Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Taking a Decision When Your Team Can't Agree

Last year, I wrote a series of blog entries on the value of a diverse team.  In fact I made eight entries on this subject....more than any other single subject I've written about.  That emphasis reflects how important mastering diversity is to the leader of global teams.  If you are interested in reviewing those entries you can find them at entries on 23, 26, 27 and 28 March and 10,11,12 and 16 April of 2012.

Inevitably there will be times when a diverse team is unable to arrive at a consensus.  As I stated in the 16 April blog, sometimes the leader has to take a decision when is disagreement among the team.  Occasionally, a decision will reflect the majority view rather than consensus.  There are traps in the "majority rule" and "leader decides" worth discussing. A leader can find herself in a situation where the team is so divided that the the minority undermines the success of the decision.

Professor Ronald Peterson of the London Business School addressed this challenge in his article "When the Issues are intractable and your team divided."

Professor Peterson has found that "when leading a small group of people who are strongly divided, 'majority rule' (i.e., voting) leads to extremely poor outcomes"

In other words, voting in small groups as generally practiced does not respect the rights of the minority, so the losers of the vote are likely to actively undermine majority decisions.

One of my approaches has been to be clear about who gets to decide. When it is obvious to the leader all the issues, points of view and alternatives have been explored, the leader takes the decision.  Dr. Peterson suggests this is the second best approach:

 "When a leader is perceived as legitimate – either because they are individually trusted, or because they have been duly elected, etc., then that leader takes the responsibility for the decision and if things turn out well they will be vindicated, and if things turn out poorly, the anger is directed at the individual leader, preserving the group, organisation, or system from the anger"

His preferred approach is to come to a qualified consensus.  Is there and alternative that "everyone can live with even if it is not their first choice?"

When leading a well constructed diverse team, disagreement is inevitable....and a good thing...it sharpens everyone's thinking.  That said, the leader of a global team must have a range of tools in the kit to take a decision when the group disagrees and is stuck.


Monday, April 29, 2013

"The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations"-A Business Example

A few days ago I used the term "the soft bigotry of low expectations" in the context of the leadership of a large urban public school district.  I believe it also applies in the context of leading in a global commercial enterprise.

In one of my former roles I was involved in the assessment of general managers who had demonstrated the potential to become senior executives. Based on the assessment, a development plan was agreed between the participant and their line manager.  Those being assessed came from all parts of the business, functions and all parts of the world.  In several of these sessions, there were Nigerian participants..

I've been to Nigeria several times, although never lived there.   There are over 130 Million people living in Nigeria.  Over 100 million of them are living on less than two dollars a day.  The poverty is crushing and basic services like food, sanitation, power, public transportation and clean water are scarce, or unreliable, or non-existent in many places.  Muslim extremists in the north part of the country carry out attacks on Christian citizens.  In the South...the Niger Delta...a group of insurgents calling themselves MEND...the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, raid commercial activities and kidnap expatriates for ransom. Corruption of public officials is a well documented matter of record.

In order for a young person to get an education that gives them a chance to succeed, they have to overcome incredible obstacles just to have clean clothes and a full stomach when they get to school.  They then must have the drive to study and excel, and get an advanced education, often outside their home country.  Then there is the competition to get a good job with an international company.  Once there, success requires performing at a high level that warrants promotion and consideration for the most senior jobs in those companies.

I admit that when I did an assessment of a Nigerian who had made that amazing journey and against all odds, had arrived at the threshold of the executive ranks, I was tempted to be less stringent in my evaluation....to "cut them some slack" so to speak.  I had a deep appreciation...and profound respect... for what it had taken for that person to arrive at just that point.

Ultimately, I came to the conclusion I really wouldn't be doing any of them any favors by a less demanding assessment and identification of their development needs.  They deserved candid, "no holds barred" feedback on what it would take to get to the next level.

Like a school teacher in a large urban district, it's natural for a leader in business to empathizes with those who face extraordinary life challenges.  It's important as a human being, to appreciate what it takes to do business in a second language, or be a woman in a male dominated culture, or be a racial minority or have suffered from religious persecution or any number of other life challenges.  It's just as important to not let that empathy get in the way of providing the gift of honest feedback.  Honest feedback, tough as it may sometimes be, respects the person by saying "I expect just as much out of you as anyone else at your level"  When your actions say "I don't expect as much out of you because of what you've had to overcome" you are practicing the "soft bigotry of low expectations."

Friday, April 26, 2013

Leadership vs Management: "Leadership is about Character"

I've occasionally been frustrated when teaching and coaching mid-career leaders who seem to always want to make the distinction between leadership and management...as if it was an either/or choice.  I long ago learned it's not an either/or choice... good leaders must do both.  Simply put you manage "things"....processes, systems, materiel, finances....and you lead people.  Good leaders must do both. 

 In this Forbes interview,  outgoing Novartis chairman Dr. Daniel Vasella takes this simple view further.

"To a greater extent than management, leadership involves character. Let me also mention intrinsic motivation, interpersonal skills, integrity and courage paired with self-awareness and the ongoing desire to learn. At the core of leadership is the core of the person. Leadership development must involve introspection, reflection, and examination of our patterns. Otherwise, we become hostages of our old patterns of behavior, and we tend to unconsciously repeat the past.

If you believe in the growth of people, it will lead to better leadership. In leadership programs we have facilitated, we engage people in the thrill of discovering themselves, their blind spots, and their patterns in a safe, trusting, professional environment. They share life stories with others and receive feedback. It’s amazing to see competent managers connect the dots from their life stories to their current and emerging leadership stories. You have to have a deep commitment to develop new skills and patterns. It has a deep influence for teams and individuals. Few things are as fulfilling as seeing top people grow to the next level of leadership contribution."

If you read the Forbes article, you will see Dr. Vasella also talks to the importance of the leader's ability to articulate a "purpose" for the organization.  This reinforces the influencing skill of "creating a broader frame" I explored in blogs of 26 March and 28 March.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

"Change is Not Made in An Instant" Leadership and Charisma

Last week I had the opportunity to attend a breakfast meeting with  Newark, New Jersey Mayor
Cory BookerIf you read the Wikipedia entry at the link you'll see his tenure has not been without controversy.  If you read the Wikipedia link on Newark, you'll see it is 8km west of Manhattan and has a population of over 277,000.  Approximately one third of the citizens of Newark live in poverty and just over 50% are African-American.  Significantly, every Mayor of Newark in the 50 years prior to Cory Booker's election has been indicted on criminal charges.

Mayor Booker's politics and policies are interesting but not the subject of this blog.  What I did find interesting was his ability to hold an audience, influence and even inspire.   Regular readers will recall I mentioned charisma as a set of skills for leaders....and made the point they are a  skill set and not just an intrinsic quality to a fortunate few.

Whether one agrees with his politics and tactics or not,  Cory Booker is undeniably charismatic.  He's a gifted story teller mixing humor, serious topics and relevant subjects.  His audience consisted of people who are actively working to reduce poverty and who work to help those in poverty through food assistance, housing, health care and employment counseling.  He used personal stories to make his three main points that
1)  We are all....regardless of our station in life.... standing on the shoulders of those who came before us.
 2)  That change in addressing matters of poverty isn't made in an instant or the result of a single heroic act.  It is made by small acts of kindness, caring and generosity performed day after day by many people over a long period of time 
3)  Great leaders in this area don't see others and say  "follow me!"...they inspire others to see the greatness in themselves.

Here's a link to a video of Mayor Booker telling one of his stories.  All great leaders have the story telling skill in their leadership kit.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Public Schools, Leaders and "The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations"

In the last week, I've had the opportunity to attend meetings with two leaders in the public sector.  One was the Superintendent of a large urban school district; the other the Mayor of a large East Coast US city;   After listening to them and reflecting a bit, it strikes me that there are some similarities....and some differences....in effective leadership in the public sector.  I'll deal with the school superintendent first and then the other one in a subsequent blog.

For my readers outside the US, attendance at public schools is largely dictated by where one lives. Students are enrolled in the school appropriate to their age, closest to their home. In many large US cities, wealthier people live in suburban communities and commute to the urban areas by automobile or public transportation for work. Hence, the school districts serving the city residents often are serving the children of the poorest residents in the overall metropolitan area.  Mike Miles is the Superintendent of just such an urban area...the Dallas Independent School District in Dallas, Texas.  To give you an idea of the scope of the role,  there are 230 schools, 157,000 students and over 20,000 employees.  Of the 157,000 students 70% are Hispanic, 24% African-American, 5% white, and 1% Asian.  Mr. Miles manages a $1.5 billion dollar budget for this school district.

Miles and his Board of Trustees  have agreed a vision, destination and set of core beliefs that you can find at this link.  I'm restating the core beliefs here for emphasis.
  • Our main purpose is to improve student academic achievement.
  • Effective instruction makes the most difference in student academic performance.
  • There is no excuse for poor quality instruction.
  • With our help, at risk students will achieve at the same rate as non-at risk students.
  • Staff members must have a commitment to children and a commitment to the pursuit of excellence.
To the point I made a couple of weeks ago about using data as an influencing skill, Superintendent Miles used data very effectively to make his points in a presentation I attended.  He compared his school district to both state and national scores on standardized tests.  He also had the data by individual school so that it was easy to identify high performing schools(three of the schools in his district were listed by the Washington Post as among the best five in the United States) and distinguish their performance from others. In spite of isolated instances of excellence and a track record that showed improvement, the data showed a significant gap between his school district and others in the state and nationally.  He also used trend data to show that although there was improvement over time, the performance gaps weren't actually closing.

He had stories from his own experiences as a minority student who had a speech impediment and the role two teachers had in helping him overcome those challenges to achieve excellence.  He also once served as a custodian in a school district for six months and knows first-hand about appropriate maintenance standards of performance.  He doesn't accept that instruction should be compromised because there was a gang shooting or overdose in the neighborhood, or that expectations should be lower for those from single parent households.  Powerfully, he used Michael Gerson's term "the soft bigotry of low expectations".

He closed by re-framing and elevating the conversation making it clear that no matter what the employees of the school district did, the school district would not improve unless the community demanded excellence.

Whether or not Mike Miles will succeed is an open question.  He's been in his role nine months.  He's making school principals accountable for the performance of their schools and made it clear under performance won't be tolerated.  He established a Leadership Development Fellows Academy to prepare aspiring principals   He's implemented a new teacher evaluation system whose elements are to identify excellence, help every teacher improve, and create lasting impact.  He's also established service level agreements for standards of performance for central office functions.  Among a number of imposing challenges, two things stand out as particularly difficult leadership challenges for someone in Miles position.  One, I'm hard pressed to think of an example in the private sector where stakeholders wouldn't support holding leaders accountable for improved performance, yet some parents and members of the Board of Trustees aren't happy...they are comfortable with their long-tenured principals and teachers and are resisting the change in performance evaluations....in spite of data that indicates chronic under performance.  Some are happy to celebrate the achievements of a few high performers and accept under performance for the majority.  Another factor is disagreement plays out in public media...newspapers and television reports.  While leaders in public companies have shareholders and annual shareholder meetings have their own dynamic, it seems to me there is a difference between an annual shareholder meeting and having your leadership decisions analyzed daily in the public media.

Best of luck to Mike Miles.  He clearly knows how to lead.  As he himself stated, his success is dependant on the community he serves demanding excellence.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

IT Transformation-"One Size Does Not Fit All"

As I mentioned in the previous blog, in 1994 there was a sense of dramatic change.  Politically the Berlin Wall had collapsed a few years before and the Soviet Union collapsed into Russia and Federated States.  Economically import tariffs were falling, markets were being deregulated and foreign ownership was increasing...all more or less simultaneously across the globe.  Francis Fukuyama even wrote his now famous book "The End of History and the Last Man"  in which he hypothesized  "What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."

We were also at the beginning of an information technology transformation driven by the proliferation of the Internet.    There was a sense that the proliferation of information technologies and communicative devices would "change everything." Entire business models would be overturned, industries transformed, old hierarchical structures swept away and replaced my new yet-to-be defined network centric organizations.

Like the failure of Fukuyama's Utopian vision of the universalization of government, "everything" didn't change in the commercial world either.  Here are some examples of how wide the variance of the impact of information technology:

Dramatically Changed               Incrementally Changed                Little Change             
Retail Banks                                 Health Care                                     Transportation
Bookstores                                    Education                                        Retail energy(gasoline)
Newspapers                                   Retail Merchandising                     Retail groceries
Video Stores                                 Government                                    Retail Automobile sales
Retail Music                                  Political fundraising
Travel Agents                                Personal investing
Personal Communication              Organizational hierarchies

The reader may have other examples.  I think there are a couple of insights for leaders in this.  One is not only is there a wide variance among business sectors, within a business sector like retailing, there can be a wide variance.  What works in one instance cannot automatically be transferred to another instance.  The thoughtful leader has to carefully understand the value chain of their business from manufacturer, to suppliers to end customer and carefully analyze the value added at each intermediary step.  If there isn't a sufficient value added the intermediate step will be dis-intermediated...eliminated.  Travel agents have almost been eliminated because individuals can access and evaluate options and get the best value for money on their own.   On the other hand grocery stores still exist because they can aggregate a large number of suppliers in a wide variety of food and beverages in ways no individual could possibly do on their own.  When it comes to IT transformation "one size does not fit all".

Monday, April 8, 2013

IT-Transformative or Not? The Education Experience

One of the most important things leaders do is to anticipate.  Indeed, Eliot Cohen identifies "failure to anticipate" as one of the three sources of fundamental leadership failure.  Technology is a well known driver of change so it is smart for leaders to look to technology developments as a way of anticipating change.

I first came to this subject while in a fellowship at George Washington University in 1994-1995...18-19 years ago.  At the time, the internet was in its infancy but it's potential was being seen.  There was a sense that the proliferation of information technologies and communicative devices would "change everything."  Entire business models would be overturned, industries transformed, old hierarchical structures swept away and replaced my new yet-to-be defined network centric organizations.   The recent publicity in the United States about the transformative effect of Massive Open On-Line Courses(MOOC) on universities in the United States caused me to reflect on what has actually occurred over nearly two decades.  For those in other countries who may not be aware, some of the most respected universities in the United States including Stanford and MIT are offering some of their courses for free on-line to as many as 100,000 students at a time.  The conventional wisdom seems to be that this will fundamentally transform the nature of the university education system...if a student can get world class content for free on-line, why go to the expense of on-campus tuition, room, board and transportation expenses?

I'm not so sure, and I say that as a former zealot who was convinced education would be transformed by information technologies and communications devices.  The thinking then was that the "sage from the stage" who "pushed" content to learners would be replaced by a model where the learner "pulled" content from information sources when and where they needed it.  The expected shift from a teacher centric "push" model to a learner centric "pull" model hasn't actually  come to pass.  To be sure, some university courses  are now offered on-line and a form of blended learning design referred to as a flip model are being employed both in universities and corporate education.  The point is people still need to come together to learn some things.    They need to apply their insights to solve problems, do practical work, and get feedback.  They need an instructor to introduce new concepts, explain relationships and tutor when the learner is stuck.   Yes, the "sage from the stage" model has been replaced but not entirely....the nature of what happens in the classroom is what has changed.

I believe there are a couple of leadership implications from this.  One is that technology innovations may indeed drive change but not necessarily in the way initially believed.  The second is that technology innovations, and information technology innovation in particular, will have an uneven impact across industries....what transforms one industry will be incremental change in another.  This means the leader must be forward thinking yet thoughtful...open to anticipating changes yet carefully evaluate pilots and run experiments.