Monday, October 1, 2012

"I am building a cathedral"

For the past ten years a copy of The Daily Drucker has always been on my desk.   This book has a business pearl of wisdom for every day of the year so I try and get to it every day.  I also dip into it when I need some inspiration focusing on or articulating a thought around business and leadership.   It rarely disappoints.

My partner and I are constantly looking for stories to help CEOs and their leadership team frame their approach to developing the organization's leadership capabilities.  These people often struggle to see the strategic benefits of enabling all levels of their organization's leadership.  So these stories need to help them get beyond the "lack of budget", or "lack of time", or "lack of desire to develop leaders just so they can be poached", or "lack of being unable to see the ROI" default arguments.

This morning I was reading The Daily Drucker for the 29th of September.  It is an old story about the three stonecutters.  When asked what they were doing the first one said "I am making a living".  The second one said "I am becoming the best stonecutter in the country".  And the third one said "I am building a cathedral."

Investing in enabling the leaders in your organization who are 'building a cathedral' is essential.  Because, if you don't, you will be left with a culture that is based upon a lack of engagement and a myopic focus.  This sort of culture burns the two most important commodities of any enterprise: time and money.
So this Daily Drucker raises two questions.  Do you know which people in your organization are helping you build your cathedral?  And, perhaps most importantly, are you enabling them as cathedral builders?


Friday, July 20, 2012

Sorry. But leadership is not a popularity contest.

My partner and I were chatting with the President of a large advertising agency earlier this week.  This individual was bemoaning the fact that he couldn’t ‘get to the big stuff’ because his was too busy with the day-to-day.  That sort of comment started me on the ‘Why of the Why’ sequence of questions.

Quick digression, I stole the ‘Why of the Why” information and insight gathering technique (keep asking “why’ and you will find that you get to a point that is a clear and logical jumping off point) from one of my favourite creative directors Joe.  Joe is not scared to ask the difficult questions that will lead to work that makes a difference.  He displays some great leadership traits: passionate, holds people to account and, perhaps most importantly, he is decisive.

Back to our conversation with the President.  It soon became clear that the real issue was that he could not deal with the fact that he would have to make some difficult decisions.  Decisions that would be unpopular and would have a human impact.  The ironic thing is that by trying to maintain his short-term popularity he was undermining his long-term credibility as a leader.

At the end of the day, when you accept the mantle of leadership (at work, as a volunteer, at school, or on a team, etc.) you must also accept the fact that you will have to make some decisions that will be unpopular.   As they say ‘it is lonely at the top’.

Creating a culture of decisiveness, from the President down, is essential to team, task and individual fulfillment.  And, for the leaders, the periods of unpopularity will be shorter in duration for all concerned.

Joe is also not always the most popular creative director, but he has done some great work.  And, the thing that I love most, is that the best people want to work on projects that he leads.  No surprises there.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Bad apples cost twice as much

Last week, in preparation for the upcoming Canada Day celebrations on 1st July, I bought a bag of apples to make one of my celebrated ("legend in my own mind") apple pies.  As I was putting them away I noticed there was a bruised one.  Shrugging, I reckoned that the pie would be long baked before the apple went rotten, so I did nothing about it.

In many organizations, from for profit to not-for-profit to volunteer, there is often an individual who is a bad apple.  The trouble with a bad apple in your organization is that they have the potential to negatively impact the organization in two key areas: the people as a whole and implementing strategic plans.  

For your talent (like the rest of the apples in my bag) the bad apple is festering away slowing spreading discontent and negativity.  In terms of strategic plans (my apple pie) the bad apple is undermining them by possibly forcing compromise or subverting the passion and skills of those engaged in the endeavour.  

Dealing with bad apples is never easy; often our default choice is not to deal with them at all.  Which is an odd leadership decision as we know intuitively that not dealing with them, through remediation (preferable) or letting them go (worst case), tends to end up costing us more emotionally and/or financially.

But back to my bag of apples.  By the time I got around to making my pie I discovered that now half of the apples were bad.  Cursing my laziness for not having dealt with that bad apple when I first noticed it (maybe saving the good bits and snacking on them or, if it had been past salvation, composting the whole thing).  At least then I would have only had to deal with the short-term pain of getting a single replacement apple.

But, with the shops closed for the holiday and no time left, I now had two problems.  One, not enough good apples to make a pie.  And two, I had no dessert for the family feast.

On telling my partner, her first question was: "Why didn't you deal with the bad apple in the first place?"

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Team leadership: losing builds character

Last weekend was spent on the touchline assisting Coach Mario with my daughter's rep soccer team.
On Saturday we won two games.  Our final game was against a team that had won one and lost one.  Barring a disaster we were guaranteed a spot in the finals.

Well the disaster very nearly occurred.  We were taken to the cleaners 5 - 0 by a team that was not as skillful but were more motivated than us.  We barely kept our spot in the final.  The warm down was muted, from the keeper to the strikers the team knew that individually and collectively they had checked out before the game and so had paid the price.

They had let themselves, their teammates, their coaches, their club and their supporters down on many levels.  Coach Mario knew ranting was neither going to solve anything nor teach anything.  So he left them to their own thoughts.

The team we would be playing in the final?  The one that just beat us 5 nil.

The warm up before the final on Sunday was a subdued affair to say the least.  Before the start of the game Coach Mario got the team together and simple said, "Winning builds confidence.  Loosing builds character.  Put yesterday's game behind you and play our game today."

And, just like any team that is motivated, trained, disciplined and led in a firm but fair way, they did. 

I would like to write that we went on to win; but we didn't. We lost 1 nil. However, it was a loss that I am proud to have been a part of because of what the girls won in terms of individual pride, esprit d'corps, confidence and self-worth.

Coach Mario had the wisdom and experience to know that a rant on Saturday (or Sunday pre-game) was not the way to lead the team.  He demonstrated his belief in them by simply focusing them on their strengths.

For me the lesson is that as a leader you never stop learning now to be a better leader and that sometimes the best way for your team to learn is to let them find their own way out of a mess.

Of course not winning the cup still bites!  Next time.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Clarity of Purpose (Pt 2): objective statement

Writing an objective statement, no matter the scale or context, is not easy because once it is written and promulgated it sets in motion a series of decisions, some irreversible, that will begin to use up two of your most valuable commodities; time and money.

In a previous blog we talked about Commander's Intent.  It is from the Commander's Intent that we make sure that our objective is strategically aligned and also understand what resources we can expect/need in support of the task.

It has been our experience that the best way to approach writing clear, concise and strategic objective statements is to think of it as a sentence: "I am going to do X in order to achieve Y." The key part of the sentence is the link in order to as this is vital to ensuring that you can connect your actions (X) with the Commander's Intent (Y).

Years ago when I was on exercise as a young infantry officer I was told by my commander to 'deny the enemy the bridge'.  So off I went and did an analysis of the task and wrote my objective statement as 'secure the bridge'.  I then decided that the best way to secure the bridge was to blow it up.

Task completed I head back to report to my commander.  The conversation went something like this:

Him (looking somewhat surprised): "What are you doing here so soon.  I thought I told you to take care of the bridge?"
Me (looking pretty pleased with myself): "I have denied the enemy the bridge. Nothing will cross it" 
Him (beginning to look a little worried): "What do you mean nothing will cross it?"
Me (now beginning to feel worried): Well, I did my analysis and decided that the best way to achieve my objective was to blow it up."
Him (now looking very worried): "You blew it up! I didn't want you to blow it up; I just wanted you to secure it."
Me: (nasty feeling in pit of stomach sensing where this was about to go): "Your orders to me were to deny the bridge, and blowing it up does that".
Him (alarm written all over his face):  "But how are our tanks going to cross in the morning?"

My task, and approach to it, would have been very different if a) I had been given context for the task (Commander's Intent) and b) my objective statement had been written within that context (i.e. "secure the bridge (X) in order to allow the tanks to cross in the morning (Y)."

Since that day I have used this objective statement construct with everything from getting clarity from a CEO around a strategic business issue to working with smaller teams on a very tactical task.  If your objective statement does not ladder up then there is a good chance you are not aligned with the bigger picture.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Leadership; lead and/or follow but always leading

Every year I lead a volunteer team that acts as mission control at a competition for the Olympic sport of equestrian three-day eventing (think of triathlon with three different disciplines (dressage, cross county and show jumping) over three days).  The cross country phase, as the name implies, involves the horse/rider combination traveling at a speed of about 500 meters per minute and jumping over obstacles such as (large) fallen trees.  When accidents happen, and they do, the injuries can be significant and require fast, immediate and coordinated response from over 100 volunteers.

These volunteers are a mixed bag: young and old, horsey or not horsey, groupies or just friends of the organization, and, in life, some are leaders and some are followers.  All of them share one thing in common, and that is the desire to to willingly place themselves in a situation well outside their normal frame of reference of authority and decision-making - where their immediate actions can have long-term implications from a horse or rider injury perspective.

My job, sitting in tent listening to/directing on five different radio channels, is to give these volunteers the confidence in the system and belief in themselves to make the right decision when something dramatic, potentially life threatening, happens in the middle of the woods.

So why do these people willing place their trust in the leadership that is effectively a random voice on the end of the radio?  I think it is four things:
  • They are empowered (I have made it clear that I will support their decision without question as they are the ones on the ground dealing with the facts)
  • They know that they are not alone (I have taken the time to ensure that they have been given a broad understanding of the entire safety plan (commander's intent if you like))
  • They are made to feel valuable (recognized, often in small ways (by the riders, on the PA, in the programme, beer and pizza at the end of day, by the international officials, etc.), for their contribution)
  • The know that if they need assets their request will be met with response that has a sense of control, urgency and decisiveness (when I do have to deploy doctors, vets and heavy equipment everyone knows what they have to do and how they going to do it)
Not rocket science I suppose.  But good leaders must know when to lead and when to support.  To do neither, or over do just one, means that your people will neither have the confidence to step up when you need them nor the belief that you will support their actions when they do.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Service firms: risk management of time and money

For most service-driven firms (such as ad agencies or PR firms) there are two things the leaders of client teams need to be constantly risk managing: the time and money allocated to a project. Successful management of these two elements has a direct bearing on the profitability (ROI) of a project.

Furthermore you must be proactive about risk managing these vital commodities.  By that we mean your account leaders need to know (on at least a weekly basis) where they stand in terms of burn rate.  To risk manage accurately means they must have the mechanism in place to understand how much of the budget (resources) has been expended against getting the task done (time).  This mechanism will need to be an institutionalized system otherwise you will have garbage in......

Not risk managing means that you are likely to be having the Oliver conversation ("Please Sir, may I have some more...)" with your client.  And this is never a pleasant conversation - especially if your people have squandered the time and money.

Decision-making is a key component of the risk management process.  But more on that later.