Leadership – General

Published by Scott Neilson on 21 Nov 2014

“Let them eat cake!”

Story goes that in the late 1700’s in France Marie Antoinette uttered those words in response to the fact that the people of the nation had no bread and were starving.  Whether true or not, is immaterial.  The central message was that the monarchy was out of touch with the needs of the people, which was a critical element in the overthrow of the government.

 …the balance has moved far in the direction favoring business and leadership, at the expense of employees, and, at times, other stakeholders.

This week I was having dinner with some friends…in France actually…and we were remarking that despite years of evolution of human rights in the workplace, and the training, growth and change in that regard, the workplace seems to be returning to one of disconnected leadership and essentially what boils down to beating employees for higher and higher levels of performance.  By beating we meant that longer and longer hours are expected, wages are not keeping pace with cost of living, companies are cutting back on benefits in the interest of saving money, etc.  While we all acknowledged that these are necessary actions that leaders must take at times, the balance has moved far in the direction favoring the business and leadership, and at the expense of employees, and, at times, other stakeholders.

What I find absolutely inconceivable is that many leaders fail to even imagine the consequences of this type of action.

I learned a long time ago that if you mistreat employees, they will find a way to get you back.  They will steal…time, money, products, supplies, etc.; they will be careless in their work and make costly mistakes; they will blow the whistle to regulatory authorities about violations; they will do damage in the workplace to facilities; they will speak badly in public about the organization and create a bad reputation for the company.  There are numerous ways in which they will harm you back.  Other stakeholders may take even more dramatic steps…customers and suppliers may stop doing business with you, regulators may shut you down.

Why is this becoming so much the norm in leadership behavior these days?  Is it arrogance, personal agendas, pressure to meet one stakeholders’ needs, or just being out of touch?  Personally, I think it is all of the above though some leaders may excel in one particular shortcoming.

I have learned through over 30 years of experience, my own and what I have observed in others’, that if you make the effort to represent all your stakeholders, listen to them and understand their needs and interests, and balance your efforts to meet those needs even though some may be conflicting, you are able to harness the energy and support of all your stakeholders to the goals and objectives of the organization…and to you as a leader.  Of course, you have to recognize that there are times when have to make trade-offs between conflicting needs.  You have to have the clarity and strength of conviction to make those trade-offs and communicate them to all stakeholders with confidence.  Difficult?  Absolutely!  Is everyone always happy with those decisions?  Absolutely not!  But, by making the effort to meet those needs and expectations as an element of improving performance and moving your organization forward, you get greater commitment, motivation, and performance from all your stakeholders, and better and more sustainable results.

How often do you consider the needs and interests of your different stakeholders in calibrating your actions or explaining your decisions as a leader?  Do you know who your stakeholders are…internal and external?  Do you know how satisfied they are?  Think about it…

Published by Scott Neilson on 12 Mar 2014

Trust me!

Building trust among your stakeholders is essential to your success.  Earning it takes a long time.  Maintaining it requires constant attention.  Losing it happens in seconds!

How do you build and maintain trust?

Care more about the needs and interests of your stakeholders than you do about your own.

Organization development specialists have many activities to help you begin to build trust.  Teambuilding activities are often designed to help people get to know each other and understand their respective frames of reference in an effort to build trust.  Activities like leading a blindfolded person through a maze are approaches to getting people to allow someone else to be in control of their life and to trust them with that control.  Survival games take people out of their normal business environment so they can get to know each other in a different light and under different circumstances.

The point of most of these activities is to manage fear.  A lack of trust stems from fear.  That fear is based in unknowns and how those unknowns might cause harm.  Having information reduces those unknowns…reduces the fear…builds trust.  That’s the idea.  They allow people to get to know you…to get to know the different facets of you.  Simple.

Interestingly, many leaders feel that it is not in their best interest to allow people to get to know them.  They fear that if people know them they will lose power or influence over them.  While I do think that there is some degree of importance to maintaining a “distance”, there are distinct advantages to allowing people to know you.

At the end of the day, there are many things you can do to build trust.  However, none of them will be as clear or send as powerful a message as how you live your life every day.  The people you lead are watching every step you take…and judging each and every one.  Their current perception of you is based on the latest step they have observed  you taking.

For me, one fundamental premise should be your guide on how to take those steps and earn the trust of your stakeholders…


Understand that not every decision you make will benefit every group of stakeholders.  There are often conflicting interests among stakeholders such as increased pay for Employees and increased profits for Owners.  You must make those trade-offs and balance meeting those needs over the long term.  (More on that in the next post!)

Evaluate every decision you make from the perspective of how it will affect them.  If you can do that and then look them in the eye and explain your rationale, then even the toughest decisions, and those that do not necessarily work to everyone’s benefit, will earn you their trust.

One interesting side effect…the more trust you earn, the less explaining you will have to do.

Published by Scott Neilson on 04 Mar 2014

Just what I need…Another meeting!

This is a good article to read on the over proliferation of meetings…and how to handle it…with a little bit of good humor thrown in!

It is about defining your organizations rhythm. Don’t observe what exists and add more.  Let your goals and objectives define your key progress measures, and build your operating rhythms around monitoring, measuring and managing those.


It is worth a read.


Published by Scott Neilson on 25 Feb 2014

Skill Development – Decision-making

A key to making good decisions is having options.  Simple!  As I am fond of saying, leadership is not rocket science.

Unfortunately, the world moves so fast that we often feel the need to decide and act quickly, and we do so to our own detriment.

I encourage you to slow the decision-making process… take the time to vet your own decisions more carefully…cultivate multiple options.


Take the time to sleep on your decisions…literally, sleep on it…especially the big ones.  Fight the need (internal or external) to come to closure immediately.  When making a decision, get in the habit of saying to your team that you will get back to them and confirm the decision.  Do not feel compelled to tell them why…just that you will get back to them with confirmation.

Learn to think through the steps necessary to implement your decision.  Envision that process (of implementation) and what results each step might have.  How will those results impact successive steps?  Is it getting you to the endpoint you desire?

Cultivate multiple options.  I have found that the best way to make a decision is to have options.  As soon as you find one suitable solution, go out and find another.  By doing so, you will become less emotionally wed to your first solution.  This enables you to be more objective in negotiations.

One is NOT enough…

Published by Scott Neilson on 20 Feb 2014


Here is a recording of the webinar I gave for the Lehigh University Alumni Association. Watch below or follow the link to view it full screen.

Continue Reading »

Published by Scott Neilson on 05 Feb 2014

Stand your ground!

You may be surprised to hear that many leaders wrestle with how much pressure they should put on their employees to achieve…to push harder…to strive for more.  They do not know how to determine when enough is enough.  It is not an easy concept to sort out.  Here are some good starting points.

As a leader you MUST require your employees to live up to your standards.  Erring on the side of softness earns you neither success nor respect.

You absolutely should expect your team to perform at the same level as yourself?  As a leader you MUST require your employees to live up to your standards.  Otherwise:

    • – they will not achieve the results you want;
    • – you will be frustrated with the results you achieve; and,
    • – your leadership will be seen as weak.


How hard is hard enough?  That is a more difficult question to answer, and a difficult balance to maintain.  Here are some tips for sorting through that question.

  • Ask yourself the reasonableness question…Is what I am asking reasonable?  Am I asking my team to work harder than I do?  If you have any doubt, ask a few trusted colleagues the same question…people you can trust to give you the straight story.  I generally find that my EA is one of my best sources for this type of information.
  • Keep your eyes open for signs of stress in the organization…increased rates of sickness and high turnover are good indicators that something is wrong.  Establish a few key metrics you can follow as an indicator of these issues.
  • Similarly, deteriorating interpersonal dynamics amongst your employees, such as rudeness and arguments, are signs of stress and overload.
  • Conduct regular focus group discussions to get a sense of how your team feels.  Have lower level supervisors conduct some of these.  People tend to speak more freely to lower level supervisors than to senior ones, and it is a good developmental experience for those supervisors.

There will certainly be individuals that are not willing to work as hard as you.  In that case, it is better that you both know and they find something more suited to their style.

However, my experience has been that most leaders do not push their people enough.  They err on the side of softness.  They feel that employee’s complaining is a bad thing and reflects poorly on their leadership and leads to bad results. Not so!  That approach earns you neither success nor respect.  Some degree of stress, pressure and urgency is a good thing.

The reality is that some people will complain about everything…to see what they can get from you.  It is like a negotiation.  They will complain as long as they see they are getting something out of it.

Stand your ground…expect performance…require it!

Published by Scott Neilson on 29 Jan 2014

See past the glare!

In an earlier article I discussed the subject of “Getting the Information You Need” to lead your business…or your department.  Link www.scottneilson.com/?1249

In that post I pointed out that sometimes people inside your organization actually don’t want you to have that information.  They feel that it might expose some weakness or shortfall of theirs.  They feel that your visibility to that information might lead you to want to change something.  They fear a loss of control.  All this may sound a bit cynical, but it has been my experience and observation.

It is not at all unusual to be deceived by your direct reports.  People are often quite good at MANAGING UP…meaning managing YOU differently than they manage everyone else.  How do you get around that?

People at lower levels often have a much clearer view of what is really going on in the organization than the people up the ladder.  It is like looking at a pool of water from above and not being able to see the bottom because of light reflecting off the surface.  Stick your head under the water and you will see a whole world of activity you didn’t know existed.

I guarantee you will hear information that you have NOT heard before.

How do you do that?  Develop relationships with people at all levels…diversify your contacts and information sources.  I have found that people down the ladder a few rungs are likely to tell you the straight story…right between the eyes…and that is what you need.


Make it a habit of walking around and talking to everyone…

  • be approachable…
    • ask questions…
      • LISTEN!

Ask them what is working well…what isn’t working well…what could we be doing better?  Have focus groups in which YOU attend.  Have people submit their thoughts and questions anonymously beforehand so it is safe for them to say what is really on their mind.

I guarantee you will hear information that you have NOT heard before.  It will give you a new perspective on your operation and what you need to do to improve it.



Published by Scott Neilson on 07 Jan 2014

Delegate this! :-)

Following on my last post, I have received numerous requests for ideas in building leadership skills.  In response, I have decided to dedicate one post per month to development ideas.  Stay tuned for more to come.


There are a couple of important things to keep in mind about skill development in the workplace.  First, and most important, is that you should never expect any help from anyone else in developing your skills, not even your employer.  I have seen very few organizations that are good at this.  I have seen HR organizations come up with great ideas, designs and materials for developing employees, but it is rare when they are well executed.  Line managers simply are not motivated to make it happen.  If you want to develop your skills, you better make it happen yourself!

Secondly, the best skill development comes from in-job opportunities…such as job swaps, special projects, etc.  There does not have to be any company or personal expense involved.  This is an important consideration to keep in mind when trying to make your own development happen.


So, to start, let’s talk about Delegation…since that was the subject of the last post.

I know that a lot of HRD organizations will tell you that to be better at delegation you must first understand your reluctance to delegate, and then address that in your own personal make-up.  While intellectually I agree with that notion, I kind of feel as if it is the long way around.  It reminds me of the Woody Allen movie Sleeper, when he awakens after being asleep for 200 years and remarks that he has missed 200 years worth of therapy, and that if he had gone to all those sessions he might ALMOST be cured by now.

Anyway, here is a more direct approach that I have suggested to several people and heard of good results.

  • For a couple of weeks keep a list of every activity in which you find yourself involved at the office…such as reading and replying to emails, attending meetings, sending out follow-up action lists from your weekly staff meeting, etc.
  • Rank the list of activities from highest to lowest in-terms of what requires your knowledge, experience, and/or professional qualifications to perform the tasks.
  • Take the one task at the very bottom of your list and assign it to someone else.
    • Meet with the person or people to whom you plan to assign this new responsibility and discuss it.
    • Be clear about what exactly needs to be done, what your expectations are, and what good results look like.
    • Encourage them to ask any question they have.
    • Work with them through a cycle or two of completing the task and clarify any aspect of it.
  • Once you have worked through this process and have gotten comfortable with it, try it again with another task.  Work through the same process as described above to be clear on what needs to be done.
  • Continue until you have handed off all the tasks that should be handled by others, and can be handled correctly.  Take it a little at a time and be careful not to over-delegate.

The benefits go far beyond those which you personally will realize.  You will get the most productivity out of your team, you will improve efficiency/profitability, and, finally, and perhaps most important, it will energize and motivate your team because they will see that they are growing and developing themselves.

Published by Scott Neilson on 19 Dec 2013

You talkin’ to me?

My observation is that we are getting worse and worse in communications in the business world.  We do not talk WITH each other…we seem to talk ALONGSIDE each other.

Here is what I mean.  Try this the next time you are in a group of people talking.  Observe the conversation rather than participate in it.  Count how often people actually follow a discussion as opposed to start new ones…generally about themselves.  For example, one person will say something like “I have decided that I am going to move to France for a year.”  Following the conversation would mean responding with something like “Really, where are you thinking of living?”  Or, “That’s such a great idea, France is a beautiful country.  Why are you going to do that?”  In other words, building on what the other person has said and developing the subject…striving for greater content and understanding.

My observation has been that there is an increasing tendency for people to talk alongside each other…to reply with a statement about themselves rather than follow the conversation.  In this example, talking alongside would mean responding with a statement like, “I have travelled to France a thousand times” or, “I lived in Italy for six months”…statements that do not build on the subject that the individual has raised, but rather turn the conversation toward themselves.

The problem is that this is not communicating.  Responses like that do not help to progress the discussion.  People are not listening and trying to truly understand what the other person is saying.  It reflects a craving for attention.  It reflects a focus on oneself.  Most importantly, it results in a low level of understanding about what is being said and what the implications might be.

In a business setting  it can also be a means for people to push their own agenda, or direct the flow of the conversation in that direction.  Be aware of this.  It can be a very specific and conscious tactic to control the discussion and the progress of the team.

As a leader you need to be aware of your group dynamics…who is dominating the conversation…who is pushing the conversation in their desired direction…who is being left out or overpowered.  Your facilitation skills need to be very sharp.  Picking up on issues like these and bringing people back to the subject under discussion will not only keep the team focused on the issue at hand and making progress toward it, but it will help ensure that personal agendas are kept under control.


Published by Scott Neilson on 10 Dec 2013

Change Back!!! Another take on leadership adaptability.

This article looks at leadership adaptability from a systems perspective…How do organizational systems adapt, and how can we as leaders enable our organizational systems to adapt and grow?  It is submitted by Christy Holland, Business leader in Strategy Development, Execution and Transformation.

In the 1960’s Family System’s therapists promoted a theory which stated that each family member was part of an inter-connected system. Any change in one member of the system, would cause a ripple effect throughout the entire system. As the ripple made its way through the system, members within the system became uncomfortable and would direct their persuasive power get the person to “Change Back.” These theorists discovered that families rejected both “positive” and “negative” changes with the same fervor because what they wanted was homeostasis. Members interpreted the therapeutic advancements of one family member as a threat to the family’s survival. Consequently, though perhaps unknowingly, the system would reject the potential to thrive.

Systems theorists saw the similarities between the work organization and family systems.  People in the workplace also desire to predict behavior and feel stress when people do not behave in accordance with their role. When someone behaves in a way we do not expect, we frequently say that are “acting out of character” or “throwing us a curve ball” or coming at us “from out of nowhere.” When we make these statements, they are not meant as a compliment. We are telling the person to “Change Back” and follow the rules of engagement.

So how do we, in our organizational systems, allow the turbulence of a new idea among our teams and look for ways to adapt and grow?

We know that “Change Back” mentalities will ensure extinction rather than growth, and we encourage innovation as a strategy for success. Those who thrive are collaborating across the company, utilizing technology to improve processes, and looking for new ideas in the customer experience. Our organizational systems can withstand change and the ripple can be positive. Innovation depends on sustaining the turbulence of change.  It demands we let go of the fear of uncertainty and when we hear a new idea, say “Yes and…” to build on that idea instead of persuading someone to “Change Back.”


Next »