Schachter Consulting

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Helping Leaders and Their Teams

Minimizing Ambiguity

August 3rd, 2015

Is the widely cited job competency, “tolerates ambiguity” a misguided aspiration? It seems reasonable at first blush; we want workers who can get stuff done without much handholding. Granted. But, what about the underlying assumption, i.e., that ambiguity in an organization is something to which we’re okay resigning ourselves. Is that worth so blithely accepting?

Too Much Tolerance
In my view, there’s been too much tolerance of ambiguity. I have two qualms. First, it allows a belief that as long as leaders hire well, they are excused from key leadership responsibilities like articulating an inspiring vision, setting clear goals and providing direct feedback. Second, it lulls professionals at all levels into the misapprehension that demonstrating a bias for action will excuse under-developed ideas, sloppy work or lack of stakeholder engagement.

Many senior leaders I have observed overestimate the quality of their communication. That is to say, they tolerate their own ambiguity. My work typically includes one-on-one meetings with a leader and her team members. Frequently, in separate, successive sessions, they will speak to me about the same live issues. Obviously, strict rules of confidentiality preclude my even slightly acknowledging to either when this happens. It is remarkable how many times an exasperated leader can’t understand why her direct report hasn’t acted on the “fairly clear message” she seems genuinely convinced she delivered. All the while, her subordinate expresses to me fear-tinged frustration with not knowing what the boss wants.

Let’s now consider the case of early to mid-career professionals. Recently, I saw this in an advice column for soon-to-be minted MBAs preparing for job interviews. “[O]ne piece of feedback I have received from recruiters is that they need people who can deal with uncertainty and are able to work and make decisions with limited amounts of information.” Really? Let’s unpack this. Why should a hiring manager want someone new to the organization – possibly relatively inexperienced and with little immersion in the company’s culture and processes – to make decisions with limited information? Maybe because the managers directing these recruiters lack a desire to actively lead their new hires? I don’t know.

Moreover, isn’t it true that as bosses we don’t truly want subordinates who make just any decisions on their own and with limited information. We want them to make the decisions we would have made. And, when they don’t, we scratch our heads in puzzled annoyance. Sound a bit too familiar? My advice to imminent graduates hearing this from recruiters is to redirect their resumes elsewhere. Most organizations notice when employees make decisions that turn out badly. And, let’s be real: under-informed decisions tend to under-perform.

A Modest Proposal – Minimize Ambiguity
Tolerance is a virtue when applied to how we treat others’ differences, resolve conflicts and open our minds and hearts. I’m all for that. Ambiguity, on the other hand, is an often temporary and remediable condition. Like a skin rash, it’s something to overcome; not tolerate.

I propose the new competency, “Minimizes Ambiguity.” It might include some of the following underlying behaviors to espouse, demonstrate and measure:

For leaders –
– Articulates clear objectives
– Sets out available resources
– Explains manner of oversight
– Provides direct and comprehensive feedback, both positive and constructive

For all professionals –
– Seeks, obtains and incorporates existing organizational knowledge
– Seeks clarification when information is limited
– Identifies key stakeholders, gauges their wants/needs & performs regular check-ins
– Proactively shares information broadly and transparently
– Seeks agreement and commitment to promote win-win approaches

As I suggested above, the distilled essence of the “tolerates ambiguity” competency is that we seek workers who can get stuff done without much handholding. While that makes inherent sense, independence should not come at the expense of scrupulous preparation and top-quality work. The saying is “80% and go.” Not 40%.

Let’s retire the “tolerates ambiguity” competency and replace it with “minimizes ambiguity.” It’s time.


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Taking Feedback

September 23rd, 2013

In the 1980’s, Joe Jackson (the porkpie hat one, not the shoeless one) lamented, “Though, it’s oh so nice to get advice, it’s oh so hard to do.” While I’m pretty sure he was singing about romantic relationships, I know he was addressing behavior change and he might as well have been describing feedback at work.

There’s a lot of attention paid these days to senior leaders delivering feedback. Quality, quantity and frequency. I’ve written on the topic, myself.

What about receiving and dealing with feedback? How good are execs at that? My anecdotal observation in organizations suggests not very. This means lost opportunities for the self-awareness, professional growth and relationship-building key to leading large, complex organizations.

It’s hard to take.
First, let’s broadly define “feedback” as someone calling to your attention anything negative about your behavior. Technically, it could also be something positive, but – let’s be real, here – we’re pretty good at hearing that stuff. The negatives are tougher. You might recognize and agree with it and that hurts. Alternatively, you may disagree with the substance, finding it wildly unfair and off the mark. Worse yet, you may not trust the motives of the person delivering the message and that further complicates it.

There are predictable reactions execs demonstrate to feedback. Driven types tend to feel irritation and ignore it. Expressive types feel stung and are likely to lash out. Amiable types tend to feel ashamed and try to make nice, while analytical types might feel confused by what they heard and retreat inward.

Take it anyway.
Suffice it to say, self-justification, angry outbursts, self-effacement and withdrawal aren’t particularly “leader-like” behaviors. When someone offers you constructive feedback, take it. Proceed under the assumption that the giver is well intentioned and that the substance is more-or-less accurate. That is to say, she is providing you with information intended to get you to change your behavior in order to produce better outcomes for the work group, for the organization, for her, or even, for you. Listen to learn. Why? Because whether or not her point is correct, she believes it and is trying to help. Graciously affirm her as a person and consider what you’re hearing. At a minimum, she will find you trustworthy as a peer or leader and your work relationship will improve. That helps stuff get done.

Besides, if she’s correct, don’t you need to know this about your performance? The odds are that everyone else already does. You might be the only person who doesn’t. Yikes.

And, if it’s incorrect? You’ll still know what she thinks and, having built trust by listening, you’ll be in the position to correct her understanding later.

When a direct report comes to you with feedback, it’s particularly important you take it. He’s doing you a favor bringing it to you and not somewhere else. It isn’t easy delivering a tough message to your boss. This is your opportunity to model the behavior and set a norm with your directs for how they should behave with those reporting in to them.

Motives don’t matter.
What if your feedback giver has bad intentions? First, this is rare and you should be slow to make this judgment. Second, it’s still a gift and worth hearing. Motives don’t matter; it’s either substantively accurate or inaccurate. If it’s accurate, you’ll want to address it, right? If your objective is to improve organizational performance then you must. On the other hand, if it’s inaccurate, it’s still useful data to you. This person is trying to provoke a response from you, whether an externalized action or an internalized feeling. At least, you’re now in the position to see him coming and be your best self.

What do you do in the rare event of negatively motivated feedback? The same as when it’s positively motivated: demonstrate magnanimity, of course. You can hear a message and, with Buddhist detachment, smile and neither internalize nor own it. The truth is, it’s quite unnerving to someone to see that you are above his or her intended harm. Oscar Wilde famously quipped, “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.” Jokes aside, you’re better off because of it. You communicate to the detractor that you are grounded and have confidence in your motives, values and objectives. Japanese home run champ Sadaharu Oh credited the pitchers he faced with half of his success. “The opponents and I are really one … An opponent is someone whose strength joined to yours creates a certain result.” Let your result be great performance fueled by organizational trust and strong individual relationships.

Here’s how to take feedback.
Convinced yet? Try these four simple steps:
1. Listen. Truly take in what your colleague says without judgment. It’s probably harder for him or her to say it than it is for you to hear it.
2. Clarify. Ask questions to fully understand the specifics.
3. Summarize. Demonstrate you heard the message by restating it.
4. Thank. A sincere thank you will reassure that you’ve taken it in and appreciate the opportunity to improve.

In conclusion, give as much attention to receiving feedback as you do to giving it. You, your team and the organization will benefit.


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The Pro’s of “Con’s”

March 11th, 2013

A funny thing happens practically each time I deliver Senior Leadership material in a workshop setting.  Midway through the program, a participant raises his hand and asks something like, “Is my boss going to be learning this stuff, because he’s not doing any of it.”  For a few raucous moments, the room erupts in a mix of laughter, annoyance and commiseration.

If you are one of the execs routinely grumbled about, let’s put a stop to that right here and now and consider what you owe your direct reports.

Remember the three “Con’s,” Context, Conditions and Consequences.  They are the 20% that will get you 80% there.

Context

Set the broad context for the work.  If you’re like most execs, you’re not sharing enough of what you know with your direct reports.  Change that.  First, pass along as much as you can about what you’re seeing and hearing in the C-Suite.  Cultivate a bias for transparency.  Obviously, there are always going to be matters you can’t mention, but you ought to be spelling out everything else.  Consider what happens when you don’t.  The talented and ambitious professionals reporting into your directs are constantly seeking and expecting relevant, actionable intelligence.  When your directs can’t respond meaningfully, they appear weak and “outer-circle.”  This is not good for them or you.

Next, be clear on expectations. The old saying, “there’s never enough time to do it right, but there’s always enough to do it over” could very well have been written about somebody’s executive manager.  The antidote is “front-loading.”  Rule of thumb: spend three times as much upfront time as you think necessary to impart everything you know about what needs to happen, available resources, key constituents’ needs and wants, hidden treasure chests and landmines, and what success and failure would look like.  Yes, all of that. In detail.  Solicit any and all questions.  Ask your direct to confirm her understanding in writing and you’ll ensure alignment and even have a “contract” making accountability easier later.

Conditions

Create the conditions for success.  To be sure, it’s on your direct report to drive progress on her initiatives.  It’s your job to make the “space” for that progress to happen.  Start by managing the organizational boundaries.  If your direct report heads Marketing, have you gotten your counterpart above Manufacturing on board?  If not, when your direct engages your counterpart’s direct, she’s likely to encounter someone without much perceived self-interest in making the project work.  You might not see her banging her head against the wall for a month or two as she unsuccessfully tries to schedule project-planning meetings and re-sends unreturned emails.  Get ahead of this.

Second, you must manage your own team, i.e., this individual direct report’s colleagues.  If team members sense vulnerability in one of their peers, what starts as positional jockeying could devolve into overt hostility.  Remember when you learned about “Forming – Storming – Norming – Performing”?  Well, what your professor may not have gotten to is that this curve starts all over every time the pecking order shows signs that it again might be up for grabs.  When you see the pack closing ranks around a perceived weaker member, intervene in a big and unequivocating way.  Demand equal treatment of all and repel all challenges to that principle.

The third Condition to secure is Resources.  This used to be so obvious it went without saying, but you need to provide access to adequate financial, technological and human resources to get the job done.  I say it “used to be” because as of late I’m seeing extraordinary risk-aversion as cash-rich firms are doing more with less.  The demands on senior leaders to deliver on a shoestring are commonplace. Is it Budget season?  Put on your combat gear and get battle-ready.  Provide your people what they need.  That’s your job.

Consequences

You owe your direct report the unsentimental consequences of success or failure.  Despite a generalized feeling of under-appreciation during this odd economy, most execs I know are quite happy to recognize and reward good work.  You’re apt to be doing your share of that right now.

On the other hand, if you’re like most of your executive peer group, it’s probable you underperform at calling out underperformance.  Predictable reasons include a reluctance to hurt feelings and demotivate an otherwise high performer and the perception that feedback is a touchy-feely time waster.  Consider this.  According to Towers Watson’s most recent Global Workforce Study, while employee retention hinges in part on their trust in senior leadership, employees doubt the extent to which these leaders have a sincere interest in their well-being.  Giving good, constructive feedback that is helpful and actionable demonstrates commitment and interest.  If you’re concerned with technique, you can’t go wrong with the Center for Creative Leadership’s gold standard, Situation-Behavior-Impact model.

Worse yet is when an exec will not own his own failure with the direct report.  If you haven’t provided your direct with the appropriate Context and Conditions to date and if she’s struggling as a result, take your lumps, make good and fix it.  The unsentimental Consequences apply to you, as well.  Right?

CONCLUSION

Apply the three “Con’s” consciously, consistently and conspicuously (wait, was that another three?).  Model the behavior for others coming up the organization.  You will retain your top talent and drive a culture of opportunity and accountability.

Besides, it beats having your direct reports grouse about you to some consultant in a roomful of other senior leaders.


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Owning Your Team’s Culture

January 2nd, 2013

Is your team’s culture deliberate or default?

There are three upfront questions in my 360-degree feedback interview protocol for a leader’s direct reports.  They’re wildly open-ended.  (1) What’s it like working on the leader’s team?  (2) What leads to a person being successful?  (3) What might get in the way?  The responses invariably describe the relevant features of the team’s distinct culture.

CultureOrganizational culture has been and continues to be deeply explored as an academic topic.  To be sure, it encompasses history, values and norms.  For senior teams, my definition is a simple variation on Deal & Kennedy’s “how things really get done around here.”  Which behaviors earn a pat on the back, a spank or a passing look?  This is what the 360 questions are designed to elicit.

If the most frequent critique of middle managers is that they micromanage, creating a culture of low autonomy and low trust, the opposite can be said of executive leaders.  That is, they demonstrate a prevalent tendency to under-manage.  In my experience, most of the cultural rubs I observe in a senior team can be measured in the distance between the CEO and her direct reports.  The shorter the distance, the more deliberate the culture; the greater the distance, the more likely that the culture is by default.

How It Might Look:

There are numerous permutations of default cultures for senior leadership teams.  Here are a few underperformers.

The Protection Game.  I suspect that whoever said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions had in mind the Protection Game.  I know a handful of senior leaders who filter what they share with their direct report team members to avoid stressing them.  While the motivation is kind, the impact is negative.  First, the leader sends the unintended message that he’s not interested in his direct reports’ input.  Second, news travels fast through organizations, anyway.  Team members hear about events and get stuck surmising why their own boss excluded them.

Then there is the mirror-image version where the team “protects” the leader from important information.  “Bob has enough on his mind,” they assure me.  You will easily recognize this well-intentioned conspiracy of silence.  At your next team meeting if, when you ask a question, members peer at each other before replying, it’s the Protection Game.  Scary, no?

The Cat in the Hat Syndrome.  Recall Dr. Seuss’ charming bully:

“I know some new tricks,” said the Cat in the Hat. “A lot of good tricks. I will show them to you. Your mother will not mind at all if I do.”

This is where one or two team members throw their weight around in the absence of adult supervision (i.e., you).  Cats in the Hat tend to induce a tiered leadership team where some have greater de facto authority than others.  Also, this may lead to scapegoating second-tier, outsider team members, disproportionately faulting them with the team’s shortfalls.

Driving a Deliberate Team Culture:

If you defaulted into your current team culture, the good news is that you can change it.  Follow these guidelines:

 1.  Get Your Bearings.

Think long and hard about “how things really get done” on your team.  Which behaviors earn members a pat on the back, a spank or a passing look from you?  Look around and ask yourself my opening 360 questions: (1) What’s it like working on my team? What leads to a person being successful?  What might get in the way?  If you don’t know the answers, ask your HR Business Partner.  You might want to buy him a drink first or ply him with M&Ms.

 2.  Bridge the Distance.

Increase your interaction with the intact team as well as with members individually.  That means more face time and phone time.  Let email serve as reinforcement for what you’ve discussed ear-to-ear; not as the primary communication channel.   Yes, drop in on people.

 3.  Set Expectations.

Tell your team about your desired, deliberate culture in broad themes.  You’ve shared your vision for the business with them; now share your vision of team culture.  Take it further.  Engage the team in a facilitated process to generate a catalog of agreed-upon behavioral norms.  Whether it’s speaking in one voice or having each other’s back, commit these aspirational behaviors to writing.

 4.  Hold Yourself and Others Accountable 

Walk the talk.  Your direct reports will be scrutinizing you for any daylight between what you’re exhorting of them and doing yourself.  Measure the team’s progress.  Collectively revisit the behavioral norms document you created together at least quarterly.  Score it by the frequency with which you’re each seeing the behaviors exhibited.  Applaud team members for calling each other to account when they fall short.  Respectfully, that is.

Own your team’s culture the way you own the rest of its performance.  It’s on you.


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Really, a Support Group?

July 8th, 2012

In The Perfected Self, Atlantic Monthly contributor David H. Freedman shows how some new smartphone apps are helping people change seemingly intractable habits in order to, for example, lose and keep off weight.  The piece is mainly about two things: (1) the tacit vindication over time of B.F. Skinner’s once controversial (and poorly understood) behavior modification principles, and (2) the successful harnessing of those principles into some pretty cool high-tech data collection and feedback tools.

My Question:

While the part about the apps is compelling in its own right, it’s the Skinnerian approach to behavior change that I’m pondering here.  Could a simple element – the support group – help senior leaders adopt new behaviors?

A Skinner Refresher:

Skinner sought to change behavior through positive reinforcement, mostly with animals.  As applied to people, we act to earn a reward.  When prompted to exhibit a behavior and it is reinforced, we’re apt to repeat it.  Repeated enough times it becomes a habit, occasionally needing reinforcement.

Weight Watchers and some of the new smartphone apps Freedman tells us about follow, more or less, the same formula. The person setting out to change behavior, i.e., the dieter:

1.  Sets modest goals;

2.  Rigorously tracks behavior;

3.  Obtains counseling or coaching; and

4.  Turns to fellow participants for support.

These basic, straightforward components, whether face-to-face or administered remotely, have been delivering consistent, lasting results.  I wonder if more consistent and more lasting than executive coaching.

The Recidivism Dilemma:

Executive coaching’s limitations are evident in the rate of backsliding after engagements close.  Simply put, some senior leaders, with their coach’s visits fading in the rearview mirror, revert to their older, less effective behaviors.  Moreover, the shorter the engagement, the surer the reversion. Ten years ago six to twelve-month engagements were the norm.  Today, many clients tell you to get it done in four to six.  I feel for them; internal Executive Resources professionals are in a difficult spot.  On the one hand, they need to demonstrate expense control and protect engagements from mission creep.  On the other hand, most senior level coaching gigs tackle issues that may be as tricky and fraught as real, lasting weight loss.  Here are a few common behavior patterns an exec may exhibit:

  • Influences through intimidation;
  • Jumps into solution too quickly and digs in;
  • Too high level and struggles to implement;
  • Too into the weeds and not strategic enough;
  • Doesn’t set clear expectations; and/or
  • Doesn’t develop or performance manage the team

These behaviors take time to unpack and rewire.  It’s not like flipping a switch.

While approaches to coaching are varied, most begin with some type of baseline assessment (e.g., a “360”) and then track the first three Skinner steps.  Coach and coachee set development objectives, monitor the coachee’s behavior and meet regularly for coaching support.  It’s the fourth step – turning to fellow participants for support – that is not found in the typical coaching gig.  Yet, in reading Freedman, it might just be that a support group is the pivotal mechanism of reinforcement responsible for lasting behavior change.

A Crazy Idea?

The idea of submitting a C-Suite exec to a support group seems, at first blush, almost absurd.  First, it’s distinctly possible the exec is tackling issues difficult to speak about publicly, like those I mentioned earlier.  It’s one thing to disclose you feel badly for indulging in a rich dessert.  It’s quite another to sit around with others and admit to publicly berating a colleague.   Second, it’s probably tough to find others similarly situated with precisely the same presenting issues.  Lots of people want to lose weight.  How many, for example, are EVP Pharmaceutical execs working on being more risk-embracing?

A Comparable Precedent?

The multitude of affinity groups serving business people here and globally suggests there may be an opening for the support group I’m describing.  UK author and coach Rosie Miller runs peer groups of senior high-caliber women from different organizations who meet to discuss business challenges they share.  Sweden’s Dag Roslund convenes “power groups” to share managerial, relationship-building and work/life balance goals.  In Austria, Claudia von der Linden assembles women at key steps of their careers to consider phase-relevant issues.

These popular programs address the intersection of professional development and network-building, as opposed to the behavioral support group I’m proposing here.  And yet, their success evinces a predisposition among business people to seek a group setting in which to accomplish individual objectives.  Right?

A Promising Sign:

The other day, I ran the idea of a behavior-specific support group by an exec I began to coach after she received some pretty tough feedback.  I expected her to glare at me with incredulity.  Instead, she said she loved the idea.

Let’s see where this goes.


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