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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Your Character’s Showing

August 13th, 2012

There’s a hand-wringing ritual every four years during the second week of November.  News personalities self-flagellate over their shallow coverage of the presidential election campaign. “Perhaps, we should have spent more time analyzing the candidates’ stances on the issues rather than the horse race?” they ponder out loud.  Will it be different this time?  Maybe the sharp ideological contrast between the Obama-Biden and Romney-Ryan tickets will finally set the stage for issues-based coverage.  Tune in now; there are only 12 weeks until Election Day.

It’s About Trust

I’m skeptical.  Ideologues and party loyalists already know where they stand on the issues.  To the majority of people not committed to one party’s platform or the other’s (independents, centrists, apolitical types), though, the race isn’t about the issues.  It’s about something much more intuitive and gut-based.  It’s about trust.  Whom do I trust to lead?

This, of course, plays out differently in the corporate world.  The idea of a new CEO selected by a popular vote is something for a late night comedy sketch.  That said, I am seeing a movement across industries and organizations engaged in talent management and succession planning to incorporate the voices of internal constituents in promotional decisions.  Trust matters.

The Building Blocks

It’s long been said that trust is comprised of competence and character.  For someone to trust you, they will need faith that you have the talents and abilities to perform the work in question.  Second, they will need to see you as someone of integrity who’ll do the right thing.  Think of this as task trust and personal trust.

This duality is playing out right in front of us in the presidential race.  Undecided voters express the view that as a financially successful businessman, Governor Mitt Romney is well positioned to help the troubled U.S. economy.  These same Undecideds also believe President Barack Obama has stronger values and convictions.  In other words they attribute competence to Romney and character to Obama.  They’re torn.

Which attribute is more important to people, competence or character?  It doesn’t matter.  Deficiency in either undermines trust.  Having said that, I do see one come up more frequently in the corporate workplace.

The Character Deficiency

As I alluded above, I hear from clients who have completed their yearly nine-box “performance x potential” talent review requesting help for some established star surprisingly dinged as not yet promotable to the C-Suite.  Typically, this achiever has demonstrated profound competence (usually technical) over a 20-30 year career. There are occasional exceptions, e.g., when one is seen as too risk-averse or operational.

The majority of pleas come when the shortcoming is one of character.  Frequent profiles include leaders with low empathy who come off intimidating and unapproachable, push their own agenda, are disengaged from their team, behave too politically, and/or are uninspiring.  I am observing an increasing squeamishness among organizational leaders to promote these candidates, despite their impressive track records.  Senior execs seem to be realizing that to foster competitive workplaces, they will need leaders who know how to inspire followership.  Leaders of character.  The good news is that some organizations provide character-deficient candidates with this tough but honest feedback and subsequently support their professional development.  The bad news is that others don’t, relegating these high achievers to languish and/or leave.

The Character Reboot

If you’ve recently been passed over for a key promotion having met all or most of your performance targets, chances are it’s due to a perception of character, not competence.  Consider following the five-step formula I laid out last year in How to MORPH Your Leadership Brand.

Another – less invasive, but more difficult – option is to ask your HR business partner for the competencies you will need to develop and jointly craft a list of associated behaviors.  For example, if one of the competencies is to be more “supportive,” associated behaviors might include: (a) making time for each direct report; (b) investing in their professional development; and (c) allowing more autonomy.  Once you’ve done so, assemble a checklist and monitor the frequency with which you’re engaging in these new behaviors.  Track your progress.

While you’re probably not going to need to be elected to your next promotion, you do want to engineer it so that you are the easy choice.

Remember, your character’s showing.


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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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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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