From Where Do You Lead?

The Army teaches officers to “lead from the front”, creating visions of a sabre-wielding leader in Union blue followed by legions of men and a cacophony of battle cries as he charges the enemy. This style of leadership makes a lot of sense on the battlefield. During times of crisis that are oftentimes associated with combat, there isn’t time for group input. Decisions must be made on limited information, and leaders must show their followers that they are not going ask of them anything they are not willing to do themselves.

Thinking about leadership more deeply, I began to ask myself – is this always the most effective form of leadership?

As a civilian leader and entrepreneur, I have found myself leading from various places in order to drive performance. At times, I’ve certainly had to lead from the front, providing a foundation for the team by setting the example in times of crisis. In less critical moments, I’ve held back encouraging my people to push themselves, make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. On a rare occasion or two, I’ve had to lead from the back by nudging people to get things where they needed to be. And there have been instances where it makes sense to lead from the middle, serving in a facilitator role rather than one of positional leadership power.

To me, this speaks of the theory of situational leadership – adapting our leadership style and behaviors to the context of the situation and the capabilities of the team in order to get the best from our people.

So, my question to you is, “From where do you lead?”

The Best Business Mistakes I’ve Ever Made

Recently, I have been taking stock of my journey as an entrepreneur. I’ve realized that I had learned quite a bit the hard way. Making mistakes and learning from them, as an individual leader or as a team, is enormously beneficial. Now, I’m not advocating for making mistakes to make them, but I am suggesting that we don’t let a good mistake go to waste.

Making mistakes is part of leading. They are part of life. If we fear failure and bash those who make the occasional mistake, we stifle people’s ability to take risks and innovate and may find our competition leaving us in the dust.

In reflection on some of my most colossal blunders over the years, I came up with a list of key learnings that have helped me both professionally and personally.

#1. Bad decisions don’t get better with time. Decisiveness is critical in helping you move faster than the competition, but it also means sometimes having to make decisions without the benefit of reams of data to back them up. We all make poor decisions sometimes. The real shame is when we don’t admit the blunder and try to ride it out in hopes that things will get better. Being able to identify a misstep quickly and being decisive enough to course correct is critical to success.

#2. You’re not always the smartest person in the room. As an entrepreneur and leader of a team, I felt intense pressure to have all the answers. Looking back, I recognize my faulty assumption. I may have started the company, but I’m certainly not the only one with all the answers. We have a smart and creative team that analyzes things in very different ways than I do. This is an enormous source of strength for us as we discuss and debate business topics before making decisions. This diversity of thought helps keep me honest.

#3. Hope is not a plan. We started our business on a hope and a dream. What we quickly realized is that hope is not a plan. As our organization matured and we became more established leaders in our industry, we took tangible steps to be intentional about who we are, where we’re headed, and how we plan on getting there. With the assembly of our Board of Advisors, our market repositioning, our all-hands strategic planning processes and reviews, we developed a planning cadence that focuses our work effort throughout the year.

#4. Don’t be afraid to fail. Starting a new business was a terrifying experience. What I realized quickly, however, is that fully experiencing life is about taking risk. Now, I don’t mean a constant Vegas-style gamble, but I am an advocate for putting yourself out there in an uncomfortable situation where you very well may fail. Assess the situation and mitigate as much risk as possible to stack the deck in your favor, then execute with everything you’ve got and don’t stop until you’ve succeeded in your endeavors.

Theodore Roosevelt made a speech at the Sorbonne, in Paris, France on April 23rd, 1910. I’ve memorized and carried part of this speech with me throughout my business endeavors:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

There is no great effort without some level of error and shortcoming. And when you make a mistake, don’t get so caught up in wringing your hands that you don’t capitalize on the learning opportunity.

Why Do We Do What We Do?

“That’s just the way we do it” – Something I’ve heard countless times from leaders and their reports in response to my question, “Why do you [fill in the blank]?”. I am surprised by how little careful thought we tend to give to why we do the things we do in the workplace.

This led me to wonder – why? If an organization’s culture is a collection of lessons that helped it grow and survive, it is only sensible that members of the group would look to past successful behavior for future guidance. Over time, provided these behaviors yield positive results, management develops processes to ensure that these effective behaviors occur and that positive outcomes are achieved in more and more consistent ways. Eventually, people aren’t consciously thinking about why they do what they do. They do what they’ve always done because it seems to have worked for them in the past.

Adding to the potential risk of this work on autopilot is the “noise” of the day-to-day. As people scramble to tackle to-do’s, they oftentimes don’t feel they have the luxury to think critically about why it is they do what they do.

This, in and of itself, wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing…if we worked in a bubble where our environment didn’t change. But when behaviors that have historically yielded success cease to do so, people start to ask themselves why they are doing what they do. Unfortunately, by then, it may be too late.

Truly exceptional leaders are those who constantly ask the question, “Why?”. Effective leaders are those who push others to examine why they do things the way they do them and inspire them to understand the marketplace and question the efficacy of their behavior.

When is the last time you stopped and asked the question, “Why do I do the things I do?”. The answer may surprise you.

I Didn’t Get to that Email

In our ongoing effort to share some of our lessons learned over the years, we thought that it would be interesting to ask some of our closest partners for their insight on topics that are most relevant to our readers. Rob O’Sullivan, Executive Producer, Director, and Founder of Main Gate Productions, supports our client work by providing end-to-end video production services to support large-scale change efforts and to support training and development initiatives.

Chris Cancialosi: How do folks in the field leverage video production services to enhance their communications efforts while managing tight budgets?

Rob O’Sullivan: When I first took over the Advanced Services group at Comcast, I was full of excitement and ideas. A five-year veteran of an organization that had gone through numerous mergers, acquisitions, and restructuring, I was ready to execute the vision of our corporate leadership and transform the way Comcast developed, implemented, and supported new products. It didn’t take long to understand that immediate change was no easy task.

Being a part of an organization of almost 100,000 employees, and having responsibility for implementing standards across 20% of that population, made the need for quick and effective communications through each tier of the organization critical to our success. The Comcast executive team did a great job in communicating key business objectives to the employee base on a quarterly basis through corporate broadcast events, but once that hour was over, the effect of those communications would often become fragmented. Email became the primary communication tool, and with most people receiving over a hundred emails per meeting-filled day, it wasn’t surprising to hear someone say, “I didn’t get to that email.”

Email isn’t the only way to facilitate internal communications, and it’s certainly not the most effective. Unfortunately, it seems to have become the norm. Organizations must leverage other media to reach their employee base real-time.

How? Video.

Effective change management execution is about storytelling. To capitalize on the most impactful aspects of the change narrative, the use of video to communicate the key points of that story has become a necessity. Video evokes emotion and provides real-world examples that written communications just can’t accomplish. Video communications through web and mobile platforms afford management teams the unique opportunity to communicate important messages in real-time. In today’s busy work environment, you can only expect short windows of attention. Video allows you to develop 30-60 second snapshots that will get a message out, tell a quick story, or provide a key update. It also provides a much more dynamic and emotive synopsis of a large change initiative that can be archived and viewed for years to come.

To effectively break down the communications walls, there are a few things organizations can adopt to quickly see an impact.

  1. Use mobile video: Smartphones, tablets, and mobile computing are modern realities of business communications, and time is becoming more precious. The ability to reach your employees where they are – on the train, waiting for a meeting to start, at their desks, or on the move – maximizing those precious seconds in a way that has the greatest impact is the challenge. Video snippets of executive sound bites, examples of values in action in the workplace, communication of business goals and priorities, and involving front line employees executing priorities and initiatives through the use of video is a tangible, compelling communication strategy that can be viewed anytime, anywhere.
  2. Rapid competitive response: The competitive landscape changes daily. Organizations need to be able to quickly react and communicate in order to stay ahead of the competition. The ability to quickly promote new initiatives, showcase new products, or strengthen confidence can be made that much more effective by leveraging video for internal and external communications.
  3. Cut costs while increasing reach: With corporate purse strings tightening, the ability to fly employees to a central location for training or meetings is becoming cost prohibitive. However, the ability to stream a video of an executive meeting, sales conference, or other event and archive that footage for reference has never been easier. These days everyone in your organization can participate in a conference real time, then quickly return, respond, and enact the corporate strategy.

Business is not going to slow down, and the need for effective communication vehicles will only increase. Now is the time to adopt video into your messaging strategy.

Little Victories: How Big Change Really Occurs

As the saying goes, even the longest journey starts with just one step.

Over the years, we have engaged with many clients who are dedicated to creating large-scale, significant, and sustainable changes in their organizations in an effort to drive success. Unfortunately, many of these well-intentioned executives believe that there is a silver bullet, or some grand gesture of change, that will accomplish their goals.

While significant changes can and do drive sustainable performance improvements, in my experiences, truly transformational change results from a few elusively simple things.

#1. Greater than the sum of its parts.

Large change is comprised of MANY small changes, or what I call little victories.

Think of any truly transformational change in society that has sustained the test of time, and I will show you a series of seemingly small steps that built upon each other toward the final outcome; events that very often inspired others to create little victories of their own. Those instances challenge the underlying beliefs and assumptions that people hold to be true about the current state.

#2. It takes a village.

One person can rarely create and sustain organizational change that is truly transformational. It takes dialogue that creates a spark in people to step up and do something differently themselves. Engaging everyone in not only having a voice but in having a responsibility to drive small change at their level helps to build momentum and sustainability of what could be.

#3. Shout it from the rooftops.

Find ways to communicate the little victories to the masses. Let the positive change go viral throughout your organization. Transformational change achieves terminal velocity through the stories that people tell. These stories bring change to life; if they are capitalized on, they reinforce the desired behavior change.

At the end of the day, silver bullets are just about as rare as werewolves. Real, transformational change takes careful forethought, the investment of time and energy, and the willingness to let people take ownership of it.

What’s your little victory?

Changing Organizational Culture

One of the most common questions we are asked about organizational culture change is:

Should it be top down or bottom up?

The answer is: Yes.

Decades of leadership development research and common sense tells us that individuals at the highest levels in organizations have the most influence on the organization, as a whole, in the shortest time. But what about the tens, hundreds, or thousands of employees that keep the organization moving forward each and every day? Are they able to influence culture based on sheer number and longevity?

Influence works in both directions, so alignment of energy moving up and down the organization is key to culture change. A strategy that emerged from an initiative with one of gothamCulture’s clients is “top-down, bottom-up” (to be clear, the goal of this approach is to create an open organizational culture that values employees’ opinions and closes the distance between the frontline and executives). The trick to carrying out this strategy is to do both in concert.

It isn’t enough to set leadership loose with a plan to communicate the strategy of the organization and hope that everyone follows. This can result in leaders excitedly running up the metaphorical mountain of change and looking back to realize that no one is following. By the same token, it isn’t enough to provide a survey to engage employees without leaders taking action to address survey results.

Here are some “top-down, bottom-up” lessons we’ve learned over the years:

* Communicate strategically to inform everyone of happenings around the organization. Designate a small team to act as the nucleus to drive communication efforts and translate information coming from the top and bottom. A dynamic communication system is critical to a lean and nimble organization that can compete in today’s business environment.

* Ask employees how to move the organization forward and carry out the initiatives worth pursuing. They are closest to the issues that may derail your plans.

* Provide “face time” for the frontline to meet executives and share concerns and ideas. This doesn’t mean a token executive appearance at a ‘town hall’; we’re talking about creating space for these groups to roll up their sleeves and work together.

* Listen to the workforce with sincerity and empathy. Today’s employees expect their jobs to be fulfilling, challenging, and worth investing time into (which is often more important to retention than compensation packages).

Five Keys to Building a Healthy and Productive Virtual Culture

gothamCulture is a truly virtual work environment. With a team that is separated by geography and time zones, it is imperative to learn how to best work together in ways that help us live our value of Authentic Community. Here are a few of the tricks we’ve learned along the way

1. Use technology to your advantage

This seems like a no-brainer, but you would be surprised how challenging it can be to break people’s old habits to get folks to adopt new ways of using technology to get things done. We make a concerted effort to utilize chat and videoconferencing technology on a daily basis to help maintain and foster effective working relationships with staff and associates. Every effort is made to minimize the “space” between people.

2. Keep the team “up to speed”

In a fast-paced small business like ours, with team members who may be in a different city each night, it’s easy to get caught up in our own little worlds- working feverishly to provide top quality services to our clients. Based on feedback we received from our staff, we instituted structured, weekly team meetings where team members log into a Google Hangout from wherever in the world they may be to connect with the rest of the team. Everyone contributes to the weekly team meeting. We not only get a chance to give the team a feeling for the bigger picture, we are also able to identify areas of risk and reallocate resources in the short-term to ensure that all of our client engagements are executed flawlessly.

Typical weekly meeting at gothamCulture.

3. Set rules of engagement for virtual work

In order to help expedite effective working relationships virtually, we recommend setting clear rules of engagement up front that team members can agree upon and to which they can hold each other mutually accountable. These norms may evolve over time as you refine the ways in which you interact virtually, but we’ve found that setting some ground rules at the beginning really helped us to bake virtual work into our culture in an effective way.

4. Be crystal clear about your purpose, mission, and values

We can’t overstate this enough. When all else fails, we know that our team members will know exactly where to spend their time and attention and how best to prioritize their workload. By ensuring clarity of purpose and alignment around what is truly most important to us as an organization, all team members can manage themselves to be most productive – even in the absence of direct and timely supervision. If you aren’t clear about who you are and where you’re going, how can you expect your employees to know where to focus their energies?

5. Find ways to encourage collaboration on project work

At gothamCulture, we are deliberate about structuring work in ways that force team members to collaborate across great distances. Not only does it result in higher work quality, but it also creates reasons for team members to interact in ways that they might not have otherwise done. These long-distance collaborations give newer members of the team a chance to learn from our more seasoned experts.

Smooth Is Fast, But Fast Ain’t Smooth

When I was a young Army lieutenant training at Fort Knox, Kentucky and learning how to take the fight to the enemy with a 68-ton Abrams battle tank, I had the good fortune to cross paths with a person whose simple advice sticks with me all these years later. His name was Gunnery Sergeant Mummey and he was just about the most crusty, battle-hardened Marine I had ever come across. Gunnery Sergeant Mummey spent his days and nights reveling in watching the newly minted officers who were his students flail hopelessly within the confines of their tanks, trying their best to manage a withering onslaught of tasks and priorities. He had many a good laugh watching us, I’m sure!

One day I was learning how to direct my tank crew in preparation for a field exercise at the gunnery range where we would finally get to test our skills with live ammunition. This was a big milestone for us and it was a test of our ability to direct the three other members of our crew against a series of “enemy threats”. In order to succeed on the gunnery range, each student would have to react to unknown situations and quickly issue clear orders to the crew to successfully manage the situation. Needless to say, new lieutenants are not so great at making all that happen at first go-round.

I was no exception. As I sat in my commander’s hatch trying (unsuccessfully) to get my crew to quickly respond to my orders before the presenting targets vanished, I felt a jolt to the top of my helmet. I ignored it at first, focused solely on getting my crew to do what I had so elegantly envisioned in my head for months prior to this moment. Again, I felt a jolt to the top of my helmet and this time I looked up.

Sitting above me was Gunnery Sergeant Mummey in an instructor chair that had been bolted to the top of the tank so that he could observe us in action. The heel of his boot staring me in the face he said in a surly and disapproving voice, “Lieutenant, smooth is fast, but fast ain’t smooth!” Not understanding exactly what he was getting at, I nodded in approval and went back to work at a frenetic pace. It only took one more kick to the head for Gunnery Sergeant Mummey to get my attention and reiterate himself a way only a senior sergeant can, “Lieutenant, smooth is fast, but fast ain’t smooth!”

I nodded again but this time something changed. As his advice made its way into my brain I realized that in my efforts to speed things up I was only slowing things down. Me yelling to my crew louder and more frantically didn’t actually have the positive effect I was looking for (go figure!). I took a moment to collect myself and I began issuing out orders in a clear, confident, and paced manner, which enabled my crew to understand what I was saying and execute. By slowing down and operating more smoothly, I was able to significantly increase the speed of execution of my crew.

I’ve taken that lesson with me over the years. Through combat and through my career in civilian life, the concept of slowing things down to speed things up has served me well time and again. In a culture where “speed is of the essence” and where “time is money”, I often find myself getting caught up in the fever of the moment. But a lesson learned many years ago in Kentucky comes back to me and I remember to slow things down and to challenge the assumption that we fall victim to on a seemingly daily basis, that fast is good and faster is better.

The next time you’re feeling frantic, I challenge you to take a moment to collect yourself, slow it down and smooth it out. I think that, like me, you’ll find that you will accomplish things much more quickly and effectively and you will feel much more in control and at peace with the demands of your situation.

Remember, smooth is fast but fast ain’t smooth!

The Culture Grinder in Mergers and Acquisitions

I recently posted a blog entry discussing the concept of the Culture Grinder, our term for organizations that attempt to drive strategies that are in conflict with the culture despite countless examples of how this just doesn’t work. Having recently supported a client with a culture integration of a recently acquisition it reminded me of how the Grinder can rear it’s ugly head no matter what the strategy.

In this case it was a growth strategy through acquisition. The purchasing company sought to expand its reach and to expand its service offerings with current clients by acquiring a small organization that had expertise in a particular area. The strategy was sound and people approached the situation from a positive perspective of mutual gain through working together.

Through facilitated conversations with the senior leaders of both the acquiring and the acquired company, we were able to make explicit the underlying values and “keystone habits” of each organization. By doing this, the team was able to discuss the role of culture as an enabler or detractor in their collection ability to drive the strategy that they envisioned. Continued dialogue helped the leadership team identify areas in which the culture of the integrated organization may need to evolve in order to reduce risk and increase the likelihood of continued success and growth.

Only time will tell.

The Culture Grinder

Peter Drucker, one of the most respected authorities on the topic of leadership, has been noted with coining the phrase, “culture eats strategy for lunch”. This saying permeates any discussion about organizational culture, but many leaders fail to realize the true reality that this statement has in day-to-day life.

We call it “The Grinder”. Over the years, we have worked with clients around the world who struggle to understand why they can’t seem able to actually execute their business strategy. For most, it’s not that their strategies are weak or ill-conceived; quite the opposite. Many have done thorough business analyses, engaged high-profile strategy consultants, and developed powerful strategies that detail out how the organization needs to evolve in order to achieve future success.

Unfortunately, when it comes to actually rallying the troops in order to implement the plan, oftentimes, things fall short. Sometimes they fall way short. I am reminded of the countless times I have walked into a client’s office to see binders full of gorgeous, well thought through strategies that never even made it off the bookshelf.

Even if leaders are able to effectively align around a well thought out strategy and they are able to clearly articulate it to employees at all levels, getting people to behave differently becomes the Achilles’ heel. When this happens, a sense of cynicism can develop, only making it that much more difficult to drive strategic change in the future.

But what’s at the core of this regrettable situation? If Drucker’s saying bears weight, then we might come to see that the culture that has developed over the lifespan of the organization may be reinforcing certain attitudes and behaviors that are in conflict with those that would be required to ensure successful execution of the strategy. If leaders do not realize this, or worse yet, make the conscious decision to downplay the role of culture on performance, they may find themselves being chewed up and spit out of the Culture Grinder.