Schachter Consulting


Helping Leaders and Their Teams

Enduring Foundations of Leadership

April 26th, 2012

While Diane Brady’s brilliant debut Fraternity isn’t a “Leadership” book, it still might be the most important one I’ve read in a while.

It’s a challenge keeping up with all of the “new discoveries” of esoteric practices distinguishing truly effective leaders.  Amazon allocates 75,000 hits of virtual “shelf space” to the genre.  Some works emphasize how well you strategize.  Others tout execution on core processes.  Many stress emotional and social intelligence.

And yet, follow the news and what leadership behaviors will you observe?  Senior military officials overstating the success of high-stakes interventions abroad.  Technology standard-bearers manufacturing products through third party sweatshops to maximize profits and plausibly deny culpability.  Successful university sports programs overlooking criminal behavior in their leadership.  Financial Services institutions betting against their clients.

If you’re weary of the seemingly endless disappointments in our institutions and the people who lead them, read Fraternity and meet Father Brooks.  The Reverend John E. Brooks was a theology professor at the virtually all-white College of the Holy Cross, during the 1960’s, committed to racially integrating the school.  His argument was simple.  All learners deserved to benefit from the diversity and development of the widest swath of future leaders.  Squandering the strengths and talents African-American students could bring to Holy Cross was therefore unacceptable.

Belief was not enough.  Father Brooks drove his vision hard.  He took it upon himself to convince the college to put up scholarships.  He personally identified high-achieving and high-potential African American high schoolers and took to the road to sell them on largely Irish Worcester, Massachusetts.  With consistency of purpose and action, he attentively nurtured, mentored and repeatedly went to bat for the students with the Administration and Trustees during a time of unprecedented social upheaval, confusion and instability.

To be sure, the story is mainly about the hard-won achievements of a group of remarkable young men.  Among Father Brooks’ twenty recruits in 1968 were top defense attorney Theodore Wells, Pulitzer Prize winner for literature Edward P. Jones, Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas and other noteworthy successes.  Their individual accomplishments and proven talents notwithstanding, many alums continue to place credit with John Brooks.  Without him, “none of us would have made it,” Brady recounts one telling her.

Fraternity reads well, drawing you in quickly and holding your attention throughout.  If you read it with a view to the leadership angle, Fr. Brooks’ behavior demonstrates a four-prong model of leadership people used to unselfconsciously term “moral authority.”  Simply put, he had a (1) clear vision of a future (2) promoting shared benefit, which he (3) pushed toward with stubborn flexibility, consistently upholding his (4) personal accountability.  Rather than acting to promote his own financial security, position of power, or even social standing, he committed to serve as a vehicle for achieving something of intrinsic value.

Maybe, Fr. Brooks’ leadership model will cycle back into vogue soon.  I’m hoping so.

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How to MORPH Your Leadership Brand

September 6th, 2011

In my last post, What Corporate Logos and Digital Cameras Tell Us About Change, I described a dilemma you might face when striving to reverse negative perceptions about you.  That is, what if you’ve earnestly adopted new behaviors and approaches but your organization won’t allow you to change?  In other words, what if others are dead-stuck in their perceptions of you?  What if they have “emotional expectations” of – or are just plain invested in – your existing brand?

My recommendation is that you M-O-R-P-H to rewire their expectations.  Here’s a five-step formula:

1.  Enlist your Manager.  Explain what you’re doing and ask your boss to fly air cover.  It is foundational that this person visibly stands up for you to create the space for perception-change.  Understand, however, that you’re asking a lot.  This is the same boss who might have recently told her higher ups – and maybe even your peers – that you weren’t promotable.  Win her over.

2.  Oxygenate the problem areas.  A wildly successful marketer once advised me that when an offering has a shortcoming “if you can’t hide it, then feature it!”  Air it out.  Commission HR to provide you with a 360-degree assessment and feedback.  Strategically select respondents.  In addition to the standard complement of boss, peers and direct reports, invite key organizational influencers and opinion leaders.  Ask humbly for help and you will predispose a person to your emerging improvements.

3.  It’s now time to Reframe the perceptions.  Based on the feedback, commit to a development plan.  Vet it with your boss and ask for his input.  Distil it into talking points and meet with each individual that participated in the 360 as well as all others you see key.  Tell them what you learned and tell them what you’re doing about it.  This primes them to discard their newly obsolete emotional expectations of you.

4.  Now, Prove it!  Your parents always said that actions speak louder than words, didn’t they?  Undertake a project that showcases the new-and-improved you by demonstrating “disconfirming” behaviors and approaches.  Here are some examples.  (a) If you are reputed to drive results uncollaboratively, assemble a cross-functional, multi-level diagonal cut of the organization and identify a nagging organizational dysfunction.  Go against type and revel in methodically tackling it with every constituency represented. (b) If the rap on you is that you’re great with the numbers, but don’t inspire your team, plan an offsite to share your vision.  (c) If others believe you’re strategic at the expense of implementation, roll up your sleeves and try a deep dive.

5.  Finally, Honor those who’ve helped your turnaround.  Find a time and a way to thank every single person you can . . . whether they rooted for you or not.  Your boosters will enjoy the acknowledgement and recognize that their investment of political capital appreciated.  Detractors will find your confident magnanimity unnerving.  Sensing the shift in popular opinion, they will likely resign themselves to the reality of your successful re-branding.

Recognize that you didn’t build your current brand overnight.  Patiently and tenaciously MORPH expectations following these steps. It’s up to you.

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The King’s Coach

February 8th, 2011

To be sure, The King’s Speech is an engaging film worth seeing.  It’s well written, brilliantly acted and – historicity aside – compelling and uplifting.  Watching it, I smiled as I noticed another, probably unintended, achievement: it’s an outstanding example of a thriving CXO executive coaching engagement.

The film begins in 1925 and follows Prince Albert’s quest to overcome a debilitating stammer.  He works with multiple specialists before engaging Lionel Logue, an unrealized actor turned speech therapist-cum-coach. They develop a tight working relationship through and beyond Albert’s ascending the throne as King George VI in 1936.

The Free Choice:

There’s a riddle we coaches have appropriated from the shrinks: how many coaches does it take to change a light bulb?  Answer: just one, but the bulb has to want to change.

First comes the coachee’s free choice and commitment to the development process.   Not unlike Prince Albert (“Bertie”), any CXO looking for professional development support is in a precarious spot.  He may fret his constituents (e.g., Board, leadership team, analysts, business press) expect a senior executive “fully formed” upon arrival at the top.  Of course, top performing artists and world-class athletes know from experience that coaches are essential to challenge tired assumptions, improve technique, and speak truth to power when others won’t.  This is not in spite of the scrutiny from onlooking constituents, but rather because of it.  So, to make the work stick, the CXO has to be bought in.  Bertie understands that his duty to inspire the people of Britain requires him to confront his shortcoming, and that this will take outside help.  Period.

The Safe Space:

Logue is deliberate in creating a safe space for the work.  As the master coach, he knows that as Bertie works on technique, he will also need to cognitively explore his presenting problem to untangle it and problem-solve alternatives for action.  So, Logue purposefully creates the conditions for Bertie to acquire self-awareness and loosen up enough to embrace the self-consciously awkward muscle and breath-control techniques.

Like Logue, the CXO coach understands that this isn’t psychotherapy or worse, new age squish.  It’s a confidential context for the exec to make honest disclosures and discuss real topics.  The coach must toggle roles to elicit and engage the exec’s specific moments of insight.  Always the confidante, the coach is also at various times catalyst, facilitator, devil’s advocate, cajoler, midwife or refuge.  This is where coaching as an art is practiced.

The Chemistry:

Foundational to a successful CXO-Coach partnership is relationship chemistry.  When they first meet, Logue addresses Prince Albert by his familial nickname, Bertie.  The Prince bristles at the profound protocol breach but Logue persists in order to connect as equals, undefined by status or station.  It needn’t approach the professional equivalent of “love at first sight,” but a promising coaching relationship develops quickly from respect and mutuality to genuine affection.  The two look forward to time together.

With Bertie’s free choice, Logue’s created safe space and their shared chemistry flourishing, the film culminates dramatically.  Bertie (now, King George VI) delivers a three-page speech declaring war with Germany from Buckingham Palace live over the radio.  With Logue’s coaching, he might just perform at his peak.

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Before You Accept That Change Agent Role

November 15th, 2010

A bunch of you followed up with me after I posted Before You Bring in That Change Agent in September.  Maybe this economy is provoking more organizations to source outsiders to drive course corrections or all out direction changes.  Maybe, instead, recently less-than-successful change agents are formulating how to better set themselves up next time around.  Either way, many of the inquiries I fielded weren’t from CEOs embarking on change, but rather prospective CXOs contemplating stepping into direct reporting relationships to them.

How do you improve the odds the new gig will be not just compelling but also winnable?  Here are some recommendations for your due diligence before you accept that change agent role.

1.  Test for Clear, Aligned Expectations

First – and I’m not kidding, here – make sure the top of the house is in agreement on the change they’re seeking.  Do they describe it the same way?  Are they consistent on why it’s imperative and urgent?  Watch out when key leaders define the underlying rationale for your prospective role differently and sound like they’re hiring for slightly different jobs.  It’s okay to tolerate a little ambiguity; not confusion.

Make sure that your prospective role is explicitly spelled out.  Have they articulated the goals and performance targets against which you’ll be measured?  Who owns the change, besides you?  Don’t go it alone.

Finally, is the CEO the chief change evangelist?  Have a conversation up front with her using Before You Bring in That Change Agent for your talking points.  Really.

2.  Gauge Change Elasticity

Assess how the organization handles disruption.  How did they fare on the last big change?  Has anyone previously held your prospective role and failed?  Check that leaders have made the requisite shifts of mind to drive the change with you.  Identify at least two other “true believers” in influential roles.

Feel free to turn the behavioral event interviewing back at them.  Ask questions such as, “tell me about a time when key leaders stood up to the status quo and implemented necessary change.  How did the organization do?  What did it learn about itself?

Finally inquire into how senior leadership handles conflict.  Are their meetings replete with robust idea sharing where honest and open inquiry is promoted?  Driving change will demand it.

3.  Formulate Your Counter-Resistance

Once you accept the role, it’s not a question of if there will be pushback, but rather what kind and how strong it will be.  First, master your composure.  Your co-workers will be scrutinizing your cues.  If you’re anxious, deal with that before you’re on the job.  Project confidence without arrogance and respectfulness without hesitancy.

Second, anticipate specific anti-change tropes and master your rhetoric.  In their recent release, Buy-In: Saving Your Good Idea from Getting Shot Down, John Kotter and Lorne Whitehead warn of the four predictable resistance lines: fear mongering, death by delay, confusion, and ridicule.  Prepare your responses before Day 1 on the job and manage your messaging.

When considering whether to step in as change agent, be unsentimental in your analysis and perform your upfront prep.  This might just turn into the most exciting job of your professional life.

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