Young Leader, Veteran Team


 
QuestionI am a projects and operations manager at a multinational oil giant based in Cape Town, South Africa. I have seven people reporting to me. I am twenty-four years old and the youngest member of my team—the ages range from thirty to forty-three. What strategies/tactics can I use to gain genuine respect and trust of my direct reports? We have been working as a team for the past seven months.


 
Answer
As you’re finding out, positional authority is only vaguely useful for getting things done in an organization. The right job title will certainly get people to follow directions thanks to social psychology’s “obedience to authority” principle (see “Harnessing the Science of Persuasion”) but it won’t engage or align them unless they respect and trust you. Respect and trust don’t come from an organizational position; they come from building a strong relationship. Trust and respect are intertwined, but distinct; you can give respect without trusting, and you can trust without giving respect.

You’re six years younger than the youngest member of your team, so don’t count on gray hair or decades of industry experience to contribute to building respect. You’ll have to earn it from scratch.

Let’s build respect the old-fashioned way: by showing you’re really good at what you do. Being the youngest on your team, don’t even try to demonstrate the highest technical expertise. Even if you are the best technically, people won’t feel great about being out-performed at their own game by someone half their age. They will feel great, however, at having their own strengths magnified by someone who’s becoming a really good leader. Build respect by demonstrating excellence at leading.

Ask for help


First things first. Address what no one’s talking about: your age. People trust you when they believe you understand them. When you say what everyone is thinking but afraid to say, you’ll build trust rapidly. Done well, admitting when you’re in over your head can be the foundation for strong relationships. “I’m younger than the rest of the team, yet I’m the manager. We have a job to do as a group. I don’t have your industry experience, and I’m counting on you for our success. My job is doing what I can to help you create that success. If we all do our part, we’ll make a superb team.”

You’re laying the issue on the table and using it to frame a mutual working relationship. Yes, you’re young. And that’s just a fact. The team can either get over it, pull together, and get the work done, or they can turn it into a problem and stonewall. Either way, once you’ve had this conversation, you can talk about the choice they’ve made, rather than silently accepting their implicit reaction.

Now, start helping your team shine. If you make your team members successful as individuals and as a group, you’ll earn not only trust and respect, but also that most coveted leadership quality: loyalty.

Set a mission

Teams that shine use each person’s strengths to get the greatest results. But before you delve into strengths, you need a team mission to set the direction.

Make sure everyone knows and buys into the mission. The mission is why the group was formed in the first place. If you don’t have one, ask the group to help develop the exact wording based on the team’s original charter. Have them choose words that are meaningful and emotionally charged to them. What’s important is that the mission be more than just nice words. It will be how people know they’re doing the right thing. If your team will “develop processes that make existing production more effective” and everyone knows it, they know not to spend time brainstorming new product development. Since a mission is a definition of success, make sure it aligns with your boss’s idea of what success means for the team.

Missions and goals may be vague or may become obsolete over time. That’s fine. Notice when they aren’t adequate and fix them as needed. Just make sure everyone shares an understanding of the team’s current direction. Unless goals are clear, communicated, and agreed upon, you’ve already lost the battle.

A big part of your job is keeping people aware of the mission. Many new leaders assume that once the team knows what it’s supposed to do, all will be well. Nope. Daily work sucks people in and they gradually lose sight of the goal. Remind them often. Use the mission to introduce weekly status meetings, and ask the team to relate their status reports to the team’s larger objective.

Figuring out team dynamics


Once you have a common goal, you’re ready to enlist the team in crafting their working relationship. Take the time to understand each person’s unique strengths and blind spots. For each person, challenge the group to ask:

  • What are that person’s strengths?
  • How can that person’s strengths contribute to the group?
  • What support will that person need from the group to use his strengths most effectively and to compensate for weaker areas?

Include yourself in the discussion. You’ll be contributing direction, facilitation, and management. You’ve already said that your strengths don’t include decades of industry experience, so the team can expect you to bring them questions only experience can answer. Likewise, invite them to tell you when their experience contradicts your plans or decisions. With a roadmap of skills and needs, the team provides mutual support towards a common end.

Your job description as a leader is simple: Support your team in whatever they need to meet their goals. Your goal—telling the truth, framing the relationship as mutual support, setting direction, and aligning team members’ strengths—builds culture and working relationships. In the day-to-day, your team’s need for additional support will change. You’ll find yourself acquiring resources, scheduling projects, and shielding people from organizational politics. By occasionally asking, “How can I help you do your job better?” you’ll quickly learn how you can help your people succeed.

The more you demonstrate true commitment and honesty, the more people will trust you. The better you do your job, the more the team will respect you. You’re doing your job well by honestly addressing the status quo and having the group design working relationships that bring out their best. You may be the only manager in your team members’ careers who has taken this approach. They’ll respect and trust you for doing what it takes to make them successful, and won’t care for a moment that you’re twenty years their junior.

The Essence of Leadership


 
QuestionAs the author of this column, I receive a number of questions each month on the topic of leadership. Manu asks how young men and women in India can be taught to think about leadership. A pharmacy director in the U.S. is having difficulty firing up a small number of workers who are not engaged in their work. Linda wants tips on being more decisive. An executive leading a crossfunctional team asks: “How can I motivate them to stay committed to the team and focused on our goals when they have their day-to-day work responsibilities?”
The answers to these questions begin with the very basics. What is the definition of leadership?


 
Answer
In my experience, “business leadership” is often associated with a CEO of a company who made a lot of money and got rich in the process. Yet when clients tell me their company needs leadership, impressive job titles and large salaries aren’t what they’re after.

We say, “So-and-so is a born leader.” No such thing. Leadership is a relationship between a person and a group plus the skills to guide the group to success. As with any relationship, success depends on both parties. One group’s stellar leader may fail utterly when leading another group. The lack of competent leadership is the number one complaint I hear from non-CEOs.

Rather than just study leaders (thousands of books on leadership cover that ground), I’ve asked hundreds of people who they follow and why. They say leadership is emotional; it’s about inspiration, motivation, and connection. Unlike management, it doesn’t lend itself to systems, structure, and traditional classroom teaching. What inspires people to follow is surprisingly consistent, and surprisingly simple. But be forewarned: Simple doesn’t mean easy!

Establishing the leadership relationship

Call it “vision,” or “mission,” but it all boils down to one thing: First and foremost, people look to leaders for direction. Only by knowing their organization’s direction can people apply themselves to achieve their goals. It needn’t be formally stated; the leader’s actions and decisions convey the direction to the company. The direction needs to pervade every decision and conversation within the company, and it’s the leader who makes that happen. Providing direction for others is a key to creating a leadership relationship.

Even with direction, people must trust a leader. Trust is built on honesty and integrity. People want the truth from their leaders. Outrage from Watergate, the Monica Lewinsky affair, Enron, and many other public scandals were fueled less by the events than by the accused parties’ cover-ups and lies. When Salomon Brothers covered up improper trading in an early-1990s scandal, it fueled the flight of a billion-dollars’ worth of customers as people lost trust in the organization. Warren Buffett rescued the company by using complete and total candor with Wall Street and regulators as a way of restoring trust. Far from being a disaster, telling the truth proved astonishingly effective in quickly restoring the company’s integrity, with a minimum of fines.

Leaders must have integrity, establishing clear values and living those values. One of my clients worked for a newly public company whose CEO urged employees to hold their shares to keep investor confidence high. He then sold several million-dollars’ worth of his own shares. He responded to his employees’ feelings of betrayal saying, “It was just a small percentage of my holdings.” But that didn’t matter! He contradicted himself by selling shares while exhorting his employees to hold theirs. It killed his leadership.

Interestingly, the key is having actions match values, more so than what those values are. If one leader values quality and another values speed-to-market, they will simply attract different people to their organizations. But in either case, they must live their values consistently.

Consistency is another vital leadership element. When a leader changes direction with the market fad-of-the-day, or when his or her values shift according to the latest public opinion polls, people stop following. People want dependable leaders who provide a touchstone in times of change. You may ask: In a world of constant change, don’t we need to shift and adapt? Of course. But you must choose a direction and values that stay stable even while adapting your tactics.

A software company once had a company vision, “We will produce the best ABC widget for DOS the world has every seen.” It was a great vision statement, until Windows squashed the company out of existence. The software maker’s vision was so narrow it couldn’t adapt to change. A mission of, “We will solve the ABC problem for computers worldwide” would have been flexible enough to keep the vision while adapting to technological evolution.

Lastly, followers need to feel connected to their leaders. Leaders almost always connect through shared values; that’s one reason followers leave when a leader doesn’t live his or her values. Helping people feel they are part of something much greater—giving them a personal vision—is another strong tactic. For instance a leader in the healthcare industry may say, “You’re not just joining our company, you’re becoming part of transforming the world of healthcare.” Recognizing and rewarding employee achievement helps cement the connection. On the other hand, taking credit for others’ work is a powerful connection destroyer.

I was surprised by this framework’s simplicity—direction, integrity, consistency, and connection. But its simplicity hides how difficult it is to pull off. It’s difficult because these qualities can’t be faked for long. Creating a direction is easy. Integrating it into every breath and decision is not. Choosing values is easy. Aligning behavior, decision making, policies, and organization around those values is not. Consistency is easy … until things don’t go quite as planned. And connection is easy until things get busy and instinct tells us to stop all this fluffy foolishness and just get down to work.

Building the organization

Direction, integrity, consistency, and connection create the leadership relationship. That’s a first step in building an organization, but it doesn’t address the issue of how leaders make their organizations successful. History is littered with great leaders who didn’t have a clue how to turn their leadership into an enduring business. Let me share some of the highlights:

  • Focus, focus, focus. Know what the organization should be doing and ruthlessly say “no” to anything that would be a distraction.
  • Play to individual strengths. Understand the abilities of everyone you hire and make sure their job plays to their strengths. Don’t spend too much time developing weak areas. If someone can go from good-to-great in their strength, that’s more valuable to the organization than taking someone from poor-to-acceptable. Build organizational competence by teaming up complementary skill sets. Ditto for yourself; know what you’re good at and can do well, and spend most of your time doing that.
  • Play to organizational strengths. Stick to what you’re good at as a company, and get very good at it. If you’re a great software company, opening a chain of high-end fashion clothing stores won’t build a strong organization.
  • You can train people for skills, but it’s much harder to hire attitude. Most companies hire for specific job history or resume keywords, which is precisely the wrong way to go about it.
  • Bring out the best in your people. Hire the best, give them a common direction, and let them do their job. You’ll have a much stronger organization than if you make yourself too important. Remember: Every time you hire someone who isn’t as smart as you, you lower the average IQ of the company.

My favorite books on building organizations are Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t by Jim Collins (it also touches on the “Level 5” leadership character qualities that correlate with success), The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization by Peter Senge, with Bryan Smigh, Charlotte Roberts, Richard B. Ross, and First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently, by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman. All are research-based, easy to read, and have enough great material to keep you building organizations well into the next century.

Most of this column has concentrated on the “soft” skills. When it comes to leadership, I remember what the COO of a multibillion-dollar company once told me: “At the end of the day the financial and strategic issues are there but they are reducible largely by analytics…the people and process issues are not.” If your goal is to become a successful business leader, your route will be smoother if you spend some time working on relationship skills and “softer” aspects of leading. Because at its heart, leadership is nothing more and nothing less than inspiring others to follow your dream and doing what it takes to make possible their success.

No Authority? Use Persuasion


 
QuestionI am leading a cross-functional team in a company initiative but the members on the team do not report to me. How can I motivate them to stay committed to the team and stay focused on the goals established when they have their day-to-day work responsibilities?


 
AnswerDéjà vu! My first project management job was the Quicken VISA Card. We were creating software to import credit card statements into financial software. The software had to be integrated with six different Intuit products. I had “dotted-line” relationships galore, but no one who actually reported to me. Much of my team had other primary projects, all with separate deadlines.

Leading a team in those circumstances is an ongoing negotiation between you and your team’s other priorities. You need to capture your team members’ share-of-mind, and keep them wanting to move the project forward. Unlike a direct supervisor, you don’t have the tool of authority to help. You’ll have to rely on relationships and persuasion.

Easy commitment

Think of your job as helping your team members make your project a priority. You need to know enough about them and their competing commitments so you can work the joint project into their lives. Schedule a one-on-one meeting with each member. Find out what else they’re working on, how much time they can commit to the team, and what their big challenges are. Ask about challenges related to their other projects, and spend some time brainstorming ways that you can help them on those projects.

Don’t be afraid to confront the elephant in the room: “Our project isn’t your top priority, so how can we insure we make forward progress while helping you complete your other priorities?” Just asking the question signals that you care about their priorities. They’ll often care about yours in return.

Once you know their other goals, lend them resources. Intervene on their behalf. You heard right: Help them succeed at their competing commitments. The more they fulfill those commitments, the more time they’ll have left for you, and the more they’ll become committed to your project.

Is one of your team distracted by a national product launch, for which the logistics are screwed up? Help straighten out the logistics, even though it isn’t your job. You would love it if she made you a priority over their other commitments, so demonstrate you’re willing to make her the priority as well. Do something selfless for her. She’ll respond. It just might be the first time someone other than a direct supervisor tried to make her life easier.

Staying in mind

Once you’ve opened channels of communication, diligently maintain the relationship. As in many relationships, frequency trumps duration: People remember many brief encounters more than a single long one.

Have you ever attended a full-day project kick-off, followed by six months of silence from the project team? That’s called “getting off to a resounding thud.” When a project starts quietly but comes up daily in conversation, it infiltrates your thinking and becomes part of the culture. That’s what you’re after. You want your project ever-present in your team members’ minds.

But you want it to be present in a good way. Make sure each project-related contact leaves people feeling like it was a good use of time. That means finding excuses to interact that aren’t “status meetings.” Most people dislike status meetings. Personally, I despise them. For frequent-but-brief contacts, connect to provide value to your team members and use as little of their time as possible. Contact them with help, with direction they need, with resources, or with one-on-one requests for status. Remember: Your goal with these contacts is simple awareness.

In addition to awareness, a team for a large project may need to feel a team identity. Do that separately. I believe teamwork should happen naturally, not through off-sites and ropes courses. From your early meetings and ongoing relationship-building, you’ll understand the needs and strengths of your team members. Facilitate their working together, so they build respect for each other as part of getting the work done. Find opportunities for them to help each other and match them up at those times. “Hmm, Sandy, you need help with the bar graph tool? Did you know that Aaron was working on it just last week?” If team cohesion is a real issue, ask them if they would like formal team-building meetings. At all times, let them drive the process in a way that works given their other commitments.

Put your project in context

If people in your organization are generally committed to the goals of the overall organization, you can strengthen commitment to your project by helping them understand how the project fits into the company’s larger goals. For instance, if the company is branching out into new markets with your project, you can help the team understand that the project is strategically important, and not just busy work.

Uncovering Opportunities to Help

Similarly, if there is an executive whose organization spans both your project and your teams’ areas, you might want to ask the executive to talk at a team meeting, to reinforce how much the project matters to the organization.

Appealing to company goals is powerful in a healthy environment, but should be done with caution if morale is low. In some companies (often those with histories of layoffs or unfair treatment), people view the company and its success very cynically. Appealing to company goals won’t be motivating. In many companies, however, people feel loyalty to and care about the company. They’ll be motivated to help the business reach its goals.

There’s no perfect answer to managing a team with other commitments. But if you take the time to make it easy for your team members to contribute, keep your project top-of-mind, and help them understand how important it is, you’ll have the best chance of pulling together a team that can get the job done even amidst challenges and distractions.

Great Leadership for Great Teams


 
QuestionI am establishing a publishing house in Africa, and have put together a team with great potential. What strategies and skills must I employ to make the most of this potential? What is the best way to lead a crop of great people?

 
AnswerBy assembling a great team, you’ve already put yourself ahead of the game. Rather than jump-starting the company on your own, you’ll have the easiest time, the most fun, and probably the most success by developing the team and letting the team develop the business. You just have to organize them and point them in the right direction.

Have you ever worked in a really high-functioning team? In great teams, each member brings their best to the party. They only do the things they’re best at, and they do them superbly. The work gets divided to play to each person’s strengths.

Identify your team’s strengths

Get the team together and explore each other’s backgrounds, expertise, likes, and dislikes. Match your discoveries to the work, so tasks go to whoever is most likely to finish them well and quickly.

Does a team member have contacts, industry experience, or experience in specific companies that will be valuable to the group? Put them on related tasks. Experience in a functional area or two can make a resident expert in those areas. Those with great people skills should be doing people work, while those who prefer to work behind the scenes can do research and build infrastructure.

Don’t limit yourself to obvious business strengths. Mental traits can be even more valuable over time: long-term thinking, short-term thinking, idea orientation, data orientation, comfort with stress, technological comfort, people skills, strategic thinking, ability to challenge assumptions. There are hundreds of ways to slice mental traits, but whatever your framework, know that mental traits become great strengths when matched with the right challenge.

For example, some people prefer to follow established procedures. The business press worships “innovation,” “disruption,” and “destroying old paradigms.” Well, guess what? “Out-of-the-box” disruption is great for occasional big conceptual leaps, but it’s the established procedures that drive a successful business. And when boarding a plane, who really wants a disruptive, out-of-the-box pilot, anyway? Give me a pilot who loves completing their sixty-point safety checklist today with the same precision and care they used the first time they went through it.

A strength is nothing more—and nothing less—than a skill so well matched to a task that the results are stellar. Know your team’s skills, and you can all begin turning those skills into strengths.

Use your team to hone direction

Once you have the right “who,” the team can pool resources to choose the “what.” You’ve chosen a business, and your team can hone the strategy and tactics you’ll use to make it successful. In the book Good to Great, Jim Collins suggests that a team choose a single concept—your “hedgehog concept” —to unite the business. The hedgehog does only one thing: roll into an ironclad ball. But the strategy works so well that it’s invincible on its own turf. Your hedgehog concept comes from a brew of your individual values, skills, competencies, and a healthy dose of business sense.

Passion. Rally your company around something you can be passionate about. If you’re all deeply devoted to children, youngsters, and family, for goodness sake, don’t concentrate on publishing HTML reference manuals. Publish books for teens, young adults, and families. Choose a strategy that unleashes your collective inspiration!

Being the best. Your hedgehog concept should be something at which you can be the best in the world. It doesn’t mean you are the best, just that you can become the best. This can be trickier than it seems. Your team members and their skills will contribute to deciding where you can excel. Competition can also affect your choices. Even if you have the perfect team, existing players may have locked up areas of opportunity. If I were starting a grocery store, for instance, I’d be careful about hedgehog concepts that put me head-to-head with Wal-Mart. “Huge stores with great service” is a concept that’s taken. Even a superb team probably couldn’t be best in a world dominated by Wal-Mart.

Using Your Team’s Strengths

Economic viability. Your hedgehog concept should make money. You should also be able to identify your economic drivers in the form of a measurable “profit-per-x.” Often, the “x” is not obvious. For your strategy to make sense, you may choose a subtle “x.” Collins relates the story of a company whose strategy was to cluster stores in one geographic area to be most convenient for customers. Rather than measuring profit per store, the company realized that profit per neighborhood was the key to driving operations, compensation systems, and organizational learning in pursuit of convenience for their customers.

Monitor the commitments your team makes

As you begin implementing your strategy, pay close attention to the commitments you make. Commitments provide flexibility and focus, but can also bind you to a long-term course of action. Since your venture is quite young, you don’t have a lot of operating knowledge to choose commitments wisely. So keep yourself as flexible as possible until you’re fairly sure of your course of action.

Commitments come in all shapes and sizes, but some of the most powerful are the agreements you make on how to frame the world. Your beliefs about what customers want and how they behave, if propagated throughout your company, are a very powerful frame. Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, was famous for rejecting IBM’s frame that computers meant room-sized boxes that were only useful to large corporations. He built DEC and revolutionized the industry by inventing the minicomputer. Unfortunately, he got caught in his frame of the minicomputer being The Answer. Oops. In the late 1990s, his once-leading company was acquired by upstart PC maker Compaq.

Supplier and distributor relationships can become commitments. Decisions to vertically integrate (or not) can become commitments. Deeply held cultural values can become commitments. Large capital expenditures can become commitments. One entrepreneur recently told me his company had perfected the ability to open a new market and quickly achieve a 25 percent-plus profit margin. Unfortunately, while going up their learning curve, they built factories several times their optimal size. The company’s survival is still touch-and-go—not because it’s a bad business, but because early commitments have saddled the company with unproductive, expensive assets.

Become a leader, not a manager

Finally, spend regular time leading rather than managing. You’ve got a good team, and you’ve jointly chosen a direction. Now your job is keeping the company on track. Keep your team working well together, and make sure you’re building a company where everyone plays to their strengths. Know your hedgehog concept, discuss it regularly, and make sure it guides the company’s daily decisions. Spend time thinking strategically with your management team. Have them project the hedgehog concept out one, three, or five years into the future, and steer the company and its commitments towards that reality.

Your job is creating an environment where your employees can do their best. Give them all the credit. Recognize and celebrate their accomplishments. When they screw up, lead an “after action review” to help them learn. Remember that you’re building a culture that brings out and amplifies everyone’s strengths, so use mistakes as an opportunity to reexamine the strengths of the team and change your tactics, your assumptions, or your organization.

For now, focus on getting your company off the ground. You’ve hired the crew; together you’ve charted the course. Now stand back and let them bring the dream to fruition.

How Leaders Use Questions


 
QuestionDo you have anything to share regarding the subject of asking the right questions? Someone once said “Forget the answers; focus on asking the right questions.”

 
AnswerI’ll always remember the mid-1980s commercials featuring Lee Iacocca, then considered one of America’s finest business leaders, banging his fist on his board table and making tough proclamations. But consider the power of well-crafted questions. Statements invite agreement or disagreement. Commands invite rebellion or submission. How are questions different? Simple: Questions engage people. Questions can persuade an audience, align an organization, set direction, or focus attention on the things that enable people to learn.

The Socratic method

On a high school debate team, persuasion happens through fortified logic supported by facts and figures. Most companies work this way, too. You just lay out your logic, present supporting data, and voila—full buy-in is a cinch! … Not. That’s because we’re trained to argue when presented with someone else’s logic. As parents of teenagers can attest, the first reaction to being told what to do is to attack any logic, explanation, or data that isn’t what they want to hear.

Questions provoke answers, however. Ask a teenager “Where are you going?” and you will get an answer. (Most likely, “Out.”) What they don’t do is argue with the question or its assumptions. This is the basis for the Socratic method.

Rather than stating your logic, ask a series of questions chosen to lead your listeners to deduce the logic on their own. This questioning will take longer than lecturing, but you’ll save time in the long run. Your listeners will reach their own conclusion based on your questions. They’ll buy into a conclusion they’ve reached much faster than they will buy in to a conclusion that you just state.

To design your questions, first map out the logic that leads to your conclusion. Be thorough! Since you can’t control peoples’ answers, your data and logic must be airtight. (Otherwise be willing to be convinced when you get an answer you hadn’t considered.)

Here’s an example of the Socratic method in action: Imagine you’re trying to change your culture to judge people based on results, rather than hours worked. You could say this:

“What we really care about is producing business results. Working smarter rather than harder can sometimes produce results. We must reward people who get their results quicker by giving them a bonus based on what they produce, rather than the hours they work.”

You can imagine the response: “Sure we will, Pollyanna. And as long as people are working smart, let’s have them work smart for sixty hours a week.”

Here’s how you might present the same logic as a chain of questions. It takes longer, but it keeps the listener engaged in understanding rather than arguing:

Q: Do we want the business to meet and exceed its goals?
A: Of course.
Q: If we’ve met our goals, who should be eligible for bonuses?
A: Everyone who contributed significantly to meeting the goals.
Q: So what matters is that bonuses be related to each person’s contribution toward the goals?
A: Yes.
Q: What if someone figures out a way to work smarter, and reach goals with less work?
A: That would be great!
Q: And that would be as valuable as taking longer and doing it less efficiently?
A: Of course.
Q: So then how we should base our bonus structure?
A: Well… it should be based on working smarter and achieving results.

Using “how” and “why”

One of the biggest challenges in leading an organization is linking big-picture strategy to everyone’s daily actions. It’s all well and good to announce a sweeping vision like, “Our mission is to ensure the health and safety of everyone who uses HealthCo’s products,” but the next day, your facilities person still has to grab a plunger to clear out a clogged toilet. Guess what? She isn’t thinking about the company vision. And once the toilet’s working again, she probably still hasn’t made the connection between what she does and the company’s grand mission. Your job is to help her connect, and you can do it with questions.

In your conversations, ask, “How?” to help people move from high-level goals to specifics. “We want to build the world’s best widgets.” “How?” “Well, first we’ll look up widget in a dictionary. Then, we’ll…”

Ask, “How?” enough and you can go from leadership goals all the way down to the paper clips needed to reach the goals. In fact, most layers of management essentially take their own goals, ask, “How can we reach these?” and use the answers as goals for their direct reports.

Asking “Why?” or “What do we achieve?” does the opposite; it moves from specifics to reasons. We can ask our facilities person, “Why are you fixing the toilet?”

A: “Because people need working facilities.”
Q: “What will having working facilities achieve?”
A: “People can take care of themselves and concentrate on their work.”
Q: “And why do they need to concentrate on their work?”
A: “So they can do good work.”
Q: “And why do they need to do good work?”
A: “To ensure the health and safety of everyone who uses our products.”

Each “Why?” moves to more basic goals and causes. You know your organization is tightly focused when “Why?” eventually leads to the company’s vision, values, or purpose. It’s rare that everyone can link their job to the mission, but boy, is it worth shooting for—it energizes and inspires a workforce even more than stock options in an Internet company.

Create culture using driving questions

Linking jobs to mission sets organizational direction. But questions also drive personal behavior. If your people ask the right questions relentlessly, you can create a powerful culture.

Take Winters Plumbing of Belmont, Massachusetts. The founders have the audacious vision of a billion-dollar plumbing empire. They ask daily, “How can we so satisfy our customers so that they make us the world’s greatest residential plumber?” The answers have led them to reinvent how plumbers are hired and trained, how they dress, what they drive, and how they are paid. Winters just opened a $50,000 training center to help their plumbers keep getting better.

The driving question filters down to individual plumbers. A non-Winters plumber might ask, “How can I stop this leaky sink as quickly as possible?” They’ll fix a sink. But a Winters plumber will ask, “How can I give this customer a great overall experience?” They’ll arrive well groomed, in a freshly laundered uniform, fix the sink, and even vacuum the area, leaving it better than when they arrived. The right driving question makes all the difference.

As Marilee Goldberg, author of The Art of the Question (Wiley 1997), points out, some questions put us in a judgment mindset, while others stimulate creativity and problem solving.

When things go wrong, you can ask, “What happened and whose fault was it?” The answer may produce great diagnosis, along with a culture of blame and a reluctance to take risks.

Asking instead, “What was the root cause and how can we prevent it in the future?” may produce great diagnosis and encourage brainstorming about prevention.

Be careful to revisit your questions from time to time. A real estate developer I worked with surpassed her dreams and built a $20 million empire, but she was heading towards an early grave from overwork. Every morning, she asked, “How can I make more money today?” Good question for amassing $20 million. Bad question for building a satisfying life once the money’s in the bank.

We live in the so-called “information age,” with a virtual epidemic of people asking for data that won’t impact their actions one bit. They just like having data; it makes them feel secure.

If this describes you, resist! Think before asking. Know how you’ll use the information and whether it’s even the right question. I’ve taken dozens of customer satisfaction surveys that asked, “Did your problem get solved?” An important question, to be sure. But they didn’t ask, “Did your problem get solved after four hours on the phone with poorly trained customer service people who made you want to run screaming into the night?” In fact, the December 2003 Harvard Business Review presents excellent research showing that simply asking, “Would you recommend us to a friend? Why or why not?” could generate better information than a ten-page survey.

We’ve barely scratched the surface of how you can use questions as a powerful leadership tool. Questions can also be used to communicate beliefs, set cultural norms, and push the edges of people’s thinking. But for now, may I offer some questions that will help you make this concept real?

  • What are your current goals?
  • How must your organization act to reach those goals?
  • How can you use questions to persuade, align, create culture, and directly measure the world to help you reach those goals faster?

Answer well.

Managing Execs Who Didn’t Get the Promotion


 
QuestionThe managing director heads an organization with three vice presidents under him. For the last two years the company has been run this way and has been successful in turning around.

With reorganization on the agenda, it is proposed that one of the vice presidents be appointed as the CEO. This has led to resentment among the other team members. The fallout has been demotivation horizontally and vertically. What could be a “win-win” solution for this issue?

 
AnswerEgo, ego—who’s got the ego? Power, control, ego, and pride seem to account for the lion’s share of business behavior. Emotions at the top are propagated throughout the ranks; problems below may simply reflect problems at the top. So let’s start at the top in fixing the situation.

It sounds like what you really want is a healthy company. A healthy company needs a healthy executive team, and we all know what that looks like: The CEO has the respect and cooperation of the team. The team works well together, with each member bringing their top strengths and competencies to their jobs.

You need to align your executives behind a common vision of what a healthy executive team is. Gather your quarrelsome veeps for a heart-to-heart behind closed doors. They need to clear the air and then align behind a team they can all fully support.

Make sure everyone understands the common goal

Your executives must agree on the goal that’s really before them: creating a leadership structure that lets the turnaround continue and flourish. They’ll be tempted to include a goal like, “reach an accommodation where we three get what we want.” While that’s win-win for the individuals involved, it neglects the fourth player: the greater life form known as The Company. The company’s health affects everyone else working there. Keeping the company well fed and happy is more important than the personal whims of the vice presidents.

In the book Good to Great (HarperCollins, 2001), Jim Collins’s research shows that business leaders build the greatest companies when they put company interests ahead of personal interests. If each VP defines winning as “I get to be CEO,” then win-win is impossible. But since your VPs are surely great CEO material, they all know that a healthy company is the goal, not personal status and power. So make sure they abandon the goal of win-win and instead shoot for healthy leadership structure.

Your executives should keep one thing in mind: If the CEO slot hasn’t actually been awarded yet, their behavior now is part of their audition. If they’re tanking company morale because it looks like they won’t get the job, they’re demonstrating their unfitness for the position.

Introduce the brutal truth

The brutal truth, part one: When three people vie for the top spot, two won’t get it. Period.

The brutal truth, part two: The execs must work as a team and support each other. If they won’t, some of them will have to go—and it won’t be the CEO. All three were happy being VPs when they joined; it’s their elevation of one to CEO that’s causing the problem. The passed-over execs need to find a way to support the new corporate structure or leave. There’s no place in an executive suite for members who won’t do their job.
(Oh, yes… If they leave, don’t give them severance! By punting on the hard work of forging a strong team, they’re not earning their salary, much less anything more. You don’t want to send the message that divisiveness is a great way to collect a golden parachute.)

If they decide they want to stay and forge a strong team, it’s time to help them redesign their attitude.

Clear the air of emotional crud

Your executives may spend their time posturing rather than facing the tough emotions that underlie the situation. They need to confront and resolve the real emotional issues in order for the team to function.

Sometimes, just the chance to voice disappointment is enough. Emotions are often most troublesome when they don’t get to run their course. We may consider some emotions (discouragement, worthlessness) so mortifying that we never learn to acknowledge and move past them. But blocking an emotion before listening to it rarely lets us move on gracefully.

Ask your execs to use their feelings to get to their underlying motivations. This can get into sensitive stuff, so they can do this privately and just bring the result to the meeting. Have them recognize and acknowledge their feelings about the situation. Then have them ask, “What is this emotion trying to tell me?” They can follow this thread to find the real issue underlying the bad morale. That issue can then be brought to the group for discussion.

Emotional rescue

This section is based on my experience with emotions, not on any therapeutic or counseling models. I’m assuming your morale problems come from “everyday” emotional reactions. Severe emotional issues may require therapy. Here are some examples on how I might respond to these emotions.

I feel jealous. Jealousy means someone else has something that you want. Wallow in it for a few minutes, and then realize that someone else’s good fortune isn’t your misfortune. Behind jealousy is “I’m not getting what I deserve.” Sadly, that might be true. Welcome to reality—life isn’t fair. Maybe you deserved the CEO spot, maybe not. Either way, jealousy isn’t healthy for you or the team. You were happy as a VP before. Be happy now. If you can’t, consider therapy or coaching. The issue for the group: how to make sure that each person feels he or she is getting the rewards he or she deserves.

I feel betrayed. Betrayal means someone didn’t fulfill a promise. Who promised what? Be precise. If the board promised you’d be CEO and they didn’t follow through, you may have a legitimate complaint. If a board member mentioned you were in the running, you may have read a promise into that. Talk through the promise and subsequent events with your alleged betrayer and clear the air. Often, however, betrayal is a neat smokescreen for emotions like discouragement or worthlessness, which may be more awkward to confront.

I feel discouraged/small/worthless. Feeling discouraged means you aren’t getting results, and you’re internalizing the cause. Does being passed over for CEO mean you’ve hit your competence limit? Not at all! Promotions are only vaguely related to competence, even in the best of times. We’re raised to believe that every little thing that does (or doesn’t) happen to us directly reflects our ability as human beings. The real world is more complex and usually a lot more arbitrary. If three equal candidates compete for one job, two must be passed over. It’s not about competence; it’s about only having one job opening. The issue for the group: how to identify the executives’ competencies and meld them into their jobs.

I feel contempt. Contempt comes from believing that someone is incompetent in an area you’re super-competent. If you think the new CEO is an incompetent boob, you won’t buy in to the direction, strategy, or tactics he or she is setting. It’s time for persuasion! The issue for the group: Make sure the strategy reflects the entire team’s expertise and buy-in. Spend some time airing doubts, questions, and concerns. Create something that you can believe in. If you can’t, though, it’s time for separation. An executive’s job is to help a company succeed. While the current CEO’s plans may not guarantee success, executive friction, in-fighting, and sabotage will virtually guarantee failure.

I feel hopeless. Hopelessness just means you’ve stopped anticipating future success. So start now! Create a rich image for yourself of how you can make your current position a job that really lets you shine. The issue for the group is how to make that happen.

I feel anger. Anger means you feel threatened. It often comes from fear: fear of survival, of being unworthy, of loss, etc. Dig around for the underlying fear. You can handle some fears on your own. If you feel your survival is threatened, a little financial planning may make it obvious that a $200,000 salary is a tad above the poverty line. Some fears can be brought to the group. If you fear you’ll lose respect because you weren’t promoted, the issue for the group would be: How can you be sure you are still portrayed and treated respectfully?

I want more money, status, and control. Who doesn’t? If you can’t marry into it and didn’t get this promotion, stop griping and start building. Complete the turnaround and help grow the business. Growth brings more money, status, and control automatically. If that’s not enough, reopen compensation negotiations. If you’re only in it for the cash, it’s worth rethinking the fit between you and the company. The past few years have given us dozens of examples where executives who care only about the dollars can kill the business faster than any competitor.

Create a team they can align behind

Once level heads have prevailed, everyone has to ask the hard questions: Can I support the new CEO’s plans and strategies, and can I commit wholeheartedly to my current position as I do so?

If anyone answers “no,” it’s time to start negotiating graceful exits. At the end of the day, an executive who can’t get behind the company must be traded in for a better model. They’ll make decisions for their own best interests, and not for the business’s long-term benefit. “It’s all about me” behavior can be fine at manager or director levels but, especially during troubled times, it can tear your company apart at the leadership level.

Your situation is a tough one. The vertical morale problems will probably be OK once the top levels get sorted out. But this is a case where it’s not about what’s rational; it’s all about emotion. The top team has to settle its issues and back the CEO to heal any rifts in the company. The CEO has been chosen. Strong emotions are natural, but the solution is to use them to identify issues that can be addressed, and then move on. Whining changes nothing, and certainly doesn’t build a healthy company. It’s time for the team to buy in or say “bye-bye.”

© 2004 by Stever Robbins. All rights reserved in all media.

See other stories in this series.