How Frank or Deceptive Should a Leader Be?

February 23rd, 2015

Deception is not a valued leadership attribute.  Frankness, on the other hand, often equates to blunt force trauma.

There will always be situations where a leader finds themselves where they can’t discuss something for a number of good reasons.  Saying “. . . it’s something I can’t discuss at this point” people can accept.  It’s the dancing around and posturing instead of being frank and holding the line that leads to suspicion.

Secrecy (aka lack of transparency) ferments cynicism and/or distrust.  A leader is accountable for communicating so people can decide to either own or not own a leader’s vision – the transfer of ownership more often referred to as motivation.  “At this point” has its limits.  Once said, a leader is on the clock. Unless people understand the facts and values that led to a leader’s advocating a necessary path, it is impossible for people to choose to get onboard.

A leader can’t sugar coat bad news.  Nor should they hide it.  People can handle the truth.  Maybe not well at first, but learning the truth starts the process of engagement.  And engagement is the goal of every leader.

Organizational Learning

August 22nd, 2014

There is a proverb attributed to Native Americans, Chinese, and even Benjamin Franklin among others. It states:

“Tell me and I’ll forget.
Show me, and I may not remember.
Involve me, and I’ll understand.”

No matter who said it first, this proverb is the riverbed over which “Corporate Think” flows.

Pronouncements, emails, letters, have a rapid decay time. Their memory retention half-life can probably be stated in terms of hours. Demonstrating what you want to communicate is a step up particularly if it is demonstrated frequently and by all members of management. Involving a person in what you are trying to communicate is a high percentage tactic and one that will not be easily forgotten.

The continuous looping of Tell-Show-Involve is leadership’s teaching process to set and solidify Corporate Think.


November 18th, 2013

Maybe there are two sides to that word.

The first is isolated from the organization. Whether physical or mentally imposed, “walls” preventing communication are detrimental. “Unapproachable” is the “dark side”.

The second side is electronic. We are connected anytime, anywhere from transatlantic flights to bathrooms, 24/7. We’ve become conditioned to it – probably addicted. Forgetting where we put our smartphones precipitates panic and the “Pat-Down-Dance” (soon to replace the “Chicken Dance” at wedding receptions). But why? Is downtime that bad? Is turning off our electronic devices a reason to break out in a cold sweat? With Google Glass already here; and Google “Throat Tattoo” just over the horizon; and the “respond to all” compulsive email disorder, isn’t being unreachable with time to think, with uninterrupted person-to-person face time, and escape from a life controlled by the next electronic notification “ding”, isn’t that a good thing – the “light side”?


June 26th, 2013

Labeling something or someone is convenient and a habit we all share. Labeling is an integral part of how we communicate. Labels can be nouns, adjectives or adverbs. Our languages are filled with descriptive terms that quickly communicate meaning.

But we all need to take a breath, collect the facts, and see if the facts all fit under the umbrella of a chosen label.

Political speak has numbed us to the process of labeling. It is an essential tool of “spinning”.

In pursuit of organizational goals you can’t afford to go numb. Labeling short-circuits critical thinking. The lights go out and only in hindsight can you see what should have been evident at the start.

A label is a feeling – a conclusion. When you hear a label, stop, drop all your preconceptions, gather the facts separating out the feelings portrayed as facts, critically analyze what you have and see if the label fits. And of more importantly, if the label is being used to communicate to a broader audience, do they all understand the labels denotation and connotation the same way you do.

Mirror, Mirror. . .

February 2nd, 2013

Every person in a position of supervision, management, or leadership has at one time or another lamented the actions of their organization.

“Why would they do that. . .” or
“What were they, thinking. . .”

When you find yourself saying or thinking these, or their variants, take a look in the mirror first. The reality is your organization mirrors and emulates you.

Organizational mirroring of your behavior is the ‘butterfly effect’ that ‘brands’ your organization. The good news is that building an organization’s culture is that simple. It’s not what you say or write, it’s what you are observed doing around those declarations – your actions. That’s how the ‘legend’ begins, builds, and sustains itself. The bad news is the lowest ‘standard’ that you demonstrate is the highest ‘standard’ you can expect your organization to live to. If you ‘flinch’ it becomes a part of your story, the legend, and in due course part of your organization’s ‘brand’.

The organizational ‘butterfly effect’ is real. A leader must have unqualified clarity around their values and the mental-muscle-memory to live them. If a leader does, they will always know the answer to “Why they did that” and know exactly “What they were thinking” and never be surprised. If a leader doesn’t, they will always be grumbling about the actions and outcomes of their organization.

Being a Leader

July 2nd, 2012

“If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run . . .”

The above is excerpted from the last stanza of Rudyard Kipling’s Poem “IF”. Few escape high school without being exposed to it. The poem is taken by some as Kipling’s framework for personal integrity, by others as a collection of clichés, and yet others as an impossible standard to live up to. Regardless, the poem is worth revisiting from time to time – it deals with a lot of IF’s.

Leadership is about people – it has nothing to do with things or “stuff”. Leadership’s foundation is the value that “all men count” – that each person is worthy of being listened to and shown respect. In the same line Kipling adds a word of warning about the dangers of being overly influenced by some to the exclusion of others, and becoming deaf and blind to all the facets of reality.

Leadership’s venue is the unremitting onslaught of IF’s. IF’s are more often than not confronted in the “unforgiving minute” – a 60 second window that opens and closes and once gone those seconds are gone forever, tick-tock. And what a leader does or doesn’t do in that minute becomes history, a part of that leader’s “story” that the organization will look to for guidance for years to come. The cumulative actions/inactions taken by a leader in response to IF’s become the threads that are woven into their personal fabric of leadership and how a leader comes to be known.

While an IF is situational, it’s a mistake to deal with them situationally. And, therein lies the conundrum of leadership. Resolution comes through constancy of “values” – our ‘mental muscle memory’, those values a leader has come to terms with, and ‘pays the price’ of ownership. Owning a value isn’t a one-time, lump-sum payment kind of thing. Value ownership is a continuum of payments, sometimes big, sometimes small, but regardless of size or the length of time payments have been made, if a leader misses a payment, they no longer own that value. Unfair, probably, but true all the same.

Being a leader isn’t easy, but is not that hard either, once you get your head squared away, and find the personal grit to make every payment every time.


December 14th, 2011

Knowledge is leverage. The question is, in a fact-based management culture, how do you sort through the avalanche of business data to begin to distill it into usable knowledge? The 2006 book “The Ultimate Question: Driving Good Profits and True Growth” posed this as the answer – ask customers to grade their willingness to recommend a company/product to a colleague or friend on an eleven point scale (0-10). This single question doesn’t close the deal on acquiring usable knowledge – data yes, information maybe, knowledge no, and wisdom far from it. Gauging your strategic choices isn’t that simple, although we all wish it was. However, this question should trigger needed customer-centric thought. This question’s answers ought to drive you deep into your corporate matrix of metrics to distill the plethora of raw data into usable information that can be molded into the knowledge of what makes a successful customer relationship for your business. If you then compile the pieces of acquired knowledge a central argument emerges, the trust-factor – a kernel of wisdom.

Just like our personal life, business life is chock-full of ‘Chutes and Ladders’ that build/destroy sustain/impede trust and relationships. In our electronically connected world, landing on a ‘Chute’ may well result in ‘game over’ for a business. Customer perception isn’t a game of chance. For better or worse it is the outcome of strategies cascading into principles that drive real-time ‘habits’ that are deeply embedded in the nature of a company. Success comes through a discipline of systematically recognizing and avoiding the ‘Chutes’ and making the ‘Ladders’ happen.

With that in mind, the source of market leverage lies in basics – the length and strength of the ‘lever arm’ (trust) and the relative positioning of the ‘pivot points’. Below is a short list of pivot points that are easier seen in hindsight (particularly when trying to recover from undesired outcomes) but can and should be considered in forethought. Visualize these ‘pivot points’ moving back and forth along the length of the ‘lever arm’ and the impact of their movement on your business.

  • Knowing who your company is and not allowing situational drivers to redefine it.
  • Paying attention to the evolution of the problem you are in the business of solving.
  • Staying true to the foundational values your company’s success was built on.
  • Staying out of the mind trap that the future is a linear extrapolation of the past.

    The lever of trust is constructed out of ‘constancy of purpose’. The fulcrums can move in the blink of an eye, through the action of a single team member, even a simple phone conversation. Building and sustaining success comes through vigilance.

    Archimedes is quoted as saying, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” Hard to challenge in the absence of firm ground to stand on, but in the case of your business, the firm ground is your strategic thinking, the ‘lever arm’ is trust. Know your ‘pivot points’ and then parlay the leverage.

  • Does the Job Make the Person?

    May 10th, 2011

    The simple answer is no. The job does not make the person nor vice versa. People don’t change. If we each look back at the results of profile testing over the course of our careers, we’d find that to be true – we haven’t changed.

    What is true is that the workplace is “theater”. While people don’t change, they do adapt. The typical recruiting or advancement questions are focused on how well a person will fill a particular role on the corporate stage – in what “Act” and in what “Scene”.

    You might snicker but consider the array of business school seminars directed at “Professional Image” makeovers that aim to groom a person for “going on stage”. They don’t call them “Charm Schools” without reason.

    Validated pre-employment and promotional fit testing is a slippery slope. There is an increasing reliance on both. If only the selection process was that simple – sit a person in front of a touch screen to poke away and let the artificial intelligence embedded in the software do your work.

    There is one “scene” that has to be accounted for – how will a person respond when a “shitstorm” hits the “Corporate Kabuki Theater”. I don’t think there is a screening test for that. The bottom-line question is will a person own the organizational vision, pick up the flag and carry it forward in the face of adversity and seemingly overwhelming odds, or will they head for the exits.

    Competency is the first pass/fail gate. Then onto “Fit” – is this a person who can and will embrace the vision. Actions are a person’s “voice”. Find the situations where the person being analyzed found themselves in a “predicament” and their actions will “tell” you who they are and what to expect. Fight or flight – throw other people under the bus – have another meeting – hide in the safety of negativity or did they take the risk of being for something and pursue it till it’s over.

    The job doesn’t make the person, but how the person takes on the job when the going gets tough tells you who that person is.

    Getting the ‘Math’ Right

    January 12th, 2011

    ‘Do the Math!’ is one of those conversation ending remarks that we have all been on either end of at one time or another.  It is a more polite form of – “Are you stuck on stupid?”

    There are two kinds of ‘math’ in the world of business.  The first is the most obvious and as tactically important as it is strategic – an accounting system that works.  An accounting system’s mixed aims are problematic regardless of business size.  In larger organizations the conflicted aims are always between operations and finance functions.  Operations is always trying to figure out what is going on – and finance is trying to disguise or spin what is going on with the accounting system as the common ground.  In smaller businesses the problem is more simplistic – just getting the data into the system, and the impediment is always the burden of ‘too many hats’.

     A second kind of business ‘math’ is the strategic translation of feelings (your gut) using facts. Your gut is always going to be an indispensable part of any decision making process – you will never have all the facts.  But forward looking ‘math’ with the facts you do have in hand, and reflective ‘math’ during the on-going auditing of decisions is most often dysfunctional in organizations regardless size. Without a defined and disciplined ‘process’ of strategic thinking and implementation the future of a business falls on the fate of chance rather than risk. When the ‘math’ either works or it doesn’t is a pivotal point that is either seized and understood or lost and awaits the analysis of hindsight. ‘Doing the math’ is a continuous process and, in business, is a determinant of success or failure.

    Ethical Behavior

    October 23rd, 2010

    As we enter the final days of the 2010 political season in the U.S., our awareness of unethical and unscrupulous behavior rises to the surface. The voice inside us wakes up and starts talking and asking questions. What are the ethics of the main stream political strategy of “dirtying-up” an opponent? Is the domain of ethical behavior bounded only by money changing hands? Does unethical equate to illegal? Is there such a thing as ethically behaving badly? Is there a difference between unscrupulous and unethical behavior?

    I recently completed the California Ethics Orientation training and out of the ca. 200 pages only about 2 focused on general behavior – the rest had money linked in. In the public sector, the umbrella legislative platform is usually entitled the “Uniform Code of Ethics”. Having read a few, there is so much legal jargon in these that they are virtually unintelligible.

    In the private sector some companies and most professional associations have written ethical codes and standards of behavior. But in recent surveys almost half of those surveyed felt their company was behaving ethically.

    So with all this behavior visible and swirly around us, are we falling victim to ethical apathy and indifference?

    If you think about behavior as a mountain of possibilities, surrounding the mountain close to the base is a fence line. That fence separates legal from illegal behavior. Somewhere up higher on the mountain is a second fence that separates ethical from unethical. The posts that hold that fence are foundational principles (e.g. vested power whether in the public or private sector is for service; statements made should only be made in an objective and truthful manner; one shall not maliciously or falsely, directly or indirectly, injure the reputation and prospects of another, etc.). A bit further up the mountain is a third fence I’ll refer to as the “Stuck-on-Stupid” fence. It bounds behavior that is not illegal or unethical but just plain stupid.

    Now take for example a body of work moving up the corporate structure or the academic world, and one receiver after another erases the name of the person before them, inserts their name implying the work is their own, and passes it forward. Is this illegal, unethical, plain stupid, or perfectly okay?

    Try using the mountain and fence analogy to evaluate behavior – whether personal, in the public sector or the private sector. It might help us all break out of a state of indifference that we seem to have fallen into and start thinking again.