Success is always in context

It’s a common problem for extremely successful executives to experience failure when something major changes in their context – a new boss, a merger that changes all the rules, a new organizational structure that changes how things get done, a new culture. And yet, the executive may fail to recognize that what has made them successful previously will no longer work and that there’s a need for new strategies and skills.

Reading the grey between the black and white is a highly important competency at all levels but essential in senior spots.  And having the resiliency to give up what is comfortable and has worked and move to the next way of working will fuel future success.

Some things should never change, such as morals, ethics and trustworthiness – those aspects of ourselves that create our internal compass and point true north to others.  But how we work or get things done is not written in stone and our ability to move to new models can be a great asset to us and others.

The Importance of Self-Awareness

As a top leader in your company, it’s incredibly important that you know yourself very well – your world views, emotional temperament or EQ, personality traits and intrinsic capabilities.  By being very clear about all of these dimensions, you can make conscious choices about when to leverage them and when you need to manage out of your normal reactionary preferences.  You can build teams that complement you rather than duplicate you (which is basically a compliment to you!).

Be aware that more important than having a basic understanding of yourself is the ability to understand your impact on others – and that will vary depending on their own backgrounds.  Most executives have a pretty good read on who they are but miss how their approaches feel to others.  As an example, my directness may seem blunt or even brutal to others, depending on their role and their own makeup.

Authenticity is crucial as a leader so this is not advice to be a chameleon, rather to modulate or accentuate depending on the circumstances.  Having more bandwidth within yourself and the ability to stay in choice allows you to lead in a nuanced way.

One executive that I know looks at his calendar every morning and decides ahead of time if there’s a particular way that he wants to enter that situation so that he’s prepared to change approaches if he thinks it will elicit a better result.

So how does one become self-aware?  Your best avenue lies in feedback from trusted advisors – a board member observing you in that setting, a built-in look-back session after investor meetings or calls, a loyal (and courageous) direct report and through formal 360 processes. Your spouse usually is spot-on with feedback as well because all of these traits can and will show up with your family.   What you learn can keep you from constantly repeating patterns that eventually stunt your effectiveness.

Should you consider implementing Jeff Bezos’ senior level meeting structure?

Much has been written about the meeting structure that Jeff Bezos requires at Amazon for those decisions requiring significant investments that will be reviewed by the senior team.  For those unfamiliar with the Amazon process:

  • A six-page narrative is provided, with back-up appendixes
  • All in the meeting spend the first 30 minutes reading the narrative and reviewing the appendixes
  • The issue is then discussed in detail and decisions are made
  • No PowerPoint is ever utilized

Quoting from Jeff Bezos: “The traditional kind of corporate meeting starts with a presentation. Somebody gets up in front of the room and presents with a PowerPoint presentation, some type of slide show.  In our view you get very little information, you get bullet points.  This is easy for the presenter, but difficult for the audience.  And so instead, all of our meetings are structured around a 6 page narrative memo…. If you have a traditional PPT presentation, executives interrupt.  If you read the whole 6 page memo, on page 2 you have a question but on page 4 that question is answered.”

The down side to the 6-pager is that writing a good six-page evidence-based narrative is hard work.  Precision counts and it can be hard to summarize a complex business in 6 pages, so teams work for hours preparing the document for these reviews.  But that preparation does two things.  First, it requires the team writing the document to really deeply understand their own space, gather their data, understand their operating tenets and be able to communicate them clearly.  The second thing it does is that a great document enables our senior executives to internalize a whole new space they may not be familiar with in 30 minutes of reading thus greatly optimizing how quickly and how many different initiatives these leaders can review.”

To write well one has to think well.  When you are making big investments, would you feel more comfortable if you knew that the recommending group were thinking as well as possible?  Would it be easier to evaluate this by reading a narrative rather than reviewing a PPT?  It’s an intriguing proposition to consider.

How Senior Level Meetings Shape Culture and People

Most executives spend significant time within their companies in large-group meetings – reviewing business metrics, managing talent, problem-solving and discussing strategic issues.  Many times, less experienced subordinates are making the presentations and there’s real pressure to bring the right information and solutions to the table and deliver it well.  It can be exciting and energizing to engage with senior leaders and be a part of the bigger organizational decision-making process.  However, so often these situations become negative and demotivating to those who are presenting.

Senior-level people quickly grasp information and understand where the conversation and conclusions are going even though the presenter may just have started.  What normally transpires is 1) polite suffering through an ineffective presentation, or 2) explicit impatience with the person and process or 3) just taking over the presentation and moving it along.  Sound familiar?

It’s important that executives understand how much large-group meetings shape culture and people.  The best of companies make it crystal clear what their expectations are about these processes, clarifying ahead of time the format expected, the type of materials that need to be prepared and the level of presentation preparation necessary to do a good job.  Managers know that they will be evaluated on how well they’ve coached their staff to perform in these settings.  Those attending are engaged and exhibit that they are listening or there are consequences for their behaviors.  There’s serious debate and significant outcomes.

Don’t under-lead this part of your organization. Determine the best meeting process and structure for what you have to accomplish.

The Power of a Negative Moment

It’s important to remember that anytime we create a negative interaction with another, it has a shelf life much longer that you would ever imagine.  We humans are wired to respond to crises and potential disasters in the oldest part of our brain.  As a result, brain research says that we are five times more likely to remember a negative interaction than a positive one.

And this is amplified when that negative moment emanates from a power figure such as a boss.  You will have to demonstrate over a longer period of time than you can imagine that you no longer get things done through negative motivation or through careless insensitivity to others.

If you have a reputation of being an “a**hole” and you want to evolve that reputation to being a tough but admired leader, you have to change that perception one day at a time, which is a manageable equation.  If you concentrate on handling well just this one interaction and then the next, it won’t be as hard as you think to change your habits.  When you interact with others, consciously choose that you will manage well both the relationship and the result – no tradeoff is needed.

Another helpful way to alleviate such a label is to ask for feedback regularly so that people have to consciously acknowledge that things have changed.  Many times those that work for you are attached to the old reputation and have a hard time adjusting to the new leadership you may truly be exhibiting.  By consciously acknowledging, or offering you constructive criticism, they have to let go as well.

The Limitations of Commando Leadership

Perhaps, you, like many executives, have achieved your success through your ability to take the hill regardless of the toll it takes on those that work for you.  Or perhaps you largely take the hill yourself, leaving others trailing behind.  This can particularly be true if you generally are the smartest person in the room and the one that works the hardest.  However, this kind of leadership can only take you and your organization so far because no one can push themselves or others without dealing with the consequences of the toll it takes.

Most commando types have a hard time accepting that you can be both results-oriented and people-focused, as if it’s a binary choice.  However it’s been proven over and over again, that the best leaders move both ahead – people and results.

So how does one evolve from the commando approach?  The first step is always self-awareness about the underlying reasons you’ve defaulted to this way of leading.  Are you a perfectionist that wants things done a certain way, becoming critical and controlling?  Are you driven by fear of failure and the only way that you can feel confident is by over-managing, over-working and driving others as you drive yourself?  Are you less sensitive about the impact of your actions on others, not understanding the toll you are exacting?  Do you contain your emotions and then under stress, blow up out of proportion to the situation?

Analyze the source of your own behavior just as you would analyze a business problem because each of these scenarios requires a different plan of action to change your behavior.  You may need an outside perspective – a coach, a mentor or leadership class – that can help your perspective and offer new alternatives and support.

Many of these tendencies are deeply wired and it’s very hard to give up behavior that has created success in the past but the past is so over.  Anyone can push their edges and broaden their capability with sustained effort and a change in mindset.  Commando types don’t have to give up their edge but couple this intensity with more depth of leadership abilities.

How to Listen

1. Internal Voice
We spend more time listening to ourselves than to the party in front of us. While our brain is taking in the data, our internal voice constantly runs a monologue that we don’t even notice – assessing, judging, relating, and making sense of whatever is happening. “Tell me something I don’t know.” “Is there a point in here somewhere?” “I’m not prepared.” “It’s important that I speed this along.” It becomes even louder when we are stressed, or emotion is high.

Before you can listen well to anyone else, tune into your own station and listen to the internal dialogue. What am I saying? What am I feeling? Once you notice, it calms down and murmurs instead of shouts. Noticing brings awareness, awareness brings calmness. Add some deep breaths to help balance the emotions and you immediately have more space to listen to someone else. This can be done before going into situations but also on the fly. A small change that will bring big results.

2. Calmness
When you aren’t focused inward, you can be present outward. When you are calm, you have the capacity to notice, to connect, and listen in a comprehensive way. Desire to be calm. You don’t have to lose your intensity, it’s not an either/or scenario. When you are calm, you calm others, which brings out their best thinking. Isn’t that what you want?

And those of you who are talkers or who naturally dominate discussions, please realize that no one will see you as calm, regardless of your demeanor. Strive for more balance between talking and listening. It will be a huge step for those that work regularly with you.

3. Curiosity
There is a reason behind everything each of us do or say. You have cultivated great curiosity about data, facts, information, scenarios, strategies, or you would not be in these senior roles. Become just as curious about how someone is expressing themselves, or not. Where they start a discussion, or how they end. Why whatever they are saying is so important to them. The emotions they are feeling. When you have this deep curiosity, a world of information becomes available to you.

4. Questions
Questions are meaningless without true curiosity. Window dressing that others see through. Questions fueled by curiosity make others feel heard. They can tell that you are sincerely trying to get what they are saying, even if they don’t say it well. You can change the arc of a discussion with a question. There are times and places for declarations and advocacy, but questions hold far more power. They allow for decisions and actions to be built together, which is how alignment and commitment are built.

5. All the Senses
Hear beyond what is being said. Notice the small hesitations or the filler words, the tone. Notice the hands shifting, the stillness. Each of us has emotional habits of expression that immediately are obvious upon astute observation. Interpreting them may take some time but with practice, you can see who is truly confident, who is unsure, feeling vulnerable, skeptical and so on. Calmness facilitates your ability to tap into this vast array of information.

6. Practice
No one changes habits without practice. These points are to awaken you to a new mindset about how to listen and to create a path. Now it takes practice. You will feel uncomfortable, expect it, and congratulate yourself that you are on the right track. The good news is there are unlimited opportunities to practice. Review these points, give yourself a grade at the end of the day, make it a part of your work. You listen all day long – you might as well be great at it.

EQ AND IQ – the Winning Formula

No one can make it in this competitive world without strong technical abilities, industry acumen and great critical thinking skills – the IQ part of the equation.  The real differentiator, though, is strong EQ, particularly when faced with high levels of complexity.  Emotional Intelligence can be described as possessing strong self-awareness of your own emotions, being able to manage those emotions in difficult times, and choosing how we respond rather than responding out of our emotional patterns which are set early in life.  As well, EQ is about our awareness of other’s emotions with the ability to stay in a productive relationship even during difficult times. The good news is that EQ can be cultivated, with the goal of staying in choice with our actions at all times.

In terms of the impact of EQ on leadership, Daniel Goleman, who coined the EQ phrase, conducted research with a wide variety of people about what makes a good or bad boss.  Here’s what his research revealed:

Good Boss Bad Boss
Great Listener Blank Wall
Encourager Doubter
Communicator Secretive
Sense of Humor Bad Temper
Shows Empathy Self-Centered
Decisive Indecisive
Humble Arrogant
Shares Authority Mistrusts


These are all characteristics of emotional intelligence or the lack thereof – and all are in our control to change.  One challenge of leaders is a gap between their own and others’ perceptions of them because they don’t get the “real news” from those around them.  Thus it is incumbent that you ask and gain honest feedback about your impact on others.  And that you exercise discipline in power, never taking advantage of the authority that you have.  This is the real rigor of leadership, to manage carefully the impact you have on others so that not only are you building your own emotional resilience but also building organizational resilience.

Confidence Taken Too Far

A core characteristic of those who’ve achieved executive status is confidence in their own judgement which has been finely honed from experiences, most of which have been successful.  To a large degree, this confidence is well-placed and is a seminal reason they are in the job.  However, we’ve all heard the expression, “What got you here, won’t get you there,” and it’s a fine mantra to remember because it is fundamentally true.  Success is always in context and one has to freshly observe the current reality, the new client or employee, the new market conditions.  The apex of personal performance is bringing well-honed experience to the table but always seeking new information and truly listening before formulating judgements.  Otherwise, confidence can evolve into hubris and as a high-level executive, no one may differ with you which is a dangerous place indeed because it reinforces your belief that you are right.

Creating Healthy Conflict in your Organization

One of the great organizational challenges is creating open debate which is an essential ingredient to think beyond the current reality.  Those at the top can espouse their strong desire for this but that alone won’t compel a team to handle conflict productively.

Patrick Lencioni discusses conflict as one of the cornerstones of good teams and utilizes a Conflict Spectrum as a helpful metaphor.  At one end is “Artificial Harmony”.  We all know what this looks like as illustrated by a CEO client who astutely observed that, “Polite conversations equals polite results.”  On the other end of the spectrum is “Personal Attacks” and we know what that looks like as well.  Conflict that becomes personal, whether meant or perceived, becomes completely unproductive. The middle of the spectrum is the healthy and productive place to be, with the conflict or disagreement focused on ideological issues that aren’t meant or taken personally.

Healthy debate can only occur if all are held accountable to conduct themselves well with conflict AND to always have the larger organizational interests at the forefront.  Companies such as GE demand it as part of their corporate culture which is relentlessly oriented towards winning in the market place.  Good conflict skills can be an important investment in a team’s effectiveness that in turn, can bring true bottom-line benefit.