Published by Scott Neilson on 23 Oct 2014

More on trust!

On the flight last night I had a long conversation with a woman who has just become the leader of the research division of a major healthcare institution.  She has been in the job for two weeks and remarked that her most significant observation of the organization thus far is the lack of trust of the leadership…throughout the organization.  The symptoms, she noted, are CYA emails cc’ing everyone imaginable, unwillingness to make decisions or take initiative, and more time being spent on blaming than on performing.

We talked about how to approach the problem.  She indicated that she intends to conduct focus groups with employees at all levels to collect information and diagnose the problems. Good idea, but may not be the best starting point.  Focus groups may not be considered a safe place.  In an organization in which trust is the issue you can bet that people in the focus group will be very cautious about who is in the room and what is safe to say.  You are unlikely to get the information you are looking for.

She also discussed an employee attitude survey, but indicated that the organization has been surveyed several times and no action has been taken.  The credibility is low and she feels participation will be limited.


I suggested an alternative approach…start with your Customers.

YOU, the leader, need to get out and talk to your customers…find out what is working for them and what is not.  This is especially effective if you are new in the role since you can also use it as a time to introduce yourself and begin building a relationship.  The nice thing about talking with your customers is that they do not fear any of your internal trust issues and are likely to give you the straight story.  Possible downside is that being on the outside, they may not have a clear picture of what is going on inside.

Be aware, you do NOT want to ask them what they know about your internal workings and team dynamics.  You should approach the subject in a more general way and ask them simply what is working for them and what is not in the current relationship?  This opens the door for a lot of discussion, and if they are aware of troublesome internal dynamics, they will likely tell you, or at least hint at it, and you can dig deeper from there.

My experience is that by the time you have spoken to three key customers you will have heard all there is to hear and you will start hearing repeats of the same issues.

Now, here is the key.  Building trust can come from many approaches.  One of the most effective is DOING WHAT YOU SAY YOU WILL DO.  You must do something with the information you get from your customers, and you must let your employees know about it.  The customer voice carries a lot of credibility with employees.  Though they may be in denial about the feedback, they know that they must meet the customers expectations.

  • Let the employees know what the customer is saying, and what you intend to do about it.
    • DO IT!!! 
      • Let the employees know what you have done in response to the customer feedback.

With this you will begin to establish some credibility…with both customers and employees.  Now you can turn to the employees and tell them you want to hear THEIR thoughts on the organization, what is working and what is not.  At this point you are likely to get more interest and participation.  Follow-through on this and your credibility grows…as does their trust in you as the leader.

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 26 Jan 2014

Good quick article…

Very good article about the prevailing business wisdom that the primary objective of corporations is to maximize shareholder value…and the steady stream of business failures left in it’s wake.

Clearly states what we ALL know to be true…and what will be the likely outcome if you only focus on the interests of one group of stakeholders.

So, why is it we can’t see this and change it?

Because the people who are in the position to change it are the ones who benefit the most by keeping it the way it is!!!

Published by Scott Neilson on 18 Jun 2013

Get a life…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published by Scott Neilson on 22 Jan 2013

No accountability…

I think we have a lot to learn from this issue with Lance Armstrong.

The guy is worth $125 million.  He has gotten all that money through a blatant disregard of the rules and cheating at his business.  That is fraud, plain and simple.

So he loses his titles.  So he is publicly disgraced.  So he loses his sponsors.  All of this negative attention will only last until some other major news story comes along and everyone will forget.  In the meantime, Lance still walks away with $125 million.  He is laughing all the way to the bank.  And if he gains any sympathy from his tearful appearance on Oprah, and the ultimate book of his “personal struggles”, he will be laughing even harder.

Are we stupid or what?

How is it that he is not stripped of his money, as well as his titles, and thrown in jail?  He got all that money through fraud!  Consider the harm he has done to the Livestrong Foundation, and individuals who contributed to it because they admired and respected the person they thought Lance Armstrong to be.  Consider the individuals who did not win the Tour de France and have the chance to advance their own promising careers because he was juicing.  Consider the personal profit he has gained through fraudulent practices.

Until we start holding people accountable for their actions, we are going to have people taking the chance to break the rules in the hopes of personal gain.   If there is no significant downside, why wouldn’t they?

Published by Scott Neilson on 22 Jul 2012

Down he goes…

The taking down of the statue of Joe Paterno at Penn State University is symbolic of what will happen to his entire legacy…an entire lifetime of work and accomplishment.  I am so disappointed to see this, but I agree that it is the right thing to do.

The leadership of PSU is doing what Joe Paterno did not…demonstrating zero tolerance for this kind of behavior and this kind of leadership.

It is a great lesson for all of us.

  • Do not be deceived by your own power as a leader…or what you THINK is your own power.   Do NOT think that your power is greater than ANY of your constituents.  This is a perfect example of the power of your constituencies.  In this case, the Community has shown that it has the power to “put you out of business”.
  • Recognize that no matter what the situation or who is involved, you must do what is right.   No one person is bigger than the system of values and laws we have.
  • You as a leader must never stand by and allow a violation of what is right or legal to occur and certainly not allow it to continue, no matter who on your team is involved. You cannot allow yourself to be an enabler of such behavior.

For this situation to bring down Joe Paterno…at PSU…well, there cannot be a bigger example for us to drive that lesson home.  It will always bring you down.  As a leader you must be aware enough to recognize the violation…and strong enough to take action against it.  It is an enormous part of your responsibility as a leader.  If you are not aware enough of all that is going on in your organization, then you need to make it possible to be so.  If you are not strong enough to take the kind of action necessary to stop it, then you should not be in a leadership position.

In recent years we, as a society, have moved away from strict adherence to our traditional value systems, and more toward finding ways to cut corners and beat the system.  We have found more ways to justify tolerance of inappropriate behaviors…on many different levels.  This situation should be a call to action for all leaders…we all need to step up our level of ethical behavior.

The quote from the family about the situation now being more about the healing for the children, their families and the community is not the case!  While that is certainly part of it, it is also about preventing this kind of thing from happening again…sending a message of intolerance…showing the damage that inaction can cause.  The leadership of PSU is doing what Joe Paterno did not…demonstrating zero tolerance for this kind of behavior and this kind of leadership.

As a leader, you WILL be faced with ethical issues.  Think about it.  What will you do?

Please pass this on to your teams and other people who might benefit from it…get people thinking about it now so they are ready when the time comes.

Published by Scott Neilson on 16 Jul 2012

What a shame…

It is very disturbing to read the reports of the FBI investigation of Sandusky child sex abuse.  Equally disturbing is the handling of the situation by Penn State University.  Similar to my last post about the culture in Japan and the role that may have played in the Fukushima disaster, the situation at PSU was one of a culture that played a significant role in a failure, and a system which allowed inappropriate behavior to go uncorrected.  As a dyed in the wool Penn State fan, this has been a really tough one for me to swallow and a great disappointment.

We start making exceptions to enable one part of the organization to continue to be successful.  That is where it starts…and ultimately ends.

Here are some quotes from Edward Queen of CNN about the findings in the Sandusky case.

“Not only did the university’s administration not inform the board about the suspicions of and allegations against Sandusky, the board failed in its responsibility in establishing a system to seek such information. Most shocking, however, given its legal obligations, was Penn State’s complete dereliction in its responsibilities under express laws, including those mandating reporting and protecting those who bring violations to light.

Regardless of the structural, administrative and disciplinary failures at Penn State, the central moral failing was that the school cared more about its reputation, its football team, and even Sandusky than about his victims. The school grossly mis-ordered values and failed to meet its duties.

Penn State’s failings should be a warning to every organization and to all of us. We protect our reputations by doing the right thing, not by hiding our failings. Indeed, even amid discovery of error and wrongdoing, reputations are enhanced by acknowledging, dealing with them immediately and directly, and working to minimize their recurrence.”

In the related case of Vicky Triponey, former head of student affairs at Penn State who called out university leadership years ago on the balance of power and the associated problems this was causing and could cause, we see what tends to happen in organizations when the balance of power becomes unhealthy.

In this case, for me, the bottom line is that PSU had developed a culture in which football and everything related to it reigned supreme.  This is what can happen in organizations.  There is an element of the organization which becomes so successful, so powerful or so important that all else becomes subservient to it.  We lose balance and perspective about the relative importance of other issues.  We start making exceptions to enable that one part to continue to be successful.  That is where it starts…and ultimately ends.  Watch out for it!

As leaders, we are responsible for the behaviors of all our employees…no questions asked.  The buck absolutely stops here.

  • Manage your own behaviors and responsibilities ruthlessly.  Give yourself no slack and be tireless in your efforts to remain beyond reproach.  Require the same of everyone around you.  By the way, this will not only keep you off the front pages of the tabloids, it will earn you the respect and trust of your employees…a fundamental element in motivation.
    • Be aware of the power balance in your organization…when one part of the business becomes too powerful, it can and often will create aberrant behaviors.
      • Face mistakes head on and correct them immediately.  My experience has been that the truth always comes out, and that handling issues correctly is not only the right thing to do, it serves your best interest in protecting that which is so important to you and your organization.
        • Put systems in place which routinely and consistently make you aware of important information.  As in one of my recent posts on the complexities of leadership and the massive amounts of information with which you must deal, you need to build the appropriate mechanisms to enable information to make its way to you without being filtered or modified in any way.  LINK…

In this case, the greatest tragedy is how the lives of these young boys will be effected by this behavior.  Beyond that, not only will the football program be significantly damaged, so will the careers of many of the leaders of the university.  The storied history of the football program will be permanently tarnished.  The lives of many people will be destroyed…forever.