Thought for the Week: Time for a Change

"If you do what you've always done, you will not get what you've always gotten. You will get further and further behind until you disappear into oblivion." Todd Thomas

We've all heard the adage that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. I would argue that if you do the same thing over and over you actually WILL get different results…just not the ones that you want.

Time for ChangeThe workforce is changing, the economy is changing, technology is changing…what in the world would lead us to believe that we can keep managing as we have in the past? Long-term plans are now three year plans at most and short-term plans have to do with Friday. If you are sitting at your desk wondering what to do today, just wait a moment or two because something will come up.

This is not, by the way, a bad thing. It is just a thing. Change needs to be incorporated into our leadership styles in a way that allows us to plan, but to plan for the purpose of change. It is difficult to know what we need to adjust if we don't know what we were going to do in the first place. But being married to the plan is just as counterproductive as being married to whatever measure we have chosen for success. Sometimes things change quickly in a way that we have to be willing to change with them.

Thought for the Week: Be Open to Ideas

Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it is the only one that we have. Emilie Chartier

One of the biggest challenges for leaders at all levels is the ability to have an Considering other ideas is a hallmark of leadership idea, commit to the   idea and move forward and at the same time be open to the notion that there may be better ideas out there. It seems like we’re wishy-washy or non-committed to accept that a new direction may be needed. Even of more concern is the belief that, as a leader, you need to be the one that has the idea in the first place.

This is the problem I have with “true believers” of all stripes. Whether it is partisanship in politics or initiatives in business and education, the all-in commitment to a single idea limits the leaders to being creative and, in many cases, eliminates the possibility that a workable solution will be found. I had an opportunity to interview best-selling author Ken Blanchard one time and he commented that leaders often feel that they have been granted the ability to be the smartest person around. That’s unfortunate since the smartest person around might be the person that has just a tiny responsibility in the overall picture.

I firmly believe that a leader should be firmly committed to ideals but open to other ideas. The difference is that an ideal is standard of perfection, a principle at which you aim. An idea is simply one conception of how to get there. Effective leaders stand by their principles but are flexible about their ideas. They recognize that among all of those who follow them, there are likely to be ideas that are much more effective, efficient or engaging than their own.

Accentuate the Positive

As you wrap up your work for today and start thinking about what priorities need to be established for next week, what are you focused on? It’s likely that you are thinking about the frustrations of the past few days and the problems that are yet to be solved. Usually in our list of important things to do, there are items that just didn’t get done and, with a defeated spirit, we move them to next week’s list.

Right about now you’re thinking, “Umm, Todd. Thanks for the morale booster.” But wait…don’t stop reading yet.

If what I described in the first paragraph is something that you are going through now or that you know you will go through before you wrap up for the day, you still have time to turn it around.  As you reflect on your week, start with the things that you accomplished or that at least started turning in the right direction.  These victories, large or small, often are forgotten almost immediately because they no longer represent burning issues.  In fact we sometimes argue that we have no time to “sit on our laurels” and celebrate success because we have too many other fires to put out.

Include some positives in your review I agree. There should be no laurel-resting. In fact, I’m suggesting that by listing a few of the things that worked well this week at the top of your to do list, you may find yourself on Monday not only in a better mood but with more energy and focus on what needs to be accomplished.  For example, researchers from the University of Western Ontario have found that having even a little boost of satisfaction and positivity has an effect on the brain that increases our ability to think clearly and creatively (Psychological Science, December 2010).

Even if you don’t think there is anything to celebrate from the week, you should at least give it a shot. As you’re making your list for next week, start at the top with a short section called “Wins from Last Week.” (Note…that is not WHINES from last week). Then list at least 3 or 4 items that were accomplished. They don’t have to be huge (although those are nice), but they need to be unqualified. Saying, “I held an information meeting with my employees but some of them weren’t interested” is not a positive. If you’ve wanted to get around to having that meeting, “I held an information meeting with my employees” is all you need to say.

Ask for help from a friend or colleague if you need some assistance. Most of us are not good at identifying what went well but we’re experts at identifying what went wrong. I bet you can come up with at least a few bright spots from the past few days.  Then, as you go into next week, keep a list of things that happen that you want to make sure to include on the positive list for the next week.

By the way, if you have a hard time finding the positives, listen to the original “Accentuate the Positive” written and sung by Johnny Mercer. I promise it will help!

Thought for the Week: YOU can’t empower ME

“The greatest danger for most of us I not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.”—Michaelangelo

I read a Facebook posting by a friend recently who was commenting that their dog had been trained initially to stay out of the street and in the front yard using one of those “invisible fence” set ups. Initially, if the dog strayed outside of the fence, about 20 feet from the house, he received an uncomfortable (but mild) shock through his collar that was preceded by a vibration. After only once or twice, the vibration alone was enough to stop the dog (smart dog).  Within a short while they turned off the invisible fence and of course the dog stayed within the yard. But then they moved to another house with a much larger property and didn’t worry about using any kind of fence because the dog could run freely pretty much wherever he wanted. This turned out not to be a problem because today the dog will not go beyond 20 feet from the house, even though the dogs owners have “empowered” him to run for acres.

Employees decide to be empowered Empowerment is a funny thing. As leaders who are trying to be effective, we learn that WE need to empower our employees. This approach has a number of assumptions: (1) That we have the ability to give freedom to our employees, (b) that our employees know that they have that freedom, (3)that our employees want to have that freedom and (4) that our employees have some idea what to do with the freedom once they have it.

These assumptions are the foundation of a lot of skepticism regarding the concept of empowerment.  We believe that we have empowered our employees, a couple of people take advantage of us or even more likely, do nothing differently, and then we wonder why we bothered. Imagining employees that are truly empowered to make their own decisions and take their own actions is a bit frightening anyway. If there aren’t positive results in a short period of time we move on to the next leadership fad.

I don’t want to compare us, or employees, to dogs, but the principle is in large part the same. You as the leader can create the conditions in which your followers can feel empowered, but you can’t force them to use those conditions as you would like them to. The basis of freedom is their right to choose. Being empowered is the result of a personal decision based on trust, experience, and overcoming what we’ve learned about how we are to behave. If you want to empower your employees, you must also TEACH them how to be empowered and give them time to figure out how to operate without the fence.

Dealing with the Real Issues

IStock_000014041149Small There are many times that leaders find themselves dealing with issues that they feel they have dealt with before, finding themselves puzzled because they are sure they fixed the problem or declared the solution and the problem should be gone. But, for some reason, the issue keeps coming up. This can be not only frustrating to everybody involved, but can start to challenge the perception of the leader about the commitment (or even intelligence) of his or her followers. Of course the problem is, if everybody does not agree that the issue is resolved, then the issue is actually not resolved.

For example, I worked with a multi-national company at one point with offices throughout South America. My work was actually in Brazil where the location there had been in such dire straits that they had to go through major cost cutting just to survive. Part of the cost cutting involved the elimination of Blackberry devices for managers at a certain level and all employees except for those in sales. This policy was further adopted by all of the South and Central American offices.

The session I was conducting included Brazilian, Argentinian and Venezuelan leaders in this company and during this session, some griping was heard from the Argentinian leaders when they saw how many Blackberrys were held by people attending the session—including the Brazilians.

 As it happens, the office in Brazil is much larger than that in Argentina, and therefore using the same rules meant that more people in the Brazil office had Blackberrys than those in the Argentinian office. Nonetheless, the issue was still there and people were clearly annoyed by it. None was more annoyed than the Argentinian senior executive who started to call her people together to set them straight that the issue of having Blackberrys was “closed.” It had been discussed before, she had made her decision, end of discussion

The interesting, and very common, issue here is that the leader felt the discussion was closed because, to her, the discussion was about Blackberrys.  As we looked more closely at the issue, it was clear that the phone was not the issue but rather a symptom. What she had dealt with was, to her, a simple operational issue. But to the Argentinian employees, it was more than that. Seeing that others apparently had privileges that they did not, the real issue was one of respect.

Too many times we forget the council of Steven Covey in “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” when he says, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” As leaders we often see forbidden behaviors or actions and are truly puzzled at how stupid our people have gotten all of the sudden. We don’t understand why they would continue to make an issue of something that we have closed.

 Remember, it might be that the real issue is not closed at all. Don’t take the first action that comes to mind as it may not be the right action and it is likely to address the wrong problem. Instead, take the time to talk to your people to find out why the issue you believe is closed appears not to be. It could be that you were actually not as clear as you thought you were and you have to revisit it. More likely, there is another issue about which you were unaware. By addressing the root cause, you might actually change the behavior. Until you know what attitude or behavior is really the problem, your approach will be guided more by luck than by intent. And you’ll find yourself continually frustrated that change is not happening as you had hoped.

The Danger of the CEO Icon

To nobody’s surprise, it has finally happened. Steve Jobs has announced his resignation from Apple. While everybody wishes Jobs the best and admires him as perhaps one of the most visionary and for sure one of the most successful business people in American history, the question now remains, “What happens to Apple now?” The succession mystery that we have all debated for months has been answered now, with COO Tim Cook rising to the role of CEO. But this is only the beginning.

While a CEO change can be disruptive to any organization, there is actually research that indicates a shift at the top can bring about rapid—and sometimes much needed—change in the organization. However, this necessitates a vision or strong leader at the top and we don’t know that this is Tim Cook. He’s obviously operational genius with his success at such a behemoth as Apple. But we don’t know if this success will (or can) carry over to his role now as CEO.

IStock_000013554373Small In the case of Apple, the question of Cook’s leadership may not matter much for short-term market results. I wrote back at the first of the year when the succession plan was such a topic that “Speculation about new products can build excitement and even demand in the marketplace. Speculation about leadership builds only concern and uncertainty.” And that is apparently what has been happening. Apple today has profit margins of 24%. Their reported Return on Investment is nearly 42% and earnings exist at an almost obscene growth rate, at least doubling in recent history.   Yet the P/E ratio is low even with new products on the horizon. It is my guess that the concerns regarding Apple and its future regarding Jobs health have been around long enough that the market has factored uncertainty into the price. As it turns out, that might have been the most beneficial move for the market at this moment.

That was uncertainty regarding Apple’s plans post-Jobs. Uncertainty about Apple’s plans going forward will continue to be a problem

In the short to mid-term, Apple should be fine.  Or at least could be fine. Tim Cook is a long time insider and has been rumored to be Jobs successor since January when Jobs took a leave of absence.  At the same time, Jobs is about creativity and “the next big thing.” Cook is about operations. With a business the size of apple, and with the recent move into a big “cloud strategy,” Cook may be just the person to get it done…from an operational standpoint. But what about the other heavy weights now that Jobs is gone and Cook is in that spot? Software giant Bertrand Serlet has already left and rumors have been going about designer Jonathan Ive for a long time.  CFO Peter Oppenheimer was at one time considered a strong personality for the role and named a potential successor as was Senior VP of Retail Operations Ron Johnson.  Is Cook the kind of personality that can keep it all of this together?

The problem is that the story line of Apple hasn’t been about its profound operations…it’s been about its quirky, driven, difficult to work for but greatly loved founder and CEO Steve Jobs. Cook has the credentials, with his time at Compaq and IBM and then, for the last 13 years at Apple with the last 6 as COO. Writer James Rogers says that investors shouldn’t fear Tim Cook. I agree…Tim Cook is not a fearsome being. But Steve Jobs was fearsome to his competitors and at times to his management team. Steve Jobs was the icon of what it meant to work at Apple. With his departure, the future culture is an open question.  In Jobs statement as he resigned, he said that “Apple’s brightest and most innovative days are ahead of it.” It will be interesting to see if that’s true without the personality of Steve Jobs at the helm.

Back in 2009 I wrote for TheStreet.com that Steve Jobs was one of those CEOs whose presence and experience brought security to investors and provided an identity to the company that pays off in financial results. I still believe this is true which is why now Apple should expect some bumpy times in the market.  It is also true that things then will likely smooth out for a while. But the long-term is not always rosy when the bigger-then-life leader leaves. Jack Welch left with GE Stock at $50 (after a three for one stock split).  Today it is $15.39. Whether Immelt has done a good job or not, he has never been another Welch.  It is doubtful that Cook will be another Jobs, and that may be his greatest challenge of all.