Your Culture is Your Best Teacher

culture_iconIt was the spring of 1981 and I had just joined Hewlett-Packard as a sales representative.   I was drinking from the fire hose.   It was my first sales job and I was learning a new career as well as a new company.  It was a heady time for HP.  We were undisputed leaders in our market and were growing rapidly in the general business expansion of that time.  What I observed around me was a great deal of youthful energy, and the primacy of our new products and their contribution to the markets we served.  One example of that energy was how we interacted with our product divisions.  When the divisions came to town, it was a natural rallying event for the sales force.  We gathered after hours, shared drinks and refreshments with the visitors, and then grilled them mercilessly for the latest intelligence about markets, competitors, and new products.  They in turn grilled us for what we were seeing on the front lines.  It was intense, but it happened in an atmosphere of shared commitment and collegiality.  I found it wildly invigorating.

Looking back on it, I was learning powerful lessons from the corporate and local cultures within HP.  As a company, our values included a commitment to technology and making a differentiated contribution to the state of the art in our markets.  That had started with Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard in 1939 and it was a cornerstone of HP’s culture.  The behavioral norms I observed in the Dallas sales team included the willingness to dedicate after hours time to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by the visit and the importance of blending professional and social interaction in building teamwork across the company.  I was also figuring out how to get things done inside HP.  The factory relationships that I built over a beer and snacks would enable me later to find my way to the right product development team to get a special feature I would need to close a major sale.  I didn’t learn that in a breakout session within a newcomers’ orientation course.  We were living it every day, and I learned it in a way that no workshop could teach me.

As a consultant, I have seen many very promising change initiatives die on the vine for lack of full adoption.  I believe that there are important considerations here for leaders who are considering some form of training to drive an organizational change:

Aggressively test the new ideas and behaviors against the prevailing cultures.  Are they complementary or likely to clash?

Where the new behaviors are not tightly linked to or supported by the culture, treat the project as a change management challenge.  Acknowledge the time, effort, and money it will take to integrate the change into the DNA of the organization.  Does the benefit justify the investment?

Consider the long-term impact that you are seeking. As cultures change slowly, it will likely take years for the organization to fully embrace the new ways as “just the way we do things around here”.  Can you afford the time?  Will the benefits endure over the time it takes to realize them?

Your culture is your best teacher.  Respect it, and put it to work on your most important change initiatives.

Jim Collins, Meet Michael Porter.

Here’s a link to great blog article from the Harvard Business Review blog, posted today.  I always enjoyed Jim Collins’ books on strategy, and of course, Michael Porter is the marketing strategy god we all read in business school.

A great quote from the article for those of that believe that great leadership is a necessary complement to great strategy…

So, is it great by choice…or making great choices? MBA students and their professors tend to divide the world into two separate domains:  people and numbers. There are the “soft” subjects like leadership and organizational behavior, and the “hard” ones like finance, accounting, and operations. Of course this distinction only makes sense in the classroom. All good executives know that the central challenge of performance is seamlessly integrating the two into a working whole. Good strategies do just that. Jim Collins, meet Mike Porter.

Readability meets rigor, and they get along just fine…

Jim Collins, Meet Michael Porter

Salespeople provoke your customers… Sales Leaders, provoke your team!

Is Solution Selling Dead?

In an excellent article from the March 2009 Harvard Business Review, Philip Lay, Todd Hewlin, and Geoffrey Moore (Crossing the Chasm) suggest that “solution selling” is getting long in the tooth, and prospects are getting hardened to that approach.  They are overwhelmed with suitors wanting to peer deeply into their eyes and ask open ended questions on “what keeps you awake at night?”  In my own selling, I’m finding my prospects increasingly unmotivated by the classical solution selling approach.  Even if I have an existing relationship or an introduction from someone they trust, I find their eyes glazing over quickly as I attempt a classical fact finding discussion.

Here is how the authors describe a more edgy alternative, “provocation based selling”:

“Provocation-based selling goes beyond the conventional consultative or solution-selling approach, whereby the vendor’s sales team seeks out current concerns in a question and-answer dialogue with customer managers.  And it differs dramatically from the most common approach still in use—product based selling, which pushes features, functionality, and benefits, usually in a generic manner. Provocation-based selling helps customers see their competitive challenges in a new light that makes addressing specific painful problems unmistakably urgent. This approach isn’t right for every selling situation you’ll face in a downturn, nor does it apply only under challenging economic conditions.  But for many companies that see their old approaches losing power, its time has come.”

Harvard Business Review, March 2009, “In a Downturn, Provoke Your Customers”

So what does this have to do with leading and developing our teams?


Our team members are our customers for our efforts to help them develop.  We are competing for their attention and sense of urgency as they make decisions on where to spend their time and energy.  Like their customers, they are overwhelmed with unmet quotas, reluctant prospects, and declining customer budgets.

As much as they want to please us, and grow, they are performing triage daily.  We have to provoke them and build a case for the importance of investing in their development of  their skills and effectiveness.  They have to feel enough urgency around their development objectives to make time and dedicate resources.

As you approach your next one-on-one, how will you provoke them with the value proposition for personal development, and the compelling impact on them and their business if they fail to act?


A Journey into the Valley of the Stuck

Here’s a great article from a colleague coach, Teresa Pool, which was recently published in a North Texas Coaches newsletter.  You can read more about Teresa at her website:

A Journey into the Valley of the Stuck

By Teresa J. Pool

Help! I have no idea where to go next with this client. They
are totally stuck and neither one of us seem to know what to do about it. I
feel like I’m failing to help him. What am I missing? Where do I go from here?”
Steve’s concern, blurted out at the start of our coaching session, mirrors a
common challenge that every coach experiences at some point during their
career: what do I do when nothing seems to work? At this point, I have to be careful
of not sounding too excited for these coaches, as the mental leap from failure
to excitement is a bit much to take in all at once. But I know that they are
about to discover the incredible power for change to be found in that stuck

The sensation of being stuck comes from a lack of
perceivable options. Clients remain in their current situation or state of
thought because nothing else seems possible. The coach may find himself joining
them in the Valley of the Stuck when every tool in their kit fails to light the
way out. It is an uncomfortable place to be. Sometimes the coach takes on
blame, “If I was a better coach, I’d know how to get us moving again.”
Sometimes the frustration is laid at the feet of the client, “This client
doesn’t really want to change.” When either happens, stuck becomes struggle and
the coaching relationship often ends shortly after. What a shame, since amazing
growth is waiting just on the other side of that stuck place.

I encourage coaches to explore stuckness (not a word but it
deserves to be) with fascination. Wallow in it, be curious about it, find joy
in it, poke fun at it. Always treating it as a temporary resting place before a
major change, like a vacation spot for the mind before it embarks on a big
journey. Make it a safe place for clients to be until they are ready to leave.
Because deep in the heart of Stuck Valley is the option that they want. Notice
I said previously that the sensation of being stuck comes from a lack of
perceivable options. The mind’s actual purpose for being stuck is to avoid
something unpleasant, usually around the option that they really want.
Obviously, the clients are the only ones who know what their difficult options
are, and they don’t even know they know it. The coach’s job is to help them
find awareness in the stuck place. Awareness is the bridge out of Stuck Valley.

Recognizing Stuck:

  • Observation method: The client states a strong
    desire to move toward his or her goal but makes little actual attempt to get
  • Exhaustion method: The coach finds consistent
    resistance to all questions and suggestions.
  • Easy method: When the client is asked, “Are we
    stuck?” he or she responds with, “Yes.”

Embracing Stuck:

  • Present “stuck” as a normal stage in the change
    process, fertile ground to explore.
  • Remove all pressure to figure out why they are
    stuck and what they need to do about it.
  • Let clients know that they are free to stay
    there as long as they like. Ex-press confidence that when they are ready, they
    will naturally move on.
  • Encourage clients to talk about the benefits of
    being stuck right now. If nothing else, it’s a break from all that action!

Exploring Stuck:

  • Compare history. Ask the client if he or she has
    ever experienced this same stuck feeling before. What was that like? What
    caused it to end? What happened next? How is this situation similar? Different?
  • Gather resources. What kind of skills, data, or
    assistance might be help-ful while in this place?
  • Embrace learning. What are clients learning by
    being here? What else do they hope to learn?
  • Future view. What can they see on the other side
    of being stuck? What will it be like once they get there? How will they be
    different? The same?

By recognizing, embracing and exploring the client’s
stuckness, you begin to build the awareness needed to move on. So the next time
you are taking a trip to Stuck Valley, enjoy the ride. You never know where you
might end up!

Teresa J. Pool, the President and founder of Transitions For
Business, helps her clients achieve their full potential. A human behavior and
communication special-ist, Teresa’s work as a coach, consultant, speaker,
strategic facilitator, and work-shop leader has motivated thousands to achieve
their personal best. In addition, she inspires change through her published
articles, television and radio appear-ances, and two leadership guides: Focus
in the Midst of Chaos and Communication DISCovery. Teresa is an executive coach
in UTD’s Executive MBA program and serves as a coaching supervisor and examiner
in their Executive Coaching program. Teresa is dedicated to serving the
coaching community as a former President of the ICF North Texas Chapter. She
also helps the sight-impaired achieve their full potential through her work as
a volunteer puppy raiser for Southeastern Guide Dogs and IMPACT director for
the FMC Carswell “cell dogs” program.

© 2009 Transitions For Business. All rights reserved..

Writing Our Own Scorecards

I recently spoke to about a hundred C-level executives at a partner conference hosted by one of the top IT providers. As part of the workshop, the executives predicted how their employees would rate their agreement with 15 statements dealing with organizational climate. The second lowest agreement score of the fifteen was this for this statement: “I can clearly explain the mission of my company and how I contribute”.

A continuing theme in the literature on best places to work, is that leadership in Best-Place companies makes it easy for people to know, and in fact, measure for themselves, their work output and the resulting impact on their organization. Sounds easy and straightforward, doesn’t it? Yet, it proves to be a daunting, almost impossible task for many organizations and teams.  That gap has the resulting impact of being a significant impediment to both the business impact itself, as well as the sense of pride and well-being and confidence of being assured that our work product is (or isn’t) hitting the business mark.

Patrick Lencioni, in his book,  “The Three Signs of a Miserable Job”, talks about “immeasurement” as one of the three signs.  “Employees need to be able to gauge their progress and level of contribution for themselves.  They cannot be fulfilled in their work if their success depends on the opinions or whims of another person no matter how benevolent that person may be.”  How many of us either anticipate or dread the annual performance review with our boss to get their blessing or curse on our work product?  What in heaven’s name did we do for the rest of the year to know where we stood?  I can think of maybe one or two bosses in a forty year career that gave me regular and objective feedback as a routine function of managing me, and my discussions with colleagues tell me that is more the norm than the exception.

Grab the May 2011 edition of the Harvard Business Review for an excellent article by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer on “The Power of Small Wins”.  (HBR Reprint R1105C).  Amabile and Kramer studied the impact of employees’ ”inner work life” on their performance inside complex organizations.  A seminal finding of their research:  “What motivates people on a day to day day basis is the sense they are making progress.”   They echo the classic work by Frederick Herzberg in his 1960’s studies of how employees are motivated.  “People are most satisfied with their jobs …. When those jobs give them the opportunity to experience achievement”.

Turning their research forward into idea for how managers can ensure that their people are getting the visibility they need into their own performance, they not only lay out the four primary ways that managers drain work of its meaning (!!) but in a more positive vein, they lay out a Daily Progress Checklist to help managers measure and deal with measures of both positive and negative factors in measuring daily progress.  Their intent is to help managers build the habitual processes which enable them to create the “Progress Loop” with their teams.

“Inner work life drives performance; in turn, good performance, which depends on consistent progress, enhances inner work life. We call this the progress loop; it reveals the potential for self-reinforcing benefits.

“So, the most important implication of the progress principle is this: By supporting people and their daily progress in meaningful work, managers improve not only the inner work lives of their employees but also the organization’s long-term performance, which enhances inner work life even more.  Of course, there is a dark side—the possibility of negative feedback loops. If managers fail to support progress and the people trying to make it, inner work life suffers and so does performance; and degraded performance further undermines inner work life.

“A second implication of the progress principle is that managers needn’t fret about trying to read the psyches of their workers, or manipulate complicated incentive schemes, to ensure that employees are motivated and happy. As long as they show basic respect and consideration, they can focus on supporting the work itself.”

We have to enable our employees to write their own scorecard, and then help them do what it takes to put runs on the board.

The Primacy of Relationships

Take the recently reported experience by Google in their Project Oxygen.  (Google’s Quest to Build a Better Boss) Laszlo Bock, Google’s vice president for “people operations”, described their research into the relative importance of eight key management attributes:  “In the Google context, we’d always believed that to be a manager, particularly on the engineering side, you need to be as deep or deeper a technical expert than the people who work for you,” Mr. Bock says. “It turns out that that’s absolutely the least important thing. It’s important, but pales in comparison.  Much more important is just making that connection and being accessible.”

Gallup surveyed over one million workers on what drove job satisfaction.  Their analysis yielded 12 critical questions to ask workers about their work place.  Of the 12, half of them  related strongly to factors heavily driven by relationships created and nurtured in the workplace: recognition, supervisor level of caring, encouraging development, being listened to by others, having a best friend at work, and receiving frequent and active discussion about development progress.

The Great Place to Work Institute is the “engine” behind Fortune’s annual list of the 100 Best Companies to work for.  Michael Burchell and Jennifer Robin from the Institute recently published “The Great Workplace – How to Build It, How to Keep It, and Why It Matters” , summarizing the results of the institute’s over 30 years of research into great places to work.  They define a great workplace as “one where people trust the people they work for, take pride in what they do, and enjoy the people they work with.”  One of their overarching conclusions of their research:  “The practices companies had and the money leaders spent on employees did not always lead to great workplaces;  The relationships they built in the process did.”

The implication is clear.  Of course, every business depends on its core competence and its command of its market understanding and its technologies.  Yet what will distinguish us as great places to work will be how effectively we pay attention to and nurture the key relationships between our executives, line leadership, and our extended team of employees.

How are You Showing Up?

“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.