Category Archives: Ruminations

Client Matters

Here are two opposite ends of the spectrum of what consultants often experience with clients.

GIVE ME A SESSION

We’ll often get contacted with the following, “We want a two day session for our senior team.” Many neophyte consultants lick their lips and pounce on the ‘opportunity’ with alacrity. They start shooting off proposals, buffing up their hallowed methodology, and more.

A more sane, measured and customer-serving response to the request for a two day session is, “Why?”

That always stops people in their tracks. “Why do you want a two day session for your senior team and how do you know that’s the right thing to do?”

In the act of asking that question, you start actually consulting. And if you engage in a real dialogue on the basis of those questions you will gain bracing insight into the real issues, challenges and aspirations of the clients. You may also get a bracing introduction to the assumptions they’re making — many of which are potentially untested.

It may well be that a two day session is like a relatively empty vessel, into which after suitable diagnostics and appropriate design, you can pour content that will actually serve their needs and best interests. But it may also be that a half day alignment session would suffice, and the real action needs to take place at other organizational levels, or with a different group of people, or may require preliminary contact with customers or other stakeholders. It could be that a six month process is needed, but woven in holistically to meetings already planned rather than a separate offsite.

My recommendation to clients is if you put out a request like the one above, and get a proposal back in response, disqualify the person or group from further consideration as the request has no meaning without further exploration.

And if you receive a request like the above, differentiate yourself meaningfully by helping to get to the core of  what’s driving the request, rather than getting infatuated by the format proposed.

AVOIDING THE PANACEA OF EMPTY PROCESS

Here’s another common challenge. An organization decides they need to create a strategy and manage its roll-out. They get an organizational consultant with a strategy implementation process, anchored in the balanced scorecard or some other framework. As they proceed, courtesy of this framework, they are deluged with meetings, with process charts, with communiques, and eventually they arrive at what they perceive to be The Holy Grail. Namely, they have a clear map. All inconsistencies are removed (on the charts anyway), and the path forward glitters like a mythical Yellow Brick Road.

The problem is the map is not the territory, and never has been. The problem is that underlying the process clarity is dysfunctional relationships, misguided leadership behaviors, poorly aligned teams, social networks that don’t operate well, governance practices that may be out of kilter with strategic aspirations, information hoarded rather than shared, a culture that is ossified with past practices rather than vitalized by future aspirations. And eventually the ‘knowing/doing gap’ will become that much more profound.

I always advise people that once they have process clarity, they have to convert that into a more human map: of  behaviors-in-action, team composition and alignment, presence of vibrant or nullifying relationships, communication and network effectiveness, leadership role-modeling and relevant efforts at culture-shifting in order to make the processes actually manifest. Until these adaptive elements are infused into the process steps, to humanize and actualize the processes, we run the risk of trying to run the world from an operating manual.

It doesn’t work. In fact, most of us don’t even run our computers from a manual. We get some hands-on experience while drawing on some guidance, then tinkering and adapting based on results. Alas in an organization there are many more moving parts, and my ‘tinkering’ can have expensive consequences if not synergized with the learnings and efforts of others.

Process clarity and human engagement must march together. You can see an organization as a collection of processes and plans. Fair enough. But you can even more meaningfully see it pulsating with what we call, human performance. In other words, the subtotal of all the actions, interactions, behaviors, collaboration and communication between all the people who make a difference to the success or failure of the organization. You can see the organization as a patchwork quilt of teams, conversations and acted upon commitments. These are human dimensions, and if not addressed, all the gewgaws and trinkets of process clarity will be fallow and leave your strategic vision unfulfilled.

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A Week of Stimuli!

At the BA Lounge in JFK last week awaiting our flight to Heathrow. John Stauss, Area VP and General Manager of The Four Seasons Hotels in the UK ran across us. He was heading back for the much heralded relaunch of the once “Inn on the Park” that launched the entire Four Seasons luxury chain and brand.

Two years and a Croesus-level investment later, a re-imagined hotel is ready to be showcased. As they had prepared to close, John Stauss personally introduced us to a rival hotel to ensure we would be be comfortable in London while he was refitting his own hotel. We’ve stayed in touch, he is an enthusiastic entree to their other hotels and a friend. That level of personal care, attention and warmth are not only human assets, they are formidable business advantages. How do you compete against that?

We did a pre-opening walk through with him while in London and he showed us what he called “your suite”. We met with the Chefs and our preferences and favorite dishes were discussed as well as balcony and garden locations explored where I could have a postprandial puff.

Intimacy and high touch take over and take us across the finish line when the physical endowments and technological assets have laid the foundation. As I’ve said above, imagination and rapport are competitive advantages that are far harder to benchmark or to imitate.

While in London, at our current home of The Connaught, a jewel of hospitality overall, we were flummoxed by the staff turnover and found we were reintroducing ourselves to people in an hotel allegedly famed for intimacy and continuity. The former without the latter is very hard to realize.

The Connaught once had a “resident chauffeur”. So guests got to know Andy and were looked after by him. If you came out on a rainy night when cabs were scarce, and Andy didn’t have a job, he’d jauntily offer you a ride. That intervention on such a night would be a gesture you always remembered and which repaid the hotel in loyalty and positive word of mouth that is immeasurable.

Now the group that owns The Connaught, Claridges and The Berkeley has opted to have a “chauffeur pool” in some tilt towards “efficiency” no doubt. So having built rapport (all these properties had resident Chauffeurs), they now make it ludicrously difficult for guests to get the person they request — as it’s a common pool! Also the drivers now know less about the properties, the rhythms of life there, the people who entertain there, stay there and more. So emasculate insight, buffer service stars from those who want them, and have hacks allocating them in terms of some scheduling coefficient and call this “efficiency”!  This was the very opposite principle of what worked so well with John Stauss…and it took the intervention of the Head Concierge as well as Andy’s own diligence for us to get him over to us. A minor matter overall — but we know and like Andy and on the long rides we had to take for clients on drizzly English mornings, I preferred to pay the same tariff and have a “mate” behind the wheel. Why make that hard to do? Why not leverage it for the competitive edge it should be?

We had a working week-end with our clients, a Danish senior leadership team. They did a deep dive into relationships, priorities and behaviors. They moved from amiable pseudo-community to having successively more candid and trusting conversations and challenging and supporting each other in generating successively more pragmatic and yet visionary commitments to activate and be accountable for.

While doing so they competitively scoped out Windsor, did a very creditable Ice Sculpture, practiced archery and composed and executed a musical piece on African drums. Why? “Why not?” is the better question.

As in between these hefty dialogues they bonded by experiencing something new, flexing their paradigms, and gaining both new experiences and new skills while having fun. If anyone believes that judiciously threading such experiences through radical business engagement doesn’t loosen hangups, remove masks, foster warmth, liberate energy and help people take themselves less seriously, then they are operating in an alternate universe. It does and it did. They left with rich memories as well as with robust commitments.

We returned yesterday to New York and the same evening attended a wine auction and dinner at New York’s legendary Per Se restaurant to benefit the Perlman music program run by Itzhak Perlman to develop young musical talent.

Afflicted with polio at a young age, the violin virtuoso Perlman is a living embodiment of the passionate love of musical expression and of art truly vivified by artistry. Humble, affable, witty, compelling, with a prodigious love of life, talent and fine wine (his first question to me last night: “So what’s your one desert island wine?”), friends and admirers and supporters had come together to affirm the mission of this wonderful program. Over $300,000 was raised in small lots of wine and dining experiences among much jollity and camaraderie.

During the course of the evening, two lovely young ladies (students at Julliard, alumni of the Perlman music program) graced us with a breathtaking classical  rendition. These young musicians were passionately alive, as someone said “struggling with the thing they love, to express themselves, whether the effort lead to success or failure; as they would rather fail in something they love than succeed in something they don’t care about.” That transmuting of personal ego into fulsome dedication, a human being lit by the fire of possibility, is a beautiful thing to observe, and we were all blessed by it. We can understand the ardor for music, but few of us glimpse the arduousness that lets a life-time of devotion shine through the prism of application into high art.

Nothing strings all these experiences together really — they were a week’s worth of abundant stimuli. Well nothing except to say that success, business success or personal success, comes from being deeply and courageously personal — with others, with your craft, with yourself, inviting life to be your teacher, your conduit and your canvas. Connect with compassion and care with others, learn avidly and with humility, express passionately and with personality, and give yourself to that which you care about for all you’re worth. If that’s not success — nothing is!

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Communication or Reality?

There are numerous analyses of the US midterm elections.

However there seems to be a confusion over “ideas” as opposed to “communication”.

The ancients reminded us that communication effectiveness (as highlighted in an earlier post) revolves around the trinity of  “Ethos” (the credibility and character of the communicator), “Pathos” (appeal to common human feelings and emotions) and “Logos” (logic).

President Obama will never win the Ethos argument with some who reflexively dislike him, or who fantasize about Kenyan thought viruses in his make-up, or his being a closet Muslim (with the implications that he must be a Manchurian Candidate on behalf of radical Muslim extremists), or who believe anyone left of center is a card-carrying Trotskyite.

The President excels in Logos…in fact he’s a little too good at it. He seems to be lecturing the nation from a rostrum rather than engaging with us in the heartland. He comes across at times as our “Lecturer-in-Chief”. There are human forces stronger than logic, and logic provides a scaffolding for persuasiveness in a crisis at best.

So given the above, where he needs to shine is Pathos. I’ve heard pundits proclaiming he needs to get better at sound-bites. But what all the sound bites they refer to have in common (“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country,” “Mr. Gorbachev, take down the wall,”  or even the Churchillian “We will never surrender!”), is that they engage, tap and appeal to common emotions, values, feelings, aspirations and pride. That’s where President Obama has to come through.

He’s an admirable, intelligent, genuine person…but he needs a broader team, and he needs to spend actual time with people not photo-ops where $15,000 a plate dinners, involve him arriving for 20 minutes to shake a few hands and then jet off, while people are left feeling like extras at a deserted movie set. His team seem detached, almost smug…their pulse needs to beat far more in tune and in time with the concerns of the larger populace. They need listening posts and relay stations back to the President.

President Obama’s ability to take on his own party, not submitting to Congressional fiat which made it seem that the White House was as inbred as Congress, would have been refreshing. Well, it’s a new day. And we have the “blessings” of divided Government that allowed Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill to tackle the Cold War, and Bill Clinton and the once ‘saner’ Newt Gingrich (chastened after the debacle of his government shutdown backfired) to balance the budget among other accomplishments.

So now the President should become “Connector-in-Chief” and not let himself be “handled” into being a pastel President. We need primary colors, and we need him to be his own man, and take on Republicans where necessary and to work with them where wise. And he needs to do the same with his own Party. The tidal wave that brought him into office was generated in part by a belief that he was more of an “outsider” than Hilary and would constitute a real change. Those who stayed away from voting in the mid-terms, even some who despise the alternatives who were voted in, were arguably conveying through their seeming apathy that they would not rush out to underwrite ‘business as usual’. If that’s all we have to look forward to, then indeed let’s make sure neither Party can move without consulting with and gaining consensus from the other. It’s a lot safer all around…

Something radical may well be needed. But let’s hope it’s not the radicalism of imbecility and blinkered extremism as some candidates seemed to exemplify, but real radicalsim, a return to roots. Perhaps we can be radical enough to to execute on glaring basics. Namely get money (1 trillion parked with banks and corporations) into the market, to rehabilitate education and fast-track job training so those out of work can fill the vacancies out there, to seek to lead the Green economy and get manufacturing back to key parts of the country, to continue to attract foreign investment but put it to good use (not to underwrite the next consumption binge), to crack the cul-de-sac of current immigration policy and do an across-the-board cut in spending (as we’ll never do it program by program, all of which have their own lobbyists and interest groups). Americans will get behind a regimen where they can see “means” hook up to “ends” and where someone asks them to sacrifice for ensuring our future is bigger certainly than our recent past. This will require real leadership not just management. The latter is about managing today (important), the former is about creating the future (essential).

If such a President didn’t get re-elected, shame on us. If someone who has the office, won’t aspire to be or become such a President, re-election or not, shame on them.

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THE REAL NATURE OF THE CONTROVERSY

There is currently much furore about the proposed building of a Mosque and Islamic Center two blocks from Ground Zero. The essential positions as best I can glean are as follows.

Those who feel the Mosque shouldn’t go up in that location are wielding signs saying things like, “You can build a Mosque at Ground Zero when we can build a Church in Mecca.” That’s of course palpably absurd. Why would citizens in the United States be barred from building a house of worship, contingent on an outbreak of tolerance in another country, over which they have no control? And who is this “you” and who are the “we”? If someone is a Muslim they don’t automatically become “you” surely. They may well be American citizens, i.e. “us”.

But more sanely there are those who say this is unnecessarily inflammatory and insensitive — why not build the Mosque and Islamic Center in another part of Manhattan? Why rub raw wounds or provoke unnecessary, even if somewhat misplaced, ire? If you’re not making a statement, surely this location wasn’t necessary.

On the other hand, there are two types of supporters. Those who defend the legal rights of those who are proposing this construction, and those who feel a statement of a very different kind needs to be made.

The legal side is clear. Those who rail against Mayor Bloomberg’s constitutional stance that the government cannot interfere with a lawful private group building a house of worship on private property, are really advocating a slippery slope. If mass appeal determines rights, rather than laws, we are all eventually undone. And hysteria against groups, Jews, Catholics, the innocent majority of Muslims in this country, is nothing to either have amnesia regarding, or to stoke anew today.

The other basis for support comes from those in the Muslim and interfaith circles who know that Osama Bin Laden and his murderous, bigoted, unholy thugs would like nothing better than to “hijack” the faith of a billion people and equate their savage barbarism with it. It is in no one’s best interests, whatever your theological beliefs or lack thereof, to allow them to succeed in this equation. Too few Muslim leaders have spoken courageously enough, clearly enough, about taking their faith back. If this Center becomes a symbol of healing, a way to promote true interfaith interaction, an alternative paradigm for the practice of Islam, the pain could be transcended, and we could potentially find hope among hatred’s debris. But if this is the case, those promoting this construction should make it, vociferously and unambiguously. That would be an effort worth joining.

Let me offer some unsolicited consulting counsel to both sides. To the detractors, beware that the same end of the pencil can erase things you hold dear as well. Paraphrasing something Thomas More once said, “I would give the Devil the benefit of the law, for my own sake.” Well these aren’t devils. These are people brought up in a faith that hopefully they hold dear, people who want better lives for their own children and families, just like anyone else. Defending their rights, even when unsavory to some of us, is the very nature of what makes a right. And for God’s sake and ours, let’s not make this about Islam. Simple statistics demonstrate that if just being  in this religion made people violent, then there would be a billion warriors. There aren’t, happily. There aren’t many Indian Muslim terrorists, or many Bengalis, or Singaporeans, or Sri Lankan Muslims on the front lines…it’s clearly about more than the faith.

On the other side, let’s tread softly. A desire to rehabilitate the perception of a faith precious to you, a desire to take a stand in creating a positively transformational dialogue (and we have to pray that’s what’s behind this) cannot be done with indifference to other people’s pain. Whether you feel others are inappropriately transferring their rightful loathing of the acts of the terrorists to a religion that is being unjustly abused and manipulated, the pain remains and has to be acknowledged on its own merits. And the sensitivities and the fears and yes, maybe a measure of paranoia, have to be outgrown, they cannot be bulldozed away.

It would be wonderful if in this clash of views, in this debate, we could accept we are facing a dilemma — a conflict between two rights, not between a right and a wrong. And if we could have the guts and humanity to ask for dialogue, if we could share our pain and our passion, reflectively and openly…we would potentially create a dynamic that could do real homage to heroes and victims here and elsewhere, and to all those who believe their values and their faiths call on them to ensure hatred and fear don’t have the last word.

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The Price of Civility

Today as I arrived at our office in New York for a 9 a.m. meeting,  a number of us entered the elevator. This elevator requires that you have a building pass which you have to electronically swipe to be able to push the floor you want.

A well dressed gentleman with silver hair entered, and without a glance at the other four of us, plopped his briefcase down to keep the elevator door from closing. This presumably so he could pull out his pass. Well, he pulled out his wallet and put it up against the electronic sensor. It didn’t work and he vainly tried to push his floor. He repeated this exercise twice, thrice, four times, as everyone else got increasingly annoyed. Another elevator arrived across the way. All of the rest of us dashed into it, leaving the adage of insanity being the emphatic repetition of what doesn’t work, to continue to be demonstrated behind us.

“What was he doing?” asked an incredulous woman, once we were safely on our way. I explained what it seemed he was attempting. It seemed obvious that he could have, and should have done one or more of the following:

*Apologize to everyone else and ask for their forebearance.

*Pull his card out of his wallet and see if a direct engagement with the electronic sensor would work.

*Step out and ask the lobby attendant who was nearby for help.

I audibly bemoaned the absence of civility. As we were moving up various floors, one of my fellow passengers said, “You know after 9/11 there was an upsurge of civility and awareness of other people, and it’s started to slide back down again unfortunately.”

I agreed, commenting that it would be a shame if it took a cataclysm or a horrific act to “shock” us into having manners. Surely we can do better.

Now perhaps I’m generalizing from an isolated incident. Perhaps, but I doubt it. Obliviousness does seem rampant. As professionals, as neighbors, as citizens…it would be nice if we could transcend self-absorption enough to see if we can help each other along the way. The price of civility isn’t high — but its impact is often profound.

Yesterday at Whole Foods, in the queue waiting for an open register, someone took a place that was rightfully that of the neighboring line. An elegant lady tried to intervene but was rebuffed by these rude and “rushed” people. She turned to those next to her and said, “No problem, when my turn comes, you take it, as they were in my line.” I smiled and thanked her on their behalf . She said, “It’s the least I could do.” It wasn’t.  But I wish we could all remember to behave as if it were.

Try it in work, in business dealings, in transactions and interactions. Work will flow better, relationships will be more robust, loyalty will flourish. And you’ll do your part in cultivating a world we’ll all more readily enjoy living in.

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Unhappy with Happy Sheets

Course evaluations are usually dumb, counter-productive and distorting.  Conference evaluations are largely the same.

They are actually NOT “evaluations,” that is the problem. They are “happy sheets”.

Moreover, what you want from participants and attendees is not “evaluation” of the Conference or training session primarily (though secondarily, that can be relevant and interesting). What you want is evaluation of the applicability of what they experienced, the “return on energy” once they seek to convert ideas into action.

If you charge Trainers and Conference organizers with getting rave ratings from people, you incentivize them to taper what they do to “popularity”. But what if organizational value comes from making people uncomfortable, from challenging them? Then the “evaluation” should be related to whether this discomfort was constructively provided, led to a helpful change in behavior, or created positive momentum in a direction sought. People may hate having to be challenged, and the organization may love the results.

If a key strategy has to be understood, then lack of social time may be indeed a Conference deficit objectively, and yet consciously be taken on, because of how mission-critical getting everyone’s engagement around the strategy is at that juncture. Though everyone may understand that, they are unlikely to give high scores to the statement “We had enough time to relax, socialize and enjoy our surroundings.”

We can while prioritizing landing the strategy, consider if slightly  more time can be taken, or a more neutral location selected (if truly we cannot enjoy where we are, why bother?).  And that’s why I say these observations are secondarily relevant.

But the primary issue is to discern and advance whatever the real aims are. Now if another Conference was created primarily to build relationships and bridges across disparate global teams, then the critique of inadequate time for bonding, engagement, team-building and more, becomes more damning.

The point:  there should never be a one size fits all “checklist”. But we should be checking on achievement against our highest priority aims.

I also have found that if people are being chased for evaluations, they are never “in” the experience, but are constantly second-guessing it, often from the default settings of their own preferences, paradigms or at times, even prejudices. There is a time to engage and experience and get the most out of an  experience. Then, there should be time to reflect, to consider and to recommend. These are different faculties and should be utilized distinctively as such…each at appropriate junctures. And the questions we ask, should reflect what we are really after, not a generic set of standardized aspects.

Relative to learning experiences, evaluations should consider pre-session engagement by bosses and preparation of attendees, the actual experience, action-planning and tracking with bosses or other mentors in the aftermath, results achieved, and therefore an evaluation of the total process, including the briefing given to the learning provider, and the customization done if relevant.

“Presentation skills” of providers are a certainly relevant and valuable but hardly the most critical aspect we should be evaluating. That’s wonderful icing. But did the right cake get baked?

Presenters can wow and enchant, and provide little of take-forward value. Or people can be charged up, ready to go, and bosses can be disinterested in their experience or its applicability….thereby blunting the cutting edge of any learning.

The learning experience should be construed as a multi-faceted partnership between boss, participant, experts or coaches, and the organization-at-large. Otherwise there is scant ROI, and we are just tossing money overboard in the hope that some stimulus will “stick”.

So forget happy sheets. Get people to engage first, evaluate second. When they evaluate, evaluate actual outcomes of value to the organization primarily, and the entire process that is to deliver them. Secondarily, check out what people thought of acoustics, food, visuals used, even presentation skills. A total “hit” in terms of being wowed by the presenter, hotel, visuals, can deliver a total dud in terms of learning value.

No reason not to have both we can argue…but get the split of attention right based on what is really essential. Let’s sweat the real stuff first…and the “surround sound” next. First value, then sizzle!

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The Genius of Places

Having just returned from a three week working tour of Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Mumbai, London and Marseille (with extra pit stops in Singapore and Dubai in between), the genius of places almost shouts at me.

Dubai’s genius is to offer a modern example of what a flourishing Middle East can look like. Albeit currently in economic doldrums, needing perhaps to make peace with the fact that the bubble is gone and real growth is now needed, Dubai is a tolerant, eclectic, cosmopolitan, visionary city with guts and a measure of class. And from Dubai if you head to Turkey, to Jordan, to Lebanon, you see some of the shoots of the culture of the region that deserve to be watered, supported and extended. It’s a far cry from the raving nihilism of Al Qaeda or the medieval iniquity of the Taliban.

Singapore’s genius is to show how a controlled experiment in democracy can produce a vibrant, thriving, diverse, stimulating country. It is a polyglot of cultures, an epicenter for business, a culinary crossroads, a place where greater expression is becoming increasingly possible.  30 years ago it was a Malarial swamp. Decry the one party rule there as much as you like, but it’s an engaging place to nurture a family, run a business, and be near the most dynamic growth region of the 21st century. Moreover, give them time…the story is far from being fully written.

We were next in Hong Kong, arguably the freest economy on the planet, with a skyline to rival New York’s, and a pace, intensity and energy, very reminiscent of the Big Apple. The Fragrant Harbor is world class in every sense. And whether China comes to more resemble Hong Kong or vice-versa is an open story. It is Asia’s “world city” as the PR tag line proclaims. And while freedoms have been constricted, they haven’t been eliminated. It’s a springboard TO China, and a springboard FROM China…a city where entrepreneurial people built an extraordinary economy from virtually nothing. It is the quintessence of value creation. From the stunning efficiency that abounds everywhere, to gastronomic delights like Roast Goose and 3 star Michelin Cantonese culinary temples, from top-notch IT to world-class cultural events, Hong Kong rocks!

We went on to Mumbai — teeming, a study in contrasts, wealthy ghettos co-existing with abject poverty, a clanging 24/7 set of multi-sensory stimuli. But it is also an important economic engine for the world’s largest democracy — which manages to transfer power peacefully — and for a primarily Hindu country, they’ve had a Muslim President and a Sikh Prime Minister (promoted by an ex-Roman Catholic “Kingmaker” in Sonia Gandhi), and an extraordinary track record to date in creating economic value. They need to deal with infrastructure issues, improve sanitation and more…but there is a genius to this sprawling, cacophonous, vital, human enterprise incubating powerhouse.

We arrived in London — still a showcase for its past, as well as  hub of culture, distinction, sophistication and focused energy. London communicates that delicate balancing act between the gravitas of the past, and the edginess of the present. The restaurants shine, the cab drivers quip engagingly, the theater audiences are au fait with the historical or cultural references and the nuances of bon mots, people are by and large well turned out, and an 5 mile jaunt through Hyde Park throws up the whole panoply of cultures and ethnicities that make London such an intoxicating brew. Hatchards is my favorite book-store to browse in, I love the eclectic Hunan’s restaurant where they scowl if you ask for the non-existant menu but tapas style fiery Hunanese cuisine comes out until you ask them to stop, the whimsy of the Cinammon Club (a wonderful modern Indian) being housed in the old Westminster Library always tickles me, and the Neopolitan tailor (Rubinacci) across from the Connaught whose gusto for your sartorial well being truly underscores “the dolce vita” cannot but help upflit you. And for something quintessentially British (other than Hatchards of course), the fusty but reliable Scott’s is nearby to repair to for oysters and Grilled Dover Sole after perhaps a visit to the Royal Gallery and a Blanc de Blancs in the Coburg Bar of the Connaught. Such is London!

From London for a Leadership Journey to Marseille and then the Languedoc. Marseille, though being one of the great port cities, has a reputation for being seedy. But in the Vieux Port (the Old Port), with the right bouillabase and glass (or two) of Tavel Rose, all that fades away into obscurity. The Languedoc in turn was Roman France, and neighboring Provence as it does, it is replete with Mediterranean Gallic charm, cuisine, artisans, wine, olive oil, and stunning Roman remains like the Pont du Gard (the greatest surviving Aqueduct in the world), the amphitheater in Arles or the stunning Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes) in Avignon. There is a sensuous, elegant, charm and artistic and aesthetic depth to this place, that sends you out stimulated, vital, with your senses questing and alert having been awash in such truly abundant but diverse stimuli. In response, your smile has more depth, your chagrin more poetry, your insights are dappled with that golden Provencal light that illuminated so much of the work of masters like Cezanne and Van Gogh.

Each place has it’s own genius, and while we went to some highly distinctive ones, our ability to fathom what each can contribute to us, rather than a litany of their irritations and shortcomings is the way to underscore and heighten our overall perspicacity. It is also a way to better irrigate our souls.

We landed from all this and headed out for another Leadership Journey, this time in more prosaic seeming Illinois and Wisconsin. But the open spaces, and the beaming countenances, the lack of sophistry and the presence of welcome, the essential characer of pride in one’s work and community, all had their own enchantments, and with those in view, the limitations present were far less…limiting.

Seeing possibility, evoking it, celebrating it and helping to actualize it,  is the essence of  life and leadership.

Wallow in the genius of the places and people you encounter! From that basis, you will be best positioned to notice where to help, and how to help those very people grow.

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Parts of the Puzzle

I’ve taken a brief hiatus from posting — being inundated with guests, clients and the exhilarating billows of life.

We’re on the verge of the next trip: Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Mumbai, Dubai, London, Marseille.

I’ve waited 15 minutes for someone to call who missed a phone appointment last week and zealously promised to call this time. Last time the excuse proffered sounded reasonable — today I’m beginning to wonder if it’s pathological.

A key client asked me to help a colleague of his within their organization. He’s missed four confirmed, in the diary, phone appointments but continues to say he’s “very interested” in being helped. I’m beginning to wonder if he’s “very interested” in ticking a box that shows he made a requisite, even if token, effort.

A friend introduced me to a pal — foundering on various reefs in life. This externally successful over-achiever clearly had issues to grapple with — don’t we all? But his demons were quite visible — it seemed even to himself. He told me he didn’t like to dither and wanted to get started. I laid out a work plan. Deafening silence. Two weeks later he told my friend who had introduced us that he wanted a “few more clarifications” from me. How? Long distance mind reading? Responding to my email would have been a start. We spoke again, and he demonstrated he had only skimmed the details. No problem, I  was happy to walk him through it. He’s since disappeared once more…

I have to say this is less than 1% of the people I deal with — on purpose. I tend to move quickly on, and were it not for a close friend and a key client involved here, my forbearance wouldn’t have been nearly as forthcoming. That said, it makes for a fascinating case study.

Might it be that as NLP theorists suggested, we are made up of many “parts” — different psychological aspects with their own agendas, emotional lobbyists, paradigmatic blinkers and more? Could it be we are all Jekyll and Hyde to some extent? And might it be the part of us that gasps for help is over-ruled at times by other parts keen to perpetuate current plateaus?

It could indeed. And this then begs the question, are we just the sum of our parts, or is there a core “us” that can assert itself?

There is a core, the unifying wick emerges from the purposes that coalesce from our medley of appetites, values, impulses, ideas, desires and commitments. And from these in turn are generated, life priorities. And if the priority is strong enough, we can silence our inner nay-sayers.

We won’t become impeccable in execution, follow up, follow through and more overnight necessarily. But we will palpably advance as Thoreau said “in the direction of our dreams”. If we can’t continue taking steps to be and become more than our past, we’re sunk and we’re pretty much done.

So then we have to become fans of progress, of movement, of ways to outgrow parts of us that are really the detritus of past pain. Eventually we have to give up the fantasy that we can somehow manufacture a happier past. The only way to make the past any happier is move beyond its negative delusions — the ones we’ve been towing around since then — and choose better resources to take forward instead.

So pick an area where you’re stuck and tune in to the competing passions at play. Identify your largest priority and find it’s hook up to a key purpose in your life. Then advance boldly in that direction. If you fail, fail forward and keep moving. As Churchill said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

And at least be impeccable in the small things that add up to larger things. Be responsive, keep appointments, beat deadlines, show up a little early, leave doubt at the door and engage creatively and courageously in key situations, tell these wailing parts you’ve heard them but can’t afford to indulge them any more.

Harmonize who you are through the actions you consistently take and the types of things you vivify by  taking daily aim at. Treat mistakes as detours not demos. Intention prevails, when we believe it is the greater truth about us than our doubts.

So, leave behind the excuses…or better yet, learn from them and use them as catalysts.

In other words…LEAD!

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Beware of Dubious Things Mindlessly Repeated

If something is stupid, one technique, slavishly followed by opinion manipulators, is to keep repeating it as if it was a self-evident triusm.

We shouldn’t proceed with Health Care reform because it would be tantamount to “socialized medicine”. Okay, but a “socialized military” and a “socialized fire brigade” are just fine? “No one knows how to pay for this,” is another gem. But today in the US we have the most expensive health care system in the developed world, and statistically it delivers less by way of health compared to these other benchmark countries as well! So how are we paying for it now? Just because it’s already part of our expenditure, deficits etc, we mustn’t think we’re not already paying! Let’s have a robust debate for sure…but not by means of bumper sticker slogans.

In the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, it was argued by some that she was (as she has herself said in a different vein) an “affirmative action” beneficiary. This is said as if to imply that if so, you don’t have merit! Some talking heads have said they don’t mind Latinos (very big of them), but let’s get the geniuses who really deserve to get into Ivy League schools. Really, like George W Bush? How did he get in? On merit, or by being the scion of a powerful family? Perhaps we could compare his grades with those of Sonia Sotomayor. The point is, affirmative action is meant to balance the scales of privilege and access enjoyed by the monied, as well as by majorities in mainstream society. Done doltishly, it becomes a quota system and perpetuates inequality by setting vastly different standards for people based precisely on ethnicity and heritage. But done well, it makes room for the fact that talent is multi-faceted, and shows up in more than test scores. But if your father can’t make a phone call, then perhaps something other than “connections” has to get you in. And diversity isn’t a bad argument, as long as it bridges such a gap for the clearly talented, rather than degrades the importance of applied talent. Something has to break the pattern, to create a wider pool of talented people, so that in time we can indeed move on to a truly color-blind merit based system.

Stupid things are heard elsewhere too. “Leaders don’t have time to be cheerleaders, we pay people, that’s the motivation…” But if you then ask these same people if they themselves deserve good leadership, or whether their own paycheck should suffice and make them endure inept guidance…they bristle. They complain about unfair treatment, poor communication, fuzzy goal-setting. Everyone feels they deserve better than just a paycheck.

Moreover, how did we conflate, engaging people with “cheer leading”? The job of leaders is to get maximum potential from all company assets, including their own talent pool. What else are they there for? Arguably to also set direction. But compare the strategies of major competitors and the difference that makes the difference is hardly dazzling strategic insight.

“Times have changed, we have to keep an eye on costs.” Really? And before you had to do what? Isn’t that a self-insulting, condescending confession? And surely you have to keep an eye on value. If you could invest in something and it gave you a 10:1 ROI (as to me, a proper consulting project should), you still wouldn’t do it because cosmetically it may “seem” like a cost? That’s the caliber of leadership you want to offer?

“The economy is rebounding, Goldman Sachs have posted record profits.” Yes, due in large part to the government-sponsored bail-out they received. But fine, we want them to put the money to good use. But if they pay themselves pre-crisis level bonuses, they’re maggots and dunderheads. Receiving public largesse gave you a lease on life — manage PR, manage your character, and be judicious. This is a time for measured optimism perhaps, not party hats. We need to see that rewards are more in line with realities not premature runaway euphoria. We’d all like to think we’ve collectively learned something from this economic pain.

Take an unromantic look at things that are constantly repeated, often without much nuance. Just beyond the gloss is probably a much more textured reality. Get good at spotting these and you can often achieve breakthroughs — in paradigms, strategies and tactics, and very likely….in results!

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Teeming With Teams

Organizations abound with teams. And no other area of organizational life, or shall we say recurring corporate chagrin, gets nearly as much attention in the literature as teams: functioning, malfunctioning, well formed, deformed, performance-enhancing or productivity-depleting.

A critical insight honored more in the breach than in the observance is that a collection of people is not by itself a “team”. A committee is not a team. An amalgam of individuals reporting to the same leader is not a team. It’s a team if they have to deliver something together, something impossible to deliver without some collaboration, cooperation and interaction. And if that performance merits it, then, and only then, should a team be formed, built, developed and sustained.

Sometimes groups act destructively and the solution to the problem is touted as “team building”. It’s not. What they need is perhaps communication coaching, perhaps they need to be held accountable for acts inimical to the goals of others. Perhaps they have to learn to challenge constructively. Perhaps a culture of one-upsmanship has to be dethroned. A team however does not necessarily have to be built.

When a team IS needed, we have to clarify what they are to do, and what they are accountable for.  Members then need to understand the degree of cooperation, consultation and co-creation required. I hasten to add, the political realities of most companies, and the intrinsic nature of innovation no less, argue for a measure of consultation and co-creation (in the sense of gathering early feedback re solutions we are prototyping or testing) regardless of whether a full-fledged team is needed.  But while this is wise anyway, relative to teams it has to be mandated. A team has, by definition, collective responsibility.

If indeed a team is needed, then teams have to be adept at two things. First, helping individuals deliver their contribution to the team. In other words, the team can’t succeed if the individuals that make up the team, don’t. And the quicker everyone is made to understand this palpably and incontestably, the better. Secondly, they have to learn how to interact effectively together to solve problems, or to execute decisions, or whatever the work is they have been assembled to deliver. A team can be helpful but inept. Or a team can be effective but siphon off unnecessary energy, time, goodwill and more.

Teams therefore need to provide real-time feedback to members and to the team as a whole. This can only be delivered with a true helping orientation and a true performance commitment. When these are there, we will inquire first and conclude second, invite first and challenge second, explore first and prescribe second. Teams can’t leave performance up in the air, it has to be non-negotiable. Teams have to challenge each  member for their best, individually and collectively. But teams have to do this in the spirit of encouragement and possibility, not cross-examination and undermining. Teams by definition are committed to the success of each member as well as the team at large.

Make sure therefore that we deploy teams only when we need to. And then, let’s make sure teams deliver both mutual helpfulness and grow in effectiveness to perform key tasks of strategic value to the organization. Anyone who impedes that has to be tackled. Teams that fail in this, can’t be allowed to malinger. They must be re-engineered, reformed, or dismantled and replaced. Teams that show these twin propensities, deserve all the coaching and development and support — not to mention the kudos — we can offer.

Teams in short have to provide a multiplier to individual talent. This is hard, onerous work. The only impetus powerful enough to drive this forward is real strategic work that needs doing, which commands the best of our best, and can’t be done without people operating AND cooperating with excellence…delivering consistently in concert.

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