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In Search of Leadership


In Search of Leadership

People that know me know that:

·         I am passionately committed to helping organizations create new models of working together.

·         That I have spent the last three plus decades reading the models of others as well as synthesizing and testing my own models to do things better.

Today I experienced an interesting juxtaposition of a couple of things that spoke to me.

The first is this quote from Aurelius Augustinus, who most of us know better as Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo and perhaps one of the most profound influences on the Catholic Church.

The concepts of employee engagement and employment branding are getting a certain amount of press these days with both supporters and detractors. I am firmly in the supporter camp based on both my research and my personal experience.

Much of the discussion around engagement is who owns it and how does the care and feeding of an engaged environment take place. I find that Augustine’s direction from 1700 years ago was pretty accurate then and now.

More recently I had occasion to read Ken Matejka’ s Why This Horse Won’t Drink, and I discovered an “updated” version of what Augustine was expressing-

Commitment is the act of being physically, psychologically, and emotionally impelled. It means that employees gladly give up other options.”

When I am conducting leadership sessions with senior executives I often pose the question to then “Can you imagine a time in your organization where employees arrive every day physically, psychologically, and emotionally impelled to fulfill the goals and objectives of the organization?”

Most of them are honest enough to admit that would be a stretch, but they then wistfully remark how that would be pretty awesome.

In my mind an engaged environment is when that occurs. It is about alignment, clarity, and trust; not about morale, happiness, or cool perks.

The problem is we are doing it wrong.

A multi-year study by international consulting firm Development Dimensions International yielded some interesting information (at least to me)-

·         The highest quality leaders are 13 times more likely to outperform the competition

·         Only 38% of those surveyed (12,000 line executives and 1900 HR executives) rated their leadership or leadership development capability as high or very high.

·         60% of those who applied for leadership roles indicated their primary motivation was economic- they wanted to make more money!

Our leadership models are based on compliance, not commitment or engagement!

Dustin McKissen, founder and CEO of McKissen and Company, talks about this in his recent blog post in Inc Magazine,, The Rotten Core of Every MBA Program.

He specifically cites our ongoing infatuation with Frederick W. Taylor and his Scientific Management models-

While Taylor's theories are viewed as harsh and impractical today, his work was still cited in every class I attended that discussed the roots of modern management science. What's not often discussed is how little Taylor thought of the people who actually produced products in the factories he studied.

 While there are people who say that Taylor isn’t relevant anymore when I hear academicians and business leaders refer to people as human capital I am not sure I am buying it.

When I watched what happened during the recession where many organizations retreated into their old behavior and told employees, don’t complain about your compensation, you are lucky to be employed, and downsizing once again became the primary management strategy to improve productivity I still feel Fred’s presence.

It is amusing to hear those same executives now complaining that they can’t recruit and retain the talent they need to run their business- go figure…

When 60% of the applicant pool for leadership roles cite more money as why they want to be leaders I am pretty sure creating an environment where people are impelled is not top of mind.

So what do we do?

My recommendation is we build a new model with the following elements:

·         Be proactive in developing, implementing, and reinforcing your culture.

·         Recognize that the foundation of your organization and success are based on understanding and embracing the three levels of trust, not just deterrence and competency.

·         Ensure that you understand the implications of congruency and you either build it in or retrofit your organizational models to embrace it and reinforce it.

·         Only hire and promote leadership candidates with both the appropriate attributes and the right skills.

As I have written at length on these areas previously I will save you from my rambling today. If the subject interests you check out my website at

We are leaving billions on the cutting room floor every year, by hanging on to the old models.

We need change and if not now when and if not us than whom?




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Managing Whole People- Revisted

I remember being trained as a manager all those years ago and reflecting that much of what was provided as leadership were things we do to people rather than with people.

I explored this at some length in my first book, Managing Whole People, and since then it seems like our awareness if not our practices have changed as we have begun to recognize the billions in opportunity costs we are spending every year as the number of disengaged continues to grow.

In the almost eight years since I published my book the data continues to roll in and awareness seems to be growing. That gives me continued optimism, as does the unwillingness of the next generations to settle for compliance like many of my colleagues and I did.

It has been conversations with brilliant colleagues like Marty Lucas at 2020Thinkology and the Roceteers that continue to get me excited that there are others out there who share my vision of a different model, and it is way better and more exciting!

I have long believed that one of the fundamental problems we have in our society is our reluctance to embrace and implement the concept of working with and managing whole people. 

As I have mentioned on multiple prior occasions I think the Industrial Revolution did a lot of harm to the notion of whole people and Frederick W. Taylor and his theory of scientific management and the creation of the concept of white collar and blue collar didn’t do anything to enhance the relationship.

When I was trained as a manager in the seventies the model was planning, controlling, budgeting, etc. Those are all things you do to people and things – not with them. That model never “fit” for me.

Technology has its place, but like scientific management too often it has been imposed rather than integrated as part of a broader systemic solution.

A number of events have transpired over the intervening years  that causes me to revisit this topic again. One was a lively discussion I had with two colleagues about an upcoming round-table we are going to do about why the current models aren’t working and the importance of esoteric concepts like culture, change, and other relationship type behaviors have on enterprises of all kinds.

We are experiencing what I would call a relationship crisis. In the United States things like employee engagement, trust in management, and job satisfaction are at all time lows. We also have huge issues with productivity, turnover, and the cost of managing and delivering health and health care. Health care is devouring a huge part of our GDP with most of the solutions I see being proposed still over- looking the relationship dimension, disappointingly I would include Obamacare in that observation.

The other events that I encountered were in the course of responding to some questions about the role of human resources in organizations and the importance of fit in hiring and selection.

The first question dealt with whether or not HR as a function should align themselves with management or employees in an enterprise. I indicated my response as neither, HR should focus on helping management and leadership with what I see as the three key elements of healthy, functioning relationships-

  • Clarity- what is the mission or value proposition of the organization. Why does it exist?
  • Context- how does the role of the individual employee fit into the larger mission and how do they know they are performing appropriately.
  • Alignment- creating systems so that line of sight is both very clear and reinforced by other organizational systems. I believe a big part of the role of “new” HR is to train and reinforce those elements as being essential to everyone in management not just leadership and human resources.

This approach requires some re-calibration and new skills. Alignment is about execution. Organizations don’t exist to “fulfill” individuals they exist to meet the expectations of their stakeholders; that is how I define effective execution. Everything else is secondary.

One colleague indicated that if we were to ask CEO’s they would tell us the primary value of human resources is compliance- I shared my belief that that is precisely why we have the engagement, productivity, and trust issues we are “enjoying”.

The other colleague took us to the proverbial woodshed over our obsession with fit. She even went so far as to indicate that focusing on fit was likely discriminatory and creating an environment of adverse impact. Fit in her mind is way too nebulous and subjective. Recruitment and selection is all about skills and tasks. When I indicated I had successfully hired for fit for years without ever having my methods or outcomes questioned relative to compliance or impact she indicated I represented an attorney’s wet dream- I simply had not  been sued yet. My reaction was a combination of being slightly annoyed by her condescension, but mostly amused.

I have in fact encountered the legal profession a number times ranging from government agencies to plaintiff’s attorneys. In addition, I have been retained as a plaintiff’s expert witness on best practices. To date my track record of prevailing without settling is in the high 90th percentile.

If your fit model leaves out people of color, ethnicity, differing sexual orientation, and all the other things that are discriminatory on their face you have a shitty profile and will likely struggle hiring the talent you need.

At the risk of generalizing I suspect that like my other colleague she has a compliance bias. When I commented that most new managers who fail (40% in their first 18 months), she indicated that she had never had to replace a candidate she placed.

That is a great track record. I rather suspect that somewhere on an intuitive level her process includes some consideration for fit.

Some months ago I had a chance to read an exceptionally good blog post from Thomas Stewart about the difference between brand and branding. He describes branding as the marketing, sales and other strategies we use to try to position ourselves in a certain way with our customers, communities, and shareholders. Brand on the other hand is how they see us. That is what I describe as alignment or true engagement.  I believe strongly that building that into the fabric of your organization is much better strategy than trying to bolt it on.

I think organizations like Starbucks, Zappo’s, Google, Virgin Airlines, and a few others have real definable brands. I also believe that fit is an important component of their hiring process and that their human resources professionals look beyond skills and attributes in their hiring and selection processes. I will go even further out on the limb and say that compliance is not their primary mandate or value proposition.

People aren’t assets per se.  Let's eliminate the concept of human capital from our vocabulary. Their efforts and contributions when they are aligned with the interests of the enterprise become powerful assets, but the ownership of that contribution always rests with them. I don’t think we can extract those efforts and contributions; we can only create an environment where they share them.

In his cult book Why This Horse Won’t Drink, Ken Matejka describes commitment as being when

“Employees feel physically, psychologically, and emotionally impelled. They voluntarily give up other options.”

Perhaps I don’t have a full appreciation for capital or technology, but I have yet to encounter a situation where I saw either become physically, psychologically, or emotionally impelled. Come to think of it I don’t think I ever saw a brand or an organization become impelled either- only people.

Contrast that definition to the current statistics showing less than 30% of employees defining themselves as engaged with the number at the other pole disengagement being at 17% and rising costing the U.S. economy alone an estimated $200 billion annually.

I know the recession is theoretically over, but are we really in the position of leaving $200 billion a year on the cutting room floor?

So I guess until I see a better model I will continue to try to work with whole people and to try to create environments and relationships where they feel physically, psychologically, and emotionally impelled toward the goals of the organization because as leaders we have provided them with clarity, context, and alignment and I can't tell you how excited I am to be in the company of others like Marty Lucas, Mark Rowland, Heather Wilde and others who are out there building lighthouses...

For me that defines effective execution, and that is what impels me. What do you find impelling….?


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Dunbar's Number, Bad Process and Results


Dunbar's Number, Bad Process and Results

Dunbar’s Number, Surveys and Engagement

Bad processes yield bad results.

I make that statement as I look at the shouts across the blogosphere that performance appraisal has failed, employee engagement is bullshit, and a number of other sweeping generalizations.

When I examine those things I come up with a pretty consistent conclusion; if your process is designed and executed poorly you are likely to yield poor results.

Let’s look at hiring and selection. It is generally a mess. Most organizations still rely heavily on the interview as their primary selection tool, even though results have said that unstructured interviews by themselves are basically a crap shoot.

Then we add technology to it through automated systems to sift applications and determine the most qualified candidates. That way we can dumb the process down and turn recruitment into an entry level role in HR, because the system does the work. That is typically an epic fail.

If your performance management system consists of an annual trip to the woodshed between manager and employee to communicate why you won’t be getting the raise you anticipated, it is an epic fail.

Employees representing every generation have been clear from the start of the Industrial Revolution that they desire clear performance expectations, appropriate and constructive feedback, and equitable compensation. And for the most part we still suck at it. That doesn't mean we should abandon it, it means we need to do it better!

Most compensation delivery and performance management systems are designed by HR people for HR people. We want to streamline and increase efficiency and consistency. Those are code words for routinizing it. Creating alignment (the appropriate goal of engagement) is not routine, it is personal. It takes work and commitment and it lives at the front line where employees live and work.

A recent Gallup study indicates that employees are much less engaged than senior management thinks they are as a rule. No surprise. How often do senior managers interact with line employees?

Dunbar’s number is the concept  that most of us mere mortals can’t maintain meaningful connected relationships with more than 150 people. As organizations get larger those relationships get strained.

We live in a fantasy world today where people have thousands of Facebook friends and LinkedIn connections. Do you really want to go out on a limb and say those are meaningful relationships? I can’t and I will admit to being in four figures for LinkedIn connections.

Stephen MR Covey tells us that the most important level of trust is identity based, which is based on shared values and experiences and the recent literature indicates every generation, especially the Millennials see this as a baseline element of healthy relationships with their employer.

That requires investment and personalization, you know that soft skill stuff.

Today I read a post that says doing surveys is dumb because good companies already know how their people feel about key issues and how aligned they are with their work and the company.

Really? So is the definition of a good company one that is led by one of those prodigies that can maintain those identity based relationships with hundreds of employees rather than those of us who can only maintain 150?

I will concede that if the only way you are creating and maintaining alignment is with an annual or semiannual survey you are likely falling short of your objective. It’s a tool not a solution.

If you are only having performance management and feedback conversations annually you are failing epically.

If your hiring process consists of hitting the panic button and pushing a bunch of people though an interview process without looking at the totality of the role and multiple tough points like congruency and fit you probably have both hiring and retention issues, not to mention shitty engagement.

I saw a great quote the other day that said if a plant isn’t growing properly you change its environment, not the plant. If your processes aren't working then refine them, don’t throw them out.

Get rid of language like human capital and hire whole people.

Don’t promote anyone into a management or leadership position that doesn’t have decent emotional and social intelligence skills and who has demonstrated competencies in things including: setting clear expectations, giving and receiving constructive feedback, taking corrective action, and coaching. I consider these a baseline.

If you have to retrofit your leadership team through training and/or reassignment, then bite the bullet and do it. Hold everyone accountable to walk the talk.

Remember that your leadership culture is defined by the worst behavior you are willing to tolerate from either management or employees!

It is okay to manage performance, communicate your compensation delivery strategy and align it to organizational goals and performance.

It is also okay to occasionally survey your employees and ask them how we are doing as an organization since you might not have an intimate, identity based relationship with all of them. If you do that listen to what they tell you and act on that feedback.

If you need the survey to identify your poorest performers and most disgruntled employees, you have severe weaknesses in your management infrastructure. Identify those and fix them.

The tough news is you have to all of this not just some of it because half assed solutions or incomplete systems don’t yield complete outcomes ever……



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The Criticality of Feedback

The “Gift” of Constructive Criticism

A couple of recent articles reminded me of something that I both learned painfully and continue to struggle with after several decades in the workplace- “Constructive criticism aka feedback is a gift and should be recognized as such”.

No one really likes to get feedback that is not positive, at least initially, but a couple of articles recently talked about the connection between emotional intelligence and the ability to mine that feedback for value by keeping a few things in mind.

Diane Gottsman in her article How to Accept and Give Criticism with Grace, provides some great ground rules that while not earth shattering or rocket science can be very helpful.

·        Be aware of your body language

·        Be prepared mentally and emotionally

·        Remain calm and don’t respond with angry excuses

·        Rethink the word/concept of criticism. I personally try to avoid that language and use constructive feedback in its place.

·        Be appreciative- of the effort if not the content.

From my own experience I have learned a couple of other suggestions I would add:

·        Focus on the feedback not the person. It is easy to reject the right feedback from the wrong person.

·        Recognize that everyone is not equally skilled in their language or their technique. Listen for the message carefully. This is especially true when there is an unequal power relationship like subordinate to boss or provider to customer.

·        Try to adopt the standard of most positive interpretation, this means giving the person the benefit of positive intent even if their delivery is less than perfect.

Most people would rather get a sharp poke in the eye rather than give feedback whether it is to a colleague, a subordinate, and especially a superior, but constructive feedback is both critical to teamwork and improved performance it is a fundamental expectation of the Millennial generation. Their intraprenurial mindset looks at careers and opportunities to increase their skills and value. They expect timely, balanced, and meaningful feedback as a fundamental right.

Even with all the hoo hah about blowing up traditional performance evaluation the root cause there is that the process is typically done so poorly, not that recipients don’t want feedback. The typical annual review system is an epic fail. It isn’t timely, it isn’t balanced, and many find it marginally meaningful.

As a recovering HR executive I find that many performance evaluation systems are designed by HR professionals to impress other HR professionals and to deliver limited pay increases. They aren’t user friendly to the actual manager and recipient.

Gottsman also mentions some guidelines for giving feedback to make it more meaningful and useful.

·        Be private. No one wants a critique in public

·        Focus on issues or behaviors not on people. People own their behavior they aren’t their behavior.

·        Be specific, especially about the impact on the work, work group, etc.

·        Provide suggestions.

·        Be available and follow up. It is a process not an event.

In my perspective if you can’t tie your feedback to the work and work performance and provide a suggestion as to how to improve it isn’t feedback. It is just petty criticism.

Justin Bariso in his article How Emotionally Intelligent People Handle Criticism, adds some additional great suggestions, ask yourself these two questions:

·        Putting my personal feelings aside, what can I learn from this alternate perspective?

·        Instead of focusing on the delivery, how can I use this feedback to help me or my team improve?

He uses the illustration of a scathing review a top chef received from a New York Times food critic as a great example of how to own the issue and use it as a vehicle to improve future performance.

I firmly believe that the ability to constructively provide and receive feedback is essential to building trust and trust is the foundation for high functioning relationships both personal and professional.

You will never make the transition from manager to leader if you don’t master this skill.

Covey’s third and highest level of trust, identity based trust, simply can’t be achieved without honest dialogue and mutual investment.

Employee engagement worldwide still remains at what I believe to be unacceptably low levels and it is things like trust, congruency, and alignment that are going to address the causes of low engagement and get us the performance we want, not technology, six sigma or other process interventions and feedback is an essential building block….



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