Igniting Champions

Organizations profile prospective employees and leaders for a number of vital characteristics – business acumen, management capability, interpersonal skills, etc. Rarely, if ever though, do they look for the organizational equivalent of a “spark”. They usually don’t look for that natural born catalyst. Someone who can initiate great amounts of growth through people. Someone who can see through the bureaucracy and decide what must be done, right now.

Organizations need catalysts now, more than ever. With many employees paralyzed by the rapidly changing economic conditions, organizations must tap into a catalyst’s natural abilities to kick-start action and lead change.

Chemical Reaction

In tough times, catalysts are what you need. Just as importantly, though, you are also wise to seek out and listen to your catalysts in the good times.

Catalysts are wired differently. They understand what it takes to achieve an organization’s growth target, and how to get around roadblocks that might get in the way. They innately know how to speed up the processes that are necessary within an organization.

The organization’s leaders may know what needs to change, and what they must do to reach their target, however, it takes a catalyst to cut through the analysis and bureaucracy to get the process started – now.

Mental Models

Trapped. You can’t do it. There are too many constraints. Bureaucracy, corporate policies, you name it. There is no way you can reach your new, higher targets with this impossible number of constraints.

This attitude may be all in your head!

In many cases, organizations teach – or better yet brainwash – managers into believing they are not able to take control and make the changes necessary to achieve long-term substantial growth. In the organization’s eyes, the key is to minimize risk and maximize control. In other words, maintain the status quo.

As a catalyst, you need to see through this trap. If you spend the time and energy (sweat equity), and if you can build a sound business case to achieve the company’s goals, you will get the permission you need. As a catalyst, you can change the company.

Keys to Becoming the Catalyst in your Organization

The good news is that catalysts can be profiled. Here are some of the traits they exhibit:

Dominance – As a catalyst you are likely frustrated with the here and now, and are always looking for the next big thing. Catalysts are also very task focused. If the growth target is “meaty” enough, a catalyst will get to work on it immediately.

Influence – Catalysts know that they can’t do this alone. You must influence others in the organization to get on board with you, and pursue this new approach together.

Steadfastness – Choose uncharted waters for your change plans, learn as you go and don’t let rules and regulations get in the way.

Conscientiousness – Do not be shackled by your organization’s past, understand its importance, but don’t be constrained by it.

How to Avoid Failure in Judgment and Decision Making

All of our decisions are based on a well researched and proven “value chain” that helps determine both the nature and the quality of the choices we make. In short, all of our decisions, especially those we make in business, are based on a premise (right or wrong), which in turn shapes the assumptions we make, which lead to the conclusions we draw and the actions we take – or do not take. It is a little more complicated than that but, for our purposes, let’s simply say that premises and assumptions are the raw materials of all decisions, and the chain of events that make up this process are fundamental to the success of any organization.

Taking care in your decision making

It has long been bewildering why leaders do not seem to take either enough care of, or pay enough attention to, the decision making process within their organizations. The same leaders who will spend millions of dollars to improve the efficiency of an outdated IT system, or an inefficient manufacturing system, or a faulty sales process have, generally speaking, never really considered spending any money on improving the corporation’s decision making process.

As leaders, it is our obligation to do justice to this one vital element of organizational effectiveness which many of us have been afraid to address for far too long. A good place to begin, in our view, is redefining what it means to fail.

We have all heard the phrase that we “learn more from our failures than our successes”. If that is true, then you have to wonder why we have not done a better job of formalizing the “learning from mistakes process” in order to improve the learning itself. In this case, like so many other urban myths, the words are nice and the thoughts somehow comfortable and reassuring, but the reality is quite different.

In short, we will have to apply more rigour and scrutiny to our failures if we want to create new opportunities to reinvent our organizations, the products we offer, the value we create and the people we chose to be our leaders.

We need to examine failure not just through the lens of failed outcomes, but also in terms of:

  • Failure of Opportunity
  • Failure of Trust
  • Failure of Will
  • Failure of Priorities
  • Failure of Respect

Think about it for just a minute.

The “value” created by any leader, team or organization is really the sum total of all of the decisions made by the leader, the team or the organization over time. The improvements we make, the breakthroughs we have, the innovations we spawn, and the outcomes we achieve are all, ultimately, based on the quality of the decisions made, both large and small. While much has been written on the importance of execution (which we do not deny or dismiss), the fact of the matter is there can be no more important attribute for defining individual or collective success than the ability to make great decisions.

In others words, while executing the decision is important, the things that govern the decision and the decision making process itself are equally important.

Embracing New Mindsets

Organizations everywhere (at least those not lucky enough to be born a Google or an Apple) have been struggling for years to find ways to instill an ethic of innovative thinking into their workforce. In far too many instances, the emphasis has been on improving the effectiveness of their brainstorming activities. Research has shown, however, that the most effective “phase” of the thinking process may lie at the very beginning – in what is called the “framing” stage.

Author John Naisbitt takes it even one step further, and teaches a new method of approaching the framing stage by adopting new mindsets. Think of mindsets as the foundation of the box. In many cases, the foundation is a foot thick and made of solid concrete. The worst part is, if you look down, you’ll find that your feet are embedded in the concrete (no wonder you can’t get out). The answer is to crack up the foundation, so the walls fall down by themselves.

The central part of Naisbitt’s approach lies in his proposition that the thinking process shouldn’t be limited to just one mindset. Instead, he has developed eleven different ways of looking at the world. This should be a breath of fresh air for organizations that have adopted a one-size-fits-all approach to their thinking, and have failed. The idea is to free your thinking, and just let your mind flow.

Development of the Fittest

Who carries the “burden” for executive development and talent retention within an organization? Is it the executive or senior manager who aspires to greater things? Should they be spending their time planning their career path and seeking out new development opportunities? Or is it the employer who must take the lead in this process, through identification, selection, reward and recognition?

The central problem here rests with the fact the traditional mindset that underpins most executive development and talent retention must be changed. The “survival of the fittest” mentality that most organizations have relied upon since the end of WWII to validate who has the “right stuff”, must also be changed.

The new focus and approach has to centre on the overall “development of the fittest”, and that involves a more complicated dual-track approach. Simply put, if your organization fails to adequately provide its high flyers with both applicable work experiences and plentiful training and development opportunities, your top players will more than likely leave.

A core premise, within the new credo, and a very big philosophical change from even 10 years ago, is that an organization should not aim to treat all of its aspiring executives in the same way. In fact, the progressive organization should pro-actively “discriminate” when it comes to their High Potential Officers. Simply put, Talent Management means that the organization needs to find and create unique development solutions and streams for each and every manager with potential. There is no “one size fits all” approach, and generic formulae do not do enough to differentiate between capability, motivation and learning style.

There is another important point to make, and it has to do with the “soft middle” within most organizations. The fact of the matter is, while we may praise the “high potentials”, there is no question the “soft middle” plays a major role in keeping most organizations afloat. They may not have the same upside, or even the same work ethic, dedication or aspirations, but an organization that hopes to win in the market, has to make sure it’s “B Players” are better than the competition’s “B Players”.

In an important way, developing a new, stronger and more robust talent management process has two additional benefits. Aside from rewarding and recognizing your strongest team members – the “high potentials” – you send a strong message that will entice the moderate performers to rise to the occasion. In so doing, you pass ownership of that responsibility to the employees, and improve the overall fitness of the organization.

Become an Influencer

The fact is – modern businesses are constantly burdened by long-term problems. These problems don’t go away. They don’t change. They’re not getting any better.

The problem is – not that we lack the courage to confront these problems, we lack the skill. People tend to act like “copers”, rather than influencers.

The outcome is – we develop complex coping mechanisms and justifications to deal with these problems without creating lasting change. Our business plans do not execute as expected, and we have trouble motivating individuals to follow through with goals.

The solution is – to recognize our ability to influence problems. To be an influencer, we must focus on a small number of “high leverage” behaviours, and apply these to our interactions in order to develop superior performance.

The question here is influence. Why do some organizations seem to resolve their issues, while others remain stagnant? What does it take to influence employees in order to get a solution implemented?

The key is to understand that you, as a leader, have the responsibility to find out what motivates your co-workers and apply that knowledge to get results from them.

There are two kinds of companies in the business world. One kind of company has leaders who are continually meeting new challenges, while the other has leaders who resign to dealing with an ever-shrinking list of challenges “within their control”.

One set of companies is innovating and seeking to deal with its problems. The other is setting up barriers to its own accomplishments.

One organization has influencers, the other has leaders who develop coping mechanisms.

It’s so easy to be the second type of company. That’s the company that labels its challenges as “out of its control” or “impossible to resolve”. It is the company that accepts the status quo. It is the company with a group of leaders who don’t understand influence, and haven’t taken the time to see how they can motivate others to perform.

Dealing with Organizational Silos

All of this talk about paradigm shifts, and out of the box thinking, is starting to wear just a little bit thin. We have all heard it so often, for so many years, in so many different situations, that it has become a seriously depreciated asset whose value has plummeted with each subsequent uttering. The truth is, why are we so worried about getting outside of our box, when many of us can’t even get outside of our department?

Organization after organization – from Canada to Kazakhstan, from Albania to Australia – have become frighteningly compartmentalized, bent inward, shaped into neat little silos, the walls of which seem to have been reinforced with iron will. The risk is simply that the phrase “dismantling silos” holds about as much water today as other jargon words like – solutions, empowerment and transparency. The premise of the argument has been so slowly and so completely worked to death, that the term now lacks any sense of its original urgency or purpose. Call it what you may. Label it how you wish. The problem remains. Silos are still wreaking havoc on organizations day after day. Does anyone care?

We do. So, here are The Beacon Group’s Keys to Breaking Your Silos and Fiefdoms …

Invite the outside in – Why not simply flip things on their head. Rather than build walls – open gates. In every meeting you hold, from now on, invite at least one member from another department to attend.

Go walk about – In the same vein as inviting others to your meetings, go traveling. Invite yourself into “their” meetings. At a minimum, it will show you are interested, and perhaps even incite a reciprocal walk about by them. In addition, get out of the building. Go visiting. Visit suppliers, vendors, even competitors, as often as possible to learn how they conduct their operations, and then bring that knowledge back to your organization.

Demand super-fast technology – Want to break down the walls? Crank up the heat. Things moving too slowly? Turn up the dial. Information taking too long to get to you? Lubricate the channels. You should not only have information flowing to you, but it should be coming quicker and quicker every day. Out fox the fox.

Publish everything – Set the tone by becoming the best darn newspaper or magazine in town. Publish everything. We mean it. Open the valves to full steam. At monthly town hall meetings, devote a portion of your time to “Lessons learned from others”. Make it a priority to learn about new developments and procedures that work for others, and may work for you.

How the Mighty Fall

“I’ve come to see institutional decline like a staged disease: harder to detect but easier to cure in the earlier stages, easier to detect and harder to cure in the later stages.”

Author Jim Collins from his book “How the Mighty Fall: And Why Some Companies Never Give In”

11:40pm, April 14th, 1912, three bells sound.

“Iceberg, straight ahead!”

The First Officer gives the command “hard-a-starboard”, but it’s too late.

The RMS Titanic strikes the iceberg and begins to sink. Hours later countless lives are lost.

How did this happen?

If it had been almost any other boat in existence, this wouldn’t have happened.

This tragedy could have, and should have, been prevented. The Titanic had been dubbed unsinkable, so there weren’t enough lifeboats on board for all of the passengers. In addition, reports of icebergs in the vicinity hours earlier had been ignored. This is the very same sort of arrogance, and denial of common sense, that author Jim Collins says happens every day in business.

Before tragedy hits your organization, you should be on the lookout for the predictable pattern that often traps companies, and ultimately leads to their doom.

The Fact is – if you’re lucky, your company is or has been successful.

The Problem is – in many cases, this success can create a sense of invincibility and false optimism that can ultimately erode the foundation of your company.

The Outcome is – a culture that falsely believes success will continue indefinitely. Ego begins to take over from common sense on key business decisions.

The Solution is – to constantly monitor your organization for signs of overconfidence, and a decline in the rigour with which you made decisions in the past.

Like those at the helm of the Titanic, it’s easy to believe your company is too great to succumb to failure. Collins argues, however, that this sort of mentality is exactly what gets companies into trouble. Perhaps Intel Chairman Andy Grove had it right when he said “only the paranoid survive”.

Remembering that Collins is also the author of “Good to Great”, it is important to note that great organizations were the by-product of humble, company-focused Level 5 Leaders. In the “fallen” companies, Collins found that they lacked any Level 5 Leadership whatsoever.

The Beacon Group’s Key’s to Recovery and Renewal …

Strive for Greatness – If your organization has strayed from its roots, take time to ensure your leaders have the best interests of the company in mind, that you have selected the very best people, and that you focus on the things you can do better than anyone else.

Don’t Read Your Own Press – While success is never a bad thing, don’t let it go to your head. There is always another company out there trying to unseat you. Worse yet, poor decisions and internal laziness can cause your own downfall.

Have Plenty of Lookouts – If you have the right people, at all levels in your company, they will keep their eyes on the horizon, constantly on the lookout for “icebergs” that may harm you. Trust them when they bring items to your attention. The more eyes you have looking for trouble, the less likely you will be to run into it.

Followership

The appetite for books on leadership and management is now so great that many, if not most, have the sexier of the two words, leadership, right in the title – and that’s the problem with leadership today. Leaders in the workplace are always aiming to achieve the benefits, stature and even glamour of being a “real” leader – the person who calls all the shots and creates a visionary plan to boost revenues.

How can you blame them? It’s all they’ve ever read about. It’s all they ever see in the workplace. Perhaps it’s even the behaviour you project as a leader yourself.

Being the stereotypical leader is the easiest way to stand out, the easiest way to be noticed, and the easiest way to move up. Everyone speaks that language.

Who would want to be a follower anyway?

The Fact is leadership, as we know it, is about the individual. It’s about guiding the sheep, if you can put it in those words.

The Problem is that this idea of leadership leaves out the contributions of many others. Worse, it blocks leaders from noticing other leaders.

The Outcome is a company that becomes dependent on the ideas, values and direction of a single person, or group of powerful leaders.

The Solution is to consider the less glamorous role of followers in your organization and assess their condition. Are they detached? Will they question your leadership? Will they follow you in every action you take?

Followership talks about a similar concept. The people you’re leading can play vital roles in organizing smaller projects, smaller groups and smaller ideas. They can mobilize entire components of your vision, or they can be ignored and become isolated and detached. Just because they don’t stand out, doesn’t mean they should be disregarded.

You know exactly who these people are. They are the implementers. Those who sit quietly in meetings, gather all the information, and spring into action when the plan is set.

They are everywhere. You see them every day. But, they don’t scream individualism.

They may not come up with the latest and greatest ideas, but this doesn’t mean they don’t have the power to guide the fortunes of your organization.

Followers are important. Are you paying attention to them?

Getting to “There” Before They Do

You find yourself at a dead end. You thought all along that your path was destined for greatness. But here you are, with nowhere to go.

Did you pick the wrong path? Not initially.

Did you move fast enough? Sure, at the beginning.

Did you think that you could close your eyes and let your “career cruise control” take over? Unfortunately.

The fact is – too many people, in far too many organizations all over the world, seem to feel they can stop learning and still progress. They think that once they get onto the first rung of the corporate ladder, they’ve got it made. They think there is nothing new to learn, and no room to grow. They believe what got them here will, in fact, get them somewhere new.

The problem is – this sort of career limiting mentality died many years ago (in the Peter Senge era). People who still believe their “right of passage” is guaranteed, will ultimately begin to wear themselves into a rut, and their career (and in some cases their organization) will grind to a halt.

The outcome is – the various “knowledge banks” never expand. Wisdom and experience is not passed on to other employees. The sum total of the knowledge within the organization dries up and becomes outdated, which ultimately leads people and organizations into failure.

The solution is to help people, and the organization overall, develop a chronic itch – a relentless drive to improve abilities and competence. You must create a burning platform of chronic dissatisfaction with the status quo, and an ambitious goal of quantum improvement. Organizations have to create “winning environments” where employees are encouraged to mix healthy doses of curiosity, with a spirit of entrepreneurship, and future-oriented focus.

Leading with Wicked Questions

For decades, our leaders were expected to have all the answers.

Unfortunately, this “all-knowing” persona more often than not translated into a dictatorial, autocratic “Do as I tell you” type of leadership style. Sadly, at the time, this style was not only accepted but, in most cases encouraged, and even valued at all levels of an organization. As a result, we often found the level of personal accountability was lowered to the point where not only the power, but the ultimate responsibility lay at the top rather than dispersed throughout the entire organization. This limited creativity and ownership has led to many of the problems and challenges faced by organizations today.

Nowadays, this type of leadership is largely part of a bygone era.

The global business world is simply moving too quickly, and is far too complicated, for any one leader to possibly know it all. As Michael Marquardt writes in his important book entitled Leading with Questions – “We need to be able to resist the impulse to provide solutions and learn instead to ask questions”.

We totally agree with Professor Marquardt’s belief that the key to effective leadership in the coming decades will be the ability of leaders to ask the right questions, not have the right answers.

We have known for some time that, as leaders rise within an organization, their technical skills become more and more irrelevant, while their success is increasingly tied to their ability to develop a well-rounded suite of leadership competencies – including the ability to ask great questions.

According to the Harvard Business School, becoming a more effective listener is one of the most valuable tools a leader can develop, and the great news is that a leader can develop their listening ability by asking the right questions. In short, great questions provide the leader with important additional listening opportunities and, as a result, can expand their sphere of influence and understanding.

The leader who is able to ask an ever increasing number of questions, in order to expand their listening opportunities, will find numerous other side benefits including the ability to better understand the “mood” of the organization and the state of the culture as a whole.