Managing Continous Change

Way back in the 20th century when Kotter wrote about leading change, most organizations mobilized a change management team to deal with a single project.  A project with a beginning and an end.

Today, many organizations have begun to realize that change management is now a core competency.  Rather than simply creating teams to address one-off change projects, they are building adaptable cultures.  They are helping employees recognize that change is continuous and ambiguity is the new norm.

Leaders who are able to shift course rapidly and recognize the opportunities in a changing marketplace will excel.  Those who fail to do so will be left behind.


Delegation Frustration

Has this ever happened to you? 

You decided to delegate an important task to a subordinate.  Perhaps your first inclination was to do it yourself.  But then you remembered that leaders need to develop their people, and one important way to do so is to give them assignments that will stretch them.  Assignments that make them think.  Assignments that are not easy, are contain some risk.  And so, with a small amount of trepidation and unease, you called Fred, one of your more talented and experience people, into your office. And handed an important task over to him.

Now, of course, you didn’t simply hand him a folder and say “Go for it!”  No, you applied all that touchy-feely stuff you learned in your last management charm school about buttering people up and making them feel good about themselves so that they actually do what you want them to do.  So you started by expressing your confidence in Fred’s intelligence and experience, and, ultimately, his capability to figure out what needed to be done and do it.  And complete everything in a week’s time.  So far, great.

But, of course, the story doesn't end there.   In less than three days, Fred’s back in your office.  And he’s all smiles.  He’s certain that you’re going to be overjoyed with the results of this little project.  Problem is, the report he gives you has no semblance to what you expected.  In fact, it’s way off base.  So you tell him what’s wrong, and give him a few more guidelines.  And a few more expressions of your confidence in his abilities.  The good news is that Fred still has two days to meet the original deadline, and you’re both pretty certain that this little course correction will do the trick.

Forty-eight hours later, once again, you and Fred are in your office going over the project report.  This new report is a bit closer to what you need.  Unfortunately, it’s still not usable, and now you’re out of time.  You’re frustrated.  Fred’s frustrated.  You take the work home and stay up most of the night ripping it apart and re-doing it.  Finally, you’re okay with the finished product.  But you’re not okay with Fred.  And he’s pretty unhappy with you.

What happened?

Unfortunately, what happened is quite common.  You did not:

·         Envision and communicate the desired outcome clearly
·         Determine your subordinate’s ability and willingness to perform the task
·         Utilize the appropriate leadership style based upon your subordinate’s ability and willingness to perform this specific task

Each of these three steps is essential for effective delegation.

Envision and Communicate the Desired Outcome Clearly

I’ll never forget working as an Education Manager for IBM in Dallas.  In IBM, we had interesting but confusing job titles.  Whenever I met someone in an IBM office, they asked me what I did.  After a while, I gave up on reciting my title.  I simply told people the name of my most famous trainer.  “Ah hah!” everyone would say.  “So you’re Charlie’s boss!”  And that, in essence, was my job.  Charlie had been in his role for years, and would be there long after I was promoted and moved on. 

It took me a while to catch on to this.  After all, I was a manager and I thought I knew best.  So one day I called Charlie into my office and explained in detail what I wanted him to do on a particular project.  He looked me straight in the eye and said, “Look, Sheila, if you tell me what to do and how to do it, if it doesn’t work, it’s going to be your fault.  But if you tell me what results you want, and allow me to do it my way, if it doesn’t work it’s going to be my fault.”  After I recovered from his directness, I took a deep breath and say, “Okay.”  And we proceed to discuss the results and how we would measure success.

You see, Charlie caught me.  I hadn’t actually considered what I wanted.  I was only focused on how I wanted it done.  Amazing how often that happens.

Now of course, if you’re dealing with a subordinate who is inexperienced, you may need to define the desired outcome and then teach them a process to achieve that outcome.  Which leads to the next essential step for effective delegation.

Determine your Subordinate’s Ability and Willingness to Perform the Task

When managers consider a subordinate’s ability to perform, they most often evaluate their ability to perform their job.  The requirement here is to focus more narrowly.  Rather than determining overall job performance, effective delegation requires determining the ability to perform the specific task at hand.

For example, a highly successful engineer might be well-suited to perform almost any task that requires data gathering and analysis.  But when asked to mentor a new engineer, they could be totally at sea.  The task of mentoring is very different from data gathering and analysis. A savvy manager will recognize that their expert engineer could be a complete neophyte when it comes to mentoring.

To further complicate matters, the engineer may not want to be a mentor.  They might not be willing to perform the assigned task. Nine times out of ten, a subordinate will not tell their manager that they don’t want to do something.  Instead, they couch their unwillingness as a lack of ability, time or resources.  And there’s no simple litmus test to distinguish willingness issues from ability issues.  Managers need to be aware that both may be present, and carefully probe to determine what’s actually going on.  Remember, if someone is not willing to perform, no amount of training will motivate them.  Training can address ability issues, but not willingness issues.

Utilize the Appropriate Leadership Style

Once you have a handle your subordinate’s level of ability and willingness to perform the task at hand, you can utilize the appropriate leadership style.  Hershey and Blanchard, in their book “Situational Leadership”, explain four different leadership styles and their appropriate application.

·         Telling Style – giving specific task directions and closely supervising work
·         Selling Style – explaining task directions in a supporting and persuasive way
·         Coaching Style – emphasizing shared ideas and participative decisions
·         Delegating Style – allowing the follower to take responsibility for task decisions

When tackling something new, a subordinate is typically unable to perform the task.  When the subordinate is unable to perform, the manager’s most appropriate styles are Telling and Selling.  Over time, as the subordinate build their ability to perform a task, the manager will switch to the more appropriate styles of Coaching and Delegating.

An example can be helpful to illustrate the progression through these styles.  When you teach a child to ride a two-wheeled bicycle for the first time, you start out by telling them what to do.  “Put your feet on the pedals.  Put your hands on the handle bars.” And you might help them place their hands and feet in the right place.  You hold onto them and give them instructions. “Look straight ahead.  Begin pedaling.”  Note than your communication is all about the task.  All about what to do.

As the child learns to pedal and begins moving, you might begin explaining why.  By selling them on the right behavior. “Okay.  Keep your head up, that way you won’t fall over.  And keep your weight centered so that you’ll go straight.  When you turn the handlebars to the right, the bicycle will turn to the right.  Lean into the turn so that you keep your balance.”  In the selling mode there’s a lot more communication.  And it’s much more about them, than about the bicycle itself.  More about supporting them in their learning. And you continue to hold onto them.  They’re not able to operate on their own yet.

Then comes the magical moment when you let go!  When they cross from unable to able.  This can be really scary.  Now that you are no longer physically supporting them, it’s critical to verbally support them. Lots of feedback.  And constructive coaching. “Lookin’ good!  That’s right, keep facing straight ahead.  Oh, no – don’t look at me!  You’re getting it.  How do you feel?  Is this fun? What would you like to try next?”

Finally, the new bicyclist is ready to take over.  And you begin delegating.  “Looks like you’re ready to bicycle on your own! Go for it!  You have my permission to ride during daylight hours in our neighborhood.  Have a great time!”

Everyone Has Their Favorite Styles

For some managers, delegation can’t come too quickly.  They have no patience for selling or coaching They start out telling, with step-by-step details, and then leap to delegating prematurely.

Other managers enjoy the relationship aspect of selling and coaching, and hate the other styles.  They want to be involved and work together.  Unfortunately, their subordinates can be lost when they need the clear, specific directions of the telling style.  And their subordinates become irritated when they want be left alone, and their manager never fully lets go and delegates.

So, here’s your challenge.  Instead of choosing your favorite style, choose the most appropriate style.  Understand your subordinate’s ability and willingness to perform specific tasks.  Be prepared to explain the desired outcome and enable them to grow.  Enabling others to learn and contribute is the mark of a great leader.


A Leader's #1 Fear

Number One Fear
I've heard it.  You've probably heard it.  The notion that most people's biggest fear is public speaking.  (Dying is distant second.)
I no longer believe that public speaking is the number one fear.  In the United States, many leaders fear delivering negative feedback above all else.  

When a leader avoids giving negative feedback, they deny subordinates the opportunity to improve.  And undermine the motivation of other employees who see poor performance tolerated. Ultimately, the entire organization suffers.
Of course, some leaders give lots of negative feedback in a destructive manner.  And some leaders give negative feedback in a constructive manner.  But many give only positive feedback. And avoid giving negative feedback -- or saying anything whatsoever to an employee that might cause an emotional outburst.
Most leaders agree with me when I discuss the consequences of avoiding feedback.  They are acutely aware of the problem, and feel a high degree of stress when interacting with a poor performer.  They hope that the employee will simply improve on their own.  Or be transferred.  Or decide to quit.  Some leaders cling to any slim hope that justifies postponing difficult conversations indefinitely.
How to Start
If you are avoiding giving feedback, what can you do?  First, please don't beat yourself up.  This is a common issue.  And if you're not it the habit of giving direct, negative feedback in a constructive way, it can be difficult to start.
Second, recognize that effective feedback focuses behavior, not emotions.  Telling someone that you're unhappy or upset is not useful to them, and often starts the conversation off on the wrong foot. The purpose of feedback is to give a person honest information about their behavior and give them an opportunity to improve.

Third, start by giving negative feedback in situations where your personal emotional involvement is low.  Most of us interact with service people in a variety of situations.  The next time someone asks you for feedback, be honest.  For example, when your waiter asks, "how was your meal?" give both positive and negative feedback.  Let the server know what met your expectations and what did not.  Give them an opportunity to fix things before you leave a tip.

Practice, practice, practice.  As you become more confident delivering constructive, negative feedback as a customer, check out my next blog post on delivering feedback as a leader.


Efficiency vs. Effectiveness

Seduction of Process Efficiency

I'll never forget a conversation I had decades ago with an engineer from India.  I was trying to explain how Business Process Re-Engingeering (BPR) could be applied to make processes more efficient.  I was failing miserably and my engineer friend was confused.

In desperation, I talked about the tradeoff between capital and labor.  I explained that most BPR implementations usually involved some form of automation or information technology.  That the capital investment was offset by reduced labor costs.  "Ah, hah!" he exclaimed.  "We would never do where I come from.  Labor is cheap and capital is dear."
We suddenly realized together that BPR could work in his old neighborhood, just differently.  Processes could be re-engineered to use more labor (not less).  In the US, we use conveyor belts to unload luggage from airplanes with just a handful of laborers.  My friend explained that the last time he flew home his luggage was passed from hand to hand through a long line of laborers (like a bucket brigade).

Unfortunately, this desire to create process efficiency can get in the way of effective leadership.  An effective leader identifies, utilizes and develops the talents of his team.  Every member of his team.

When every member of the team is learning and growing, your team team becomes more effective.  And able to continually improve your processes.


When Not To Coach #2 - Sell Your Idea

Sometimes people confuse coaching and selling.  After all, both can use questions in order to achieve a desired result. 

My favorite example of using questions to change someone's mind appears in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Toula (pictured left)  gets help from her mother (pictured right) to convince her traditional Greek patriarch father that she should leave the family restaurant to work in her aunt's travel agency. 

As the IMDB plot summary explains: 

      All her father Gus wants is for her to get married to a nice Greek boy. But Toula is looking for more in life. Her mother convinces Gus to let her take some computer classes at college (making him think it's his idea). With those classes under her belt, she then takes over her aunt's travel agency (again making her father think it's his idea).
I'm all for getting people to buy in to your ideas through questions.   However, if you walk in with a particular outcome in mind, and use your questions to convince someone of your point of view, you're selling, not coaching.  Your questions are leading, rather than open-ended.

Effective coaching starts with the coach and coachee agreeing upon a desired outcome.  Neither the coach nor the coachee is wedded to a particular path to achieve the desired outcome.  The coach must firmly believe that the coachee is capable of defining an appropriate path.  Then (and only then) can they truly coach.  By using open-ended questions, an open-minded coach can help a willing and able coachee identify an appropriate course of action.  

Are You Projecting a Bleak Outlook?

The news media are, for the most part, the bringers of bad news... and it's not entirely the media's fault, bad news gets higher ratings and sells more papers than good news. 

Peter McWilliams

I'ts so easy to develop a negative outlook.  Every morning newscasters focus on scary stuff.  Their job is to keep you from changing the channel, and frightening stories work.

Unfortunately, if you drive to work listening to negative talk radio, you become negative.  Your mind can easily magnify small problems into  looming disasters. 

And whatever your state of mind when you walk in the door, your employees will notice.  Worse still, some people will observe your posture as you get out of your car.  And if you are beaten down and pessimistic, your attitude is will infect them.

People follow leaders who believe they can make a difference.  And if you feel beaten down by events around you, and start to think you are not able to make a positive difference, you'll lose your followers.

Colin Powell wrote that "they must believe that no matter how bad things look, you can make them better."  Powell was told:

Lieutenant, you may be starving, but you must never show hunger; you always eat last.  You may be freezing or near heat exhaustion  but you must never show that you are cold or hot.  You may be terrified, but you must never show fear.  You are the leader and the troops will reflect your emotions.
Whatever you do, take time before arriving at the office to focus on the bright side.  To remember your positive vision of the future.  To arrive empowered, optimistic, and ready to lead others.


What Are Your Superpowers?

This morning I forgot my superpowers.

Maybe it's happened to you.  You wake up in a bad mood, or have an early meeting that doesn't go well.  And you're off your game.

I wasn't having a great day when my husband started looking for his ball cap that says "Veteran" on it.  I was pretty sure it was in our front closet, but he couldn't find it there.

Tom's approach is a bit different from mine - he pulled out several ball caps the same color as his "Veteran" cap.  None of them were the right cap.  Frustrated, he threw up his hands.

So I tried my method.  I systematically removed every hat from the closet until I found the hat he wanted.  And a funny thing happened.  My attitude changed.  I suddenly realized I had used several of my superpowers to find his hat:
  • Persistence
  • Analytical problem-solving
  • Keen observation

I'm so thankful that I have superpowers. That I know what they are. And I know how to apply them!

Too often, in self-reflective moments, I focus on my weaknesses. This is like Superman bemoaning his Kryptonite vulnerability and forgetting his flying ability!

To help me remember my strengths, I created a cartoon of my superhero alter-ego.   My staff of persistence keeps me grounded as I move step-by-step toward my goal.  My decoder ring helps me unlock and solve complex problems.  And my bright green goggles enable me to observe what others miss.

My ears have wings because listening is my most important superpower.  And I've got stars because, well, I like stars!  Plus, when I coach leaders, we surface and hone their star qualities.

Are you a leader?  The best way for you to develop as a leader is to leverage your strengths.  Not to shore up your weaknesses.  Most of the stuff you're not good at can be delegated or outsourced.

OK, ok.  There are some exceptions.  If you curse your staff or consistently show up late to meetings, yes, you need to improve.  But aside from curing fatal flaws, please don't spend a lot of time overcoming minor shortcomings.  Be bold in applying your strengths!

If you're great at strategy, strategize.  If you're great at motivating others, motivate.  If you're great at selling, sell.  Use your superpowers.  And surround yourself with people whose superpowers complement yours.

Want your own superhero cartoon?  Check out the tools at  I'd love to see what you create!


The Gift of Feedback

Do I have spinach in my teeth?

Telling The Truth

Imagine your team is ready to walk into a client conference room and make an important presentation. One of your subordinates comes over to you, straightening their jacket and running a hand through their hair.  They stand in front of you, pause, and smile broadly.

Will you tell them them the truth?  Will you alert them to the spinach in their teeth?  Or will you keep silent about the green, leafy vegetable punctuating their smile?

When I ask these questions, most managers respond, "Of course I'll tell them!  It's in their best interest to know right away so that they can fix it."

So - here's the $64,000 question - what keeps you from giving immediate feedback in other situations?  When Susie alienates everyone in a meeting by interrupting them and failing to listen?  When Curt gives a long-winded talk to your team with too many slides and too much information on each slide, leaving the group bleary-eyed and confused?

Excuses for Withholding Feedback

Excuses I often hear include:

  • They ought to know, I shouldn't have to tell them.  (Hmmm.  If they already know, why are they behaving this way?)
  • I'm too busy for this. (Great.  Where does managing people fall in your priorities?)
  • I'll wait and see if it becomes a pattern before criticizing them.  (Bad idea.  Once it becomes a pattern, it's harder to change behavior.)
  • I'm afraid they'll get upset, and I don't want to deal with an emotional outburst.  (Wow.  Looks like you're teaching your people that they can get away with all sorts of behavior, as long as they threaten to get upset if you bring it to their attention.)
And I sometimes get this excuse:
  • Since I'm not perfect, who am I to criticize them?

The "I'm not perfect" excuse breaks my heart.  You see, no manager, no leader, no executive, no matter how much money they make or how successful they are - no one is perfect.  But that does not excuse you for withholding information that someone desperately needs.  

Forget trying to be a perfect role model.  Focus on giving accurate, impartial feedback.  

Simply Observing

Most people want to do a good job.  And want to know where they're falling short, so that they can improve. Your simple observations can be extremely helpful.

I recommend learning to stick  to observations and stay away from conclusions. For example, when you see me with spinach in my teeth, you might conclude that I neglected to brush my teeth after lunch.  You might be right.  But you might also be wrong - perhaps I brushed, but the spinach stubbornly remained!
Possibly Wrong Conclusion:  Looks like you missed a piece of spinach when you brushed.
If you start by stating your conclusion, we're likely to get into an argument.  Better to simply offer your observation.
Simple Observation: You have some spinach in your teeth.
I'm likely to thank you!  No one else has mentioned this to me and your feedback is a gift.  I am able to take appropriate action based upon your observation.

Your observation has nothing to do with your behavior, character, or leadership ability.  You are simply observing something that I missed and bringing it to my attention.  You're acting as a mirror, without judgment.

Observations vs. Conclusions

You don't have to be better (or even as good as) the person you are observing.  Just stay away from drawing conclusions.

Simple Observation: You interrupted people and didn't listen to them during this meeting.
Possibly Wrong Conclusion:  You don't care what other people think.
Simple Observation: You presented a lot of slides and a lot of information during this meeting.  I observed that several team members were confused.  
Possibly Wrong Conclusion:  You didn't practice your talk.

OK, I get it.  You might be thinking the possibly wrong conclusions.  Please don't share them.

And here's the good news - the more frequently you share simple observations, the easier it gets. And people will come to you more often for feedback, since they'll hear the truth.