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 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.

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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 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 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,

“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 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 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.

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