Schachter Consulting

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Helping Leaders and Their Teams

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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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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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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Want to Build Demand for Your Team? There’s an App for That

June 21st, 2010

The New York Times reported last week that “Apple and its partners took more than 600,000 orders for the new iPhone 4 on Tuesday [June 15th], the first day they were accepted.”  In a press release the next day, Apple apologized for the many additional customers shut out citing “the largest number of pre-orders Apple has ever taken in a single day.”  Wow, 600,000 orders on one day, excluding the ones that didn’t even get through!  That’s not customer loyalty; it’s utter devotion.

The iPhone story got me thinking about demand.  In this case, internal demand, and more specifically still, internal demand for one’s team of direct reports.  The old adage “judge a person by the company he or she keeps” has a corporate analogue.  That is, your leadership brand is in large part the organization’s perception of the team you’ve built.

If you doubt this, try out this exercise: think about an exec in your organization perceived as having a low-performing team.  What’s his reputation?  Now, flip it.  Think of another exec, this one with an in-demand team.  How is she regarded?  Enough said.

What if you want to build demand for your team?  To borrow from Apple’s recent ad campaign, “there’s an app for that” . . . albeit, an “approach,” rather than “application.”  Here it is:

1. Know your clients’ aspirations

The minds at Apple fundamentally understand our aspiration to be cool.  Get your team fascinated with your internal clients’ aspirations.  Charge team members to identify stakeholders who might be touched by your offering.  Dive into customers’ strategic and operational plans to anticipate emerging needs and wants to satisfy.

2. Generate customer yearning 

In a market saturated with smartphones, iPhone fans still eagerly awaited the new release.  So, too, build anticipation with your internal clients.  Communicate what your team is up to now and what’s to come.  That’s right; share your plans.  Leverage the internal communication platforms IT has to offer.  Also, make sure to keep information flowing to organizational influencers and other surrogates so that they can chat you up.

3. Stress the quality of your team’s offering over its supply

Irrespective of how many iPhone 4 orders Apple anticipated, one thing is for sure: no one gets excited about a commodity.  When’s the last time a manufacturer of paper clips had people waiting in line overnight for their new model’s release?  First and foremost, your team must do good work for its customers.  It’s easy to get in a position to over commit, particularly when good buzz gets out.  Reward your team members for delighted customers.  Demand will follow.


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