Archive for June, 2008

Leading by Example

Monday, June 30th, 2008

I was privileged to hear General Mills CEO Steve Sanger tell 90 of his colleagues: “As you all know, last year my team told me that I needed to do a better job of coaching my direct reports. I just reviewed my 360-degree feedback. I have been working on becoming a better coach for the past year or so. I’m still not doing quite as well as I want, but I’m getting a lot better. My coworkers have been helping me improve. Another thing that I feel good about is the fact that my scores on ‘effectively responds to feedback’ are so high this year.”

While listening to Steve speak so openly to coworkers about his efforts to develop himself as a leader, I realized how much the world has changed. Twenty years ago, few CEOs received feedback from their colleagues. Even fewer candidly discussed that feedback and their personal developmental plans. Today, many of the world’s most respected chief executives are setting a positive example by opening up, striving continually to develop themselves as leaders.

In fact, organizations that do the best job of cranking out leaders tend to have CEOs like Steve Sanger who are directly and actively involved in leadership development. That has certainly been my experience.  This has also been confirmed by Hewitt Associates, one of the largest HR consulting firms. Hewitt and Chief Executive magazine put General Mills on their latest list of the top-20 companies for leaders, among such familiar names as IBM and General Electric.

Hewitt found that these organizations tend to more actively manage their talent. They put lots of focus on identifying high-potential people, better differentiate compensation, serve up the right kinds of development opportunities, and closely watch turnover. But crucial to all these efforts were CEO support and involvement.

No question, one of the best ways top executives can get their leaders to improve is to work on improving themselves. Leading by example can mean a lot more than leading by public-relations hype.

Michael Dell, whose company made the Hewitt list, is a perfect example. As one of the most successful leaders in business history, he could easily have an attitude that says, “I am Michael Dell and you aren’t! I don’t really need to work on developing myself.”

Michael, however, has the opposite approach. He has done an amazing job of sincerely discussing his personal challenges with leaders across the company. He is a living case study from whom everyone at Dell is learning. His leadership example makes it hard for any leader to act arrogant or to communicate that he or she has nothing to improve upon.

Johnson & Johnson, tied for first on the top-20 list, has successfully involved its executives in leadership development. Its CEOs and top executive team regularly participate in a variety of leadership-building activities. Having a dialogue with the CEO about his business challenges and developmental needs makes it a lot easier for employees to discuss their own business challenges and developmental needs.

Executive candor can even help turn around a troubled company. Consider Northrop Grumman, the aerospace defense contractor. CEO Kent Kresa inherited a company that had a poor reputation for integrity, a battered stock price, and an unfortunate reputation as one of the least-admired companies in its industry. His leadership team reversed the company’s poor image and engineered an amazing turnaround – ultimately becoming the Forbes’ most-admired company.

From the beginning of the process, Kent led by example. He communicated clear expectations for ethics, values, and behavior. He made sure that he was evaluated by the same standards that he set for everyone else. He consistently reached out to coworkers. He didn’t just work to develop his leaders–he created an environment in which the company’s leaders were working to develop him.

Unfortunately, in the same way that CEO support and involvement can help companies nurture leaders, CEO arrogance can have the opposite effect. When the boss acts like a little god and tells everyone else they need to improve, that behavior can be copied at every level of management. Every level then points out how the level below it needs to change. The end result: No one gets much better.

The principle of leadership development by personal example doesn’t apply just to CEOs. It applies to all levels of management. All good leaders want their people to grow and develop on the job. Who knows? If we work hard to improve ourselves, we might even encourage the people around us to do the same thing.

Life is good.


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When to Win

Tuesday, June 17th, 2008

The most common behavior problem I have found in the executives I have worked with is an obsession with winning - and this isn’t just CEO’s.

It’s common in most highly successful people, including me. When the issue is important, naturally we all want to win. But if it’s trivial, we still want to win. Even if it’s not worth our time, or it’s to our disadvantage, we often try to win anyway.

Here is an example of what I’m talking about.  You want to go to dinner at restaurant X. Your spouse wants to go to dinner to restaurant Y. You have a heated debate. You go to restaurant Y. The food’s bad, the service is awful. Now you’ve got two options.

Option A - critique the food, point out to your spouse how wrong he or she was and how this debacle could have been avoided if he or she had listened to you. Option B - be quiet, eat the food, and try to have a nice evening.

What do 75% of my executive clients say they would do in this situation? Critique the food. What do they agree they should do? Shut up. If they do a cost-benefit analysis, they realize that their marriage is more important than winning the argument.

So I tell my clients, “Before you get into any conflict, take a deep breath and ask yourself, ‘Is it worth it? What do I have to gain by winning? What do I have to lose?’ “

A related problem is what I call adding too much value. Imagine you’re the CEO. I come to you with an idea that you think is very good, but rather than just say, “Great idea!”, your tendency - because you have to win - is to say, “Good idea, but do it this way.”

Well, you may have improved the quality of my idea by 5%, but you’ve reduced my commitment to executing it by 30% because you took away my ownership.

The higher up you get on the corporate ladder, the more you need to make other people winners, and not make it about winning yourself.

One of my clients said once he got into the habit of taking a breath before he talked, he realized about half of what he was going to say wasn’t worth saying. Even though he thought he was right, he realized he had more to gain by not winning.My parting advice:  Don’t always insist on winning.

Sometimes you have more to gain by not winning.

Before you get into any conflict, ask yourself what you have to gain by winning, or what you stand to lose.

Life is good.


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Our Stories - Our Traps

Monday, June 9th, 2008

Have you ever noticed how often people describe themselves in disparaging ways? More importantly … have you ever heard yourself saying something like this:

“I am a terrible listener. I’ve been told that for years. People at work tell me I’m a bad listener. So does my wife. I guess that’s just the way I am.”

It’s amazing how often I hear otherwise brilliant leaders make counterproductive, stereotypical comments about themselves.

You’ve surely heard them. Maybe you’ve used them to describe yourself:

• “I’m impatient!”

• “I’m always behind.”

• “I always put things off!”

We often talk about ourselves as if we have permanent genetic flaws that can never be altered.

Our personal stereotyping may originate from stories about us that have been repeated for years–often from as far back as childhood. These stories may have no basis in fact. But they can set low expectations that produce self-fulfilling prophecies, which seem to prove that our negative expectations were correct.

I’m a good example of this. I was brought up in a small town. Growing up in Valley Station, Kentucky, I might naturally have become involved in cars, tools, and mechanical things. My dad had a two-pump gas station. Many of my friends liked to work on cars and race them on weekends at the local drag strip.

As a child, however, I gained a different set of expectations from my mom. Almost from birth, I was told, “Marshall, you are extremely smart. In fact, you are the smartest little boy in Valley Station.” She told me that I wasn’t just going to go to college–I could go to graduate school! She also said, “Marshall, you have no mechanical skills, and you will never have any mechanical skills for the rest of your life!” (I don’t think she wanted me to pump gas, change tires and work on cars at the service station.)

How did these expectations affect my development? I was never encouraged to work on cars or be around tools. Not only did my parents know that I had no mechanical skills, my friends knew it. When I was 18 years old, I took the U.S. Army’s Mechanical Aptitude Test. My scores were in the bottom two percentile for the entire nation! In other words, I was soundly defeated by random chance.

Six years later, however, I was at UCLA, working on my PhD. One of my professors, Dr. Bob Tannenbaum, asked me to write down things I did well and things I couldn’t do. On the positive side, I jotted down, “research,” “writing,” “analysis,” and “speaking.” (In other words, I wrote, “I am smart.”) On the negative side, I wrote, “I have no mechanical skills. I will never have any mechanical skills.”

Bob asked me how I knew I had no mechanical skills. I explained my life history and told him about my dismal showing on the Army test. “How are your mathematical skills?” he asked. I proudly replied that I had scored a perfect 800 on the SAT math 1 achievement test.

Bob then asked, “Why is it that you can solve complex mathematical problems, but you can’t solve simple mechanical problems?” Then he asked, “How is your hand-eye coordination?” I said that I was good at pinball and had helped pay for my college expenses by shooting pool, so I guessed that it was fine.

Bob asked, “Why is it that you can shoot pool, but you can’t hammer nails?”

Suddenly, I realized that I did not suffer from some sort of genetic defect. I was just living out expectations that I had chosen to believe. At that point, it wasn’t just my family and friends who had been reinforcing my belief that I was mechanically hopeless. And it wasn’t just the Army test, either.

I was the one who kept telling myself, “You can’t do this!” I realized that as long as I kept saying that, it was going to remain true.

The next time you hear yourself say, “I’m just no good at . . .” ask yourself why not. The next time you’re coaching someone, and he or she says, “I’m just no good at . . .” ask them why not.

If we don’t treat ourselves–and the people around us–as if we have incurable genetic defects, we can get better at almost anything we choose. Why not?

Life is good.


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Mission or Goal

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2008

In the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai, the main character, Colonel Nicholson, is a prisoner of war in Burma who leads his men to build a bridge for his Japanese captors. Nicholson is an officer of high integrity, dedicated to excellence, a great leader of people - and thus well trained to complete any mission that he is given.

So he skillfully inspires his men to build a near-perfect bridge. By the film’s end, he finds himself in the painful position of defending the bridge from attack by fellow British officers who want to destroy it - to prevent Japanese trains from using it.

There’s a chilling moment of realization, right before the bridge is detonated, when Nicholson (played by Alec Guinness) utters the famous line, “What have I done?” He was so focused on his goal - building the bridge - that he forgot his larger mission - winning the war!

That is goal obsession, which is a subset of wanting to win too much. It rears its ugly head in many ways. In its broadest form, it’s the force at play when we get so wrapped up in achieving our goal that, like Colonel Nicholson, we do it at the expense of a larger mission.

It’s one of those paradoxical traits that are usually the sources of our success, but taken too far can become blatant causes of failure. You see this when people become fixated on the wrong goals. Given their history of success, they end up achieving a result that does more damage than good to their organizations, their families, and themselves.

The canyons of Wall Street are littered with victims of goal obsession. I asked one hard-driving deal maker, “Mike, why do you work all of the time?” He replied, “Why do you think? Do you think I love this place? I am working so hard because I want to make a lot of money!”

I continued my inquiry, “Do you really need this much money?”

“I do now,” Mike grimaced. “I just got divorced for the third time. With three alimony checks every month, I am almost broke.”

“Why do you keep getting divorced?” I asked.

The answer came out as a sad sigh. “All three wives kept complaining that I worked all the time. They have no idea how hard it is to make this much money!”

This sort of classic goal obsession would be laughable if the irony — or more accurately, the failure to appreciate the irony — weren’t so painful.

One of the most ironic examples of goal obsession was the “Good Samaritan” research done by Darley and Batson at Princeton in 1973. In this widely referenced study, a group of theology students was told that they were to go across campus to deliver a sermon on the topic of the Good Samaritan.

As part of the research, some of these students were told that they were late and needed to hurry up. Along their route across campus, Darley and Batson had hired an actor to play the role of a victim who was coughing and suffering.

Ninety percent of the “late” students in Princeton Theology Seminary ignored the needs of the suffering person in their haste to get across campus. As the study reports, “Indeed, on several occasions, a seminary student going to give his talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan literally stepped over the victim as he hurried on his way!”

What’s happening here? Goal obsession clouded their judgment. They were under time pressure. They were in a hurry. They had deadlines. They were going to do something that they thought was important. Other people were depending on them. And in that hothouse of circumstances, their goals got warped. After all, when people committed to hitting their targets pick the wrong one — when they focus on the bridge and not the war — somebody may end up getting hurt.

Try this. It’s simple, but not easy.

Step back, take a breath, and look around.

Survey the conditions that are making you obsessed with the wrong goals.

Remember that time and deadline pressures come with being a leader. We confront them every minute of every day. They do not go away.

This makes it all the more important to reflect upon our work, match it up against the life we want to live, and consider, “What am I doing?” and “Why am I doing this?”

Ask yourself, “Am I achieving a task and forgetting my organization’s mission? Am I making money to support my family — and forgetting the family that I am trying to support?”

After all this effort and display of professional prowess, you don’t want to find yourself at a dead end, asking, “What have I done?”

Life is good.