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When a Leader Is Causing Conflict, Start by Asking Why

Not long ago, I received a call from an HR manager at a large corporation seeking an executive coach for one of their senior leaders. He was described as arrogant, tactlessly blunt, and lacking empathy. Despite his challenges, all of which hadn’t improved much despite several previous coaching interventions, the company hadn’t fired him because he was considered one of the industry’s most brilliant engineers, responsible for several of the firm’s most profitable patents. The company simply couldn’t afford to let him go.

How do you coach a leader whom others think is a hopeless case? Sometimes you can’t. The person may well turn out to be a jerk who won’t change their toxic ways. In that case, the company needs to fire the individual. Tolerating destructive behavior will send the signal that it’s ok to mistreat others as long as you get results. But, often, as was the case with my client, the leader who everyone thinks is hopeless is simply being misunderstood and their behavior misdiagnosed.

Whether you are a coach, an HR leader, or an executive trying to help a challenging subordinate, your credibility, and that of the leader you’re trying to help, depends on an accurate understanding of what’s actually going on. Here are three ways you can be sure you’re addressing the right problem with a challenging leader in the right way.

Manage your assumptions and judgements. Without realizing it, those of us in advisory roles often bring our own issues to our work helping others. We make assumptions and judgements based on our own experiences that often have little to do with the leader we’re trying to support. Before I even met this leader, I found myself feeling anxious, dismissive, and judgmental toward him based on what others had said. I imagined how I would respond to his insulting behavior and what I would say if he made an arrogant comment. But my defenses were unwarranted and my assumption that he was a jerk proved wrong. He was engaging, open to learning, and willing to accept his need to improve. When I asked him why he thought he was so harsh toward others, he seemed stumped and genuinely troubled by how others had characterized him.

I’d heard from the company’s HR manager that this executive was especially cruel toward one colleague. Why had he singled out one person to treat in a uniquely nasty way? As we explored this, it became clear that something about the younger engineer triggered the executive’s anger and it eventually clicked: The young engineer reminded him of his older brother, with whom he had a contentious relationship. My client was raised in an excessively achievement-oriented family, that prized blunt candor over tact, and he was regularly sent the message that he was inferior. His brother had been the family’s golden child while he was never good enough. This direct report was a daily reminder of that pain. This back story in no way excused his behavior, but it did explain it. More importantly, it revealed a path forward toward changing it. But I had to set aside my biases and prejudgments to build the trust necessary to access these important insights.

Look past symptoms to contradictions. Determining what lies beneath seemingly destructive behavior requires looking beyond symptoms. My client’s colleagues had described him as mean and insensitive. His previous coaches had focused on various interpersonal techniques, like how to give constructive feedback, work with different personality styles, and delegate effectively. But they’d neglected to probe into the dynamic with that one engineer. To thoroughly diagnose a leader’s behavior, look for breaks in patterns. Are there people this person works especially well or poorly with? Specific circumstances in which they shine or falter? No one is the same all the time, so understanding where people deviate from predictable habits can isolate important clues. In my client’s case, his unique contempt toward one colleague was an important data point. Further, I learned later that his widely regarded technical expertise coupled with his family background made him feel anxiously responsible for the company’s technical reputation. His team members experienced this as micromanagement and dismissive of their expertise. If we’d focused on those symptoms, we wouldn’t have gotten very far. We needed to understand the root cause. It’s not uncommon to inaccurately diagnosis bad leadership behavior. One Arizona State University study found that toxic leadership pathologies are often confused with behaviors that might fall into a normal range of pathology. To avoid confusing common leadership shortfalls with serious pathologies, it’s critical to dig deeper behind symptoms.

Have a broad repertoire of solutions. For many in advisory roles, their diagnostic lens is narrowed to problems they are best equipped to solve. Every hammer looks like a nail, as the saying goes. For example, I’ve seen some consultants whose specialty was team building, so it was no surprise that their findings and recommendations were all around improving team trust. Leadership coaches use their favorite personality instruments to solve everything from poor financial performance to low morale. It’s important to be open-minded to solutions that fall outside your expertise. Ineffective leadership behavior can originate from deep-seated pathologies to problems with organizational culture. Having a repertoire of tools and approaches helps avoid the dangers of applying a one-size-fits-all solution to all situations. And don’t be afraid to refer people to others who have different expertise that may be able to better help your clients with particular issues. In the case of my client, I recommended he also see a therapist to work on his anxiety and unresolved family issues. He and I worked on more effective ways to engage, teach, and empower his team, and how to recognize when his triggers were getting in the way of doing so.

Consistent scholarly research suggests when it comes to empirically measuring the effectiveness of those advising leaders, we fall far short. Mislabeling behavior or a person as beyond help is one way we fail leaders. If you don’t look for contradictions, get to the root cause, and have a range of solutions, you could unwittingly limit someone’s growth or, even worse, derail their career. But if you do those things, with an open mind, you may be able to help save the job of a valuable leader who might otherwise have been let go, and in turn, provide great value to those you serve.


Ron Carucci is co-founder and managing partner at Navalent, working with CEOs and executives pursuing transformational change for their organizations, leaders, and industries. He is the best-selling author of eight books, including the recent Amazon #1 Rising to Power. Connect with him on Twitter at @RonCarucci; download his free e-book on Leading Transformation.


 
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Why Leaders Need to Cultivate Complementary Strengths

Robert is a strong leader.

How do I know? When he left one company to join another, many in his top team followed him to the new company because they wanted to keep working for him. That’s a pretty strong testimonial.

“Yes, he pushes us hard,” one of his direct reports told me, “but I work harder and I deliver. I like that.”

But every leader — even strong ones — have their challenges. And while Robert (not his real name) inspires hard work and loyalty, he also inspires fear, especially in people who don’t know him well or are a few levels below him in the hierarchy. To be clear, Robert is not abusive. He simply has a high bar and is respectfully intolerant of mediocrity. But the impact is one of fear. More than once, a member of his team has come to me with great ideas that they have not shared with him.

Fear doesn’t bring out the best in people. It mutes their performance as they take fewer risks and make overly conservative, safe choices. It also befuddles them, sending them down a confidence-sapping negative spiral: They speak nervously, which makes them appear unsure, which creates doubt in their leaders, who question them more aggressively, which increases their nervousness, which befuddles them even more…and it’s all downhill from there.

On the one hand, this is not Robert’s problem — it’s the problem of the insecure employee. People need to build the confidence to engage with leaders who have an incisive mind and high expectations.

On the other hand, it is Robert’s problem. If he wants to get the most out of all his employees (and their teams), he needs to create a safe environment in which they can perform their best.

As an executive coach of high-performing leaders, I see this all the time. And here are two mistakes coaches often make when trying to help these leaders.

  1. The coach accepts the leader’s perspective that it’s not his problem, that it’s the problem of the people with too delicate a constitution. They shouldn’t quiver in their boots under a legitimate line of questioning. He may be right about them, but he’s not right that it’s not his problem. As a leader who wants to get the best out of his people, it’s always his problem.
  2. The coach tries to help the leader tone down his approach so that he’s not so scary. This is a bad idea. Why? First, most leaders are right that their questions are legitimate. Second, muting the leader is an exercise in frustration and is unsustainable. Third, even if that works, performance suffers anyway since the leader is no longer holding people to the high standard they ultimately need and want. In other words, the leader ends up replacing high performance with mediocrity. And for high-performing leaders (and their organizations), that’s unsustainable.

So what’s the solution?

Imagine you make a soup and it tastes too bitter. The soup is made; you can’t remove the bitter taste. But you can add some sugar to it that balances out the bitterness and makes the soup far more palatable. In other words, sometimes it’s not about changing or taking out an ingredient; it’s about adding one that’s missing.

Instead of reducing his incisiveness, Robert should increase his warmth.

He can acknowledge a person’s insights before asking his questions. Or he can thank them for bringing something to his awareness that was missing (which has the added benefit of showing his vulnerability). He can add a few words of support. He can simply connect with the person warmly and with a smile. He can give context to his questions so that everyone can learn about the way he thinks.

We all have attributes that simultaneously work for us and against us. The solution is not to subdue our strengths but to add ingredients that balance them out. In other words, build complementary skills.

If you have the opposite problem of Robert? If you hold people with care and comfort but tend not to push them? Don’t reduce your warmth — rather push yourself to ask a hard question, without losing your warmth.

Recently someone I work with was accused (by more than one person) of being too political. Her role required that she be adept at managing the politics of the most senior leaders of the organization, so dulling this trait would have been counterproductive.

“Your problem isn’t that you’re too political,” I suggested. “It’s that you’re not communicative enough with your colleagues at your level.” I coached her to continue to leverage her diplomatic skills, while including her team in her efforts instead of working around them.

As for Robert? “Don’t dilute your greatness,” I told him. “Let’s just build a container for it.”


Peter Bregman is a Master Certified Coach and CEO of Bregman Partners, where he leads a team of over 25 coaches, helping senior leaders and teams create positive behavioral change and work more effectively together to achieve the company’s most critical business results. Peter is the best-selling author of Leading with Emotional Courage and hosts the Bregman Leadership Podcast. To receive an email when he posts, click here.

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If Your Innovation Effort Isn’t Working, Look at Who’s on the Team

An all-star team is making headway with a new initiative that could alter the future of the organization. Spirits are optimistic and the team is successfully maneuvering through new, yet very promising, territory. Then, the results begin taking longer than anticipated to prove, and after too much time spent outside of their comfort zones, the team of high-achieving employees can’t seem to execute within the uncertain environment.

The team’s outlook shifts and it becomes clear that the group will not be able to weather the storm of uncertainty needed to realize this new organizational opportunity.

How could such a capable team fail?

At the heart of many organizations is a deeper problem that blocks transformation: product/function organizational structure. This structure works in well-understood environments, where maximizing delivery of a product or service is the goal, but transformative projects require the organization to return to a more malleable state. This challenge requires teams that are formed through a re-matching of resources and employee capabilities.

Transformation-capable teams are made up of people who are not only high performers, but who hold a unique balance of skills and mindsets that allow them to sustain focus, agility, and optimism in the face of uncertainty for prolonged periods of time. Ultimately, not all top-performing employees are equipped for this.

In our book, Leading Transformation: How to Take Charge of Your Company’s Future, we highlight certain capabilities to search for and cultivate while building a transformative team. Specifically, there are three unique characteristics that will play critical roles as a team takes on a breakthrough initiative.

Negative capability: being comfortable with uncertainty

The term “negative capability” was coined by the poet John Keats while describing writers like Shakespeare who were able to work within uncertainty and doubt. Keats was describing the ability to accept not having an immediate answer and to remain willing to explore how something may evolve before there is a clear outcome.

In the modern context, negative capability can be thought of as the ability to be comfortable with uncertainty, even to entertain it, rather than to become so anxious by its presence that you have to prematurely race to a more certain, yet suboptimal, conclusion. Whereas many people cannot stand the fuzziness of uncertainty, those who demonstrate negative capabilities can facilitate the exploration of new terrain and the discovery of an adjacent possible opportunity.

Individuals with negative capability remain curious and focused even when your project is far from the end goal. Chances are, they will even find this point of the project enthralling, rather than overwhelming, which is exactly what you want. They will also be able to suspend judgement about an end result and stay open to many possible outcomes, rather than become fixed early on to one version of success.

Chaos pilots: leading and executing in unfamiliar territory  

In 1991, Danish politician and social worker Uffe Elbæk took out a $100,000 personal loan to open an unusual business school called Kaospilot. The vision of the business school was inspired by a previous project of Elbæk’s, where he observed a new skill set in students for navigating uncertain problems and saw the opportunity to teach these skills to business leaders who needed to do the same. Chaos pilot is a perfect label for a specific persona needed on a transformative team.

Chaos pilots are people who can creatively lead a project through uncertainty. They have negative capability, but they also have other critical skills, such as the ability to create structure within chaos and take action. Leaders who are chaos pilots are able to drive a team forward on a project even as the environment around them fluctuates.

Although it may sound glamorous to be such a person, being a chaos pilot is hard — they are the colleagues working on ambiguous projects and frequently getting beat up in the process. People who aren’t capable of being chaos pilots quickly flounder when the environment around the project gets shaky.

Chaos pilots often care more about creating meaningful change than about climbing a corporate ladder or getting another star on their charts. Finding chaos pilots to join you can be challenging and requires observation and experimentation, though there are a few fertile places to look for good candidates.

For example, look for people who are getting mixed performance reviews, but who are still highly prized by the organization. Often, these people are getting mixed reviews because they make those around them uncomfortable — because the potential candidates often challenge the status quo — but they continue to succeed, because they perform so well.

Divergent thinking, convergent action, and influential communication

Finally, there are three neuropsychological traits to seek while building a transformative team. These three traits — divergent thinking, convergent action, and influential communication — all play a crucial role to succeeding in innovation and transformation. While many individuals hold one or two of these skills, finding a person with all three is more challenging, yet optimal.

The first of the three, divergent thinking, is the ability to uniquely connect new information, ideas, and concepts that are usually held far apart. People with this skill can match dissimilar concepts in novel and meaningful ways and uncover new opportunities that others may overlooked.

Convergent action, the second trait, is the ability to execute on these new ideas in order to create something tangible. Though many people can come up with great ideas, it is often those with convergent action who will move that new concept from idea to product. Last, having the ability to communicate ideas in a coherent, compelling, and influential way is paramount. This trait will inspire other leaders and decision-makers to believe, support, and act on a novel idea or opportunity.

Similar to how many transformative business opportunities are found in unlikely places, the same is true about where you may find the best-suited team members to drive forward a promising new initiative.

Each organizational project represents a moment of potential transformation, and each successful project helps an organization self-correct away from becoming a calloused machine executing on routine, and instead become what they need to survive: a malleable organization capable of capturing new opportunities.


Nathan Furr is an assistant professor of strategy at INSEAD and a coauthor of Leading Transformation: How to Take Charge of Your Company’s Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2018).


Kyle Nel is the CEO and cofounder of Uncommon Partners, a behavioral transformation consultancy, the former executive director of Lowe’s Innovation Labs, and a coauthor of Leading Transformation: How to Take Charge of Your Company’s Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2018).


Thomas Zoëga Ramsøy is the founder and CEO of Neurons Inc. He is a coauthor of Leading Transformation: How to Take Charge of Your Company’s Future (HBR Press, 2018).

 

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The 4 Types of Coaches Every Leader Needs

“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” This quote from legendary college basketball coach John Wooden is one of the best ways I’ve found to describe the importance of coaching in the workplace.

The reason is that we’ve entered a new era of business in which the rapid pace of change requires people at all levels of the organization to constantly learn new skills, change their perspectives, and push themselves to higher levels of performance. That’s where coaching comes in: Coaching is about providing timely feedback to help someone strengthen their skills, knowledge, or behavior to better accomplish a short-term goal.

The word “short-term” is an important aspect to remember. Coaching is all about helping someone perform better right now. While coaching might happen repeatedly over the life of a project, it could also occur in the space of just one conversation.

While coaching has long been a critical part of how leaders interact with their direct reports, many organizations are seeing significant advantages from making coaching a part of their culture. Among other benefits, these organizations are more likely to have a strong leadership bench, experience lower leader turnover, and have more satisfied and engaged leaders.

While the benefits of a coaching culture are significant, it can be very challenging to build. One of the big issues is that many people have a misconception that coaching can only happen in one direction, with people at higher levels of the organization coaching people who have lower-level titles. But a coaching culture depends on breaking down those barriers, and enabling everyone in the organization to become a coach.

One of the key ways to overcome this barrier is for leaders to become comfortable not only with giving coaching, but receiving it. As leaders become more comfortable about asking for and receiving coaching from varied sources, coaching begins to become more ingrained in the organization’s culture. Specifically, leaders should seek out four different types of coaching, each of which plays a distinct role:

Leader coaches provide guidance

When a leader is getting coaching from a boss or another higher-level leader, the coach should ideally be serving as a guide for the leader. The coach should be focused on providing both proactive and reactive coaching that will help the leader succeed.

Proactive coaching is focused on helping set the leader up for success. It might take the form of offering insights or resources to help the leader complete a project similar to one that the higher-level leader has tackled in the past. On the flip side, reactive coaching is about helping the leader solve problems, such as helping remove barriers standing in the way of success or changing tactics to better approach the issue.

One trap for leaders as coaches, however, is that they may find themselves managing more often than coaching. While coaching is about helping guide people to solve problems, managing is telling people what to do. Managing involves setting goals, giving direction, communicating expectations, and making decisions. When coaching from a boss or other higher-level leader starts to become more like managing, leaders often get frustrated, and may feel micromanaged. While managing is a necessary part of leadership, it should occur much less frequently than coaching.

Peer coaches offer candid partnership

While bosses and higher-level leaders serve as important and valuable coaches, many people struggle to let their guard down among those who have higher-level titles in the organization. Even in high-trust relationships with their leaders, direct reports may feel that they still must present their best sides to ensure they don’t risk sharing issues that may affect their performance reviews, raises, career prospects, or job status.

Peer coaches can help to fill this gap. Peer coaching pairs together same-level leaders for mutual benefit. Without the burden of a title or rank dynamics, peers can provide candid feedback that’s focused on achieving the best possible outcome

Peer coaching can also help break down silos and improve collaboration across the organization. In addition, it can help people to feel more accountability for their work, knowing how much their peers are counting on them.

Direct reports can coach on their areas of expertise

While many leaders can see the benefits of coaching from their boss or peers, they often struggle with getting coaching from those who report to them. In the Global Leadership Forecast 2018, we learned that leaders are getting very little coaching from their direct reports—and that’s fine with them! Many leaders may be concerned that getting coaching from their direct reports may make them appear weak or lacking in knowledge.

However, direct reports often have specialized knowledge that can be extremely valuable to their leaders. As leaders are promoted, they lose touch with the day-to-day issues and experience, especially as rapidly changing technologies transform the workplace. Thus, direct reports often have much deeper knowledge of their subject matter, on-the-job pain points, and ideas for solutions than their leaders.

Coaching from direct reports is one of the most critical aspects of building a coaching culture. When team members get to share their expertise and input with their manager, they are much more likely to feel like a valued and trusted member of the team, which improves their engagement and commitment to their jobs.

External coaches provide objectivity

While developing a strong coaching culture within your organization is ideal, leaders say they desire coaching from external coaches more than nearly any other kind of development. External coaches can play a deeply valuable role in providing outside perspective and expertise to leaders. With an external coach, leaders can feel free to voice concerns without fear of damaging relationships with their colleagues and can gain perspective about how leaders in other organizations may have dealt with similar situations. They can also be objective to the situation without concern for organizational politics.

Unfortunately, leaders are rarely getting these opportunities for external coaching. Many organizations reserve external coaching only for leaders at the executive level, which can leave mid-level and frontline leaders struggling to gain outside perspective. The good news is that advances in technology are making it easier for these leaders to access coaching, such as by easily scheduling virtual sessions.

When leaders seek coaching from a wider variety of people, they not only maximize their own performance, but engage others in their success. As people begin to feel more comfortable giving and receiving coaching, it will begin to become a way of (work) life, transforming your organization not only into a coaching culture, but a high-performance culture.

 

Written by Ryan Heinl

Ryan Heinl is director of Product Management and leader of the Impact Lab at DDI, where he brings innovative leadership solutions to life. He is an entrepreneur, writer, chef, Crossfitter, mindfulness junkie and occasional yogi who travels the world in search of the perfect moment (and secretly hopes he won’t find it).

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Make a Tough Decision Easier to Accept

Every leader has to make hard decisions that have consequences for their organization, their reputation, and their career. When you’re faced with a tough call, consider two things that make these decisions so difficult: uncertainty about the outcome and value complexity, the notion that any choice you make will negatively affect someone. To reduce the uncertainty in a decision, first consider the costs of not acting, and then think carefully about your options. Have you made any assumptions that are holding you back? Are there low-risk, small-scale ways to test your options? To handle value complexity, consider how you can help people understand your decision once you make it. Especially when the decision involves trade-offs that will affect others, you’ll want to be as clear as possible about your intentions.

Adapted from “How to Get People to Accept a Tough Decision,” by David Maxfield - From the Harvard Business Review.

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How to Nourish Your Team’s Creativity

CEOs in a recent poll agreed that creativity is the most important skill a leader can have. What seems less clear is how to actually cultivate it. Every leader is hoping for that next great idea, yet many executives still treat creative thinking as antithetical to productivity and control. Indeed, 80% of American and British workers feel pressured into being productive rather than creative.

Leaders can’t afford to have people holding back potential breakthroughs. Knowing this, it is important to recognize that radical, disruptive thinking is not something that can be mandated. Too many leaders try to demand creativity on the spot: They offer cash rewards for new ideas, sequester teams in endless brainstorming sessions, and encourage competitive hierarchies that reward some people for out-innovating others. While all of these strategies are intended to manifest organizational creativity, none do— and they often backfire.

As Teresa Amabile and Mukti Khaire explain, “One doesn’t manage creativity. One manages for creativity.” Your role as a leader is to create a working environment in which critical thinking, new ideas, and creative solutions can flow unencumbered. Here are a few guidelines for bringing out your team’s creative best.

Define creativity for your organization without making it a formulaTom Stillwell, CEO of the Clio Award–winning marketing agency Midnight Oil, explains: “Creativity can be very expensive if you aren’t careful. You could dive into work without clarity on what creativity you want, and end up churning time, energy, and money without results.”

So the first step is to define your terms. If you treat concepts like “design thinking” and “disruptive innovation” as mere buzzwords rather than as muscular strategic concepts, you will end up spinning your wheels, and maybe even stifling creativity.

To create growth, idea creation must be directed toward the benefit of the organization and the customers it serves, something that can only happen through a shared clarity on what creativity means and the purpose it serves to differentiate you from competitors. Take care not to overextend that clarity into a rote formula. Too many R&D groups, with the noble intention of creating “innovative efficiency,” try to codify their innovation processes with such precision that they neuter imagination. A clear definition of the role creativity plays in executing your strategy should get everyone on the same page, ensuring that the entire organization is working toward shared goals.

Strike a balance between art and commerce. In a company, creative thinking must occur on a spectrum between art and commerce. New ideas that exist purely in the realm of art, or creativity for creativity’s sake, won’t necessarily drive the organization forward. And ideas that are singularly focused on commerce or profit aren’t likely to break free from the status quo. To strike a meaningful balance, it is vital that everyone on your team understands the spectrum and uses it in shaping their creative thinking. Whereas some people will have a hard time breaking free from financial assumptions, others will feel constrained by the need to anchor their creative expression to commercial realities. Manage this tension by encouraging people to move out of their comfort zones and toward the center of the spectrum. Effective leaders help their people understand this not as a contradiction but as a healthy tension that can yield the most profitable and breakthrough ideas.

Provide space for both collaborative and individual expression. Too often, we think of creativity as an individual pursuit. However, the Latin roots of the word “creative” — which describe a social, communal experience — reveal a fundamental truth: Creativity is founded upon collaboration. Julien Jarreau, executive creative director at the premier health marketing agency Health4Brands, elaborates:

“Individuality plays an important part in what people bring to the creative table. And yet relinquishing that individuality to a greater collective effort is the ultimate work of generating powerful creative results. I am clear in my expectations that I want collective creation while still honoring individuals. I don’t tolerate prima donnas.” People must learn to derive gratification as individual contributors, while balancing it with a collaborative spirit focused on a greater good. A collaborative environment allows a level playing field where good ideas can be challenged into great ideas. It also fosters the emotional safety needed for creative people to risk sharing their most divergent ideas without fear of judgment. The leader’s job is to set that standard and model it.

Provide structural guardrails without constraining freedom. Creativity is messy. It won’t follow strict protocols or processes. At the same time, it needs structure to thrive. How much structure and discipline is ideal? How much freedom will yield optimal results? A leader helps build collective capability by setting objectives and deadlines, providing creative spaces and designated times for diverging, and allowing teams to practice creativity. Put the tools and processes in place, and turn the team loose.

One of the greatest challenges for leaders is determining what role they should play in helping generate creative ideas and solutions. When leaders have more experience or talent than their team, deciding when to insert their own ideas instead of coaching others can be hard. Deadlines and slipping performance targets increase the leader’s risk of imposing their will, which just reinforces self-doubt on the team and perpetuates the cycle of the leader having to insert the “answer.” If you are going to participate in the ideation, take your leader hat off and, as convincingly as you can, inform your team not to treat your ideas any differently. Only do this if it strengthens the process and avoids muting their participation.

There is nothing more satisfying that watching your people fulfill the human need to create and having their creative contributions benefit the organization and the markets it serves. Doing this requires understanding the inherent tensions that come with leading creative endeavor. It takes intentional, thoughtful leadership to help your team unleash their most creative and powerful work.

Ron Carucci is co-founder and managing partner at Navalent, working with CEOs and executives pursuing transformational change for their organizations, leaders, and industries. He is the best-selling author of eight books, including the recent Amazon #1 Rising to Power. Connect with him on Twitter at @RonCarucci; download his free e-book on Leading Transformation.

 

HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW: https://hbr.org/2017/05/how-to-nourish-your-teams-creativity

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The Problem with Saying “My Door Is Always Open”

If you are in an influential position, you have probably said words to the effect of “My door is always open.” You likely meant this declaration very genuinely. You might well feel that you are a pretty approachable sort of person and that others feel comfortable coming to you with their issues and their ideas.

This may be true.

But it probably isn’t.

Leaders often have an inflated idea of how easy it is for others to speak honestly to them. Our two-year research study, including interviews with over 60 senior executives, as well as workshops and case studies, illuminates a glaring blind spot: We simply don’t appreciate how risky it can feel for others to speak up.

This is because, if we are in a powerful position, we often take power for granted. As a member of a privileged in-group, we forget what it is like to be in the less privileged out-group.

Consider the phrase “My door is always open.” It contains a number of assumptions. First, people should meet you on your territory, rather than the other way around. Second, you have the luxury of a door. Third, you can choose when to close or open it.

These details are small but important. Organizational systems contain many subtle codes that encourage employees to conform. Perhaps the most obvious, one that breeds considerable cynicism, is when a powerful person tells people to challenge him…and then punishes those who do. Sam Goldwyn, the legendary American film producer, referred to this when he famously said: “I don’t want any yes-men around me. I want everybody to tell me the truth even if it costs them their job.”

This seeming contradiction is alive and well in leaders today. When we interviewed the CEO of a global company, she enthusiastically agreed, saying, “I want people to be who they are.” Barely pausing for breath, she went on to explain, “But I do have a little list in my head of people who don’t fit.”

Most of us are pretty good at sensing danger. We know whether the person we are speaking to “has a little list,” and we sensibly stay silent. Such silence is a dangerous thing for any organization and any leader.

We know all the dangers of silence. If your employees are full of ideas about how you can do a better job for the customer, or get a better deal from a supplier, you need to know. If people cannot speak up to you, then you will be unaware of issues that could bring your team, your targets, and even your organization to its knees. An examination of the emissions scandal at VW, the retail account scandal at Wells Fargo, and numerous others is testament to how that can play out in the extreme.

For leaders, none of this is, or should be, news. Most leaders know they need to be more accessible, more conversational. And so executives agree to take part in the Friday-lunchtime-pizza-with-the-team sessions and say again and again that “My door is always open.” Then they wonder (occasionally with some relief) why people aren’t coming through it very often.

So how do you, as a leader, acknowledge power differences and genuinelyencourage others to speak up to you? Our research suggests that you need to ask questions in five areas:

First, are you honestly interested in other people’s opinions? And if you are, whose opinions are you most interested in hearing, and whose are you biased against? What data do you listen to most, and what are you largely deaf to (financial data, data about people, emotions)? Being genuinely curious about other perspectives requires a humility that can be in short supply as you head up the organizational hierarchy. As the CEO of one company admitted to us, “I expect that my ego sometimes prevents me hearing stuff I should be listening to.” Before you conclude that you are sure you don’t have a problem in this area, it is useful to check by asking yourself, “How do I know that I have a reputation for being open to changing my mind?”

Second, have you considered how risky it feels for others to speak up to you? You can investigate this more deeply by reflecting on how you tend to respond when challenged by people. It may well be that on the previous 10 occasions you received challenge with interest and admirable attentiveness, but on the eleventh you’d had a bad day and just couldn’t stop yourself from interrupting and grumpily disagreeing with the person. The eleventh occasion is the story everyone will tell around the office. And that story is the one that will live on for years. And it probably is the case that you judge people when they speak up (which is simply human), and it probably is the case that you also happen to be the one who determines the result of their performance appraisals. So it is you who will need to be extra vigilant of the signals you are sending out when someone has built up the courage to speak up. And you have to apologize publicly when you have a bad day (as everyone does) and cut somebody off at the knees.

Third, how aware are you of the political game being played? Politics is an inherent part of organizational life; personal agendas play out all the time in what we choose to say to one another. This is especially the case when you occupy an influential role. As one of our interviewees put it, “When they hear you’re the CEO…they say what they think you want to hear, which can be very frustrating.” Enabling others to speak up means understanding why this person might be saying what they are saying (or why they are staying silent) and making an informed choice about whether to surface that agenda, whether to gently lower the stakes so the person speaks up, or whether to widen the circle of individuals you listen to and include those less concerned with “playing the game.”

Fourth, what labels do people apply to you, and what labels do you apply to others that define the rules of what can be said? When we meet with others, we label them, consciously or unconsciously. For example, we badge others as “CEO,” “consultant,” “woman,” “young,” “new,” or “sales,” and these labels mean different things to different people in different contexts. But inevitably they are all markers of status, and status governs the unwritten rules around who can speak and who gets heard. Seeing unwritten advantage in action is not easy, particularly if you are fortunate enough to be in the in-group, but it does not mean we shouldn’t strive to become more aware and to mitigate any detrimental influence this labelling might have.

Finally, what specifically do you need to do and say to enable others to speak? This might include anything: reducing status difference by choosing to dress more casually, introducing a “red card” at executive committee meetings to ensure someone has the ability to challenge you, or carefully holding your tendency for extroversion in check so that others get a moment to speak up. These tactics can only be built on a solid foundation of self-awareness, informed by the responses to the four questions above.

If you are wondering why others aren’t speaking up more, first ask yourself how you are inadvertently silencing them.

Megan Reitz is Associate Professor of Leadership and Dialogue at Ashridge Executive Education at Hult International Business School. She is the author of Dialogue in Organizations (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). Previously, she was a consultant with Deloitte; surfed the dot-com boom with boo.com; and worked in strategy consulting for The Kalchas Group, now the strategic arm of Computer Science Corporation.

 John Higgins is an independent researcher, coach, consultant and author. He has published widely with the Ashridge Executive Masters and Doctorate in Organizational Change, most recently with The Change Doctors: Re-Imagining Organizational Practice (Libri, 2014).

 

HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW: https://hbr.org/2017/03/the-problem-with-saying-my-door-is-always-open

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How to Tell Leaders They’re Not as Great as They Think They Are

Although we live in a world that glorifies self-belief and stigmatizes self-doubt, there are really only two advantages to thinking that you’re better than you actually are. The first is when you’re attempting to do a difficult task. Believing that you can do something difficult is half the battle, but if you truly overrate your abilities, then by definition you will fail. The second is fooling others into thinking that you are competent. Most people will be found out eventually, and the personal benefits of faking competence will be offset by the negative consequences for others. For example, deluded leaders may come across as charismatic and talented, but their overconfidence puts their followers at risk in the long run. In contrast, when leaders are aware of their limitations, they are less likely to make mistakes that put their teams, organizations, and countries in danger.

And yet — as I demonstrate in my latest book — leaders are not generally known for their self-awareness. Although leadership talent is normally distributed, 80% of people think they are better-than-average leaders. Moreover, with narcissism rates rising steadily for decades, there is no reason to expect future leaders to be more accurate in their self-evaluations, let alone to be humble. Strengths-based coaching, and removing negative feedback from performance appraisals are aggravating the problem, validating leaders’ fantasized talents much like when parents tell their children that they are the brightest and cutest in the world. This is especially likely when leaders are intimidating, or when they surround themselves with sycophantic employees. As a result, leaders are deprived of the very feedback they need to get better.

Whether you manage or coach leaders, or are just trying to provide some feedback to your own boss, here are three simple points you may wish to consider in order to have this difficult (but necessary) conversation with them:

  • Tap into their personal motives: Nobody likes to be criticized — especially high-status individuals. However, if you can help leaders understand how they can achieve their personal goals, they will pay attention. The most effective way of doing this is by tapping into the leader’s motives and values. For instance, leaders who are driven by recognition care a great deal about their reputation. Telling them that they are seen as less capable than they think they are will probably mobilize them, even if you allow for the possibility that their reputation is unwarranted. On the other hand, when leaders are driven by power, you will be able to appeal to them by linking the feedback to their performance and career progression: “If you change X and Y, you will be able to outperform your competitors and make it to the top”. In contrast, when dealing with altruistic leaders, your best strategy for delivering negative feedback is to convey that “by changing X and Y, you will be able to harness your team’s potential and improve their engagement and wellbeing”.
  • Let the data do the talking: Leaders are not always interested in people, and they often regard psychological matters as fluffy. On the upside, they tend to care about results. A good way to help leaders understand that their self-views and behaviors matter is via 360-degree feedback (360s) and employee engagement In particular, there is ample evidence for the connection between 360s and leadership performance, as well as a leader’s integrity. The use of 360s also enhances coaching and development interventions by closing the “blind-spots” between leaders’ self-views and other people’s views on them. As for engagement, it is arguably the best source of data to evaluate leaders’ effectiveness — other than actual team performance data. For example, a meta-analysis of almost 8,000 business units and 36 organizations shows that increases in employee engagement are associated with better business-unit outcomes, including revenues and profits. Another data-driven approach to making leaders aware of their potential deficits is through scientifically valid personality assessments. When reports focus not just on the bright side, but also the dark side of personality, leaders will be able to understand what their “toxic assets” are. Indeed, dark side personality traits predict leader derailment even in the presence of outstanding technical skills and expertise. From Dominic Strauss-Kahn to Bernie Madoff, there is no shortage of famous case studies demonstrating that brilliant leaders can damage their own and others’ careers when they overuse certain strengths and are unable to tame their undesirable qualities.
  • Highlight the downside of self-confidence: A final point to consider is that leaders who are interested in science may be easily persuaded of the virtues of modesty, as well as the adverse consequences of hubris. In other words, there is vast empirical evidence to convince leaders that excessive self-confidence is more problematic than they think. For example, economic studies suggest that overconfidence leads to poor financial decisions and an inability to attend to social cues that highlight one’s mistakes. Financial studies show that overconfidence drives Forbes 500 CEOs to “persistently fail to reduce their personal exposure to company-specific risk”. Business studies show that overconfident entrepreneurs are not just more likely to fail, but also die younger than their more insecure counterparts. By the same token, there is also compelling evidence for the benefits of (moderate) self-doubt. For instance, academic studies suggest that leaders who underrate their abilities tend to be more effective, and broad theories of motivationsuggests that self-perceived deficits in competence are pivotal for improving one’s performance. Perhaps most famously, Jim Collins’ seminal analyses of effective executives suggested that the most outstanding leaders are not just relentless and driven, but also humble.
  • Sadly, these suggestions are not always easily applied. For example, leaders with poor 360s tend to dismiss the value of feedback, which makes them virtually uncoachable. This is one of the fundamental limitations of coaching: it often works with those who need it the least; but it works a lot less with those who need it the most. There are also too many sources of (fake) positive feedback at the disposal of leaders, no matter how talented they are. In that sense, the world of work is not so different from Facebook, though even Facebook has decided to allow users to leave negative feedback on other people’s posts. Ultimately, we need to get better at selecting leaders who are comfortable with their own insecurities and self-doubt. As the great Voltaire noted: “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.”

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is the CEO of Hogan Assessments, a professor of business psychology at University College London and at Columbia University, and an associate at Harvard’s Entrepreneurial Finance Lab. His latest book is The Talent Delusion: Why Data, Not Intuition, Is the Key to Unlocking Human Potential. Find him on Twitter: @drtcp or at www.drtomascp.com. 

 

HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW:  https://hbr.org/2017/03/how-to-tell-leaders-theyre-not-as-great-as-they-think-they-are?utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter_daily&utm_campaign=mtod&referral=00203&spMailingID=17777502&spUserID=OTA1Njk1ODMwMAS2&spJobID=1080076064&spReportId=MTA4MDA3NjA2NAS2

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The More Senior Your Job Title, the More You Need to Keep a Journal

For leaders assuming the CEO title for the first time, taking time to learn and think translates into early successes. But the problem is there’s little time to do either. Information comes at them more quickly, more people than ever before demand their time, and they’re told that the myriad decisions piled in front of them are all important.

If hired from outside, there is a new culture to get used to and it’s not clear who to trust. Even when promoted from inside, the pace can be jarring compared to running a division in the same company. In both cases, any new leader must manage intense exposure (as it sinks in that top leaders have few places to escape to) and unrealistic expectations (of both self and others).

There is nothing new leaders can do to avoid these problems completely. All they can control is how they react to them. Because we tend to make mistakes when things speed up, especially when in unfamiliar territory, it can make all the difference to find ways to slow things down.

The French philosopher Blaise Pascal pointed out that “All of humanity’s problems come from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” He didn’t mean sitting quietly in front of a laptop responding to emails. The best thinking comes from structured reflection — and the best way to do that is keeping a personal journal.

I started keeping a journal when I took over a manufacturing research, software, and consulting firm. I was very young, we were in crisis facing a challenging market, and I wasn’t sure whom I could rely on. I kept a journal through my 12 years as chairman and CEO and have since recommended it to people moving into any senior position for the first time.

There’s strong evidence that replaying events in our brain is essential to learning. While the brain records and holds what takes place in the moment, the learning from what one has gone through — that is, determining what is important and what lessons should be learned — happens after the fact during periods of quiet reflection.

Also, when we slow things down and reflect, we can be more creative about solving seemingly inscrutable problems. Take, for example, a technique called the “second solution method” that I’ve used in the past. If a group was struggling to come up with options to solve a tough problem, we would brainstorm to identify a list of possible solutions. Before switching to prioritizing, making items specific, etc., we tried to identify all possible options. I found the best approach was to tell the group to take a break and when it reconvened to ask, “What else occurs to you?” Inevitably, this simple question resulted in about 50% more items, often of higher quality. By experimenting, I found that the break that took place between the first and second rounds was more important than the question. A journal is an effective, efficient, private way to take a similar break.

Journal entries should provide not only a record of what happened but how we reacted emotionally; writing it down brings a certain clarity that puts things in perspective. In other cases, it’s a form of mental rehearsal to prepare for particularly sensitive issues where there’s no one to talk with but yourself. Journals can also be the best way to think through big-bet decisions and test one’s logic.

 While personality, style, and situation cause different approaches, some guidelines have proven useful for the best results. Notes should be made as soon as possible after an event from which one wants to learn—ideally the same day. Waiting more than 24 hours seems to sacrifice specificity about details that made the most difference and why they happened.

An entry should begin with the primary outcome — the headline that best captures the major result. Then, list the essential reason for that outcome; an always-subtle root cause made apparent by asking “why?” five times to peel back each layer, revealing what came before. (I remember reviewing my journal once and realized that several big-bet decisions turned on the right question asked at just the right point in the debates. Fortunately, my notes were in enough detail that they showed that the same subordinate asked the right question each time. I started listening to him much more closely). Third, recall the emotions that affected decision making and why they flared. Last, identify what you can learn from the whole experience and what you can do differently next time.

Many will opt to keep a journal on their computer or iPad. While that may be more efficient, the point of keeping a journal is not efficiency but to reflect and slow things down so that learning is maximized. For that purpose, handwriting may work better. The novelist Paul Theroux has said that he writes long-hand because, “The speed with which I write with a pen seems to be the speed with which my imagination finds the best… words.” He noted a 2011 Newsweek article that said, “Brain scans show that handwriting engages more sections of the brain than typing [and] it’s easier to remember something once you’ve written it down on paper.”

With so many benefits of keeping a journal, why do so few leaders do it?

  • It takes time, a most precious asset. Because a journal requires reflection, it’s best done during quiet periods, which are rare for any leader.
  • Sometimes, keeping a journal requires reliving something one would just as soon forget. Even though a vital step in learning, it’s unpleasant.
  • Because many leaders prefer to rapidly move on to the next challenge, reflection is not high on their list of things they enjoy or have much experience with.
  • Like any tool, it takes time to perfect the best way to use it. The methodology offered here did not happen right away, but came after many trials and errors.

These are minor drawbacks compared to the benefits. Slowing things down leads to better-thought-through, more effective judgement and to learning what to do more of and what to change. One result, as important as anything, is an increase in the satisfaction that should come from being in charge. A personal journal should be part of any leader’s toolkit.

Dan Ciampa (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) is a former CEO, an adviser to boards and chief executives, and the author of five books, including Transitions at the Top: What Organizations Must Do to Make Sure New Leaders Succeed (with David L. Dotlich, Wiley, 2015) and Right from the Start: Taking Charge in a New Leadership Role (with Michael Watkins, Harvard Business Review Press, 1999). 

 

HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW: https://hbr.org/2017/07/the-more-senior-your-job-title-the-more-you-need-to-keep-a-journal?utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter_weekly&utm_campaign=weeklyhotlist&referral=00202&spMailingID=17626641&spUserID=OTA1Njk1ODMwMAS2&spJobID=1060705986&spReportId=MTA2MDcwNTk4NgS2

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5 Questions to Ask About Corporate Culture to Get Beyond the Usual Meaningless Blather

There aren’t many leaders who would disagree with the idea that a healthy, productive culture is a defining element of business success. Yet I’ve seen so many companies with lofty-sounding “mission statements” and “core values” that have the most toxic workplaces imaginable. I’ve met so many leaders who are brilliant when it comes to product design and capital structure but who treat the people in business as an afterthought, a matter of sound administration as opposed to daring innovation.

In other words, so much of our thinking about organizational culture has become so bland, so unobjectionable, that it is on the verge of becoming meaningless. What follows, then, is an attempt at culture shock — five hard questions about the “soft” side of business that leaders must be able to answer if they hope to build a workplace that works.

Is your talent strategy rooted in your business strategy? Culture can’t just be an assortment of well-meaning HR practices; it has to grow out of distinctive business practices. As I reflect on the great companies I’ve gotten to know — companies that are winning big in tough, competitive fields — they all exude what brand strategist Adam Morgan calls a “lighthouse identity.” Every time you encounter them, however you encounter them, you understand what makes them different, what they’re prepared to do that other companies aren’t, and why what they’re doing is relevant today. That’s why building a great culture starts with intellectual clarity about what your organization stands for and why you expect to win. There can be no talent strategy without a compelling business strategy.

Does your company work as distinctively as it competes? Yes, the most successful companies think differently from everyone else — that’s what separates them from the competition in the marketplace. But they also care more than everyone else — that’s what holds people together as colleagues in the workplace. So much of what we focus on as leaders is how to be more clever: big data, slick apps, social media. A great culture allows clever organizations to be more human, to make everything they do more authentic, real, memorable. The true promise of a culture, argues influential venture capitalist Ben Horowitz, is to “be provocative enough to change what people do every day.” That’s the real connection between culture and strategy: If you want to energize and elevate how your organization competes, you have to energize and elevate how your people behave.

Can you capture what it means to be a member of your organization? At its core, the role of culture is to reinforce a sense of belonging, a shared commitment among colleagues about how they solve problems, share information, serve customers, and deliver experiences. Which is why the most enduring cultures are built on language and rituals that are designed to create a palpable sense of community — which, in many cases, only makes sense to people who are part of that community. A favorite slogan among students and faculty at Texas A&M University, a long-established school with a one-of-a-kind culture, sums it up: “From the outside looking in, you can’t understand it. From the inside looking out, you can’t explain it.” That’s the spirit I’ve seen at companies with the most powerful cultures. Their leaders devote enormous time and imagination to devising small gestures and little symbols that send big messages about what it takes for everyone to be at their best every day.

Is your culture built for learning as well as performance? High-output cultures are all about fierce competition, crisp execution, and a relentless commitment to service. But truly enduring cultures are also about change and renewal. It’s one of the hazards that comes with success: The better an organization performs, the more ingrained its culture becomes, and the harder it can be for executives and employees to stay alert to big shifts in markets, technology, and culture. That’s why the best cultures and the most effective leaders keep learning as fast as the world is changing. They’re constantly scanning for new practices from other companies, new ideas for unrelated industries, a new sense of what’s possible in their own fields. At WD-40, a company with one of the richest learning cultures I’ve seen, CEO Garry Ridge likes to challenge his colleagues with a simple question: When’s the last time you did something for the first time?

Can your culture maintain its zest for change and renewal, even when the company stumbles? It’s a lot easier to maintain high levels of energy and morale at a company when sales are booming and the stock price is soaring. But the reality of competition today is that long-term success is virtually impossible without short-term stumbles. For any organization, part of staying relevant is experimenting with dramatically new technologies, sketching alternative business models, and rethinking how it engages with customers — all of which are bound to involve setbacks and disappointments. That’s why the most enduring cultures are the most resilient cultures. Colleagues at every level embrace the power of creative ideas, deep convictions, and confidence in the face of missteps. Leadership scholar John Gardner calls this outlook “tough-minded optimism,” and it’s a hallmark of cultures that can move and morph with the times.

For all of the noble talk about talent and values, I can honestly say that I haven’t met many leaders who think as creatively or as rigorously about their company’s culture as they do about R&D and finance. But for the truly great leaders I’ve studied, the people factor is just as vital as the technology or money one. Here’s hoping that you, like those great leaders, can address these five hard questions about the soft side of business.

 

Bill Taylor is the cofounder of Fast Company and the author, most recently, of Simply Brilliant: How Great Organizations Do Ordinary Things in Extraordinary Ways. Learn more at williamctaylor.com.

 

HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW: https://hbr.org/2017/06/5-questions-to-ask-about-corporate-culture-to-get-beyond-the-usual-meaningless-blather?referral=00563&cm_mmc=email-_-newsletter-_-daily_alert-_-alert_date&utm_source=newsletter_daily_alert&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=alert_date&spMailingID=17363225&spUserID=OTA1Njk1ODMwMAS2&spJobID=1040086819&spReportId=MTA0MDA4NjgxOQS2

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