Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Great Teams....Common Themes and Notes for Leaders

My blog yesterday about Dr.Richard Hackman and the myths of teamwork caused me to reflect on  great teams I've been a part of, what made them great and if there were any common themes.

A couple of notes before I start.  In my entire 40 year working life I'd only consider three of the teams I've been a part of really special.  My point in raising that issue is it's not easy to create a great team and it doesn't happen all that frequently in one's working life.  I feel fortunate it's happened to me three times.  A second point is I wasn't the main leader in any of these instances, but a team member.   This blog entry isn't about me talking about how skilled I was at leading these great teams....I was just one of many contributors in each instance.  With those qualifications in mind here are my themes....and some notes for leaders.

Deep Talent.  In every instance there were people who were really good at what they did...really technically proficient in their craft not only at the designated leader level, but two and three levels deep in the organization.  This freed up leaders to deal with interface and system issues rather than spending an extraordinary amount of time making sure routine things were routinely accomplished.
Note for Leaders .  A group of the best individual contributors don't necessarily make the best team.  I once had the opportunity to hand-pick a team for an elite organization.  My first impulse was to pick the most talented people.  It turned out to be very difficult to manage as they were all highly ambitious and competitive with each other. When some naturally moved on to other roles, I was more careful to get a balance of personalities, and complementary skills.  I looked harder for "fit" to the team rather than individual talent level.

Competitive.  As mentioned above this quality has two sides to it.  In the best teams, people are competitive, but competitive externally, not with each other.
Note for Leaders.  Some really competitive people can't turn their "competitive switch" on and's always on.  The leadership challenge is to make sure those competitive urges are focused outwards and to act when it turns to unconstructive internal criticism.  My other observation is that men and women are equally competitive, women just compete in different ways than men.  Many men are completely oblivious to this fact.   Be aware those competitive urges exist both with men and women staff and be watchful for signs of  unhealthy internal competition.

Enjoyable work climate.  I'm not sure I've got this category title correctly but in the really outstanding teams I was part of team members genuinely liked and respected each other.  There were disagreements without people becoming disagreeable.  Team members took their work seriously but there was often humor and laughter.  Laughter in team meetings from time to time is a healthy sign.
Note for leaders.   It is a trap to take work too seriously and not create space for the enjoyment of a difficult task done well.  Often there is someone on the team with a knack for "lightening things up" at just the right time...leaders need to look for those opportunities when they emerge and encourage them.

Willingness to help others on the team.  Often one part of the team will get a particularly difficult task or special high priority project. On the best teams, colleagues offer support and resources.... usually people or specialized expertise.
Note for leaders.  In the best, mature teams this happens spontaneously.  Sometimes early in the life of a team the leader has to trigger this by asking one part of the organization to help another.

The social component of work.  On the best teams I was on, it was never only about work.  Team members were genuinely interested in each others lives and interests outside of work.
Note for leaders.  Leaders need to create the opportunity for these social relationships to emerge. Including partners in some events and carving out time in team meetings(often over a meal) for pure social conversation ar some successful techniques I've used.

The role of the senior leaderIn the best teams I've been on the senior leader played an important but not dominant role.  I've come to believe that the image of the almighty leader with great charisma, vision, innovative strategy and answers to all the organization's problems is a myth. 
Note for leaders.  The best leaders set direction, establish expectations, provide resources, and remove obstacles...and don't attempt to be everything to all people.


Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Leader and the Myths of Teamwork

Recently, one of the foremost US experts on teamwork, J. Richard Hackman of Harvard passed away.  His passing drew my attention to a particular piece of research he completed in the last two years.

His research exposed 6 myths about teamwork that are especially important for leaders.  The 6 myths are:
1.  Harmony helps.
2.  New members bring energy and fresh ideas
3.  Bigger is better
4.  Face to face isn't necessary anymore because of technology
5.  It all depends on the leader
6.  Teamwork is magical.  Talented members with minimal guidance will produce amazing results.

You can find an overview at this link.

All of these myths carry important insights for the leader.  There are a couple I want to emphasize.  My 16 November blog was titled "Truth Springs From Disagreement Amongst Friends".  That particular blog entry addressed the leader's need to tolerate disagreement and to be cautious if there is none.  Dr. Hackman's research Myth #1 reinforces this point.

I also find Myth #4 important, especially for global teams.  In cost conscious, low margin businesses or in the low margin portion of a big business, there can be a tendency to move toward purely virtual teams where there is very little or no face to face contact.  While it is true technology can be leveraged to greatly speed the pace of work when teams are apart, Dr.Hackman's research and my own experiences lead to the conclusion that face to face meetings are an important component of effective virtual teams.  The key seems to be to leverage technology to find the balance.


Monday, January 21, 2013

"Your legacy as a leader is the people you leave behind"-Take a Personal Interest in Their Development Part II

 In the 24 May blog last year, I addressed what "taking a personal interest" in the development of staff meant in practice.  Insuring each person has an individual development plan, providing in-role job assignments to build capability, balancing challenge and support, taking chances on talent, and letting people go to other roles to fully develop were all things I addressed.

Another dimension I did not address is how to help staff learn how to think through a complex problem.  Counter-intuitively, not answering their questions is an important component of that learning process.  In my experiences as a leader, there were often times when a subordinate leader would bring me a problem to effect delegating the problem up.  This was usually because the situation was new to the person or more complex or the risks were greater than they'd experienced.  They looked to me to provide the answer.  Even though I may have faced similar challenges and had a fairly good idea of the correct course of action, I almost always resisted the impulse to do so.  Taking decisions that should be taken at lower levels does nothing to develop leaders capabilities or the organization as a whole.

Instead, I'd ask questions. What are the alternatives?  What are the facts?  Is there a way to gather more data before deciding?  What are the risks?  What assumptions are you making?  Is there a time factor?  What is the risk of not doing anything?

By your inquiry you are helping them frame the issue, gather data, analyze alternatives, take decisions and take responsibility for the decision.  It's important that leaders develop this skill early at lower levels of complexity; as they become more senior and the levels of complexity increase they will have a well tested capability to take even bigger decisions under the conditions of risk and uncertainty.

This approach can be frustrating to staff.  Many really just want "the answer".  They don't want to make a mistake.  In some cultures and in some organizations, leaders are expected to provide the answers in the belief that is the appropriate role for a leader.

In the best organizations leaders do more than provide answers...they develop the skill of others to discover the answers on their own.

Friday, January 18, 2013

"Take Care of What's in Front of You"

There are a lot of times for leaders when it is difficult to focus.  There are more things on the "to do" list than there is time to do them.  Problems seem too big and complex.  Organizational structures make decision making murky and slow...there is always one more sign-off or one more committee or another review panel.  Unexpected requests or tasks from co-workers derail the priorities you thought you had.  There are project deadlines on the planning horizon and diminishing time to do the necessary work to meet the deadline.  In the middle of all this, it's sometimes easy to lose sight of important tasks that need to get done today.  It's easy to get "paralyzed into inaction" under these circumstances.

Many athletic coaches deal with the tendency to look ahead by challenging their team not to think of their season record but to go 1-0 each week.  They look to win this week, and when next week comes, win that week.  When  the season is over you can reflect.  Likewise during a game they encourage players to focus on the next play. Players are instructed to not dwell on mistakes that have been made or what the score is....just to do their best on the next play.  After the game is the time to reflect on performance and correct mistakes before the next game.

Sports analogies don't always work in business.  In many sports their are long periods of practice punctuated by a game, then another period of practice.  In business, you are pretty much playing a game...."executing" every day...there are no real practice interludes.  In this case, however, I think the analogy works.  In both business and in athletics you  have to "take care of what's in front of you"...take care of today's most important tasks.

The easiest way to describe how to deal with this is the following 2X2 Importance vs Urgent matrix.
I take this matrix from Steven Covey's First Thing First and Seven Habits of Highly Effective people.  It's also sometimes referred to as the Eisenhower management system first used by US President Dwight Eisenhower.  No matter the source I want to be clear it's not original thinking by me.  Here's how I use it.

Quadrant 1-  These are activities that are both urgent and important.  They are sometimes the result of unforeseen developments; just as often they are things we've left to the last minute.  They must be attended to.  There will always be unforeseen developments.  If too often important/urgent things pop up that have just been left to the last minute but it's worth reflecting how better planning might diminish those things and how often they occur.

Quadrant 2-These important but not urgent activities are often personal and professional development.  Coaching and mentoring can also end up here.

Quadrant 3- Urgent but not important things should be rescheduled or delegated.  Leaders must be especially aware of things in this quadrant and disciplined in not allowing themselves to be drawn into them.  Those new to leadership must master delegation of these tasks.  Some are hesitant to do so knowing full well subordinate staff are busy too.  The leader cannot let herself fall into the trap of doing things that should be done by others.  "Drive-by" requests from colleagues are another source of important/not urgent work. Reschedule these. Things in this quadrant are the fuel for the "tyranny of the urgent".

Quadrant 4-Not urgent/Not important.  Say no.  Many new leaders have a hard time developing this skill also.  A young, very talented woman I once mentored had a problem of over-promising and under-delivering.  She discovered this was because she had such a strong desire to please that she said yes to every request.  She had to develop the ability to say no, even though her fundamental  impulse was say yes.

Another key to effective management of the quadrants is to leave time on the schedule for unanticipated events....they always happen.  Don't fall into the trap of scheduling back-to-back meetings and activities every minute of every day.  The other is to carve out time well in advance for personal and professional development and guard it with rigor.  Delegate anything that comes up in this dedicated time.

Although this is a pretty basic leadership competence, I found it necessary, even as a relatively senior executive to occasionally come back and refresh myself on the Important/Urgent matrix and remind myself  what I had to do to "Take Care of What Was in Front of Me"


Monday, January 14, 2013

"Do the Best You Can with What You've Got"

"Do the best you can with what you've got".  All too often I've seen leaders fall into the "I need more resources" trap.  The simple truth is even in the best organizations there never seem to be enough people and there is never enough money.  Really good leaders don't spend a lot of time making excuses or engaging in never ending conversations about what they don't have.

To be sure, there is a trap in the "can do" approach as well.  I well remember graffiti scrawled on a motor pool wall in Germany: "We've been doing so much with so little for so long we can now do everything with nothing".  The leader has an obligation to state his needs to accomplish a project or a task, and identify any critical skills or capabilities that are missing.  He also has a duty to highlight any increased exposure to safety risks that may be present.  Another special case is when there is chronic under-resourcing over a long period of time and capabilities aren't just there anymore.

More often we just get less than the ideal set of resources.  Once needs have been stated, any safety risks mitigated and the decision to move forward taken, then the leader has to act. This sometimes means supporting a decision you don't agree with.  I covered the"implementing when you disagree" subject in my 11 June 2012 blog and won't repeat it here.  I do cover the choices a leader has in that situation and suggest it as a refresher for long-time readers or for new readers of this blog.

Well led staff will often respond to the challenge, devise work-arounds to deal with any shortcomings, surprise you with their ingenuity, accomplish their task and take justifiable pride in overcoming adversity.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Driving Fear out of the Workplace- A check list to measure success

Let's assume that you as a leader want to drive fear out of the workplace and you've taken some of the actions in yesterday's tipsheet.  How do you know you've been successful?  What do you see in the organization?  Here's a partial list... a checklist so to speak.

  • Employees admit mistakes.  They either tell you what went wrong and actions they will take to prevent recurrence or they seek help in how to improve.
  • You don't hear excuses when errors are made.
  • Staff challenge you and express concerns about organizational direction, priorities and resource allocation.
  • Employees constructively confront conflict; people disagree without being disagreeable
  • Information sharing is taking place across organizational boundaries
  • You hear employees compliment good work in other work units more often than you hear blaming  of other work units.
  • When one part of the organization is having difficulty others seek ways to help out.
  • You hear people talking about how well the enterprise is doing  at least as often as how well their work unit is doing.
  • There is an "optimistic bias" in the organization.  People speak positively about their work, their organization and the future.
I did not intend for this list to be exhaustive but did want to suggest some things to look and listen for to determine if your approach to driving fear out of the workplace is working. 

Thursday, January 3, 2013

"First, Drive out the Fear"- A Tipsheet for Leaders


Most employees are completely rational.  If they are afraid to bring forward bad news, it's probably because they have seen what has happened to others.  Sometimes it's not as extreme as dismissal but we've all seen instances where people who have spoken up have been marginalized and "lost their voice" in the organization as a result of bringing forward bad news.  Sometimes the fear isn't first hand knowledge, but "stories" that get told in organizations about what has happened to others.  Many of us have also seen the consequences of fear. Numbers and schedules are misrepresented, mistakes are repeated, the pace of improvement stalls, and bad products are forwarded to customers.  Back in April, I listed some tips on how to manage divergent conversations.  I believe these tips apply equally to building a trusting environment.  That blog is partially reproduced here.

 1. Designate a "devil's advocate".    A very senior person recently told me that in his board meetings he designates a devil's advocate to present a challenge to an emerging convergence of opinion.
2. Know the style preferences and cultural nuances of your team members. Rather than open dialogue, designate someone to lead the conversation who might otherwise defer to an assertive, first mover.
3. "Listen for silence". This is especially important in teleconferences. If you haven't heard someone for some time on a conversation, invite their voice in.
4. Know your people well enough to detect non-verbal signs of discomfort. "Tom, I can tell you aren't comfortable with the way this conversation is headed. Can you share with us what you are thinking?"
5. Master the engagement skills of Inquiry, Advocacy, Mental Models and the Ladder of Inference.  A short reference is at this link.
6.  Be choiceful about when you express your point of view as a leader. If you truly are seeking divergence on an issue, guide the conversation but also let it flow. If you have a strong point of view, acknowledge it up front and invite challenge. How you handle the challenge is will determine to the degree to which people are later willing to do so. If you hammer dissenting views into submission, don't expect challenges to your thinking in the future. If you do have a strong point of view, withhold it and then later hammer disagreement into submission, don't expect much conversation in the future until you have spoken.
7. Watch for weak signals that challenge your own mental models. This can be especially important in mature teams where the leader's attitudes and views are well known and shared. This makes it even harder to surface a dissenting view.


Wednesday, January 2, 2013

First, Drive out the Fear. What Leaders Do to Create a High Performing Workplace

As part of a recent consulting engagement the issue of fear in the workplace came up.  It manifests itself in several ways.  At one level is individual fear.  When bad news is not welcome; staff feel they may get fired if they bring it forward.  Expatriate staff in an international workforce, in particular, have a lot at stake...paid boarding school for children, generous financial packages, trips home, tax advantages in the home country.  At another level is organizational fear...a lack of "organizational justice", a "blame" culture, tension between line and supporting staff functions, organizational "silos" that optimize their part of the organization at the expense of the enterprise.

This, unfortunately, isn't uncommon.  When I heard of this I was reminded of some of the early quality work done by management expert W. Edwards Deming who, along with Joe Juran helped transform the Japanese manufacturing industry in the 1950's and 1960's. Their success spawned the Total Quality Management(TQM) movement in the USA. Since then, TQM has morphed into Six Sigma and the LEAN production methodology and their derivatives. It's important to note that all the current derivatives have their roots in Deming and Juran's work. One of Deming's 14 points for effective management was to "Drive out the Fear".

I intend to spend a couple of days on this subject but for openers want to reiterate my first leadership insight which is  "Bad news isn't like fine wine.  It doesn't get better with time".  Here's an excerpt of my 7 May blog on the subject.  In this blog, I focus on the leader's dual roles both to bring forward bad news and create an environment where others can do so:

"Bad news isn't like fine doesn't get better with time. In order for others to to understand this I need to share some fundamental beliefs. One is that bad things happen in even the best organization. People make dumb mistakes, have lapses in judgment, take unnecessary risks, violate established procedures resulting in a bad could make a very long list of the kinds of bad things that can happen. A well led organization isn't defined by whether or not bad things happen, but how leaders handle the bad things that do. The second point is that there is a natural human tendency to not want to reveal bad things that happen in an organization. A leader may hope the problem goes away without anyone discovering it; she may hope it's not as bad as it first looks; she may be worried that it reflects on her leadership; she may be embarrassed that an egregious mistake has happened in her organization. There are a lot of reasons leader may be reluctant to bring forward bad news, and it's always a mistake not to do so. Bad news doesn't go away, and it's always at least as bad as it first appears. The effective leader will bring bad news forward with the best information available at the time. commit to further investigate, and identify corrective action to prevent recurrence of the event.

Just as important is the environment the leader establishes to allow her direct reports to bring forward bad news. How the leader reacts to bad news is important to creating trust and transparency. If she encourages bad news to be brought forward and then reacts angrily or questions how the subordinate leader could have let this happen.....well, the chances of a subordinate leader willingly bringing forward bad news just went down considerably....and the chances it will be worse when it does come out just went up. No matter what my emotional reaction to a particular bad news event may have been, I always felt it important to handle it as a learning and development opportunity for the organization.

More in the next few days on what leaders do to create a high trust, high performing environment.