Leadership Feedback – Are you asking the wrong people?

product-reviewsWho is the best judge of quality when it comes to a service or product provider, the company selling or the customer? When you look for a product do you just look at the marketing information or do you look at consumer reviews? Do you look at 3rd party expert data? Smart consumers always look at all of it. But when it comes to evaluating talent (especially leadership ability), the typical approach is from the top down, which ignores all the consumer data.

I’ve facilitated a countless number of what most people would call “soft-skills” classes; you know, the people stuff (those soft, squishy, emotional people.) From topics like listening, communicating expectations, providing feedback, coaching, mentoring, conflict resolution, supervisory skills, etc. And more than once, I have had someone say in class that they are “a great [insert skill I am teaching here].” This especially bristles me when it comes to these interpersonal skills because ultimately, it’s not in your authority to judge how good you are – it is up to the other person. The only person who gets to evaluate me as a good listener is the person I am listening to. So why then is “leadership ability” evaluated by the people above them? Shouldn’t the people being led be the authorities on that? After all, if no one is willing to follow you, how can you (or your boss) call you a good leader. You may be a good employee, sure, but being a good leader is only substantiated by those who choose to follow.

Process Triangle

Now, I am not advocating for a complete 180 and have your employees dow you performance reviews entirely and if you want to get a more complete view of someone’s leadership, doesn’t it make sense to get data that speaks to that? This is the whole purpose behind a 360-style review process. If you want know how you are doing influencing and interacting with you senior leaders in the company, ask them. If you want to know how you are as a teammate and collaborative colleague, ask your peers. If you want to know how you are doing as a leader, ask the people you are charged to lead. In fact, when trying to determine your location on a map, the process of using three reference points is called triangulation.

And what if (here is something to think about) what if, your team got to choose their leader? Sure, the execs and bosses get a say in the final candidates but how powerful of a shift would it be to know that you are not only accountable to your boss in your effectiveness as a leader, but also the people you would be leading. How powerful would it be to know that your team voted you as their leader? We do it for public representation, why not for corporate representation as well? If you are constantly seeking feedback from your team then you probably know whether they would pick you or not…and if you are not getting feedback from your team, well, you probably know too.

159701686_winston-churchill-quote-9b-postcardsIt may not be perfect, but as Winston Churchill pointed out, “democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried.” Help me understand how the modern corporate structure is unlike a political system? The purposes may seem different but in the end are we not servants to our customers? If you are a trying to be a leader, just who do you think your customers are? Doesn’t their voice matter?


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Dave Needham is a leadership coach, speaker, and President of PeakAlignment, Inc. He thrives on building awesome workplace cultures and leaders. Contact Dave Needham if you think your workplace could use more “awesome”.


When the catalyst gets quiet

CatalystIn chemical and physical terms, a catalyst is something that initiates or accelerates a change in a system or reaction without being changed itself. In human terms it really isn’t that much different. Catalysts cause and speed change. If you want change or need a recognized change to happen faster, seek a human catalyst.

The only time catalysts become quiet or do nothing is either when the system has reached a place of balance and equilibrium or when the system is not ready for change. From a chemical or physical perspective in those scenarios catalysts are inert, in that they just kind of hang out and do nothing until the system either changes or dissolves into oblivion. In other words, they are irrelevant. In business, however, systems are rarely at a complete balance or equilibrium. But unlike chemical or physical reaction, the people in an organization have a threshold for change. So even when change is necessary, people are hesitant to engage in it due simply to fatigue or stress. It’s just not ready for more change.

Humans, unlike their chemical counterparts, are meaning seeking beings, and catalysts are no exception. In fact, they may be the exaggeration of this principle. People do not like being irrelevant. Human catalysts seek change. It is their purpose, their reason for being – to cause or speed change. When an organization is either tired or not ready for more change, the catalyst becomes irrelevant. A fundamental need of most human beings is to feel as though they matter, that they are relevant. It is this drive that creates either two scenarios for a human catalyst: they either cause disruption so as to create a necessary change that makes them relevant, or they seek another system that IS ready for change.

When the catalyst gets louder, they are trying to create the need for change. When they get quiet, they are likely looking for a new system. Human catalysts are hugely important in organizations  as they can facilitate and accelerate changes that are necessary and welcomed.  Without a tempered approach and a great deal of patience, catalysts can also be disruptive when the organization isn’t quite ready for change. And while creating noise may give them a sense of purpose for a while, the organization will typically cast them off if they become too loud. When human catalysts get quiet, however, you should probably know they are looking to leave.

Ask PeakAlignment, Inc to help

from Organizational analysis to Leadership coaching to Talent development, PeakAlignment can help remove the roadblocks to peak performance.

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“It’s not personal, it’s business…”

I hate those words. It’s like nails on a chalkboard to me (or squeaky balloon noises for my wife).

I get it, we work in a business and we need to make decisions that support what the business needs. So tell me the business needs behind it, don’t hide behind the ruse. I’m not stupid, I get it. But to think that what you are about to tell a PERSON is not personal is asinine. And I understand that saying this helps you disconnect from the human aspect of the decision you are making…I just don’t care. You can’t tell me that hunting is unethical as you buy your steak from the supermarket…or leather boots from the shoe store.

Here is a shift, be personal. And by that, I don’t mean attack my character. I mean be a PERSON first. Yes, this decision was hard and in the end, after considering the needs of the organization and the people involved, the long-term benefits of this decision seem to outweigh the others.

Giving bad news is hard. Ending someone’s employment is hard (why do you think we have so many euphemisms for it.) But have some compassion and make it easier for the person receiving it, not the person giving it. You still have your job, I don’t care if you feel bad that you just fired me; I have to go home and tell my significant other, family, or friends that I now have the most shameful of professional monikers – unemployed.

So before you say “it’s not personal, it’s business” recognize that the only person you are helping is you.

Bad Culture is Like a Forest Fire

Bad culture is like a forest fire. It’s destructive, extremely expensive to fight and recover from, causes fear, anxiety, stress, and can stall or completely arrest the growth of the community. Bad cultures can destroy strategy, increase operating costs, cause stress, destroy trust, and ultimately cause a company to fail. But the parallels don’t stop there. If you talk with someone in the forest industry (as I have) about forest fires, they tend to take a big inhale before launching into the discussion primarily because they are so complex, dangerous, and (in some cases) fires are necessary. The same thing seems to happen when you ask an OD professional about culture and for many of the same reasons.

Abundance of Fuel Through Mismanagement

One of the most frightening things about forest fires in recent years is the abundance of fuel that is simply waiting to ignite which makes the fires grow more quickly, burn more intensely, and make them much more difficult to fight. Much of the abundance is due to mismanagement and misunderstandings of how forests renew themselves and self-sustain. The same can be said about organizations in the past 20-30 years.

In the 1980s there was a huge economic boom with the rise of the “Baby Boomer” generation. 75 million strong in the US and in terms of economic history the first generation that saw both genders contributing to the workforce. The 80s were an era of huge prosperity and saw the emergence and growth of YUPpies (Young Urban Professionals.) These new and budding managers grew up fast, worked their ways to the top in an era of prosperity and growth, and became titans of industry. And they still lead many of organizations today. But like the mismanagement of the forest, failure to focus on sustainable growth has lead to a scattered undergrowth of managers with fewer developed skills, I am talking about the leadership gap. While not consciously so, this proliferous cadre of under-skilled managers has created a bed of fuel that is susceptible to spreading bad culture quickly and with greater intensity.

Changes in Climate and Heat

Larger global factors play into this as well. With forest fires, global climate change in the past 20-30 years has created hotter and drier summers. 6 of the 10 hottest summers since 1950 have occurred in the last 8 years.

Organizationally we have seen huge climate shifts as well. Generation X gave the US only half the working population (25-30 million) of the Baby Boomers. And much like water is the lifeblood for an ecosystem, people are the lifeblood of an organization. With less water Our talent pool has very effectively dried up. This effectively spreads too many people under ill-equipped managers. The ability to mitigate sparks and fires as they pop up get harder causing them to become unmanageable much faster.

The pressure of growth and global expansion for companies is another climate factor. In the wake of the Dot.com era where successes were made overnight, results and achievements are desired much faster. It’s notable that the average lifespan of a company today is only 15 years compared to 67 years in 1920. That is the heat. The business climate today is faster and successes expected sooner than ever before. Organizations are hurriedly developed with little thought to sustainability further adding to the dangers of a cultural fire.

Creating Your Own Bad Weather

Another very startling and scary element to a forest fire, especially large fires, is its ability to create its own weather or micro-climate. In effect, a forest fire can grow so hot and so fast, it literally creates weather that feeds its growth. It can generate lightening-riddled thunderheads with no precipitation, huge amounts of wind, more heat, and increased dryness.

Organizations do this too. Whether individuals are aware of it or not, they can feed the culture that they so wish to change. Take for example how a spark (revenue downturn, product launch failure, catastrophe, tsunami, etc.) sets in motion a culture of fear. So to protect ourselves from that fear we create controls, measurements, attention to details, so controlling that people start hiding information for fear of failure or exposure. Transparency becomes opaque, results trump integrity, speaking up becomes perilous. As people feel less informed, more cynical, and less a part of the process they become more fearful of what they are unaware of…so they introduce more policies, more reviews, more measurements, and so on. The micro-climate starts to feed the culture.

Prevention v  Sustainability

Another element of forest mismanagement that is similar to organizational behavior is the short-term vs long-term policy. In the early 20th century a forest management strategy was enacted to stop forest fires as soon as possible. It was highly effective and average forest fire size saw its lowest levels in the 1950s-1980s. Then the long-term game showed up and 8 of the 9 largest fire seasons have occurred in the last 12 years. The undeniable fact is, forest fires play a necessary part of renewal and sustainability. And creating a policy that only focuses on the immediate term sets the stage for large-scale tragedy.

When organizations manage from quarter to quarter and make decisions based off short-term data or events rather than trends, bad things happen to culture. The climate and environment are built around policies that focus on protection not sustainability. The concern then becomes how manageable will a cultural fire be when (not if) a negative event (revenue shortfall, product failure, see above) occurs. These negative events, just like forest fires are impetus for renewal, a chance to learn, grow, and sustain. Viewed in a long-term sustainability perspective, these negative events can make company cultures stronger; viewed negatively as something that needs to avoided at all costs, sets the climate for a cultural forest fire.

Learning from Science (and our mistakes)

Over the past decade, fire management policy has taken a radical turn in strategy and focus. Small fires that pose little or no threat to human life or large structural loss are regarded as part of the natural cycle and allowed to occur within manageable limits. In areas where there are large amounts of fuel and dead trees, forest manicuring and mitigation is occurring, and long-term sustainability has become the focus.

Organizational science has evolved as well. Glimmers of these evolved strategies have proven successful. Google and Apple (two companies wildly lauded for their positive culture and huge business successes) do things that run counter to short-term protectionist policy. They embrace failure, see them as a part of organizational sustainability and create shelters for people who voice concerns, try new things and make mistakes. And while Wall Street blood pressures may raise and fall with each day, the small and sometimes even large-scale negative events do not produce knee-jerk measures from these cultural and global leaders. In essence, these companies have chosen very intently to NOT feed the fires and have created climates that allow the smaller “fires” to burn when it serves the greater good. This is not to say the smaller “fires” are not monitored and extinguished when they become a greater threat, but they are not instantly tamped out at the first sign of smoke.

Creating Healthier Forests

You can “clean” your organizational environment much in the same way a forest ecosystems is manicured. Part of the strategy is creating healthier “emergents.” Provide your new and burgeoning leaders and talent with the training they need to create trust, remove fear, and increase reasonable risk taking. Either coach existing leaders to be healthier contributors to the environment or remove them from your organization. Step 1 is about building a safe environment by removing the fuel before it ignites.

Step 2 is about climate control. Encourage policies that protect risk takers, people who question, and endeavors that tried mightily but failed. Focus on long-term sustainability rather than quarterly forecasts. Be honest and transparent when people make errors, we learn from them, and move on. Show people mistakes happen and it is safe for them to try new things. Focus on the growth and health sustainability of the organization not the prevention of negative events. Less control, more observation. Learn from organizational science and create climates and environments where people and projects that fail are regarded as a part of the renewal process instead of something that needs to be prevented, controlled, and overly managed.

And should a large cultural forest fire spring up, don’t feed it with fear, protective measures, and reactive policy making. Face it, fight it (bring in the air support and “hotshots” if you need to), then recover. (more on how to fight cultural fires in my next post!)

Are You Coaching or Do You Just Not Trust Me?

There is a fine line between coaching and making someone feel they are un-trusted to do their jobs. This is especially true in situational coaching where you provide guidance beforehand. The key is who initiates.

The challenge as a manager is often the confusion the feedback loop and coaching messages can send. Largely, the message we receive about feedback is it most effective when it is continuous and ongoing. So often the interpretation is we should give feedback all the time, which is an over simplification.

Coaching is more about the style in which you provide feedback. Essentially it means giving for a very focused improvement a narrowing observation and questions or suggestions that work toward that end. Giving feedback is very broad, but coaching feedback is typically very specific. Which is why there are different types of coaches out there (life coach, batting coach, swimming coach, executive coach, etc.)

Do people need and want feedback? Most certainly. Do people want advice? Not particularly. And when you give it before they take action, you’re giving advice, not feedback – especially if they did not ask you.

I’ll tell you my personal concern and how I internalize advice or “feedback before the fact.” When someone gives me feedback or advice before I do something or without me asking, the assumption I feel they are making is I either do not have the capacity to do it correctly or am not intelligent enough to execute that which I am about to do. Either way, I infer you think I am stupid. Not many people respond well to being called or thought of as stupid. In any event, it makes me feel un-trusted to do a quality job.

And you know what, I may still screw up. In which case, I may welcome and ask for your feedback on how to improve. Assuming I will screw up before I even attempt it is just one way you are telling me – you just don’t trust me.

The Downside of Being a Trainer

Exercises in futility

Exercises in futility

I love helping others gain knowledge that makes their lives easier. I love exploring topics aloud in group settings to increase the  collective insight of an organization. I love learning new things and relating them to relevant issues. I love watching someone take newly developed skills an apply them in a way that helps their career and the company.

I hate wasting time and effort.

Sadly, I find every once in a while, this is the result of a training engagement. I’ve either agreed to facilitate a class that was not needed or I’ve given skills that are not able to be used because the system does not support them yet. In either event, I’ve done my audience (and my client) a disservice. In times like this, I think of Sisyphus. You know, the guy who’s personal hell is to push a rock to the top of the hill only to watch it tumble back down again so he can push it back up. When I provide a training that has little or no result in performance, I have done just that – spent a lot of time and effort only to realize I am no closer to the top of the hill than when I started. And it is disheartening.

This is what separates training from performance improvement. When training is sought as a solution, I get queasy. Because it rarely ever is. Well, that’s not exactly true – it’s rarely THE solution. Training is an intervention intended to provide new knowledge, new skill, or new perspective. It does not change systems, motivation, or culture. And changing behavior has more to do with the last three than the first. In fact, the University of Minnesota conducted a study of training effectiveness and found that forces that outside of a training event have a greater impact on behavior change than training itself.

Common performance analysis methodologies, including Mager/Pipe’s seminal work, take a more systems view of performance problems. In those methodologies training tends to be the last in a long list of options, and for good reason. Not only is it typically not the only issue, it is often the most expensive (both in hard costs of the actual training event but also in the productivity lost by taking people out of their workflow.) Clear expectations, access to resources, effective consequences, and  effective feedback structures are all a part of the mix before training becomes a solution.

So before you call your trainers, mak sure you’ve addressed all the other solutions. They may take a little longer to investigate and challenge your ability to lead to solutions but they may yield you more effective results. Training delivered at the wrong time or inappropriately can do more harm than good if you are unwilling to explore the other causes to a performance problem.

The Levers of Change

“Give me a lever long enough and fulcrum on which to place it and I shall move the world”

– Archimedes

Levers are powerful things. They built the pyramids, strengthen cranes, help us move, help dig holes, open beer or bottles, and have played a vital role in nearly every technological advancement in human history. And they are one of the most fundamental instruments used to lift, shift, or move anything…including perception and behavior.

Let’s start with a quick review of physics and the parts of the lever. There are two main elements to a lever. The fulcrum, or pivot point the lever rests on, and lever itself. The lever is divided into two segments: the effort arm (where effort is being applied) and the resistance arm (where what you intend to move is located.) The position of the fulcrum determines both the distance and required effort to move something: as the fulcrum gets closer to that which you intend to move the required effort decreases as does the distance the object moves; and vice-versa.

Now let’s relate that to organizational change. Change is almost always individual before it is organizational (ie. you do not get organizational change if individuals do not change.) So organizational change is about moving, elevating, or shifting people (or some element of their behavior, skill, or perception.) For all intents and purposes, people, or in this case, organizational employees act as the resistance (both figuratively and literally in many cases.) The effort is the intervention applied by the change team. The fulcrum, is timing in relation to the change. If you schedule your intervention closer to your change it may take less effort and planning, but it is also going to result in very little movement. This is particularly true of training, communication, or employee involvement. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to plan a last-minute training (generally because it results in shortcuts to effective training design) and it certainly doesn’t take much effort to tell people a week before the change is to occur that it is coming. But if employees don’t seem to change much, it’s because you placed the timing way too close to the change.

Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither were the pyramids. The huge blocks that make up the Egyptian monuments weigh on average 2.5 tons (or about 5000 lbs.) They were lifted through the use of ramps and a series of levers. Not just one. They were moved little by little. And so must be the application of change levers when dealing with large-scale change. If you are trying to move the organization a great deal from its current state, you need to start early (placing the fulcrum as far from the change implementation as you can) and apply a lot of force which is typically unrealistic, or you use a lot of smaller levers that incrementally move your employee base. Thinking a large-scale change will only take one lever is often going to result in a small shift or a great outpouring of effort and cost.

So what are the levers you may ask. There are many methodologies that identify specific (and different) levers as crucial. And I agree with all of them, depending on your change. Here are but a few identified levers of change:

  • communication plans
  • sponsorship roadmap
  • coaching plan
  • training plan
  • resistance management
  • unified vision
  • analyzing change readiness
  • creating urgency
  • involving all stakeholders
  • evaluation
  • systems alignment
  • training and development
  • reinforcement
  • measurement
  • simplification
  • compensation and reward
  • WIIFM (What’s In It For Me)
  • enculturation
  • along with many others (do a quick search for “levers of change” and I am certain you will find lots more)

So which ones are most effective? Well, I am sure each developer (Prosci, Unilever, Primeast, and others) will claim theirs is best. But really they are all important to understand at least to some degree. Any good change manager has a handle on all of these to some degree, despite their methodology (unless they are blinded by their beliefs.) But the key to each of them is the multitude of levers needed to move an organization. One lever is never enough to move anything far enough to represent real change. Whether you are attempting an organizational overhaul through a Business Process Engineering effort or trying to solve a smaller organizational performance issue, the coordinated effort of many levers will get you much farther with less effort than relying on a single intervention.

So while Archimedes may be right that a single lever could move the world, it wouldn’t amount to much more than a wiggle. Using a single lever for organizational change has the same frustrating effect – regardless of how much effort you exert, the organization barely changes at all. If you want real movement and real change, understand the combination of levers that will get you where you want to go, time them effectively, and you can put your organization into a new orbit.