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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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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Avoiding the Defection Anxiety Trap

January 26th, 2012

If you have a talented direct report with a history of success who’s now struggling, chances are it’s the role.

High performers tend to be consistent. They’ve risen through their organizations demonstrating competence in successive roles. Sometimes it’s technical expertise. Even more often, it’s their tendency to work hard and demonstrate agility navigating unfamiliar terrains. The common disclaimer, “past performance may not be an indicator of future results” is truer of investment vehicles than people. Past performance actually serves as a pretty reliable predictor.

Inadvertently Setting the Trap

For many senior leaders, experience had demonstrated that highly motivated, highly able performers (let’s call them “stars”) are hard to come by. Worse yet, they’re harder to keep. The good news is stars are independent. The bad news is . . . well, they’re independent. I’ve observed numerous execs – itching to ward off a dreaded, imagined defection – preemptively try to “promote” a star. Two well-worn maneuvers: (a) creating a brand new role; or (b) cobbling new accountabilities to the star’s existing job. Each is intended to project an aura of ascendency and warrant more generous comp and perks. Good intentions. Bad ideas.

In one case, the Office of the CEO had a star business unit head it wanted to warehouse for a few years in readiness to replace an EVP that was due to retire. The in-between role they created for the star was meant to serve as a clearinghouse for information between levels. Instead, it merely added another review layer and wound up a bottleneck for decisions and action.

In another instance, a COO handed his star Chief Marketing Officer responsibilities in Decision Support. It was a discipline in which she lacked grounding and the painstaking learning curve interfered with her making a serious contribution while still performing her marketing day job.

In both of these cases, the role changes destabilized the organizations by confusing expectations, boundary management, and accountability for multiple stakeholders.

Both were seen for what they were: interim gigs to support career aspirations instead of helping workflow and results. Both stars underperformed and their reputations suffered.

 Avoiding the Trap

Before you inadvertently set this trap for your unwitting stars, test your “promotion” against each of the following criteria:

1. There are Clear Lines of Authority and decision rights for all work;

2. The role is Value Added to the existing structure; and

3. The job is easily Describable in a few sentences.

If your new-and-improved role can’t pass this test, let it go. Consider, instead, tapping into your star’s set of drivers. Typically, this includes some combination of interesting work, autonomy, and professional development. You, raise the topic.  Disclose your defection anxiety right to them. Jointly work out a plan. There’s no need to blow up anything to keep your talented direct reports onboard.


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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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