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Leadership – Why Not Give Them a “Free Fish”

As leaders it is our job to deliver value and make a difference in those things that matter. This requires focusing our time and energy on the things that will really move the dial forward. Equally important is that we don’t spend time on things that don’t make a difference and don’t really matter. This can be a challenge because most of the things that come at us in a day come with an apparent level of importance, indicating that they get dealt with immediately. However, my experience is that not all things that come to our attention deserve our time because working on them to resolve them will not make any real difference. Successful leaders have honed the ability to discern which things are going to make an impact and which things are comparatively trivial and, in some cases, irrelevant.

A few years back, I was in a meeting with the president of a company and her leadership team; we were working on designing a program to provide leadership development training for several levels of people just below the leadership team ~ their directors and managers. The team needed to make a decision, in which we could go one of two ways. They could have our firm provide the training as a combination of managers and directors in a group, or we could separate the directors from the managers so that the directors received one level of training (slightly more advanced), and managers would participate in a more basic program. Virtually all of the people in the room except for the president thought the two groups should be isolated and trained separately while keeping their titles distinct. The president disagreed saying, “Separating them will make no difference. They should all receive the same training and it will work just fine.” She viewed it as an opportunity for them to interact and relate, which she considered a positive. However, they didn’t come to a decision at that meeting as they were at a bit of a stalemate. I agreed to see if I could get it resolved offline within the week by having conversations with the individual stakeholders.

I spoke with almost all of the key leaders who were in the room and they all held to the position that the two trainings should be separate. When I went back to the president and told her that they felt pretty strongly about it, she smiled and said, “Then let them have it; they get to win this one. They’re wrong, but I’m not taking that one on.” I was surprised by her response because I knew she felt pretty strongly about her view. I asked, “Just like that, huh?” She responded, “Look, we get into these ‘little battles’ pretty regularly. This one isn’t worth fighting. Sometimes it’s best to let them win in a scuffle like this because it ultimately makes no difference. I choose my battles wisely and when I need to win the battle, I want to make sure it’s one worth fighting for. This one is not worth it, so this one is a free fish.* And it costs me nothing. Because, ultimately, the point is to get everyone trained, which as leaders will happen either way.” 

In this situation, the president of the company gave her team a “free fish.” They wanted to win the debate and she let them. This demonstrated to me that she was using her wisdom to determine where she was going to invest her time and energy. As leaders we are required to invest our time in a great many things and most of it isn’t leading, per se. I have seen the “free fish” technique work brilliantly with teams in negotiations and even at home. Try it out and see how it works.

*The reference about a free fish comes from the training of dolphins. They are very smart mammals, probably the most intelligent next to humans. They learn very quickly because they are rewarded with a fish when they do tricks. But dolphin trainers have an additional technique they call a “free fish.” Every so often, for no reason at all, they throw the dolphin a fish. The dolphins know that and pay close attention to the trainer at all times in the hopes they might get a spontaneous “free fish.”

Kevin Cullen is President of Leadera Consulting Group, specializing in producing breakthrough business results. If you want more on this conversation or the firm, contact us at Leadera Consulting Group.

Kevin Cullen: kcullen@leaderacg.com, cc: acook@leaderacg.com

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You Can’t Transfer What You Don’t Have

Everybody’s heard the adage “Physician Heal Thyself.” It refers to the notion that when giving advice one must first have their actions match their speaking. Said another way, if you are going to dispense words of wisdom, then it is incumbent on you that you operate consistent with your counsel. When the speaking and behavior don’t match up, it’s called hypocrisy. It would be like an overweight doctor telling the patient to lose weight for their health, and then later that day seeing that same doctor driving through a fast food chain restaurant getting “super-sized.”   

Part of our work involves educating and developing competent managers to become leaders. We do so by distinguishing what leadership really is. Leadership is all about character and modeling that character in your actions. Leadership stands on four foundational factors. They are: integrity, authenticity, being committed to something bigger than oneself, and being “cause” in the matter.*

If you think about these four factors, you can easily see how each of these become pillars for being a leader. The first factor, integrity, is pretty obvious. Without it, nothing works. Integrity creates a foundation of reliability and trust. Second, authenticity has everything to do with being aware of who you hold yourself to be, i.e. walking the talk. To do that, you have to know your blind spots. Third, being committed to something bigger than yourself is fundamental to leadership because if you’re all about you, you’re not believing in and demonstrating anything that people will find themselves identifying with, and therefore will not follow. To be a leader requires followers. Last, and most challenging, is being “cause” in matter. This requires an existential leap of being the owner of, and taking responsibility for, things you probably did not do. Yet if you are “cause” in the matter, then you are willing to deal with it as though whatever happens is your personal responsibility.  Each of these are key components; leadership will not happen if any of those four is missing. Leadership depends on all four of those legs of character being solid and intact. 

I often see things that are inconsistent with the character of leadership. Here’s a recent example: The other night before the State of the Union Address I was scrolling Facebook, which I use for both entertainment and to stay connected with family and friends. As I was scrolling I saw the following post:

“State of the Union:  INAUTHENTICITY & NO INTEGRITY.

Be prepared to be bamboozled newly, America.”

At first I was amused that someone took the time to warn us all. Thank you, Chicken Little. But when I saw who posted it, I was somewhat taken aback because I know this person and know that this person teaches people about communication. They make their living teaching some of the same character values discussed above, and effective communication requires openness. This post did not reflect openness. In fact, it reflected a very narrow point of view that had been concluded before they heard a word of the State of the Union Address. Communication is a key factor in organizational effectiveness. Most people would agree the following things are critical:

  1. Walk into a situation with an open mind and with no conclusions made
  2. Fully listen to what the other person has to say
  3. Try not to prejudge the speaker

If you look at this post, it has none of those things. Yet the person who posted it would claim to be an expert on coaching in the area of communication. What I read was clearly the opposite of that and doesn’t represent what this person espouses. It struck me that if this person could be that blind to how inconsistent what they are posting on social media is with what they teach ~ and I consider this person a fairly aware person ~ the same must be true for others, including myself. Said simply, what this person posted and what they teach suddenly appeared as pure hypocrisy. They spoke their formed opinion and had decided it was the truth. They presented it as if it was the truth. And that is inconsistent with what I know about communication. I suppose we’re all guilty of that at some level. I chose not to add a comment to the Facebook post. I may contact the person directly to share my observation.

Here’s what I discovered for myself over the years in delivering transformational work in organizations: if you do not practice what you preach, if you do not walk the talk, there is no way you will be effective in delivering that character to other people. They will be able to see through the inauthenticity like reading a 10-cent novel and will know that this is only “do as I say, not as I do.” Nobody wants to sign up for getting conned at that level. Bottom line, if you’re going to preach it or teach it, start with what you’re going to do to demonstrate that for yourself and model it to others. Walk the Talk.

*Taken from Being a Leader and the Effective Exercise of Leadership – W. Erhard, M. Jensen

Kevin Cullen is President of Leadera Consulting Group, specializing in producing breakthrough business results. If you want more on this conversation or the firm, contact us at Leadera Consulting Group.

Kevin Cullen: kcullen@leaderacg.com, cc: acook@leaderacg.com

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Does Culture Drive Behavior?

Step back and look at any organization – what you will see is the manifestation of its culture. By culture we mean values, themes, behaviors, passions, expressions, and acti­ons that take place inside a group ~ in this case, a company. Culture gets established by a combination of 1) how the company was built, 2) its history and evolution, and 3) the leadership being provided inside that company. People inside the company operate consistent with whatever culture has been established or set.

The leader’s job is to create a culture that serves the needs of the stakeholders ~ its people inside and outside the company, meaning employees, customers, and suppliers. Whether or not these themes and values are overtly clear to the people in the organization will dictate the extent to which the people themselves operate consistent with the culture. Obviously, it’s most effective when those values and behaviors are made public and clear to the people in the organization. We have found that the best way to do this is to have those values in writing, made public, and talked about regularly. Several of our clients have done a splendid job of doing this and, in one company in particular, it’s pretty hard to walk down a hallway and not see the values of the company posted for all to see. Our experience of companies that do this well is that the employees are keenly aware of these values and are more likely to operate consistent with them when they are vividly displayed. One of our clients has their values up on the walls about every 15 feet.

There are some recent examples of companies who went off course because the values of the company were not patently clear to the management and employees. One such example is Wells Fargo Bank, which is an institution that built its reputation on integrity, trust, and financial prudence. That translates to “you can trust our company with your money.” However, recently people in the company lost the plot and the company began managing growth and new customer acquisitions “at any cost.” They began to favor and incentivize gaining new customer accounts over being trusted custodians of their customer’s finances. The compensation system began to reward people making the “numbers” vs. people providing excellent service and financial prudence. Consequently, the employees began inventing fraudulent “new accounts” using established customers’ finances without those customers knowing or giving permission to use their information to do so. This unethical behavior was completely inconsistent with what Wells Fargo has stood for over 100 years now.

How could this possibly happen? It happened because integrity got replaced inside the cutlure by greed. The culture had become corrupted. The leadership began leading for near term gains and abandoned the timeless vales that made their company successful for decades. When all of this was discovered and came to the surface, Wells Fargo lost the confidence and trust of the public and they are now hard at work trying to rebuild that trust and reformulate a culture that seemingly got destroyed in a relatively short period of time. Now they’re investing millions of dollars to market contrite apologies and begging for another chance to prove themselves.

Another example of a culture going off course is Facebook. Facebook made its mark as it was originally designed to serve people by connecting them and providing a platform where people could share their most personal details, family events, special occasions, and connect with old friends and lost relatives. It fulfilled that purpose for many years, delivering unimaginable growth for well over a decade. However, the people at Facebook saw opportunity to take this information – people’s personal information, details, behaviors, and habits – and use that information to exploit those who trusted Facebook to deal with that information ethically. It began to package and sell this data so that companies could target markets and, as we now know, even influence peoples’ thinking about social and political issues. People literally began being co-opted (brainwashed) by sinister campaigns that would post fabricated stories and information to sway peoples’ thinking or to incite consternation.

Again, how could this happen? Sadly, the answer is once again greed. The culture became corrupted. Facebook saw the opportunity to exploit its customers and took it. Why? Because the values set at Facebook were focused on growth and expansion, not on being custodians of peoples’ personal information.

In both cases what happened was a failure in managing the culture. I give both companies the benefit of the doubt that they once had noble, admirable, and ethical intentions, but those things were not translated over time into the culture by leadership. The leadership failed to do its job to: 1) set the vision, 2) have a strategic plan, and 3) get people excited about it and get them on board. As we all know, in both cases when it went off the track it did enormous damage to each company. When the values of a company are made clear, public, are talked about and validated, it is our experience that the people in the company line up around those values and behave consistently with them. When they are not clear, people are left to do whatever else they might do because there’s nothing guiding the course and, therefore, behavior. The key is to have the leaderhsip set the values of the company once they really believe it and stand for it. Make those values clear and public (displayed vividly), roll them out to the employees, and keep revisiting and reinforcing them in order to validate them. Our experience is that when this happens, companies stay the course. They live and breathe the values. And when that is not the case, it sticks out like a sore thumb. In short, culture drives behavior.

Kevin Cullen is President of Leadera Consulting Group, specializing in producing breakthrough business results. If you want more on this conversation or the firm, contact us at Leadera Consulting Group.

Kevin Cullen: kcullen@leaderacg.com, cc: acook@leaderacg.com

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What Stops People from Being Extraordinary?

Most people don’t think about what it takes to be extraordinary; they consider themselves normal, which translates to “ordinary.” Who doesn’t want to be normal? Interestingly, many people struggle with the notion of living up to their potential. If asked, most would likely say they have not lived up to their potential. It’s what you envision for yourself in the future to accomplish and to be. What if one’s potential is to be “extraordinary,” as in being an extraordinary human being? Can we accomplish that kind of living our lives, or are we so engrained in notions about ourselves and self-imposed restrictions that it gets in our way of success?

Perhaps “extraordinary” is limited by what we see is possible and what we think we’re actually capable of doing. If we can see that something is doable, that it is indeed possible, and that we are capable ~ it’s considered potential for most people. It might also be fair to say we can never achieve our potential, because the moment we do we’d see yet another level to strive for. Like the horse-drawn cart in an old movie with someone holding a carrot dangling out in front of a horse to keep the horse moving towards the carrot ~ there’s more to achieve. Part of what keeps people from aspiring to be extraordinary is that our culture values fitting in and going with the flow. We are drawn to being complacent, stagnant, and risk-adverse. If we see what’s possible as unreachable, then potential could be considered unreachable; it’s just beyond our reach. Most people have limiting, conditioned beliefs that restrict their reach. We’ve listened to and bought into notions and ideas about ourselves that are, in many cases, unexamined.

I know someone working in the fashion industry who I consider to be very bright, talented, and capable. With the amount of talent this person has, there is no apparent reason they shouldn’t do extremely well in their field. Yet they work in a job with a role that is probably a couple levels down from what they are capable of. On several occasions, they’ve requested my coaching and I’ve encouraged this person to break out and create their own clothing line. They are really that talented, but they won’t do that. Their responses are, “I’m simply not ready,” “I don’t want to,” and “I’m not there yet.” At the same time, this person complains about being undervalued, underutilized, underappreciated, and underpaid. They never have enough money. And this has been a long-existing conversation – clearly, they don’t see in themselves what I see in them. For this person to accomplish the extraordinary, they would have to give up their dearly held convictions about their limits and they would have to stop playing small – for most people that’s just too frightening.

Why don’t we reach for what we consider extraordinary? Why don’t we strive for and reach our potential? The simple answer to why we don’t strive for our potential or for extraordinary is because “it’s too dangerous.” It’s dangerous to step all the way up and all the way out there, only to possibly fail. And if we don’t step up, then we’re not responsible on many levels – we stay safe from exposure emotionally, psychologically, and financially. Additionally, we avoid the risk of failing. If you talk to most people, they’ll have a well-constructed illusion that allows them to blame the circumstances for their level of achievement. When we attempt to go outside of our beliefs, our constraints, we enter that dangerous territory. It becomes dangerous when we are exposed, leaving us nowhere to hide and with no one to blame. It becomes very uncomfortable. Life is not designed for our success or for our comfort.

To reach our potential, to be extraordinary, will likely mean being uncomfortable. If we don’t challenge our potential, our own being extraordinary, like Brando’s character Terry Malloy in “On the Waterfront”, we may be left with the illusion that “I coulda been a contenduh.”

Kevin Cullen is President of Leadera Consulting Group, specializing in producing breakthrough business results. If you want more on this conversation or the firm, contact us at Leadera Consulting Group.

Kevin Cullen: kcullen@leaderacg.com, cc: acook@leaderacg.com

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Sometimes It’s Best to Just “Zip Your Lip”

At a very early point in my career as a business consultant it became clear to me that what we really do in organizations is talk, or have conversations. I discovered in practical, everyday situations that what’s really at the heart and soul of an organization is “a set of conversations.” Said another way, what is happening all the time in an organization is that conversations are taking place at every level and with everybody. For example, executives talking to the Board, managers talking to employees, employees talking to customers, suppliers talking to buyers. Both the quality of these conversations and which conversations are taking place largely determines the commitments of an organization, and therefore its results. These conversations are what drives thinking, strategy, and decision-making.

In a very real way one could say that you are paid to have conversations. Since the quality of these conversations is what determines the actions to be taken, it makes sense to conclude that the higher the level of a conversation, the more value will get added to the business. For instance, if we’re “just chatting,” we will not likely be having conversations that make any change or contribution to the organization. If we are having conversations about what our business is up to, we will have an entirely different level of conversation ~ one that potentially adds value. Conversations take place prior to the initiation of action. Whether the company moves forward on a capital investment is a function of the conversation that took place right before that decision was made; whether to staff up or staff down is proceeded by a conversation; whether or not a company competes in certain markets is the result of conversations. 

Obviously in any conversation there are two main components ~ a speaker and a listener. There’s what’s being said by one or more people and what’s being heard by one or more people. Typically, most organizational cultures favor avoiding confronting difficult conversations. Consequently, I am a big fan of people speaking up ~ getting things on the table to be addressed and not ignoring the “elephant in the room.” Throughout my career I have encouraged people to do exactly that: speak up, say exactly what’s on your mind, and get those issues addressed. Getting things on the table allows for issues and concerns to be dealt with in an open manner. When people are open and are willing to talk about the issues, including critical or difficult ones, better decisions get made and more effective actions take place. This kind of open communication breeds success in organizations. 

However, there are some conversations that are not productive and do not move things forward. Saying what’s on your mind is not always the right thing to do. In fact, in many cases you would be better off not saying what’s on your mind because it is not going to move things forward and serves to do exactly the opposite by shutting down the conversation. I’ve seen this happen over and over again. When this is the case I suggest that we “zip our lips” and instead take a deep breath, let the cosmic energy flow through you, “grasshopper”, because what you’re about to say is only going to cause problems for you and everyone else. Therefore, in those situations the best course of action is to say nothing. The adage holds true, “silence is golden”. For example, let’s say you have a negative attitude from past experiences with the IT department in your company. There’s a discussion in the room about turning something over to IT; here’s your chance to take your well-deserved dig at IT one more time so that you can be right again with “I hope we don’t run into the typical problem we always have with IT.” Nope ~ zip it. The comment will make no difference and it will only do damage in the relationship, which is not what you need right now. Instead of building trust, it will destroy it.

What I’ve observed over the years while working in many organizations is that these conversations – which I’ll call “conversations for no possibility” – are usually had by certain people who I consider the “naysayers.” These are the “glass half empty” folks who look at the situation from what’s wrong with it while focusing on the flaws. Such people and such conversations serve to slow progress down or stop progress altogether. So many times I’ve seen these naysayers raise their hands right when we’re about to make an important decision and lob in a non-sequitur. It’s usually in the form of a question that sounds something like this: “Do we know what business we’re really in?” or “We tried this before unsuccessfully. What makes us think we can do it this time?” Full stop. Once they do this you can watch what happens to the conversation right there in the room. What was just before a focused, positive conversation steadily advancing the ball is now completely thrown off track by this “psychic bong hit” that just got blurted out and throws it into a whole other gear. It creates a kind of dizziness in the room. My assessment is that, though these people consider themselves fundamentally committed to making a difference, instead of their contribution serving to forward the action, it derails it and sends it off in a different direction which is almost always non-productive. The other people in the conversation are left with questions and doubts about what the naysayer is out to produce.

Considering the opportunity to choose the conversations we have, my coaching is that perhaps it would be best to consider what you are about to put into the conversation and ask yourself, “Is this going to forward the conversation or is it going to derail the conversation?” And if it’s the latter maybe it would be best if it didn’t get added. Another way to say that is “zip your lip.”

Kevin Cullen is President of Leadera Consulting Group, specializing in producing breakthrough business results. If you want more on this conversation or the firm, contact us at Leadera Consulting Group.

Kevin Cullen: kcullen@leaderacg.com, cc: acook@leaderacg.com