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.

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

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Dealing with Culture Fires

In my previous post, “Bad Culture is Like a Forest Fire” I talked about many of the destructive and behavioral similarities between the two. Now like any forest fire some culture fires are left to burn, some are put out quickly, and some are left to smolder for years, but ultimately, everyone has an interest in them being extinguished eventually. There are two questions here: 1) How do you put out a fire once it starts?; and, 2) How do you prevent a fire in the first place?

Let’s tackle the harder issue first…how can you put out a culture fire?

First, let me identify some of the challenges people and organizations face when dealing with culture fires. The first issue is cognitive – people need to realize the need and logical reasons for change. The second issue is resource allocation – to fight a “fire” resources will need to be moved from one aspect of a company to the front lines. The challenge here is often the “line of sight” to change. For example, it is very easy to see and measure the progress of creating a new product; it is harder to see and measure a cultural change. So many times, resources are not allocated for long. Tip: find your leading metrics and your milestones (like attrition, employee engagement scores, employee referrals, etc.) Once you know how to track your progress and you have a baseline set, it’s time to start fighting the fire.


Scenario #1: The fire is blazing hot and destroying the company

The first method for fighting a big blaze is dropping a group of outside resources into the fire to fight it. Wildfire crews across the continent tasked with fighting large forest blazes are known as “hotshot” crews. They are usually very skilled, have high stamina, and are placed with awesome resources and strategy to help them fight the fires. In the business world, these turn into consultants. These cultural interventions are usually quick, intensely fought by a coordinated group of people who have great control over the resources and strategy, very costly, and provide little in terms of reparation or sustainability. They are simply there to put out the fire. Large consulting groups are often hired for large culture fires and many are seen setting up “camp” in client offices and are often given priority in meetings. They are brief (usually less than 6 months) and they are expensive. For that reason, it is a rare occasion that a company will engage such “hotshot crews.” The ones that do are typically pressured by a board of directors or shareholders.

When you reach this point, the solution is rarely elegant, rarely cheap, and rarely has a fully positive outcome. It scars the landscape, sometimes irreparably. If noting else, the “erosion” a destabilization of the organization’s foundation can last for a good year or two before things start to regrow.

Springs wildfire rages

The second and probably most common but least effective method is using an internal position to fight the culture fire. Sometimes this method is a small group of employees or team being tasked with cultural change. And while this group is usually very dedicated and in many respects, adequately trained, when a fire reaches a certain magnitude, this cadre of culture evangelists just doesn’t have the resources or necessary influence. Imagine a group of homeowners with garden hoses against a large fire. While this solution is inexpensive, it is rarely effective against large culture problems – they just do not have the resources, influence, or objective authority to do what is truly necessary to put of the fire. While internal fire-fighters may slow the advance of bad culture in some cases. It is usually exhausting and the people tasked with cultural change often “retire” while the fire is still destroying other parts of the company.

One large aspect of why these brave souls could fail is the inability or unwillingness to remove large, old, unhealthy trees (well established senior-level individuals who are either contributing to the problems or resisting positive change.)  If you are a cultural change Manager and some of the people who are throwing gasoline on the fire live at higher levels than you (Director, VP, and up) you simply do not have the ability to affect change. You’re best bet is to protect your little patch of land and keep the fire from burning down your own house…saving the company or your neighbors’ houses becomes a battle you just can’t win. I have yet to see or hear about a substantial cultural change that has been successful from the inside (unless this person reports to the board of directors).  If you know of one, let me know.

Scenario #2: the forest is dry but no fire

This is the norm for many companies. It can occur at any stage of maturity, sometimes companies are well established and sometimes they are younger. In either case, cultural management has taken a backseat to everything else in the company. There is an assumption that if you don’t see smoke, then all is well. At this point, you don’t need “firefighters”; at least not to put out a fire. However, where they can come in handy is to identify your areas of greatest risk or where the start of a cultural problems could be likely or could be very hard to fight if it did start.

Here is where internal cultural managers have a chance to do some good. This is the land of management and leadership training. Where you are doing everything to help prevent the start of a fire. Teaching expectation setting, feedback, and basic leadership skills. Encouraging transparency, dialogue, and healthy conflict. The goal of which is to help the organization keep an eye on its own backyard, contain the little problems, and put them out quickly. The message being “only You, can prevent culture fires.”

And at this point, it’s true. The company is usually too big at this point for a select group of people to handle all the issues that pop up, so you do your best to give a variety of people basic skills to handle them with little support.

Scenario #3: no fire, healthy forest

This is the utopia that most people dream of. And many people think unattainable. But there are companies out there that do this very well. It may seem as though it can happen naturally but nearly every great company culture exists because of clear focus on cultural health. Think of Zappos, Google, Boston Consulting Group, and other top companies to work for. These companies built their reputations as great places to work with a clear and executive focus on culture. Some companies, like Google, have even created positions to that report directly to the CEO called “Chief Culture Officer”. Their job is to watch for the insidious creep of “inappropriate behavior or inhibition of change” that Kotter & Heskett say can form over a number of years, eventually resulting in a bad culture – a forest just waiting for a spark.

Being “healthy” is not the same as “not sick.”

When a culture is dry and ready for a spark, it may not have a fire burning yet, but I would not call it “healthy.” Healthy cultures, healthy forests, and healthy people are all dedicated in some way to staying fit. Organizational health is not an accident. And health or lack thereof can happen at any point in a companies lifespan, just like people. I’ve seen many 60 year olds that are in better shape than 20-somethings. Which means bad habits, bad management, and bad planning can create an unhealthy company culture at any point.

Rebuilding health.

The first step to any change is awareness. If you are not aware or willing to see that your culture is unhealthy, improvement will never come. The next biggest hurdle is for senior leadership (and it is a big one.)  Once they recognize that the organization they lead has an unhealthy culture, they then have to admit that they are large contributors to its current state. It takes a great deal of humility for leaders to admit they are part of the problem and show a dedication to change, not just in words, but in action.

So if you notice your forest is burning ask yourself, do you really have the right kind of resources engaged to fight it or do you have a bunch of people with garden hoses simply defending their own space? If you don’t have a fire but want to protect the organization from going up at the first spark, are you focused on maintaining the health of your culture? Are you identifying your danger spots and fixing them or do you just have your fingers crossed and hoping for rain? If your culture is healthy, who is keeping it that way, are the checks an balances built into the culture? Do you have a person whose job is to manager the culture and ensure organizational health and sustainability? How do you know that healthy culture will still be there in 2 years, 5 years?

Health is not an accident

Healthy cultures are not accidents. And though some may think it too “touchy feely” to be relevant or warrant attention. Research from Kotter & Heskett, Daniel Goleman, Stephen M. R. Covey, and many others demonstrate that companies with healthy culture vastly outperform those with unhealthy ones. Every company is in business to generate revenue. How much of that are you spending simply trying to put out all the fires when they pop up. Wouldn’t it be better if your organization was better at planting and managing a better forest? Who job is that? After all, if you’re not focusing on your organizations health, who is?

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.

Why being a Leader OR a Manager is bad

I’ve met many people who consider themselves leaders OR managers in my career…and I’m still pretty young. What I have NOT met a lot of are people exemplify the full spectrum of competencies.

The focus on leadership lately is not bad per se, but perhaps the pendulum has swung too far. Managers have focused so much on being collaborative and consensus building that they have forgotten or are unwilling to make decisions, and yet they have not yet learned how to release decision making to their team members. So either decisions take far too long to make or they never get made at all. And in the world of accelerated change this can be a major hindrance.

I see the challenge coming from the contrast of knowledge and wisdom. As I interpret those two terms, knowledge is about information and learning of a topic or principle; wisdom is about balancing when to apply that knowledge and when not to. So simply knowing how to collaborate or achieve consensus is not enough if you think it is always appropriate. (See Over-collaboration) Even more dangerous is when collaboration and consensus are confused.

Managers need to be able to make decisions, regardless of their level. And they need to know when their team needs to make decisions. Developing leadership and management skills together and knowing which tool to use is what makes you effective. If you are not good at one, your efforts at the other will probably suffer. As an example, if you struggle with delegating completely and giving ownership to your employees (management skill) then setting a vision for them to move towards (leadership skill) may leave them frustrated. It would be like setting the rabbit running but keeping the greyhounds on a leash.

It’s not about how leaders and managers are different, that just creates a false belief that people are (or should be) one or the other. Ultimately, it is a false differentiation and needless labeling. Regardless of what you call yourself, you need to be good with people if you work with others and you need to be effective with processes and things if you manage a function.

“Whatever you are, be a good one.” – Abraham Lincoln

“Command and Control” is not about being “Commanding” and “Controlling”

It’s a fairly common confusion; and like most confusions in the workplace, the confusion stems from our interpretations. The problem here lies not in the words themselves but how most people interpret them. It’s easy to do, they are both verbs, right? Nope, not in this case. “Command and Control” is a noun and the two are meant to be used together to name a leadership model, not to describe behavior. This is a huge confusion that most people make and it creates poor leadership. So what does it mean?

Like many leadership systems, “Command and Control”, originated in military study and practice. This association can further exacerbate the confusion for the general population. Most people who hear it or think of the military, think of boot camp or basic training,which has its own rules and is designed for a very specific purpose. Sadly, most people confuse the training model of “boot camp” as the leadership model “command and control.”

At this point is important for you to perhaps know my history. I’m not in the military, I’ve never been in the military. However, I am passionate about leadership, training, and development. And if anyone has the BEST designed training and the most EFFECTIVE leadership in the world…it is the US Military. Basic Training is by far one of the most intensive and effective models of training. It lasts a mere 2-3 months (9 weeks for Army, 12 for Marines) and equips people with a mental, physical, and emotional fortitude that no other training program in the world can match. Now, I say that with this caveat: The training is the best in the world for creating combat ready soldiers. That is, if you are looking at training from a pure perspective as an effective means to increase skills and competencies in a very specific direction, no one does it better.

The leadership model of “Command and Control” is the not a training model. Basic training uses adult learning principles, neuroscience of behavior change, and physiology to achieve its objective. Basic training develops an army of soldiers, not a cadre of strategic leaders…that is what leadership training is for. Leadership training is where “Command and Control” is taught – sometimes by name, sometimes by principle. But the meaning of “Command and Control” is as important as any when it comes to leadership, whether it be in the military or in the civilian world. Also worth noting is that within the US military, leadership development is not reserved just for officers; all levels are expected to understand and practice it. Yes, much of leadership training focuses on military strategy, but the principles of human leadership are ubiquitous (human psychology, sociology, group dynamics, communication, etc.)

So here is the punchline. The “command” in “Command and Control” is about decisiveness – make a decision and ensure its execution. “Control” is the process of collecting information to verify and correct activity such that the objective or goal of command is accomplished. The Marine Corps Doctrine Publication (MCDP) 6 (link to pdf) speaks very specifically of “Command and Control.” Intended as a compliment to the MCDP 1, Warfightingthe MCDP 6 “sees command as the exercise of authority and control as feedback about the effects of the action taken” (page 40) Within the US Army Regulation 600-100, “Army Leadership”, the purpose of developing leadership is to “enable [personnel] to learn and adapt in ambiguous situations in a constantly evolving environment” (1-4.c.) Learning does not happen without feedback…and adaptation in a constantly evolving environment is impossible without a clear exchange of information.

This is no different in the business world than it is in the military. The business environment is constantly evolving and adaptation and learning is a must for success. Leaders and managers need to be decisive when the time calls for it, and with that authority, take responsibility for ensuring its execution – which requires feedback. Too many managers and leaders make decisions from a removed position and rarely ask for feedback. And just as bad as not getting any feedback to inform decisions, is not making a decision at all. Over-collaboration can lead to decision paralysis. You need both. “Control” without “command” is impotent, and “command” without “control” is ignorant. Ignorant, not stupid,. But when it comes to leadership, one is just as bad as the other.

Leaders need both: the willingness and ability to make decisions or exercise “command” and the wisdom to seek constant feedback and information to “control” the effectiveness of those decisions. Understanding the true meaning of “Command and Control” is important, both in reference and in practice. Perpetuating the myth that they are verbs is causing you, your leaders, your employees, and your company a great deal of frustration and pain.

Nothing Fails Like Success

It’s not a new notion, things becoming victims of their own success: the worker who is so good at difficult tasks he/she now gets ALL the tough assignments, an efficient project manager now gets held to unrealistic deadlines, a rookie debuts as an all-star only to succumb to steroids under the pressure of continued greatness, companies setting next quarter’s goals off of a stellar previous quarter, and so on. It’s easy to get caught up in success. And while some pitfalls are more apparent than others, some are hard to see. In the realm of management, success as an individual contributor can be the key factor in someone’s downfall as a supervisor.

It’s a common tale: the star performer gets promoted because they are the best on the team at the job…and then they very quickly prove themselves incapable as a manager. They try hard and they want to do a great job but it just isn’t working out for them, the employees, or the company in many cases. One factor (as I have mentioned in other articles) is lack of proper training and support, but a big reason could be the success they enjoyed as a star performing “doer.”

After all this is why they got promoted, right? They were the best at doing the job. So it stands to reason that THEIR way was the best way; at least this is what people tell themselves, consciously or unconsciously. As a result you get micromanagement, the hoarding of knowledge, incomplete delegation, supervision of activity rather than results, etc. Sadly, training does not fix this in most cases because most trainings focus on increasing skills, not awareness. So how do you address this potential roadblock?

Step one is selecting the right candidate for the position. I am not suggesting you pick someone who is not good at their jobs. What I am suggesting is it can’t be your ONLY criteria. The skills and qualities required to be a successful supervisor are not the same as those required to produce a widget, manage a project, create a presentation, or whatever their job happens to be. Promoting someone to supervision solely based on their skill with things might provide you with a supervisor who is just that, good with things, not people.

Step two is being clear about WHY you chose him/her. Yes, for sure the abilities and skill at his/her job is an asset, but how they capitalize on those skills and abilities is very important. If your intent was to get the employees to do things exactly as they did, then by all means tell them that and stop reading this post – you’ll get the drones you are looking for. If you are looking to improve the performance of the group in some way, let them know WHY you think they are the best person to do that and HOW they can use their skills and abilities that are beyond just doing the job.  This is the first part of step three.

Step three is give them more than a handshake to show your support. is a contributor to the difficulty of making the transition. Let’s face it, most people are promoted with a handshake and then told “let me know if you need anything.” The assumption is that great employees are also great managers – despite experience telling us a vastly different story. When they first get hired into non-supervisory positions most people get at least a few days of training. They learn the processes, the best practices, regulations, skills, and expectations of their new role. Yet, a vast majority of managers get nothing. At best they are invited to a few initial meetings to meet people or update them on what projects and goals are in progress. They need training and support and this is where another potential issue can arise.

Entrance to supervision is often the point in people’s career where they are expected to be in charge of their own development. It is now up to them to search, select, enroll, and actually LEARN what they want to learn. This, of course rarely happens, and this may be why. For starters, to this point the employee has had no budgetary decision-making authority, except on how to SAVE the company money. So to look good from a budget perspective, most will not seek out anything that cost money (nevermind, that many are unsure how much they have authority to spend.) Also, they believe they were promoted because they were the best; they were smart, intelligent, and capable – asking for help might imply or hint that they are not those things, and thereby unworthy of the promotion. So most managers will never self select training especially not at the onset, whether it is for fear of spending money or fear of looking incapable, the end result is the same. Nevermind the fact (as I said before) most training is about enhancing skills, not awareness. So even if they do select training and go, their focus tends to be on how they can impact their employees rather than self-reflection and grown.

Preventing the irony of success is more about changing self belief than it is about learning a new skill. Changing beliefs is hard and much of it begins with how we interpret and assign meaning to certain events. Easier than changing a belief that does not serve you is starting with one that does. Pick the right person, tell them why they are the right person for the job, and help them get more support than they think they need.

It is not success itself that fails, it is the belief that what made you successful today is the same as what will make you successful tomorrow.