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.

A Whole New Way of Thinking

Can you feel it? We’re in transition.

For years, many of us in the business world have been talking about the profound shift in the nature of business that is inevitably due to happen. Well, it has finally arrived.

In economic terms, we are well into the so called fourth economy, which has also been dubbed the “Experience Economy”. At the turn of the 20th century, we focused almost exclusively on the nature of the product or service, its features and benefits. Later, we began to shift our focus to how the product or service was delivered. Today, organizations are faced with what could be the most daunting task of all, focusing on the product AND how it is delivered.

Customers are no longer just demanding a top notch product.

They are no longer just seeking first class customer service.

They are demanding both. Right now. Wrapped in an amazing customer experience.

There has been a shift in attitude, mindset and approach and, for some time now, a small core of people inside most organizations have known this shift was happening. They understood what it encompassed, and what it meant. However, until now, there hasn’t been an understanding of how to actually achieve it.

In organizational terms, this new era is being called the “Conceptual Age”. Operationally, it means the requisite skill sets of workers will be based on the highly-conceptual, high-touch abilities. It requires a whole new kind of thinking, a whole new creativity, a whole new mindset. How, in a world of numbers, processes, and metrics, can organizations tap into the emotions of their customers, to deliver this elusive experience?

The task may seem challenging, the answer may be simple.

Learn to unlearn.

Think of ways not to think.

Open your mind to new possibilities.

Opening Your Eyes to the Reality of Your Corporate Culture

How many times have you looked at the vision statement or mission statement or any other statement of a company’s culture and thought how hollow it seems? How many times have people outside your organization thought the same thing about yours? Worse still, how many times have people inside your organization thought it?

It’s easy to get caught up in financial statements and annual reports, and lose touch with the fundamentals of your organization. You can be lulled into thinking all is well because you have the necessary pieces in place when, in fact, there is a real undercurrent of dissatisfaction poisoning your well.

Harvard Business Review recently published an article entitled 5 Questions to Ask About Corporate Culture to Get Beyond the Usual Meaningless Blather, and it is a very useful eye-opener. The five questions they pose are:

  • Is your talent strategy rooted in your business strategy?
  • Does your company work as distinctively as it competes?
  • Can you capture what it means to be a member of your organization?
  • Is your culture built for learning as well as performance?
  • Can your culture maintain its zest for change and renewal, even when the company stumbles?

You could save yourself some nasty surprises by reflecting on each of these questions and how they might be answered within your organization. Your time is valuable, and this is a very good use of it.

To read the full article, you can go to Read More Here

An Enlightened and Refreshing Look at Decision Making

How does your organization decide how to decide? Are decision making authorities (i.e. decision rights) clear, and are people truly aware of the impact of their daily decisions?

Studying decision making is the full time occupation of many very intelligent people, and there is a wealth of information available on what leads to, and what detracts from, making good decisions. Perhaps you have adopted some of the latest processes for decision making within your own organization.

According to McKinsey, however, in their recent article entitled Untangling Your Organization’s Decision Making, there are a number of factors in the current business environment that work against effective decision making. Organizations are becoming more complex, and dependence on email communication has risen exponentially – just two of the factors that lead many organizations to find their decision-making authorities are not clearly defined.

The recommendation coming from this article is quite simple and straightforward, yet very valuable. The authors advocate categorizing the types of decisions required into four buckets and then tailoring the approaches accordingly. The four buckets neatly form an ABCD framework:

  • Ad hoc decisions – infrequent, low-stake
  • Big-bet decisions – infrequent, high-risk
  • Cross-cutting decisions – frequent, high-risk
  • Delegated decisions – frequent, low-risk

You will have to decide for yourself, of course, but I think the discussion, examples and tips presented in this article are well worth considering.

To read the full article, you can go to http://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/untangling-your-organizations-decision-making

Leadership Lessons from my Family – Overcoming Adversity

As winter quickly approaches, I thought I would cover another leadership lesson I’ve drawn from my own family experiences. At the tail end of last winter, my grandson Spencer qualified to race in the OFSAA Championships for snowboarding. If you are unfamiliar with OFSAA, it is the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations and is comprised of 18 regional school athletic associations from across the province. This particular competition combined all students from grades nine through twelve (14 to 18 years old) racing in the same category.

As likely the youngest competitor in the field, my 14 year old grandson came 5th.

Now, this would be amazing to me simply as a proud grandfather, and as someone who thrives on achievement, aiming high, and accomplishing goals. I find it even more outstanding, though, because four years ago Spencer, like many kids these days, experienced a particularly traumatic breaking apart of his family. Four years ago, he was thrown into a brand new identity as a child of a broken home.

People like to say children are resilient, and perhaps they are, or perhaps they don’t have a choice in the matter. The family psychologist said to expect a drop in grades at school, to anticipate anger, look for signs of depression, etc. Apparently, Spencer looked straight at the counsellor and said “if you think my grades are going to drop, then you don’t know me”.

So, a 10 year old boy took his sadness and anger and threw it into academics, into music, into snowboarding – into proving the counsellor wrong. He didn’t want to be the kid who lowered his own goals in life because the S&*$ hit the fan when he was 10 years old.

The reality is, life’s worst experiences happen to everyone. No one is immune, and whether we feel we are naturally resilient or not, there are times we need to be. When job changes happen unexpectedly. When health changes happen unexpectedly. When life changes happen unexpectedly.

I have included a few of my favourite quotes on resilience below. Please feel free to add your own to the comment section, I’d be interested to hear your personal take on resilience in business and in life.

 “‎Hold yourself responsible for a higher standard than anybody else expects of you. Never excuse yourself. Never pity yourself. Be a hard master to yourself – and be lenient to everybody else.”
― 
Henry Ward Beecher


“My life was my life; I would have to stare it down, somehow, and make it work for me.”
― 
Paula McLain

 “Did you once have a grand plan which has become obsolete and no longer serves you? If there are areas in your life which must change to help you create better results, a redesign may be in order. Consider going back to the ‘drawing board’ to deconstruct what isn’t working and start anew.”
― 
Susan C. Young

How do you cultivate creativity? (Hint: it’s both messy and deliberate)

“The role of a creative leader is not to have all the ideas; it’s to create a culture where everyone can have ideas and feel that they’re valued” – Ken Robinson – the New York Times best-selling author of “The Element”, TED speaker, education and creativity expert.

As a business leader, cultivating creativity in your team or organization might be one of the most difficult aspects of your job. Far less tangible and quantifiable than production and processes, creativity is undeniably as important as both, yet research cited in the HBR article below suggests that up to 80% of American and British workers feel pressured to be productive rather than creative at work. Yes, it’s hard to measure creative success in the same way we measure widgets but, in the long-run, we all know that collective creation is necessary to progress and, therefore, must be worth the time, energy, and space to make sure it happens.

This article provides a useful path towards creating an environment in which structured creativity can yield constructive results. Author Ron Carucci suggests that it takes intentional, thoughtful leadership to foster a creative culture, as well as great self-awareness of your role in enhancing or hindering the creative process of your team. Knowing when to participate and when to step back is key. Understanding that creativity is messy, and yet needs to be defined and balanced, is also critical.

This is a great read and highly recommended.

Read More Here

Raising the Bar on Team Performance

It is possible (highly likely even), that the topic of high-performing teams will be studied and debated forever. Have you mastered it in your organization, or is it a holy grail that you are still seeking?

Over time, there have certainly been outstanding leaders who have single-handedly achieved great success. The reality for most organizations, however, is a much more complicated architecture with a variety of team structures at the core. Impacting the performance of these teams is a dizzying number of variables including economic factors, technology, social media and generational changes to name just a few.

So, with so much at stake for your organization, how do you ensure you are able to pin down the elusive high-performing team? We recently came across an article in the McKinsey Quarterly that sheds some much needed light on this very complex subject. It is entitled High-performing teams: A timeless leadership topic, and it is a very useful synthesis of what they have found to be the most valuable advice on team composition and team dynamics.

Within this article, you will also find reference to a new book entitled Leading Organizations: Ten Timeless Truths, in which it is noted that top-team performance has been on the list of the top ten business topics for the past 40 years. That’s quite a statistic!

We have known for a long time now that good teamwork was actually a red herring, and what organizations really need is superior team performance. This article can help you get there – finally.  Read More Here

Getting to Meaningful Strategy Discussions

 

Are you finding yourself a little lost in the quagmire of frameworks and theories aimed at helping you in your strategic thinking and planning processes? Would you welcome a fresh perspective?

There isn’t a leader out there who hasn’t studied, discussed and, most likely worried about, the ever present challenge of strategy and being strategic. You can over-engineer and complicate it to death – or, according to a recent article from Harvard Business Review, you can take a practical approach, looking at how well strategic thinking is implemented throughout your organization on a day-to-day basis.

The article I am referring to is entitled, Being a Strategic Leader is About Asking the Right Questions. It offers five very straightforward questions for you to ask yourself and your team. They are presented in a deliberate order, and include the following:

  1. What are we doing today?
  2. Why are you doing the work you’re doing? Why now?
  3. How does what we’re doing today align with the bigger picture?
  4. What does success look like for our team?
  5. What else could we do to achieve more, better, faster?

Having read the list, you might be tempted to go right to the fifth question, but the article warns against doing that. You must do the groundwork in the here and now, before you can effectively look forward to the new and better.

I have always believed purposeful and relevant questions are the very best tool in the leader’s toolkit. This article proves the point, once again.

To read the full article, you can go to Read More Here

Bad managers lead to lost employees. Period.

This is not breaking news.

This equation is never going to change.

Companies avoid getting rid of bad managers for any number of reasons –  he’s a brilliant mind, she’s been with the company since the outset, he has the best sales record in the organization; the financial package to get rid of her would be too much.

A company’s decision to not get rid of that bad manager, however, is also a decision to get rid of any number of valuable employees reporting to him or her over time. These good workers, managers, and possible future leaders of the organization will then be gone before they can even reach their potential within the company.

No amount of bonuses, perks, or external motivators can compensate for the negative impact of a bad boss over the long-term. Employees will stay, either until they can’t take it anymore, or until something better comes along, leaving companies to rehire and retrain a continual stream of new employees who, in turn, are left to deal with the same bad manager until they decide to move on as well.

Read more on this topic in this article from Inc.com:

Read More Here

5 Essential Practices for Leading Cultural Movements

We all know the adage “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

This age old cliché assumes that the dog is too old, or too set in its ways, to change at this point in its life. So why bother – right? But what if the dog’s age, or ability to learn, was never the problem at all? What if the problem is that the change is being imposed, and does not stem from internal motivation or inclination? Yes, it is difficult to impose the learning of new tricks on an old dog but, if you shift the motivation and create a desire for change … well that old dog is able to learn a few new tricks after all, isn’t it.

The HBR article below is called “Changing Company Culture Requires a Movement, Not a Mandate.” I think it is a fantastic read for anyone who, in the back of their mind, or even right in the very forefront of their mind, holds a nagging intuition that top-down imposition of mandates for cultural change don’t work. Simply put “someone with authority can demand compliance, but they can’t dictate optimism, trust, conviction, or creativity.”

If you are interested in reading about ideas and practices that can help galvanize employees to create organizational change, or even smaller team movements towards change, then I highly suggest this read.

Read More Here