Developing a Positive Response to Negative Events

Recently I was working with a company that had a lot going wrong. They had lost customers, key employees and money. I was asked to help restore what was lost. Before I could do that I had to address their greatest loss, that being hope. The negative events had sapped their vision of a brighter future again. What was worse, the organization was in an all-out panic which was producing fatalistic attitudes, worse than the truth itself. I knew that if they stayed focused on the negative they’d only get more of the same which eventually wouldn’t end well. They would fulfill their prophetic thoughts.

Panic stems from a feeling of no control. When we lose control we feel a strong need to regain it. Unfortunately, much of what affects us is out of our control. Our response then should not be to control what we can’t, but to respond to the situation with what we can control, that being us.

The first step in that process is to control our thoughts and words. There are doom-and-gloom people, sometimes even leaders, who for their own reasons sap others of hope. The issue is more complex though than just “looking on the bright side of things.” There are specific approaches to changing how we think and also wrong ways to do it.

The first step is to be careful who you listen to starting with yourself. This is important because it’s very easy to let others determine what we believe. A negative narrative we run ourselves can spoil a recovery. When we think the worst case long enough we lose the spirit to fight on. We also give up on engaging the creativity and problem-solving abilities that are inherently human and present in every organization. As a leader, you can poison an entire organization with the wrong words. A hopeless attitude is a dangerous attitude, no matter how “real” the facts might seem.

When we frame our thoughts properly we create an attitude of resilience. The ability to bounce back from life’s downturns is a powerful tool for success. The ability to respond effectively in times of upheaval requires honesty and courage. Leaders are not successful in spite of their setbacks, they are successful because of them. Real leaders embrace their setbacks and learn from them. They grow smarter, tougher and more resilient. While others linger in defeat and negative thought, the resilient leader sees beyond the current reality to a better and brighter future.

Being resilient requires courage, courage to face the brutal facts of the situation and to push ahead when you may be disappointed or embarrassed. Resilient leaders have to build an attitude of optimism even when it doesn’t feel natural. It’s the organizational fuel for a recovery. Leaders must operate efficaciously with a positive expectancy knowing that, despite their circumstances, they can figure out and overcome the obstacles. Their goal is not just to bounce back, but to bounce forward to a better position.

The most successful companies and leaders all experience setbacks or problems, but they see them as temporary. Sometimes the best ideas emerge from our toughest situations. As a resilient leader, you must also inspire others to participate. It’s an attitude that draws people together. The sense of a community working together to solve a problem is a powerful thing. There are few problems an inspired team cannot accomplish when working together, no matter what the obstacle.

A lot of what looks like luck isn’t luck at all. It’s the result of the right attitude. Good business practice tells us that we can only change what’s within our control. But often we fail to change the most important aspect of business, one we have 100% control over, that being our attitude. For my client, it would be wrong to not take very seriously their circumstances. But despite those conditions and how they felt, an attitude of hope in the face of their despair would not have been foolish either. If you look for reasons to be negative, you will find them. However, if you choose to look for reasons for hope, you’ll easily find them as well.

If you’re feeling burnt out and beat down from business conditions and would like to discuss how to create a brighter, more optimistic outlook, call or reach me through the “contact us” tab on this page. Better days are ahead.


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Culture as a Strategy

In my line of work I have the opportunity to see a lot of different companies and situations. What strikes me is how some succeed despite the odds against them while others struggle even in the best of times.  What differentiates the extraordinarily successful companies from the others?  How have they been able to succeed when others failed?  Make no mistake, business fundamentals and a plan for profitable growth are always at the core of successful strategy. But it’s more than that. I’ve seen companies with good systems and strong financials struggle too. There’s more to the formula than just the tools.

The key ingredient is less tangible, but more powerful than market factors.  The major distinguishing feature in these companies, arguably, their most important competitive advantage, the factor that they all highlight as a key ingredient in their success, is their organizational culture.  Sustained success has had less to do with market forces, financial resources and strategy and more to do with company values, personal beliefs and vision.  In fact, not every successful company has a great culture, but almost every company with a great and identifiable organizational culture succeeds.

In small companies, culture is often created by the founder, most often accidentally. Success comes when management takes an intentional approach to strategically evolving the culture in a systematic way to fit the company’s market and competitive strategy.  Culture is the set of beliefs that drive employee behaviors. These are things everybody in the company knows and shares as truth. An organization rarely has only one culture type but most organizations have developed a leading culture style. Companies struggle when dominant style is not in alignment with its business strategy. As part of a strategic planning process companies should intentionally consider the beliefs and behavioral characteristics necessary to implement the business strategy.

Certain business strategies work best when supported by a matching dominant culture. Some will thrive in a family oriented, collaborative style. Others require an entrepreneurial innovative culture. Still others need a competitive market driven or structured and efficient model. Knowing which one best suits the business strategy and then shaping the culture to fit that is the essence of a strategic culture.

Planning for a strategic culture has also come a long way in the last few years. Historically, culture transformation has been seen as an art rather than a science. That’s still the case, but with the advent of effective cultural assessment tools, there’s now more science to it than there’s ever been. Today’s assessment tools enable a company to quantify and measure a cultural style and the strength of that style. The outcomes of assessment tools help leaders identify gaps and areas of misalignment. With a descriptive picture of the current and preferred culture, companies can approach a culture transformation by developing plans to eliminate specific behaviors and adding others designed to operationalize the business strategy.

The process of transforming a culture takes time and effort. Behaviors that have been taught and assimilated over years can be difficult to change. Employees need to change what they’ve come to accept as normal. That’s never easy, but as the grease that lubricates the engine of the business strategy, it may be the most important component of a business strategy.  The company must analyze the people they recruit, employee goals, and how they manage and reward them. They must also assess succession planning to help ensure that future leaders will model behaviors that support the business strategy. The payoff is worth the effort.

The rapid rate of change in the marketplace continues to challenge businesses of every size, requiring ongoing assessment of the business strategy. Research shows that organizational culture is the reason why most mergers and reorganizations fail. A strategy that is at odds with a company’s culture is doomed to fail. Put another way, when culture and strategy are in conflict, culture wins. Before a company embarks on a new strategic direction or if the current strategy is struggling to get traction, the company should look closely at its dominant culture as the barrier or accelerant to business success.

If you’d like to discuss how culture can play a more strategic role in your organization, call or reach me through the “contact us” tab on this page.

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Harnessing Your Horsepower

Horses are interesting creatures. They’re actually very smart animals, much smarter than cattle or sheep. Horses enjoy learning and can be taught complex routines. Teaching takes great patience. Push a horse too hard to do something they’re not ready for and you’ll turn them off, maybe for good. There are also many different breeds of horses, each with its own unique capability. There are speed horses, agile cutting horses, and strong work horses to mention a few.

You too have horses, maybe a lot of them in your barn. They each want to learn and work using their own unique skills. If you see your business culture as a Kentucky Derby, the sprinters may perform well but others won’t. Likewise the sprinters may tire quickly pulling the heavy load you have from time-to-time. Speed horses love racing and work horses love plowing. It’s not about passion or training, it’s about breeding. Like a balanced investment portfolio, long-term success begins with knowing the horses in your barn and having the right mix for the culture and strategy you’re pursuing.

Coaching for peak performance involves getting the right horse assigned to the right role. You don’t create their talent, you develop and nurture it. You don’t create their passion, you ignite and release it. The challenge then is figuring out what type of horse you’re working with. There are a number of ways to know your breeds. Some are obvious from having had them in the barn for years. Others that are showing up at the gate can be identified through assessments and other objective means. Unlike real horses that we can size up by appearance, human horsepower is not as obvious. Knowing their wiring and preferences is important. Otherwise, if you need a race horse, you’ll be frustrated and disappointed if you get a workhorse. Also, unlike a single purpose event like the Kentucky Derby where only one breed matters, your best chance for success comes from mixing your breeds to fit the horse to the job. It can be a mistake to look at business as either a sprint or a pulling contest that requires only one breed.

Once you’ve inventoried the different horses in the stalls, you can begin to assign them to the right tasks. Here’s a few tips from a guy who’s stepped in enough horse apples in his career to know what works and what doesn’t.

  1. Find out what they love to do and exploit it. Tap their intrinsic motivation. When you see someone light up, figure out what happened. When you understand it, you’ll know how to ignite their joy and interest in work. Don’t dump your work and walk away. Include those who are both passionate about the issue and capably talented. But expect them to work.
  2. Pay attention to what goes on in the corral. Who needs to run and who needs to pull? Who’s chomping at the bit for opportunity? Who has succeeded in the past at the task? Who’s best at breaking and training the young colts?
  3. Conserve your precious feed. Just because you have horses in the barn doesn’t mean you need them. There just aren’t enough stalls in the barn for horses unwilling or unable to work. They may have outlived their usefulness. The wrong horses can drain precious resources away from the others. They’re a burden not an asset. When a horse doesn’t fit the work to be done, don’t send him to the glue factory, trade him for a breed that better fits the task.
  4. Don’t beat your horses. Spurs and whips are tools that combined with the right training and coaching can contribute to peak performance. Ask any professional jockey. But misused, they are tools of motivational destruction. Your tone of voice and the way you ask questions can have a lot to do with the cooperation you get.
  5. Take the reins and be the leader. Without direction horses will either go nowhere or run everywhere. They know if you’re leading and if you’re not they’ll do what they want which may be nothing. You can’t fake it, you have to step up into a leadership role and take charge. Nothing else will work.

Horses take us on many journeys. They can take us at great speed or bearing heavy loads that we could never handle on our own. To be at their best they need our individual attention and nurturing. Whether you’re racing in the Kentucky Derby or implementing your next business strategy, the culture you create for the herd will be critical to your success.

If you’d like to have more horsepower in your organization, call or reach me through the “contact us” tab on this page.

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Drama as a Strategy

Human beings are interesting creatures. It seems that when we have all or most of our needs met we’re the least productive. We become complacent with low energy levels, producing just enough to maintain the status quo. We’re capable of staying in that state for long periods as long as nothing challenges our stable course. When it does, we kick into gear with the energy to get back on course like a satellite in an unending orbit. Our best work, energy and innovation come not during the best of times but during the most difficult. Naturally, what applies to individuals applies to companies.

This concept is well understood by behavioral scientists. Our systems are wired to keep us just like we know ourselves to be. If we fall below our expectations we’ll find the energy and creativity to get back to normal, but not beyond. To move beyond what we’ve come to expect, we have to create a goal that has a level of passion and desire worthy of putting in the energy to achieve. In companies, without a compelling challenge, employees will start putting personal desires ahead of the group’s goals. This toxic combination of complacency and selfishness can only be overcome when a greater need overwhelms their personal agenda.

When group performance is the issue, leaders often respond with training, but seldom is capability the issue. No matter how good the training is, it’s useless until attitudes and behaviors change. Most of the problems you’re experiencing are behavioral and not skill based.

Crisis creates drama and drama drives action. I don’t mean the drama that exists around the water cooler but rather the drama we experience when our world is rocked and in some cases turned upside down. All too often this happens on its own but when it doesn’t and performance is lagging, leaders may need to create it to snap the group out of its lethargy. In many situations it’s beneficial to have an external problem to move forward and there’s seldom a shortage of real threats that can and should be responded to before they come ashore.

Great leaders constantly drive passion through stories. Stories are filled with drama and create an opportunity to align everyone around a common cause. They have the ability to weave together a vision, mission, values and strategy. Done right they’ll create the emotional grease to focus everyone on a unified cause that subordinates personal agendas. With the right story and passion, people will put themselves at risk, if necessary, to secure the group goal.

Managers often fail to sufficiently inspire people in the face of a challenge. Motivational speeches that don’t address the gravity of the situation leave employees complacent about the real threat. They respond like individuals who think they can ride out a hurricane only to become causalities of the storm because they underestimated the risk. People generally want more. They want the truth no matter how harsh it might be. A frank discussion of the potential risks engenders trust.

The problem is that many people confuse busyness and activity with a real sense of urgency. We can be engaged in a flurry of activities, few of which though are central to the organization’s success. Anxiety and fear will also produce action, but not necessarily productivity and sometimes can even create harmful activity. All this action can be exhausting for employees with little real change being accomplished in the business. Behind every attitude driving us forward is a rational business case aimed at the heart. Good initiatives fail when it’s all head and no heart.

Harvard professor and author, John Kotter in his book “A Sense of Urgency”, offers five key characteristics for business strategy aimed at the heart.

  1. Communicating the goal or need should create a human experience. Consider the when, where, how and why of the communication for impact.
  2. People should not only hear but see it in their mind’s eye. Visualization is important. They’re not only told, but should also experience and feel it.
  3. The delivery should be designed to create specific emotional reactions. Told the wrong way creates anxiety and fear. Told the right way creates inspiration, passion and efficacy.
  4. The detail is rarely needed to create movement. A call to arms is built around an emotion of patriotism, not the cold specifics of the situation and strategy.
  5. Lastly, the experience inevitably leads people to raise their expectations, to emotionally embrace goals beyond coping and maintaining.

Ultimately, it’s the drama, the difference between a meaningful aspiration our emotions long for and what we have that creates the need to move toward it. So, the next time you feel your organization is stuck in a dangerous malaise of complacency, thoughtfully consider how the right drama can unite and energize the group for action.

If you think your company’s performance might benefit from a little shot of drama, call or reach me through the “contact us” tab on this page.

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Inspiring the Vision

There’s a story I like to tell to communicate the value of having a clear and articulated vision in a company. I ask my audience to imagine they’re in a contest to complete a jigsaw puzzle. There are two teams, A and B, and three rounds to the contest.

In the first round, Team A is given the puzzle pieces and the correct cover. Team B is given the same puzzle pieces but the cover to another puzzle. The audience is asked to guess which team will complete the puzzle first. Team A is the chosen winner. In the second round, Team A is given the correct cover and Team B is given no cover at all. Again the audience identifies Team A as the fastest to complete the puzzle. Finally, in the third round, Team A again gets the correct cover and each member of Team B receives a different cover. Again, Team A is predicted to be the fastest. Then I ask the audience, which version of the puzzle game most closely resembles their company. Invariably, the common response is the third; everyone has a different cover to the puzzle.

Unfortunately, this is an all too common situation. Strategies fail or struggle because companies either don’t develop a compelling vision of what they aim to accomplish, or they fail to properly communicate the vision in a clear and consistent manner insuring that everyone is pulling together for the same outcome.

Employees by nature want to engage to make a difference. But it’s hard to experience intrinsic motivation when they don’t know where they’re going and how their effort contributes to a bigger purpose, the completion of the correct puzzle. Not only is the energy and motivation reduced, energy is being dissipated in different directions much like puzzle players arguing over the pieces they believe are part of their cover.

There are three important steps to having an organization embrace and pursue the leader’s vision.

  1. Clarify the vision – some leaders don’t know themselves what their picture actually looks like. Nothing extraordinary ever happened without a leader articulating a simple and clear vision. Neil Armstrong would never have made space history in 1969 had John F. Kennedy not planted into the mind of every American the vision of a man on the moon by the end of the decade.  The vision was so memorable that those of us who grew up at that time still recall it today. What vision of your organization will your employees remember long after they’re gone?
  1. Make it compelling – No one has ever thrown themselves into a vision of growing sales by 10 percent or cutting expenses. That’s not a vision; it’s a goal or outcome. It’s also not inspiring unless there’s a personal connection for the individual. For someone to get behind your vision it has to become their vision. Employees will pour themselves into a compelling opportunity not because they have to, but because they want to. When they do they are following the leader for their own desire to participate in the vision. Rationing in the US during World War II was a major inconvenience for our country but companies and individuals alike willingly sacrificed in ways almost unimaginable today in their contribution to the war effort. What about your vision would move your employees to sacrifice for your cause as Americans did during the war?
  1. Repeat the story often – Once, or even a few times, is never enough. Repetition matters in a big way. Hearing something occasionally reinforces with the follower that they’re hearing the leader’s vision. But hearing it often will eventually make it their vision. When it becomes their vision everything they do will be aimed at achieving it. To do that, employees need to hear it often, in different situations and from different individuals. When they start telling your story as if it were their story, you’re on your way to achieving your vision.

Make the story big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.” These are the words of Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf (205). While his purpose was nefarious and destructive, the basic principle applies equally well to organizations seeking to fulfill their vision. A vision that benefits everyone is one most people can aspire to and support.  The process is simple but success rests in the execution.

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