Schachter Consulting

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Helping Leaders and Their Teams

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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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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How to Blow Your Top if You’re At the Top

July 28th, 2010

In the recent New York Times piece, The Benefits of Blowing Your Top, the author exhorts us to “Lose it.  Just once.  See what happens.”

This interesting article – the scope of which is admittedly broader than I address in this post – goes on, in part, to explore whether over-regulating our emotions is beneficial.  Case in point: the President taking flack lately for a seeming lack of outwardly perceptible passion.  Some yearn for him to metaphorically pound his fist on the table to demonstrate anger.  At least, a little bit.  After all, as Jean Kerr famously quipped, “If you can keep your head about you when all about you are losing theirs, it’s just possible you haven’t grasped the situation.”

So, here’s the question for C-Suite executives and senior leaders: what’s the place for outward expressions of emotionality at the top of the organization?

In response, I begin by reminding you that the first “pass-or-fail, check-off box” your constituents mentally fill in when intermittently grading your performance is: are you worth following?  This only gets heightened at a time of perceived crisis.

I recommend you consider your actions and weigh the three C’s: Crux, Culture & Congruence.

1.  Crux.  It’s key that you laser in on the essence of the issue.  Is it one that an average person would get emotional about?  Determine if there’s been an injustice, or perhaps just a turn of bad luck.  If the former, don’t underestimate your constituents’ primal need for vindication by you, their leader.  It’s at the heart of your moral authority.

2.  Culture.  Adhere to the communication norms of your organization.  Despite your senior level atop the hierarchy, you are still of – not above or apart from – the tacit rules of behavior your employees live by.  Moreover, calibrate for divisional or departmental audiences.  For example, passion might look different to sales leaders than it does to research heads.

3.  Congruence.  Make sure what and how you communicate is congruent with your personal values.  When asked to describe leaders they would most like to emulate, workshop participants of mine invariably cite men and women whose behavior resonates as authentic.

In sum, I’m suggesting that you employ consciousness and control over your behavior whether you choose to pound your fist or demonstrate equanimity.  I guess, by definition, this means not “blowing your top.”  So, my variation on the Times article might be to “thoughtfully appear to lose it.  Just once.  See what happens.”


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