Breaking the Vacuum Around Leadership

When something is missing, it is a vacuum or space creating a void. I believe we have a missing element in our understanding of leadership. We all recognize that leaders face challenges that were unfathomable twenty years ago. However, leadership remains consumed with the relatively stable aspects of personal style and skill sets.

Given our dynamic environment, situational awareness becomes an essential component for leadership success. Leaders must recognize how the competitive landscape, regulatory forces, workforce demographics, and system ramifications impact the organization. No one should ignore their present realities.

While I would temper Peter Drucker’s statement that leadership “has little to do with “leadership quality” and even less to do with “charisma.” Its essence is performance,” I agree with his focus on results. But to date, it undervalues results in favor of steadiness, predictability, and persistence, all of which certainly play a key role. However, so does flexibility, agility, timing, and current conditions. Ignoring these increases our blind spots and risk.

Getting the leadership “formula” right reminds me of searching for the sorcerer’s stone. A magical solution, to be sure, but we must remember it is also fictitious. Search for any universal formula will not work. Precisely following in the footsteps of Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos will not guarantee success. Certainly, those leaders deserve their acclaim but that does not mean their formula will work in every organization.

Few leaders run an organization that is the equivalent of an Apple or Amazon. I have met many business leaders who assume that what worked in one environment will work in every environment or that what worked in the past will work in the present.

Leadership has changed in scope and expectations. Organizations are more integrated, customer requirements shift more rapidly, and resources have become more constrained. And to make it even more challenging, our greater complexity means that no one person can have all the answers. So instead of becoming the solution provider, leaders need to develop their ability to question and evaluate alternatives. Luckily, this is not rocket science or a matter of IQ. It requires committing to a practice of employing six situational mindsets to uncover information before jumping to a decision.

Situational awareness Consider what a leader could learn by asking questions in six different areas including:

      • What new approaches or creative options can we investigate?
      • How can we improve customer service and retention?
      • How can we become a truly seamless effective organization?
      • What can improve our quality and efficiency?
      • How can we foster collaboration, engagement, and learning?
      • What can we do now to ensure a prosperous future?

Vacuums are broken using heat to expand the container. We should use the heat created by change to expand our view of leadership. Yes, listening, planning, team building, and engagement are critical but so is collecting information on our current realities and leveraging them to achieve results.


Dr. Mary Lippitt is the author of  Brilliant or Blunder: Six Ways Leaders Navigate Uncertainty, Opportunity and Complexity

“Breaking the Vacuum Around Leadership” was originally published on 10 July 2019 at BizCatalyst360.

Targeting What Matters When It Matters

Adopting a narrow or fixed perspective is both foolish and dangerous.  My MBA students frequently and fervently embrace a single answer, but in their rush to provide an answer they overlook key aspects and alternatives.   Experienced decision makers know to dig deeper to see all that they can to address what most important, rather than wasting resources on what appears promising or urgent. They know their role is to ask the right questions more than delivering an answer.

When we drive our cars, we do not rely exclusively on the view through the windshield.  We check the side and rear mirrors and this expanded awareness ensure our safety.  Relying on a single point of view, or past practice discounts alternate perspectives as immaterial or mistaken.  Such a laser-like focus equates to wearing blinders.  But the other extreme of trying to focus on everything equally produces confusion derailing achievement.

Not everything warrants immediate attention.  The urgent should not obscure the important. Decision makers must make the right call at the right time for the right results.

We can access mountains of data but extracting information, detecting patterns, and understanding the implications requires critical thinking and analysis.  Mining insights requires discipline rather than an advanced degree, an elevated IQ, or a lofty title.  Critical and situational analysis is not rocket science, and it is not bestowed on just a few of us.   What is needed is to develop the ability to ask questions and gauge current conditions before jumping to conclusions.

Decision makers at all levels must effectively scan their environment, extract key insights, discover alternatives, evaluate risk and target key issues.  And that cannot be done relying on our memory. Most of us have a working memory (the number of things we can pay attention to and manipulate at one time) of only three or four items at a time (https://www.livescience.com/2493-mind-limit-4.html).  Therefore, we must train decision makers to collect and gauge the glut of information in a systematic manner to avoid blind spots.

If we fail to see all that there is to see, we pay a high price.  Consider Tide PODS.  Procter & Gamble launched one of their most innovative products in 2012. The brightly colored packets have captured one-fifth of the laundry detergent market by 2018. Yet, that success has to be balanced with eight deaths and over 9,000 poisonings. Could that have been foreseen?  Many would argue that the risk could have been identified since young children are attracted to vivid colors and shapes that they can hold.  A risk assessment would have identified it as probably and severe.

Likewise, Boeing could have anticipated software problem with their flight-control system.  How do we know this?  Boeing offered their customers, at an additional cost, a Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) system enhancement to override potential malfunction in an angle of attack sensor. Given that 737 Max 8 cost over $100 million and the fallout from a failure, the decision to charge extra for the additional software was a major red flag demanding attention.   That short-sighted decision combined with a reduced amount of pilot training combined to increase risk and cost the firm approximately one billion dollars. Tide PODS and the 737 Max 8 had foreseeable and overlooked dangers.

Decision makers need to focus on asking questions to know what to do and when to do it based on current relevant information.  What questions are you asking to guarantee that your team can target critical issues?

“Targeting What Matters When It Matters” was originally published on 25 April 2019 in BIZCATALYST 360°.

Bridging Executive Team Conflict

One of my clients was entering a strategic planning process with a dysfunctional executive team. The team was stuck over how to plan for the future. The lack of harmony was attributed to perceived personal slights, pressure tactics, and lack of information. In this case, resistance and competition replaced collaboration and the chance for agreement was never established.

Background on the Team

My client, a newly hired president of an international firm, wanted to adopt a new strategy he had crafted by himself. His team of six vice-presidents actively resisted the plan. The client said that the vice-presidents were “just stuck in the past.” He believed they sought to limit his success and tenure since several had applied for his position. He wanted me to interview each team member to start a bridge-building process with a one-day offsite meeting.

The Beginning of the Bridge to Conflict

During interviews, the vice-presidents voiced objections to the president’s “go it alone” style and his lack of industry knowledge since he was new to the industry. The prevailing opinions were that he was grandstanding for the board and was not interested in working collaboratively. The fact that the president did not consult staff in developing the strategic plan was used as an example of his Lone Ranger approach. It was clear that the team was at an impasse. From the interviews, I also discovered, while there were entrenched positions, everyone wanted the organization to succeed. Therefore, I chose to focus on identifying shared organizational outcomes to shift the team’s focus away from personal suppositions to objective analysis. My goal was to engage them in a results-oriented search to discover a mutually acceptable plan for the future. Since the strategic plan was the official cause of the breakdown, it made sense to focus on strategy.

Discovery of Mindsets

In my experience, many strategic discussions revolve around vague aspirational statements which offer encouragement but little direction, definition, or measures. This executive team needed to agree on something specific and measurable. My assumption was that strategic alignment would rupture the personal stereotypes, trigger discussion, and allow the team to critically assess alternatives. Therefore, in preparation for the off-site meeting, I asked all attendees to complete the Leadership Spectrum Profile® and review the generated report. The Profile examines six organizational goals and how they currently drive an individual’s goals and priorities. It also creates a common vocabulary for discussing advantages, constraints, and trade-offs among those goals. In addition, it focuses on existing circumstances and goals rather than past actions, offering an opportunity to explore facts and alternatives. The six situational mindset goals concentrate on:

1. innovation or being seen as state-of-the-art,

2. customer and growth focus,

3. seamless infrastructure and policies,

4. productivity, quality, and ROI,

5. change-ready engaged culture with strong bench strength, and

6. new trends, business models, and niches.

The team was asked to complete the inventory based on their assessment of the best strategic orientation. After completing the inventory, each member received a report on their goal orientation. A composite team profile without names was presented at the off-site and the composite revealed a split with six individuals in agreement and one with a different perspective. Offering the results without attribution enabled participants to identify their positions and kicked off a productive discussion of the strategic priorities. The six vice-presidents shared a common focal point on improving quality and internal processes. This point of view or situational mindset prefers evolutionary change, risk mitigation, and has an internal focus at this time. The president’s mindset targeted expanding the customer base and growing market share. This growth-oriented goal values revolutionary change, external focus and accepts risk for the opportunity for great rewards. After an open discussion, they each discussed the facts, events, observations, and evidence that drove their thinking about their priority or desired path for the future. During that exchange, the president learned that large corporate accounts were being lost and the vice-presidents learned that the board had mandated the president’s growth strategy to improve ROI. These insights defused some of the tension, but a division remained.

The Connection Between Organization Life Cycle Stages and Strategy

The next step was to connect the organization life cycle stages and strategy. While the group was not familiar with the organizational life cycle model (Lippitt, 2014), they recognized it since it mirrored their product and project life cycles. They also knew that different actions were essential at each stage. After defining the six stages of organization life cycles as Birth or Start-up, Growth, Stature, Prime, Mature, and Renewal stage, I asked each person to select their organization’s current stage. This discussion exposed the same split presented by the inventory findings. The president selected the Growth stage since it reflected his board mandate. The vice-presidents split between Stature and Prime. The tone in the room changed when they mapped their differing individual perspectives onto the organization life cycle model and talked about their reality. The group recognized the organization was past the entrepreneurial Growth stage with a respected brand and well-established policies. The firm was moving into the Prime stage where the focus revolves around process improvement, quality, and ROI. The premise that market growth was the only way to improve ROI was debunked.

Bridging Differences

The vice-presidents shared many additional internal issues that were unknown to the president. Problems, including quality issues, information system failures, and staff shortages, were undermining productivity, morale, and quality. As the president absorbed this key information, he understood his staff had rejected his fast growth strategy since the loss of major accounts stemmed from operational flaws rather than competitive factors. While the president had assumed that the vice-presidents were driven by personal motivations, he now realized it was due to current circumstances. His demeanor changed. He listened and learned what was holding the organization back from the success everyone wanted. He also realized that before the organization could grow, they had to halt the hemorrhaging of major accounts. It did not take long before an internal improvement strategy targeting operational flaws was formalized. The team agreed, when this strategy was achieved, they would develop another plan based on newer vital needs.

Conclusion

Once they agreed on their goal priorities, the executive team estimated the financial impact of the lost accounts on their bottom line. They developed a pitch for the Board that showed the importance of addressing quality. They also agreed a new strategy would be presented after quality concerns were addressed, and that the next strategic thrust might be market growth, assuming the situation warranted it. The president’s presentation to the Board highlighted the fact that getting new customers and then having them leave due to operational shortcomings not only wasted marketing efforts but also impacted the brands’ reputation. After all, dissatisfied customers not only stop using the firm but also spread their negative experience with others. The Board accepted a “build it and they will come” approach to meet current challenges and improve ROI. A once dysfunctional team coalesced around a shared reality and the need for results. Personal attributions were superseded by shared common results-oriented goals.

Sources

Dewey, J. (1910). How we think. Boston, MA: Heath & Company.

Greiner, L. (1998). Evolution and revolution as organizations grow. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https:// hbr.org/1998/05/evolution-and-revolutionas-organizations-grow

Janis, I. (1991). Victims of group think. Political Psychology, 12(2), 247–278.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Lippitt, G. (1982). Organization renewal: A holistic approach to organization development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Lippitt, M. (1999). Leadership Spectrum Profile® Inventory. Retrieved from https://www.leadershipspectrum.com

Lippitt, M. (2014). Brilliant or blunder: Six ways leaders navigate uncertainty, opportunity, and complexity. Palm Harbor, FL: Enterprise Management Limited.

Pink, D. (2005). A whole new mind: Moving from the information age to the conceptual age. New York: Riverhead Books.

Using Checklists and Statistics to Get in Sync With Reality

I was recently struck by my seeming lack of perspective on global developments while reading  Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–And Why Things Are Better Than You Think. My only consolation was that I was not alone;  95 percent of the people held the same views, according to the author, statistician Hans Rosling.

One of the questions I missed was according to Rosling was:  In the last 20 years has the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty:

  1. Almost doubled
  2. Stayed approximately the same
  3. Almost halved

Would you be surprised to learn of Rosling’s claim that extreme poverty has been cut by almost 50 percent?  I was.  In fact, I barely considered option three.  My preconceived ideas, my repeated exposure to tragic news stories and, to be honest, my reliance on outdated facts led me to conclude that poverty had almost doubled.

While I am in good company since almost everyone was mistaken, the fact is both comforting and disturbing.  It means most of us are out of sync with our current reality.   Why is this?  The causes include:  (1) our assumption that we already know everything we need to know, (2) a tendency to expect the worst case is the most likely outcome, (3) a proclivity to reduce issues to two simple options and (4) time pressures.

If you are not convinced of the extent of this problem, consider another question:  Which statement do you agree with the most?

  1. the world is getting better
  2. the world is getting worse
  3. the world is getting neither better nor worse

The correct answer is A, according to Rosling, and the data that he uses to support this contention  includes: significant increase in literacy, agricultural yields have increased, more people have electricity, more groups are allowed to vote, child cancer rates have improved, access to potable water has grown, more girls are in school,  and technology has spread widely to less developed nations.   Many of us failed to see this program.  We seem to see the world as a glass half empty, rather than half full.  Moreover,  this notion creates fear derailing critical thinking and analysis.

What we know “for sure” is rarely entirely accurate.    Sometimes our knowledge is obsolete,  and at other times it is incomplete.  To understand our current circumstance, we must stop thinking we know more than we do and start asking questions to fully understand all the issues enabling us to examine the facts critically.   Critical thinking is vital as we confront rapid change and complexity.  It exposes misconceptions, while also producing wiser more rewarding decisions.

Knowing that we infrequently update our knowledge and overlook information that does not conform to our pre-existing assumptions , we need new tools. Deploying a checklist has proven successful in medicine, aviation, litigation, and construction not because of ineptitude or ignorance but due to inherent cognitive flaws.   Instead of being a constraint, checklists free our minds to concentrate on critical aspects, prevent small mistakes and save time.  Now it is time for leaders at all levels to develop, share and use checklists to stay in sync with their current reality.

The book cited here is: Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling, and Anna Roennlund, (2019) FACTFULNESS: ten reasons we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think. [London: Sceptre Publishing]

The Role of Mindsets in Leadership Development

Leadership development historically has two basic approaches:  focusing on personal development and targeting an individual’s job skills. These were enough in a relatively stable environment.  However, in a dynamic and fast changing world, leaders must be adept at dealing with changing environments. This new contextual approach to leadership fills the gap between personal and organizational mastery.

Wise leaders collect, decipher, weigh, and use information from all points of view to capitalize on opportunities and avoid being blindsided by trends due to narrow perspectives. A limited frame of reference creates blinders.  This lens is also called current driving Mindset. If we ignore some data, we open ourselves to unnecessary risk. This current driving Mindset is one of six Mindsets which enable you to assess opportunities, threats, and risks characteristic of your organization. Seeing the big picture ensures that your actions, plans, and decisions target the right outcome and address the critical challenges.    

Mental agility remains a key leadership practice. Leaders who have foresight to see reality will be more proactive. To put this in practical terms, a leader who elects to act when noticing a fire code violation offers more value than one who waits until they see flames. It saves lives, property, and opportunities for the future.

Leaders with ability to make decisions or judgments which balance short-term and long-term priorities play an invaluable role moving an organization forward. It is often the ability to change minds and gain commitment of others to produce results, depends on collecting and evaluating data from six Mindsets:

Inventing

The desire to develop new ideas, products, and services is high in the Inventing Mindset. This Mindset also seeks new internal synergies and cross-functional innovation.

Catalyzing

A focus on fast action to meet customer requirements, keeping existing customers and building the brand and beating the competition drive this Catalyzing Mindset.

Developing

Building infrastructure, creating policies and systems are the focus of the Developing Mindset as are se goals and establishing policies.

Performing

Process improvement, safety, and profit margins are in focus in the Performing Mindset. In this Mindset, quality, improving productivity and performance metric are in the forefront.

Protecting

The Protecting Mindset includes developing talent and building the internal culture of an organization. It also concentrates on succession planning, team collaboration, and engagement.

Challenging

The desire to test assumptions, create strategic options and adjust the business plan is primary in the Challenging Mindset. Discerning and spreading best practices, seeking new alliances and niches are key to sustainability.

Neglecting to comprehensively collect and examine data generates blunders.  Consider the fate of Blackberry, Kodak, and Blockbuster.

The writing was on the wall, but they failed to see it.  Their limited situational awareness blinded them to the need for change.  Situational awareness is the missing link in leadership development.  It provided leaders with the ability to see what is on the wall, around the corner, and within reach.  It is time we help leaders effectively read the realities they are confronting.

Expanding Perceptions and Consensus for Change

Today, one of the most valuable talents is the ability to grasp fluid circumstances and gain agreement for a change initiative.   While there is an imperative to change, change creates stress, defensiveness, and resistance.

It is rarely greeted with unabashed enthusiasm (unless it is a pay increase).  So there is a temptation to demand that everyone gets on board, but this provides short-term acquiescence, not active support.

Instead of pushing change by fiat, we can take another approach and commit to expanding our perceptions and situational understanding.  It means accepting that we operate from a limited perception.  For example,  what we see as an uncompromising opportunity can also be seen by others as an ominous threat.  To reach consensus we must expand our perceptions by asking questions and listening without judgment.  We must be willing to see what others see.

For example, when you look at the following illustration, how many squares do you see?

The common answer is 16 or 17.  And they are correct since it is clear that every single box and the whole illustration are squares.  Yet, if we change our perception, it becomes apparent that groupings of four single squares also form a square.  We just did not see all 30 squares with our first look.   And if we did follow this typical pattern, we fall into the over 90% of the responders that answer 16 or 17. (See PUZZLERSWORLD).  This exercise points to the reality that when we find an answer we stop searching.  Now, this exercise was simple so it is easy to jump to a conclusion. However, when we try to gain agreement, we need to expand our willingness to investigate and understand the issue from all perspectives.   We must agree that instead of thinking we know everything, we accept the need to learn more.   A comprehensive exploration leads to the new insights, solutions and aha moments.

Searching beyond initial reactions,  considering other interpretations, understanding constraints and factoring in trends reveal perspectives. These insights highlight ways to build a consensus.  In my experience, sticking points and loggerheads usually focus on different aspects.  What is essential to one is not critical to another.  Probing reveals new insight and it paves the way for win-win resolutions. Open-ended questions reveal perspectives that can be discussed, modified or sequenced into a plan that gains active support. Consensus takes time and effort but it is delivering results.

Are you willing to look beyond your initial conclusions? If so, you must ask questions covering every facet.  Not only will this build rapport, it will surface new facts that can form the foundation for true consensus.

A version of  “Expanding Perceptions and Consensus for Change” was first published on 4 May 2018 at BizCatalyst360.

Privacy Settings
We use cookies to enhance your experience while using our website. If you are using our Services via a browser you can restrict, block or remove cookies through your web browser settings. We also use content and scripts from third parties that may use tracking technologies. You can selectively provide your consent below to allow such third party embeds. For complete information about the cookies we use, data we collect and how we process them, please check our Privacy Policy
Youtube
Consent to display content from - Youtube
Vimeo
Consent to display content from - Vimeo
Google Maps
Consent to display content from - Google