President Trump, viewed as a CEO, part 2

President Trump CEO, part 2: Leading the Top Team

 

This is part 2 in a series on President Trump viewed through the lens of being a CEO. Part of President Trump’s great appeal is that he’s perceived as a successful businessperson. He’s even been talked about as being a President with CEO experience.

My article on the duties, responsibilities, and job description of a CEO, lays out four inherent parts of a CEO’s job. These are the parts of the job that, by definition, make a CEO a CEO. The CEO can delegate some things, but others simply can’t be delegated. Leading the top team is the CEO’s second main duty.

In the case of the President, the top team means the Cabinet. Most CEOs don’t immediately replace the top team of a company without seeking to understand something about who’s best for the job. Not so, the President. The President replaces the Cabinet immediately.

Hiring

Most people talk about elections as if it’s a middle school popularity contest. “My candidate won! Neener, neener, neener.” “My candidate lost, I hate you forever!!!” Let me be tasteful and diplomatic in saying that this is idiotic beyond belief (trust me, you don’t want to hear the non-diplomatic version).

Elections are a job interview. We may not like the slate of candidates we’re given, but they’re the candidates we have, and we have to choose one to fill the job.

I’ve heard it said that Trump was elected on the “pass it down” theory of competence: he doesn’t have to have great solutions, he just has to put the right people in place who have solutions.

Has he done that?

From his Cabinet picks, I don’t believe so. When hiring for a job, you generally look for relevant past experience, or a highly transferable skill set (e.g. general management).

A Cabinet pick oversees a multibillion-dollar organization. Not necessarily a business, an organization. Governmental bottom lines aren’t measured in dollars, but in civic terms.

Several appointees don’t necessarily know the playing field of the post they’ve been appointed to. That means that if they can get up to speed in any meaningful way, they have the same learning curve as someone just entering the field. I’m not sure that hiring candidates with the equivalent experience of a new college grad is the way to go.

In short, viewed solely through the lens of hiring the right person for the right job, it appears to me that Trump is not doing a good job.

Leading the team

Once he’s hired the team, he has to lead them. It’s too early to tell how he’ll do in that regard. Stay tuned.

Summary

Trump has appointed a top team whose qualifications for their specific roles are seriously in doubts. Many of his picks have no background in the areas they’ve been chosen to lead, no established reputations and connections in those areas, and no evidence in their backgrounds that they’ve managed similar efforts.

If I were an investor in a company whose CEO had just made these picks for leaders of the company, I would sell my stock.

UPDATE Jan 27, 2017: The entire senior administrative staff of the State Department just resigned. Good CEOs put proper succession planning in place for themselves, and understand the need for orderly transitions to keep things from spiraling out of control. Most institutional memory resides in the employees, not in the policies and procedures manuals. I’m extremely puzzled as to why Trump would allow something like this to happen, and not work harder to keep his senior team. This is a troublesome development, to say the least.

 

Part 3 of President Trump CEO, continued…

President Trump, viewed as a CEO, part 1

President Trump, viewed as a CEO, part 1

President Trump CEO, part 1: Setting Strategy

 

Part of President Trump’s great appeal is that he’s perceived as a successful businessperson. He’s even been talked about as being a President with CEO experience.

My article on the duties, responsibilities, and job description of a CEO, lays out four inherent parts of a CEO’s job. These are the parts of the job that, by definition, make a CEO a CEO. The CEO can delegate some things, but others simply can’t be delegated. Setting strategy is one of a CEO’s main duties.

Setting strategy

The CEO ultimately sets the strategy for a company. For a company, that means external, competitive strategy (how do we win in the marketplace against competitors) and internal strategy—how do we best use our internal resources in pursuit of success.

Strategic decisions generally have huge implications for a company or country. They involve moving time, effort, and money from one set of goals to another. They usually represent a multi-year commitment, whose effects won’t be seen until substantial investment is made. So strategic decisions are usually given a lot of thought and analysis.

Unlike businesses, countries don’t use economics as the only measuring stick. The goal isn’t to win against the competition. The goal is to provide a safe environment for the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of the residents. The outward-looking strategy certainly has economic components (e.g. tariffs, trade agreements, tax treatment of overseas corporations), but it also involves strategy around war and conflict, around global resource allocation, and around solving global problems that require cooperation between nations.

External strategy is complicated for a country

President Trump has made it clear that we will no longer be the world’s policeman, without compensation. That’s taking an economic approach to strategy.

That’s one piece of the puzzle. Unlike in business, however, countries deal in currencies other than money. Global problems affect us whether we want them to or not. China’s coal-fired power plants cause atmospheric pollution whose effects we feel. Power vacuums in the Middle East gave rise to terrorist groups like ISIS (ironically in response to our leaving Iraq too soon).

That’s what foreign policy is all about. It’s how we relate to the world stage vis-a-vis world problems. In America, the buck stops with the President when it comes to foreign policy.

There are a lot more moving parts when it comes to a country’s external strategy. External strategy needs to blend economics, diplomacy, war, foreign aid, and probably other things as well, if we’re to maximize our country’s well-being.

On his first weekday in office, today, he has already pulled out of the Asian-Pacific Trade Pact and the TPP. He is clearly sending strategic signals, that America will be withdrawing from free trade deals, with the hope that it will bring jobs back to America. Whether it does or not remains to be seen.

Between the time I wrote the last paragraph and this one, Trump has also actually given orders to build a wall with Mexico, and has discussed pulling out of NAFTA. The speed of these orders and lack of discussion given to the implications suggest to me that these strategic-level decisions are being made dangerously quickly.

Non-economic issues matter to a country’s external strategy

So far, the non-economic elements of Trump’s strategy are a mixed bag. He’s done some things that have horrified career diplomats, such as hinting that the US will pull out of NATO. That may be a negotiating strategy designed to get other countries to foot their part of the bill (an economic strategy). And at the same time, the rest of the world is looking at the non-economic elements (their own safety) of that statement.

His foreign policy might be brilliant. It might encourage other countries to fall in line behind us. Or it might scare others into shifting alliances and finding ways to need the United States less, which ultimately gives us less power in the world and less influence in world events that may affect us.

If it’s true that Trump is actually being manipulated by Russia, presumably Putin is doing so to the advantage of Russia, and not to the advantage of the U.S. But that’s probably a determination that will have to be made in hindsight.

There is already a motion on the house floor for America to pull out of the United Nations. That’s the kind of move that has huge potential repercussions. Some of those are psychological, but some are quite concrete. If we leave the U.N., and the remaining countries in the U.N. remain and act as a single body, we’ve just given up any sway we had as part of any issues the organization addresses.

I don’t think we can draw any conclusions, yet. He’s pulling a lot of levers very quickly, and we haven’t yet seen how the effects ripple through the world.

What he’s doing on the non-economic dimensions seems scary to me, but … he could be right. What he’s doing is drastic. Strategically? Just as we can’t know what the final benefits of his strategy will be, we also don’t know what unintended consequences such a strategy might have.

Internal strategy

Internal strategy is determining how best to use the resources of the country to increase overall well-being.

This one’s tricky; I don’t understand even a small number of the issues myself. As for national building blocks of well-being, here are some of the ones I am thinking of:

  • a population of 300 million
  • a public school system
  • certain publicly owned natural resources
  • an electrical grid
  • physical infrastructure
  • farmland
  • a market-based economic system
  • financial markets

The question is whether our CEO has any strategy that explores the interdependencies between these things over the next several decades, and whether our CEO has any strategy for how to combine them to help our country succeed.

Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t. I haven’t been convinced that any President in my lifetime has had much of an overall strategy. They all seem to have fragments of strategies for each area, largely disconnected from one another. Since all of those things influence each other, the one approach we know is probably wrong is to treat them as silos.

From what little I’ve heard Trump say, I don’t think he has any kind of sophisticated strategy for best using our internal resources. This does not make him unusual, however. If any other candidate, or any President I’ve heard in my lifetime, has had such a strategy, they’ve never talked about it in public.

Trump’s appointment of non-scientists to posts which require scientific knowledge (or at least the understanding of what science is and how it works) is worrisome. America’s strength over the last century and a half has come from our technological progress, on which we’ve built our economic and business progress.

We’ve already ceded several important industries to other countries: manufacturing, computer hardware and electronics fabrication, etc. Now’s the time to be doubling down on education and scientific infrastructure that can form the basis for American and world prosperity for the next century. My impression is that Trump is going in exactly the opposite direction.

Summary

Trump is making rapid-fire strategic decisions that have global and local implications for the economy, for the environment, for the future of our national competitiveness, and for our safety. On the surface, his policy decisions seem to be made as a hodge podge of campaign promises, not as part of an integrated strategy that takes into account the multiple dimensions of his actions.

While it’s too early to tell how his strategies will play out, I’m pessimistic. In my experience, big, complex decisions made hastily don’t often lead to success.

 

Part 2 of President Trump CEO, continued…

Leading by Example: Walking Your Talk … Under a Magnifying Glass

Why don’t my people just do what I say?

It’s a common refrain among my executive clients. Life at the top would be so much easier, if only “they” would “get it.”

In fact, your employees probably _are _doing what you say. You just may be saying things you don’t intend. It’s often not your broad proclamations that give direction; it’s the little things you do that have the biggest impact.

Your actions encourage and discourage behavior

Remember when you were a front-line employee. Executives’ actions were relentlessly scrutinized. A late arrival, a smile, or a nod could introduce chaos. A CEO I worked with was looking over his marketing department’s latest campaign. He frowned at a storyboard before strolling away.

Unknown to him, the team saw the frown, scrapped the campaign, and spent the weekend reworking everything from the ground up. When he found out, he was flabbergasted. He never thought a simple frown would change the team’s direction.

Your reactions to employees and their work will send signals. Remember this! If you notice yourself frowning or smiling, nodding or shaking your head when it may send the wrong message, stop. Think about the message you may have sent, and say or do whatever it takes to make sure your audience knows your intent.

Watch your words, too. A joke may not be a joke. A consulting firm’s Managing Director smiled and quipped “Remember, if you’re not here Sunday, don’t bother coming in Monday.” He was smiling. Everyone knew he was joking. And as one team member later told me, “I felt like I had to come in Sunday. Sure, he was joking. But he’s the Managing Director. Maybe it’s not 100% a joke.”

You lead by demonstration

Of course, the Managing Director was there Sunday, thus insuring everyone would know weekend appearances are mandatory. Your actions will, by demonstration, always be the most significant way you communicate standards of behavior and priorities to your company. The Managing Director cared deeply that his people have an outside life, and said so on many occasions. But his coming in on weekends spoke louder than his words in signaling acceptable behavior.

What you don’t do also matters

What you don’t say out loud, the actions you don’t acknowledge, and the signs you don’t show send powerful messages, as well. The messages sent by omission are harder to detect. After all, there‘s nothing there to examine! But there are things your employees might expect that aren’t forthcoming.

If you don’t acknowledge people, it can send a message that you don’t value their contribution. Different people need different acknowledgment. For some, it’s public recognition. For others, it may simply be mentioning “Hey, you did a really great job.”

If you don’t give feedback when someone does a poor job, you send the message that their performance is fine. If someone is screwing up, they deserve to know as early as possible. Otherwise, they’ll walk away with a message that does neither of you any good.

Common courtesy is increasingly rare, and its absence communicates a subtle lack of respect or lack of individual concern. A simple “Please,” or “Thank you” with a smile and direct eye contact takes only a couple of seconds. If you don’t have time even for that, then people will (rightly!) conclude they aren’t important enough to warrant your attention.

Making decisions in isolation quickly lets people know you don’t trust them. I have worked with companies in which the senior managers are very open with their big decisions, and other companies in which “we can’t tell them that” is a common refrain. As far as I can tell, involvement signals faith that your employees have something of value to contribute. When that involvement is missing, the message of distrust is loud and clear.

Not sharing bad news sends the message that everything is fine. It’s easy to keep bad news quiet, for fear of hurting morale. But framing bad news as a reason to rally builds a team instead of breaking it down. Shared challenge is the stuff of bonding. Use it!

A Great Business Leader Knows His Impact

Matsushita, one of history’s most successful businessmen, knew the impact he had on everyone around him. As this story shows1, he even appreciated the messages conveyed by what he didn’t do.

The father of $75 billion empire, Matsushita was revered in Japan with nearly as much respect and reverence as was the Emperor. And he was just as busy.

One day, Matsushita was to eat lunch with his executives at a local Osaka restaurant (Matsushita Leadership by John Kotter). Upon his entrance, people stopped to bow and acknowledge this great man. Matsushita honored the welcome and sat at a table selected by the manager.

Matsushita ate only half of his meal. He asked for the chef, who appeared in an instant, shaken and upset. The Great One nodded and spoke: “I felt that if you saw I had only eaten half of my meal, you would think I did not like the food or its preparation. Nothing could be less true. The food and your preparation of it were excellent. I am just old and can not eat as much as I used to. I wanted you to know that and to thank you personally.”

Concrete next steps

If you find yourself under the magnifying glass, here are ways of mastering the situation.

  1. Don’t get caught off guard. Schedule five minutes at the end of the day to review your day, note who you came in contact with, and simply ask yourself what messages you sent.

  2. Use the magnifying glass deliberately. At the start of the week, choose a message you want to communicate by example. Spend a moment or two identifying exactly where you can send the message, and how you have to behave to send it. Then do it.

  3. Check for messages of omission. During your daily review, ask yourself who you didn’t contact, but who might have expected it (you may not know who at first, but over time, you’ll learn). What message does the lack of contact send? What message will rumors of what you did do send to those who didn’t see/talk to you?

  4. Review company systems. To make sure you’re sending the same message as your company, review the systems once a year or so. Review your compensation plan: what does it communicate about company goals? What behavior does it encourage? Discourage? Review your decision making and feedback processes. Ask yourself if you’re omitting anyone or anything in those areas.

Communicate well!


  1. Matsushita story excerpted from Dr. Mark S. Albion’s Making-a-Life, Making-a-Living ML2 E-Newsletter #56. Free subscriptions and information on his New York Times Best Selling new book can be found at http://www.makingalife.com. ↩

How everyone can use powerful coaching questions, with Michael Bungay Stanier

How everyone can use powerful coaching questions, with Michael Bungay Stanier

Overcoming Email Overload

From Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge
October 25, 2004

Being at or near the the top of your organization, everyone wants a piece of you. So they send you e-mail. It makes you feel important. Don’t you love it? Really? Then, please take some of mine! Over 100 real e-mails come in each day. At three minutes apiece, it will take five hours just to read and respond. Let’s not even think about the messages that take six minutes of work to deal with. Shudder. I’m buried in e-mail and chances are, you’re not far behind. For whatever reason, everyone feels compelled to keep you "in the loop."

Fortunately, being buried alive under electronic missives forced me to develop coping strategies. Let me share some of the nonobvious ones with you. Together, maybe we can start a revolution.

The problem is that readers now bear the burden
Before e-mail, senders shouldered the burden of mail. Writing, stamping, and mailing a letter was a lot of work. Plus, each new addressee meant more postage, so we thought hard about whom to send things to. (Is it worth spending thirty-two cents for Loren to read this letter? Nah….)

E-mail bludgeoned that system in no time. With free sending to an infinite number of people now a reality, every little thought and impulse becomes instant communication. Our most pathetic meanderings become deep thoughts that we happily blast to six dozen colleagues who surely can’t wait. On the receiving end, we collect these gems of wisdom from the dozens around us. The result: Inbox overload.

("But my incoming e-mail is important," you cry. Don’t fool yourself. Time how long you spend at your inbox. Multiply by your per-minute wage(*) to find out just how much money you spend on e-mail. If you can justify that expense, far out—you’re one of the lucky ones. But for many, incoming e-mail is a money suck. Bonus challenge: do this calculation companywide.)

(*) Divide your yearly salary by 120,000 to get your per-minute wage.

Taming e-mail means training the senders to put the burden of quality back on themselves.

How you can send better e-mail
What’s the best way to train everyone around you to better e-mail habits? You guessed it: You go first. First, you say, "In order for me to make you more productive, I’m going to adopt this new policy to lighten your load…" Demonstrate a policy for a month, and if people like it, ask them to start doing it too.

  • Use a subject line to summarize, not describe.

People scan their inbox by subject. Make your subject rich enough that your readers can decide whether it’s relevant. The best way to do this is to summarize your message in your subject.

BAD SUBJECT:

GOOD SUBJECT:

Subject: Deadline discussion

Subject: Recommend we ship product April 25th

  • Give your reader full context at the start of your message.

Too many messages forwarded to you start with an answer—"Yes! I agree. Apples are definitely the answer"—without offering context. We must read seven included messages, notice that we were copied, and try to figure out what apples are the answer to. Even worse, we don’t really know if we should care. Oops! We just noticed there are ten messages about apples. One of the others says "Apples are definitely not the answer." And another says, "Didn’t you get my message about apples?" But which message was sent first? And which was in response to which? ARGH!

It’s very, very difficult to get to the core of the issue.

You’re probably sending e-mail because you’re deep in thought about something. Your reader is too, only they’re deep in thought about something else. Even worse, in a multi-person conversation, messages and replies may arrive out of order. And no, it doesn’t help to include the entire past conversation when you reply; it’s rude to force someone else to wade through ten screens of messages because you’re too lazy to give them context. So, start off your messages with enough context to orient your reader.

BAD E-MAIL:

GOOD E-MAIL:

To: Billy Franklin
From: Robert Payne
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Please bring contributions to the charity drive

Yes, apples are definitely the answer.

To: Billy Franklin
From: Robert Payne
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Please bring contributions to the charity drive.

You asked if we want apple pie. Yes, apples are definitely the answer.

  • When you copy lots of people (a heinous practice that should be used sparingly), mark out why each person should care.

Just because you send a message to six poor coworkers doesn’t mean all six know what to do when they get it. Ask yourself why you’re sending to each recipient, and let them know at the start of the message what they should do with it. Big surprise, this also forces you to consider why you’re including each person.

BAD CC:

GOOD CC:

To: Abby Gail, Bill Fold, Cindy Rella
Subject: Web site design draft is done

The Web site draft is done. Check it out in the attached file. The design firm will need our responses by the end of the week.

To: Abby Gail, Bill Fold, Cindy Rella
Subject: Web site design draft is done

AG: DECISION NEEDED. Get marketing to approve the draft

BF: PLEASE VERIFY. Does the slogan capture our branding?

CR: FYI, if we need a redesign, your project will slip.

The Web site draft is done. Check it out in the attached file. The design firm will need our responses by the end of the week.

  • Use separate messages rather than bcc (blind carbon copy).

If you bcc someone "just to be safe," think again. Ask yourself what you want the "copied" person to know, and send a separate message if needed.Yes, it’s more work for you, but if we all do it, it’s less overload.

BAD BCC:

GOOD BCC:

To: Fred
Bcc: Chris

Please attend the conference today at 2:00 p.m.

To: Fred

Please attend the conference today at 2:00 p.m.

To: Chris

Please reserve the conference room for me and Fred today at 2:00 p.m.

  • Make action requests clear.

If you want things to get done, say so. Clearly. There’s nothing more frustrating as a reader than getting copied on an e-mail and finding out three weeks later that someone expected you to pick up the project and run with it. Summarize action items at the end of a message so everyone can read them at one glance.

  • Separate topics into separate e-mails … up to a point.

If someone sends a message addressing a dozen topics, some of which you can respond to now and some of which you can’t, send a dozen responses—one for each topic. That way, each thread can proceed unencumbered by the others.

Do this when mixing controversy with mundania. That way, the mundane topics can be taken care of quietly, while the flame wars can happen separately.

BAD MIXING OF ITEMS:

GOOD MIXING OF ITEMS:

We need to gather all the articles by February 1st.

Speaking of which, I was thinking … do you think we should fire Sandy?

Message #1: We need to gather all the articles by February 1st.

Message #2: Sandy’s missed a lot of deadlines recently. Do you think termination is in order?

  • Combine separate points into one message.

Sometimes the problem is the opposite—sending 500 tiny messages a day will overload someone, even if the intent is to reduce this by creating separate threads. If you are holding a dozen open conversations with one person, the slowness of typing is probably substantial overhead. Jot down all your main points on a piece of (gasp) paper, pick up the phone, and call the person to discuss those points. I guarantee you’ll save a ton of time.

  • Edit forwarded messages.

For goodness sake, if someone sends you a message, don’t forward it along without editing it. Make it appropriate for the ultimate recipient and make sure it doesn’t get the original sender in trouble.

BAD FORWARDING:

GOOD FORWARDING:

To: Bill

Sue’s idea, described below, is great.

From: Sue

Hey, Abner:

Let’s take the new design and add sparkles around the border. Bill probably won’t mind; his design sense is so garish he’ll approve anything.

To: Bill

Sue’s idea, described below, is great.

From: Sue

Hey, Abner:

Let’s take the new design and add sparkles around the border…

  • When scheduling a call or conference, include the topic in the invitation. It helps people prioritize and manage their calendar more effectively.

BAD E-MAIL:

GOOD E-MAIL:

Subject: Conference call Wednesday at 3:00 p.m.

Subject: Conference call Wednesday at 3:00 p.m. to review demo presentation.

  • Make your e-mail one page or less.

Make sure the meat of your e-mail is visible in the preview pane of your recipient’s mailer. That means the first two paragraphs should have the meat. Many people never read past the first screen, and very few read past the third.

  • Understand how people prefer to be reached, and how quickly they respond.

Some people are so buried under e-mail that they can’t reply quickly. If something is important, use the phone or make a follow-up phone call. Do it politely; a delay may not be personal. It might be that someone’s overloaded. If you have time-sensitive information, don’t assume people have read the e-mail you sent three hours ago rescheduling the meeting that takes place in five minutes. Pick up the phone and call.

How to read and receive e-mail
Setting a good example only goes so far. You also have to train others explicitly. Explain to them that you’re putting some systems in place to help you manage your e-mail overload. Ask for their help, and know that they’re secretly envying your strength of character.

  • Check e-mail at defined times each day.

We hate telemarketers during dinner, so why do we tolerate e-mail when we’re trying to get something useful done? Turn off your e-mail "autocheck" and only check e-mail two or three times a day, by hand. Let people know that if they need to reach you instantly, e-mail isn’t the way. When it’s e-mail processing time, however, shut the office door, turn off the phone, and blast through the messages.

  • Use a paper "response list" to triage messages before you do any follow-up.

The solution to e-mail overload is pencil and paper? Who knew? Grab a legal pad and label it "Response list." Run through your incoming e-mails. For each, note on the paper what you have to do or whom you have to call. Resist the temptation to respond immediately. If there’s important reference information in the e-mail, drag it to your Reference folder. Otherwise, delete it. Zip down your entire list of e-mails to generate your response list. Then, zip down your response list and actually do the follow-up.

  • Charge people for sending you messages.

One CEO I’ve worked with charges staff members five dollars from their budget for each e-mail she receives. Amazingly, her overload has gone down, the relevance of e-mails has gone up, and the senders are happy, too, because the added thought often results in them solving more problems on their own.

  • Train people to be relevant.

If you are constantly copied on things, begin replying to e-mails that aren’t relevant with the single word: "Relevant?" Of course, you explain that this is a favor to them. Now, they can learn what is and isn’t relevant to you. Beforehand, tell them the goal is to calibrate relevance, not to criticize or put them down and encourage them to send you relevancy challenges as well. Pretty soon, you’ll be so well trained you’ll be positively productive!

  • Answer briefly.

When someone sends you a ten page missive, reply with three words. "Yup, great idea." You’ll quickly train people not to expect huge answers from you, and you can then proceed to answer at your leisure in whatever format works best for you. If your e-mail volume starts getting very high, you’ll have no choice.

  • Send out delayed responses.

Type your response directly, but schedule it to be sent out in a few days. This works great for conversations that are nice but not terribly urgent. By inserting a delay in each go-around, you both get to breathe easier.

(In Outlook, choose Options when composing a message and select Do not deliver before. In Eudora, hold down the Shift key as you click Send.)

  • Ignore it.

Yes, ignore e-mail. If something’s important, you’ll hear about it again. Trust me. And people will gradually be trained to pick up the phone or drop by if they have something to say. After all, if it’s not important enough for them to tear their gaze away from the hypnotic world of Microsoft Windows, it’s certainly not important enough for you to take the time to read.

Your only solution is to take action
Yeah, yeah, you have a million reasons why these ideas can never work in your workplace. Hogwash. I use every one of them and can bring at least a semblance of order to my inbox. So choose a technique and start applying it. While you practice, I’ll be on vacation, accumulating a 2,000 message backlog for when I get home. If you want to know how well I cope, just send along an e-mail and ask….

Firing Up Organizations in Tough Times


 
QuestionThings are very tight right now. Our outlook is uncertain and people are afraid for their jobs. Under these circumstances I’d expect people to get more done, but somehow, we aren’t more productive than before. Any hints?


 
Answer
It’s funny, being a human being. You would think that when the pressure is on, we would flip into resourceful, productive mindsets and valiantly overcome whatever obstacles block the path to our goals. Alas, it doesn’t happen that way. When we feel scared and uncertain, our forebrain shuts down and our hindbrain screams, “Run!” That worked great when spotting the saber-tooth tiger grinning at us through the grass. But in the modern world, that’s often the opposite of what we need to do to survive.

Fear motivates immediacy


Creating urgency is a first step in mobilizing organizations. But an important truth about humans is that urgency easily slips into fear. Fear mobilizes, and it mobilizes away from the perceived danger. Which way is “away from?” Whichever direction someone is pointed when that hindbrain screams “Run!” Everyone around will also move quickly—in whatever direction they happen to be facing. Fear gets people moving now, but it won’t move them in the same direction.

Fear does more harm than just scatter effort; it produces stress. Under stress, creativity vanishes, problem-solving abilities diminish, and people stop learning. They react from impulse, they don’t think through consequences of their actions, and they become less able to spot patterns and interconnections. This is fine for a five-minute burst of jungle adrenaline, but it won’t lead to a workforce that can navigate a tricky economy.

Any workforce living in stress will have problems over the long term. When morale is bad for months at a time, people disengage. They stop thinking about taking the company to new heights and start groaning when the alarm clock goes off—and groans rarely bring out peak performance.

Leadership motivates coordinated action


Fear’s companion is, oddly, leadership. Fear motivates people strongly, but in random directions. Leadership aligns them in the same direction. Call it what you will: inspiration, vision, mission—setting direction gives people something to move towards. By sharing a vision, everyone in an organization can orient themselves around the same set of high-level goals.

Working towards a larger purpose also mobilizes people, but it mobilizes them in a way that unlocks their creativity, problem-solving, and resourceful mental states. When working towards a large goal they perceive as achievable but challenging, people create eustress, a positive stress that gives them the energy and resources to make progress on the goal.

It’s a big improvement when everyone is moving in the same direction, but one more piece is needed: coordination. The balance between good stress and bad stress is delicate. Once people agree on a goal and are psyched to go there, coordination becomes ever more important. If two groups become blocked by a lack of coordination, bad stress can re-emerge and begin shutting down morale again. So once people are mobilized, the ongoing challenge is making sure they’re supporting each other, and not getting in each other’s way.

Reconnect leadership at the top


The first step to getting the work force back into a powerful, productive mental state is to start with yourself. You’ve probably got the “Run!” response down cold. Now it’s time to reconnect with your “towards” vision. People take emotional cues from their leaders, and if you’ve been stressed about the economy, you’ll be radiating it throughout your organization, so get yourself and your leadership team into a powerful, positive place.

Leave the daily triggers that pull you back into stress. Turn on the voicemail, turn off the e-mail, smash the cell phone, and head off for a weekend in a mountain cabin. Get enough sleep, enough food, and enough physical relaxation so your brain starts working again. Reconnect to your vision. Write, daydream, and brainstorm where you want your group in five years, a year, six months, and three months. Factor in your personal goals as well so you really tap your own intrinsic motivation.

You’ll know you’ve done enough when you feel a strong pull towards your goals. Uncertainty about the economy may still be in the background, but once you’ve regained your equilibrium, you will also feel a strong sense of where you’re going.

Spread that feeling to the rest of your leadership team. Invite them for an off-site, and together, clarify the vision of where you’re headed until it’s at least as clear as perceptions about current problems. Take the time to make sure everyone understands the direction. Bring in their goals, wishes, and aspirations for the organization. While you work, watch their faces. Notice the energy level. When they start getting excited, you’ve tapped their motivation and gotten them back on a powerful path.

Back to the business, decrease stress


Once you return to daily business, you’ll have to decrease stress as you align people. Stress from specific causes (“My kids are sick.”) can be addressed on an ad hoc basis. Stress from vague sources like “the economy” is general anxiety. Often, you can help people by just letting people talk. Listen empathetically and don’t rush into solving or analyzing problems (for most of us type-As, this is much, much harder than it sounds). Feeling listened to can be enough to help someone regain equilibrium.

If the anxiety is about Things We Don’t Really Like to Talk About—like the fear of layoffs—talking can help defuse them. There’s no better way to nurture a fear than to let it remain the stuff of speculation. When left to their imaginations, people deal with uncertainty by imagining the worst and then reacting as if it had already happened. Truth is a great antidote for uncertainty. It is, after all, a form of certainty. Discuss what’s happening, even if all you can say is, “No one knows what will happen, but we’ll keep forging ahead toward our goals.”

Oh, yes. Keeping people healthy is also essential to soothing their nerves. Make sure people are sleeping enough. Sixteen-hour days are probably as productive as ten-hour days with enough sleep and an after-work life. Unless you run an assembly line, productivity is probably tied only loosely—if at all—to hours worked (but that’s another column).

Connect people to forward motivation


As you decrease stress, have the leadership team bring the sense of direction into all interactions. Remind people about the direction. Rally them. Excite them. But don’t overdo it; this isn’t about creating a huge one-time pep rally high. You’re setting a direction for the organization that you want to pervade decision making and keep people steady over the long term.

You build the strongest connections when decisions are made. Have your teams ask continually, “Will this decision move us further in the direction we wish to go?” Once everyone unifies around this question, coordination becomes possible and it will be much easier for people to move forward, which is what productivity is all about.

Your job becomes keeping your leadership team tied to the company vision, and helping them propagate the vision to their teams in turn. People are more productive when they know where they’re going and feel like they stand a chance of getting there. By reducing their stress and fear, addressing their uncertainty, and linking everyday activities to a future direction, people will be able to concentrate on producing results, rather than just running in circles from their anxiety’s imaginary monsters.

Stever Robbins is President of Leadership Decisionworks, a leadership consulting, speaking, and facilitation firm. His work is featured on LeadershipDecisionworks.com and VentureCoach.com.