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A Four-Pronged Approach to Achieving Excellence

Have you ever known an organization which listed "mediocrity" as one of its core values? Probably not. On the other hand, you can easily find hundreds of organizations who include "excellence" in their core values.

That being the case, why is our world so rife with mediocre performance?

One reason, I believe, is that most organizations have no clear vision of how to convert excellence from a nice-sounding abstraction into a functional reality.

A while back one of my clients came face-to-face with this very challenge. Over several months I had led them through a re-envisioning process in which they reworked their corporate vision and mission statements, enunciated the values which they wanted to shape their future, and mapped out a five-year strategic plan.

This exercise produced five core values, "excellence" among them. When the list of values was finalized, I asked the group to define the pursuit of excellence in practical terms: "When your company is genuinely pursuing excellence, how will that pursuit demonstrate itself, specifically?"

The ensuing discussion ranged far and wide. Those around the table made numerous stabs at describing what excellence would look like in terms of organizational behavior and performance.

Eventually the CEO spoke up. He had listened quietly to the discussion, all the while mulling the question over in his mind.

"It seems to me," he said, "that the pursuit of excellence boils down to four things. Doing things better today than we did yesterday. Doing things better today than we've ever done them before. Doing things better than our industry thinks possible. And doing things better than we once thought possible ourselves."

I was immediately struck by the profound, practical wisdom of his comment. If we are ever to attain excellence, we must have a daily goal to perform better than we did yesterday or ever before. And guiding these efforts must be a driving desire to constantly stretch our own imagination and the imagination of our industry as to what is possible.

I then leave you with this question. If these four considerations were applied to the pursuit of excellence in your organization, what kind of transformational impact would it have?

Delegation and Dysfunction

Failure to delegate properly is a fundamental root cause of organizational dysfunction. Most commonly this type of dysfunction rears its ugly head in one of four ways.

First is insufficient (or even non-existent) delegation. In this case delegation is so limited that decision-making bottle-necks are prevalent in the organization. Communication likewise suffers because of choke points and bottle-necks. As a result, progress slows, momentum is lost, innovation loses traction, frustration mounts, and morale sinks.

Second is improper delegation. This involves delegation to someone who is unprepared for the role, whether due to lack of ability, perspective, technical knowledge, people skills, initiative, span of control, or work habits. In general, if anything is worse than not delegating at all, it is delegating to the wrong person.

Third is partial delegation. This entails a situation in which someone is held accountable for a specific responsibility, but not given the level of authority or discretion which the responsibility calls for. Few positions are more frustrating than to be held accountable when you lack sufficient authority (whether in fact or in the perception of others) to fulfill the underlying responsibility.

Fourth is exploited delegation. This is the term I use to describe settings in which delegation does indeed occur, but the boss takes all of the credit for what is achieved. When this behavior persists, people soon respond to their delegated duties with notably less enthusiasm, determination, and creativity. After all, why kill yourself doing something if someone else will hog all the credit?

Ironically, bosses who are eager to take full credit when things go right are typically the first to deflect blame from themselves to others when things go wrong.

Poor delegation is hardly the sole source of dysfunction in an organization. But whenever dysfunction is present, look for delegation failures to be a prime contributor.

How Leaders Use the Past to Shape the Future

I asked an audience recently, "How well do you manage your past?"

It’s a strange question on the surface. After all, the past is past. There’s not much we can do to manage it.

Viewed from another perspective, however, the past resides only in one place, namely, in our memory. What we do with these memories, how we manage them, has immense implications for what our future will be like.

That’s because this memory of the past is not just a collection of events. It’s an intermixture of events overlaid with our interpretation of them — the meaning that we impose on them. We cannot change the events of the past, but we can choose to put a different meaning on them. And when we do, the past (and how we feel about it) changes for us.

For instance, we can choose to look at adverse moments in our past as failures or as learning experiences. The first perspective adds to self-blame and self-doubt. The second one adds to our reservoir of wisdom and equips us for greater impact in the future.

Thus, the way we envision the past has telling influence on the promise of our future.

Since leaders are future-oriented, it’s incumbent on them to “manage the past” well. And if managing the past is vital for leaders personally, it’s no less vital for the organizations that they lead.

Organizations, too, have a past. Again, it only exists in memory, in this case, the collective memory of the organization. Leaders who manage the interpretation of this collective memory well add leverage to what the future may hold for the entire enterprise.

It seems to me that there are three distinct ways in which leaders manage the past to make good use of it.

  • First, they use the past for learning.They learn from both the things that went well and the things that did not go so well. They neither bask unreflectively in the glow of their accomplishments nor wallow in the disappointment of their setbacks. They simply look to the past to gain knowledge and wisdom. They continually ask, "What did we learn from this experience that will help us do even better in the future?"
  • Second, leaders look to the past to determine the trajectory that their organization is on. If this trajectory remains unchanged, does it portend desirable results for the future? If not, what is being done in the present to change the trajectory? This kind of dialogue with the past is fundamental to strategic thinking.
  • Third, great leaders use the past to create a sense of heritage within their team or organization. They make a point of providing an atmosphere in which the very best things from this heritage continue to prevail. Few things bind people together psychologically more effectively than a valued, shared heritage.

Thus, learning from the past is essential for improvement. Evaluating the trajectories of the past is critical for strategic planning. And maintaining the best from the past in the form of heritage is vital to morale. As a leader, how well are you managing your past?

Leadership and Millennials

In the November 2012 issue of Inc Magazine Jeremy Quittner offers an intriguing summary of strategies that companies are using successfully to engage and motivate Millennials.

This generation of workers prefers electronic communication — email, instant messaging, and video or web conferencing — over face-to-face meetings. They also are reluctant to embrace organizations built around traditional, hierarchical management. Instead, they are best motivated in collaborative settings with a minimum of bureaucracy and management overhead.

This is leading many forward-thinking companies to experiment with alternative leadership styles. Among the more interesting approaches that Quittner mentions is one "in which leaders emerge on a project-by-project basis, according to their particular strengths and experiences."

Interestingly, this approach has an established history in military special forces communities, where the nature of a particular mission determines which member of the team should lead. Such a fluid concept of leadership stands in marked contrast to typical military leadership philosophy, where the person with the highest rank is by default the leader.

Quittner does not draw a parallel with the military world, but he does contrast this "project-by-project" style of leadership with the heavy management layers of traditional corporations like Boeing. He also cites examples of companies who have adopted a hybrid approach, blending the strengths of hierarchical management with the flexibility of this newer, more adaptive style of leadership.

Very thought-provoking ideas. You can see the full article online at Inc.com.

Maximize Your Influence as a Leader

Leadership has little to do with holding a particular title or position. Leadership is about wielding influence.

The function of leadership is to rally people around a common purpose, then motivate them and mobilize them to achieve it. Leaders succeed in this endeavor only by exerting effective influence.

Influence is thus powerful. Yet it does its work without resorting to "power plays." This makes for a primary distinction between leaders and dictators. Both get results. They both orchestrate the behavior of people to gain a certain outcome.

But dictators obtain results through coercion. Dictators do not lead people so much as they drive them. Leaders, on the other hand, rely on persuasion and influence to unite their followers around a shared commitment. Leaders achieve success by drawing people to their side, not driving people to perform.

Now, the ability to influence is not a by-product of the place you occupy in some organizational pecking order. You doubtlessly know many people who are highly influential, even though they hold no organizational titles or positional authority whatsoever.

Consider thought leaders, for instance. They earn the title "leader," not because they possess some powerful office, but because their credibility makes them so influential.

The same can be said of opinion leaders. In many, if not most work groups, leaders soon notice that the entire team tends to align around the attitudes and actions of one or two people. These opinion leaders set the tone for the team as a whole.

If the opinion leaders withhold their support of endorsement for a new idea or proposal, the team follows suit. These opinion leaders have a level of credibility — and hence influence — that far transcends any organizational title that is theirs.

It is thus incumbent on leaders to master the art of capitalizing on their influence. To maximize their influence, leaders must build credibility in four distinct areas.

  • The first is character. Influence begins with a solid reputation for integrity and strength of character. For people to yield willingly to the influence of a leader, they must be convinced that they can put trust in what the leader says and does.
  • Second is competence. Leaders must "know their stuff." Otherwise, they are likely to draw a meager following, if any at all.
  • Third is concrete results. The purpose of leadership is to get things done. When leaders fail to accomplish the outcomes that their people consider most important, leadership influence wanes accordingly.
  • And fourth is concern and (where appropriate) compassion. This embraces concern for the people they lead, the values that these people hold dear, and the cause or endeavor around which the group has come together.

When leaders excel in these four dimensions of credibility, they maximize their potential for using influence to shape the behavior and action of others. To determine if you yourself are maximizing your influence, ask yourself this question: If I had no organizational authority, no position in which I had the power to punish, promote, or reward, would the people on my team still look to me as a leader? Would they still follow?

Your answer will indicate much about how far you have matured in developing the power of your influence.

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What’s Your Attitude, Pilot?

Piloting an aircraft means constant management of its attitude. That's pilot lingo for whether the nose is pointed upward or downward.

Pointing the nose up confers more lift to the wings. Pointing it down diminishes lift.

That's a good metaphor for our personal self-management. Upbeat attitudes put lift under our wings. Downbeat attitudes put us quickly in a nose dive.

Novice pilots soon learn that a nose-down attitude translates rapidly into increased speed. Not only is the plane descending. It's building up speed in the process.

The same is true of personal attitudes. Negative attitudes feed off of one another and intensify one another. They build momentum easily, until our motivation and enthusiasm are plummeting.

In terms of self-management, therefore, nothing is more vital than staying attuned to our attitudes and keeping them aligned for success.

Years ago I was teaching a class on approaching life with a sense of  stewardship. I asked, "Of all the things for which we have responsibility, where is it most important to exercise good stewardship." A woman  near the back, who had said nothing during several class sessions, immediately spoke up and said, "Attitudes."

I was caught off guard by her answer, because I had never thought about stewardship of attitudes. But having thought about it a lot since then, I now recognize the profound wisdom in her response.

A pilot myself at the time, her reply brought to mind the steady warnings of my first flight instructor: "Watch your attitude!!" Whenever I heard him bark those words, I knew that I had let the nose drop and was losing altitude; or that I had the nose too high and was risking a stall.

What he was telling me to do was to make an "attitude adjustment," the name for moving the nose of an aircraft up or down. Even slight attitude adjustments have  a telling effect on the plane's overall performance. Pilots learn to constantly make subtle, but vital adjustments to keep their craft stable and on course.

In a cockpit, directly in front of the pilot's eyes, is an instrument called the attitude indicator It's usually the largest display on the primary instrument panel. This makes it easy to monitor the plane's attitude while scanning other gauges to keep tabs on performance.

We weren't created with an attitude indicator in the middle of our field of vision. But in our mind's eye, we need to put one there.  Many things contribute to our success. We need to pay heed to all of them. But we must never take our eye off our attitudes for more than a brief moment.

Encouraging Words: A Leadership Priority

Wise leaders practice continuous encouragement. They presume that their people are more discouraged than they appear to be; more uncertain than they profess to be; and more insecure than they seem to be.

It's not our nature to voice our self-doubts to others. And rarely do we voice them to leaders.

Yet people who never have self-doubts are either arrogant beyond measure, narcissistic to the core, or totally oblivious to their short-falls.

But being aware of our self-doubts is one thing. Expressing them to others is an altogether different matter.

Early in life we learn to be guarded about confessing self-doubts. Such confessions rarely evoke a helpful response.

Most typically the response is dismissive: "Oh, you don't need to worry about that. You'll do just fine." Unfortunately, dismissiveness does nothing to probe the roots of the self-doubt or to develop strategies for getting beyond it.

On other occasions a confession of self-doubt closes doors of opportunity. Managers, supervisors, and decision-makers don't always make careful distinctions between occasional self-doubts (which is normal) and doubting yourself in general (which is unproductive).

Once they see you as doubting yourself in general, they are unlikely to entrust you with critical or career-advancing responsibilities. Most people therefore avoid this risk by keeping self-doubts to themselves.

Leaders, especially, can undercut themselves by speaking candidly about self-doubts. People want leaders who exude self-confidence. Any talk of self-doubt is therefore fraught with peril, since it threatens the leader's reputation for self-confidence.

As a consequence, we quickly learn that being open about our self-doubts pays few dividends. If admitting to our self-doubts is not taken seriously by others, or if it demeans us in their eyes, why bother? Thus, outside of perhaps a very trusted circle, we typically struggle with self-doubts in silence.

Meanwhile, we put on a demeanor of absolute self-confidence, void of any self-doubt whatsoever. And we learn to wear the mask convincingly.

Leaders see this mask on its most artful display. After all, people want their leaders to see them as competent, confident, and accomplished. If we ever put on our best face, it's around our leaders.

Knowing this, insightful leaders refuse to be seduced by the display. They know that unspoken self-doubts probably lurk behind the mask. So they presume these self-doubts in their communication. To this end they studiously avoid language that might aggravate underlying self-doubts, even in the least.

Instead, they choose language that is up-building. And they never relent in offering encouraging words. Self-doubts don't take holidays. Neither should encouraging words and actions aimed at countering those doubts.

The word "encouragement" literally means "the act of building courage into someone." We think of courage as the antidote to fear and paralyzing anxiety. It is no less the antidote to self-doubt.

Good leaders dispense the antidote generously. They know that self-doubt is always a silent enemy in their midst. To disarm this enemy, they go out of their way to maintain a spirit of encouragement in all that they say and do.

The Leadership Challenge for Introverts

Jim Collins' widely read volume Good to Great underscores the ability of introverts to be great leaders. Of the CEOs whose success he chronicles, the overwhelming majority were introverts.

The demands of management and leadership, however, do not always align neatly with the inherent traits of introversion. Introverts, by their very nature, enjoy and make good use of time to themselves. They don't feel compelled to be with people and to interact with others constantly, the way that extraverts are prone to do.

Now, I'm using "extraversion" and "introversion" in keeping with their psychological definition, not the way that people speak of extroverts and introverts in day-to-day speech.

Usually when people describe a person as extraverted, they want to convey the image of someone who is dynamic and outgoing, someone who is forceful and animated when speaking to a group, someone whose presence exudes energy and confidence. In this sense "extravert" is the opposite of a quiet, passive personality.

But introverts (psychologically speaking) are fully capable of being energetic, dynamic, and outgoing. Many of the most accomplished actors and political figures in history have been pronounced introverts.

From a psychological viewpoint, the primary difference between extraverts and introverts is determined by the way that they recharge when their emotional batteries run down. Extraverts recharge by surrounding themselves with people, often in settings which involve tons of activity.

Introverts, however, recharge by pursuing quieter activities (such as reading or taking a long walk). And they pursue this activity either alone or at most with only a handful of people.

Why these contrasting approaches? Because heavy interaction with people has opposite effects on extraverts and introverts. For extraverts prolonged interaction with people is a net energy gain. For introverts it's a net energy drain.

So extraverts recharge by putting themselves in a crowd of people, where there are constant opportunities for interaction. Introverts recharge by getting away from people.

And this creates the challenge for introverts as leaders. Leadership is a decidedly interactive, interpersonal process. You may manage behind a closed door. But you can't lead from there. Leadership by its very nature demands constant involvement with people.

But when the demands get heavy, when the going gets tough, when the pace is exhausting, introverts are sorely tempted to withdraw, to go into a self-imposed isolation to re-energize. Without even realizing it, they may slip into subtle work patterns that signal disengagement from their people.

I don't mean that they go off to live in a monastery. But they may easily shift into a mode in which they interact less with people, seem frequently preoccupied with something other than the immediate conversation, or absorb themselves in projects that give them a rationale to work solo for hours at a time.

None of these patterns, sustained over an extended period, is good for effective leadership. But I've described these patterns as temptations, not as a path that the introvert necessarily chooses.

In fact, introverts must purposefully choose to stay engaged in the leadership process, even when their natural inclination is to hole up and recharge. It's a choice that effective introverted leaders have made for eons. But it means going against the way that introverts are wired.

The starting point for introverted leaders is thus to come to recognize their introverted nature and acknowledge it. They must accept that their introversion will often nudge them in directions that are not conducive to good leadership practices.

Then, having accepted this reality, they must be constantly vigilant, guarding against any tendency to react to stress and exacting demands by diminishing their level of interactive engagement.

And finally, when they feel the temptation to pull back in ways that are counterproductive to good leadership, they must have the discipline to resist the temptation.

Does this mean that introverts must forego the opportunity to recharge? Not at all. Everyone must recharge. Introverts must simply find ways to do so at times when their leadership responsibilities are not at the forefront. They must carefully manage their work-life balance to have sufficient time to themselves to renew their batteries.

All of this makes for a tall order, but not an impossible one. The successful CEOs whom Collins studied had clearly mastered the marriage of introversion and leadership. If you are an introvert, you can do so as well.

Building High Team Trust

I've written in the past about my interaction with 42Projects and Trust 2.0, a pair of closely-related grassroots programs at Microsoft. (See my article on Microsoft's Trust 2.0 Initiative.)

The goal of 42Projects and Trust 2.0 is to promote greater innovation by strategically and purposefully building trust.

Yesterday I had lunch with Ross Smith, the architect behind this effort, and Brian Lounsberry, one of the first at Microsoft to see the potential of the concept. Three years into the initiative, I wanted to find out if higher trust was indeed yielding greater innovation.

Ross answered with an unequivocal "Yes!" He cited example after example to substantiate the correlation between high trust and expanded innovation within his team. Then our conversation turned to specific techniques that the team has used to enhance trust.

One method particularly intrigued me. They call it "Trust Subversion Analysis." Instead of focusing on what builds trust, this approach focuses on behaviors that subvert it. Armed with this analysis, the team then establishes an alternate set of behaviors to replace the subversive ones.

Why this approach? Because it's often easier to identify the essence of a quality if we examine what happens when it's missing.

To make this analysis more meaningful, the team decided to deal with only one aspect of trust-building at a time. They began with the need to foster an atmosphere of respect.

Rather than listing behaviors that communicate respect, they compiled a list of behaviors that leave people feeling disrespected. This list quickly became extensive.

Each team member then identified the three behaviors from the list that he or she had noticed most often in team meetings. When the results were tallied, the three most common subversive behaviors were 1) dominating the conversation; 2) not being inclusive; and 3) not listening or paying attention.

The team then flipped these behaviors around — reversed them so to speak — to create a set of behavioral standards for themselves. The desired behaviors became 1) Don't dominate; 2) Be inclusive; and 3) Pay attention/listen.

For each of these standards the team spelled out specific behaviors that they would expect of themselves. These behaviors have become rules of engagement for team interaction.

Ross and his colleagues are writing extensively about their experience. When their assessment is published, I hope to provide links to their seminal work both here and at TrustIsPower.com.

I've shared this preliminary summary because their methodology is so simple and straightforward that any organization can do something similar. You don't need to start with respect. Feel free to pick some other aspect of trust-building. If your results are anything like the outcomes on Ross' team, the exercise will clearly be worth the effort.

Incidentally, if you are interested in knowing more about what Ross and his team have done, check out the 42 Projects web site.

Manage What You Can Control, And the Rest . . .?

On one of my trips to Kenya I was interviewed on the business news program for a major television station in Nairobi.

As we were waiting for the floor crew to finalize camera and light angles, the interviewer began joking about his rather diminutive stature.

He commented, "We have a saying in Africa that your height is given to you by God, but your girth is something that you give yourself."

I found it a delightful proverb, and one that points to a vital principle. There are many things in life that we cannot control. And these "uncontrollables" often limit our options, confront us with difficulties, or even cause us heartache.

It's easy to sit around lamenting these misfortunes, as though lamenting them would make them go away. But no amount of wallowing in disappointment about things beyond our control lessens their hold on us, not one iota.

Far better to devote our time to managing the things that we can control.

To borrow the TV journalist's proverb again, I'm one of those people who has given himself too much girth in recent years. I can't control the fact that the body is getting older and that it takes more work to keep it in shape. But that doesn't excuse the fact that I could do a better job of controlling my weight.

Yet our tendency is to complain about things that we cannot control and to make excuses for the things that we could manage, but fail to do so.

I've got a ready-made excuse for my weight. It was given me 40 years ago by a short-order cook in a place that I frequented for breakfast. She and I became cordial acquaintances, so that we were always jesting with one another.

When I told her one day to "drain all that fattening grease off the bacon," she turned her body of considerable girth in my direction, shook her spatula at me, and said, "Mr. Armour, it ain't the fattenin' grease that does it. You just turn thirty and spread."

Unfortunately, there was as much truth as humor in her words. And I'm tempted at times to fall back on her explanation to justify my weight. But that's not taking responsibility for things I can control.

Successful people and successful leaders, I've found, have mastered the art of focusing on what they can control, managing them well, and dismissing everything else as beyond their influence. They fret very little about what they cannot do. Instead, they stay riveted on what they can do.

That's why some of the most unlikely people have become great leaders. Conventional wisdom would have dismissed their potential because of some limitation in talent, resources, or social status.

But ignoring conventional wisdom, these men and women capitalized on the capabilities available to them. And through sheer application of determination and persistence, they ended up making a lasting mark.

So manage what you can control. And don't fret about the rest. And if you're under thirty, watch out!! The days are coming when you'll just turn thirty and spread.