Schachter Consulting


Helping Leaders and Their Teams

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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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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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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