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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To Better the Best

October 25th, 2011

Is there a point in your career when it’s no longer wise to seek professional development?

About ten months ago, a new employer recruited “Brian,” a senior executive. By their own account, it was a long, expensive search for a tough-to-fill, key role. In place for a month, Brian approached the head of HR to request an executive coach for support as he assimilated into the complex, matrixed multinational. The HR head rebuffed, “I thought you were qualified when we hired you.” Three weeks ago, Brian called me. He had just accepted a job offer from a higher tier competitor, which included one year of executive coaching in addition to other generous terms.

We’re accustomed to professionally developing High Potentials.  Progressive organizations dangle it as a perk for which up-and-comers vie.  Yet, it’s hard to deny there’s a point where we view this differently. At a certain career stage or role, we expect the incumbent to have already “arrived.” What would you think of your CFO wanting to learn more finance?  Your General Counsel seeking confirmation about the law?  How about the CEO requesting leadership coaching.

In a recent piece for The New Yorker, physician and bestselling author Atul Gawande challenges the successful and accomplished to engage a coach to improve some area of professional performance. Already deeply experienced and highly skilled, Gawande describes how he engaged a retired surgeon from his residency to further hone his specialized technical skills in endocrine surgery. In the comprehensive and nuanced article, he admirably and unflinchingly self-discloses some cases where he underperformed. He goes on to describe how the coaching led him to performance improvements.

When it comes to supporting senior executives with their leadership and team effectiveness skills, I can vouch for two consistent success predictors. The first is whether the “coachee” will be – like Gawande – unsentimentally open about his or her performance. The second is whether the coachee’s key constituencies can handle it. Gawande describes the awkwardness of explaining a coach’s presence to his surgical team and to a patient awaiting anesthesia.  Wait, you mean my expert isn’t the expert?

Gawande cites Tennis superstar Rafael Nadal to point out the inherent irony. There’s no surprise when the world’s elite athletes work closely with a coach. We’d be shocked to hear otherwise. Yet, some institutions – like Brian’s former employer – expect their top performers fully baked. I find this as unrealistic on Mahogany Row as it is on the 50-yard line at Giants Stadium. That’s because we all benefit from some scrutiny to adhere to form, prevent bad outcomes and prepare for future challenges.

Maybe it’s time for organizations to take material steps to destigmatize executive-level performance improvement mechanisms. Build a rigorous program, announce it to the world, measure the results and publish for all to see.  Create pull by providing the support first to the highest achieving, most widely acclaimed performers.  Brand it as a perquisite; not remediation.  Let’s encourage unselfconscious lifelong learning in our institutions.


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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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