Real Improvement: It’s Just a Game!
Everyone wants to improve.  However, most people tend to think of improvement in terms that are “too local” and “too transactional”.   By “too local”, most people narrow the problems they face down to what they can control and tend to shrug off anything outside their control as someone else’s problem.  By “too transactional”, most people think in terms of applying the fix to the problem and arriving at success.  In order to survive, leaders have to take the broadest possible view of business, customers, and competition and apply a multi-level, multi-player game strategy approach to driving improvement.
A multi-level, multi-player game is typically too big and too complex for those playing the game to totally comprehend and control.  With ever-faster technology change, increasingly innovative competition, and customers who always want more for less, charting a strategy that is guaranteed to win is difficult – particularly if one is looking for a “one step fix”.  The best strategy to win the prize in a multi-level, multi-player game is to learn as much as you can, get started with the best approach you know, measure how you are doing, and be willing to evolve your strategy and tactics as you learn more.
In order to be guaranteed to succeed at business, one would have to have perfect knowledge of their evolving business (e.g.customers, stakeholders, employees, competitors, technology, global economy) and be able to react instantly to any changes.  Rather than feeling like they have such “perfect knowledge”, most leaders I know are so busy dealing with what is on their plate right now that they have no time to learn about what might be happening “out there” that might impact.  No one person can possibly know enough to succeed today – one has to develop a “fast learning, fast acting” culture.
A “fast learning, fast acting” culture is most analogous to a “team on combat patrol”.  Someone has to take point and lead the way.  Someone must scout the area the team will cross for danger.  Everyone on the team has to know their role and be both willing and able to do it well.  Everyone has to know the plan and be able to adapt in real time when the plan has to change.  Most importantly, everyone has to be willing to put team success ahead of personal success.  A team without these factors is much less likely to safely achieve their objectives.
In a multi-level, multi-player game, it’s not possible to know all the (seemingly random) factors that will impact your fate.  The best one can do is to know your starting point, know your desired goal, know your team, and start off in the right direction.  The key to the desired “fast learning, fast acting” culture key to  success is frequent performance measurements relative to the goal, fast diagnosis of reasons for any widening gaps, and immediate corrective action to close those gaps and move closer to the goal.  This rapid, iterative learning process can’t just take place in the CEO’s office or even just in HQ – it has to be an integral part of the culture of the whole company – everyone has to learn and fix as fast as possible.
The only way to lead a team into a “fast learning, fast acting” culture that can navigate its way through the maze of today’s multi-level, multi-player business game is to listen, learn, and listen some more.  As the leader, one must put the “act, measure, diagnose, correct” iterative learning process into practice and show the team how it’s done.  As others “get it”, task them with “spreading the gospel” by asking them to make improvement projects happen.  This kind of change has to start at the top, find its way to the front lines, and then permeate the company from the ground up (which will only happen if leaders model and expect this behaviour relentlessly until it is second nature to everyone in the company).     
Ryder Cup and Post-Modern Leadership
In the aftermath of the recent European Ryder Cup demolishing of the USA, many have said that the USA team was simply outplayed during the matches.  I disagree.  There were no significant differences in the 2 teams in talent, desire to win, or pressure they experienced.  However, when it came down to crunch time, the European players made the key putts and erased the early deficits and won going away.  The question is, with so many similarities between the two teams, what made the difference?  I believe that the short answer is “leadership style”.  The recent Ryder Cup can teach us a lot about the type of leadership required for businesses to survive and thrive in today’s tough environment.
Businesses need a different type of leadership in order to both survive and thrive in today’s tough business climate.  Both captains wanted their 2014 Ryder Cup teams to win, but the European was a better "servant leader" who engaged in a "caring, constructive dialogue" with his team (i.e. listening to their ideas, being willing to take their input, and showing them he cared about them as people even when he didn't agree with them) and who fostered the "supportive, celebrative community" spirit that made the difference in the European team when times were tough.  The triumph of the European team in the recent Ryder Cup matches is a striking illustration of how crucial this new style of leadership is to running a successful business (both now and in the future). 
The recent European Ryder Cup team all commented extensively on how much time their captain invested in them in the two years leading up to the latest competition and how much discussion they had with him regarding the approach to the matches.  Most team members today demand dialogue with their leaders.  If they believe that their leaders care about them and have truly taken their input into account, they will remain engaged and do their best even when the decision is not in line with their input.  The recent European Ryder Cup team’s success shows that “caring, constructive dialog with a leader they trust” is a key factor in a team’s engagement.
The leadership style of their captain made the European team willing to forego the normal, selfish attitude for which golfers are famous.  However they played, the European team knew deep in their bones that their captain would "have their backs".  The captain’s attitude was infectious and the entire team became a “supportive, celebrative community” that freed the European to perform their best under pressure and to prevail in the crucial Sunday singles matches.  High performance in the face of adversity is much more likely if the person feels like they are part of something bigger than themselves who truly cares for them (i.e. a "supportive, celebrative community"). 
The European captain spent time over two years (often at the expense of his own personal success) frequently having dinner with his team, talking to them on the phone regularly, and spending 3 nights at the home of the most introverted, private person on the team to understand him better.  He even talked to the players' caddies to learn more about what made the players tick.  As a leader, he was truly serving in the team's best interest and the team knew it and responded wholeheartedly to him. 
The European captain in the recent Ryder Cup matches demonstrates the leadership style that businesses need to emulate to be successful.  In order to motivate our team to deal with tough global competition and with shifting technology trends in a manner that wins more than it loses, we must be "servant leaders" who engage in "caring, constructive dialogue" with our team and who lead them into a "supportive, celebrative community" that enables them to handle adversity and still triumph.  Today’s employees don't follow someone because they are smart - they follow people they trust who care about them and who listen to them.  As one of my friends says, "They don't care what you know until they know that you care."  
April 2, 2011

Earning (& Keeping) Credibility

It seems that people who are just starting out in their career tend to assume that people in their company will automatically listen to what they have to say and act on their recommendations.  After all, the company hired them based on their background and credentials - why wouldn't the people in the company listen to them?

I believe that, just like elsewhere in life, one has to earn the right to be heard in an organization one has joined (whether one is early in their career or is experienced but new to that team or company).  While one's manager (and possibly some of one's new teammates) were likely involved in the hiring process, many of one's new colleagues were not and, to them, as a new hire, you represent, at best, a drain on the team's time due to your need for training and, at worst, new competition for the limited rewards available to the team.  So, while you may think you "have made it" by getting the job, you actually have just taken the first step on a long climb to credibility and influence within your new team and the broader company.

I remember Jim Mansell (the manager from whom I learned many key lessons early in my career) telling me that "credibility is crucial - it has to be built step by step and it can be lost in an instant".  Effectively, what I learned the hard way is that one has to demonstrate the value one can bring to the team through one's insights, efforts, connections, and ability to work well with the team to drive results.  While you may think others should automatically believe everything you tell them, they need to be shown that they can count on you to deliver what was asked for on time and on budget.  Since, like every new person you will make mistakes, it takes a while to demonstrate that one can both be trusted and be counted on to deliver the desired results in all cases.  By doing this, you are building credibility with the key stakeholders in your new environment and are earning the right to be heard on new issues that arise as time passes.

However, it is crucial to realize that it only takes one mis-step to lose all one's hard-won gains on the road to credibility.  It could be anyone of many pitfalls that leads to the loss of credibility (bad logic, missing key components of the situation in one's analysis, succumbing to the temptation to make a bad ethical choice, ...) and it always comes as a surprise.  No one sets out with the goal of destroying their hard-earned credibility (of course) but it's tough to know what you don't know (either in terms of a bigger context or a historical fact that others take for granted that you didn't know).  

Another thing that Jim Mansell always told us was that, "if you lose your credibility, its like breaking a feather pillow - the feathers go everywhere and you can't move on until you pick all of them up".  I realize that most people today don't use feather pillows but hopefully you have seen one break in an old film and can picture the feathers exploding everywhere when the pillow breaks.  In a similar way, if you make a big mistake, it will affect people throughout the company (both directly and indirectly) and you won't be able to start climbing the road to credibility again unless you convince each new doubter that they can indeed trust you and believe what you tell them.  It should be obvious that it's much better never to fall prey to such a disaster.

The best way to avoid disastrous loss of credibility is to build relationships with key teammates so that they will be willing to both review your results and to tell you where you are falling short of what it takes to convince the powers that be. Your peers know the history and the previous attempts that have failed and they can help you avoid some of the pitfalls that come out of the unique history of the organization in which you now work.  Your peers can also point out any flaws in your logic or any gaps in your facts, if you let them.  In fact, once they realize that you are willing to listen to them, most people are delighted to help you out.  It turns out that they often need to be assured that you care about what they have to say (i.e. that they have earned credibility with you, strange as that may sound).

So, bottom line, don't assume that anyone will automatically listen to what you say.  Realize that you have to earn the right to be heard and to keep that right and be willing to put in the effort to make that happen.  It is well worth it!


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Faiz Shaikh on April 11, 2011 10:35 PM
The blog has the true feeling of depth as it resonates with time and experience.   It generates thought and provokes a question of what steps or mis-steps I have taken and it comes at a time where I am questioning myself of what I have been overlooking within my own surroundings.  I look forward to reading the book. 

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