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 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 14 Nov 2012


I was impressed with Mike Tomlin, the Coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, last week when they came to town to play the NY Giants.  Short story for those of you who do not know it…it was right after the hurricane…the Steelers were supposed to come in, stay at a local hotel overnight before the game, and get to the stadium early to prepare for a very tough game.  Instead, Mike Tomlin changed their plans to fly in and out the day of the game and not use the hotel so that people affected by the storm could use it if needed.

Small thing…perhaps.  Big impact…absolutely, if in nothing else than attitude, morale and values!  It showed that he was thinking of the greater good, and what he, and the team, could do to contribute to making the situation better.

It seems to be a rarity when you see people doing something that is not in their own best interest.   Perhaps I am being a bit cynical…perhaps that is just an illusion caused by the media frenzy over sensationalizing bad news and horror stories.  However, I think we do not spend enough time making good examples of those things some leaders are doing well.

A key lesson here is about looking outside our own businesses and recognizing our leadership responsibilities in the communities in which we are located.  In this case Mike Tomlin’s actions might have helped the community in some small way.  It surely set a good example to remind other leaders of how many different forms leadership takes.   I guarantee you it earned him and the entire Steeler’s organization the respect of the team and the fans…on both sides.

Good leadership!

Published by Scott Neilson on 11 Nov 2012

A timely quote

“There is nothing stronger than the heart of a volunteer.”  Jimmy Doolittle

I have been so impressed with the level of support New Yorkers are giving each other in this time of crisis.  People are coming out from all over to help with hurricane relief efforts…mostly volunteers.  They work tirelessly and for nothing…nothing except the gratification of feeling that they have contributed to the greater good.  Some are getting a pat on the back, some are getting recognized by the reporters writing stories about the efforts, but most are happy with the “Thank You’s” they are receiving from the people they are helping and knowing that they are doing some good.

Too often we overlook the “volunteers” in our organizations…the people who are willing to do something extra just for the satisfaction of contributing…just for the opportunity to learn.  We tend to look down on them as if they must not be capable of anything better if they are willing to do it for nothing.  I guess we are cursed by that old maxim…if it costs nothing then that is what it is worth. What a loss…for all involved.

There are actually many people who are motivated by more than what is in it for them!  The effort they make is far more than routine…their commitment to achieving the goal is extraordinary…their motivation is simple.



Published by Scott Neilson on 08 Oct 2012

Just do it!

As I am sure you know by now, I am a strong advocate of good process and involvement in leading organizations.  However, this is not to the exclusion of taking charge.  While I firmly believe that good process and involvement generally lead to the best results, there are absolutely times when you, as the leader, must take charge and just do it.

Recently, I was conducting a program in which we were doing a workshop activity.  Being a leadership program, the participants naturally felt that this activity was designed to demonstrate who in the group was a good leader.  There were clear efforts being made by several individuals to demonstrate what they felt were good leadership skills.  One individual was being decisive and telling the rest of the group what should be done.  Most others were sharing their opinions and building a common understanding of the options and interests.

As we were debriefing the activity, many of the participants targeted the individual that had been taking charge and gave him some direct feedback that he was not using good process, was not listening to the input of others, and was pushing his own agenda.  You could see that this feedback made him seriously question his own beliefs about what leadership is, as well as his own abilities in this area.

In this case his approach had been demotivating to the other participants; this particular situation was better suited to good process and involvement.  The feedback he received was correct.  However, I pointed out that while in this situation his approach was not appropriate, there will definitely be times in which groups will want the leader to take charge and command rather than discuss and agree.  They will NOT want good process and involvement.  They will NOT want you to ask them their opinion.  They will just want you to tell them what to do.  As a leader you must be capable of both styles.

I further pointed out that in this exercise he had clearly demonstrated that he has the ability and the internal fortitude to take charge.  That too is a strength.  The key is that you must be able recognize which style is right for each situation.

As an example, I once had a potential customer visit our office to finalize a long-term service agreement.  Their first step in these discussions was to rip into our sales and operations teams about the agreement we were negotiating.  They were adamant that they would never do business with us because we were making no effort to negotiate.  I asked for the meeting to adjourn for an hour and reconvene after lunch.

I sat with our team and reviewed the facts and data about our position.  I then told them that when we returned to the meeting they were to say nothing…I would do all the talking.  When we returned I explained our position, presented the facts about the flexibility we had shown, and expressed regret that we could do no more to meet their needs.  We had negotiated as far as we could while keeping their business viable for us.

This was clearly a situation in which I needed to choose the position we were going to take.  I needed to present that position to our customer.  I needed to be the face of the organization to this customer and take the consequences of our position, no matter what they were.

They asked a few clarifying questions and then awarded us the contract.

Working with our team to get the right information together was good process and involvement.  The key leadership challenge was recognizing that I needed to take charge of this situation, telling the team what we were going to do, and doing it.  In that moment I showed the team that they did not have to take the hit for this…I showed them that I was responsible for the actions of our business…and I showed the customer that I was the leader of our business.

Both styles are right.  Both styles are needed.  As the leader you must be able to recognize which is needed and when, and be able to move fluidly between the differing styles as appropriate for the situation.

Published by Scott Neilson on 24 Sep 2012

All aboard?

Driving clarity and understanding throughout the organization at all levels is essential to translating plans to action and executing against those plans.  Here is how you work to make that happen.

Following on the last post about utilizing an effective planning process, the leadership team should understand the strategies and action plans because they have been involved in developing them.  Most other employees, however, will not have been involved and it is unlikely that they will be clear on that direction and what is required of them to get there.

…most employees do not understand what a strategic plan means in terms how it affects their day-to-day activities.

The disconnects get worse the further the employees are removed from that decision-making level.  Unfortunately, many of the people who will be critical in accomplishing the tasks to achieve those goals are far from that decision-making level…the shop floor, if you will.  The cascade of information to all levels is generally not managed and monitored well.

Too often leaders feel that publishing the vision and a few strategies on the corporate website, announcing them at the beginning of the year in a town hall meeting, and hanging posters of them in the lobby is enough.  It isn’t.

What people read or hear from you is the summation of a lot of thinking and analysis.  They hear the end result of all that analysis.  They hear a conclusion and do not see all the steps that went into getting to that conclusion.  They have not been involved in all the discussions and cannot make the leap from issue to answer.  Most importantly, they do not understand what those strategic plans mean in terms of day-to-day actions for them.

As a leader you must drive the effort to understand the direction and take action at all levels in the organization.  This is, to a large degree, a communication process.

This communication process needs to be well planned and executed.  It should take many forms…sometimes large groups…sometimes focus groups…it should be reinforced in individual performance reviews and goal-setting…and it should be supported by multi-media presentations so that it gets through to as many people as possible.  It must be repeated to remind everyone of the goals, the actions to get there, and the progress being made.  Remember, most of the people in the organization only hear about this subject when you, the leaders, talk to them about it, which is generally not often.  It is easily forgotten which causes people to lose sight of their priorities.

I make it a point to conduct quarterly town hall meetings at every site in my organization.  At those meetings I remind everyone of the direction in which we are going as an organization, and I explain to them what it means.  I tell them what actions we will take to get there.  Most importantly, I tell them what it means that THEY must do every day to contribute to achieving those goals.  I make it a point to put it in terms that are relevant to them and the tasks they perform every day.  In addition, as I walk around the organization I talk with employees at all levels and ask them how are they applying our strategies in their everyday work.  Those discussions always lead to clarifying questions and a better idea of how they can do their jobs in a way that better supports our strategic direction.

A word of caution…Do not assume that your leadership team is cascading the information down to all levels.  In my experience I have found that that is not good assumption to make.  Check it.  Be sure it is happening.  Ask the people on the shop floor.

Remember, a key element of motivation is clarity.  People are motivated simply by being clear about what is expected of them…”What does this mean for me?  What do I have to do?  How are we (how am I) doing against those goals?”

Tell ’em…and tell ’em often!

Published by Scott Neilson on 18 Sep 2012

Making it happen!

One thing I have noticed in my years of doing business turnarounds, is that it is not at all unusual for leaders to come up with a vision and direction, but fail to drive that vision throughout the organization and make it actionable.

What leaders often forget is that most people in the organization are far removed from the executive suite and are not closely plugged into the issues the organization is facing or the ways in which the business landscape is changing.  So, when they DO hear of a direction or a plan, it is often out of context and it does not mean much to them to say nothing of being able to figure out the steps to get there.

Without motivating and mobilizing everyone in the organization in the same direction, you are unlikely to achieve the results you desire.

This is an important issue for leaders to come to terms with.  It is the bulk of the workforce that is going to make those plans a reality.  Everyone must be clear on their role in getting to those goals.  They have to understand what it means in their day-to-day jobs.


This needs to begin as a bottoms up process in which key people are involved in developing the vision, as discussed in the last post.  Once synthesized into an overarching direction, the process of translating those plans to actions becomes an iterative one from top to bottom, back up to the top, and back down to the bottom in which you are:

  • ensuring the appropriate level of understanding of the overarching direction;
  • developing the specific actions (at all levels and across all functions to move in that direction); and,
  • integrating all the action plans to ensure that they are aligned and support each other. 


As a starting point you must ensure that all stakeholders are clear on what that vision is.  They have contributed to it.  They have been part of the discussions that have gotten you to that vision.  But, are they clear on the final outcome of that process?  Does everyone understand what the finished product is?  You must communicate it effectively…with clarity and enthusiasm.  It is also a good time to point out their contributions to that finished product to show them that you were listening and to cement their buy-in. 

There is a lot more to the whole subject of communications in this area, and I will get to that in the next post.


The next step requires each part of the organization, whether it is departments, business units, or country operations, to translate that vision into strategies and action plans complete with due dates and responsible individuals.  Each department needs to understand the strategies, be clear on how they contribute to them, and what they must do to support them. 

  • What specific actions can they take to support them? 
  • What is the timing necessary to orchestrate this activity?
  • Who will be responsible and what resources will they need to get it done?


The process then must utilize a rigorous schedule of reviews to ensure that the strategies and tactics across departments make sense and are agreed by everyone.  Most importantly, they must be coordinated and connected so that they build on one another and move the entire organization in the same direction.


Finally, once this is all agreed and aligned, you have a script which defines all the actions you plan to take to achieve those goals and that direction.  

Now leadership at all levels needs to live it…

  • be aware of the priorities;
  • make decisions in line with those priorities;
  • remain abreast of progress against those objectives;
  • dedicate resources as appropriate to achieve those goals;
  • communicate progress to all stakeholders.


Driving execution never stops.  As the leader, whether you are the CEO, a director, manager or first line supervisor, you must always be setting priorities, allocating resources, coordinating efforts, and communicating progress.  Most importantly, you must be pushing people to carry out the plans on schedule…finding ways to get it done…ensuring that all parts of the organization are moving forward in lock step.

You may notice a common theme developing over these last few posts…successful leadership requires strong process, systems thinking and involvement of stakeholders.  It seems simple, and to some degree it is…strong process and involvement of stakeholders.  In other ways it is complex, particularly when it comes to balancing the conflicting interests of your stakeholders.  There are always trade-offs…and in a dynamic world, the variables affecting your decisions are always changing.

In the next post I will address communications of the plan and building a common understanding.  Later on we will get to monitoring progress and managing performance.

Published by Scott Neilson on 09 Jul 2012

Don’t think, do it…

How many times have you heard leaders say that to a member or members of their team?  Often in a moment of frustration over a mistake, poor performance or results, an employee will say “I thought…” and the leader will respond “Don’t think, do it.”  It sounds very tough…it sounds very strong…it sounds very decisive…but, it is not good leadership!

What do you think the effect is of that kind of behavior?  Imagine the effect if that behavior becomes embedded in the culture of your organization.

The disaster at Fukushima nuclear facility in Japan gives us some insight as to what can happen.  The recent conclusion of the investigation into that disaster is a perfect example of this.  As reported by CNN, Japan’s parliament blames the Fukushima nuclear crisis on the nation’s culture.

“What must be admitted — very painfully — is that this was a disaster ‘Made in Japan,’ ” the report said.” Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program.’ ”


Now, it is certainly NOT the culture in Japan to tell people to not think.  However, the culture of honor and respect for superiors and elders, the culture to do as you are told without question, the culture staying the course creates the same effect.

Being an effective leader does NOT mean making all the decisions, but rather it means enabling the organization to arrive at the correct solutions by involving the right people at the right time.

When you shut down independent thought and initiative, you shut down learning, improvement, creativity, motivation…and you shut down information flow.  As I mentioned in the post “Getting the Information You Need”… link

When you create a culture like this, all decisions rely on you as the leader.  Employees will only do what you tell them, and you must tell them everything.  The whole burden is on you and the organization is limited in its potential by your limitations.  The strength of an empowered organization is lost.

In addition, any lack of clarity drives the team in the wrong direction.  They will be reluctant to ask for clarity or to challenge directions given.

Finally, you lose access to new and perhaps critical information which may affect your decisions…as in the case of Fukushima.

As you certainly must know by now, I am a strong advocate of Participative Leadership and inclusion.  Inclusion enables a leader to adapt to new situations by drawing on different skills – the skills of their team members.  Inclusion is a process through which to gain information, expertise and skill in as many areas as possible in handling your widely varied leadership responsibilities.

As a leader, this requires you to put your EGO aside and recognize that being an effective leader does NOT mean making all the decisions, but rather it means enabling the organization to arrive at the correct solutions by involving the right people at the right time.

  • It requires you to develop a culture which fosters participation.
    • It requires you to establish the appropriate mechanisms to enable that participation to take place.
      • It requires you to systematically put the important issues on the table for discussion.

However, be sure to note, a culture of inclusion and participative leadership does NOT require you to make decisions based on consensus.  As the leader, you ALWAYS maintain the right and the responsibility to make the final decisions.  Inclusion and participative leadership enables you to have all the information you need to make the best decisions, and to build support, clarity and commitment to the direction in which you are going.


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