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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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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Before You Bring in That Change Agent

September 8th, 2010

ImageToo many chief executives, under pressure to recruit an outsider to come in and make a fix, neglect to set up the newcomer for success.  My advice to CEOs is to anticipate and prepare for the challenges.

WHAT TO EXPECT:

Whether in response to Board pressure, regulatory changes or missed performance targets, there are times as CEO when you go to the outside.  In one case I observed, the Board pressured the CEO to bolster one business line’s systems and processes to attract outside investment.  The CEO was explicit in communicating the Board’s mandate to his incoming hire, but near silent with the affected business line head and his lieutenants.  When the change agent invited this team to collaboratively formulate the process improvements’ design and implementation, they smiled, nodded and then proceeded to passively  resist and marginalize her.  Determined to deliver on her own performance objectives, she dug in.  A power struggle ensued she was predetermined to lose.

Sometimes, your direct reports appreciate the call for change, but resist it when they suspect it’s their ox up for the goring.  In a different organization, the CEO brought in a new COO to, among other things, streamline financial reporting systems across operating units.  When the veteran CFO challenged the upstart COO at every turn, the rest of the executive team closed ranks to bar the “meddling.”  While today it was Finance under attack, tomorrow it could be their bailiwick.

Neither CEO anticipated the challenges nor created the conditions for the change agent to get traction.  Moreover, each allowed the new hire to founder like an organ transplant getting rejected by the host body.  The initiatives failed and the CEOs were damaged.

WHAT TO DO:

Make no mistake: change leadership is YOUR responsibility.  If the change agent is the organ transplant, then you are the immunosuppressive drug conditioning your team to integrate the foreign body until it’s indistinguishable from the host.    Follow these steps.

1.  Anticipate Your Ambivalence and Embrace Your Role as Change Sponsor

Despite fully grasping the imperative for new blood, you will likely still feel conflicted.  Your first impulse when the change agent arrives, might be to comfort and protect your team; after all, they’ve served you loyally and might even be your friends.  You might sense that “siding” with the newcomer will be perceived as a betrayal and could trigger abandonment by these  high performers.

2.  Invite Impacted Constituents to Co-own the Change

Over-communicate the substantive details of the change mandate to all direct reports with whom the change agent will need to work.  Also, engage these directs in this new hire’s recruitment activities.  Doing both will go a long way to produce early endorsement of both the process and the person.

3.  Update Your Team’s “Software” and “Reboot”

With the new hire on board, uncertainty can increase political jostling to unproductive levels.  Jumpstart the team as if you, too, were new to your role.  Reset expectations of the entire team around its new and existing strategic and operational goals.  Facilitate negotiations around positional roles and their decision rights.  Guide your team to adopt or reaffirm existing interactional protocols.

Be deliberate to create the conditions for your change agent to get traction.  When the transplant thrives, the entire body gets stronger.


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