disguise (you know the ones: they always have an answer for how their weakness isn’t really a weakness). Like it or not, most executives (not you, but people you know) got where they are by sidestepping their weaknesses, not by confronting them head on.  I’m not saying “shore up your weaknesses,” I’m saying listen to them.  Find ways to grow from what you learn about your weak supply chain, or your weak sales force, or your (personally) weak communication skills.

Building on your deployable strengths and learning from your present weaknesses might just be your recipe for “better” this year…which means better right now.

Just to show that none of this is new (you didn’t really think it was, anyway), I’ll leave you with a fantastic lyric that implores you to focus on these two objectives. It’s a piece of the song Anthem by the late Leonard Cohen.  Take a moment to read it:

Ring the bells that still can ring.

Forget your perfect offering.

There is a crack, a crack in everything.

That’s how the light gets in.

As you blast into this year, think about the bells you can still ring–now. Forget about the perfect strength–focus on what you have today. And, perhaps most importantly, find the light that comes through the cracks in your armor by listening to your weaknesses.

That’s how the light gets in.

Happy new year!

Who is defending your customer?

When you are setting strategy, who plays the customer advocate role?

Geoff Wilson

In a meeting this week with a very thoughtful management team that was in the midst of a heated discussion, the CEO made a comment that stuck with me.

He noted that one of the more direct and opinionated voices in the room was “defending the customer” while talking about strategic priorities.

And that got me thinking:  When you are building your strategy, do you ensure that the customer has an advocate in the room?  We talk about the voice of the customer as if having it in the mix automatically means something, but what if the voice of the customer doesn’t have an advocate?  What if it’s just another “opinion” in the room?

That would be a tragedy.

When you are planning your strategy, think about how to ensure that the customer’s point of view is not only known, but actively represented in the room.  That may be as simple as designating a customer advocate in your strategic discussions, or it may mean actually bringing customers into the room.

You never know what you might learn, or what you might prevent yourself from doing.

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. 

To build a fully-aware business strategy, you need a dose of meta

A fully aware business strategy must consider the trend behind the trend. Finding meta trends can accelerate and sharpen your thinking.

Geoff Wilson

Great business strategy is–to put it simply–aware. It is aware of the market, it is aware of capabilities, it is aware of trends: both micro and mega trends.  But I’m going to go out on a limb and say that while most deliberately built business strategies are aware of micro-trends–trends that drive choices on customers, products, etc.–and plenty of those strategies are aware of mega-trends–trends that drive choices based on overarching facts are driving overall opportunity, risk, and performance–far too many strategic plans are ignorant of meta trends.

Meta trends are the higher order effects of known trends. They are the trends behind the trend, if you will. These are the things that ensure enduring success or crushing failure.

Meta trends are the trends that managers wave away when thinking about strategy because they don’t fit the framework. Higher order impacts of known trends need to be considered for a strategy to be truly aware. Things like increasing frustration with change programs, disengagement due to poor decision making approaches, or customer angst that is just below the surface and that can’t be surveyed are perhaps acknowledged, but they often don’t get built into the plan as worthy trends.

So, you have to ask yourself: what is meta in your organization? An example of a meta trend at the micro level might be a lack of confidence in a specific manager, team, or organization to carry out a mission that is critical to the business strategy. Plenty of highly skilled managers have dropped the ball enough for those around them to lose confidence.  You may know that you need to shore up delivery in that person or organization as a part of your strategy, but what if the “meta” reality is the organization just doesn’t have any confidence? 

Another example might be a higher order impact of a known demographic change. Your workforce is going from young to middle-aged. Does the shift in quantitative age portend a shift in willingness to sacrifice for the organization?  Some regard a workforce that is entering maturity as a clear strength, but a meta trend might be that the workforce won’t work like it used to. That’s important to know. You might think differently if you know your workforce’s values are changing even as the names on the roster are not.

A final example, and a significant meta trend for your organization, might be secondary impacts from known changes in the way people are working. We love the capabilities that come with digital transformations, but do we realize the meta trend of analysis paralysis that can come from the ubiquity of data?  Are we fighting it? Similarly, connectivity is a plus, but what are the productivity implications of a workforce that is constantly fighting distractions?  These are real “meta” issues that come from commonly understood “mega” trends.

The bottom line to this thought is that we often invest time to understand first order trends.  These trends are worthy of consideration. But, to build a fully aware strategy we have to get better at looking at the higher order effects of known trends.

Try it out. Be “meta” for a while and see what happens.

I would love to have your thoughts on this one, including any examples of missed meta trends.