The 70% – Part 2

EngagementHierarchyIn the Executive Coaching Workshop I co-lead with John Vercelli for Coaches Training Institute, we discuss early in the curriculum the pervasive epidemic of Bad Boss Syndrome.  It is jaw-dropping how many employees reflect on the lack of leadership and vision they receive from those who manage them, how starved they are for inspiration, and how little it takes to turn a bad day into a good day.  When you think about the study published recently by Gallup noting that 70% of employees are disengaged — and that too many of them hate their jobs — boss improvement is a good place to start.

Another good place to start is the Dead Brand Graveyard, where we also focus in the workshop.  Surely some brands die purposefully in mergers and consolidations, but my observation is that many more die because they break their promise to their customers, who simply move on.  In a world of virtually unlimited customer choice, when a company fails to innovate or repeatedly breaks a brand promise, the Dead Brand Graveyard is soon to cement a new tombstone.  For the employees who are part of the letdown, the lost promise, and ultimately the job loss that follows, demoralization is readily understood.  Remember, a lot of these employees came to their companies with hope and passion and energy and ideas.  They may have had the solutions to their company’s death sentence on their desktops.  Perhaps no one was listening.  That takes us right back to Bad Boss Land.  It’s an infinite loop.

Let’s pull these two concepts together — bad bosses and dying brands — and then think about the twelve Gallup questions which you can find in last week’s post, Part 1 of this inquiry.  None of the questions involve compensation.  They ask things like whether individuals have the opportunity to do what they do best, whether their supervisor cares about them or their advancement, whether the mission or purpose of their company is understood and they are part of something that matters, whether there is a commitment to quality in the workplace, and whether there are peers or leaders in the environment who are supportive.

Human stuff, huh?  HR mush?  Not the stuff of hard-won profit and loss?  Garbage!  If companies have it so right, why are brands evaporating from the landscape in record time?  Why are fully capitalized companies lasting half as long as the average human lifespan?  Creative destruction, you say, the natural course of things business?  Well, sure, I’ll give you that.  So is top management willing to say the whole Circle of Life is out of their hands and the survival of the enterprise is entirely up to market forces, to fate rather than strategy, to a competitor’s campaign rather than a driven response to galvanizing the single most important asset in the company’s inventory, the intellectual capital that is allowed to rest idle and fester?

That’s not very optimistic.  And yet, optimism is the spirit that drives opportunity, and opportunity is the backbone of capitalist enterprise.

Why do we so often get this so completely wrong?  Why would we let 70% of employees churn in the ranks, angry and sad and defeated?  Why would anyone allow a brand to go stale, to break a promise to a customer, to fail to reinvent itself when invention is the lifeblood of all revenue and profit growth?  Borders, Circuit City, Kodak, Polaroid, Palm — all once admired companies, all with revered brands — what do you suspect the internal opinions were of management as repositioning opportunities were missed and tired product performance spiraled downward?

Much has been written about short-term versus long-term financial incentives as value destroying tactics, particularly among senior management at the top of the compensation bell curve.  That is only part of the problem.  Certainly if you set a sales target for a commission based or stocky savvy executive, she or he will chase that goal aggressively, often with widespread collateral damage.  Yet is it the incentive that is the time bomb, or the misperception on the individual’s part of the fundamental rewards that may or may not be at hand?  To that end, I mentioned that the Gallup poll does not reference compensation.  I would be willing to bet Big Money that the disengagement factor cuts across every salary band in the spectrum.  It is my own observation that once you get past basic human needs being met — housing, food, safety, decent educational opportunities for the kids and maybe a family vacation now and again — there is no guarantee whatsoever that financial reward brings vast job satisfaction.  I have met as many or more unhappy wealthy people as I have in the middle class.  The tendency to focus on the wrong motivation is not exclusive to the underpaid or overpaid, and the failure to align truly rewarding incentives with human performance is almost always the difference between long brand life and flash in pan cash register rings.

When I hear that 70% of employees are disengaged, and when I see brands and companies dying in record time, I experience one story.  We try hard to focus the executive coaching mission on revitalizing the human potential in an organization, to bring the executive’s focus back to the brand promise, and to evangelize that set of values broadly among the members of a team as a rallying cry.

I see three major factors that matter in a job — what you do, who you do it for and with, and the compensation you receive for what you give.  If the first two mandates of that string aren’t met, it seems ludicrous to believe that compensation is going to make up for the loss.  And if the only thing that people are focusing on is compensation, what real chance does that company have at longevity?  A brand will not be reinvented because it needs to be more profitable; it will be the magnet of innovation because people care about it and bond together to transform it into something it currently is not because it matters.  From that investment of idealism will flow vast improvements in continuing profitability.

Short-term harvesting of any cash cow is possible — if you want to squeeze profits, go ahead and squeeze the people who are producing them.  At the moment 70% of those people are telling you they don’t like what they are doing or who they are doing it for.  Want to make the Big Money that lasts the long run?  The Gallup survey tells you in the questions alone where we’re leaving the Big Money on the table.  Start Thinking Different!

Bosses must learn to listen.  Employees need to teach their bosses to listen so they can be heard and emerge.  Coaching can be implicit or explicit, but it has to be obvious that letting ideas flow not only improves morale, it is vital to sustaining the enterprise.  Companies that last do so because they apply long-term strategies, both in terms of bolstering their brands and employee engagement.  Everyone can win — especially customers — if that’s the walk that leadership walks, leadership by example.  It does not happen accidentally, but by commitment, and constant reminder of core values that can be shared.

For me, it will always be People, Products, Profits — In That Order.

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Surviving the Limelight

When is an Executive Coach most valued by a client?  Not surprisingly, often when a client is most surprised!  Getting blindsided by the unexpected is part of the job for executives, but how they handle an awakened dragon is what really matters.  As an Executive Coach, your role in this rebound cannot be underestimated.

Consider as an example Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who recently attracted more visibility than usual when she set a reasonably straightforward human resources policy for her company to limit telecommuting.  Regardless of whether you agree with her on the necessity of employees being present at an office every day, it is hard not to be surprised by the public outcry in response to her internal company announcement.  She is the company’s Chief Executive Officer, she is in the midst of a tough turnaround, and she has the board assigned authority to run the company day-to-day.  The fact that her decision attracted so much public attention – headline news around the world – likely surprised even her.

Was the reaction of non-Yahoos likely to cause her to change her mind?  Pretty unlikely.  Was the media sensation that found reason to demonize her an easy punch to deflect?  That seems equally unlikely.  Had you been her Executive Coach, what would you have said to her?  More importantly, would you have been ready to say anything at all?

I would presume that Ms. Mayer has a well-established support system including personal and professional mentors to help dust her off after a fall, but what about those executives a notch or two down from the top job at companies like hers?  Surely the loud reaction to her memo represents an extreme, but as a former CEO myself, I assure you the spotlight can shine unfavorably without warning.  Senior executives are almost always operating at a high level of visibility, both within their companies and to the outside world.  Say the wrong thing or implement an otherwise innocuous tactic in any compromising manner and the wallop that follows can be bone crushing.

There are unlimited roles an Executive Coach can play in serving a client, but perhaps none is more vital than the quiet sanctuary of crisis management.  Wherever the Executive Coach might be weighing in on the spectrum of support – from consultant to mentor – the sounding board an Executive Coach provides to an executive under fire can ensure continuity over severance.  A seasoned Executive Coach might be the only individual qualified, prepared, and able to help an executive repel hyperbole and steady the ship.  How much the executive can depend on a coach in times of unwanted celebrity may mean the difference between getting through the interrupt or falling prey to demoralization.

To be clear, it may not be the surprise act causing an unusual uproar that delivers material damage to the executive’s business agenda.  It may be the executive’s immediate and unformed response.  There is an extraordinary distance to navigate between thoughtful, timely reaction and analysis paralysis.  An Executive Coach remains in the executive’s corner with 100% objectivity, without conflict of interest, and without intellectual or emotional compromise to help the executive sort through all available options in near real-time.

Remember, an executive is a champion, just like a star athlete.  The executive has signed onto the team roster to win.  All executives know they will be surprised by the response to one of their decisions sooner or later, but that does not mean they want to dig themselves out of the muck alone, especially when they never saw the sinkhole coming.  Where an executive has a trusted Executive Coach accessible for counsel, that Executive Coach can guide the executive toward accessing empowered resilience to any potentially catastrophic attack.  Responding to attack will always be part of an executive’s job, but incorporating the focused perspective of an Executive Coach to respond with inspiration can make for a brilliant recovery.

When John Vercelli and I run our simulations and role-plays for Coaches Training Institute to help ready a CTI Executive Coach for the highest levels of client service, we are not just thinking about how to help an Executive Coach win a client.  We are deeply concerned how an Executive Coach retains a client, adds tremendous value to the critical work of a client, and is always available to help that client keep winning no matter the obstacles they encounter.  Because an executive must be nimble and responsive in today’s 24 x 7 x 365 competitive environment, an Executive Coach must be equally if not more nimble and responsive.  Anticipating the unexpected is of course impossible in the specific, but necessary in the abstract.  You never get an extra beat when the spotlight shines.  You sing when the light comes on.  Being ready is what makes you great, and being present is what makes you forever dependable.

No one can ever tell you when a fire is going to ignite.  The only thing you know for sure is there will be a fire.  Being an Executive Coach means you are a vital part of your client’s response team, often where the team is just you and the executive.  Are you ready for that level of responsibility?  Are you ready to help your executive win when the odds are at their lowest?  If so, the difference you make can mean everything.  For that you will always be cherished.

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The Art and Science of Coaching

Most great athletes wouldn’t think of stepping into competition without a coach, both in practice running skill drills and on the sidelines during an event for strategy and encouragement.  Where you find a great business leader, there is often a similar proxy — a mentor helping guide them, either a current boss, a past boss, or a colleague who just cares enough to help.  When you want a coach and aren’t lucky enough to have a mentor, where can you turn?  Some have tried executive coaches, paid professionals hired to fill the role, sometimes successful, sometimes not.  Because I find the role of being a mentor the most satisfying aspect of my career, I have taken up an interest in coaching over the past few years and learned through experience some stuff worth sharing.

John Vercelli, with whom I teach the Executive Coaching Workshop at Coaches Training Institute, recently sent me an article from Human Resources Executive that largely captures why we created our new program.  The article, by Andrew R. McIlvaine, pretty much says everything I was intending to write in a post here, not the least of which is:

Too many executive coaches lack the business experience necessary to help clients.  But others say such experience isn’t necessary to effect real change — and in some cases, it may even be a hindrance.

John and I are somewhere in the middle (surprised, huh?).  We believe it is virtually impossible to be an executive coach if someone hasn’t developed empathy for the job of the executive.  Yet we also believe that just because someone has significant executive experience, that may not qualify them to be a world-class executive coach.

That’s why we decided to lead the Executive Coaching Workshop together, and are having a blast doing so.  John is a longtime member of the faculty at CTI and now serves as Director of Corporate Programs.  I have taken courses at CTI, but I am not a certified coach.   I have immense respect for the work of the coach, but that’s really John’s expertise as one of the senior curriculum designers for CTI.  My role in this program is to help prepare a new wave of coaches to step into the corporate arena by placing them in real world simulations that illustrate the weight of walking in an executive’s shoes.

We can no more substitute a lifetime of making business decisions in a few intense days of training than we can alter the personality of someone who doesn’t appreciate empathy to exhibit it.  What we can do is paint a picture of what high level business decision-making is like day-to-day as well as year to year, and how a good coach can add value to that decision-making by helping frame the context of situations as a resource and sounding board rather than an “answer machine.”  The combination of John’s co-active creativity and my goal oriented pragmatism — both tempered by true commitment to human potential and respect for the individual as well as the team — seems to be working.  Here are a few things we have learned in the initial trials:

1. Role-Playing Creates Memorable Models: When we take prospective executive coaches and load them up in exercises with the burdens of time bound goals, intense competition, market forces, unforgiving shareholders, management hierarchies, and corporate politics, they start to understand the client by becoming the client.  Of course this is no substitute for the reality of the client’s struggles, but it’s a good start down a path toward empathy.  If you have a little high-octane improv you want to try out, there’s nothing quite like giving your material a no-fault test run.

2. Intellectual Curiosity Can’t Be Faked: If you want to cheer people on, you need to be interested in what they do.  As obvious as it may sound, an expressed interest in business is prerequisite to being a recommended executive coach.  Reading the Wall Street Journal regularly, digging into corporate annual reports, subscribing to industry email newsletters, participating in webinars — all of these help to build a shared vocabulary around profit and loss, return on investment, and growth opportunities.  Where prospective executive coaches don’t find the subject matter naturally interesting, easy flowing dialogue is not easy.

3. It Takes a Toolkit: There is no single path to success for the executive, and there is surely no single connect-the-dots methodology for successful executive coaching.  The dynamics of today’s business environment are fierce and opaque, creating a landscape of ambiguity that has to be constantly reevaluated and balanced.  There is no reward without risk, and helping the executive to consider risk requires an establishment of trust and credibility that constantly has to be reinforced.  We believe empathy is possible through extrapolation of life experience, but thin analogies will only get you so far.  Experience and knowledge compound over time to broaden the context of dialogue, convincing us that process is your friend to the extent you have the personal resources to chart new paths under immense pressure.

How deep can organizations go with coaching?  A recent post in Psychology Today suggests that even a CEO can benefit strong from an executive coach, although building that level of trust and empathy is no small task.  The point is that everyone can benefit from a sounding board, and in a perfect world everyone would have one that embodies a level playing field of shared knowledge.  Since that business utopia is unlikely to emerge anytime soon, we think great executive coaches will be increasingly in demand, but like anything worth the money, the difference between good and great can be considerable.

The science of coaching is most likely to be revealed through improved business results, the scoreboard of performance upon which the client’s metrics will be formally evaluated.  The art of coaching may seem more abstract, as each coach will undoubtedly develop his or her own style for working with the client to achieve the anticipated metrics, but without concrete improvements in financials, style won’t much matter.  John and I believe you can’t have one without the other, and it is the integration of this vision that motivates us to help fill that toolkit.

Manners Made To Order

Peter Bart, the long-serving studio executive turned prominent media industry journalist, recently wrote a column in Variety wondering where all the manners have gone:

A Zest to Text Lets The Rude Intrude

The irony of calling out the entertainment community on bad behavior is not lost. If you have spent any time at all in film, television, radio, theater, advertising, or any related endeavor, you have your own war stories to share. You have been humiliated, ignored, dissed, or berated at every level of your ladder climb from desk clerk to corner office. If you are not currently experiencing the abuse to your face, you are fully aware it is happening behind your back. This of course is in no way limited to showbiz—the rest of the business world including technology has its own flavors of belittling, it’s just a little more celebrated in Hollywood as norm. If you have never had the pleasure to do jumping jacks on this playground, just catch a few reruns this summer of the hit TV show Smash.

VarietyAlthough Bart largely ties the exponential run-up in the rude factor to gadget proliferation, the 24/7 expectation of real-time response, and the death knell of “nuanced conversation” in the creative process, I wonder how many of us are paying attention to our own slides into the primordial. The question is not are we targets of rudeness, the answer to that is as obvious as it is ubiquitous—and I don’t think it has all that much to do with texting and youth, especially if you remember the pre-politically correct workplace before Wang when an airborne stapler headed for your cranium often had to be ducked. The question I am more apt to ponder is how we let ourselves get seduced to the other side, becoming a violator when we know that’s not something we want to be.

We can still be hard-charging, we can still be Type A, but there is no mandate for acclaim that requires sloppy people skills. Presuming there is a roof over your head and ample food available to you on revolving credit, ask yourself in the long run what matters more: accomplishing a task however trivial, or building relationships that strengthen your standing? Certainly in the throes of immediacy a terse email might be released now and again, but what about the basics we were taught as children about The Golden Rule, lessons we now ostensibly pass along to subsequent generations who are as glued to their handhelds as we are?

Is it really that hard to save a viciously nasty email in your drafts folder and wait until morning before you elect to hit the send button?

Can you really feel good about telling someone you’ll call them tomorrow and then failing to do it ever?

Why are you checking your Facebook news feed during a sales pitch, regardless of which side of the desk you are on?

What good are you doing yourself continuing to say “Let’s have lunch” when you really don’t want to have lunch and have no intention of following through with any such invitation?

If you are meeting someone for lunch—business or personal—and you are going to be more than five minutes late, would it be possible for you to call or text, then apologize when you arrive? Better yet, barring a jack-knifed semi blocking all freeway lanes for ten miles in both directions, could you possibly leave a little early and be on time?

Depending on what stage you may have attained in your career, some of this comes down to the difference between what you are looking to achieve in terms of personal impact rather than measured achievement. That’s a see-saw that should shift over time to the beneficial, but there are pragmatic aspects of a well-mannered approach that might be useful to you now. Considering again Bart’s suggestion that “nuanced conversation” is a mauled victim of abrupt interpersonal dynamics, it is possible that listening less really is bad for business?

If you understand the nature of creative destruction as I often discuss in this blog, you know that we live in a world where teamwork generally matters more than individual contribution, and true leverage in time to market is almost always achieved by collaborative intelligence rather than ramrod dictum. In that sense, where an effective creative process is a function of shared give and take, the question becomes not how well we are silencing the noise, but how well are we listening.

Later this year I will be piloting a training seminar to help guide executive coaches with a practical approach to the corporate training work they do. I mention this in the spirit of disclosure and not for promotional purposes. In designing this emerging program, I have been inspired repeatedly by my partner organization, the well-regarded Coaches Training Institute (CTI). In the book written by CTI’s founders Henry Kimsey-House and Karen Kimsey-House with contributing author Phillip Sandahl, I discovered the following simple but profound reflection:

The absence of real listening is especially prevalent at work. Under pressure to get the job done, we listen for the minimum of what we need to know so we can move on to the next fire that needs fighting. The consequence: it’s no wonder people feel like mere functions in a whirling machine, not human beings. It’s no wonder that “employee engagement” is a serious issue in most organization’s today. Everybody’s talking, nobody’s listening.

The point is entirely actionable—a renewable creative process requires focused listening, much more than combative banter. No doubt the methodology of Constructive Confrontation pioneered over the years at Intel is as relevant as ever, but it remains a framework that is fully participatory. If you aren’t nurturing the dialogue all around, you are leaving money on the table.

Invoking the world view of popular ethics advocate Michael Josephson, I could easily migrate The Argument for Being Nice into a call for Significance beyond Success, but my sense is we all learn that well enough for ourselves over time. Instead let me keep it pragmatic.

If you are playing the short game and have convinced yourself the liquidity event is just over the horizon and that’s all you care about, feel free to be as rude as you want. Why not? You’re going to get what you want.

If you’re like the rest of us and have no idea where the forest trail will lead today or ten years from tomorrow, remember that kid on the reception desk probably will be running a company. History is on her side.

If it’s Friday night and you’re home from a hard week cataloging all the different ways you were kicked in the teeth the past week, ask yourself a simple question—how much forensic dental work were you responsible for doling out of late? And how much dialogue did you shut down that may have given you the answer to that very hard problem you’re still trying to solve on your own with the bomb clock tic-tic-ticking?

I’ll go out on a limb here, a little old-fashioned digerati, but what the heck—good manners are good business, and both of those will make you happier. Go easy on the texts and eradicate the gossip. Listen, there are good ideas all around you.