Schachter Consulting

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Helping Leaders and Their Teams

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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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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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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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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Enduring Foundations of Leadership

April 26th, 2012

While Diane Brady’s brilliant debut Fraternity isn’t a “Leadership” book, it still might be the most important one I’ve read in a while.

It’s a challenge keeping up with all of the “new discoveries” of esoteric practices distinguishing truly effective leaders.  Amazon allocates 75,000 hits of virtual “shelf space” to the genre.  Some works emphasize how well you strategize.  Others tout execution on core processes.  Many stress emotional and social intelligence.

And yet, follow the news and what leadership behaviors will you observe?  Senior military officials overstating the success of high-stakes interventions abroad.  Technology standard-bearers manufacturing products through third party sweatshops to maximize profits and plausibly deny culpability.  Successful university sports programs overlooking criminal behavior in their leadership.  Financial Services institutions betting against their clients.

If you’re weary of the seemingly endless disappointments in our institutions and the people who lead them, read Fraternity and meet Father Brooks.  The Reverend John E. Brooks was a theology professor at the virtually all-white College of the Holy Cross, during the 1960’s, committed to racially integrating the school.  His argument was simple.  All learners deserved to benefit from the diversity and development of the widest swath of future leaders.  Squandering the strengths and talents African-American students could bring to Holy Cross was therefore unacceptable.

Belief was not enough.  Father Brooks drove his vision hard.  He took it upon himself to convince the college to put up scholarships.  He personally identified high-achieving and high-potential African American high schoolers and took to the road to sell them on largely Irish Worcester, Massachusetts.  With consistency of purpose and action, he attentively nurtured, mentored and repeatedly went to bat for the students with the Administration and Trustees during a time of unprecedented social upheaval, confusion and instability.

To be sure, the story is mainly about the hard-won achievements of a group of remarkable young men.  Among Father Brooks’ twenty recruits in 1968 were top defense attorney Theodore Wells, Pulitzer Prize winner for literature Edward P. Jones, Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas and other noteworthy successes.  Their individual accomplishments and proven talents notwithstanding, many alums continue to place credit with John Brooks.  Without him, “none of us would have made it,” Brady recounts one telling her.

Fraternity reads well, drawing you in quickly and holding your attention throughout.  If you read it with a view to the leadership angle, Fr. Brooks’ behavior demonstrates a four-prong model of leadership people used to unselfconsciously term “moral authority.”  Simply put, he had a (1) clear vision of a future (2) promoting shared benefit, which he (3) pushed toward with stubborn flexibility, consistently upholding his (4) personal accountability.  Rather than acting to promote his own financial security, position of power, or even social standing, he committed to serve as a vehicle for achieving something of intrinsic value.

Maybe, Fr. Brooks’ leadership model will cycle back into vogue soon.  I’m hoping so.


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