Archive for October, 2008

Understanding and Follow up

Sunday, October 26th, 2008

A few years ago, I was in a doctor’s office dealing with back problems (aggravated by my constant air travel). After running a few tests, the doctor sat me down and rattled off 10 different exercises that I was supposed to do regularly. He spoke very quickly. Knowing what I know about communication, I realized that there was no way I was going to remember what he said, much less understand it or do it! He assumed that once he had made the correct diagnosis and told me what to do, his job was done. He had checked the box on his to-do list. Time for the next patient!

One of the great causes of corporate dysfunction is the glaring gap between “I say” and “they do.” It’s a huge false assumption to believe that just because people understand, then they will do. Like this doctor, leaders all too often believe that their organizations operate with strict down-the-chain-of-command efficiency.

I dealt with this head-on with a client, a CEO of a major high-tech firm. He was 54 years old with a degree from MIT. He was also — like most of my clients — extremely action-oriented and impatient. Surveys indicated that his employees felt they didn’t understand the company’s mission and overall direction.

“I don’t get it,” he groaned. “I clearly articulated the mission and direction in our team meeting. I’ve summarized it in a memo, which was immediately distributed. See, here’s the memo! What more do they want?”

I thought he was kidding, that he had a very refined sense of irony. Making people understand the company’s mission doesn’t happen by fiat. It also doesn’t happen overnight. Surely this smart CEO understood how difficult it was to communicate even a simple message. But by the pained expression on his face, I could see he was serious and (if only in this one area of management) clueless.

“Let’s review,” I said. “How was this memo distributed?”

“By email,” he replied. “It went to everyone.”

“Okay. How many people actually read the memo?”

“I’m not sure,” he said.

“Of those who read the email, how many do you think understood the message?”

He thought for a second and said, “I don’t know.”

“Of those who understood it, how many actually believed it was serious - not just PR hype?”

He shook his head.

“Of this dwindling group of believers, how many remembered it?”

Another sorry head shake.

“That’s a lot of unknowns for something you regard as vital to your company’s existence,” I said. “But that’s not the worst part. Once you eliminate all those people — and it’s quite possible there aren’t many people left — how many people do you think will change their behavior based upon the memo? How many will begin living and breathing the company’s mission because of your memo?”

The CEO just grimaced and shrugged his shoulders.

I tried to revive his spirits by pointing out that the deeper issue was his mistaken belief about communication, not this memo.

“The only thing you’re guilty of,” I said, “was that you checked the box. You thought your job was done when you articulated the mission and wrote the memo, just one more item on your to-do list. You moved on. Mentally, you smiled and said, ‘Next!’ ”

Like most extremely busy leaders, this CEO wanted to believe that after he communicated direction, people heard him, understood him, believed him, and then executed.

I can understand why executives persist in thinking this way. We all want to believe that our comments have great meaning. We usually assume that the people around us are smart, and they can understand what we’re saying and see the value of our remarks. We’re often busy and overcommitted. We all wish we could just move on to the next item on our list.

The good news for every manager, including my CEO friend, is that this false belief has a simple cure. It’s called “follow-up.” After communicating, follow up to make sure that people really understand, talk with them to get a read of their buy-in, and involve them to make sure that they’re committed to execution. Follow-up may take a little time, but it’s less than the time wasted on miscommunication.

Life is good.


Upcoming Events

October 29, 2008 - Japanese Business Executives - Tokoyo, Japan

October 30, 2008 - Japanese Business Coaches - Tokoyo, Japan

December 2, 2008 in San Francisco - Linkage: “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There” one day program

Finding a Great Coach

Monday, October 20th, 2008

How do you find the right coach for you?

First, ask the prospective coach, “What do you specialize in? What are you best at?”

I often hear, “A great coach does this, and a great coach does that”, as if there’s some generic perfect coach. I don’t believe that. Many coaches will say they can address whatever problem you have when they have no business trying to fix problems they don’t know anything about. Good coaches specialize. Get the right coach for the specific problem.

There are two mistakes executive clients often make in working with a coach. The first, as I’ve said, is getting the wrong coach. The second is to expect that it’s the coach’s responsibility to make you change. It’s not the coach’s job, it’s yours. Too many people think a “celebrity coach” will solve their problems. That’s like thinking you’ll get in shape if you have the world’s best personal trainer.

I have a track record for helping executives change. What am I doing that’s different?

A key thing is, I don’t hold myself up as “coach as expert”. I’m much more “coach as facilitator”. Most of what my clients learn about themselves, they don’t learn from me. They learn from their friends and colleagues and family. Anybody around you can help you change, and they can help you more than an executive coach can.

Let’s say you want to do a better job of listening. Rather than having some coach explain to you how to be a great listener, what you need to do is ask the people around you, “What are some ways I can do a better job of listening to you?” They’re going to give you concrete ideas that relate to them, how they perceive you as a listener, not the generic ideas a coach would give. The real coach isn’t me, it’s the people around you. If you want a better relationship with customers, who needs to be your coach? Your customers. If you want a better relationship with co-workers, who needs to be the coach? Your co-workers.

The outcome I measure is the perception of change. How do my client’s colleagues think he or she is doing? It’s much harder to change people’s perceptions of someone’s behavior than to actually change that behavior.

Let’s say the behavioral problem you want to fix is that you make too many destructive comments. Scenario A - you assume the way to fix it is to tell people you’re going to change and you’ll quit making destructive comments. But the reaction will be skepticisim. And if you have one slip-up six months later, you call some guy in finance an “incompetent bean counter”, it will confirm your colleagues’ perception of you.

Scenario B - you tell people you’re going to change, you quit making destructive comments, and you follow up. After two months, you ask your colleagues, “How am I doing at not making destructive comments?” And they’ll say, “Gee, I don’t think I’ve heard any.” Their skepticism goes down a notch. You check in at four months, then six months. Each time, they confirm you’re doing better. Not only has your behavior changed, most important, their perception of your behavior has also changed. So now, if you slip up with the guy in finance, your colleagues will likely see it as a temporary lapse.

Your approach is to target a problem behavior and change it. Some critics say that’s a flawed approach because it ignores the possibly deep psychological bases of behavior. I don’t agree with that. Therapy is valuable for some types of problems, but it generally isn’t relevant for the behavioral issues I work with.

Virtually everybody I coach has reasons that are “not his fault” that make him behave the way he does. I just tell them, “Let that go. Focus on what you can change.”

When you’re over 50, blaming mom and dad is weak. Can you imagine a CEO sitting down with people and saying, “You know, I make too many destructive comments, and I analyzed why. It’s because of my father”? Forget it!

The message is, “You’re an adult. Grow up! Take responsibility for your behavior.”

It’s much harder to change what people think of your behavior than to actually change that behavior. To change others’ perception of you, first target a problem behavior, tell them you’re going to change, follow up with action, and check your progress with these people at regular intervals. That way, they are made aware of the progress you’ve made.

Life is good.



Influencing Up

Monday, October 6th, 2008

“The great majority of people tend to focus downward.  They are occupied with efforts rather than results.  They worry over what the organization and their superiors ‘owe’ them and should do for them.  And they are conscious above all of the authority they ‘should have’.  As a result they render themselves ineffectual”.  -  Peter Drucker

Peter Drucker has written extensively about the impact of the knowledge worker on modern organizations.  Knowledge workers can be defined as people who know more about what they are doing than their managers do.  While many knowledge workers have years of education and experience in training for their positions, they often have little training in how to effectively influence upper management.  As Peter has noted, “The greatest wisdom not applied to action and behavior is meaningless data.”

The ten guidelines listed below are intended to help you do a better job of influencing your upper management.  I hope that you find them useful in helping you convert your good ideas into meaningful action!

1) When presenting ideas to upper management, realize that it is your responsibility to sell – not their responsibility to buy.

In many ways, influencing up is similar to selling products or services to external customers.  They don’t have to buy – you have to sell!  Any good salesperson takes responsibility for achieving results.  No one is impressed with salespeople who blame their customers for not buying their products.

If more time were spent on developing our ability to present ideas, and less time were spent on blaming management for not buying our ideas, a lot more might get accomplished.

The effective upward influencer needs to be a good teacher.  Good teachers realize the communicating knowledge is often a greater challenge than possessing knowledge.

2) Focus on contribution to the larger good – not just the achievement of your objectives.

An effective salesperson would never say to a customer, “You need to buy this product, because if you don’t, I won’t achieve my objectives!”

Effective salespeople relate to the needs of the buyers, not to their own needs.  In the same way effective upward influencers relate to the larger needs of the organization, not just to the needs of their unit or team.

3) Strive to win the “big battles” – don’t waste your energy and “psychological capital” on trivial points.

Executive’s time is very limited.  Do a thorough analysis of ideas before “challenging the system”.  Don’t waste time on issues that will only have a negligible impact on results.  Focus on issues that will make a real difference.  Be willing to “lose” on small points.

4) Present a realistic “cost-benefit” analysis of your ideas – don’t just sell benefits.

Every organization has limited resources, time and energy.  The acceptance of your idea may well mean the rejection of another idea that someone else believes is wonderful.  Be prepared to have a realistic discussion of the costs of your idea.  Acknowledge the fact that something else may have to be sacrificed in order to have your idea implemented.

By getting ready for a realistic discussion of costs, you can “prepare for objections” to your idea before they occur.  You can acknowledge the sacrifice that someone else may have to make and point out how the benefits of your plan may outweigh the costs.

5) “Challenge up” on issues involving ethics or integrity – never remain silent on ethics violations.

The best of corporations can be severely damaged by only one violation of corporate integrity.  Hopefully, you will never be asked to do anything by the management of your corporation that represents a violation of corporate ethics.  If you are, refuse to do it and immediately let upper management know of your concerns.  This action needs to be taken for the ultimate benefit of your company, your customers, your co-worker and yourself.

When challenging up try not to assume that management has intentionally requested you to do something wrong.  In some cases, inappropriate requests may be made because of misunderstandings or poor communication.  Try to present your case in a manner that is intended to be helpful, not judgmental.

6) Realize that your upper managers are just as “human” as you are – don’t say, “I am amazed that someone at this level…”

Even the best of leaders are human.  We all make mistakes.  When your managers make mistakes, focus more on helping them than judging them.

7) Treat upper managers with the same courtesy that you would treat partners or customers - don’t be disrespectful.

While it is important to avoid “kissing up” to upper management, it is just as important to avoid the opposite reaction.  A surprising number of middle managers spend hours “trashing” the company and its executives or making destructive comments about other co-workers.

Before speaking it is generally good to ask four questions:

a.         Will this comment help our company?

b.         Will this comment help our customers?

c.         Will this comment help the person that I am talking to?

d.         Will this comment help the person that I am talking about?

If the answers are no, no, no and no – don’t say it!  There is a big difference between total honesty and dysfunctional disclosure.  As we discussed earlier, it is always important to “challenge up” on integrity issues.  It is often inappropriate to “trash down” when making personal attacks.

8) Support the final decision of the team – don’t say, “They made me tell you” to direct reports.

Assuming that the final decision of the team is not immoral, illegal or unethical – go out and try to make it work!  A simple guideline for communicating difficult decisions is to ask, “How would I want someone to communicate to their people if they were passing down my final decision and they disagreed with me?”  Treat your manager in the same way that you would want to be treated if the roles were reversed.

9) Make a positive difference – don’t just try to “win” or “be right”.

We can easily become more focused on what others are doing wrong, than how we can make things better.  An important guideline in influencing up is to always remember your goal – make a positive difference for the organizations.

Corporations are different that academic institutions.  In an academic institution the goal may be sharing ideas, not impacting the world.  Hours of acrimonious debate can be perfectly acceptable. In a corporation, sharing ideas without having an impact is worse than useless.  It is a waste of the stockholders money and a distraction from serving customers.

When I was interviewed in the Harvard Business Review, I was asked, “What is the most common ‘area for improvement’ for the executives that you meet?  My answer was “winning too much”.  Focus on making a difference.  The more other people can “be right” or “win” with your idea, the more likely your idea is to be successfully executed.

10) Focus on the future – “let go” of the past.

One of the most important behaviors to avoid is “whining” about the past.  Successful people love getting ideas aimed at helping them achieve their goals for the future.  We dislike being “proven wrong” because of our mistakes in the past.  By focusing on the future you can concentrate on what can be achieved tomorrow, as opposed to what was not achieved yesterday.  This future orientation may dramatically increase your odds on effectively influencing up.  It will also help you build better long-term relationships with people at all levels of your organization.

In summary, think of the years that you have spent “perfecting your craft”.  Think of all of the knowledge that you have accumulated.  Think about how your knowledge can potentially benefit your organization.  How much energy have you invested in acquiring all of this knowledge?  How much energy have you invested in learning to present this knowledge – so that you can make a real difference?

My hope that by making a small investment in learning to influence up, you can make a large, positive difference for the future of your organization!

Life is good.


Upcoming Events

October 8, 2008 - Boston - Linkage: “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There” one day program

October 13, 2008 - Palm Desert, CA - Global Institute of Leadership Development - Register with discount: GILD08-PW

October 29, 2008 - Japanese Business Executives - Tokoyo, Japan

October 30, 2008 - Japanese Business Coaches - Tokoyo, Japan

December 2, 2008 in San Francisco - Linkage: “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There” one day program