Schachter Consulting

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Helping Leaders and Their Teams

A Good Place to Start

November 11th, 2015

“I have a cohort of senior leaders who are top professionals but not particularly conscious leaders; I’m a bit overwhelmed with the possibilities . . . where do I begin with them?”  More than a few heads of HR – irrespective of how robust their executive development efforts – have asked me some variation of this same question.  I tell them I know a good place to start.

Teach your leaders about the value of frequently delivering candid positive and constructive feedback to their direct reports – and provide them with the necessary skills to deliver it.

What?  Feedback?  You’re kidding.  That’s interpersonal skills training.  Soft stuff.   Shouldn’t I dive into a needs assessment, build a competency model and construct a coherent leadership development architecture with linkages to talent management, performance management, comp, etc.?

Okay, do that, too, at some point soon.  But start with constructive and timely feedback-giving skills.

Here’s my rationale.

The aim of a highly functioning Executive Development function, broadly speaking, is to build execs’ leadership chops so that they apply their skills deliberately and with consistency at work.  After all, these senior leaders set the behavioral standard for the organization.  Whether your execs are conscious of this or not, earnest middle managers are already watching them for cues and then guessing about which behaviors they ought to emulate or avoid.

Why keep them guessing?  Why not direct your execs to provide better timely and actionable feedback to their subordinates?

Okay, here are a couple of  the familiar barriers.  First – and I know I’m not telling tales out of school – most leaders presently lack the skills.  Second, some see limited advantage in being more attentive to subordinates’; worse yet, they may experience a feedback-seeking subordinate as needy or whiny.

I know.  I get it. There’s some resistance.  On the other hand, consider what may enable and even promote senior leader feedback to subordinates.  To begin with, research suggests that employees desire better timely and actionable feedback from their senior leaders, good and bad.  Hence, it’s likely that subordinates will be openly appreciative of the attention and guidance.  Moreover, there is a natural tendency of achievement-driven execs to aspire to excel at tasks they undertake.  Challenge them to excel at giving quality feedback.  Teach them how.

Start here.


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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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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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