Strategic 360s

360s for more than just development

Posts Tagged ‘accountability

What are “Strategic 360’s”?

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A colleague recently asked me, “Exactly what is ‘Strategic 360 Feedback’?”  Heck, it’s only the name of this blog and in the name the consortium I have helped form, The Strategic 360 Forum (that is meeting for its 5th time in April).  The concepts are also laid out pretty well in the article Dale Rose and I published in 2011 in the Journal of Business in Psychology (“When Does 360-degree Feedback Create Behavior Change? And How Would We Know It When It Does?”).

In as succinct way as I can muster, here are the four core requirements for “strategic” 360 feedback systems:

  1. The content must be derived from the organization’s strategy and values, which are unique to that organization. Often derived from the organization’s values, they can be explicit (the ones that hang on the wall) or implicit (which some people call “culture”). To me, “strategic” and “off-the-shelf” is an oxymoron and the two words cannot be used in the same sentence (though I just did).
  2. Participation must be inclusive, i.e., a census of the leaders/managers in the organizational unit (e.g., total company, division, location, function, level). I say “leaders/managers” because a true 360 requires that subordinates are a rater group. One reason for this requirement is that I (and many others) believe 360’s, under the right circumstances, can be used to make personnel decisions and that usually requires comparing individuals, which, in turn, requires that everyone have available the same data. This requirement also enables us to use Strategic 360’s to create organizational change, as in “large scale change occurs when a lot of people change just a little.”
  3. The process must be designed and implemented in such a way that the results are sufficiently reliable (we have already established content validity in requirement #1) that we can use them to make decisions about the leaders (as in #4). This is not an easy goal to achieve, even though benchmark studies continue to indicate that 360’s are the most commonly used form of assessment in both public and private sectors.
  4. The results of Strategic 360’s are integrated with important talent management and development processes, such as leadership development and training, performance management, staffing (internal movement), succession planning, and high potential processes. Research indicates that properly implemented 360 results can not only more reliable (in a statistical meaning) than single-source ratings, but are also more fair to minorities, women, and older workers. Integration into HR systems also brings with it accountability, whether driven by the process or internally (self) driven because the leader knows that the results matter.

Let me hasten to say that a) all 360’s, strategic or not, should have a development focus, and b) none of this minimizes the value of 360 processes that are used in support of the development of leaders, one at a time. There is no question that innumerable leaders have benefitted from the awareness created by feedback, though often also supported by a coach who not only helps manage the use of the feedback, but also should be creating accountability for the constructive use of the feedback.

Strategic 360 processes and “development only” processes can successfully coexist in a single organization. But they have different purposes, and purpose should be the primary driver of all design and implementation decisions.

Where is Theory Y?

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This column in Forbes by Rob Asghar literally paralyzed me for a few moments.

http://www.forbes.com/sites/robasghar/2014/11/24/the-difference-between-leaders-and-leadership-experts/

Forbes is known for taking provocative positions at times but this one challenges some of my core values as to what it means to be a successful leader, let alone good person.  In a nutshell, he argues that the only important factor in evaluating leader success is bottom line results, regardless of the process. In other words, any means to an end (thank you, Machiavelli).  Rob has no data to support his position, but he protects himself by saying that successful leaders (and he, himself) do not care to hear from the “experts,” i.e., social scientists like many of us, about process.  So what follows is probably an exercise in futility if I think it will ever be read by people like him.  But it gives me the opportunity to bring to you a few nuggets that I’ve seen relating to this topic in the last few weeks. And a couple that go way back.

First, this discussion gives us the opportunity to acknowledge the 50th anniversary of Blake and Mouton’s seminal book, The Managerial Grid. (As an aside, dozens of people entered into a recent LinkedIn discussion I began in the I/O Practitioners space regarding what are some core knowledge areas an I/O Psychologist should be expected to possess, though the discussion went off in other directions.  At one point I offered up the Hawthorne Studies, and I would add The Managerial Grid to that list. I will also add Douglas McGregor’s Theory X/Theory Y, discussed below.)

For the uninitiated, the Managerial Grid is a 9×9 matrix that plots leader behaviors on an X-axis (Task orientation) and a Y-axis (Relationship orientation).  Not by coincidence, McGregor’s Theory X behavior is very task oriented while Theory Y describes a much more participative style (with McGregor being first, around 1960).  In the Grid, ideal leader is 9-9, an equally strong emphasis on task and relationship. (I recall once when a colleague was trying to force me to do something and accusing him of trying to “9-1” me, that is to do something regardless of how I felt about it, which, by the way, is basically what Asghar is promoting.)

Leaders who demonstrate no respect for others occasionally do succeed. Of course, Steve Jobs is the most cited example. This past week I watch a PBS biography on Admiral Hyman Rickover, the father of the nuclear Navy, and I (and others) would add him to this list. He was universally labeled an “SOB.”  No one could remember him ever saying “thank you.”  But he was an obsessive believer in accountability, for both others and himself.  And he was consistent.  And, ultimately, he was successful in achieving his vision.  Mr. Asghar also uses Nick Saban, very successful coach at Alabama, as another example. But these are extraordinary people and exceptions in many ways.

Here’s another article, this time from HBR, which not only has data, it is titled “The Hard Data on Being a Nice Boss.”  https://hbr.org/2014/11/the-hard-data-on-being-a-nice-boss

Using various studies, the author (Emma Seppala) asserts the following:

  • Putting pressure on subordinates that increases stress that leads to high health care and turnover costs.
  • Acts of altruism increase status in the organization.
  • Fair treatment leads to higher productivity and citizenship behaviors
  • Leaders who project warmth are more effective.
  • Employees that feel greater trust for a leader that is kind.

So there is a cost to being a Theory X (9-1) manager, i.e., the health and well-being of your employees. And the cost is getting bigger everyday unfortunately with the state of our healthcare system.

In my last blog (https://dwbracken.wordpress.com/2014/11/13/trust-again/), I revisited the concept of “trust” and labeled it the “sine qua non” (without which there is nothing) of effective leadership.  Trust is a complex behavioral construct, but I totally agree that kindness is an important component. Kindness doesn’t have to mean being soft; it is more akin to empathy, having sensitivity to the feelings of others, particularly when the message is difficult. We are seeing “kindness” being mentioned in a growing number of organizations. Part of that comes from respecting the whole person and his/her point of view and emotions without having to abdicate the responsibility for delivering on individual, team and organization performance commitments.

This piece by Stephanie Vozza from Fast Company (http://www.fastcompany.com/3038919/mentor-or-best-friend-which-management-style-is-best) starts right off with this statement: “For decades, managers led with a heavy hand from corner offices.” She goes on to contrast that with how managers will be most effective in today’s workplace, building upon some work by the Addison Group.  She (and they) maintains that the answer isn’t to be the “best friend” of subordinates, but instead to be a mentor who provides guidance and advice, both on daily performance and careers.

(I do disagree with 2 of her points. First, she maintains that this situation is being caused by the arrival of millennials that have different expectations of management.  Au contraire!  ALL workers have a need to be respected with all the leadership behaviors that that implies, including honoring the value and needs of each person.

Secondly, I take issue with the use of the word “mentor” in this context. We should clearly differentiate between “mentor” and “coach,” specifically manager as coach. But these points get us off track from our theme here.)

Having done employee surveys for over 35 years and 360’s almost as long, recurring themes in drivers of engagement and evaluations of leader effectiveness continue to be trust and support in helping employees develop and plan for careers.

Let me add one other point to the value of believing that the “means” is as important as the end. An I/O colleague told me of a piece of research that has stuck with him that indicated that a strongest predictor of employee ethical behavior was immediate manager ethical (or not) behavior.  There are many potential explanations for why that is, but those are not as important as saying if we believe ethical behavior is important in our organization, we can observe and measure it, and, if it leads to more of that desired behavior, the organization and its customers will benefit. This, of course, applies to other important leadership behaviors, often captured in Values statements that hang on walls and too infrequently actually measured.

Allan Church and I bring the “how” versus “what” of performance into the Performance Management discussion in our article from last year (http://www.orgvitality.com/articles/HRPSBrackenChurch OV.pdf).  One of the points we make is that organizations are very good at measuring the “what” side of performance (i.e., tangible, objective achievements) and much less adept at measuring the “how” (i.e., the means to the end, the behaviors demonstrated).  A parallel argument can be made that leaders/managers/supervisors find it much easier to manage the “what” side, and, because it is more difficult, give much less (if any) attention to the relationship part of leading, including coaching.

We are certainly not advocating the abandonment of the “what” measures. We are suggesting that an overemphasis on the “how” side of leader behavior is needed until they balance out, both at the individual and organizational level, i.e., achieving more “9-9” management at all levels.

I suspect that the majority of the readers of this blog are the “experts” Asghar references and dismisses. And to you colleagues, I am hopefully preaching to the choir (as they say).  If that is not the case, then please let us know what that position is.

For those of you not in the “choir,” I hope you read Asghar’s piece and see if you think he has a valid point. Reflect on both how it applies in your organization and for your own behavior as a leader/manager.

Everybody should sit back and reflect on where/when we see or don’t see Theory Y behavior at all levels of leadership and how to create more 9-9 leaders.  We should demand accountability for both “what” and “how” measurement aligned with both strategy and organizational values.

©2014 David W. Bracken

Trust… again

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I wrote on the subject of trust not too long ago (https://dwbracken.wordpress.com/2014/04/01/a-matter-of-trust/), and, trust me, the subject isn’t going away. Since then, I have been accumulating a few more treatments of the topic of “trust;” it is another of those “know it when I see it” type of subjects, which makes it even more important that we compare our mental models to ensure we are thinking (and therefore acting) in the same way when we propose actions to address it.

One that caught my eye was posted in TD (http://goo.gl/8KXx5) (the ASTD, now ATD, magazine) by Doug Conant, who I recognize from his days at CEO of Campbell Soup Company and now Chair of Avon  .  In there he notes:

I think leaders have to have three traits. They have to be a person of great character, and in that spirit they have to do what they say they’re going to do… it’s a combination of character and competence. If the organization doesn’t trust you, you’re toast.

Erika Garms just posted a blog (that was referenced on LinkedIn) on the interaction of Accountability and Trust (http://goo.gl/eEmwWZ).  Her main point is that a focus on Accountability is not going to be effective if it is not preceded (or grounded in) the establishment of Trust.  This is an extremely important piece of advice (or warning) that speaks to the potential power of Trust to be a barrier to successful leadership when it is absent.

Marshall Goldsmith (see marshallgoldsmith.com) lists 20 behaviors that leaders need to fix; call them bad habits or derailers if you want, and they form the basis for his fantastic book, “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.”   I have referenced this list before in the context of listening (https://dwbracken.wordpress.com/2013/04/08/just-shut-up-and-listen/­), but let’s looks at it through this lens of a subset of those behaviors (in this case negative) that can damage trust:

Winning too much:  The need to win at all costs and in all situations – when it matters, when it doesn’t, and when it’s totally beside the point.

Passing judgment:  The need to rate others and impose our standards on them.

Making destructive comments:  The needless sarcasms and cutting remarks that we think make us sound witty.

Negativity, or “Let me explain why that won’t work”: The need to share our negative thoughts, even when we aren’t asked.

Withholding information: The refusal to share information to gain or maintain an advantage over others.

Claiming credit that we don’t deserve: The most annoying way to overestimate our contribution to any success.

Making excuses:  The need to reposition our annoying behavior as a permanent fixture so people excuse us for it.

Playing favorites:  Failing to see that we are treating someone unfairly.

Refusing to express regret:  The inability to take responsibility for our actions, admit we’re wrong, or recognize how our actions affect others.

Not listening:  The most passive-aggressive form of disrespect.

Failing to express gratitude: The most basic form of bad manners.

Punishing the messenger:  The misguided need to attack the innocents who are only trying to help us.

Passing the buck: The need to blame everyone but ourselves.
Trust is an elusive construct. My earlier Trust blog took a lead from the ATD study that honed in on integrity and honesty.  Mr. Conant throws in competence and character. Goldsmith’s list has a core message that it is created by the respect shown to others.

I would add to this list “Being Inconsistent”, i.e., arbitrarily changing your basis for decisions and actions both across time and across individuals to the point where it creates uncertainty and perceived unfairness. Of course, the other end of this continuum is rigidity, which is also bad.  In this context, “inconsistency” equates to unpredictability and capriciousness when the leader does not sufficiently explain the basis for his/her actions.

The good news is that it can be defined by behaviors (also see my earlier blog referenced above on this topic) and that behaviors can be changed. As I noted, behaviors begin as a choice. Many are not difficult to do, and, once accepted as needing change, can be honed to be even more impactful.

Based on this review, a Trust dimension on an upward (manager) feedback instrument might include:

  • My manager has the skills and abilities to perform his/her job well.
  • My manager is honest at all times.
  • My manager treats all people with respect.
  • My manager follows through on promises and commitments.
  • My manager treats others with consistency and fairness.
  • My manager listens to and acknowledges the viewpoints of others.
  • My manager takes responsibility for his/her actions and decisions.
  • My manager is willing to share his/her shortcomings and development needs.

Trust may well be the “sine qua non” of leadership effectiveness, whether at the organizational level or the individual leader (manager) level.  If you’re not acknowledging and measuring Trust in yourself and your leaders, you are probably setting a ceiling on leadership and followership effectiveness.

©2014 David W. Bracken

Written by David Bracken

November 13, 2014 at 12:32 pm

A Matter of Trust

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“Apologizing does not always mean that you are wrong and the other person is right. It just means you value the relationship more than your ego.”

I saw that anonymous quote on LinkedIn recently and it drew me back to a small note in Traning & Development magazine dated February 24 on this topic. (http://goo.gl/8X6yRe) The text follows:

A recent survey of 954 global professionals by the Forum Corporation found that although 87 percent of managers say that they either always or often apologize for their mistakes at work, only 19 percent of employees say that their managers apologize most or all of the time.

Naturally, managers not owning up to their errors has a direct impact on employee trust levels. Another interesting insight from the survey is that while 91 percent of employees say it’s “extremely important” to have a manager they can trust, only 48 percent of managers agree that it’s extremely important for employees to trust their managers.

So we can only assume that it’s those managers who do not place a premium on trust who are committing the following worst management sins, as identified by survey participants:

  • lying
  • taking credit for others’ ideas or blaming
    employees unfairly
  • gossiping
  • poor communication
  • lack of clarity.

Managers may condone their mistakes because they are afraid of tarnishing their image. According to the survey, 51 percent of managers believe apologizing makes them appear incompetent, 18 percent believe it makes them look weak, and 18 percent shrug it off, saying that apologizing is unnecessary.

Unfortunately, the study also shows that a low regard for employees’ trust may result in low engagement levels.

This note caught my attention for a few reasons. First, this concept of trust is one that is central to the “manager as coach” work we have been doing in defining the foundation of a productive relationship that is required (in our opinion) if a manager is to be a successful coach for his/her team members.

Trust is also manifested in the perceptions of senior management, whether that group is perceived as individuals or in their aggregate actions. Either way, time after time we see that employee surveys indicate that “trust in senior leadership” is usually the primary driver of employee engagement, confirming the last sentence of the article.

Secondly, the basis for trust (or lack thereof), as listed in the bullets, is determined by behaviors. Behaviors are a choice; a person can choose to do them or not. That choice can be influenced by consequences. Evidently, a majority of managers see more value in behaving badly. We can change that behavior by making them aware that they are behaving badly, and then having negative consequences for doing so. From top to bottom.

Thirdly was the discrepancy between the importance of trust to employees versus their managers. It is hard to believe that organizations do not preach honesty, integrity and so on, whether through Values statements that hang on the walls, or by lip service. It does suggest that there is inadequate accountability.

This T+D blurb is another in a series of articles and blogs I have seen recently that bemoan bad leader behavior and the effect on an organization’s climate (see my recent blog https://dwbracken.wordpress.com/2014/02/05/nimble-and-sustainable/), but with no specific recommendation as to a solution.

I really hate whining without a proposed solution. I have suggested that a 360 process with accountability (i.e., consequences, good or bad) is a viable solution.   I recently heard of a major organization that has introduced a new leadership behavior (competency) model, and, when I asked how leaders are to be measured against the model, the response what to fall back on single-source supervisor evaluation because “360’s haven’t worked here.” I felt like I was in a backward time warp to 20 years when we started talking seriously about the shortcomings of single-source (manager) performance evaluations (see Edwards and Ewen’s first 360 degree feedback book).

Behaviors can be shaped, starting with creating awareness that change is needed, aligning to the desired behavior, and usually requiring consequences (i.e., accountability). A few leaders will change without the carrot & stick, but those are usually the ones who are not the ones who need fixing.

If you have leaders who are undermining trust, you have a problem. I think there is a solution.

 

Big Data and Multisource Feedback

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Here’s another NYTimes Corner Office offering, featuring Laszlo Bock, SVP of People Operations at Google. (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/20/business/in-head-hunting-big-data-may-not-be-such-a-big-deal.html?pagewanted=1).  The first half is about hiring with some interesting observations (especially if you have responsibilities in that area).  The second half describes their Upward Feedback process, along with other HR systems. And, no, they are not a client.

I offer these observations for your consideration:

  • Big Data is the new fad, but many of us have been using large data bases to understand the impact of our change processes for a long time, whether at the organizational level (employee surveys) or the individual level (360 Feedback).
  • Your organization is not using “Big Data” (at least in the way Laszlo is describing) if you are using external norms.  Note that Google is using internal norms very aggressively, tracking progress in moving the norm over time AND giving percentile rankings for each leader.
  • The challenges he describes regarding hiring practices are very interesting, and it appears they are making some progress in implementing processes that are more predictive and more consistent. That said, hiring is always a challenge, and emphasizes the importance of using processes such as multisource (360) feedback to identify and either improve or weed out poor managers.
  • He speaks to the importance of consistency in leaders.  360 Feedback promotes consistency in a number of ways.  First, it defines the behaviors that describe successful leaders, a form of alignment. One of the behaviors can relate to consistency itself, i.e., providing feedback to the leader about whether he/she is consistent.  In addition, an organization-wide 360 process that is administered and used in a consistent manner can only help in reinforcing the views of employees that decisions are being made on a fair basis. Organization-wide implementation is the key to success in creating change, acceptance and sustainability.
  • Back to the percentile rankings.  I have found organizations strangely averse to this practice of letting the leader know where he/she ranks against peers.  As Laszlo notes, the challenge is to give the leader a realistic view of how he/she is perceived, and to create some motivation to change.  By the way, these rankings are one “solution” to leniency trends, that is, saying to the leader, “You may think you are hot stuff because you got a 4.0 rating (out of 5)  on that behavior, but you are still lower than 80% of your peers.”  That scenario is common in areas such as Integrity where we expect high scores from our leaders.
  • I am a little surprised that he believes that the managers can “self-motivate” in the way he describes. I am usually skeptical that leaders will change without accountability. I would like to know more about that.  I have already noted the use of percentile rankings that most organizations dismiss, and are seen are powerful motivators in this process.  Laszlo also describes a dialog of sorts with the leader at the 8th percentile. Who is that conversation with? If it is with another person (boss, coach, HR manager), that alone creates a form of accountability and an implied consequence if improvement isn’t seen. If the conversation is just in the leader’s head, it speaks to the power of the information provided by the percentile score.  Creating awareness is one thing. Awareness with context (e.g., comparison to others) is much more powerful.  (Maybe like, “That’s a nice pair of pants!  If it were the 60’s.”)
  • Lastly, Laszlo  speaks to the uniqueness of his and other organizations regarding what the organization needs from its leaders and how an individual employee might fit in and contribute. This clearly speaks to the need for custom designed content for hiring practices and then internal assessments once an employee is onboard.

Google is doing some very interesting research regarding leadership.  Go back and look at their work on leadership competencies that they publicized a couple years ago. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/13/business/13hire.html?pagewanted=all

Beyond the research, Google is actually using their Big Data to create a culture, define the leaders they require, and putting some teeth into the theory with upward feedback at the forefront.  Yet, at the end, he notes that all the measurement must be viewed through the lens of human insight.  The context is deeper than just organization; it is also moderated by the current version of strategy, the team requirements, the job requirements, and the personal situation, all of which are in a constant state of flux.

©2013 David W. Bracken

Aligning To Alignment

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I have been citing the “Corner Office” (NY Times) a few times lately, but I can’t help but do it again. Recently the guest was Salesforce COO George Hu (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/19/business/salesforcecom-executive-on-seeking-out-challenges.html?src=recg).  When asked about leadership lessons, he turns to the importance of communication and alignment.  He says, “We use this process called V2MOM, which stands for vision, values, methods, obstacles and measures.”

In this model, the vision and values part is the alignment component, basically what we are going to do and how we are going to do it (i.e., (my words) how we are going to treat each other and our customers).  I know that “alignment” is one of those terms that has been overworked but, in this case, maybe for a reason: it is important.

In some past blogs I have shared my ALAMO model of performance:

Performance = Alignment x (Ability x Motivation x Opportunity)

While all four variables in the model can drive a fatal blow by going to zero, Alignment is the only one that can also be a negative value because it can actually draw resources away from the organization if the individual/team/organization is working on the wrong thing. “Working on the wrong thing” can be accidental (by misdiagnosis or misdirection), or even purposeful (such as sabotage, where a very motivated person can destroy value).

Misalignment can happen to both the vision and the values part of his model, but I would like to focus on the Values part as it relates to the role that 360 Feedback can play in focusing the alignment of behaviors throughout the organization.

Many organizations have Values statements, often met with some well-deserved cynicism as a plaque on the wall.  Stating a value (e.g., Respect for the Individual”) must go much farther than just defining it. It must also must be defined in behavioral terms, that is, what an employee is doing (or not doing) when they are exhibiting that value.

Some of the most spirited meetings I have been in or led have been about what a Value means in behavioral terms.  Many, many organizations have some version of Respect for the Individual in its Values list. But what does “respect” mean for your organization?  Treating everyone the same regardless of level? Saying “thank you”? Acknowledging the viewpoints of others? Creating work-life balance (i.e, acknowledging personal lives)?  Creating diversity in practice?  You have to pick; the answer isn’t “all of the above.” A Value isn’t effective if it is vaguely defined or too encompassing.

One benefit of creating behavioral definitions of a value is making it very tangible if described specifically. I am reminded of the story of the homeowner who decided he need to fix his front sidewalk, spending all day on Saturday breaking up the old one, and replacing it with a nicely laid cement walkway.  As the sun was setting, he looked out his window admiring his handy work only to see a dog run up and down the walk, leaving his footprints for posterity. The man got his gun (sorry) and shot the dog.  When brought before the court, the judge looked down and asked, “Young man, just what were you thinking?” The man replied, “Your Honor, I really like dogs in the abstract, but not in the concrete.”  Ba bump.

Values are very easy to like in the abstract, but much less so in the “concrete,” as in your actions. Just ask religious leaders about that.

Another value that might seem obvious to you but not others is Integrity.  One version of Integrity is the core notion of telling the truth, not lying, not cheating, etc.  But more and more we see organizations who see telling the truth as a given, and choose to use Integrity as communicating the more subtle message of “walking the talk, “ as in doing what you say you will do, following through on commitments, and following the same rules/expectations that you set for others.

An organization-wide 360 feedback process built around an organization’s Values has many powerful benefits, including:

  • Reinforces the importance of the Values as part of the “how” side of performance
  • Requires the identification of the behaviors that uniquely define the Values for the organization
  • Are disseminated to all employees, usually requiring serious consideration as the raters perform their duties as feedback providers
  • Creates accountability for follow through assuming development plans are integrated into performance management processes
  • Creates a method for trending individual and organizational progress toward “living the Values.”
  • Can be used to identify leaders who do not comply with the Values

We would like to think that Values statements are enduring and wouldn’t require change very often. But if the organization finds that it needs to change its emphasis to support strategy (e.g., more customer focus, quality, innovation, accountability), the message can be quickly operationalized by inserting the behaviors (labeled as a dimension to further create alignment) in the 360 that is used by all segments of the enterprise.  This need to shift quickly is now called “Agility” in the vernacular, and organizations as well as individuals are being required to demonstrate it more than ever.

Alignment and Agility are intertwined, and communicate simultaneously focus and flexibility on both the Vision (“What”) and Values (“How”) that are uniquely defined by the organization.  I would argue that Alignment is one activity that cannot be overdone or overused, which is one message I take away from George Hu’s lessons of leadership.

Finally, one other message to take away from Mr. Hu’s V2MOM: Measurement.  Measurement reinforces Alignment, and you get what you measure. Measurement also creates accountability.  And a 360 Assessment, well-designed and delivered, does both. We largely know how to measure the “what;” show me a better way to measure the “how.”

©2013 David W. Bracken

Written by David Bracken

April 22, 2013 at 9:55 am

Just Shut Up and Listen

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I still get the Sunday New York Times in “hard copy” on Sundays (in addition to the electronic version the other days), partly because my wife and I are addicted to the crosswords.  Let me add that I am one of those people who mourn the fadeout of the newspaper, and often find that browsing the physical newspaper often exposes me to pieces of information that I would otherwise miss in the electronic version (whatever form your “browsing” takes, if at all).  (I believe, for what it’s worth, that a similar phenomenon is happening in the music world with the ease of downloading single songs and probably less “browsing” of albums where some other gems are often lurking.)

Back on topic, the Sunday NYT also has a feature in the Business section called “Corner Office” where a business leader is interviewed.  This week it was Francesca Zambello, general and artistic director of the Glimmerglass Festival and artistic director of the Washington National Opera. When asked about leadership lessons she has learned, she says:

When you’re in your 20s and have that leadership gene, the bad thing is that you don’t know when to shut up. You think you know all the answers, but you don’t. What you learn later is when to just listen to everybody else. I’m finding that all those adages about being humble and listening are truer and truer as I get older. Creativity cannot explode if you do not have the ability to step back, take in what everybody else says and then fuse it with your own ideas.

In the parallel universe of my personal life, my daughter Ali sent along an edition of the ABA Journal that references a study of the happiest and unhappiest workers in the US (http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/why_a_career_website_deems_associate_attorney_the_unhappiest_job_in_america/) that cites associate attorney as the unhappiest profession (which by coincidence is her husband’s job).  If you don’t want to go to the link, the five unhappiest jobs are:

1) Associate attorney

2) Customer service associate

3) Clerk

4) Registered nurse

5) Teacher

The five happiest are:

1) Real estate agent

2) Senior quality assurance engineer

3) Senior sales representative

4) Construction superintendent

5) Senior applications designer

Looking at the unhappiest list and possible themes/commonalities among these jobs, one is lack of empowerment and probably similar lack of influence in their work and work environment. (The job of teacher may less so, and its inclusion on this list is certainly troubling and complicated I am sure).  But I suspect that these first four jobs have a common denominator in the way they are managed that ties back to Ms. Zambello’s reflections on her early management style, i.e., having all the answers and not taking advantage of the knowledge and creativity of the staff.  It also causes me to remember the anecdote of the GM retiree who mused, “They paid me for my body. They could have had my mind for free.”

This is certainly not an epiphany for most of us, but more serendipity that two publications this week once again tangentially converged on this topic. I will once again recommend Marshall Goldsmith’s book, “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There” that is a compendium of mistakes that leaders make in their careers, including behaviors that might have served them well when starting their career but lose their effectiveness as they move up the organization. The classic case being the subject matter expert who gets promoted and assumes that being the “expert” is always the road to success. In Marshall’s book there are 20 of these ineffective, limiting behaviors (some might call them “derailers”), and when we think of the prototypical leader who wants to be the “expert” and doesn’t listen, it potentially touches on multiple behaviors in the list of 20, including:

2. Adding too much value

6. Telling the world how smart we are

10. Failing to give proper recognition

11. Claiming credit we don’t deserve

13. Clinging to the past

16. Not listening

Considering this list as possible motivators for the umbrella behavior of “not listening,” we can see how it might be very challenging to change this behavior if the leader believes (consciously or unconsciously) that one or more of these factors are important to maintain, or (as Marshall also notes) are “just the way I am” and not changeable.

We behaviorists believe that any behavior is changeable, whether a person wants to change or not. What is required is first awareness, i.e., that there is a gap between their behavior and the desired/required behavior, followed by motivation to change that may come internal to the person, but more often requires external motivation that usually comes from accountability. Awareness and accountability are critical features of a valid 360 feedback process if designed to create sustainable behavior change.

Let me add that the “shut up and listen” mantra is a core behavior for coaches as well. This consultant believes that the challenge that most organizations have in morphing managers into effective coaches is also rooted in this core belief that the role of coach is to solve problems for their subordinates, versus listening to fully understand the issue and then help the subordinate “discover” the solution that best works for them and the situation.

This is a serious problem that has two major downsides. For one, it, at least in some major way, is likely a root cause of creating the “unhappy” job incumbents that in turn leads to multiple negative outcomes for the organization. The other major downside is a version of our GM retiree’s lament, that is, the organization is losing out capitalizing on a significant resource in the form of the individual and collective contributions of its workforce.

There may be no time in our history where involving our young workers is more critical, which includes listening to their input and empowering them to act. Consider the many reasons that this might be so:

  • The pace of change, internally and externally, requires that we have processes that allow us to recognize and react in ways that most likely will diverge from past practices
  • Younger workers bring perspectives on the environment, technology and knowledge that are often hidden from the older generations (that are, by the way, retiring)
  • As the baby boomers do retire en masse, we need to be developing the next generation of leaders.  Another aside, this means allowing them to fail, which is another leadership lesson that Ms. Zambello mentions (remember her?).

Listening is actually a very complex behavior to change, but it begins with increasing awareness of ineffectiveness, and the creating motivation to change by educating leaders on its negative consequences and lost opportunities.

©2013 David W. Bracken

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