Maybe It’s Not Them – Maybe It’s You.

“Morale seems to be dropping around here. It’s the millennials – they have no work ethic.” That was Molly’s explanation for her biggest workplace problem. She manages a department of 14 people, and wasn’t getting the kind of positive participation she expected from them.

“I tell them what we need, what to do, what results to produce, but they seem to be slowing down, not speeding up”, she complained. “They should be more productive to help get this company more competitive. A little enthusiasm would be nice too!”

After Molly mentioned getting the company more competitive, I asked if she talked to her people about her vision or that goal. “Not really,” she said. “They should know we’re not in this business for fun – we’re here to have the company be successful.”

This was not a problem of Molly making unclear requests, or failing to explain what to do. It was bigger than that: the people in Molly’s department did not connect their work assignments to the larger vision of business success. We talked about how to get people related to the “big picture” of their work. Here’s the 3-step solution we created together:

  1. Call a department meeting to talk about the company – the organization as a whole. What is the company’s mission? What is the vision for a successful business? Molly got some documents that talked about those things and made up a list of what she called “Five Big Ideas” for discussion: the market, customer profiles, competitors, sales, and local business rankings.
  2. Write the list on the board, read it aloud, and ask people to talk about where they see these things in their daily work and what they mean to them. Invite questions and comments from everyone, and take notes on the board – visible to all – whenever new ideas or definitions are introduced.
  3. Save the last half-hour of the meeting to ask the group three questions:  First, how would you change your work habits in light of this conversation?  Second, is there a particular “Big Idea” you think is most important?  Third, in what ways would you like to continue this conversation?

The meeting started off slowly, maybe because people were shy, or because the subject was unfamiliar. It picked up, though, and Molly was amazed at what the meeting ultimately produced. Their energy grew as they talked – they were learning more about the business they were in, and they were learning about each other in a new way as well. Then the group chose two of the “Five Big Ideas” as being particularly important to them: customer profiles and local business rankings. People wanted to see more data on those two areas, and to understand how they were measured. They talked about what their department could do to make improvements in those areas.

The group had several more meetings about these ideas, looking at ways to see how they were impacting “big picture” results that benefited the company. They also agreed to track and review those impacts every time the statistics were available, and to add a new topic to their weekly staff meeting: all new assignments would be associated with some aspect of improving “big picture” business success.

Molly gave up her complaint about millennials. “I really did think they were lazy,” she confessed. “I’ve been here eleven years, and I assumed that everybody in this department knows our business goals and connects them to their work. Now I see that part of my job is to engage people in talking about how we can be more successful – and checking to see how well we are doing at that.”

“It wasn’t a problem of them losing energy. It was me – I was not keeping their fires lit”, Molly said.  Management lesson learned.

Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, and the Missing Conversation

There is much talk right now about Yahoo’s demise as an independent company. The Economist said the failure was due, first of all, to “a chronic lack of focus”, never deciding if it was a media company or a technology company. NPR’s “Morning Edition” said Ms. Mayer, the CEO, treated Yahoo more like a think-tank than the sinking ship it really was.

Both diagnoses are probably right. Ms. Mayer got into the deep weeds when she insisted on reading the resume of every person Yahoo considered hiring, and needing to OK each one. Being Yahoo’s CEO in 2012 was a job that required creating a big-picture view of what Yahoo’s success would look like and leading people toward that future. But Ms. Mayer was more interested in listening to everybody and collecting their ideas than focusing on saving Yahoo. Then she got swept up in the part of the business – media content – that is “fun but will never turn a profit”, as NPR said.

Her listening tour when she began the job might have been good preparation for a Closure Conversation: “Here’s where we are now. Here’s what has worked and what hasn’t. You people are terrific! Now we are going to make some changes in what Yahoo is all about.”

A Closure Conversation is a necessary setup for an Initiative Conversation – and that is the conversation that was missing from Ms. Mayer’s repertoire. She could have opened a conversation to create a future: “Here’s where we are going, here’s our new mission, vision, and purpose (MVP), and here are our top-line goals for the next 3-2- 1 years.” She didn’t do that. She “listened”, read resumes, and collected ideas.

A clear Initiative Conversation creates a well-defined future that can be further developed with an Understanding Conversation: “What is missing missing now, for us to reach our goals? Where are our key resources? What are the most important actions, results and timelines for success? Who else should be working on this with us on these things?” And then, of course, people can have Performance Conversations, getting into action to make that future real with agreements for producing results.

I don’t mean to suggest that I would have wanted a shot at doing Ms. Mayer’s job – I would not. But I do know that without a clear objective pointing people toward a goal, there is no game. Collecting ideas and reading resumes does not create a game that will harnesses talent and energy to produce results. People need to know what success might look like, and to locate the target so they can align their efforts for a worthwhile accomplishment.

My take-away? I really do see, out of this example, how easy it is to pay attention to the beauty of the trees and forget about paying close attention to the forest. It is a good reminder as I set about my next project.

Is Anyone Studying How to Listen?

A friend sent me an article (Challenger Story) about a failed communication had a dire outcome. She knew I had worked with NASA’s Space Station team, but probably not that I was working with the Goddard Space Flight Center in 1986 when the Challenger space shuttle exploded. I remember that day.

The article was about the contractor’s team of engineers and scientists responsible for space shuttle motors, and the teleconference they held with NASA the evening before the Challenger launch. They told NASA managers that the temperature the next day would be too cold to ensure that a key part would function properly, and recommended delaying the launch until the weather warmed up. NASA did not accept the recommendation, saying they would “pass this on in an advisory capacity”, went ahead with the launch, and the shuttle exploded just over 1 minute later.

“It was an amazingly complex decision,” the article reports, which led to the documents describing that decision being donated to Chapman University by the engineer – Allan McDonald – who had refused to sign the required “launch recommendation report”. His boss signed it instead, allowing NASA to go ahead with the launch on schedule. Mr. McDonald was demoted.

Those documents are now part of a “leadership studies program” at the university. The chairman of that program says the lessons of the Challenger are clear: individuals must speak the truth, no matter the consequences, and bosses must also encourage employees to do so.

Mr. McDonald was indeed brave to speak the truth despite consequences. The lessons of the Challenger tragedy, however, must go beyond encouraging employees to speak up and bosses to encourage them to do so. Communication has two sides: speaking and listening. Just because the boss says we can speak up does not mean she is actually listening. When the contractor says the O-rings could fail, their team recommends launch delay, and a team member refuses to sign the go-ahead, they are speaking loudly and clearly. But the NASA managers were listening to something else: perhaps the difficulties of altering the launch criteria one day before launch?

Let’s give attention to how we listen, including what we listen to and what we ignore. How can we learn to give quality attention to both the big picture and the vital details, or grasp the sometimes subtle differences between what is necessary, what is desirable, and what is convenient?  The sad day of the Challenger (and the sad months of the BP oil spill and the Flint water supply) deserve a greater legacy than giving Whistle-blowers the right to speak. We need better ways to have them be heard.

Question: Could a “leadership studies program” include an inquiry into the nature of effective listening?

Unreasonable Request Saves the Class

If you find yourself in a difficult position, make an unreasonable request – you might be surprised by the result.

On Friday, April 13 I received an unreasonable request from a colleague at Benedictine University. He asked if I would come to Benedictine and teach an Executive Ph.D. course on organization change the following Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.  He apologized for the lateness of the request, but explained that due to an accident, the person scheduled to lead the class could not come.

Initially I was surprised at the request given the short notice.  But, after checking my schedule, I realized I could do it and let him know.   And it turned out to be a fabulous time with some really great people.

I share this because I have found there are times such as these when people are faced with making an unreasonable request or giving an apology, and they don’t make the request.  My colleague could have decided there was no real point in asking someone to come since it was unlikely they could on such short notice anyway.  Instead, he could have apologized to the class, explained what happened and, given the short notice, it was not practical to find a substitute; they would have been disappointed, but they would have understood.

But he didn’t do that; he made an unreasonable request.  He asked for a large result in a very short period of time from someone he knows is busy.  He didn’t let his considerations about whether the request would be accepted or not stop him from making it.  And, as it turns out, he got want he wanted.

Understanding Does Not Mean Agreement, Acceptance, or Action

One of the myths the students and managers in my leading and managing change classes persist in believing is that people don’t “buy in” to a change is because there is something they don’t understand.  They are mistaken.

Implicit in this “myth of understanding” is the belief that understanding is the key to agreement, acceptance, and action.  No doubt, there are situations in which failing to understanding what another person is talking about, wants, or is proposing results in confusion and contributes to disagreements.  This frequently occurs when using unfamiliar terms or assuming the listener has a sufficient background in the subject at hand.  Under these circumstances, increased understanding can foster agreement and acceptance.

But increased understanding can also contribute to disagreement and non-acceptance.  When something is vague or ambiguous, it allows for multiple interpretations and understandings.  In this respect, it is more inclusive of potentially competing or inconsistent viewpoints.  Under these circumstances, greater clarity of understanding makes the inconsistencies apparent and fosters greater disagreement and non-acceptance.   For example, as managers spend more time explaining and discussing a change in an attempt to increase understanding, the impact and consequences of the change become more apparent and real to people.  Some people will react favorably, others will not.

Increased understanding, therefore, is not necessarily the key to agreement and acceptance, or to the action people think will stem from.  Understanding conversations are important, but they are only one of four productive conversations that are needed for change.

To Be More Effective, Keep A Due List

I was recently asked by a manager in one of my classes what she could do to increase her credibility.  I told “Keep a Due List and follow up on it.”

Most people have some form of a “To Do” list, which lets them know the things they have to do.  But credibility and a reputation for effectiveness comes from what you deliver to others and what they deliver to you.  When we know what we have due to others, and by when, we can better schedule the work we need to do in order to successfully deliver what is required.   That is one reason we stress the importance of including “by when” in all performance conversations.  Successful delivery to others increases their trust in us and enhances our credibility and reputation.

By the same token, when we keep a Due List of what other people owe us, and by when, it allows us to effectively follow up with them in a timely manner.  Following up lets people know we really did want what we asked for and that it was important enough that we remembered both what we asked for and by when.  As a result, our credibility increases.  Following up also builds accountability as people come to learn that we will be back to have a closure conversation with them.

Credibility and accountability are built and a key to building them is to keep, and use, a “Due List”.

Absence of Communication Undermines Reputation and Future Change

I recently talked to Jeremy, a staff member whose organization is changing from one type of work structure to another.  Prior to the change, each work unit in the organization made recommendations on how the allocation of work in their area, who should do the work, and the timelines that should apply.  According to Jeremy, the recommendations were well thought out and developed through extensive individual and group meetings within each of the work units.  Once completed, the recommendations were forward to the Rebecca, the senior manager responsible for reviewing all the recommendations and determining how best to incorporate them in the new structure.

Everything seemed to work fine until Rebecca began informing the work units of her decisions.  According to Jeremy, Rebecca’s decisions ignored many of his work unit’s recommendations with no explanation why.  When he went to his unit manager to find out on what basis Rebecca was making her decisions, his manager replied “I don’t know”.  People in Jeremy’s unit were perplexed, confused, and upset.  They felt betrayed and there was a substantial increase in gossiping and complaining about Rebecca.  Some people even quit their jobs.

Change leaders like Rebecca have to make tough decisions and are accountable for those decisions.  But Rebecca could have reduced the damage both to her reputation and the future receptivity of people to change if she had engaged in understanding conversations with people prior to her decisions and closure conversations after.

Not Telling Them Undermines Integrity

Managers undermine their integrity in following a “don’t tell them” strategy.

The topic in my leading change class today was integrity and its impact on a leader’s ability to effect change.  Integrity was defined as honoring your word and doing what you said you would do by when you said you would do it and if you are not going to do what you said, to communicate fully to everyone affected as soon as you know you won’t be going what you said so that they can make the appropriate and necessary accommodations.  During the discussion, several students told of job situations in which projects they were working on were not going to get done when promised, but were told by their immediate managers not to tell the project clients.  The reasoning was that if the clients were told before the due date, they would question the manger’s competence.  However, once the deadline was missed, other factors could be blamed.

Although managers may think this “don’t tell them” strategy protects them from looking bad, it actually undermines their integrity and reputations.  Each of the students involved in these situations said they lost respect and regard for the managers involved.  This is unfortunate since all the managers needed to do to maintain their integrity was to have closure conversations with their clients.

Having one closure conversation, even if it may be a little uncomfortable, seems like a small price to pay for keeping one’s integrity and the respect of others.

Missing Communication Skills Doom Projects

Why is there such a high failure rate among projects?  One reason is that there is a gap in the soft skills of project managers.  Although project managers are well trained in the technical “hard” skills of risk assessment, project planning, etc., little attention is given to interpersonal or people skills – the so called soft skills.  To correct this shortcoming, members of the Association for Project Management group on LinkedIn have proposed that project managers need strong leadership skills, to train/coach stakeholders on their roles and responsibilities, speak up openly and honestly, be assertive, have greater self-awareness, and so on.

Unfortunately, in none of the recommendations offered for improving “soft skills” is there an explanation of how project managers translate these personal capabilities and understandings into other people taking effective and appropriate action in a timely manner.  Rather, it is assumed that having these capabilities will somehow magically translate into project managers do the right thing, at the right time, in the right way.  Now that’s a big, and erroneous assumption.

Getting other people involved, engaged, and continually contributing requires communication.  But not just any communication.  I recently led a training program to a Master Black Belt group in which we explored why they were having difficulty getting projects accomplished.  Interestingly, none of them ever said anything like “I am having problems because I am ineffective in my communication with other people.”  However, by the end of the class, they began to see that one reason they were having difficulty is because they were either using the wrong type of conversation or the conversations they were using were missing important elements that reduced their effectiveness.

It would be nice if there was a direct link between personal qualities and attributes and effective communication.  However, as such books as Difficult Conversations, Crucial Conversations, and The Four Conversations point out, there is much more to effective communication than simply talking.  Until project managers realize that the results they get are a direct product of the appropriateness and completeness of their communications, communication skills will continue to be missing and projects will continue to fail.

What Happens When Promises Aren’t Kept?

All of us have failed to keep a promise we made to someone.  It might have been we forgot to make a call, failed to get something done on time, or only did part of what we said we would.  And even though we may have a good reason for breaking our promise, there are consequences nevertheless.  Among these are:

  1. People get upset.  Although most of us don’t like dealing with upset people, the fact is they have a right to be upset.  After all, they counted on us to do something and we didn’t do it.  Being upset is perfectly understandable.
  2. We lose credibility.  Credibility results from doing what you said you would do by when you said you would do it.  Even if we have a really good excuse, every time we fail to keep a promise, our credibility suffers.
  3. We lose trust.  When we fail to keep our promises, people see us as less trustworthy.  Even if we think we are completely trustworthy, others may not share that opinion if we fail to keep our promises.
  4. We can lose affinity.  People stop liking us as much.  Sure, our close friends will still like us if we don’t keep our promises, but others may not.  Like it or not, people make decisions about how they will treat us based on whether they like us.

There are no doubt other costs , but these are among the primary ones.  How many of these can you afford?

One way to reduce these costs is to have a Closure Conversation in which you (1) acknowledge you did not keep your promise, (2) recognize it had an impact on the person to whom you made it, (3) apologize for the mess you have created, and (4) offer whatever assistance you can to clean it up.  Such a Closure Conversation might look something like this:

“I promised that I would have the data to you today by 3 and I have not done that.  I know you were going to use the information in a report that is due at 5 and that my failure to have the data puts you in a tight spot.  I apologize for the problem I have created and if there is anything I can do to help you now, please let me know and I will do it.”

Closure Conversations don’t make everything better, but they can sure help.  Next time you fail to keep a promise, no matter how big or small, try having a Closure Conversation with the person.