Monthly Archives: November 2010

Exceptional Leaders are Strategic Thinkers: Frank Broyles on Strategy

Though I am Texan with a fondness for the Longhorns, I have become an avid Razorback fan, and as a result, a fan of the entire Southeastern Conference. I have enjoyed the privilege (because of my association with Cameron Smith & Associates) of participating in the monthly luncheons of the newly formed Arkansas Razorback Touchdown Club where we have great camaraderie with other fans, listen to great speakers and get a little insight from players, coaches and sports analysts.

Today, I had the privilege of hearing Coach Broyles. I have heard him speak on many occasions, and I believe today, he was a strong as I have heard him. What impressed me most today came as a result of my current focus on Leader Development and Executive Coaching. One of the things that is required of the successful Executives is that they must be strategic thinkers. My experience is that many executives get so busy with their focus on the immediacy of the current tasks that the tyranny of the urgent eliminates their capacity for strategic thinking. Not so for the leader of Razorback sports over the years. Frank Broyles told two stories today that helped me appreciate the strategic thinking of those that have led this enterprise.

When ask what the most significant defining moment was for Razorback Athletics, Frank (after pausing to consider the defeat of Texas in Austin) pointed to his predecessor, Coach Barnhill, who later became Athletic Director. He told the story of how Coach Barnhill, in the 1940s realized the uniqueness of the Arkansas situation. His challenge was to build a world class, competitive sports program in a university that was situated off in the Northwest Corner of the state, and in a state with a very small fan base potential. Coach Barnhill knew that in order to move the program in the right direction, it would require an energized fan base. He developed a strategy to gain the loyalty of those potential fans. He focused his attention on convincing the radio stations across the state to exclusively air the Razorbacks games, instead of those of the Razorbacks and the adjoining state competitiors. That strategy paid off as fans throughout the state rallied around those radio stations to support the Razorbacks. Additionally, the Gazette newspaper took on a similar focus. It wasn’t long before the fan base was unlike any other in sports. The strategy was paying off. Coach Broyles said that when he came here from his stints as a coach in Georgia and Texas, he was amazed at how a state of so few people could rally such support for its teams. That is when he made his decision to focus his efforts on getting the top job.

Of course, getting Coach Broyles to Arkansas was a pretty good strategic move as well. Not only was he a great coach, he was also a great strategic thinker. Maybe it was his mentor and predecessor that instilled that leadership trait. He described the thought processes behind the decision to switch from the Southwest Conference to the Southeastern Conference. As a leader who allowed himself time to step back and think strategically about his business, he could see both opportunity and threats. He saw major league sports come into states like Texas and dominate the headlines and erode the fan base away from college sports. He began to consider what might happen should this continue, or should Texas decide to leave the SWC. That is when he made the tough decision to transition to the SEC, (not a popular decision among most of the fans). Most fans today applaud that decision as having made an incredible impact on Razorback sports, which today boasts a program that only states of two or three times the fan-base population can boast.

Are you taking time to step back from your business to think strategically, to get yourself out of the tyranny of the urgent to consider the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats for your business, and what you are going to do about them? There two ways to make this happen. One is to force yourself to block time for the process. If you don’t make time for it, it will likely never occur. If it does not occur your competition may pass you by, or you may lose your job. Secondly, you will have to develop your people to take on the responsibilities they are capable of, so you can take time necessary to look two to three years out and consider what needs to change in order for you or your company to stay on the trajectory of success.

By the way, your people are capable of much more than you think, but that is a topic for a different discussion.

The Art of the Question: Avoid the Destructive Hooks

Did you . . . ? Do you . . . ? Don’t you . . . ? Why didn’t you . . . ? Why don’t you . . . ? etc., etc., etc..

Have you ever worked for someone who had the knack of asking questions such as these, and all the while, you knew that he/she already had their mind made up as to the answer they wanted. Or, they ask the question as a means of scolding you for not thinking like them in the first place? Sometimes I wonder why these leaders hire other people. Why don’t they simply just do it all themselves? Or, if they already have an answer, why wouldn’t they outline what they wanted beforehand and tell others to get it done, rather than wait for an outcome different than what they wanted, then ask these types of destructive questions?

These are what have often been referred to as “loaded questions”. Whether intentional or not, these questions are often loaded with hooks attached to the end, i.e. “Why didn’t you . . . ?” And the invisible, unspoken hook at the end is “Stupid”! Rather than truly offering an opportunity for an explanation for your rationale in the decision making process, they often leave you feeling totally disrespected and incompetent.

I’ll never forget one executive asking me why I was documenting a plan for increasing the pay for one of our female managers. His question “Why would you do that?” The tone of the question and the inference was that such documentation was a stupid practice. Thus the hook: “Why are you doing that, stupid?” He went on to question my competence as an HR executive by pointing out that such documentation could be subject to deposition in a law suit. It was obvious that he wasn’t interested in my explanation that this practice would be exactly what would keep us from losing a discrimination lawsuit, because it documented both our intent to find and correct such problems, and it outlined our strategy for making this right and bring her pay in line with others (especially male managers) in similar roles and skill levels.

The arrogant leader will find this entire article ludicrous and blame the hearer rather than examine themselves.

The Exceptional Leader, however, works hard to master the Art of the Question for two reasons. First, they try to hire people smarter than themselves, and are very inquisitive about their thoughts, ideas and processes. They know that not everyone thinks like they do, and though they may have an idea about what they want done, they want others to bring their unique abilities and talents to the table to improve on the process. The more they ask open ended questions with an inquisitive mindset, the more they learn, and the more they appreciate the talented people in whom they have invested so much.

Secondly, these leaders know that the best way to lead a person is to help them discover better solutions. They use the Art of the Question to help people look deeper and analyze further. Rather than simply telling the “right way”, they ask questions that lead others through the process of discovery. They know that if the person is told, there may be compliance, but there is little learning and little commitment, but if people discover solutions through a deeper analysis, they have learned something new and their commitment is much stronger.

The next time you encounter something that frustrates you about the work of a direct report or subordinate, rather than reacting with one of the easy questions that has the invisible hooks, pause and consider a new approach. Ask the person to walk you through their thought, decision-making or problem-solving processes. You might actually learn something. If the answers are still inadequate, you have an opportunity to ask additional questions that will lead them to further discovery.

Exceptional Leaders and the Paradox of Power

True power requires modesty and empathy, not force and coercion, argues Dacher Keltner, Ph.D (professor of psychology at U.C. Berkley.) But what people want from leaders—social intelligence—is what is damaged by the experience of power.

That is the opening paragraph of an article written by Keltner entitled The Paradox of Power. Throughout the article Keltner describes his research that pits the Machiavellian approach to power and leadership to what I would describe as more of a Servant Leadership philosophy. The Machiavellian approach suggests that power is strategically acquired and sustained through force, coercion, manipulation and deception. The Servant Leadership philosophy is supported by new research that has revealed that power is given to those who use it responsibly and who are attuned to, and engaged with the needs and interests of those they lead.

The research further supports the statement made by the British Historian, Lord Acton, that “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Something potentially dangerous happens to the psyche when one is placed in or “earns” a position of power. The tendency is toward impulsivity, aggression, flirtatious behavior, lack of critical analysis and judgment, and a complete lack of consideration for others. This tendency is often displayed in rudeness, interrupting others, speaking out of turn and harsh teasing of others. And it is these behaviors, though often subtle, that are most frequently sited as the source of leader derailment.

To quote Keltner “My own research has found that people with power tend to behave like patients who have damaged their brain’s orbitofrontal lobes (the region of the frontal lobes right behind the eye sockets), a condition that seems to cause overly impulsive and insensitive behavior. Thus the experience of power might be thought of as having someone open up your skull and take out that part of your brain so critical to empathy and socially-appropriate behavior.”

The Paradox: Power is given (by their followers) to those who are best attuned to the needs and interests of others. However, power, once acquired, tends to damage one’s focus on acting in just such a socially intelligent manner.

The challenge for the Exceptional Leader is to recognize this tendency for power to corrupt even them, and to focus their attention on ensuring that they are not behaving in a Machiavellian manner. This is where an Executive Coach can be especially helpful, and it is why over 50% of Fortune 500 corporations are utilizing executive coaches as a part of their leadership development strategies today.

The Blind Side – Personally

Remember that your Blind Side is failure to see your leadership deficiencies. In football, the right-handed quarterback has a good left tackle in place to make sure the blind side is covered. A similar strategy also works for the Exceptional Leader, having someone who can bring truth to you so you can see and correct your leadership deficiencies. This where a good Executive Coach can be helpful.

Such deficiencies are as prevalent in a leader’s personal life as they are in their professional life. For example, a manager gave me a call, indicating that his Vice President suggested that he could use my help with some coaching. Evidently, the senior manager had seen some signs that this person was having difficulty in his personal life that was impacting his career. After a short introduction this man said that he was sure that his company’s leadership/management roles were not designed for married people. Since I knew many managers in this company who were successfully married, I asked him the reason for his conclusion. He indicated that most of the managers in the area where he worked were divorcing or having marital problems. He went on to say that the job demanded eighty hours a week and that his assistant managers were simply not ready for increased responsibility. His conclusion was that he had to carry all the load himself, possibly sacrificing his family for the cause.

After hearing this, I immediately ask him how his marriage was faring. He said he and his wife were getting along well. He said that his wife had complained about his work for a long time, but seems to have adjusted and had not complained for quite some time. I then asked him, “When do you think she will be leaving you?” He asked me what I meant by the question. I told him that my experience is that the early complaints were “yellow flags” letting you know something was wrong. They could have even been “red flags” warning you that she was at her wits end and needed you to tune in. However, the silence he had been experiencing was more than likely the “white flag” of surrender rather than a sign of happiness. I went on to inform him that for many women in such circumstances, it was only a matter of time before she raise the white flag and leave, because she had concluded that he was truly blind to the needs of his family.

The question and explanation struck a nerve. He paused and said, “Oh my God! ‘My brother-in-law has been sleeping on my sofa for a couple of weeks. ‘My sister-in-law finally left him. ‘When he came to tell us she left, he said he didn’t know anything had been wrong.” ‘However, we knew there had been problems for years.”

In that brief moment he became acutely aware of the meaning of the “blind side”. The last thing he wanted was for his wife to leave him and take the children with her. We discussed strategies for developing his assistant managers and delegating more to them, about communicating more effectively with his wife, and about leading a more balanced life in light of a long term vision that included personal and professional success. He made the right adjustments and called me three weeks later to let me know that his life and work were much more manageable.

Unfortunately, too many leaders come into my office, having been hit in their blind side as their spouse threw up the white flag and was on the way out the door. Some have been willing to do the hard work that allowed these relationships to be salvaged. Many waited too long before they opened their eyes and ears.

Pay attention to the flags of communication. Discover the intensity of emotion behind them. Don’t assume that silence is golden. Most of the time, it is not. The work of building a healthy marriage is worth all the effort you put into it. If you don’t believe it, ask your kids. Find some people (counselor, coach, pastor, friends) who will be truth tellers to you on a personal level as well a professional level. You may be fortunate to have a spouse who is really good at being your left tackle, and is committed to your personal and professional success. If so, count yourself blessed and return or forward the favor.

The Blind Side – Professionally Speaking

This title will quickly bring up images from the recent movie of the same title. There are not many leaders who have incorporated a strong and powerful left tackle (for a right handed quarterback) who is positioned to protect them on their blind side. Unfortunately, most leaders don’t even know they have a blind side until the effects of it are near disastrous for them, their organization, or those they lead.

As an executive coach, I am frequently called in by the corporation to assist an executive or high potential leader developmentally, as they rise to the challenges that accompany their advancement and to help them avoid common pitfalls. I am also called in remedially, to assist executives who are struggling or on the brink of derailment because their blind side finally caught up with them.

The reason organizations spend so much time, effort and money in training, and coaching their leadership talent is they know how critical leadership is to their success. They also know that all leaders are humans with blind sides that must be discovered and corrected before they have disastrous effects. Additionally, they know that these initiatives are well worth the investment.

Why Some Leaders have a Blind Side?

1. Arrogance: these are leaders who are full steam ahead with their own agenda and oblivious to the impact on those around them until it is too late. The most recent example may be the political “shellacking” that happened to the Democratic Party. Some leaders truly believe that what got them to this new position will give them success in this new position. Keen observers of leadership effectiveness know that this is simply not true.

2. Personality: a leader’s personality or preferred style and approach to life and leadership is one of the greatest contributors to blindness, because even our strengths have a shadow side. One of my coaching clients had failed numerous times to achieve partner level in his firm. His 360 assessments suggested that people were not eager to follow and work with him on projects that required their contributions. However, they did not provide him sufficient information so that he could understand their concerns. After a couple of coaching sessions and some additional assessments, it became obvious that his preferred style and personality were part of the problem. He learned that he was pretty good at getting things done, but lacked the skills required to motivate and inspire the team. Additional coaching helped him develop strategies for developing and engaging an energized team. On his next 360 assessment he received a lot more positive feedback, which was required for him to be considered for partner.

3. Ignorance: these leaders may be leading from an old and outdated leadership philosophy. They may also be unaware of the increasing power of their words and actions as they advance to higher positions, and therefore find themselves unintentionally making missteps that are disastrous. One of my executive coaching clients who, on the brink of total derailment, said he truly did not know of any other way to lead. He embraced the coaching with a voracious appetite and modified his leadership style, which coincidentally, was much more in alignment with his own personal values. He is now leading from within his own core values rather than from an artificial philosophy. His CEO said he is now exhibiting everything he wants in a leader.

4. Entitlement: These are leaders who “paid their dues” and believe others should do the same, regardless of the effectiveness of the process. Some even believe their job entitles them to lead in an authoritative and intimidating style, because they believe that is what gets results.

5. Advanced without Development. These leaders often utilize a leadership style that contributed to their past success, but is no longer appropriate for their current position. Another executive coaching client had never received any coaching, training or development in his twenty years of executive leadership, and was just doing what he thought was best, which was leading to a career derailment. He was thrilled to learn new methods and styles of leadership.

6. Lack of Self-Awareness: They simply are unable to see their blind spots and the impact they are having on others. Some people believe that everyone sees (or ought to see) the world as they do, and are shocked when they learn otherwise.

7. Lack of Feedback: They have been allowed to advance (often because they got results) in spite of known deficits in their leadership style. Some leaders have positioned themselves to hear and receive only the praise and accolades of their followers, while ignoring the more negative messages. Too often they receive feedback that is not clear, specific and accompanied by the potential consequences that could motivate change. They have not opened the door to “truth tellers” who will be honest about how their leadership and their blind spots. Some actually terminate the truth tellers so they don’t hear the truth, because they are so convinced they are right.

8. Protecting the Blind Spot ONLY: It is good for the quarterback not to get run over by those defensive linemen, so they employee the left tackle. But protecting oneself from the damage that can come from the blind spot is not enough for exceptional leadership. These leaders have to make the necessary adjustments in their leadership approach if they hope to succeed.

9. Change without Change: The organization shifted and the leader did not! By the way, this excuse is often used by organizational leaders for their own failure to provide training, coaching, feedback and development that could salvage a great executive.

10. Complacency: These are leaders that have been so long in the role that they became too comfortable, stopped learning, and stopped adding value. They have become unable or unwilling to see the organization from the perspective required to make the changes necessary for continued success.

Every leader has their blind side. Have you discovered yours? Don’t wait until it raises its ugly head and you are on the brink of derailment before you do the work required to alter your leadership journey and stay on the trajectory of success. Engage an Executive Coach to help you discover your blind spots and learn new leadership strategies to achieve your goals and those of the organization where you are privileged to lead.