Strategy

What’s the goal: Peak Performing Individuals or Teams

In the opening 2021 Olympics game of Basketball, there was a major “upset”. The US team, which won 25 consecutive games, and which had been referred to as “the dream team” because it included many of the best US players, lost to the unheralded French team.  However, one of the French team managers questioned whether it really was an “upset”, noting teams that forge strong bonds, as their team had over 10 years, generally outperform individual superstars who come together as a team.

In the second half of 2021, one of the biggest news items is the difficulty of companies to find qualified workers. Several reasons are given for this. Some people have decided to change jobs or leave the workforce post-pandemic, because they are more interested in following their passions and purposes; they’re not interested in returning to a pre-pandemic workplace, and/or they want substantial changes in compensation, working conditions, etc.  Thus, hiring managers are challenged to find qualified people among this new workforce.

Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, is famous for recommending we get the right people on the bus”, i.e., hire the right people for each job. The challenge is to identify the right characteristics for each person – are well looking for individual superstars or team players?

Similarly, Sutton and Rao, in Scaling Up Excellence note that people have unconscious biases and they may play a role. For instance, people tend to prefer to be around others who are similar to them; yet diversity matters. Linda Abraham, a co-founder of comScore, notes that hiring people like you can be “the worst thing for building out a team.”   “New mindsets, skills, and practices, travel faster and farther when team members have varied backgrounds, skills and viewpoints”.  If the goal is a team adept at solving problems and creativity, then you need a team of individuals with mutual respect – where they can “fight as if you are right and listen as if you are wrong.” That means standing up for what you believe until the evidence clearly shows you are wrong, and then admit that the other person is right.

In sum, before hiring for teams, identify the key attributes each member should have to both individually do his/her job and to help the team do its job. Be aware that that may mean tradeoffs are necessary for ultimate success.

“Pre-mortems” Can Lead to More Successes

Are you using “pre-mortems” to increase the probability of a project’s success?

I learned about pre-mortems years ago and have used them from time-to-time with leaders who are launching projects, planning start-ups and even presenters who want to win investor-deals.  While reading Sutton and Rao’s “Scaling Up Excellence:  Getting to More without Settling for Less”, a comment about it made me think it would be an excellent tool not just for business leaders  but also for individuals as they make career, relationship and other decisions that will affect their future selves. (For more on the Full Life Management (FLM) system to help people to lead fulfilling, elongated lives, see AgeBrilliantly.org.) My focus here is on business planning.

We initiate projects because we believe their ROI (return on investment of time and resources) is high enough to justify the investment and believe we have the resources needed to succeed. Our optimism, analysis, and foresight input from peers and experts, leads us to take the risks. Yet, failures occur; Investopedia reports that “21.5% of startups fail in the first year, 30% in the second year, 50% in the fifth year, and 70% in their 10th year.” Similarly, about half of US marriages fail despite the best of intentions.

When something fails, we conduct a post-mortem: we analyze what went wrong. A famous one was the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion which discovered problems with the O-rings and the decision-making process used by the team that eventually allowed the Challenger to continue on is flight rather than take alternative actions. Daniel Kahneman credits psychologist Gary Klein with inventing the “pre-mortem” managerial strategy in which you imagine that a project has failed, and then work backwards to determine what potentially could lead to the failure. The goal is to avert real failures and ugly post-mortems that follow.

Sutton and Rao recommend the use of pre-mortems when a team is on the verge of making and implementing a decision. The team is told to imagine what happens some time in the future if the decision is made. Half the team is told to imagine that it was an unmitigated disaster; the other half pretends it was a roaring success.  Independently, each member generates reason – often in the form of a story about why the success or failure occurred – being as detailed as possible to identify causes that they wouldn’t usually mention “for fear of being impolitic.”  Then, each member reads the story to the group with someone recording and collating the reasons for failures and successes.  Finally, the group considers all the reasons and makes appropriate changes to strengthen the plan – or if the group uncovers overwhelming and impassable roadblocks, then you all go back to the drawing board.

The process uses “prospective hindsight”, gaining the insights of what your future selves might have gleaned from the experience. Using a “future perfect tense”, you explain the situation in a format such as: “We’ve devoted X months to study what went into the design and execution the plan. Looking back from the future, we can see the following key causes for the failure (or success).”

Kahneman, et.al, show that the pre-mortem process generates better decisions, predictions and plans. It helps people overcome blind spots. Sutton and Rao note that it “inoculates against clusterfugs” such as:

  • Illusion (that the plan is better and easier than the facts warrant)
  • Impatience (as everyone gets anxious to roll out the new project)
  • Incompetence (the spreading of incorrect information that taints the final decision)

Deborah Mitchell, a Wharton professor conducted an experiment on “prospective hindsight” and found that imaging that an event already occurred “increases the ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by 30%”. So, on your next project, try using pre-mortems to increase the odds of success!  Then, share the experience with us.

Presenting for Change: What’s Your Audience Perspective?

The stakes for presentations vary. Traditional investor, management, and marketing ones are important to the players, but rarely earth-shattering. Getting a company’s Board or employees to adopt an innovation or restructuring, involves much larger stakes. But the highest stakes belong to those focused on creating a social or other critical revolution.  Think of the presentation skills that the founders of the United States used to mobilize public opinion to gain support for a revolution!

While the key skills we’ve highlight when applying the ADAP (Audience-Driven Authentic Presentations) formula apply to virtually all presentations, fomenting a revolution requires going beyond influencing the audience you’re trying to mobilize. It requires taking into account the future actions of the people who will oppose the desired action or even stay “neutral”.

Greg Satell, in How to Prepare Your Organization for Transformation in a Post-Covid World, shares many observations about the need to take into account the first of these parties. For years, he has shared his insights based on experience with the revolutionary movement designed to overthrow the brutal Serbian dictator, Slobodan Milošević, and later people involved with the rise (and fall) of the Arab Spring. More recently, he’s extended his insights to corporate settings.

Based on his experience and expertise, he shares with us that the traditional approach to launching a new initiative with a bang can be counterproductive.  Lining up the “right people” for a big “kick-off” meeting to move fast and gain scale and generate some quick wins, can create urgency and inevitability. Yet the “shock and awe” approach can backfire because it might inspire an insurgency that bogs things down. “For any significant change, there will always be some who will oppose the idea and they will resist it in ways that are often insidious and not immediately obvious. The dangers of resistance are especially acute when…you need to drive transformation on multiple fronts.”

Thus, his ADAP solution is to start with small groups of enthusiasts that you can empower to succeed, rather than try to push an initiative on the masses that you’ll struggle to convince.  Second, focus on instilling shared values and shared purpose so your audience stays dedicated. This allows the enthusiasts to spread the word and help recruit more people to your cause.

In “Those Who Forget: My Family’s story in Nazi Europe”, Geraldine Schwarz focuses on the larger “middle” group between change activists and the insurgency. Her family “did not participate more than nominally in National Socialism”; but the Nazi leaders took them into account so that they eventually were neutralized by ignoring their prior values regarding human dignity and life. Little by little, they did nothing to oppose Nazis when they entered towns to round up Jews and put them in cattle carts which took them to death camps. 

In sum, depending on the stakes, define the audience you need to influence to include your future change audience, those who might oppose change and those caught in the middle.     

Do you have any life or business experiences with such issues? If so, share them with us!

Clarity on Employee Coaching

A key practice that Stephen Covey told us to adopt in his classic book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, is to start with the end in mind. As we return to work as a distributed workforce – working sometimes in the office and sometimes not, without knowing exactly how this will eventually settle (which is why we call this the “fluid” post-pandemic stage), we need to adopt the most effective practices to empower and develop our staff. This especially applies to training and coaching our staff.  Marshall Goldsmith, one of the leading executive coaches, recently noted a number of key leader-coaching strategies. As an executive coach, I found his recommendations valuable – and realized we can apply some of them to coaching our staff. Here they are:

  1. Involve the staff member being coached in determining the desired behaviors. People cannot be expected to change behavior if they don’t have a clear understanding of what desired behavior looks like.
  2. Involve the staff member being coached in determining key stakeholders. Without identifying the company stakeholders with whom they’ll be involved, you can’t help them get them to focus on the right issues nor accept the feedback from the right colleagues.  This ensures their “buy in” to the process, as they will be discussing it with these peers, subordinates and supervisors.
  3. Collect feedback. Marshall personally interviews all key stakeholder for a CEO or gets 360° feedback, because feedback is critical. It is impossible to get evaluated on changed behavior if there is not agreement on what behavior to change!
  4. Reach agreement on key behaviors for change. Don’t try to change everything; pick only one or two key areas for behavioral change with each coaching-client and agree upon the desired behavior for change.
  5. Have the coachee get other input from key stakeholders. As the person being coached speaks with stakeholders, she/he can collect “feedforward” suggestions on how to improve on the key areas targeted for improvement. The feedback provides greater depth, breadth and wisdom.
  6. Enable your coachee to develop the action plans that result from the principles discussed. These plans need to come from them, with constructive feedback provided by you, the coach. They often know what’s the right thing to do; they just need to execute it well and evaluate it for continuous improvement.

As we increasingly use automation and artificial intelligence to take over the “routine” activities with which we’re involved, being coached on how to handle human-interactions, especially effective collaboration when people are working in different offices at different times, becomes more critical.  Use the Presentation Excellence ADAP principles to make sure you’re effective. If you have questions, share them with us!

Tips to Better Coach Your Executives

As companies grow, it becomes increasingly important for CEOs and other executives to improve their coaching skills so they can help direct reports take on more responsibilities and be successful. The need is even more important now that staff are distributed rather than working in a central office; micro-management as a back-up isn’t as easy.  Going forward, workers need to self-manage and be accountable to themselves and team members.

As a vistage Chair, I have the privilege of working with 800 other chair-facilitators-coaches who constantly seek to improve our own skills at helping the CEOs with whom we work, but also share insights. Recently, it published an article, 9 Powerful Questions Coaches Ask CEOs, in which other chairs highlighted ideas which leaders at all levels can use to assist their direct reports. 

I thought I’d share a few of them to stimulate your thinking. You can substitute the word department or division for company, since it applies.

  • Are you running your company or leading it?  Too many leaders spend more time than they should being “hands-on” with activities and tactical, rather than taking the time to be strategic and focus on making sure everyone is asking the big strategic, cultural and leadership questions. Leaders should allocate 20% of their time to being strategic. (That’s one of the hidden benefits of Vistage – it sets aside 7% of a leader’s time to focus on strategic growth issues.)
  • Are you more of a fire-fighter or a fire-preventer? We all want to feel successful – but are we doing the things that add the most value? At our initial coaching session, one CEO admitted that he spent 50% of his time firefighting – and recognized the need to change how he and his team operate. 
  • Are meetings focused on the problems needing to be solved or the value of different solutions? At our Board meetings, we use Issue processing to enable members to resolve their biggest challenge by getting fresh perspectives and accountability. The format serves as a model they can use in their companies as well: each member is expected to identify the issues around the problems and then propose the alternative solutions under consideration. 
  • What habits do you have which hold you back from being the kind of leader you want to be?  We’re often focused on (new) things we want to do, without understanding that the best way to get rid of a bad habit is to substitute a good one for it. Similarly, you manage your time better when you recognize that, to have 4 extra hours a week to work on a project, you have to give away 4 hours of activities.

What questions help you coach your team more effectively? Share them with us.  If you feel that Vistage might be a tool to help you be a more strategic leader, feel free to contact me to discuss experiencing it! (Jerry.cahn@vistage.com)

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