Does Kindergarten Really Have a Culture of Success?

You may be familiar with the marshmallow challenge. It is an intriguing and engaging team building exercise that demonstrates the importance of failure in group interactions.

It is all fun and everyone gets a laugh regarding how, according to an accompanying Ted Talk I show, kindergartners do better at it than those who went to business school. By the way, I’d like to see that replicated because it makes a great story but I doubt that it is really true. But the most important lesson for leaders from it is not that failure eventually grows success. Rather, it is the call to action to create a culture where taking the risk should be rewarded and not only when the risk leads to immediate success.

What leaders should learn from the challenge is that it takes place in an environment that encourages risk taking. There is no one to say, “Let me tell you how we’ve done this before” or “If this doesn’t work out well we are in big trouble.” From this culture, most teams are able to accomplish something that at first seems unlikely in about 18 minutes. This should lead to a candid conversation about the barriers that exist to useful failure and what actions can be taken to change those aspects of the culture.

The nature of kindergarten is to reward process more than results. Incentives in business cannot be quite follow that model and lead to success. However, we can use learning to find the unnecessary hurdles creativity and problem solving.

Flexibility, Bench Strength, and Leadership

An attribute associated with leadership is determination. The idea that once a goal has been established and a plan laid out, effective leadership involves sticking to it and absorbing the inevitable bumps that come along the way. This may involve coaching or training, but requires confidence in the team.

But, what if things get really bad? Should the leader have faith in the plan and work harder on execution? Or, does effectiveness require that things get “blown up” and change on the fly?

There was an interesting example of this in the college football national championship game earlier this week. The University of Alabama (Bama) was playing the University of Georgia (UGA). Bama’s coach had won 5 national championships (6 was the most) going into the matchup, so he knows something about winning big games. While renowned for his success, he is also thought of as being a bit humorless and someone who has extraordinary attention to detail, the latter being a trait shared with other successful coaches, regardless of the sport. This is a person who meticulously plans practices and expects nearly flawless execution.

So, in the championship game, UGA took a large lead into halftime. Bama’s coach was faced with a choice: Conclude that his team was executing poorly and stick with the plan (with some adjustments) or decide that the plan was not working and implement a different one. The coach chose the second option, including replacing many of his star performers, and they won the game in dramatic fashion. What can we learn from this?

1) A plan is not destiny. If leaders view them as the ONLY path, then they will be blind to other opportunities to succeed.

2) Changing approaches requires bench strength (which is literally true in this case). When Bama changed their game plan they also replaced some key players. This was only possible because they had a reservoir of talent with a variety of skills. If they had recruited (the college athletics equivalent of employee selection) players with the same skills, they would only be able to execute one type of plan. Since they had more variety, it gave the coach more flexibility. Think about that when someone says, “We need to hire more people like so-and-so.

3) Effective leaders establish criteria for success and failure. We often here about measuring when we have achieved goals. Less frequently talked about is when it is time to rethink our approach. While perhaps not explicit before the game, Bama’s coach knew when it was time to change to Plan B and made the decision.

Do effective leaders need determination? Of course they do. No plan is ever going to be executed perfectly and without adjustments. But, they also need the humility to know when their plans are failing and the talent available to them to change directions.

Mentoring For Turnover

This is an interesting time of the year in college football in the U.S., and not just because the final games are about to be played. As head coaches who had a poor year get fired (what should constitute the criteria for firing a college football coach is a topic for another blog), schools have begun looking for their next head coach. In some, but not many, cases an assistant who reported to the fired coach will get the job. In others, a head coach from another school will be head hunted. But, the most common instance is when an assistant from another school is hired. That is as if you wanted to hire a new vice-president of your company and you felt that the best candidates were directors at other firms. Why does this happen?

Part is that the athletic directors (those responsible for hiring the new coach) feel that the failure that led to the coach getting fired belongs to the assistant coaches as well. It is hard for them to go to their stakeholders and say, “We had a really bad season, but we think that one of our assistants is a diamond in the rough.” Note that some schools will groom a successor to the head coach when there is a retirement time frame set.

Picking head coaches from other schools typically involves a bigger school (read: one with a larger budget for salaries, practice facilities, etc.) poaching a successful coach from a smaller one. Think of this as an executive doing well at a competitor with less revenue and a firm with more sales thinking that s/he is ready to move up.

The last option, hiring an assistant from another school, is an interesting one because it reflects on the culture of coaching. Head coaches are thought of well when their assistants go on to getting better jobs. Most of them feel that part of their job is to mentor their assistants so they can get a better job—either at the current university if the head coach leaves or anywhere else. Unlike in corporate America, where losing top lieutenants is seen as a sign of a toxic culture, a head coach who has assistants move on (and be successful) at other schools is perceived as having a great “coaching tree” and attracts even better talent.

This culture comes from the coaching profession being relatively small (130 schools at the top level and 124 at the next). Even with 7 to 10 assistants for each team, everyone eventually gets to know everyone through movement, conferences, etc. Almost every college head coach got his job after being an assistant at another school (most likely, after being an assistant at several schools), so a head coach knows how big of a deal it is when an assistant gets the call to run a program.

In business, it is not a good thing if your high potentials are getting their big opportunity someplace else. However, what are you doing to ensure that they get meaningful promotions internally? Is a VP rewarded when one of her directors becomes VP in another division? Or, is she seen as someone who can’t keep good talent? If it is the former, she will attract more high potentials (internally and externally).

You can create this kind of culture if you encourage and train your executives to mentor talent. Recognize them publicly when their direct reports move on to better positions so they will be encouraged to continue to nurture talent and high potentials will want to work for them.

Inviting Introverts to Lead

Whenever I teach about leadership the participants and I talk about the value of charisma. Not surprisingly, most of those in the workshop feel that the most effective leaders are these larger-than-life figures. That is, until we start talking about ones that are not (and often one of them is the CEO of their company). So, what gives?

This article delves into the issue. Note that the author sometimes confuses behavior (which can be changed) with personality (which is VERY stable, despite her claim and her link that is not associated with any research). The real issue is what can introverts do to be effective leaders?

For many, what it comes down to is the expectations of the situation. If I think any task is going to be painful, of course I am going to avoid it. This is how introverts feel about an assignment that involves a lot of group interaction.

This study looked at potential barriers to introverts being effective leaders. What they found was that negative thinking about assuming the role inhibited performance (as measured by emergent leadership). However, and this is important, positive thinking did not lead to more emergent leadership. So, in working with high potential introverts, this data (and it is only one study) suggests that removing undesirable thoughts about the role (e.g., your fears are not accurate, you will not be a failure, etc.) will lead to more leadership behaviors than selling the role (e.g., you will be fabulous, there is no doubt that you will be successful, etc.).

This is important because it shows that those who lack the extroversion trait associated with charisma may still be effective leaders. This increases your pool of leadership potential in your company. It also provides a road map for encouraging introverts, who are otherwise qualified, to take on leadership assignments in way that allows them to be successful.

From a selection perspective, understanding this nuance would be valuable to determining who you choose to be leaders. Rather than assessing introversion/extroversion, you can look at a person’s attitudes towards leading groups as potentially a more valued predictor.

When Convenience Gets Under Your Skin

Whether it is Amazon planning on stores without cash registers, or being able to buy drinks in a club without your wallet, to tracking the movement of just about any goods you can think of, RFID (Radio-frequency identification) is part of lives. But, what if your CEO or CTO came to you and said, “What if our employees had an RFID chip implanted in them?”

As with a lot of tech, the argument in favor of it is about convenience. Employees could access buildings, rooms, computers, vending machines, etc just by walking past an RFID reader. No more reaching for or losing key cards.

So, a company in Wisconsin is trying it out. The non-squeamish volunteers will get the chip (about the size of a grain of rice) put into their hand between the thumb and forefinger.

I will avoid making ominous comparisons to 1984. But, I am curious as to what are the real productivity or engagement benefits of doing this. How much time is being wasted fumbling for security cards? Does this help prevent any security breaches? I am just not seeing the ROI, so I doubt that many companies will adopt this.

I am not anti-technology or else this blog would show up on a piece of paper. Nor do I expect that every tech idea to be a good or bad one. However, business decisions that affect employees should be made on something beyond, “This would be cool!” Someone at the companies adopting this technology did just that (probably after an amazing sales pitch). Does it establish them as having a forward thinking tech-enable culture? Sure. Does it also show them as favoring style over substance? I think again, the answer is, “Yes.”

We can help companies establish a culture of good decision making by facilitating data-driven discussions. Questions like, “What are our goals?” and “How do we determine if this innovation is successful?” is a good way to separate a fad from effective organizational initiatives.

Our Love/Hate Relationship With Meetings

Coming across this today, I can only imagine that every editor of a business section of any published content has a yearly reminder to put in an article about meetings.

What it comes down to are several sometimes contradictory feelings that employees have:

  1. I want to have lots of communication in my organization.
  2. I get too much e-mail.
  3. I go to too many meetings.
  4. I hate meetings because:
    • They are hopelessly inefficient.
    • I have other more pressing things to do.

The articles are usually written from the point of view of the put upon employee and focus on how to eliminate meetings.  I’d like to take a different take.  What can a leader do to execute better meetings?

Be Thoughtful of Who to Invite.  Meeting invites should not be about status. Rather, they should include those who can provide useful ideas and insights to the rest of the group.  If someone comes and does not think he can contribute, don’t invite him to the next one.  If someone else hears about the meeting and thinks she can contribute, invite her to the next one.

Set a Good Agenda.  Sending out an agenda before a meeting is a no brainer (and can help people determine if they should attend, per above). Better agendas include action words (e.g., Discuss project X; Decide on project Y) to help guide the conversation.  Also, they estimate how much time will be allocated for each topic.  This ensures that all important topics are addressed in the meeting.

Be the Best Facilitator Possible.  Meetings can be inefficient (or worse) because they go off on tangents, one person dominates the conversation, decisions don’t get made, etc.  Meeting leaders who can manage the process better get the most out of their groups.  These skills are not hard to acquire. Extra tip: Rotate which of the group members facilitates the meeting. It provides a different perspective of the group’s processes.

Get All Ideas on the Table. Some people choose to defer to others in meetings for a variety of reasons.  Good meeting leaders set the expectation that everyone with relevant ideas participates and draws out those who are not sharing.

Summarize Decisions and Action Steps.  No one should ever leave a meeting wondering, “So what’s next?”  Meeting leaders should be clear in their language about what has been decided.  This allows others to either object or agree.

We cannot say we have to have better communications AND fewer meetings.  However, we can have better meetings and better communications.

When the People in High Potential Programs Aren’t

At a recent professional conference I attended there was a lot of talk about high potentials.  Specifically, how to best measure potential versus actual performance (good luck getting managers to understand the difference).  The idea of identifying high potentials (HiPos) is critical for a couple of reasons:

  • If you are going to do good succession planning, you need to look at people based on their potential to be leaders at the next level (or for the first time) and not just how well they are doing in the current position.
  • Investing training dollars in HiPos will give you a much better return than the investment in lower performers. High performers got that way because they are continuous learners who welcome feedback.

But, do companies really do a good job of identifying HiPos?  This article suggests that they do not.  Using 360 feedback as a metric, the authors conclude that many of those selected into HiPo programs are not rated well on important leadership dimensions.  How does this happen?

  • Companies use the wrong data to identify HiPos. Our tendency is to use current performance to determine future performance.  And, if looking at a person’s potential in that job, this would be the best predictor.  But, it is not a good predictor if you’re trying to determine if a great individual contributor will be a good manager, or if a good manager will be a good executive.  The skill sets are too different.
  • I allude to it above, but companies place too much weight on factors that are not related to potential. I understand that it is hard to put blinders on and only focus on those attributes that would indicate success in another role (e.g., strategic thinking), but it is critical to do so in identifying HiPos.

The best way to combat this is to identify future success factors, such as strategic thinking and developing effective followers, in your organization.  If succession planners are presented with only this type of relevant data (as opposed to everything that might come out of a 360 or assessment center), it is more likely that those with the highest potential will be put into the HiPo pool.

CEO Accountability…Really!

I could fill up this post with examples of CEOs that got raises when the performance of the company they were running got worse.  But, that’s too depressing.

Rather, here’s a story about Tim Cook and other Apple executives getting their pay cut because the company did not hit its numbers.  Sure, Cook and the others are not going to start clipping coupons any time soon, but it is an all-too-rare example of executive compensation being linked to actual company performance.  In this instance, profit was down 16%, so pay got cut 15% (though I doubt whatever formula was used was quite that simple).  In this case, the cut is not receiving 100% of a cash incentive, which had been paid out in full previously.

Cynics will say that the cut amounts to change in the cushions for the Apple executive team, which I guess is true.  However, it does send a message to employees (and shareholders) that if executives are accountable for the overall performance of the company.  And this type of message is important in establishing a culture of accountability.

What this step also does is establish the purpose of executive variable compensation—to reward provide a reward based on recent company performance.  This is separate from any gains/losses in the stock price, which is supposed to be a forward looking metric.  Is this going to make Tim Cook work any harder?  Probably not.  Does it tell Apple employees that senior executives are accountable for the development and execution of business strategies?  Absolutely.

Why Clarity in Family Succession Planning Matters

I have some family owned businesses as clients.  They do have an extra critical dynamic which makes them different from other businesses.  As one owner said to me when trying to make a difficult retain/fire decision about a family member, “If Pat goes and then works for a competitor that would make Thanksgivings very awkward.”

showbox iosThough the extra layer of family issues can be seen as a detriment, businesses that want to stay family owned and/or operated have the advantage of being able to plan succession well into the future (assuming commitment by younger family members).  This can include education, cross-training assignments, and working for other companies.  The important point is that family owned businesses should focus on succession planning in management as part of the ownership transition.gmail Login  Sure, deciding what it takes to be the next Director of Midwest Regional Sales isn’t as sexy as the next CEO, but it is a necessary step.

When I read about how family businesses conduct succession planning well, what strikes me is that additional role definition is a key.  This article provides some good examples.  The lesson is that governance and individual responsibilities need to be even clearer for family members in the succession path than for employees.  Besides giving confidence to investors and other stakeholders, this really tells brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, etc. not to make assumptions about when they get to run the business, but rather what milestones to hit so they can earn the opportunity to run the business.

Of course, clear role definition and long term succession planning are great tools for any business.  Being clear about selection criteria, knowledge and skill acquisition, and experience set standards for all employees who want to advance in a company.  But, for family-owned businesses, they can mean the difference between transitioning a business to future generations or having them stop with the founder.

Learning to Manage

I cannot tell you how many times I have worked with a client who has told me some sort of story about how they promote from within, but have a problem with the supervisors and/or managers not being able to let go of wanting to do the technical work instead of managing the technical work.  It is not hard to understand.  People get into a field because of their interests or passion, rarely for their desire to manage others.

An organization’s challenge is to either create technical career opportunities or help those who are technically proficient to successfully move into management.  But how?  Here are some tips:

  • Clearly identify the skill sets required of managers and note how different they are from those required of technical workers. One of the places I would start is with Delegation and Holding People Accountable.
  • Make the management skill sets part of your internal recruitment AND learning and development process.
  • Require internal candidates to demonstrate management skills before being promoted through an assessment center or other valid selection process.
  • Start people at an appropriate management level, regardless of how technically proficient they are.

While I’m not one to think that sports are necessarily a good analogy for the business world, I found this article to be an exception.  It describes how John Elway,

a multiple Super Bowl winning quarterback with the Denver Broncos, learned management skills from the ground up.  He wasn’t made a Vice President of the team after he retired.  Rather, he honed his business skills in another field and then transferred them to a low level of football.  It wasn’t until he demonstrated success there that he was giving the big opportunity.  The time spent out of the spotlight clearly led to many learning experiences.

What makes the story powerful is the understanding that while there were some technical skills which would translate for him from the field to the front office, Elway (and his bosses) understood that others would have to be learned.  The organization was willing to let him take the time to learn how to manage and lead in a non-technical role.

The lessons for the rest of us are that:

  • Management skills are different from technical ones (e.g., the best sales person is not necessarily the best sales manager). We can use valid tools to identify which of our technical experts possess them.
  • Management development is a journey, as is the acquisition of any skill set.

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