The network’s down! Five ways to empower your teams with Commanders’ Intent.

What would your people do if they were suddenly cut off from all ability to contact you?  … or their other leadership and sources of information, perspective, and resources?

Empower them to flex to the situation by understanding “Commander’s Intent”

Students of military strategy often use the term, “the fog of war” to describe a situation where leaders and troops lose contact with their chain of command and must deal with the ensuing confusion.  In order to enable their people to continue to press forward and take initiative without immediate guidance, the military has developed a concept what they call “commander’s intent”.  Through training and reinforcement, they give soldiers a clear vision of the intended outcome which enables them to take the initiative and tap their natural creativity to drive toward that vision.

What’s the benefit?

Military leaders have long understood that combat is a messy thing! Lines of communication are broken. Anticipated resources don’t show up. Key people become unavailable. Unexpected constraints pop-up and become problems to solve. Their enemies (and our competitors!) are planning, too. They may throw something at us that we didn’t expect.

The notion of commander’s intent enables our teams to take independent and continuous actionThey can move at the speed of the situation, They do not need to continuously check back with senior leadership to gain approval to take the next action.

The solution space

Great leaders create a “solution space” by the rules and constraints they impose on their team. That solution space is bounded by what the team can’t do. In business, the most common boundaries might be created by legal considerations, marketing strategy, ethics, or company policy.  An example might be a policy that requires CEO approval to authorize an engagement that will lose money for the firm. Once the leader establishes the relevant and compelling constraints, what is left are the millions of other combinations of available actions, the “solution space”.  All those options are available to the team member if they understand the space and feel empowered to operate in in all of it.

If they understand the ultimate desired end state, and if they know clearly the boundaries of their solution space, and if (this is big!) we have given them the flexibility and encouragement to operate freely in that space, then they can use their own initiative and creativity to realize the outcomes envisioned in the commander’s intent.

Five Ways to establish your Commander’s Intent:

  1. Paint the picture” of the end state in very clear, high contrast, colorful terms. Use relevant personal examples and stories liberally. Your team should be able to repeat it back to you instantly and accurately.
  1. Invest the time and effort to be sure that everyone understands in the most concrete terms your organization’s strategic goals. That understanding becomes the anchor for everything you ask them to do.  Use every means available to be sure your team understands the vision in the context of their individual roles. Great venues to do this are “coffee talks”, articles in your employee newsletters or blogs, and specific reference to the strategy in the resolution of real-time business issues.  (Obviously, there are many others…  Talk about your visions and specific goals incessantly!
  1. When delegating, take the time it requires for your people to understand the desired outcome. How does that outcome fit into a broader strategy you have already clarified for them?  With good questions, test their level of understanding and how they might apply that understanding in a real-time way.
  1. Carefully challenge any constraints or boundaries on your team’s actions. Limit constraints to the minimum necessary.  Be thoughtful about the constraining effects of any constraints you apply.
  1. If you are a manager of managers, take advantage of your “bully pulpit” to model to your middle managers the encouragement of new frames of reference, and challenging unnecessary constraints. Enlist candid feedback from your entire team about how well you are doing.

Time management triage – Three tips to find the win-win

It was 1999, and I had just been promoted to the role of a global sales manager for a
software and services business of a Fortune 50 company.   It was a new job for me with global scope and it was kicking my butt.  I was feeling very overwhelmed.

My response was to power through and just work harder and work longer hours in order to get everything done.

The problem with that was that I was spending every bit of energy on climbing my learning curve, and doing all the new tasks.  I was leaving nothing left for routine dialogue and check-ins with my team. I was starting to get feedback from my assistant that people were expressing frustration with my lack of availability to them.   Even understanding that frustration, I still didn’t have time to get ahead of the curve and fill that gap in the development of my team.

While I was coming up the learning curve I was cheating my team of the ability to grow as they helped me come up that curve. It’s not that they weren’t willing.  I just wasn’t letting them.  I was missing the opportunity to reframe my dilemma into a development opportunity for my team.

In retrospect, when you’re scrambling, remember what it was that made this new exciting and fun, that ignited passion in you.  Said another way, what it was that made this work important and meaningful to you and which you were uniquely qualified to do.  Everything else could be delegated, hopefully to someone who would experience it as a development opportunity.

Most of us have heard the Stephen Covey metaphor about rocks, pebbles and sand. (Covey 1989) Big rocks are the most important things in our lives:  core values, relationships, the activities which define us.  Pebbles:  the less important tasks.  Sand: the trivial many, things that fill up our time and don’t add much value.  Never heard it?  There is a cute YouTube video below – just remember that “golf balls” are big rocks, and don’t miss the plot twist at the end…   (Kay 2016)

Three tips to turn a situation where you are overwhelmed into a win-win:

Pay attention to what you felt were your unique qualifications for the new job.   Those qualify as some of your “big rocks”.   They are what got you here, and which will make you and your organization successful going forward.

Turn your attention to the developmental needs of your team. Are there connections between the work you are not getting to, and the development objectives you and your team have identified for themselves? Developing your team should always be one of your big rocks.  There might very well be a win-win if you can connect some of the work you’re not getting to with the development needs of one of your team.   Paying attention to developing your team is clearly a big rock, but the actual tasks you’re considering delegating are most likely gravel for you. That said, they could be a big rock or at least developmental for someone on your team. Win-win!

Finally, what are you doing that just doesn’t need doing?    Stop doing it, now, and don’t give it to anyone else!  That is a win-win for everyone!   (Even if it is one of the things that you really like to do, it helps to realize that it’s just not that important!)

Epilogue:

Reframe your time management dilemma into an opportunity to engage and develop your team by sharing the load and delegating important work that’s no longer strategic for you, and by ditching work that no one should do.

Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.  (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

Great Reads and Views: 

Covey, S. (1989). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. New York, Simon and Schuster.

Kay, M. (2016). “A Valuable Lesson for a Happier Life.” from https://youtu.be/SqGRnlXplx0.

 

How are your clients grading you on your authenticity?

blacksmith-700In a recurring theme in our current election cycle, both major candidates are suffering low poll scores with their levels of authenticity, trust and transparency.

In the early 1990’s, I remember there was a university professor and consultant that my company used quite a bit to put on visionary discussions of what was then was called client – server computing. The fellow was quite charming, an accomplished speaker, and delivered a 100% flawless presentation. The explanations were crisp, the jokes were funny, and he never missed a beat. Customers loved it!

That all sounded great, until I took a second customer to one of his sessions. It was then that I realized that the sessions were 100% scripted. Every word and every joke came out sounding exactly like the first time I had heard him. I suppose that if I had only had to hear him once, that wouldn’t have been a problem. But when I realized how completely rote it was, he dropped down several pegs in my estimation of him and how much he really understood the topic.  One theory: If he knew it that well, he would not have had to so meticulously script it and rehearse it. Second theory (and the one I think is true): He did know the material, but he valued the flawless performance of the “show” higher than his personal authenticity. In his defense, because these were one-time marketing events, the sales people attending with their clients were really the ones bearing the burden for the longer term relationship. Maybe he made the right choice as a showman, but very few clients would have stood for that in someone they wanted to consider an advisor.

I think that scientists and technologists often fall into the same trap. They feel that their role as an expert compels them to be correct at all times and for their “performance” to be “flawless”.

I’m thinking that the only way someone could accomplish both goals, would be to operate well within their margins of safety, to take no bold or outrageous positions, and therefore to deny their client the very best of their thinking. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of the concept of “flow” (Csikszentmihalyi 2013 – a great TED talk) describes the phenomenon as occurring when you are performing at the very limit of your capabilities. It seems to me that that it would be very difficult to be operating at the edge, if we were afraid of straying just over the edge, and making a mistake or an overstep.

Being married to an expectation of 100% correctness makes us less willing to risk our ideas and statements being scrutinized and found to be faulty. That in turn prevents us from being fully present, fully engaged, and fully authentic. Clients expect our full engagement. Unless we have a terrible track record for making really bad mistakes, they will forgive the occasional error, because they know they are getting our best efforts and every bit of our creativity.

Said another way, we have to let go of our desire for perfection to deliver our best game and be considered real and authentic.

Experienced consultants know that the best customer relationships are often forged in the heat of resolving a missed expectation. For sure, when a mistake happens, there is a short term loss of trust and credibility.   What rebuilds, and ultimately deepens, client trust, is how the consultant owns the situation, how they react to it, and how they resolve it.  (In most cases, there is plenty of blame to go around, and the client knows it.) The client learns that regardless of who made the mistake, the consultant will do whatever it takes and bring whatever resource is necessary to resolve the issue at hand.

Three tips to becoming more authentic:

Don’t confuse being smart or “right” with being trusted.

Give your clients your very best, maybe risking a mistake or overstep, but in the process earning their trust and loyalty.

Immediately own (or gracefully share) the inevitable mistakes and resolve them without excessive focus on whose fault it is.

Epilogue:

In the words of Peter Block, “In the end, it is our authenticity, the way we manage ourselves, and our connection to our clients that is our methodology, our marketing strategy, and the fruit of our labor.” (Block 2011 )

Great Reads and Views:

Block, P. (2011 ). Flawless consulting: a guide to getting your expertise used. San Francisco, Pfeiffer, an imprint of Wiley.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2013). Creativity, Innovation & Managing “Flow”. TED talk

Create a Coaching Culture to Drive Performance and Engagement

Management Tip of the Month:Culture-720

If you’re feeling the pressure of rising performance expectations, and the need to develop and retain your best employees, consider building coaching skills into your leadership culture.

A few years ago, I wrote on the topic of culture, and how powerful it was in orienting new employees to how things were done in your company.  (Your Culture is Your Best Teacher.)   More recently, as a professional coach, I’ve become very aware of how important creating a coaching culture is to companies’ ability to improve overall performance, improve retention rates, and generally improve the overall level of employee engagement at their firm. (Jack Zenger 2016)

Why bother instilling coaching as an element of corporate culture?

Frankly, we need all the help we can get!  Quoting Alison Hendren, founder of Coaching Out of the Box, a leader in coaching education, “Today’s fast paced and competitive work environment requires that we maximize the strengths and talent of all people in an organization. No longer does command and control work, and in order to retain talented and valued people, we must up our game to better support their ongoing development and satisfaction.  Honestly, it is a burning platform and organizations need all hands on deck!” (McLeod 2013)  (Full disclosure:  Ascendent Leadership is a certified trainer in this training program.)

What are the benefits?

There is a significant body of research that correlates broad deployment of coaching skills throughout the leadership of an organization with improvements in productivity, and employee engagement, as well as reduction in voluntary attrition.  In a particularly useful summary of the benefits of a coaching culture, Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman reported that in their research, employee commitment ranged from a low percentile score of 15 all the way to a percentile score of 90 across a range of coaching effectiveness from low to high. In the same study, risk of quitting ranged from a high of 52% down to a low of just over 20% over a similar range of coaching effectiveness.  (Jack Zenger 2016).  Net-net, the existence of a coaching culture makes a huge difference in both the performance and retention of key employees.

What does an effective coaching culture look like?

Leaders who have successfully incorporated coaching into their leadership style have learned a few key lessons:

How to perform several important coaching skills:  listening, encouraging, asking great questions, making requests to stretch and challenge the people their coaching, and helping those people develop concrete and measurable plans for action.

How to execute a a repeatable coaching process that guides the coach, and when repeated with regularity actually trains the employees how to coach themselves.  A key facilitator of this learning has been the International Coach Federation.  Over 20 years of experience, the ICF has codified most of what we know are the foundations of successful coaching.  The ICF has over 20,000 members globally and is the largest professional organization in the profession.

Finally, a number of personal characteristics that establish a coaching mindset that lays the relational foundation with the coachee for successful coaching and the performance improvement which follows.

What’s my path to get there?

  1. Consider your situation, the benefits that accompany a coaching culture, establish the business case, and decide to do it.
  2. As Kotter teaches us, form a guiding coalition to provide the “juice” that a change initiative like this will require. While the steps are well known, they represent real change, and it will take persistent leadership to stay on track.  (Kotter 1996)
  3. Be very attentive to capturing and publicizing your early wins. I’m working with a firm right now who just trained their sales leaders in coaching, and it’s fun to watch the emails flying around, as they conduct their first real coaching sessions, and apply the skills.
  4. Using the sponsoring coalition to capture the early learning and keep pushing for more buy-in and accomplishment across the broader organization.
  5. Just as I discussed in my blog article referenced above, let the culture you are building orient new employees and leaders. Help the coaching behaviors become “just the way we do things, here”.

Shameless Plug!

This is an important element of my consulting and coaching practice and I’m a certified trainer for the Coaching Out of the Box program.  I’d welcome the chance to discuss this program with you and see if there’s a way to help you get started!

Good Reads: 

Jack Zenger, J. F. (2016) “How developing a coaching culture pays off: dramatically improve your organization.

Kotter, J. (1996). Leading Change. Boston, Harvard Business Review Press

McLeod, B. (2013) “The Coaching Imperative – An Interview with Alison Hendren, Master Certified Coach.” hrandtalent Blog.

 

How are you showing up for your people?

woody_allen“80 Percent of Success is Showing Up”    (Woody Allen)

I joined Hewlett-Packard in 1981.  My second level sales manager was a character named Bob Sandefer.  Bob had already been around HP for over 25 years and was a legend with our factories.  Over the next five years, I would be part of Bob’s team, both as a sales rep and later as a first level sales manager.  Over those years, I had plenty of disagreements with Bob on a variety of topics.  He was tough as nails.  As the years passed, and I got a little smarter, two things occurred to me.  First, on virtually all of the areas where we had disagreed, he was right.  Much more importantly I came to really appreciate how dedicated Bob was to “showing up” for his people.

On anything to do with the business, Bob had very strong ideas on how to take care of customers and through doing so, to grow the business.  He would be in your face in a heartbeat if he sensed anything less than total dedication to HP or the customer.  He had high expectations, and enforced them to the last inch.  On the personal side (after five, mind you), he showed a really remarkable ability to get to know everyone on his team (about fifty people), their personal strengths and shortcomings, but also their spouse, kids, and how big the new house had to be…  At 5:01, he would hold court, and the office was usually full until after 7, with one person or another going in for coaching.  We didn’t call it that, but that’s what it was.  It often involved a minute or two of those  intense “feedback moments” but that didn’t seem to matter.  He was like a candle to a moth.  The interaction didn’t just happen in the office.  If there was a wedding, a funeral, or any other kind of significant life event, he was there.  Period.  It didn’t matter where you were on the list of fifty.  You were one of his people.

As a perspective on coaching, Bob’s strength in building productive coaching relationships was his ability to show up on a variety of levels.  No one could touch his knowledge of our business.  Beyond the business, he put in the time to connect with everyone on a deeply personal level.  He expected you to have a plan and he had the audacity to remember it and ask you how it was going the next time he saw you.  If you fell short of your plan or his expectations for you, you learned accountability in a hurry.  After some of his accountability sessions, you might feel like you had been kicked around the block, but you knew that he knew you and loved you with every kick.  It wasn’t just kicking.  He celebrated with us, cried with us, and was very predictably there for us, 24-7.

A lot of coaching was delivered on that very firm foundation.