Leadership – General

Published by Scott Neilson on 03 Dec 2013

The China Sin-drome?

It is inconceivable to me that some leaders feel that the best way to maintain order is with force, and when resistance appears, increase the force.  Here are some accounts of a recent incident in China!


Tiananmen Square

Photo from Reuters and theguardian.com,

“On October 28, an SUV driven by a Uyghur man and containing two members of his family rammed into a crowd at Tiananmen Square, killing two tourists. The vehicle’s occupants then lit themselves on fire.

This is a serious problem because it may portend a cycle whereby violence triggers repression and tighter repression begets additional violence.

Violence in Xinjiang appears to be worsening significantly, despite Beijing’s large commitment of money and manpower to… preempt social disorder.

A gaping socioeconomic divide helps fuel violence in Xinjiang and such gaps exist elsewhere in China as well, raising the specter of additional attacks throughout the country as unhappy groups without a real political voice turn to violence as an outlet for their grievances.

The recent attacks point to a future in which repression alone will no longer be enough to guarantee stability.

The current problems emanating from Xinjiang increasingly point to a future in which repression alone will not be enough.”


There is a great lesson in this for societies of all kinds…including businesses.  It speaks to inclusion, involvement, and participation.  Failure to include all people/groups in the goals, actions and opportunities/rewards of an organization, leads to a state of repression or oppression that tears at the basic fabric of that organization, and lead to its ultimate failure.

Dickens quote from “A Christmas Carol”…

“This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both…but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom”.


Click the link below to read the full article…very interesting!


Published by Scott Neilson on 20 Nov 2013

Afraid of failure?

I am going to bombard you with quotes on this subject…

People marvel at how great leaders have overcome huge obstacles and personal failures to achieve greatness…and yet they allow their own fear of failure to render them powerless…to freeze them into inaction.

My Father once said to me, “The question is not whether or not you will ever make a mistake, but when you do, how will you respond?”

One thing in common with many great leaders is that they are not afraid of failure.  They recognize that there will be obstacles and setbacks, but have confidence that they will find a way to overcome them.  They even look at their failures, and how they responded to those failures, as the key to their ultimate success.

MJ Picture 2

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career.  I’ve lost almost 300 games.  24 times I’ve been

trusted to take the game winning shot and missed.  I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life.

  And, that is why I succeed.”  Michael Jordan



“The only way to avoid failure is to do nothing…but, that is not leading.”  Scott Neilson

On many occasions I have observed that people are afraid of making decisions or taking action for fear of getting a “blemish” on their record if things do not go perfectly.  They believe that it will tarnish their records and damage their careers.  Failure must be avoided at all costs…everything must be safe.  So, they do nothing.

Leadership coaches and gurus regard resilience as an essential leadership skill.  Resilience means encountering obstacles and experiencing setbacks, and overcoming them.  Well, you do not develop resilience if you do not have setbacks, and the only way to avoid setbacks is to do nothing…but that is not leading.


“Do not fear mistakes. You will know failure. Continue to reach out.”  Benjamin Franklin

How many times have you undertaken a task and had it go perfectly?  Aren’t the situations in which you have had to overcome unforeseen circumstances and obstacles the best examples of your strengths and abilities?  So, what is there to fear?

At the end of the day, fear of failure is as much about worrying about what other people will think of you as it is about the actual consequences of being wrong.  If you worry about what people will think, you will not try.  If you do not try, you will not succeed.

Now think about this.  If you were to interview a dozen people about their opinions of an event or an accomplishment, you would get a dozen different opinions…and some of those will be good!  So, which one are you worrying about?


“Ultimately we know deeply that the other side of every fear is a freedom.”  Marilyn Ferguson

Great leaders are said to have great confidence.  They are confident in the clarity of the direction they have chosen and what it takes to get there.  They are confident that there will be setbacks, but that they will find a way to achieve those goals.  They are not afraid of failure.  They are free to make it happen.

“Where there is no fear there is no danger.”  Grasshopper (Kung Fu Television Series)



Published by Scott Neilson on 18 Nov 2013


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.

Published by Scott Neilson on 05 Nov 2013

On timeliness…

A little more on “tough decisions”…but, this time something on the timeliness of them.

I had an interesting contrasting set of experiences in one organization…two reorganizations within a 5 year span.  For an industry leader, these were both major undertakings…surprising that it had to be repeated.  I was not responsible for either, but was fortunate to have a front row seat for both.  I learned a lot.

In the first, a giant consulting firm was brought in.  They had hundreds of analysts running around collecting data, having people fill out forms on how they spent their time, sitting in big meetings and reviewing the data.  They didn’t talk to anyone except to collect the data.  They involved a very small group of employees in the data collection and analysis.  They said nothing to anyone outside of their little group for 6 months.

During that time the organization was paralyzed…nobody did anything.  Literally all employees were consumed with fear and anticipation of getting laid off.  They were updating resumes, starting to network, having back office discussions, forming alliances they felt might afford some degree of protection, or figure out who was “going to get it”.  When the ultimate decisions were handed down, people moved on and the organization continued to fumble along but with a lighter load.

In the second reorganization, a small consulting organization led the activity and worked almost entirely with people from within our company…they involved us.  Data was collected through group meetings and discussion…not by filling out forms.  Most importantly, instead of waiting 6 months to communicate anything with the employees, this team communicated the plan about when each part of the company would be reviewed, and announced each decision as it was made.

By virtue of handling decisions in this manner, each department was “frozen” for only a matter of days, or perhaps weeks.  As each decision was made, the results were communicated, new roles were defined, exited employees left, and the departments were able to resume operating immediately.

The communications were extraordinary…complete, timely, and addressing the exact questions the employees had.  We moved through the reorganization phase in about the same amount of time as the first reorganization, but the acceptance of the changes was much higher, and while we were certainly operating at a lower level than normal during the planning and analysis activities, we were not “frozen” as an organization.

The key was communications…timely and frequent.


Published by Scott Neilson on 29 Oct 2013

Making the tough decisions…

A big part of leadership is making the tough decisions.  No secret there.  They pay you for it.  Everyone expects it of you.  You bear the responsibility for it.

However, there are a couple of interesting issues about making the tough decisions.  The decision you make, right or wrong, is often not what you will be judged on most harshly.  What people are often most critical of is (1) how timely was the decision, and (2) how, what and when you communicated about it.

For this post I want to focus on what you communicate.

If you fail to adequately communicate the reasons for decisions, employees will draw their own conclusions, and probably not favorable ones, and justify being resistant to your leadership.

A lot of leaders do not feel comfortable talking about the tough decisions they have had to make, such as laying off people.  They feel that employees will not understand, will draw the wrong conclusions, will be demotivated, and will leave the organization if you tell them the “why’s” behind a particular decision.

Instead, those leaders make the tough decisions and then “bury” them hoping people will just forget.  Over time, they do…forget the details.  What they do not forget, though, is the feeling of unfinished business.  It leaves behind questions, uncertainty, and doubt…and those feelings become the seeds of distrust and waning confidence.

While there are certainly times when leaders cannot discuss the details of decisions that have been made, there is a lot of room for improvement in this area, and a lot to be gained.

I think that leaders do not give employees enough credit for being able to process and handle difficult information.  They can handle more than you think…and you should explain more than you do.  It builds trust and confidence.  That trust and confidence will buy you the benefit of the doubt in those inevitable situations in which you cannot discuss details.  It also helps them understand more of the important issues at stake in your business and the complexities of managing them.

Try being a bit more open about difficult decisions you have had to make.  I think you will be surprised at how well they will understand it and handle it.  They may not agree, but they will be able to handle it.  Most important, they will respect you for having the confidence to explain difficult actions, and for respecting them enough to share that kind of information.

Published by Scott Neilson on 17 Sep 2013

What’s in it for me?

I think that a fundamental element of leadership failure is forgetting that the major role of a leader is to represent the stakeholders in whatever enterprise you are leading.

Any one of your stakeholders can put you out of business if you fail them or upset them.

It seems that in recent years the focus has become more and more about “What’s in it for me?  What do I get out of this?  What is my payoff?”  Well remember, every organization has numerous stakeholders who also want to know the same thing…”What is in it for them?”  You are there to represent the interests of ALL of your stakeholders.  Focusing on your own interests is unlikely to serve the interests of all your other stakeholders.

We seem to have lost sight of one very simple notion of what leadership is.  Leadership means going first and getting other people to follow…setting a direction, determining the strategies and objectives to move the organization in that direction, and then developing the support from the people around you to accomplish the tasks necessary achieve those objectives.

That direction must represent the interests of your stakeholders.  There must be something in it for them?  You cannot get there without their support.  You must understand what is in it for them and make it attainable within the context of the business goals and objectives.

Finally, here is a sobering thought.  While having the support of your stakeholders will significantly increase your likelihood of success, the opposite is also true.  Any one of your stakeholders can put you out of business if you fail them or upset them.  Think about that!

Leadership is NOT about you…it is about your stakeholders and what you must do to earn their support!

Published by Scott Neilson on 16 Jul 2013

Gender diversity…

I just saw an interesting article on gender diversity…posing the question about whether or not gender diversity drives performance.

Gender diversity, or diversity of any kind, in and of itself does not drive performance.  You must also demonstrate that people from all groups have an equal opportunity to contribute, be recognized for their contributions, and advance in order to get their best performance.

  • If you have a diverse team but are not including all members of the team in the business of your business, you will not benefit from their varying perspectives and strengths.
  • If you are not engaging and fully utilizing all members of your team, then, by definition, you are carrying those that are being excluded and not getting the best productivity you could.
  • If you are not providing equal opportunity for career advancement to all members of your team, you are de-motivating the ones who are being excluded and, therefore, putting the entire burden of performance on the shoulders of those few whom you are favoring.

It is not simply a matter of having a diverse workforce.  It is a matter of engaging and motivating all members of your workforce. 

One company I was hired to turnaround was 80% female, yet the entire management team was male.  Do you think the females in that company felt that they had any opportunity for advancement in that company?  No.  Do you think they were motivated or de-motivated by that fact?  De-motivated.  A simple employee attitude survey indicated that the single biggest problem with the company (as the employees saw it) was that there was no opportunity for advancement.

The turnover rate in that organization was 25% per year.  Even though the organization had a healthy revenue growth rate, it was not profitable.  As I set about improving this organization I restructured the management team to be better balanced from a gender and racial perspective.  I also made sure to have representatives from each business unit on the leadership team.

In 4 years we improved profitability 16 percentage points and reduced the turnover rate to 8%.

While making some changes to the leadership team was only one of many things we did to turn that business around, effectively engaging and motivating our diverse workforce, not just having a diverse workforce, was a key element of the turnaround.

Published by Scott Neilson on 02 Jul 2013

Let it go!

It drives me crazy to see leaders who are unable to delegate.  I continue to see opportunities for organizations to improve in this area…and that is an understatement…particularly in heavily technical organizations.  Failure to effectively delegate results in a slow-moving organization, a demotivated organization, and an organization with higher than normal operating costs.

  • Slow-moving because a few people are trying to do everything and are not effectively utilizing the skills of the people around them.
  • Demotivated because the other people on the team are not getting the chance to contribute and be recognized for their worth.
  • Higher operating costs because delegating means assigning tasks to people working for you.  Those people are likely earning less than you.  As such, if they are performing a task it costs your company less than if you are performing those same tasks.

You have to look at delegation as assigning authority…not responsibility.  You must learn to maintain control and responsibility from a distance.

A short time back I was talking with a friend who was having trouble with several aspects of his pharmaceutical regulatory consulting business.  He was not getting the performance he wanted from his employees and they were demotivated.    He was not making the profits that he should and he was overworked.  He felt that if he just worked harder, things would get better.  Unfortunately, he had been saying that for quite a few years, and had not made any progress.  I could not imagine him working any harder, but he kept thinking that was the answer.

This is not an unusual perspective, especially for technically trained people, and even more so for people who hold the professional credentials required for their business.

In a moment of desperation, he asked me what I thought he should do.  First, I explained to him the effects I described above.  Then we discussed how he can find a middle ground in which he can let go of some of the tasks that need to be done while still assuring the quality levels he requires.

The reason delegating is motivating is because it tacitly recognizes someone’s worth.  You trust them to do the job well, and they want to live up to that expectation.  They want to contribute.  They want to be of value.  Controlling everything yourself has the opposite effect.

Then I explained to him that there is an even more important aspect of effectively structuring your operation and delegating tasks.  To start we agreed that a fundamental principle in profitable business operations is delivering the right product or service, at the right price, at the least possible cost.  The “right service” is closely regulated in the drug development world, and pricing is very competitive.  That leaves cost reduction as the key to managing profitability.

The problem here was that he was doing everything.  By doing so he was minimizing his profitability because HE was handling most of the tasks, and HE is the most expensive employee in the company.  That made sense to him.

If you are not delegating, then you are not leading; you are doing.

Further, I pointed out that if he were the only one performing all these tasks, or overseeing every aspect of every job, then the total volume of work he could expect to do in his organization was limited to the workload that he alone could handle.  That put a great limitation on his business prospects for the future.

So, he agreed to consider this idea of delegating.  Question was, “how”?

  • Simple first step: I told him to list ALL the tasks he ever finds himself doing…every one of them.  Take a few days, take notes about what you are doing, and make a list.
  • Second: Put that list in order from the most to the least by what REQUIRES your technical training and abilities.
  • Finally: Start to delegate by taking the bottom 10% of those items and assigning them to someone else.  Get them OFF your list.  Clearly define exactly what you want done, and establish the methods and mechanisms for keeping an eye on the quality from a distance by developing and reviewing checkpoints or metrics. Over time you can go to the next 10% of the items on the bottom of your list, and so on until you find the right balance.


It is very difficult for people to let go of control in their businesses.  However, it is fundamental to effective and profitable operations to have a clear and appropriate delineation of duties.  You have to look at delegation as assigning authority while learning to maintain control and responsibility from a distance.  If you are not delegating, then you are not leading; you are doing.

Published by Scott Neilson on 18 Jun 2013

Get a life…

or…have balance in the one you’ve got.

This was an essential lesson I learned early on in my career.  I had the good fortune to be stuck on the corporate jet with our CEO for six hours…just the two of us.  Among other subjects we spoke about handling stress on the job.  I asked him how he handled the intensity and pressure of his job.  His answer was not what I expected at all.

Our challenge is being able to turn it off so that we can maintain our strength and focus for great periods of time…so we don’t burn out.”

First, he told me that he learned how to do it, and the importance of doing it, at an early age when he was a top 10 in the world professional athlete.  I will never forget what he said.  He said, “People like you and me have no trouble turning it on.  Our challenge is being able to turn it off so that we can maintain our strength and focus for great periods of time…so we don’t burn out.”

He went on to say that he learned this early in his career when he had been a professional athlete.  He described that intensity as being far greater than any he had experienced in the business world.  He talked about how critically important it is to be able to rest between matches…truly rest.  How it requires skill in turning off your competitiveness when it is not needed to enable your body and mind to be rejuvenated.  Without it you will not have the staying power to survive tournaments.

Finally, he said that the same is true in business.  We talk all the time about balance, but people do not pay enough attention to it until they burn out, get sick, start snapping at people, make stupid mistakes, or have health problems.  You have to find your own way to turn it off.  It is essential to your life…and your happiness…and ultimately, your success.

He then gave me a clue about how to do this.  He said “stay at the office until you are done for the day…not when all the WORK is done, because it is never done.  Stay until YOU are done…that point when you feel it is time to stop.  You have to learn how to recognize this point…when your body and/or mind is tired and not functioning as well as when you are fresh.  Then stop and go home.  At that point turn your attention to something else and do not allow work to creep in.  Find ways to minimize it intruding in your life.  If you remember something that needs to be done, write it down for when you get back to the office.”

For me, at that time, I had three small children.  I decided that I was going to learn to do this by dedicating my time at home to them.  I used my commute time to unwind (knowing how I drive some might find that hard to believe).   At home I focused on being with my family…truly just with them…no interruptions.  It took a while to become good at that, but I did.

It worked for me.  I became excellent at turning it off, and that was essential to coping with stress.  Today it is a bit more complicated with so many communications devices is use and the expectation that everyone is always available for work and needs to make it THE number one priority.  It requires a more rigorous effort to turning it off…even to include norms for your colleagues to respect about when it is okay and not okay to be working.  That is something about which we have lost sight in recent years.

Give yourself and your family a break.  Learn how to turn it off and have a life.

Published by Scott Neilson on 21 May 2013

Hire smart…

I have been kind of surprised by some hiring decisions I have seen lately.  It makes me wonder how these decisions are being made and what processes are being used.

All too often we are so anxious to fill an opening that we start changing our perspective of what skills we are looking for.  We tend to view the pool of applicants in terms of who is the best among the candidates we are seeing .  As a result, we start to limit our perspective to what we see in front of us and we lose sight of what we are really looking for.  I have even seen cases in which hiring supervisors start to reconsider changing their organization structure based on a particular candidate and what that candidate can and cannot do.

The problem starts with a lack of clarity about what is needed, what tasks must be performed, and what skills it takes to perform those tasks. 

First, as a leader you must recognize that every vacancy is an opportunity to improve your business.  Do you really need to replace this position?  Can you change your work processes and the description of that position to be something different than it was before?  Can you absorb the responsibilities of this position into those of other existing positions?  Can you make this change an opportunity to provide development or advancement for another employee?

The quickest way to get these answers is to flow chart the activity of your operation and clarify what is needed in each position in that part of your organization.  By doing so you reassess the steps to deliver the product or service you provide, and you clarify the processes and activities to deliver them.  Chances are you will also identify opportunities for improvement in those processes.  It takes a little time but the result is a better idea about what is needed from each individual involved in the process, confidence about your need to fill the position, and clarity about what you need to fill it with.  By the way, that clarity will also be helpful for the other people in your organization as you go about hiring a new team member.  For them it will clarify and reiterate their own role, responsibilities, and value to the team.  During a time of change, that clarity is essential for maintaining stability in your organization.  Though you may not think that filling one position is a “time of change” in your organization…it is.

Once you have established clarity about what is needed in the position to support your processes, the challenge becomes finding the person who has the skills to deliver on those needs.  This means identifying the skills needed to do the job.  Check this with others who interact with that position.  Discuss the position with others in similar positions.  Clarify the skills needed.

Finally, create a set of interview questions which enable you to determine if your candidates have those skills.  Use probing open-ended questions in which the candidates must describe specific responsibilities they have had, situations in which they have had to handle those responsibilities, what they did and what were the results.  This is referred to as behavioral interviewing…interviewing in which you are probing for information about observable behaviors in the candidate. *

Take the time to select the right person who can do the whole job.  Do not simply settle for whomever is available at the time.    It will be a source of endless frustration for you…and them.


* For your reference, in the event you feel you need help in this area, I have worked with several organizations who specialize in this technology.  The best I can recommend is DDI…Development Dimensions International, Inc. located in Pittsburgh, PA USA.


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