Getting Results

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 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 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 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 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.


Published by Scott Neilson on 07 May 2013

The Power of Deliberate Mistakes…

Good article…

I would make one caveat though.  “A smart person learns from his/her mistakes.  A wise person learns from other peoples mistakes.”  Not sure who said that.

I would also add that you need to be careful how accepting you are of mistakes. You do not want to create a culture in which mistakes and failure are acceptable. They need to be the exception, not the norm.

Here is the article…worth a quick read.


Published by Scott Neilson on 23 Apr 2013

Too many chefs in the kitchen? – The upside


Rotterdam School of Management

Rotterdam School of Management

Last programme of the spring schedule…Rotterdam School of Management.


Looking forward to returning in the fall. The results of all the programmes are on the Participant Feedback tab.



I worked in an organization once which was heavily matrixed…meaning, for example, that GM’s of businesses reported up through the business unit reporting structure as well as through a corporate staff structure…site CFO’s reported to the GM as well as to a corporate head of operational finance and to the business unit head of finance.  Similar structures existed all around the organization.  Many of us had numerous people to whom we were reporting.  It was a bit confusing.

My first reaction to this was “Ugh! This is suffocating.”  However, I decided to spend some time trying to come up with every possible reason why this was the BEST structure and how I could best work with it.  Here are some of the answers I came up with.

First, this was an organization that had recently come together as a result of a spin-off of a major corporation and was comprised of many small operations located all over the world.  A highly matrixed structure can be very effective in getting them all to operate in a consistent manner, and to keep them all in control.

Second, a highly matrixed organization can be an effective structure for identifying and implementing cost savings activities across the entire organization.  The matrix provides multiple perspectives through which to look at each operation for these opportunities.  This organization was hugely effective in doing just that and realizing the “proposed synergies” of the new company.

Finally, having a matrix structure makes it difficult for any one person to mask or hide key information and have their own agenda.  While that may sound a bit cycnical, it is a dynamic that I have certainly observed on more than one occasion.  Like it or not, one of the difficult aspects of bringing a new company together is getting all leaders to buy-in to the new management, structure and direction. A matrix is an effective tool for working through that process and keeping a complex organization under control.  I also wrote about this in the post “Are you getting the information you need…”  link

There were a couple of interesting outcomes of this for me…I found these were really very good reasons for being structured and operating the way we were, despite the fact that I did not like the structure; and, being objective about it enabled me to diffuse my anxiety about the structure and actually work effectively within it.

Published by Scott Neilson on 09 Apr 2013

Performance mis-management…

In the atrium of the new building.  Very nice facility!

Prague University of Economics. Very nice facility!

Had a great program in Prague…photo attached. Spent a lot of time talking about employee development, among other things.  My feelings on this are not all that positive, I am sorry to say.  This is an absolute shame.

In my opinion, and in my observation, the problem is not in the systems, it is in the application.

Most organizations I have worked with have very good systems of performance appraisal, succession planning, and employee development.  However, they are not well used.  This is a leadership issue.

You have to make it a priority.  Performance feedback and development is critically important for achieving goals and objectives.  It makes your employees, and therefore, your organization, stronger.  It is one of the most powerful and effective motivators you have at your disposal

…if used correctly and done well.

Therein lies the problem.  Those systems and processes are generally NOT used well.  They are generally very well designed, but the application is weak, at best.  Performance appraisals are not completed…they are not done objectively and fairly…there is inadequate follow-through.  They become a de-motivator.

At one time I was in an organization that had never done performance appraisals.  People had been working there for years and never gotten any feedback on how they were doing.  That is unimaginable to me. 

I made a mandate to our leadership team that they would all write performance appraisals of each of their direct reports, and then sit and review every one of them with me and the new head of Human Resources.  We would critique them, help them clean them up, and use that process as a way of improving the feedback they were giving employees. 

They would then discuss those appraisals with their employees in the presence of the HR director, so he could coach them on how to deliver feedback (and to make sure it was getting done!).  This was a start.  Then the process was to trickle down to all levels.

Sometimes you have to get that much into the detail to be sure that things are getting done the way you want.

An equally big issue is that the employee development part of that process rarely happens.  I have never seen an organization that does a good job of developing their employees.  That is an enormous failure on the part of all levels.

Employee development and career opportunity is the best motivational tool you have at your disposal.  Here are some of the problems I see with it.

  • Supervisors do not see it as a priority so they “do not have the time” for it.
  • Supervisors worry that if they develop their employees they will move on to other jobs (better jobs)…and they will then have to replace them (which of course requires re-justifying the position and that worries them).  This is a serious losing attitude.
  • Supervisors do not know how to develop employees.  Well, I guess you can say that…but, I really feel that they are not trying.  It is not that difficult.
  • Supervisors feel that they do not have the money in the budget to do it.  Well, it can be free if you put some effort into thinking about it.  Job swaps; temporary assignments when someone is on vacation or leave; special project assignments.
  • Employees do not recognize that job swaps, temporary assignments, and special project assignments are some of the best development opportunities out there.  The research shows that in-job development is the most powerful in developing true skills.

As a leader you should recognize that this is a big missed opportunity, and an easy one to correct.

Employee development makes your organization stronger in terms of better skills…

Employee development increases organization stability in terms of internal promotion and employee satisfaction, motivation and commitment…

Employee development reduces your overall operating costs in terms of better performance as well as not having to replace employees who leave the company for a better opportunity.

The benefits far outweigh the costs!  Problem is you have to require it.  You have to be a part of the process.  Make it a priority…track it and measure it…assess the performance of your direct reports in terms of how well they are doing it.

Published by Scott Neilson on 12 Mar 2013

More on structural failure in organizations…

In response to your questions and comments on organization structure…

I cannot tell you how many times I have seen organization structures built around individual incompetence or inadequate processes.  It seems like people spend a lot of time looking for ways to work around problems rather than correcting them.

Let’s take the first part of that statement…individual incompetence.

Periodically, we find that an employee is not capable of doing the entire job the way we need it done.  They may not be a total disaster in the role, in fact, they may actually be good at some parts of the job, but they are consistently failing to meet all of the desired goals.   Now, for the sake of this example, let’s assume that we have managed their performance as per the post on “Managing Performance”, and we are still not seeing improvement in those key areas in which we need it.

Organization structure must be a function of process, not individual performance.  Would you build a soccer team with two goalies because one is not getting the job done?

I have often seen managers decide to create another position and add a person to accomplish these functions.  This seems to happen most often in those cases in which the current under-performing employee is a long service employee…i.e., been there a long time.  Of course, what they are doing is hiring another person to pick up the slack in the area in which the incumbent is underperforming.  They are failing to address the core issue that the employee is not performing to expectations.  They are starting a process of restructuring to split out responsibilities and assign them to other people.

The effects are that:

  • They are changing processes to fit an individual’s capabilities.  Those processes may be very good just as they are.  By changing them you may be making them less efficient, thereby bringing down the productivity of ALL individuals who are part of that process.
  • They are changing structures to make up for an individual’s inabilities.  They are adding positions and building a structure around a weakness.  That adds cost to the system, and is demotivating to other employees.  It also brings down their performance, because they see that poor performance is tolerated.

Both of these actions cost the organization money.

Structure must be a function of process.  Determine the process needed to produce your product or service.  Identify the roles required to deliver at each step of the process.  Fill the roles with people capable of performing all the tasks.  Manage their performance.  Eliminate incompetence.

Published by Scott Neilson on 05 Mar 2013

Are you getting the information you need to lead your business?

One of the toughest parts of being a leader is getting the information you need, when you need it.  There are several factors working against you in this regard.

First, I find that people often do not know what is the right or relevant information.  They do not have a clear understanding of their business drivers and what they should be monitoring.

Second, we all suffer from having multiple systems in-house.  Changed or varied systems means that the information you seek is often in multiple places, has changed formats or varied calculations which make it tough to combine and understand.

Finally, sometimes people inside your organization actually don’t want you to have that information.  They may feel that it exposes them.  They may feel that your visibility to that information will lead you to want to change something, and that will require something different from them (change).  All this may sound a bit cynical, but it has been my experience and observation.

As the leader you have to identify the right things to measure.

  • Study your key processes.
    • Determine what outcomes you are trying to achieve.
      • Back track through those processes from the endpoint to the beginning to determine where you have control.
        • Develop metrics to measure and manage those aspects.

Once you have identified those points of control, you must define exactly the information you want to measure, and how to measure it.  It may seem obvious, but you must check the details of the math behind the metric with everyone who is generating it.  You have to take the time to drill down into the details to be sure that you are getting what you really need and have asked for.

…you have to be sure that the metric is being accurately calculated, or you will be drawing false conclusions about the performance of your business…

As an example, in one organization we had a metric of errors per data file.  The target was 98% error free.  As it happened one business in our group was looking at each file as three files since the customer was splitting the file for use by three different departments within their operation.  If there were any errors they were only reported once, but the “number of files” was 3 times what it should have been.  In their calculation of their metric the denominator was three times what it should have been so their resulting error rate was 1/3 of what it should have been.  It seemed that their performance was far superior to those of our other business groups until we discovered the difference in calculation.

Though it seems like a small thing, you have to be sure that the metric is being accurately calculated, or you will be drawing false conclusions about the performance of your business unit, and making decisions based on bad data.

Finally, to be sure that you are not being blocked from the data you need, and to ensure that the data you are getting is accurate, triangulate on the data…use multiple sources to collect or verify the information you are gathering and using.  In that way you can more easily identify inconsistencies or errors.

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