Managing Change/ Setting Direction

Published by Scott Neilson on 04 Sep 2012

It’s that time of year…

An essential goal of a good leader is establishing clarity!  Clarity about what business you are in; clarity about who your customers are and what they want; clarity about what you will produce; clarity about how you will work together to deliver those products or services.

Planning processes generally do an inadequate job of clarifying strategies, tactics and responsibilities to achieve the desired results.

It is that time of year when leaders should be rethinking and recalibrating these aspects of their businesses (actually, that should be a continuous process, but it should certainly be done at least once a year).  Since many businesses operate on a fiscal year which starts January 1st and ends December 31st, business leaders are starting to get a fairly clear picture of what their year-end results will be, and are preparing next years plans.

Unfortunately, in many cases the processes of planning for the coming year have become primarily financial exercises focusing on identifying the desired level of financial results.  They do an inadequate job of clarifying what strategies and tactics are required to deliver those results.  Even worse, they are rarely driven down to the lowest levels to identify specific goals for individuals.  That is a missed opportunity and a fundamental cause of failure to execute those plans.

In having a successful and sustainable business, it is essential to be clear about where you are going as a business and how you are going to get there…clarity NOT just for you as the leader, or for your leadership team, but for ALL the people in the organization.  The more clear everyone is about what you will be doing and who will be doing what, the higher the efficiency of the operation, the higher the productivity, the higher the motivation, and the higher the likelihood of success.

Clarity is key…and it is not difficult to achieve.

Take this opportunity to develop that clarity.  Design your planning process to start from the beginning and clarify those aspects of your business…

  • what business are you in?
    • who are your customers and what do they want?
      • what will you produce?
        • how will you work together to deliver those products or services?
          • what resources will you need to deliver them?

The outcomes of this process will be the foundation for your key strategies, operational tactics and plans, bonuses and performance metrics.  They will enable you to create a budget which is directly linked to achieving those plans.  They will enable you to set clear priorities and to manage those priorities as the landscape changes throughout the year.  They will give you a clear roadmap against which you can track your progress through the coming year and make modifications.  These are fundamental elements of good leadership.

Bear in mind…this is not intended only for senior level executives…CEO’s, SVP’s, etc.  All leaders need to establish this clarity for their teams.  This is true for first line supervisors, managers, directors…anyone who has people looking to them for direction is a leader!

Remember too…we all have customers.  If your department does not interface with external customers, think about internal customers.  What other departments in your company need the information you are producing in your department?  What business are YOU in?  What do YOUR internal customers need?  How are you meeting those needs(ask them)?  What can you do better in the future(ask them)?  What process changes will you need to make?  What resources will you need?  What is the cost and benefit of those changes?  Who, in your team, will be responsible for implementing these changes…by when?

Think about this.  Over the next few weeks I will be detailing each step in these processes.


Published by Scott Neilson on 22 Feb 2012

Why are you telling me this?

I often get asked about specific leadership skills…what is the importance of this specific skill; what are the top skills needed to be successful; can leadership be taught?

You know, there are a million books out there on leadership.  They are all good and they are all right.  The problem with them is that most of them are lists of specific skills you “have to have”, and most of them are obvious. 

The problem is that no one can remember any those lists when they are knee deep in a job and stuff is happening fast.  It is NOT what they think of.  I have never seen any leader in a crisis situation reach for Tom Peter’s “Leadership 50” to figure out what he should do next.  Why not?  The skills listed in that book are good.  One could debate if they are in fact the top 50, but that is not the point. 

The point is that no one in a leadership position has the time to look in a book to determine their course of action.  It NEVER crosses their mind. 

That is the key problem with the literature on leadership.  All the books on Leadership are lists of skills that SOMEONE HAS USED…AT SOME POINT IN TIME…FOR SOME SITUATION which happened to work out.  It gets some publicity, and they write a book about it. They make millions and move to Wyoming to live on some lake 

Are these books science?  No!  Do they reflect research?  Maybe!  For the most part they are things that worked for someone once upon a time. 

The problem is that they are absent a context.  Leadership is not about a set of skills.  It is a process.  It is a way of thinking.  I know that many of you out there know exactly what I am talking about.

More on that some other time.

Published by Scott Neilson on 23 Apr 2010

Survey Feedback (on Leadership Mistakes) #3

The third most common leadership mistake that survey responders identified was in setting direction.  They identified three sub-sets of that issue:

  1. Poorly set goals – incomplete and unrealistic.
  2. Constantly moving expectations and targets. 
  3. Poor communications about goals – clarity at all levels.

The aspect of goals being INCOMPLETE was covered in the post about involving the right people in accumulating data and drawing conclusions from that data, so I am not going to repeat that.  If you are interested, you can find more information on this link…

The aspect of plans being unrealistic is an interesting and frustrating one.  I am sure that we have all been in the situation in which we have developed a plan for our business or department only to find that our goals have been arbitrarily increased to some higher level in order to motivate the organization to achieve higher levels of performance.  The assumption seems to be that an organization can always stretch and achieve more.  I have to say that I agree that there is usually some degree of stretch that can be achieved by pushing your organization, and good leaders will push to find that right level.  However, the problem I have also observed is that leaders rarely push to find that RIGHT LEVEL.  They often set a goal and do not challenge and debate with their key team members to see if, in fact, that goal is achievable.  Often, they are not. 

The downsides of setting unachievable goals are significant.  They create expectations among owners/shareholders/Boards that damage your credibility as a leader and the viability of the business when they are not achieved.  Further, they damage your credibility as a leader within your organization because people interpret those goals as meaning that either you do not understand the business, have another agenda that is not necessarily in the overall interest of the business, or do not respect the people that have to deliver on those goals.  Consequently, the people in your organization will be demotivated by unrealistic goals and you will have the opposite effect than that which you intended.  Worse, you will have lost credibility in the process and future efforts to set goals will be received with skepticism.

Second, constantly moving targets is a frequent problem as well.  I am not going to spend a lot of time digging into this problem because I think the uncertainty it creates, and the damage to credibility that ensues, does not require elaboration.

Without clarity, business plans are just words which most people do not really understand and cannot apply.

Finally, a very common failure in setting direction, and one which is so easily corrected, is driving the plan and tactics down to the lowest level in the organization.  It is rare when leaders layout a plan for the organization and then develop the details of that plan down to the lowest level to instruct everyone about THEIR role in helping to execute it.  Therein lies one of the main shortfalls in plan execution.  It seems simple enough, and it is.  Leaders need to make sure that plans are cascaded to all levels in the organization and defined for all levels of employees so that they are clear about what the plan means in terms of their daily activites.  When I do quarterly Town Hall meetings I reiterate the plan every time, and I talk about what that plan means in terms of daily activities for the people who are actually doing the work.  You would not think it necessary to do that.  You would think that people can make that jump themselves.  But, often they cannot. 

Try this sometime.  After communicating your plan to the organization, pull a small sampling of people aside and ask them what they must do to contribute to achieving that plan.  You will likely find a high degree of uncertainty about how to make it happen.  Now, imagine all those people heading back to their workplaces and their day to day activities.  Do you think that they will be contributing to meeting those goals?  Not likely.  Without that clarity, those plans are just words which most people really do not understand and cannot apply.

Published by Scott Neilson on 17 Dec 2009

Are you a leader?

I am always surprised to find how few people realize that they are in leadership positions.  Most think that there is only one or just a few leaders in their organization, and that these are the people in the executive suite.  Not the case!

This is actually one of the reasons I conduct my leadership seminars.  Many people are in leadership positions and do not realize it, so they are unaware of the leadership actions they can and should be taking.  Another reason is because many people are put into leadership positions and are not given any training on how to be a leader.  Leadership training seems to be given only to those people who have reached the executive level.  Unfortunately, by that time they have been in leadership positions for years without any training, and they have likely learned their leadership skills by watching other people who have had no training.  They have developed bad habits and those bad habits have become routine components of their leadership behavior.  This pattern ends up perpetuating ineffectiveness among our leaders, and, unfortunately, that ineffectiveness ends up permeating the operations of the organization.

Any position in which you have people looking to you for direction or supervision is a leadership position.  What does this mean?  Does this mean that a person in a first line supervisory position is a leader?  Yes!  Does it mean that a person who is the president of a club is a leader?  Yes!  Does it mean that a person who is the captain of a team is a leader?  Yes!  There are many levels of leadership.  Now think about that question again … Are you a leader?

…the people reporting to you are looking for the same leadership from you that you are seeking from the CEO.

Let’s take the situation of a lower level supervisory or management position.  Now you realize that you are a leader – What do you do?  If you are not at the top of the ladder in your organization then you have the advantage, and the responsibility, to support the leadership efforts of your senior people.  That makes it both simple and difficult.  It makes it simple because, in a good situation, a general direction has been set and the steps to get there have been defined.  You, as the leader for your team within the larger organization, need to establish the direction for your department that is in line with the general direction of the business.  You need to to develop the plans and actions your department will take to support that direction.  You need to communicate that to your employees and make sure that they understand it and their role in it.  You need to establish an environment in your department that motivates your employees to achieve those goals.  You have to measure your progress toward those goals and take whatever corrective actions are necessary to ensure that you meet those goals.  The list goes on.

These are the SAME actions required of the senior executives, simply applied at a different level.    Remember this…the people reporting to you are looking for the same leadership from you that you are seeking from the CEO.  This does not refer to the magnitude of the decisions to be made, but rather an understanding of them.

In the case that you DO NOT endorse the general direction of the larger organization, then you have a different issue to deal with.  That is a discussion for another post.

Published by Scott Neilson on 28 Nov 2009

Quote by Mahatma Gandhi

” You must BE the change you wish to see in the world.”  Mahatma Gandhi

This is one of my favorites…though sometimes I struggle to live up to it!

As a leader though, it really does speak to the fact that we MUST “walk our own talk” if we expect others to support the changes we are trying to make in an organization.  That means that we must believe in ALL aspects of the change that we are trying to effect.  Seems obvious and simple enough.  However, at times I think leaders may be to quick to compromise away some of their core beliefs in order to get to an agreement.  They seem to do so almost unknowingly…perhaps not recognizing the danger that lies in front of them by doing so.  That danger is that at some point they will violate those norms because they do not TRULY believe in them.  When they violate them, they lose all credibility for the change they are trying to make.

In conclusion, when it comes to using participative processes (and I DO believe that participative processes lead to the best result) to design a culture, manage a change process, or move an organization forward, it is essential that your minimum requirements (as the leader) are met.

By BEing the change you wish to see in the world, you embody the essence of it…and you become a living example of the desired future you are trying to achieve.

Published by Scott Neilson on 26 Jun 2009

Making Sense of Ambiguity

Ambiguity is, by definition, a lack of clarity.  In one of my earlier posts I discussed the importance of establishing clarity as an element of earning the commitment of employees to the goals and objectives of the business.   Without clarity people are not sure in which direction they are going, how they are going to get there, nor their role in getting there.  Consequently, they will not commit to supporting your goals and objectives. 

However, leaders often find themselves in situations which lack that kind of clarity.  How do they bring clarity to situations in which the information they are working with is ambiguous or incomplete?

First, leaders need to understand that they must be comfortable operating in an environment that is not always well defined; it goes with the territory of leading.   

Second, leaders need to accept the fact that the higher their level in an organization the more complex decisions become.  That complexity comes from a lack of information, conflicting information, or conflicting goals among those affected by the decisions to be made. 

Finally, leaders need to accept the fact that not all situations can be fully and immediately clarified, and that they may need to operate in a gray zone for some period of time.  They need to accept that coming to closure on an issue is NOT always the right thing to do.  Sometimes it is best to let a situation progress until more information becomes available.

Therein lays a big part of the problem for leaders.  The difficulty for leaders in ambiguous situations is that they often feel that a decision must be made, a conclusion must be reached, and that THEY must make THE right decision and come to closure NOW.  Often they find themselves frozen because of the complexity of arriving at the single right decision that satisfies everyone.  They need to keep in mind that often there is no single right decision.  The important piece is that people need DIRECTION from the leader, not necessarily THE SINGLE RIGHT DECISION.  

However, leaders must also be aware that it is more difficult for employees to exist in a gray zone than it is for the leader.  Therefore, they need to recognize that each step they take in leading their businesses through complex issues requires redefining and reestablishing clarity for their teams.  In complex and ambiguous situations, the leader should define the direction in which the organization will move, and make it clear that at each step along that path he/she will redefine and communicate the right next step as necessary to get to the desired goal. 

How do you do that?

  • First, get clear on what information you will need to reach that final conclusion.  Be relentless about working toward and getting that information.
  • Meanwhile, lay out the action plans for all the options you are considering.  Look for the overlaps in actions associated with any of those options, and take those actions while you accumulate more information.  That enables you to move the organization forward while keeping as many options open as possible.
  • Make small decisions that move you toward a conclusion but which also keep as many of those options open as possible.
  • Identify indicators which will confirm or refute your choice as being the right one, and monitor those indicators.
  • Reassess, redefine and take the next step accordingly.
  • At some point the final decision will become clear and you can move to closure.

Do not feel pressured to have THE all encompassing answer immediately.  Be mindful of the goal you are trying to reach, the general direction you must take to get there, and steps that will move you continuously in that direction.  Take one step at a time and reassess.  Determine the next step and communicate.

It is like navigating a ship in the fog.  First rule: slow down.  Second rule: make small moves so you have time to change them if they prove to be wrong, but keep moving in the direction you need to go.

Published by Scott Neilson on 14 Jul 2008

Thoughts on Decision-Making – One Great Fallacy

Leaders often fall into the Imposter Trap when making decisions.  The Imposter Trap is one in which an individual brings about the exact failing they wish to avoid.  In the case of decision-making, leaders often feel that since they are the leader they must know everything and make all the decisions.  As a result of this kind of thinking they do not allow themselves the opportunity to ask all the questions that they should or gather all the necessary input from other people in making their decisions.  Naturally, if they did this, it would demonstrate to everyone else that they do not know everything and are therefore incompetent (a bit of sarcasm there).  Consequently, they do not accumulate all the information they need to make a particular decision and they make the wrong decision.  They cause themselves to fail and become incompetent…the exact thing that they sought to avoid.

The question becomes, how does one avoid this trap?  The answer is simple and involves a couple of steps.  First, never be too proud to ask questions.  I once had a boss, the Chairman and CEO of a Fortune 100 company, who asked questions all the time.  He never let anything go that he did not understand.  The first few times I heard some of his questions I thought, “Wow, I can’t believe he doesn’t know this.”  In a very short time I found that he never expected himself to know everything.  He never worried that people might think he was stupid or inexperienced.  He was expert at asking the right questions, getting all the information he needed, and then drawing the right conclusions.  The ultimate outcome was that people respected his decisions because they were well thought out.

The second aspect of this approach involves hiring well and surrounding yourself with people who are excellent at their jobs.  By hiring people who are better than you are at their job you can rely on getting the best input possible for making decisions and leading your business.  If you hire people that are less competent than you in their role, then you end up doing their job more often than they and you will not have the support you need to lead the business and make the right decisions.

The final step requires involving the right people in accumulating the information you need.  This changes from one decision to the next and, therefore, must be thought through each time.  Going back to our post on Inclusion, the simple approach to identifying those whose input you should seek requires simply asking yourself “Who has a stake in this decision….who is going to be effected by it?”  They are your constituents.

Remember, being the Leader does not mean that you have to know everything.  It simply means that you must employ effective processes that enable the organization to move in the direction in which you want to go.

Published by Scott Neilson on 11 Mar 2008

Thoughts on Leadership Adaptability.

A common reason for failure among leaders is the inability to adapt to change.  Ironically, most leaders see themselves as THE agent of change and believe that NO change will happen in the organization without their knowledge or direction.  That is absolutely NOT the case!  

Unfortunately, most of us do not recognize our limitations in this area.  We see ourselves as adaptable.  However, the truth of the matter is that we all have our comfort zones and we tend to operate within them as much as possible.  Even worse is the fact that the higher we are in the leadership hierarchy, the less flexible and adaptable we become…because we don’t have to be!!!  We are in control and we can manage the world around us to a significant degree.  If circumstances change in a manner adverse to our interests, we often have the power to change other variables to keep it all within our control and comfort zone.  This is not adapting to change, this is interpreting the change or limiting the reality of the change to something we can deal with.  It is like saying “I am not fat, I am just short for my weight”.  As a result, we remain fixed in our own perspectives and reliant upon those skills which have gotten us where we are.  It is this inability to adapt to change that can lead to our ultimate demise.  

This is an easy one to check with those around you.  Just ask them.  Do you think I am adaptable…easily able to cope with changing circumstances…easily able to modify plans due to unforeseen circumstances…not easily upset by changes in plans…willing to listen to and embrace ideas that are not my own? 

…being an effective leader does NOT mean making ALL the decisions but rather enabling the organization to arrive at the correct solutions by involving the right people at the right time. 

In this Post, I explore the importance of INCLUSION in developing the ability to be adaptable and sustain business performance in an ever-changing business environment.

When a leader begins working with an organization, they are faced with a set of goals or expectations.   They also face a set of underlying circumstances that stand in the way of them achieving those goals.  If they are lucky, or were well selected for the job, they have the skills necessary to address those problems.  In fact, they were likely selected precisely because of the skills they have demonstrated in similar positions or situations in the past.

However, all leaders have a limited set of skills.  The skills they possess are the ones that they have relied upon and been successful with over the years.  As with any other such asset, they have come to lean on those skills as their primary skills for leading a business – a cornerstone concept of the Peter Principle.  Unfortunately, as is often the case, they have not been required to “learn new tricks.”  If their role is a very limited one with a defined short term outcome, those skill limitations may not pose a threat.  “Hatchetmen” are a perfect example of such limited skill sets well assigned.  Hatchetmen are expert at coming into an organization and cutting expenses, repositioning the organization for profitable operations, and leaving.  They have no interest in the future of the business or the impact of the changes they are making in the sustainability of the business.  They need no other set of skills than finding all possible means of cutting expenses. 

However, if the role is to be long term, leaders must have the versatility and adaptability to recognize and address the changing needs of the organization.  They must recognize that as one set of problems is fixed others WILL emerge.  Chances are that these new problems will either be problems that they are not able to easily notice or will be problems that they are not accustomed to fixing.   This is true because problems are not likely to arise in a leader’s area of strength.  Leaders tend to be attentive to those areas in which they have particular skills, and they apply their skills in those areas more than other areas simply because it is their comfort zone.  Consequently, new problems that arise will likely be problems with which the leaders are less familiar and which they do not have the appropriate skill set to resolve.  It is at this critical juncture that the leader must adapt.  How do they do that?

There are many answers to that question…many ways to adapt to change.  But, one that is readily available is Inclusion.  In this case, inclusion means involving other members of the team.  By doing so leaders supplement their own set of skills and abilities, they use the insights of their team members to identify the ills of the business, and they draw on the strengths of their team members to find the best solutions.  As a result, those solutions also represent a broad array of perpectives which gains them support and makes them more able to stand up under scrutiny and challenge. 

Fundamentally, inclusion enables a leader to adapt to new situations by drawing on different skills – the skills of their team members.  This concept speaks to the importance of being open to differing opinions.  This concept requires the leader to put their Ego aside and recognize that being an effective leader does NOT mean making all the decisions but rather enabling the organization to arrive at the correct solutions by involving the right peope at the right time.

No doubt you have heard the maxim that great leaders surround themselves with a great team.  This does not mean that great leaders are lazy and find a group of experts to do the job for them.  It simply means that a leader cannot be expert at everything.  Therefore, they must have a strong team working with them.  They must recognize that their role as leader is to enable that team to arrive at the right solutions.  This is not consensus!  This is inclusion.  It enables leaders to adapt to an ever changing business environment.

Now, think about this…subject of a future Post.  How does a diverse workforce effect the Adaptability of a leadership team?

Published by Scott Neilson on 26 Feb 2008

Thoughts on Creating a Compelling Vision

Many Leadership authors identify “Creating a Compelling Vision” as an indispensable leadership skill.  Where most leaders get hung up is “How do you do that?”  Some leaders feel as if creating a compelling vision comes from a random moment of creativity and inspiration that either happens or doesn’t.  It is not that they can say, “Okay, for the next hour I will invent an entirely new approach to this business from which we will derive our strategic direction for the coming decade.”  It just doesn’t happen that way, and leaders know that.  So, when you tell them that creating a compelling vision is a skill they need to have, they are lost.

Let’s face it, people think in different ways.  Some people tend to think in terms of the future and possibilities, while others tend to be more focused on facts and data and what is in front of them now.  It does not mean that the latter group is incapable of thinking in future terms.  Equally important, though, is that while the former group may spend more time thinking about the future and possibilities, it does not mean that they are any good at it.

So, how does one create this compelling vision?

Well, first, I don’t see creating a compelling vision as being an indispensible skill.  I see it as being an indispensable outcome!  It is the result of strong process employed by the leader.

In the case of Creating a Compelling Vision there are a few elements that need to be satisfied:

– it needs to be created;

– it needs to be a state that does not currently exist;

– it needs to be inspiring or motivating to the people who care about it.

So, what will get you there?  What actions on the part of a leader will result in that outcome?

Think about it.  It needs to be inspiring or motivating to the people who care about it.  Most leaders think that they have to know all the answers…that they somehow must be omniscient by virtue of their appointment to an exalted position.  They feel, therefore, that THEY must come up with all the answers.  Asking opinions, involving others, listening to and using others’ opinions, would be sign that they are not qualified…that they are an “imposter”.  Unfortunately, the end result of that line of thinking is that, in fact, they do try to do it all themselves, they invariably do not accumulate all the input they need, consequently they achieve outcomes that are substandard, and they, therefore, actually become the imposter they feared.

I don’t see creating a compelling vision as being an indispensible skill.  I see it as an indispensable outcome!  It is the result of strong process employed by the leader.

The process of creating a compelling vision requires understanding the combined visions of all those who care about the business…your constituents.  As the leader you must believe in that vision in order to draw your own highest level of commitment to it.  However, it does not mean that it has to be yours and yours alone.  The “other people who care about it” must also be committed to it.  It requires knowing who those people are. It requires listening to them, understanding what that preferred future looks like to them, and incorporating their interests.  It involves incorporating your own interests.  And, it requires synthesizing all those interests into a single direction which strikes the best balance between them.

The result is a vision that is owned by all the constituents and supported by them.  That ownership and support make it compelling.  That ownership and support generate the energy necessary to make the vision a reality.

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