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What Destroys a Company Culture

What Destroys a Company Culture

When our firm is retained by one of our clients to find a key leader, one of the key criteria we assess in determining the right fit is the company’s culture and a candidate’s proven ability to operate effectively in that culture.  In the thousands of searches Allen Austin has conducted, we have seen many different corporate cultures…some extremely efficient and positive…some not.  In addition to products or services that can be differentiated in the marketplace, a critical success factor for any organization is the culture its employees work in.

A company’s culture thrives when there is stable leadership and when senior management and employees share common values and patterns of behavior.   When leadership is fragmented or inconsistent, when departments degenerate into factions and gaps emerge between a company’s stated purpose and actual mode of operation, ineffective and toxic cultures are born.

In my opinion, corporate cultures are in pretty bad shape across the globe.  In many corporations, morale is poor, communications between different levels is almost non-existent and employees are indignant at what they perceive to be management’s seesaw shifts in culture – aimed at what they see as an all-or-nothing push toward short-term profits.  So many businesses have had to experience the power of the Stock Market mentality, focusing all its efforts on making the quarterly numbers.  Even small businesses fall into this trap, especially if they are under the control of private equity or other investor arrangements.

Too many organizations miss the opportunity to be “authentic” and this is reflected both in the people who work in the companies and the type of employee applicants they attract.  The CEO should know what aspects of the company attract the right employees. Why would someone want to work for you? What wouldn’t they change about their job? How is this consistent with your stated goals and mission?  If the answers to these questions aren’t clear, it could be a warning signal that something’s wrong.

Too much energy in too many companies is expended trying to manage a dis-satisfied workforce.  This dis-satisfaction is translated into departmental turf wars and an unwillingness to share information – an ‘us vs. them’ mentality that results in lower standards and diminished productivity.  CEOs fail to see that employees’ actions are often prompted by fear — fear of losing status, fear of losing control, fear of losing their jobs. This fear is usually generated by a lack of information.  Of course, every company’s unofficial source of information is known as “the grapevine.” Here is where rumors abound and misinformation flourishes – all to the detriment of a well-functioning organization. Some business leaders ignore or deny the existence of the grapevine; others try, by executive fiat or sheer force of will, to crush it entirely.

Of course, there’s a better way to go about this.  In a healthy culture, senior management can actually learn a lot about what’s going on by ‘listening in’ to the grapevine – inviting people to come forward and talk about what’s going on, without fear of censure or retribution. It’s a way of identifying significant issues before they get out of hand and cause major employee discontent.  If anything, consistent face-to-face communication between levels in the company diminishes the impact (and credibility) of the grapevine.

Change comes hard to a company’s culture. Certain standards can become very deeply rooted in the everyday life of the corporation and when change is necessary, the CEO can find a hard struggle ahead. Employees fight back in covert or openly devious ways, thus slowing the move toward progress.  A culture resistant to change is one of the major reasons for failure when it comes to implementing a new strategic initiative, for example.  Behaviors that have been around forever undermine the initiative from the beginning…vital momentum is lost resulting in a change initiative that will fail.  How can the CEO and his or her senior management combat this common problem?  Consider focusing on the following initiatives:

Thomas Wolfe Was Right

I once read an extremely well-written short story by the name of “You Can’t Go Home Again.”  The author, Thomas Wolfe, in well-written prose, spoke about the challenges of returning to a place where you once were.  In that article, he made it clear that “home” is often a place that resides in your mind only.  Since you left, “home” has changed and often your return only reveals how much home has changed.

Such was my discovery today.

I went to a favorite hamburger place in Kansas City today.  I won’t name the name, but those who are familiar with hamburgers in Kansas City will probably be able to guess the name of it (hint:  it starts with “W” and it’s not Wendy’s).

As a relatively young professional, I would often go to “W” for a great burger:  well-seasoned, good sized, and enough there to fill the cavernous space just about my waist quite well.  So today, in a fit of nostalgia, I returned to this place of hallowed culinary memories–much to my disappointment.

Although the outside of the building looked all-too-familiar, the rest of the experience was new.  The servers, never known for their charm, had seemed to grow even more surly with the years.  But one never went to “W” for scintillating conversation with the servers.  One went for the food.  “Bring it!” I thought.

When it arrived, it appeared that it had suffered from whatever the opposite of “supersize me” is.  The burger appeared to be at least 25% smaller than my memory.  The fries, likewise, appeared to have gone to Jenny Craig, and my small root beer was really small.  It looked like a kid-sized drink (who does that?).

Diving in, there was only a small hint of what I had once enjoyed.  Rather than being a full meal, it felt like an aggravating appetizer.  Oh well.  I did say that I wanted cut down on some calories.  I just didn’t realize that I would get institutional help in that regard.

Which takes me back to Thomas Wolfe:  it’s nearly impossible to go home again.  Whether home is a literal home, a work “home” or a food “home.”  Things have changed; and so have we.  Perhaps good memories should be cherished as places we return to only in our minds, while we build the futures we desire in reality.

Here’s to a new day.  Cheers!

How Managers Become Leaders

Harvard Business Review
by Michael D. Watkins

Harald (not his real name) is a high-potential leader with 15 years of experience at a leading European chemical company. He started as an assistant product manager in the plastics unit and was quickly transferred to Hong Kong to help set up the unit’s new Asian business center. As sales there soared, he soon won a promotion to sales manager. Three years later he returned to Europe as the marketing and sales director for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, overseeing a group of 80 professionals. Continuing his string of successes, he was promoted to vice president of marketing and sales for the polyethylene division, responsible for several lines of products, related services, and a staff of nearly 200.

All of Harald’s hard work culminated in his appointment as the head of the company’s plastic resins unit, a business with more than 3,000 employees worldwide. Quite intentionally, the company had assigned him to run a small but thriving business with a strong team. The idea was to give him the opportunity to move beyond managing sales and marketing, get his arms around an entire business, learn what it meant to head up a unit with the help of his more-experienced team, and take his leadership skills to the next level in a situation free from complicating problems or crises. The setup seemed perfect, but a few months into the new position, Harald was struggling mightily.

Like Harald, many rising stars trip when they shift from leading a function to leading an enterprise and for the first time taking responsibility for a P&L and oversight of executives across corporate functions. It truly is different at the top. To find out how, I took an in-depth look at this critical turning point, conducting an extensive series of interviews with more than 40 executives, including managers who had developed high-potential talent, senior HR professionals, and individuals who had recently made the move to enterprise leadership for the first time.

What I found is that to make the transition successfully, executives must navigate a tricky set of changes in their leadership focus and skills, which I call the seven seismic shifts. They must learn to move from specialist to generalist, analyst to integrator, tactician to strategist, bricklayer to architect, problem solver to agenda setter, warrior to diplomat, and supporting cast member to lead role. Like so many of his peers, Harald had trouble negotiating most of these shifts. To see what makes them so difficult, let’s follow him through each of them, as he confronts unnerving surprises, makes unwarranted assumptions, encounters entirely new demands on his time and imagination, makes decisions in ignorance, and learns from his mistakes.

All the shifts a function head must make when first becoming an enterprise leader involve learning new skills and cultivating new mind-sets. Here are the shifts and what each requires executives to do:

Specialist to Generalist

Understand the mental models, tools, and terms used in key business functions and develop templates for evaluating the leaders of those functions.

Analyst to Integrator

Integrate the collective knowledge of cross-functional teams and make appropriate trade-offs to solve complex organizational problems.

Tactician to Strategist

Shift fluidly between the details and the larger picture, perceive important patterns in complex environments, and anticipate and influence the reactions of key external players.

Bricklayer to Architect

Understand how to analyze and design organizational systems so that strategy, structure, operating models, and skill bases fit together effectively and efficiently, and harness this understanding to make needed organizational changes.

Problem Solver to Agenda Setter

Define the problems the organization should focus on, and spot issues that don’t fall neatly into any one function but are still important.

Warrior to Diplomat

Proactively shape the environment in which the business operates by influencing key external constituencies, including the government, NGOs, the media, and investors.

Supporting Cast Member to Lead Role

Exhibit the right behaviors as a role model for the organization and learn to communicate with and inspire large groups of people both directly and, increasingly, indirectly.

Specialist to Generalist

Harald’s immediate challenge was shifting from leading a single function to overseeing the full set of business functions. In his first couple of months, this shift left him feeling disoriented and less confident in his ability to make good judgments. And so he fell into a classic trap-overmanaging the function he knew well and undermanaging the others. Fortunately for Harald, this became crystal clear when his vice president of HR gave him some blunt feedback about his relationship with his sales and marketing VP: “You are driving Claire crazy. You need to give her some space.”

Harald’s tendency to stay in his functional comfort zone is an understandable reaction to the stresses of moving up to a much broader role. It would be wonderful if newly appointed enterprise leaders were world-class experts in all business functions, but of course they never are. In some instances they have gained experience by rotating through various functions or working on cross-functional projects, which certainly helps. (See the sidebar “How to Develop Strong Enterprise Leaders.”) But the reality is that the move to enterprise leadership always requires executives who’ve been specialists to quickly turn into generalists who know enough about all the functions to run their businesses.

Early in their careers, give potential leaders…

When their leadership promise becomes evident, give high potentials…

Sometime just before their first enterprise promotion, send rising stars…

To a substantial executive program that addresses such capabilities as organizational design, business process improvement, and transition management, and allows them to build external networks

At the time of their first enterprise-level promotion, place new enterprise leaders in units that are…

What is “enough”? Enterprise leaders must be able to (1) make decisions that are good for the business as a whole and (2) evaluate the talent on their teams. To do both they need to recognize that business functions are distinct managerial subcultures, each with its own mental models and language. Effective leaders understand the different ways that professionals in finance, marketing, operations, HR, and R&D approach business problems, and the various tools (discounted cash flow, customer segmentation, process flow, succession planning, stage gates, and the like) that each discipline applies. Leaders must be able to speak the language of all the functions and translate for them when necessary. And critically, leaders must know the right questions to ask and the right metrics for evaluating and recruiting people to manage areas in which they themselves are not experts.

The good news for Harald was that, in addition to assigning him to a high-performing unit, his company had strong systems in place for evaluating and developing talent in key functions. These included well-crafted systems for performance reviews and 360-degree feedback, and for collecting input from corporate functions. His heads of finance and HR, for instance, while reporting directly to him, also had dotted-line reporting relationships with their respective corporate departments, which assisted Harald with their evaluation and development. So he had plenty of resources to help him understand what “excellence” meant for each function

By investing directly in creating standardized evaluation schemes for each function, companies can ensure that new enterprise leaders get the lay of the land faster. But even if their firms don’t have such systems, aspiring enterprise leaders can prepare themselves by building relationships with colleagues in other functions, seeking to learn from them (perhaps in exchange for insight into their own functions) so that they can develop their own templates.

Analyst to Integrator

The primary responsibility of functional leaders is to recruit, develop, and manage people who focus in analytical depth on specific business activities. An enterprise leader’s job is to manage and integrate the collective knowledge of those functional teams to solve important organizational problems.

Harald found himself struggling with this shift early on as he sought to address the many competing demands of the business. His sales and marketing VP, for example, wanted to aggressively go to market with a new product, while his head of operations worried that production couldn’t be ramped up quickly enough to meet the sales staff’s demand scenarios. Harald’s team expected him to balance the needs of the supply side of the business (operations) with those of its demand side (sales and marketing), to know when to focus on the quarterly business results (finance) and when to invest in the future (R&D), to decide how much attention to devote to execution and how much to innovation, and to make many other such calls.

Once again, executives need general knowledge of the various functions to resolve such competing issues, but that isn’t enough. The skills required have less to do with analysis and more to do with understanding how to make trade-offs and explain the rationale for those decisions. Here, too, previous experience with cross-functional or new-product development teams would stand newly minted enterprise leaders in good stead, as would a previous apprenticeship as a chief of staff to a senior executive. But ultimately, as Harald found, there is no substitute for actually making the calls and learning from their outcome.

There is no substitute for actually making the calls and learning from their outcome.

Tactician to Strategist

In his early months, Harald threw himself into the myriad details of the business. Being tactical was seductive-the activities were so concrete and the results so immediate. Consequently, he lost himself in the day-to-day flow of attending meetings, making decisions, and pushing projects forward.

The problem with this, of course, was that a core part of Harald’s new role was to be strategist-in-chief for the unit he now led. To do that, he had to let go of many of the details and free his mind and his time to focus on higher-level matters. More generally, he needed to adopt a strategic mind-set.

How do tactically strong leaders learn to develop such a mind-set? By cultivating three skills: level shifting, pattern recognition, and mental simulation. Level shifting is the ability to move fluidly among levels of analysis-to know when to focus on the details, when to focus on the big picture, and how the two relate. Pattern recognition is the ability to discern important causal relationships and other significant patterns in a complex business and its environment-that is, to separate the signal from the noise. Mental simulation is the ability to anticipate how outside parties (competitors, regulators, the media, key members of the public) will respond to what you do, to predict their actions and reactions in order to define the best course to take. In Harald’s first year, for instance, an Asian competitor introduced a lower-cost substitute for a key resin product his unit made. Harald needed not only to consider the immediate threat but also to think expansively about what the competitor’s future intentions might be. Was the Asian company going to use this low-end product to forge strong customer relationships and progressively offer a broader range of products? If so, what options should Harald’s unit pursue? How would the competitor respond to what Harald chose to do? Those were not questions he had been responsible for as head of marketing and sales. In the end, after analyzing various courses of action with his senior team, he chose to lower prices, forgoing some current profits in an effort to slow the loss of market share-a move he did not live to regret.

Are strategic thinkers born or made? The answer is both. There’s no doubt that strategic thinking, like any other skill, can be improved with training. But the ability to shift through different levels of analysis, recognize patterns, and construct mental models requires some natural propensity. One of the paradoxes of leadership development is that people earn promotions to senior functional levels predominantly by being good at blocking and tackling, but employees with strategic talent may struggle at lower levels because they focus less on the details. Darwinian forces can winnow strategic thinkers out of the developmental pipeline too soon if companies don’t adopt explicit policies to identify and to some degree protect them in their early careers.

Bricklayer to Architect

Too often, senior executives dabble in the profession of organizational design without a license-and end up committing malpractice. They come into their first enterprise-level role itching to make their mark and then target elements of the organization that seem relatively easy to change, like strategy or structure, without completely understanding the effect their moves will have on the organization as a whole.

About four months into his new role, for example, Harald concluded that he needed to restructure the business to focus more on customers and less on product lines. It was natural for him, as a former head of sales and marketing, to think this way. In his eyes it was obvious that the business was too rooted in product development and operations and that its structure was an outdated legacy of the way the unit had been founded and grown. So he was surprised when his restructuring proposal was met first with stunned silence from his team and then with vociferous opposition. It rapidly became clear that the existing structure in this successful division was linked in intricate and nonobvious ways to its key processes and talent bases. To sell the company’s chemicals, for instance, the salespeople needed to have deep product knowledge and the ability to consult with customers on applications. A shift to a customer-focused approach would have required them to sell a broader range of complex products and acquire huge amounts of new expertise. So while a move to a customer-focused structure had potential benefits, certain trade-offs needed to be evaluated. Implementation would, for instance, require significant adjustments to processes and substantial investments in employee retraining. These changes demanded a great deal of thought and analysis.

As leaders move up to the enterprise level, they become responsible for designing and altering the architecture of their organization-its strategy, structure, processes, and skill bases. To be effective organizational architects, they need to think in terms of systems. They must understand how the key elements of the organization fit together and not naively believe, as Harald once did, that they can alter one element without thinking through the implications for all the others. Harald learned this the hard way because nothing in his experience as a functional leader had afforded him the opportunity to think about an organization as a system. Nor did he have enough experience with large-scale organizational change to develop those insights from observation.

In this Harald was typical: Enterprise leaders need to know the principles of organizational change and change management, including the mechanics of organizational design, business process improvement, and transition management. Yet few rising executives get any formal training in these domains, leaving most of them ill equipped to be the architects of their organizations-or even to be educated consumers of the work of organizational development professionals. Here Harald was once again fortunate in having-and having the sense to rely on-an experienced staff that offered him cogent advice about the many interdependencies he had not originally considered. Not all new enterprise leaders are that lucky, of course. But if their companies have invested in sending them to executive education programs that teach organizational change, they’ll be better prepared for this shift.

Enterprise leaders need to evaluate the work of all their functional executives, not just those in the same area they came from. A simple template that systematically lists the most important metrics to track for a particular function, as well as which ones indicate trouble is brewing, will help new leaders get up to speed. Here is an example of a template for sales:

Core Performance Metrics

People Management Metrics

Customer Metrics

Warning Signs

Problem Solver to Agenda Setter

Many managers are promoted to senior levels on the strength of their ability to fix problems. When they become enterprise leaders, however, they must focus less on solving problems and more on defining which problems the organization should be tackling.

To do that, Harald had to perceive the full range of opportunities and threats facing his business, and focus the attention of his team on only the most important ones. He also had to identify the “white spaces”-issues that don’t fall neatly into any one function but are still important to the business, such as diversity.

The number of concerns Harald now had to consider was head-spinning. When he had run sales and marketing, he had gained some appreciation for how difficult it was for business heads to prioritize all the issues thrown at them in any given day, week, or month. Still, he was surprised by the scope and complexity of some of the problems at this level. He wasn’t sure how to allocate his time and immediately felt overloaded. He knew he needed to delegate more, but he wasn’t clear yet about which tasks and assignments he could safely leave to others.

You may be surprised by the intensity of the attention at center stage and the almost constant need to keep up your guard.

The skills he had honed as a functional leader-mastery of sales and marketing tools and techniques, organizational know-how, and even the ability to mobilize talent and promote teamwork-were not enough. To work out which problems his team should focus on-that is, to set the agenda-he had to learn to navigate a far more uncertain and ambiguous environment than he was used to. He also needed to learn to communicate priorities in ways his organization could respond to. Given his sales and marketing background, Harald struggled less with how to communicate his agenda. The challenge was figuring out what that agenda was. To some degree he just had to learn from experience, but here again he was aided by the members of his team, who pressed him for guidance on issues they knew he needed to consider. He also could rely on the company’s annual planning process, which provided a structure for defining key goals for his unit.

Warrior to Diplomat

In his previous roles, Harald had focused primarily on marshaling the troops to defeat the competition. Now he found himself devoting a surprising amount of time to influencing a host of external constituencies, including regulators, the media, investors, and NGOs. His support staff was bombarded with requests for his time: Could he participate in industry or government forums sponsored by the government affairs department? Would he be willing to sit for an interview with an editor from a leading business publication? Could he meet with a key group of institutional investors? Some of these groups he was familiar with; others not at all. But what was entirely new to him was his responsibility not just to interact with various stakeholders but also to proactively address their concerns in ways that meshed with the firm’s interests. Little of Harald’s previous experience prepared him for the challenges of being a corporate diplomat.

What do effective corporate diplomats do? They use the tools of diplomacy-negotiation, persuasion, conflict management, and alliance building-to shape the external business environment to support their strategic objectives. In the process they often find themselves collaborating with people with whom they compete aggressively in the market every day.

To do this well, enterprise leaders need to embrace a new mind-set-to look for ways that interests can or do align, understand how decisions are made in different kinds of organizations, and develop effective strategies for influencing others. They must also understand how to recruit and manage employees of a kind that they have probably never supervised before: professionals in key supporting functions such as government relations and corporate communications. And they must recognize that these employees’ initiatives have longer horizons than the ongoing business, with its focus on quarterly or even annual results, does. Initiatives like a campaign to shape the development of government regulation can take years to unfold. It took Harald a while to understand this, as his staffers educated him about how painstakingly they managed issues over protracted periods of time and how they periodically bemoaned the results when someone took his eye off the ball.

Supporting Cast Member to Lead Role

Finally, becoming an enterprise leader means moving to center stage under the bright lights. The intensity of the attention and the almost constant need to keep up his guard caught Harald by surprise. He was somewhat shocked to discover how much stock people placed in what he said and did. Not long after he first took the job, for example, he met with his vice president of R&D and mused about a new way of packaging an existing product. Two weeks later a preliminary feasibility report for it appeared on his desk.

In part, this shift is about having a much greater impact as a role model. Managers at all levels are role models to some degree. But at the enterprise level, their influence is magnified, as everyone looks to them for vision, inspiration, and cues about the “right” behaviors and attitudes. For good or ill, the personal styles and quirks of senior leaders are infectious, whether they are observed directly by employees or indirectly transmitted from their reports to the level below and on down through the organization. This effect can’t really be avoided, but enterprise leaders can make it less inadvertent by cultivating more self-awareness and taking the time to develop empathy with subordinates’ viewpoints. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that they were the subordinates, drawing these kinds of inferences from their own bosses’ behavior.

Then there is the question of what it means, practically speaking, to lead large groups of people-how to define a compelling vision and share it in an inspiring way. Harald, already a strong communicator who was used to selling ideas along with products, still needed to adjust his thinking in this regard (though perhaps less so than some of his counterparts). In his previous job he had maintained a reasonable degree of personal, albeit sometimes sporadic, contact with most of his employees. Now that he was overseeing 3,000-plus people scattered around the globe, that was simply impossible.

The implications of this became clear as he worked with his team to craft the annual strategy. When the time came to communicate it to the organization, he realized that he couldn’t simply go out and sell it himself; he had to work more through his direct reports and find other channels, such as video, for spreading the word. And after touring most of the unit’s facilities, Harald likewise worried that he’d never really be able to figure out what was happening on the front lines. So rather than meet just with leaders when he made site visits, he instituted brown-bag lunches with small groups of frontline employees and tuned in to online discussion groups in which employees could comment on the company.

For the most part, the seven shifts involve switching from left-brain, analytical thinking to right-brain conceptual mind-sets. But that doesn’t mean enterprise leaders never spend time on tactics or on functional concerns. It’s just that they spend far, far less time on those responsibilities than they used to in their previous roles. In fact, it’s often helpful for enterprise leaders toengage someone else-a chief of staff, a chief operating officer, or a project manager-to focus on execution, as a way to free up time for their new role.

As for Harald, his story ended well. He was fortunate to be working for a company that believed in leadership development and to have an experienced team that was able-and willing-to give him effective counsel. So despite the many bumps in the road, the business continued to thrive, and Harald eventually found his stride as an enterprise leader. Three years later, armed with all this experience, he was asked to take over a much larger, struggling unit of the company and initiated a successful turnaround. Reflecting back, he says, “The skills that got you where you are may not be the requisite skills to get you to where you need to go. This doesn’t discount the accomplishments of your past, but they will not be everything you need for the next leg of the journey.”

After the “Honeymoon”

For many years, I’ve heard business colleagues reference “the honeymoon” with regard to their initial days with their new employers.  This period of time is the period of time when everything is great-everyone’s happy, the sun is shining, you can do no wrong, everyone loves you and is glad that you’re there.

Shortly after this initial period of bliss, reality strikes.  And, in the minds of many, reality is tough.  Some would assert that reality bears little, if any, resemblance to the honeymoon period-kind of like being on the French Riviera one day and returning to the coal mines of West Virginia on the next.  Not fun.

I believe, however, that there are a few things that potential honeymooners can do to manage what could be a painful transition.  Some of these actions include:

1.      Recognizing that the “honeymoon” and “reality” are two different periods.  They exist for different purposes and should not be equated with each other.  The period known as the “honeymoon” is designed to be a period of joyful bliss, but (unless you’re stinking rich) cannot realistically last forever.  At some point, one must leave the honeymoon.

2.    Communicating prior to the honeymoon about what may be important after the honeymoon.  Anyone who has gone through a honeymoon knows that it doesn’t last forever.  The difficulty lies in the fact that little conversation has occurred about life after the honeymoon.  How will we work together?  How will we solve problems?  What if we can’t agree?  What if we don’t at all resemble the people we professed to be, pre-honeymoon?  Having these conversations before the honeymoon will make the dialogue after the honeymoon far easier.

3.      Holding on to the aspirations that created the connection. Companies, as well as individuals, have aspirations that create connections.  The company wants to accomplish a given goal.  Individuals, whether personally or professionally, also want to accomplish goals.  Assuming these goals are communicated clearly prior to the “hook-up” should make it relatively easy to return to these aspirations when times become challenging.  All-too-often, challenges and difficulties cause individuals to toss out the aspirations rather than considering how these aspirations can be managed within the context of the new challenges.

4.      Creating moments for reassessment after the honeymoon.  Asking the question, “How’s it going?” or “Is this working out in the way that you had hoped?” are useful questions to reopen the hopes and intentions that may have suffered as a result of post-honeymoon realities.  Having these conversations regularly and openly, rather than allowing the conversations to be internal dialogue only should provide a space within which the aspirations for the connection can be reviewed, reassessed and, potentially, renewed.

No, the honeymoon doesn’t last forever.  But it can last far longer than the limited initial period allowed for it.  Like all good experiences, it has to be maintained.  Honeymoons are not magical; what is potentially magical is the way in which the goals, commitments, and energy of the honeymoon is shared, committed, and managed on an ongoing basis.

In my next blog, I’ll explore a professional “honeymoon” that lasted for a great period of time.  It has become a model for the way that I think about professional honeymoons and may hold insights for you.

Best wishes for a long and successful honeymoon.

The “Honeymoon” That Lasted

It is a widely-held belief that the “honeymoon” period-that time in the relationship when neither party can do no wrong, does not last forever.  The sage advice often proffered is that one should take advantage of it as long as one can because when it’s over-well, it’s over.

Although it is difficult, if not impossible, to argue with this widely-held belief, it is my firm contention that the honeymoon does not have to end with the “plop!” that many expect.  You heard it here first:  the honeymoon can last.  Whether in a personal relationship or in a business relationship, the honeymoon period can last.

My last blog identified some of the behaviors that help the honeymoon to last.  In this blog, I’d like to review a business “honeymoon” that lasted far longer than anyone expected-including me.  It was based on the mutual commitment of my boss, the CEO of a Fortune 250 company, and myself in ensuring that what we joined forces to do we did, indeed, accomplish.

Having been recruited by this company, I wasn’t sure I wanted to join them.  It would require me working in an industry with which I was not familiar, and it would require me to travel to small towns where many of our facilities were located.  The thought of hopping planes late at night to land in a small town where I wasn’t sure I could find my way to the hotel du jour was not at all appealing.

Yet I took the role.

Part of the reason I took the role was because of the partnership the CEO and I were able to establish during the interviewing process.  One of the reasons I believe that I was the successful candidate was because I didn’t think of myself as a candidate, I thought of myself as the incumbent.  As the incumbent, my thoughts were “How can we make this work?”  “What can we do to ensure our individual and collective success?”  Knowing what I know of typical responses to the CEO, one of the success behaviors identified (with my boss’s concurrence) was that I have the ability to speak freely and honestly with him without any concern for retribution at any level.

Shortly after joining the company, the CEO presented at a meeting organized by my staff.  He bombed.  I don’t mean a small bomb; I mean a HUGE bomb-the kind of bomb that would have made the covers of all the company newspapers had they chosen to print the story.  Those present thought that I, the new employee, should give the CEO the necessary feedback.

I wasn’t sure how to respond.  After all, this WAS the CEO of the corporation.  And, despite the fact that he said he wanted honest feedback, I didn’t know if he would be so willing when the feedback came.   Wasn’t there something in royal folklore about the person bearing bad news being beheaded?  Thoughts and images of my eminent doom flashed before my eyes.

Treading lightly, I reminded the CEO that we had I had committed to being honest with him about those behaviors that were detracting from the desired success.  I asked him if he recalled that commitment.  Secondly, I asked him if he was still open to me providing him with the feedback discussed.  He was.

I took the risk, gave the feedback, and created a colleague, friend, and client for the remainder of his tenure as CEO (he retired five years later).  Throughout the time of our working together, we were able to be honest, we both grew personally and professionally, and the company’s stock price tripled.  Not a bad outcome, huh?

I am not claiming total responsibility for the company’s stock growth.  That would neither be honest nor true.  What I am claiming, however, is the fact that a commitment to the so-called “honeymoon” behaviors created a successful, profitable business relationship for both of us.

The moral of the story:  Don’t give up on the “honeymoon” too quickly.  Staying committed to the idealism present in the honeymoon may create long-lasting results.

You CAN try this at home (and at the office).
–Dr. O

DARE to Change, Part I: Declaring

I was recently talking to a young protégé of mine-a young woman with incredible promise, but, at the age of 19 years old, not a lot of confidence to go along with the promise.  She was struggling with the fact that she had received a great summer job that, in her mind, was designed for someone much more mature (you can read that as “old”) than her 19 years.  Her insecurities were showing big time and she was questioning whether or not she should remain with the job.  Sound familiar?  Have you ever been in a similar place, where you felt that, although you may have had the needed skills, you were way over your head in terms of your readiness to take on the full task?

I have.

The longer my protégé and I spoke, the more aware I became of this young woman’s ability to declare what she was NOT, and her inability (or unwillingness) to declare what she WAS.  And so began an exercise:

Me:      “Given your many self-proclaimed deficiencies, why do you think your boss would have hired you?”
Her:     “I’m not sure-maybe he just felt sorry for me…”
Me:      “How many other charity cases has this boss hired?  Is there a sign on the front of the business declaring, ‘We hire the incapable?’”
Her:     (Laughing) “No, the people that he hires are really good.”
Me:      “Is it possible that he hired you because the thought you were really good-or had the ability to be really good-or were you an exception?”
Her:     “No he says that I’m really good-and that I’m perfect for this job.”
Me:      “So he says that you’re really good, but you’re telling me that you don’t feel really good-who’s right?”
Her:     “I’m not sure.”
Me:      “Perhaps you’re both right:  he sees you as really good, and says that to you with his own mouth, under no pressure from you.  You see yourself as not really good and torture yourself with this lack of self-confidence.  What if you started declaring yourself as really good?   What if you recognized your work as good-as your boss does-and gave yourself the appropriate feedback?”
Her:     “I’ve never tried that.”
Me:      “You can start now.”

A biblical proverb says, “As a man thinketh, so is he.”  Although many would say that we believe our way into acting, research has shown that we act (and speak) our way into believing.

When you and I make declarations (i.e., statements) about the person we are becoming, we actually set in motion thoughts and actions that enable us to achieve that declaration.  When my protégé starts to declare, “I know this job well,” “I do this job well,” “My customers and colleagues enjoy working with me,” she begins the journey to change and she discovers what others have:  the change begins in your mouth.
Today would be a good day for you to start declaring those things that you want to see well-evidenced in your life.  They may be tiny flickers of light, but a roaring flame is about to emerge.  Start declaring.

DARE to Change, Part II: Aligning

It is far easier to declare an intention (see Part I, if this is a mystery to you) than it is to live up to the declaration.  Just ask anyone who has ever attempted a diet.

In this second part of Dare to Change, I’d like to propose a set of actions that are designed to move you closer to the change you’d like to achieve.  If you are willing to undertake these actions, you will find that your ultimate goal is that much more easily achieved.  If you choose to “pass,” good luck.  You’ll need it.

The second part of making the change you desire is to align your actions with the outcome you’d like to achieve.  What this part argues is that you will not be able to achieve your ultimate goal by simply thinking lofty thoughts.  A lofty thought may be a useful thing on occasion, but there is little evidence that it has ever brought any individual to his or her outcome.

To achieve the outcome you desire, you must align your behaviors with those that are consistent with your outcome.

If, for example, you want to grow your business, an initial question you may want to consider is, “What would I be doing if I were really working to make my business successful?”  You might answer with such actions as, “Expand my network to include those who could provide me referrals,” “Identify 50 contacts who could help you expand your base of business.”

Here are some tips to help you effectively align for success:

1.      Clarify the outcomes that you want.  By “outcomes,” I mean the results you want to affect.  What will be different when you are done?  What will you be able to point to and say, “That’s what I achieved…”?
2.      Break your outcome down into manageable steps.  What must you do first, second or third in order to achieve your outcome?
3.      Tie the action steps in #2 (above) to DATES.  The date says to you (and to any other interested or relevant parties), “this is when I will do this action.”  It’s a great way to keep yourself accountable for the things you want to achieve.
4.      BEGIN YOUR DAY by reviewing the results you want to achieve and any actions that are necessary for you to achieve that day.
5.      ACT ON the things you need to accomplish that day.

When you align your day-to-day behaviors with the results you want to achieve, you’ll be far better to achieve the outcomes that are of greatest importance to you.  These five steps should help you get closer to those results.

In my next blog, we’ll examine the third action to achieve the change you want.

DARE to Change, Part III: Reinforcing

If you have been following this series since its inception, you have no doubt grown in your understanding and ability to create change in your life.  Change is never easy, but it can and has been done and, if you continue on the path that you have begun, change could be just over the horizon.

This third part of the series argues for reinforcing your commitment to change.

One of the greatest challenges to change is maintaining the commitment you have made to change.  For some, the effort required to change is great.  So great is the effort, that it is easy to become weary, lose focus, and not achieve the purposes that you set out to achieve.

If you are to achieve the goal or purposes you set out to achieve, you will need to identify ways to reinforce your commitment to change-to recharge your batteries; to refocus your efforts.  Here are several suggestions:

1.      Re-vision-It is too easy to lose sight of the goal when you are in the midst of the process of change.  Take a moment and remind yourself of the reasons you went down this path.  Re-create the image of what you wanted your life, your work, or other important parts of you to look like when this change was fully realized.

2.      Role Models-If you don’t have a role model for the change you are trying to create, find one.  There may be individuals you know, or individuals they know, who have realized the type of change you want to create.  Find these role models and learn from them-whether in direct dialogue and exchange, or as silent mentors-individuals you can learn about from afar.  Some of the most effective mentors we can identify are those with whom we do not have a direct connection, but ones we can read about, observe from a distance or see in video biographies.

3.      Reinforce-Deepen your commitment to change by developing new ideas, new skills, new approaches to change that will also serve to add new energy and enthusiasm for the outcomes you want to create.

4.      Recommit-Similar to an enlisted military person “re-upping” their commitment to military service, commit yourself to making the change.  Like the pep talk before the big game, get yourself ready to go out on the field again with a commitment to reenergize yourself for the work lies ahead.

5.      Reenter-Reconnect to the commitment that you’ve made to change and continue to advance the agenda you’ve established.

Football and basketball have half-time; tennis has change-overs; and baseball has the seventh inning stretch.  All of these sports realize what you and I must realize:  a commitment to winning requires a break to examine our approaches, and to develop new strategies for success.  Do that.  Then, get back in the game of change!

The Power of a Freed Mind

The greatest ultimate act you can do-both for the benefit of yourself and for the benefit of those around you-is to free your mind. A significant percentage of the challenges that we face come about as a result of not opening our minds to the future, but rather leaving them bound by the past.

Have you ever found yourself engaged in a conversation with someone whose focus was not on the “here-and-now” but on something that happened 5, 10, or even 25 years ago? Tough, isn’t it? And, for the record, it’s equally tough when they are trying to deal with you and you are stuck somewhere in the past. It just doesn’t work.

Here are a few actions that will help you assess whether you’re operating in the present or if you’re stuck somewhere in the past.

1. Ask yourself: What assumptions am I making? It’s possible to be operating off of a set of assumptions that are no longer valid. This is particularly true if you have unresolved issues from the past. Think about the individual who previously was not a contributing member of the team. He or she may have encountered some tough “straight talk,” which served to get them back on track. But after doing well for a while, they may appear to have lapsed back into previous behaviors. Do you assume A) That they’re still a loser? B) That they never changed? C) That they were attempting to pull the wool over your eyes regarding the change? or D) They had a momentary setback, but will be back on track soon?

2. Ask yourself: What do I need to let go of in order to move forward? This question naturally follows the one already mentioned. You and I also have work to do in a previously difficult relationship: we have to let go of previous anger, disappointment, or resentment and allow others (and ourselves) to move to what we really want out of the future.

3. What statements can I make to myself to remind me that things are different? Sometimes a verbal prompt can help us to let go of those things that have been previously difficult. Statements like: “It’s a new day,” “OK, he/she is trying to make it different and I want to as well,” or simply, “Let it go!” can challenge you to move on.

4. Note specific behaviors or actions that demonstrate the change to you. Often our minds are programmed to look for previous (negative) actions or behaviors and it becomes easy to notice them, even when the other person may be behaving differently. Instead of looking for (and seeing) what you don’t want, look for what it is that you DO want. Give that serious study-just as you may have been prone to look for the things that you didn’t want.

Ultimately, freeing your mind requires you to training your mind to notice differently, to think differently, and to act differently. When you do, you will discover endless possibilities await you. As the old song says, “free your mind, and the rest will follow.” If you start freeing your mind today, you will amaze yourself at the possibilities tomorrow affords, as you are able to embrace tomorrow with all of your psychological, emotional, and physical energies.

Another great song out of the 60s: “people got to be free.” That includes me-and that includes you.

Dr. Ollie Malone

Avoid Hiring Mistakes

In a March 2009 article in the Financial Times, Brooke Masters quotes Kevin Kelly, CEO of executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles: “We’ve found that 40% of executives hired at the senior level are pushed out, fail, or quit within 18 months. It’s expensive in terms of lost revenue. It’s expensive in terms of the individual’s hiring. It’s damaging to morale.”

Almost every business day since August 2, 1996, the day I founded Allen Austin, I study one or more failed executive placements to determine the reason for failure. At the time of this writing, I have examined 3,263 CEO and executive level placements that failed. My conclusion is that all of these failures could have been predicted and, therefore, prevented.

During the hiring process, we rely on simple job descriptions and résumés. We typically do not define all of the critical success factors and performance objectives in advance. And because we cannot fast forward the tape and look into the future, the selection process can become more like a beauty pageant. We hire a new executive because he or she looks good, attended the right schools, knows the right people, and is oh so charming. Then, in three to six months, we start to have that uneasy feeling in our gut that suggests that things are just not working out and we might have made a terrible mistake.

So, how can organizations improve their chances of hiring the right person? Here are some things to keep in mind:

Focus on values. Executive hires go awry when the values of the organization and those of the candidate are not in alignment. This is not about good and bad, right or wrong. It is about fit. Some organizations value innovation, some do not. Some companies value creativity and risk taking while others expect their leaders to be good soldiers. Be very clear about the company’s value system and about the kind of individual you seek.

Don’t ignore culture. What behaviors do you seek? Behavior that is revered in one company will get a person fired in another. Also, don’t assume that culture remains constant throughout an organization. Each level within an organization has its own subculture complete with its own set of land mines, so culture must be considered even when a candidate is promoted from within.

Most organizations have what I call an execution style, which is sometimes referred as “the speed of the company.” Some companies are very fast while others are painstakingly slow. Much of this is driven by the nature of the board of directors and the ownership structure. A new CEO can become frustrated at the speed (or lack thereof) at which the board will allow him or her to effect significant changes within the organization.

Establish specific performance expectations. Fast forward to three months, six months, one year, and two years beyond the date of hire. How will you know that the new executive has been successful? How will the numbers look different? Will the organization look different? Will the capital structure be different? Performance metrics should be specific, measurable and have a time table. They may or may not be tied directly to financial statements.

Has the person been successful in the past? Success is never a surprise or an isolated event. Regardless of the nature or scope of their position, successful people exhibit behaviors that unsuccessful people do not. Successful people are successful time and time again, over long periods of time.

Consider the environment in which the candidate will be expected to operate. Ideally, he or she should have proven ability to lead in similar situations, with similar autonomy, resources, support and competitive landscape, just to name a few. Also consider that different leaders thrive in different situations, including turn-around scenarios, rapid growth periods and maintenance mode.

High performance leaders consistently lead in a manner that inspires others to trust and follow them. They know how to connect with the workforce in such a way that everyone in the organization understands the mission at hand. They are involved in all of the critical areas of the business: strategy, people systems and operations.

Don’t overvalue first impressions. Many bad hiring decisions are made because we decide too soon. We are too emotional, we do not know what we are looking for, or we do not know what questions to ask. Traditional interviewing techniques used by many managers are so flawed that they produce results just marginally better than a flip of the coin.

Sometimes “A” players are overlooked because they do not meet some superficial standard or because they do not perform brilliantly during the interview. Most managers do not realize that some of the most stellar performers are not great interviewers. Conversely, I’ve seen many “professional interviewees,” who are substandard performers. Many of these candidates perform so remarkably in interviews because they have so much experience interviewing! Here’s the truth: a candidate’s superior interviewing skills will not add one iota of value to your company.

Hone your interview skills. Weak interviewers fall into three broad categories. The first category includes those who are too emotional. They make very quick decisions based on first impressions and personality. The second category includes those who are overly intuitive, to the extent that they short-circuit the process, superficially assessing only a narrow group of attributes. Finally, there is the technical interviewer, who is great at fact-finding, but lacks decisiveness.

Effective hiring constitutes 80% of a manager’s success. One of the best ways to get to the root of this challenge is to ask your candidate to describe his or her hiring successes and failures. Because the selection process is tedious and time-consuming, it’s all too easy to choose the energetic, attractive, affable and articulate candidate who may fall far short of expectations once on the job.

The very best interviewers and hiring managers understand that the hiring decision must be intuitive to some extent. There is never enough information to match abilities, needs, and interests completely. Yet they recognize that the hiring decision must be based on an analytical, fact-finding process and carefully crafted goals and objectives.

Every executive search starts with a comprehensive list of questions. The bottom line is, if you do not ask the right questions, the answers do not matter. Whether you use a professional search firm or not, the process is the same. Do these things right the first time, and you will reap the rewards. Take short cuts, and chances are roughly 50% your new hires will fail within eighteen months.

And no business can afford that.