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.
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.
Great leaders balance confidence and conviction with a zeal to learn and a willingness to revisit and reconsider. To accomplish this requires a deep comfort with diversity – to seek experiences and perspectives beyond what is most familiar or mirrors our long-set beliefs. Most leaders are given many opportunities to broaden their knowledge and experiences – through global interactions, intellectual forums and market pressures. However, we all know people who have had these experiences but who still seem largely unaffected by them, as if they have armor that “protects” them from the changes that experiences offer.
We also have values and principles that give us a moral compass about how to conduct ourselves and to hold our organizations to standards that shape its actions. These are essential to navigate effectively in a turbulent world. However, all of us also have deep-seated beliefs, largely unconscious, that govern our thoughts and actions. Leaders with edge are willing to look at these beliefs and reshape them based on the world they live in today rather than the world of their childhood. This self-awareness and willingness to embrace current reality, without letting go of enduring values, creates a capacity to continually learn and change without being thrown off-balance.
Think of tv shows where the defense lawyer follows the prosecutor’s arguments in the court room. Notice how seldom you see a direct defense of the points made by the prosecutor. Effective defense lawyers change the conversation so that the jury focuses on different points or sees things through different eyes.
My observation is that defending your position seldom works. It positions you immediately as having less power, simply because you are defending, even if you are completely in the right. It is much more powerful to switch the view of the situation differently, to pose questions that provoke different thinking, to selectively agree and offer new thoughts. Tit for tat seldom changes anyone’s position, it just further entrenches people on “their” side.
Woodrow Wilson famously said about speaking….”If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.”
As a rule, the longer one speaks about something is usually a good indicator of the less they know about it OR that they have been undisciplined about preparation. Leaders can truly fall into the trap of “winging it”, especially with employees below them….because they can. In some ways, it is an abuse of power to stand in front of people as their leader without achieving clarity of thought or without developing skill to bring the message forward in a simple and powerful way. Everyone may not be born an effective presenter but anyone can become one. It’s those that don’t take it seriously who are the great offenders, who shortcut the thoughtfulness that these types of situations deserve.
While I don’t recommend many “training” courses for executives, I do believe that presentation and media training can make a world of difference, particularly if done with intact executive teams. Honing both the message and the skills can be a powerful tool to lead the company.
Haven’t we all thought that when this project is over, this deadline is met, this major issue resolved, that we will go back to a “normal” pace, a world free of strife and stress, or at least better that we have at this moment? I call this corporate magical thinking, where we yearn for that respite that never comes. It’s hard for us to grasp that old problems will be replaced with new problems, that there will always be something major to accomplish. It feels too heavy to give up hope of that nirvana of a free day in the office with no major deadlines or difficult situations.
So what do we do about it? Rather than live for this futuristic dream that never materializes, live more in the moment. That’s how we live life any way, literally moment by moment. When we really get into every moment, much of this heaviness dissipates and rarely are the problems as big as our projections. We start just enjoying what is in front of us and not being that surprised or dismayed by the next thing that falls into our lap. Most high-level executives completely operate from this mindset and rarely feel overwhelmed for very long. This doesn’t mean that we don’t all need to take mental and physical breaks from our work, but rather to lose that sense of dread or anxiety that permeates so many of us. Just take it one moment at a time.
Leaders have many enormous responsibilities but two that rise to the top of the list are the ability to clarify the vision for their company and then mobilize support and action from all involved, from stockholders to employees. This is no small feat but if well done, can create a momentum that goes well beyond what any executive team can directly do.
There are two compelling principles to remember when embarking upon creating a vision. The first is that engagement equals commitment, especially important for those that will be relied upon to take action towards that vision. That’s a tried and true formula – engagement in any process creates commitment to the outcome, which supports actions to achieve the outcome and creates self-accountability for results. Engagement can range from active involvement in the actual creation of the vision to communicating it in a way that creates a deep connection, both of which require a thoughtful strategy and process as well as the burden of actually listening and integrating perspectives. However, the payoff can be significant because you engage both the heads and hearts of those involved.
The second principle to understand is to create a vision that makes the future real to people because only then will they take it seriously and work towards it. We humans are wired to care about how something feels to us today. That’s why we have a hard time sticking to diets or make dumb financial decisions because we don’t feel the consequences or the benefits today. Through your words and actions, make the future real and tangible and your team will be inspired to truly achieve it.
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.
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.
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.