Big Change, Part II: Expanding the Executive Team

Four weary senior executives came home from their 2-day “huddle” with a decision to close a regional office and eliminate 11 jobs in their company – the only solution they could find to solve the problems identified by a recent financial audit. The decision to decision to “outsource” the company’s marketing and communications responsibilities was daunting on several fronts.

“It’s worse than just restructuring,” Matthew, the CEO, said. “We will be losing people who are good people, good workers, good talent. It’s sad, and we will have to learn how to manage contracted firms to get the work done. It will be cheaper, but I wish we didn’t have to take this road.”

All 4 executive decision-makers were apprehensive about how to bring the company’s other 7 managers on board with their plan. One of those managers would lose all 11 of the staff members, but all of them would face changes in their job responsibilities. And all of them would feel bad about bringing this kind of news to a team that had worked together for many years.

What pattern of conversations is going to have everyone move forward? The newly defined “Executive Team” went to work (with a bit of facilitation assistance).

  • Closure conversation: A summary of the financial audit was presented to give everyone the facts of the situation. There was very little discussion about this, as they all knew that expenses had been greater than revenue for quite a while.
  • Initiative conversation: Matthew announced the decision to close the Dayton office, eliminate the jobs of 11 marketing and communication personnel, and bring in a private firm specializing in those functions. There was silence for a bit, then questions, then a break for lunch. Not everyone was interested in eating.
  • Understanding conversation: How can we make this announcement about the office closing, tell staff they’re being laid off, support new employment opportunities for 11 people, solicit bids for marketing firms to take over the necessary functions, terminate the employees, and bring on a new firm? The discussion took all afternoon and the next morning. It produced a list of tasks, results, and timelines for what was needed over the next 6 months.
  • Performance conversation: Who will do what, and when? Each task needed an owner or “point person” as well as a partner or two on the Executive Team. This increased the “reality factor”, as one participant said, and the specifics about each task, result, and timeline were adjusted accordingly.
  • Closure conversation: We have decided what to do. We will keep this confidential until we make the announcement to the staff in Dayton and the other staff being terminated. We each have our own tasks and timelines, and we will have Executive Team meetings once a week to stay on the same page and update our progress.

The Operations executive noticed something as everyone was packing their briefcases to leave for the day. “You know,” he said, “I have been so focused on the logistics of this change that I forgot to invite one person to attend these meetings. I didn’t ask the HR person to be here. I’ll bring her on board tomorrow when we’re back in the office.”

Uh oh. More on that later.

Big Change, Part I: Conversations for Possibility

A client organization has received a daunting financial audit: they’re losing money and must act quickly to save the company. I met with Matthew, the CEO, to discuss the way forward. He said, “My top 3 executives and I went into a 2-day “huddle” to review the audit report and talk about what we should do. On day 1, we had lots of ideas, threw some out, and kept some for later. On day 2, we reviewed what was left and made a big decision.”

That 2-day discussion is called a “conversation for possibility”, and in this case, it was completed by making an agreement for action. The conversation for possibility looked like this:

  • Initiative conversation: Let’s restructure the organization. We could combine these two departments, change those job titles, and update the responsibilities for all the mid-level employees.
  • Understanding conversation:
    • That would require relocating Chuck’s people in the Dayton office, and we don’t have room for them here.
    • I have space in the Rogers Road facility. But I’m pretty sure the department manager wouldn’t want to relocate: His kids are in school in Dayton.
    • So we could keep Chuck in Dayton, and have that part of his staff move to Rogers Road, then give Chuck the HR section along with his communications staff responsibilities.
    • Yes, but that still wouldn’t solve the problem of our money-drain.

This is what it sounded like at the beginning of those two days – aren’t you glad you weren’t there?

At the end of the Initiative and Understanding conversations, they came to a decision: they would close the Dayton office altogether, “outsource” the marketing and communications functions in all offices, and redefine remaining jobs as needed. A tough call.

Conversations for possibility are made up of Initiative and Understanding conversations, and are intended to explore both what is possible, and the effects or impacts of each option proposed. They don’t always end in a decision or agreement, but in this case, they did.

“There were a few tears shed,” Matthew told me. “But we have to be responsible for the organization as a whole, and help people with the adjustments. And we have to get the other top managers in the company on board with this decision.”

That’s when they called for help with implementation. More on that later.

Do Leaders Focus on Results or People?

A while back (December 2013), the Harvard Business Review had an article on the subject of leaders and results-focus vs. people-focus. The verdict is you need to focus on both results and people. But we knew that, right? The trick is figuring out how to do that.

How you do that is in communications – more specifically, by using productive conversations. But we knew that too, didn’t we?

For a focus on results, build your strengths in using Performance conversations. Practice making effective requests and promises, and then use those to establish good agreements with people for what each of you will do or produce.

For a focus on people, improve your ability to have Understanding conversations. Practice having dialogues where you ask other people for input about a particular task or project, and use the feedback to revise the task or project goals, measures, and responsibilities. Hint: it requires listening and validating their responses by using them.

To strengthen both of these focuses, practice gaining mastery in Closure conversations:

  • Acknowledge the facts of the matter – what were the agreements you both made for results and timelines, and what actually happened?
  • Appreciate the people – what do they bring to the project that you see is particularly valuable?
  • Apologize for mistakes or misunderstandings – take responsibility for things that were left unclear or didn’t work for some reason.
  • Amend broken agreements – clean up the past, including what didn’t work, and make fresh agreements that you have confidence will work now.

The mysteries of leadership and management are not solved by listing the traits and characteristics you need. The solution is in practicing ways of doing the things that have been demonstrated to be effective. Saying “focus on results” or “focus on people” (or both) is not enough. We need to practice the conversations that will produce the focus we need.

To see the HBR article, go to https://hbr.org/2013/12/should-leaders-focus-on-results-or-on-people/

No Thanks!

Last week’s issue of The Economist reported on “rogue employees” who can cause more damage to their company than competitors can. In a 2013 poll, it was discovered that 70% of companies report having employees who committed fraud of some kind: padding expenses, using company technology for their own purposes, or stealing corporate client lists.

Shocking, yes? But the article goes on to identify some pretty ugly ways of dealing with it. Use “spies” to hang around in the smoking room or go out for drinks after work. Employ forensic accountants. Listen to gossip. Yipes.

But they ended the discussion beautifully, noting that a recent study (by Accenture) found 43% of employees surveyed said they received no recognition for their work. None. The Economist’s suggestion? Treat your employees (and maybe other people too?) with respect.

Here’s one way to do that: use Closure Conversations regularly.

  • Acknowledge the facts of the matter: What they did, what you did, what happened.
  • Appreciate the person: Recognize something you value about them and/or what they have said or done. Say “Thanks!” every now and then, specifying what you are thanking them for – a good job, a good deed, or just being on time.
  • Apologize for mistakes and misunderstandings: This isn’t about anybody being right or wrong, it’s about pointing out mistakes and misunderstandings between you, and apologizing for your role in that. A little “ownership” goes a long way to close out the past and open the possibility of a new future.
  • Amend broken agreements: Reset your relationship in a way that supports you both, maybe changing some of the plans or understandings you had before, in a way that can set up a more satisfactory relationship going forward.

A relationship without even an occasional “Thank you” can become very strained. Maybe strained enough that you want to pad your expense report just to make up the deficit.

A healthy closure conversation is cheaper than a forensic accountant, and takes less time than hanging around the smoking room listening to gossip, right?

Management is Communication… Plus…

Conversation at a lunch meeting with a world-class manager the other day was centered around one word: “tracking”. Jake said, “Communication is important for managing, but the way I know if someone is going to be a good manager is when they tell me they are good at tracking.”

Tracking what? Tracking certain communications!

Jake has studied “The Four Conversations”, and when he adds that one ingredient – tracking – he says it adds up to good management. Here’s what – and how – he tracks:

1. Initiative conversations are good for suggesting ideas or proposing actions. Where do YOU keep a record of those suggestions and proposals? Some of them can be developed now, but some could be valuable later. Jake keeps a Good Ideas file for ideas he hears but is not ready to implement.

2. Understanding conversations, where people sort out their roles and responsibilities in developing and implementing a plan or project, give rise to even more good ideas. Some of those ideas go into the Good Ideas file for future review, but others are things that actually need to be done, so they go on an Actions List.

3. Performance conversations are the “requests, promises, and agreements” for getting things done and delivered. This is where the Action List gets further developed to become an Assignment Chart: it lists the job, who will do it, by when, and a note about why it’s important to get done.

4. Closure conversations are where accomplishment gets created – and if you haven’t tracked the Good Ideas and Actions and developed an Assignment Chart, you might not be able to create any accomplishment for yourself or others.

Closure conversations remind people of What they said they would do, When it was going to be done, and Why it matters. If they did their job, there is an accomplishment to point out – and your saying that’s an accomplishment is what creates it! If they didn’t do their job, there is a discussion to have about what’s in the way and how to resolve it – and you can point to that as an accomplishment too.

Communication + Tracking = Management? Could it be so simple? Maybe so.

Accountability is Not Authority

 

Most managers have some confusion about “accountability”, but one manager I talked with recently takes the cake. Howard complained about the poor quality of employees, saying that his (mostly young) staff people are “not accountable”. “They just do the work they think they should do, but they are not accountable for their results,” Howard explained, summarizing our 20-minute conversation about his office problem.

Three things are missing from this logic:

  1. Howard seems to think that accountability is an inborn trait that people either have or don’t have. When I asked him how he would know if his people were “accountable for their results”, he said, “They would report results to me on a regular basis.”
  2. Howard didn’t specify exactly what results he thinks they should report. If they are doing “the work they think they should do”, then what reporting does he expect? A report on the results they think they should be producing?
  3. Howard has exempted himself from any responsibility for establishing accountability as part of his management practices. In fact, I didn’t hear any management practices at all in our conversation about accountability.

Accountability requires both Performance and Closure Conversations. With no clear management request for specific results, there is no accountability. With no clear management request for a schedule to report on those results, there is no accountability. With no employee reports – feedback to the manager on what was actually produced – there is no accountability. Accountability requires being specific about what and when to count, track, and report.

Poor Howard. He prefers to rely on Authority, which is only a hierarchical position with a title of some sort given by his higher-ups. That will never help him build accountability in his unit. But he doesn’t think he needs to do that anyway.

Howard insisted “They should know their jobs”, and refused to clarify expected results, much less set up a weekly report-out meeting, or have employees update a team-customized “results scoreboard”.

“Too much work,” he said. “I shouldn’t have to do that.” Then he went back to complaining about “young people today”.

Is Rachel Dolezal’s “Closure Conversation” Complete?

Rachel has created quite a stir – after reporting herself to be a black woman, her parents, both white, publicly demanded she tell “the truth”. Now they want her to apologize for lying. It appears that other untruths are suspected on Rachel’s part – the story is so interesting that reporters are digging up her whole life looking for misrepresentations, lies, and oddities. She is the news of the week.

Today she addressed the racial issue, summed up in one statement delivered in an interview: “I identify as black.” That should finish off arguments about that part of her story, at least – in today’s world, we have now begun to listen to people’s own definition of how they identify themselves, in terms of gender and now race. She doesn’t see herself as lying about representing herself as a black woman. Rachel identifies as black, and being black is a fact for her.

Closure conversations do not need to explain “why” she feels that way or “how” she came to certain conclusions. They only need to include the appropriate elements from this menu of the “Four A’s of Closure Conversations”:

  1. Acknowledge the facts;
  2. Appreciate the people;
  3. Apologize for mistakes and misunderstandings; and
  4. Amend broken agreements.

She has done that for 2 of the 4 A’s directly, and she doesn’t accept that the other two might be relevant in this instance:

  1. Fact: She identifies as black;
  2. Appreciation: She applauds her colleagues at NAACP and the community of Spokane WA for their support and good work;
  3. Apologize? We misunderstood her: we thought her appearance, her body of commitments, and her assertions that she is black meant that she had black parents – that she was genetically black (if that’s a thing). Her parents (and many others as well) want an apology “for her dishonesty”. Was she dishonest? Or is she honestly living consistent with who she is for herself? There will be disagreement about this for another news cycle, I’m sure. Meantime, no apology needed, at least from her perspective (and that of many others as well).
  4. Amend broken agreements? She resigned from her position as president of Spokane’s NAACP chapter, even though the position did not require her to either be black or to “identify as black”. It is unlikely she will accept that she had an agreement to identify herself as being white because she has white parents. She will be heard – and argued with, of course – but she’s probably not going to borrow anyone else’s interpretation of who she is.

Rachel may have a few more Closure Conversations to deliver before the press is through with her, but this one could be complete as it stands. Every Closure Conversation should create enough completion that people can shift their attention from the past and focus on creating a future, with a fresh start and a new outlook. We will see whether Rachel’s “closure” allows a shift in perspective on the part of her community, which now includes all of us, to restore her credibility and to accept her statement of identity as a fact for which no apology is necessary.

One Way to Refresh a Resigned and Cynical Workplace

The most important thing in bringing a low-energy workplace back to life is completion. I once worked with a newly hired manager, Evan, who was shocked at how slow and negative his department was. He said, “If I had known these people were so dispirited, I might have thought twice about accepting this job.”

“They just have some bad habits,” I suggested. “Let’s look at what we know about the way they work, and see what we can do.”

We worked together to make a list of habits that were weighing on people – in some cases literally weighing them down. For the sake of brevity, here are the top three:

  1. In-boxes full of email. People were proud to compare how many emails they had: 500, 1200, and over 2000.
  2. Cardboard boxes of files in their offices, sometimes behind their desk, or next to the bookshelf, and sometimes with plants or family photos sitting on top of them.
  3. Lateness: most people showed up late to meetings and took 2 days (or never!) to answer an email. People rarely used deadlines or due dates, and didn’t honor them when they saw one.

We targeted those three things first. Evan called a meeting, and the invitation said:

“We will meet in room 214 at 10 AM on Tuesday morning. Coffee will be provided. Meeting requirements:

  • If you are storing any boxes of files in your office, bring one of those boxes with you to the meeting.
  • Look at your email in-box before you come, and bring the number of emails you are holding there to the meeting.
  • Be on time. Do not be late for this meeting.

It was a good start – people seemed excited when they arrived. Evan had them put their box of files on a table at the side of the room and gave them a post-it and a marker so they could label it with their name. Then he had each person share their number of emails, and wrote the score on the board. The “winner” had only 54 emails in her in-box. Evan identified the 3 people who were late. “No stories,” he said. “We don’t need to know why you were late.”

The meeting was short. He said that being on time was going to be important now. And that reducing the size of the in-box was going to be a new habit the group would build over time. The first target was to get everyone down to no more than 54 emails – the lowest number in the group.

“We’re cleaning house,” he told them. “Not just habits and not just files. We’re going to change the energy level here, and take back our power.” People looked at each other, curious, but there was already a new kind of attention in the room.”

“Last thing,” he said. “You’re going to empty that box of files you brought in here, because it’s not going back into your office. If you need to keep a couple of papers, that’s OK. But the box stays here. You have until lunch to sort through this stuff – put some in the shredder over there, and the rest in the recycle bin here. Help yourself to coffee while you work!” And he left the room.

People who didn’t know that completing things creates energy got a good lesson that morning. They were surprised; some were laughing and others crabby – but mostly in a good way. They emptied their boxes, joking about what they could do with the new-found space in their office.

Three weeks later, their meetings weren’t about boxes of files and emails anymore. They had a new whiteboard in the meeting room (the shredder stayed) with a roster of team member names. Everyone had their assignments posted – with due dates – and they liked putting stars next to their on-time tasks. It was a whole new workplace, and Evan was finally glad to be there.

Agreements for Change

Last night was the final class on “Leadership and Implementing Change”, and graduate students reported the most valuable things they learned. Their #1 tip – Make agreements, track agreements, and follow up on agreements.

Each student had done a semester-long project to define and implement a change in their workplace, applying the latest class lessons to the project every week. Their reports showed some changes were successful and some were not, what worked best, and what they needed to get better at doing.

The most popular idea was about agreements. If you don’t make agreements, they said, then you don’t have any clarity or certainty about what will happen or when it will be done. If you don’t track those agreements, you will forget about them and fail to follow up. And if you don’t follow up, you will “lose credibility”, as one student said. “People will think you don’t really care about whether anyone actually does what they promised to do,” she explained.

They also noticed they were not very skilled at creating agreements. One person said, “I am usually too casual about asking people to do things. I say “if you want to do this” or “maybe you could get that for me”, which isn’t a good request. And it doesn’t set up a good agreement.”

No clear agreements create unreliable results. “Without agreements, it’s a waste of everyone’s time,” another student said. “If you don’t care about making a change, don’t bother talking about it.”

Their recommendations: Start with a clear intention. Refine it in conversations with people who can assist you. Make solid agreements for people to take actions. Keep track and follow up on all promises. A useful recipe for implementing change.

Productive Communication: Your Best Goal-Getting Tool

I just looked up “management communication” to see how it is described in the world today. I’m a woman with an undergrad degree in Psychology, and two grad degrees in Engineering, and I admit to being horrified.

The American Management Association has a communication training on “Getting Results Without Authority”, subtitled “How do you influence other people who don’t work for you to get the results you need?” It covers:

  1. Personal power: Your source of influence and authority over others, independent of the position you hold (based on theories from psychology and sociology);
  2. Reciprocity: Your ability to behave in a friendly manner to build positive relationships that will encourage others to do things for you (from social psychology);
  3. Personal style in relationships: Your responses to psychology quizzes about whether you are secure, anxious, dismissive, fearful, dependent, etc.;
  4. Persuasion: Your ability to change other people’s attitudes or behaviors by sharing information, feelings, and/or reasoning with them.
  5. Conflict resolution: Your ability to bring about a peaceful ending to a conflict (negative and non-productive interaction) between other individuals or groups;
  6. Negotiation: Your ability to facilitate dialogues that craft outcomes satisfying various interests.
  7. Action plans: Your ability to outline the actions needed to reach a specified goal.

Interesting. I might want to Google some of those things and take the quizzes just for the fun of it. And certainly a few skills in building positive relationships and making good plans are valuable in every area of life.

But, as the authors of “The Four Conversations: Daily Communication that Gets Results”, we’re really simple. We see four productive conversations to have at work – and we have tested them with people who are managers as well as people who have no authority whatsoever. Here they are in a nutshell:

  1. Talk about your goal(s) – what you want, when you want it, and why it matters – with other people who could be involved in accomplishing it. Have those conversations frequently.
  2. Have dialogues with others to find and clarify ideas about how you could achieve the goals, who else could be involved, and where you could make connections for resources and results.
  3. Get people in action (yourself included). Make clear requests for what you want, and when and why. Make good promises to deliver results to others so they can support your objectives. Create agreements with people for making things happen on time and on budget.
  4. Clean things up regularly. Update the facts about progress toward the goal and revise plans accordingly. Thank people when they’re great, or even just for showing up, and don’t be shy about holding them to account. That means reminding people to deliver what they promised or to revoke their promise so you can stop waiting for them. Apologize when other people are inconvenienced, or when you see either a mistake or some kind of misunderstanding that could slow down progress toward the goal.

That’s it. Have each of those 4 conversations on a regular basis, in whatever sequence is needed to keep things moving toward goal success. Productive communication is simple talk to propose specific goals, engage people in planning, and boost them into action with good agreements for What-When-Why something will happen. Then you have a regularly scheduled “status check” to get everyone updated, appreciated, and refreshed for the next steps toward the goal.

So if I want to reliably get results – including with people over whom I have no authority – I could learn to propose ideas, discuss them with others, make requests, and track progress. That’s my plan: I’ll keep practicing The Four Conversations.