Category Archives: Team Development

Closing the Leadership Gap?

36c2b42It appears that many have adopted online learning as the panacea for filling the skills gap in leadership.  When one of our leaders demonstrates a deficiency, it is easy to assign them an online training module to shore up their skills. This is done with such frequency in some organizations that the company’s LMS (learning management system) is perceived to be the new disciplinary tool. In other words, “get your act together, or you will be sitting in front of the computer for several hours watching videos and answering questions. And don’t forget, we’re watching and tracking whether you are taking this seriously.” I mean, why not just shoot me?

While I am in favor of all kinds of learning and certainly believe that online learning goes a long way toward helping leaders gain knowledge and understanding, it is not the answer to the leadership gaps that many companies are experiencing.

I conducted a survey for one of my clients of over 200 executives. Building High Performance Teams was cited by 89% of them as the competency most essential for their team leader’s success, and for their company’s success.

Unfortunately, 89% of these executives rated their team leaders’ proficiency as average or below average in the skills required to build high performance teams. This is consistent with the gaps cited by Deloitte University Press’ Global Human Capital Trends 2015 report.

In the follow up to our survey where we asked these same executives to rate their team leader’s proficiency on several skill sets required to build high performance teams, and where we also asked the team leaders to rate themselves on the same skill sets, it became evident that lack of training and lack of knowledge were not the problem for these team leaders.

The real problem or GAP was the lack of shared meaning between the executives and their team leaders as to what it means to perform these competencies well (i.e. with proficiency). These executives had never had the kind of dialogue with their team leaders that is required for establishing clear expectations regarding the performance of these basic, critical skills. That’s like watching a new coach gather a group of experienced players together and telling them, “You know how this is done, so just go out there and play some ball and win this game”, and then actually expecting them to win.

Here are several possible reasons for this executive failure:

  1. Executives may not have their own clear definition of how to behaviorally describe each of the skills.
  2. Executives may assume that experienced team leaders share the same definition of these skills as they do.
  3. Executives’ personal discomfort with having effective developmental conversations that would not come across as too harsh, judgmental or critical.

So, here is what we did to help this company close the gap, create shared meaning, and improve the performance of the team:

  1. Help executives clarify in behavioral terms, the five or six basic skills required to perform each competency well. In other words, what would a supervisor be DOING when they were performing these competencies at a high level of proficiency?
  2. Conduct 1800 proficiency assessments in which the executives rate their team leaders, and the team leaders rate themselves on their understanding and performance of each skill.
  3. Train the entire team (team leaders and their executives) on these competencies in order to establish shared meaning regarding what it means to perform these skills with proficiency.
  4. Train the executives how to conduct a positive, constructive, developmental conversation with their team leaders utilizing a review of the proficiency assessment that showed the team leader’s visible strengths, invisible strengths, soft spots and blind spots.
  5. Provide tools and schedules for follow up coaching to ensure that the desired changes are being made.
  6. Administer follow-up 1800 proficiency assessments six months after the training in order to determine progress after the team leaders had some time to incorporate their new understanding.
  7. Measure pre and post outcomes on the assessments, as well on the company performance metrics, such as quality, productivity, customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction, financial performance.

I know what you’re thinking and you’re right. This is a little more complicated than throwing up an online training module that imparts knowledge with the expectation that watching a video will close the performance gap. It requires an all-in commitment of the executives to engage as coaches, rather than delegating this to solely to HR, OD, or external consultants who may or may not share their definition of these competencies.


  1. What are you doing to give clear behavioral definitions to the competencies you believe to be essential to your team’s success?
  2. What are you doing to create shared meaning between you and the team leaders who lead the teams in your organization?
  3. How would you rate yourself as a coach in providing positive, constructive, behaviorally specific, developmental feedback to the leaders on your team?
  4. Do you have the all in commitment required to help your team leaders and employees close the performance gap and become a high performance team who achieves outstanding results?



The Special Forces of the Consumer Products (CPG) Industry

Attention Suppliers! Literally!

Special ForcesFor those of you outside of Northwest Arkansas, there are literally thousands of supplier teams located here just to serve Wal-Mart.  But, regardless of whether you are a supplier team, you can use these principles and apply the same disciplines to help you and your team be the Special Forces in your industry.

Sometimes it is easy to forget that your teams, whose primary focus is servicing the needs of the world’s largest retailers, grocers, or home improvement stores, are literally the Special Forces of the Consumer Products Industry.

Greg Foran, CEO of Walmart U.S., told suppliers at the retailer’s Year Beginning Meetings in February, 2015 that they needed to have their “best and brightest” talent calling on Wal-Mart. He said the retailer is looking to suppliers for shared innovations and insight and that will require the most talented professionals be seated at the table.

This has nothing to do with ego or arrogance. It has everything to do with training, preparation, discipline and execution. And like the Special Forces of the military, that can, or at least, should be incredibly humbling.

Consider what it takes to become a member of an army Special Forces unit:

  • 9 Weeks of Boot Camp
  • 9 Weeks of Basic Combat Training
  • 4 Weeks of Advanced Individual Training
  • 3 Weeks of Army Airborne School
  • 4 Weeks of Special Operations Preparation Course (SOPC)
    • Physical training and land navigation
  • 3 Weeks of Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS) – survival training

Only 10% of candidates make the cut at this point

  • 34-76 Weeks of Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC) – depending upon the specialty
    • Language and Cultural training
    • Military Operations Specialty (MOS) training
    • Unconventional Warfare – Collective Training

Of the 10% who made the cut to get here, 50% wash out.

  • Then there’s the 14-18 months of Live Environment Training (LET) – Immersion Training in foreign countries – depending on specialty

Because we know what’s at stake, we go to great lengths to ensure the team we bring together is well trained, disciplined, and prepared for the task at hand. We don’t send in the rookies to handle high stakes engagements. We walk along side them as they take on ever increasing challenging assignments to ensure their preparedness.

Like the military Special Forces, you have every reason to be proud to serve on a team where the stakes can literally make or break your company. A lot is expected of you. You expect a lot of yourself. You expect a lot of your colleagues, of your support system and of your team members.

Yes, you paid the price to get here. Yes, you did the work. While you should have confidence in your training and preparation, there is no room for arrogance or elitism. It is time for your team to execute the mission. It is also your turn to teach, train and mentor others who aspire to this type of career challenge. Who better to teach them than someone who knows how tough the preparation can be?

Questions you need to answer:

  • Does my team view themselves as the Special Forces for our company?
  • Have I, or we become arrogant, “entitled” or humbled by this privilege? How would you know? Have you asked others in their organization how you are being perceived?
  • Am I personally doing the work and practicing the disciplines required of a Special Force team member?
  • Have we instilled the disciplines in our team to ensure our success at this level?
  • Do we know how to take this group of high performing individuals and turn them into a high performing team?
  • Are we achieving the results expected at this level?
  • Has my team developed talent management strategies required to find and prepare the right people for this work?
  • Do I/we have the heart of teachers/mentors who can help aspiring high potentials to achieve their dream of being a member of our high performance team?


There’s Too Much at Stake to Leave it Up to “Dwight”


Did you know that 22% of turnover occurs within the first 45 days of employment, according to The Wynhurst Group?

There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that the description of the job in posting and the interview was not a realistic portrayal of the realities of the job. Some people adapt. Most feel disappointed or even betrayed, and these are the ones that begin their search for another opportunity pretty quickly. If they stay with you for more than 45 day, you can bet you don’t have their full engagement.

Another reason for this turnover rate is the lack of a structured on-boarding process. The Wynhurst Group study indicates that new employees who went through a structured on-boarding program were 58% more likely to be with the organization after three years.

I understand that you are busy and your plate is full, but seriously, showing a new hire their desk, getting IT to set them up on the computer, giving them a key card to the door, and having them sit through an orientation session does not qualify as effective on-boarding.

The definition of a high performance culture is SHARED vision, values, purpose and expectations. How do we expect a new hire to acclimate to “our way” of doing things if we don’t have a structured process for getting them to that point?

I often ask managers how new employees gain their perceptions of them as managers. Most of the time they say they gain it over time by observation. Then I point out to them the psychological truth, that people buy with their emotions and justify with facts. Without a structured onboarding process a leader is allowing others in the organization to shape the new hire’s emotions about them and about the organization. Once those emotions are shaped, whether positively or negatively, the new person will begin to see or interpret “facts” to justify their conclusions.

Consider this. I come to work as a new employee in your company. I don’t know anyone, but I have gone through the typical unstructured onboarding and orientation process. I mean, I sat through a full day of meetings with person after person parading in front of a group of new hires telling us about everything from culture to benefits. I even had lunch with a bunch of other new hires that I am likely to never work with again.

So the next day I come to work with my new key card and computer log-in information and sit down and muddle my way through the morning.

Lunchtime roles around and most of us newbies are outta of there, headed for the nearest taco truck where we can get some space.   But not me. I was actually hoping that you would offer to take me to lunch to further our onboarding, but that would have been expecting too much. So, I am courageous enough to head to the break room and get my lunch out of the fridge. I don’t know a soul and it feels a little like the first day at a new junior high. I am feeling a little awkward and out of place, but I gut it up and try to make it through.

And then, Dwight comes along and plops his lunch down at my table, introduces himself and asks if I mind if he sits with me. And I’m thinking, “Whew! Finally someone who will rescue me from this awkwardness.” So Dwight sits down and begins telling me about who he is and what he does. He even asks about me and my new job and what brought me to the company. As the conversation proceeds, Dwight says, “It’s a good thing we met. You’re gonna need someone to show you the ropes.” And he proceeds to give me his perspective on everything from the CEO, to the benefits, to you, my new manager whom he has heard about through the grapevine.

If you are lucky, Dwight is a person who enjoys his job, feels productive, has embraced the mission and vision of the company. If you’re lucky. If you’re not so lucky, Dwight has been through the same onboarding process that I went through. On top of that, the job he was hired for hasn’t turned out to meet his expectations and his supervisor tends to be a little low on the EQ side of the equation.

What you may not understand is that Dwight may very well be my new best friend at work. Think about it. He is the only person who had good enough taste to sit down with me at lunch. But even if he is not my new best friend, he is now beginning to shape my emotions and perceptions. While I may still give you the benefit of the doubt, I will certainly be keeping my eyes open for anything that may reinforce what Dwight has told me. And there are always plenty of things that can be interpreted either way. For example, you may actually be on your way to a very important meeting when I meet you in the hall and you blow me off as if you hardly know who I am. And there it is, the beginning of the reinforcement of my emotional connection to my new friend. And there you are, without a clue as to what just happened.

By the way, this is not the only way people gain their perceptions of you as their new manager. Remember, they have had managers before you. If they were poor managers, like Dwight’s manager, then their perceptions of managers in general may be negative. They have also had other authority figures in their lives, such as parents and teachers and principals and police officers. These experiences serve to shape how they perceive and interact with people in positions of authority.

With so much at stake, why leave it to Dwight or to luck? Make sure the first 30 to 60 days of a new hire’s experience with you is fully structured with interactions, training and instructions from the people that you want to be shaping their perceptions and emotional connections to you and to your company.

Building High Performance Teams Requires Competence and Courage

Remember_the_Titans_r620x349I have always been inspired by movies such as MiracleRemember the Titans, and We are Marshall, which depict leaders turning rag-tag groups of players into winning teams.  I am sure you can recall dozens of similar stories that haven’t been made into movies, e.g., the 1990’s Chicago Bulls NBA Championship teams, the Atlanta Braves World Series teams of the late 90’s, or the SEC’s powerhouse football team the Alabama Crimson Tide.

You may also dream about being the leader of such a team.  I am here to tell you that this is not an impossible dream.  It requires two things:  Courage and Competency.

I recently surveyed 200 senior business executives (CEOs, COOs & CFOs), asking them about the competencies required of their supervisory leaders.   The overwhelming majority of these executives said Building Effective Teams was what they needed most from their supervisors.  When these leaders were asked to rank their supervisors’ proficiencies in this skill, 82.9% of them were ranked average or below!

Go back and watch the movies, or read the stories of these miracle teams. Pay attention to the coaches.  You will see that they exhibit the following six Competencies, and they do so with exceptional Courage.

The same executives again ranked their supervisors as average or below average in proficiency for these Competencies:

  • Talent selection, hiring and onboarding – 74.2% average or below
  • Setting goals, holding others accountable, and engaging in courageous conversations – 88.8% average or below
  • Talent development and delegation – 89.8% average or below
  • Conflict management – ensuring conflict is healthy enough to work for us rather than against us – 88.7% average or below
  • Leading and managing change – 84.1% average or below
  • Inspiring with vision and purpose – (This competency was not surveyed, but is required for the kind of teams we are discussing.)

Very few of these executives said they had engaged in what I call “Courageous Conversations” with their supervisors, where they communicated their definitions of, and expectations around, these competencies.  It’s no wonder there was a disconnect between the supervisors’ performances and their executives’ rankings.  The primary reasons given for failing to engage in these conversations were: assuming the executives “should already know these things;” not having clear behavioral definitions of these competencies that would allow constructive conversations; and confessing they didn’t know how to have these courageous conversations.

The executives also admitted that they had not provided training and development to support the specific behaviors they believed were critical to building the teams they were looking for.

When you watch those movies or review the behaviors of the aforementioned coaches, it is readily apparent that they were clear about what they expected of staff and players, and then they trained and coached them to perform to meet those expectations.

Before leaving this topic of Courage, let me just say that it is just one of many character traits required of great leaders.  Courage implies risk.  So be careful not to run off too quickly in a show of “courage” and destroy everyone and everything you are trying to build.  Take it one step at a time.

The first step is to take a good look at yourself, and ask the following questions:

  • Do I believe these are the competencies required to build a high performing team?  If not, get clear about which competencies you believe to be essential.
  • Then, have I clearly defined these competencies in behavioral terms such that they can be easily understood, followed and evaluated against?
  • Next, am I stepping into courageous, respectful conversations with my supervisors to help them know how I see their performance in these areas, and to help them improve, or determine whether they really want to lead on my team?
  • What am I doing to provide my team training that will ensure that these competencies are understood and consistently applied?
  • Do I have the courage and other character traits necessary to be the leader I dream about becoming?

Getting it Together

Geese in FormationWhen it comes to leaders getting it together, developing Emotional Intelligence, or EQ is a critical success factor.

As an Executive Coach I spend a lot of time talking to clients about EQ, especially as they become more aware of the research that indicates that a leader’s effectiveness and their team’s performance is directly correlated to and significantly impacted by the leader’s EQ.

EQ is a leader’s ability to understand and manage their own emotions, moods and behaviors, and to understand how these impact others.  EQ also involves a leader’s ability to read the emotional cues from others, and manage their relationships for the greatest effectiveness.

The first step in improving EQ is “Self-Awareness”.  Being able to know the impact you have on others is critical to your success as a leader.  This is probably the most challenging stage of improving your EQ.  The problem is that how a leader thinks they are coming across and the reality of how they are actually perceived by others are often very different.  Sometimes that’s due to egotistical blindness that leads a person to believe that they are better than they are.  However, this is not the primary problem I encounter.  Companies tend to be pretty good at spotting this pretty quickly and purging it from the system, unless, of course this fault lies in the CEO who does not have an objective board of directors, or has a board who is afraid of speaking the truth.  (That, however, is a worthy topic for an entirely different discussion).

I have found that the best way to help a leader increase their Self-Awareness is to help them ask for feedback.  In some environments this works great.  However, sometimes people are afraid to tell their leader how they actually perceive them, how they are coming across, or how their behaviors are impacting the team.  Sometimes that’s because the leader is so admired that no one wants to tell him or her the truth, or they may have a history of negative reactions such that people are  fearful of the consequences, or the leader responds by quickly defending or dismissing feedback altogether.  Without feedback, however, leaders continue to do what they have always done, even if it has been ineffective, demoralizing, or creates a toxic work environment.  This is where anonymous 360 degree feedback can be most helpful.  This can be gained through qualitative interviews as well as through the administration of objective online assessments that allow the leader to hear from their supervisors, peers, direct reports and others.  This feedback in the hands of a highly competent Executive Coach can be powerful.

Another means of improving Self-Awareness is through psychological assessments that help a leader identify the internal and underlying drivers of emotions and behavior, and how those drivers may or may not be working for them.  These assessments combined with the 360 degree feedback can lay the groundwork for incredible self-awareness and change.  Once a leader is aware of how they are impacting others they can build a plan for sustaining the behaviors that are working for them, and managing those few that tend to have a less than desirable impact.  I say “few” because most leaders I work with only have two or three issues that they need to modify to become more effective.  Those behaviors or issues may be the most difficult to change because they have been ingrained as deeply held beliefs or long term habits.  They may even be the behaviors that the leader believes to have led to their past success, so modifying them may seem a little risky.

That is why companies and leaders engage Executive Coaches and create Leadership Accountability Groups.  I was once engaged by the CEO of a half billion dollar company to serve as his executive coach and to also provide coaching for the rest of his executive team.  Toward the end of that year long process I facilitated a Team Alignment session where we would take look at their aggregate scores on the assessments and learn how the team could help each other take their leadership to the next level.  The following are a few of the commitments that this team made to each other:

We WILL……..

  • Address the “elephant in the room” and openly share perspectives.
  • Be less defensive in order to gain better collaboration and unity.
  • Explain changes in more pragmatic and understandable terms so the people on the front lines are not flying blind.
  • Purposely not second guess decisions made by this team once the final decision has been made.
  • Timely communicate any point of concern/contention that we may be thinking in order to avoid bottling it up and later exploding.
  • Listen more intently so that we can ask clarifying questions before jumping to conclusions.
  • More openly voice concerns in our meetings to ensure all critical issues are addressed.
  • Be more aware of, and manage people’s perceptions of us as leaders.

In addition to this list, each member of the executive team made a commitment to allow any of the other members to hold them accountable for these commitments.  It was obvious to everyone on the team that the assessment and coaching process had made a significant impact.  It was also obvious that the changes they were committing to could improve their leadership and the performance of the organization.  However, they also knew that the commitments could be difficult to achieve if each of them attempted to go it alone, so they committed to hold one another accountable.  When a group of people like this agrees on the results they want to achieve, and agree to hold one another accountable to the highest level of performance, there is no end to what they can accomplish.

As you move forward this year take some time to think about the impact of your leadership.

  • Are you having the kind of impact that you think you are?
  • Are you getting the truth about how you are coming across as a leader?
  • What habits could you be stuck in that are contributing to the challenges you are facing?
  • Are you making the few critical adjustments that will have the greatest impact on your effectiveness and on the performance of your team?
  • And finally, what outside resources do you need to help you identify and make the changes you and your team need to make?”