What business leaders can learn from PhD candidates

I went to graduate school at Montana State University (MSU) in Bozeman, Montana. Uncle Sam drafted me into the Army before I could finish my PhD program, but my heart remains a lover of the Big Sky Country.

One of my fellow PhD candidates — I’ll call him Larry — taught me the importance of taking a disciplined look at what you want to achieve, why you want to achieve it, and how to accelerate getting there. He was married and after four years at MSU spent getting his undergraduate degree, saw getting his PhD as a means to fulfilling his vision rather than an end in its own right.

Larry’s wife had taken a clerical job at the university. While the job didn’t pay much, as an employee’s spouse he didn’t have to pay tuition, a major economic boost. As a married student, they were able to take advantage of the university’s subsidized housing for married couples. Larry recognized the importance of clarifying and documenting the university’s expectations. In those days, a PhD candidate was expected to take four years to complete the degree. Larry asked himself why. Why four years? Why not three or even two? He sat down with his adviser, and pushed the administration to specify exactly what he would have to accomplish in order to earn his PhD. He kept asking, “When I accomplish these items, then I can graduate?” He pushed and pushed until he had clarity and absolute confirmation of what constituted successful completion of his program.

With that checklist in hand, he focused every day’s actions on achieving each requirement. Two years later, much to the chagrin of the MSU administration which had been counting on another two years of cheap graduate student labor, he graduated with his PhD and went on to a highly successful career.

Another colleague of mine had a very different experience. After five years at a prestigious California university, Tom realized that the school was perfectly happy to have him as a PhD candidate in perpetuity. (He was, after all, cheap labor available to assist the professors in their research.) He sat down with his adviser and forced clarification of what it would take to finish the program. Finally, after spending six years as a PhD candidate, he got his degree.

Yet another colleague of mine went through the entire four-year program at another California university. Bill finished his research, wrote the thesis, and his adviser scheduled the usually pro-forma defense. When he appeared before the committee to defend, however, they informed him that his research area was unacceptable. “That would have been nice to know three years ago when I decided on the topic! My adviser said the topic was acceptable, so I think it’s a bit late to question it now.” Needing to get on with his life, he left the university with a bad taste in his mouth — and no PhD.

Here are the lessons I drew from these three sets of experiences:

  • You must have a clear sense of what you want to accomplish and why.
  • You must take personal responsibility for clarifying expectations – what it will take for the stakeholders to be satisfied with your results.
  • You must take personal responsibility for how you will achieve your goals. There are usually dozens of paths that can get you to your destination. Pick one that leverages your passion and competence.
  • You must ask yourself, and verify, how what you’re doing today is consistent with getting where you want to be in the future. If it isn’t consistent, it’s up to you to change what you’re doing or where you want to be in the future.

Whatever your personal, professional, or corporate goal may be, you must have clarity with yourself and every stakeholder on the what, why, and how. Once you have defined the what and the why, communicate it to everyone who can help being part of how you achieve it.

A strategic planning process that clarifies the what, why, and sustains the how will enable you to turn vision into reality. If you’re interested in having a facilitated strategic planning meeting that moves you from concept to tangible implementation, read my latest book – The Chemistry of Strategy, check out our service offerings online, contact us by email, or better yet, give us a call at (800) 207-8192 to arrange for a complementary consultation to determine if you are ready for strategic planning and if our program is right for you.

Posted in Implementation, Strategic Planning | Comments Off on What business leaders can learn from PhD candidates

The challenge of changing the status quo

I believe that one of the reasons people resist changing the status quo is because every change creates winners and losers. (See my “Why do people resist change?” blog entry.)

This insight is not new; in fact, one of the most influential authors of all time identified the challenge of implementing change 1,500 years ago this year.

“And it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.”

“Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them. Thus it happens that whenever those who are hostile have the opportunity to attack they do it like partisans, whilst the others defend lukewarmly, in such wise that the prince is endangered along with them.”
The Prince by Nicolo Machiavell, 1513

The chemistry of strategy is about affecting a change in the status quo. It starts with the leadership team agreeing on what they want the future to look like and why. The how of changing the status quo, which usually cuts across the entire organization, comes through the sustained effort of the leadership team. The first group to embrace change must be the leadership team. They must resolve how to balance all the personal short-term negatives of change with the long-term positives for the their organization. Once the leadership team puts the plan in place, the real work begins. To quote Winston Churchill:

“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Over the past two decades, we at Myrna Associates have identified and refined the elements that enable teams to change the status quo for the better in their organizations.

Thirty-seven years after my first encounter with strategic planning, I continue to be struck by the power of that process to shake up the status quo in a positive way. The right rules, roles, and process will consistently deliver results. You can find specifics in the articles on our web site and our books on Strategic Planning and Meeting Management.

Posted in Innovation, Strategic Planning | Comments Off on The challenge of changing the status quo

Is the capital you need hiding in plain sight?

On a recent flight, I was sitting next to a Southwest Airlines pilot and asked him about the “things” on the end of the plane’s wings that weren’t there a few years ago. He told me that the airline was able to earn back, in under a year, the substantial cost of adding the “winglets.” The airline spent $750,000 in January and the added fuel efficiency paid off the upgrade costs that very same year, according to the pilot. The winglets lead to average fuel savings of roughly 2 percent, more than enough to recover the capital investment in less than 12 months. In effect, the upgrade was “free.” The $750,000 was “hiding” in the operating budget; it just had to be recognized.

Not all capital investments are created equal. An investment of $1 million to add a new capability may look attractive based on the five-year ROI projection. But what if the new sales take a lot longer than anticipated? That million dollars of capital will be unavailable for even more years than initially projected. It’s not unreasonable to be extra cautious when making those decisions, especially in uncertain economic times. However, this caution can be ill-advised when looking at capital investments that directly affect your company’s day-to-day operations.

I just experienced this phenomenon myself on a small scale. I have a couple of workhorse color printers I use extensively. I was intrigued by a new HP printer that uses innovative edge-to-edge technology to print at a rate of 40 sheets per minute. I asked myself why I’d invest around $1,300 for a new printer and supplies when I had a perfectly good working system. Then came the epiphany. The new printer not only prints twice as fast as my old ones, it would replace my scanner and fax machines and the power they consumed. The new HP printer consumes one-third the electrical power of my old color printer. Further, the ink and maintenance supplies would cost half that of my old printer. The money I’d save in electricity and supplies would quickly overcome the upfront cost. This was a no-brainer decision, since the money to pay for the new equipment was already in my operating budget.

Over the years I’ve facilitated strategic planning meetings where the team started out trying to solve the wrong problem. They would ask, “Where will we get the capital to upgrade our quality assurance system, or ERP software, or capacity?” Asking what the positive financial impact of the new equipment would be has led many a team to realize it was a no-brainer decision. If the new quality assurance equipment would reduce scrap by $50,000 per month, then as long as the entire cost was under $600,000, the investment wouldn’t even impact that year’s profitability.

Identifying unstated assumptions, communicating personal insights, and developing new and productive way to view issues is at the heart of the strategic planning process.

If you’re interested in having a facilitated strategic planning meeting that moves you from concept to tangible implementation, check out our service offerings online, contact us, by email or better yet, give us a call at (800) 207-8192 to arrange for a complementary consultation to determine if you are ready for strategic planning and if our program is right for you.

Posted in Implementation, Strategic Planning | Comments Off on Is the capital you need hiding in plain sight?

Why does he want to be a manager?

“Where do you want to be in five years?” I asked Burt, the grandson of one of my oldest friends. Burt had just graduated college and was in the midst of job hunting.

Burt answered: “I’d like to have my MBA and be in management.” So I asked him why he wanted to be a manager. After a long pause, he said: “I suppose it’s because managers have more responsibility and make more money.” I suggested he may want to think a bit more about why.

In my experience, accepting a job because of the title and pay increase is not a path to long-term success and happiness. Greater compensation and bigger titles are recognition of the value you create for your organization. The strongest reason for stepping into a new job is because it magnifies the value you can create.

I wanted to be a manager because the dreams I had for our organization couldn’t be implemented without a team of others. The only way I could realize that next level of value was through others, with me as their coach and manager as well as coworker.

When I was made a vice president I asked, the president of the company why the board gave me the title. He answered: “Well, John, you’ve been acting like a vice president so we thought we’d just recognize it with the title.” Titles and money are recognition of the value you create.

As an organization grows, it exceeds the capacity and/or capabilities of the founder(s). Building a strong senior executive team becomes a key strategic requirement. As the organization grows even bigger, it will exceed the capacity and/or capabilities of those senior executives and it becomes imperative to develop a strong middle management team.

Make sure that you recruit candidates with the attitude and aptitude to work through others. Look for people with a passion to coach and assist the personal development of each member of their team. Unless your people display those qualities, promoting your senior sales rep to manager just so she has a “better” title and a bigger paycheck is as foolish as promoting your accounts payable clerk to a senior salesman just so he can have a more impressive title and paycheck. It’s bad for the organization and more often than not, bad for the employee (see my promotion strategies blog entry on 8/29/13 for more about this).

Identifying key positions to fill in order to support your strategy is part of the strategic planning process. It’s common for a company to identify recruiting, on-boarding, and retaining a key new senior team member as a strategic goal for the coming year.

If you’re interested in having a facilitated strategic planning meeting that moves you from concept to tangible implementation, check out our service offerings online, contact us, by email or better yet, give us a call at (800) 207-8192 to arrange for a complementary consultation to determine if you are ready for strategic planning and if our program is right for you.

Posted in Strategic Planning | Tagged | Comments Off on Why does he want to be a manager?

Leave a trail of breadcrumbs

My one-time boss and long-time friend Dan was sharing his work experiences at Westinghouse and IBM. Over a dinner of succulent lobster and locally grown corn, he contrasted the two company’s staffing strategies.

When Dan was at Westinghouse, they promoted a talented salesman to a major management position. It quickly became obvious that he was in over his head. Westinghouse left him in the position until they couldn’t ignore his failures and then they fired him. An exceptional employee was lost because the company promoted him too soon and had no process in place to correct the mistake except termination.

After Dan joined IBM, a similar thing happened but with a completely different outcome. “IBM was fanatical about never having to fire talent,” Dan recalled. “When the promoted employee was failing as a district manager, he was quickly reassigned to run a smaller, more manageable branch office. A few years later, after regaining his footing, he had the experience and confidence to be a very successful district manager.” IBM’s ability to match employees with the right jobs at the right time was one of their secrets to success.

When I was managing computer programmers, I was always careful about promoting people to management positions. The top salesperson or engineer promoted to a failing management position is a business cliché. I would always structure things so that the employee could “try the job on for size” with a face-saving way to return to their previous, non-managerial position.

Ideally, you can have a candidate experience management responsibilities by leading a temporary task force and/or an ad-hoc problem-solving team. You can structure a position where the candidate is acting manager while the current manager is on vacation or a field assignment. Make it clear up front that if it turns out that if the new job doesn’t feel right within 90 days, he can return to his old responsibilities. Be sure to defer changing titles or compensation until you both agree that this promotion made sense.

Leaving a trail of breadcrumbs back to an employee’s current job will allow you to skip the all-too-common (and often destructive) cycle of promote and fire. Identifying staffing strategies that support your overall business strategy is part of the strategic planning process. It’s common for a company to identify developing a middle management as a strategic goal for the coming year.

If you’re interested in having a facilitated strategic planning meeting that moves you from concept to tangible implementation, check out our service offerings online, contact us, by email or better yet, give us a call at (800) 207-8192 to arrange for a complementary consultation to determine if you are ready for strategic planning and if our program is right for you.

Posted in HR Management, Strategic Planning | Tagged | Comments Off on Leave a trail of breadcrumbs

Beware hiring a “Charles Ponzi” to lead your sales or IT team

“How strong is our sales pipeline for next year?” Bob, the CEO of Creative Analytics asked in the annual strategy planning meeting.

“Great!” replied Pat, the sales VP. “I’ve got a dozen projects lined up, at least half are a lock to start in the first quarter. Revenues next year should be more than 50% higher than this year.” Pat had been a real find, a sales executive who had joined Creative Analytics eighteen months earlier with a solid track record with her past two employers.

Creative Analytics typically had a two- to three-year sales cycle for most of its projects, so it wasn’t surprising that Pat hadn’t yet brought in projects that were generating revenue. With that positive report from Pat, the team put aside their concerns that half of this year’s projects were coming to a close. In anticipation of next year’s anticipated growth spurt, they focused on plans to insure that there would be sufficient staff and capacity to support it.

Two months later, Pat surprised everyone by resigning to accept an attractive offer from anther company. She explained: “They offered me more money and a relocation to the city where I grew up and where my family still resides. I’ve loved working here and wish you all the best of luck in the future.” When Pat’s prospective new employer had done a reference check, Bob had given Pat a glowing report, highlighting how she had filled the pipeline for Creative Analytics.

One month later, Bob had a completely different view of Pat’s track record. None of the projects that were thought to be “a lock” came to fruition. As it turned out, Pat was an expert in three areas. She always appeared to be busy with lots of sales activity. She was very good at reporting progress, whether or not there was any. Third, she had impeccable timing in switching jobs before being held accountable for the ultimate results. When Bob had a chance to talk to Pat’s former employers, he found out that they had the same experience he did.

In effect, Pat had successfully pulled off a Ponzi scheme — using “good will” from a previous job to “pay off” the next duped company. There are two aspects of a position that attract potential Ponzi candidates:

  • The executives of the company don’t have a base of experience in hiring and working with senior executives in this position.
  • Tangible results won’t be seen for several years, creating a window of opportunity for the Ponzi schemer to get paid for talking a good game and then leaving before he or she is found out.

Big IT projects are notorious for attracting Ponzi-style leaders. The pattern involves many promises for a major system development, a couple of years of positive “progress reports,” and the Ponzi schemer moving to a new position 6 to 12 months before the new system effort is declared a failure. Having moved on, the former IT leader can claim that “had I still been there, it would have been a success.”

When hiring people for a top sales or IT position, it pays to get outside assistance. Call on board members, outside consultants, and CEO group members to vet the candidate. Push harder when doing reference checks. Identify just how tangible the results were that the candidate is claiming. Once someone is hired, insist on meaningful metrics and periodic audits by outside experts. If your new leader yells something like “don’t you trust me?” call on the old President Reagan slogan: “Trust but verify.”

Identifying key positions to fill in order to support your strategy is part of the strategic planning process. It’s common for a company to identify recruiting, on-boarding, and retaining a key new senior team member as a strategic goal for the coming year.

If you’re interested in having a facilitated strategic planning meeting that moves you from concept to tangible implementation, check out our service offerings online, contact us, by email or better yet, give us a call at (800) 207-8192 to arrange for a complementary consultation to determine if you are ready for strategic planning and if our program is right for you.

Posted in HR Management, Strategic Planning | Tagged , | Comments Off on Beware hiring a “Charles Ponzi” to lead your sales or IT team

Implementing accountability: lessons from Brazil

Helicopter image of Foz do Iguaçu
We facilitated a strategic planning meeting in southern Brazil. While there, we had the opportunity to visit IguaçuFalls, one of the great sites on the World Heritage List. IguaçuFalls has a flow capacity equal to three times that of Niagara Falls. It is also the site of Itaipu Dam, the largest generator of hydro-electric power in the world, located in the Parana river, between Brazil and Paraguay.

Our guide drove us out to visit the dam, the falls, and a bird sanctuary. Along the way, he was exceptionally careful to stay within the posted speed limit. His behavior differed from that of the other guides we’ve traveled with in other locations around the US and Europe. Why? Because there were significant consequences to exceeding the speed limit that fostered personal accountability.

First, there were speed bumps on the major roads every few miles. Since anyone speeding would knock the bottom off of his car, every driver was careful to follow the speed limits. The speed bumps led to automatic compliance.

Even without speed bumps, our guide continued to be very careful about obeying the speed limit in the park where the IguaçuFalls were located. I asked him why and he explained that the first time he got caught speeding in the park, he would lose his right to take tourists into the park for a full month. If there were a second violation, he would lose this right for life. (Losing access to the Falls would be the end of his career as a guide.) The consequences of breaking the law were dramatic enough to lead to automatic compliance.

When we visited the bird sanctuary, we were given stickers to put on our jackets. The stickers had the name of our guide, nothing else. Our guide asked us to be careful not to hurt any of the birds. If any sanctuary visitor hurt any of the park wildlife, the guide would be banned from bringing anyone else in. Our guide explained that he was careful to only bring responsible people to the sanctuary.

Establishing believable, enforced consequences is often more productive than policing detailed policies. For example, consider a simple expense reimbursement policy at your company under which all expenses have to be reasonable. When an employee abuses the policy, just don’t reimburse the expense. That will be the last time he books a suite at the Hyatt Regency rather than an equally available HiltonGarden room.

It always works better to tell people what they should do rather than give them a long list of things they shouldn’t do. Focus on the consequences of poor judgment. However, be careful. Don’t threaten a consequence that you are unwilling to enforce.

Establishing an environment supporting and promoting personal accountability is key to successful implementation of strategy. If you’re interested in having a facilitated strategic planning meeting that moves you from concept to tangible implementation, check out our service offerings online, contact us, by email or better yet, give us a call at (800) 207-8192 to arrange for a complementary consultation to determine if you are ready for strategic planning and if our program is right for you.

Posted in Implementation, Strategic Planning | Tagged , | Comments Off on Implementing accountability: lessons from Brazil

It isn’t enough to tell people what you want

In 1979, Ted Kennedy, brother of the assassinated President John Kennedy, was asked this straightforward question during an interview with CBS Newsman Roger Mudd.

“Why do you want to be President?”

Kennedy couldn’t come up with a straightforward answer. He couldn’t express why he wanted people to elect him President, and that was the end of Ted Kennedy’s candidacy.

Too often, I’ve seen a company CEO clearly communicate WHAT the company strategy is and HOW he and his team want it implemented without explaining WHY it’s the strategy.

When people don’t understand why they are being asked to take action, they will fill in the blanks with their best guess. Often their guess is that this latest directive is just another waste of their time that will eventually fade away and can safely be ignored.

Effective communication is a key element of implementing your strategic plan. Strategy is about taking actions today that are consistent with creating the company’s visualization of the future. Investing time and focus today in the expectation of a better tomorrow impacts people’s ability to deal with their immediate, tactical challenges. People will focus all their energy on today’s challenges if they don’t have a clear sense of WHY they need to make today’s life more difficult by spending time on implementing strategic goals.

If you’re interested in having a facilitated strategic planning meeting that moves you from concept to tangible implementation, check out our service offerings online, contact us, by email or better yet, give us a call at (800) 207-8192 to arrange for a complementary consultation to determine if you are ready for strategic planning and if our program is right for you.

Posted in Implementation, Strategic Planning | Tagged | Comments Off on It isn’t enough to tell people what you want

“Plans are nothing… Planning is everything.”

“Plans are nothing… Planning is everything.”
Dwight D. Eisenhower

Maria Birkhead, Senior Facilitator at Myrna Associates, discussed this famous quote with a client’s executive team during a recent review meeting. She noted that Eisenhower’s quote is an amazing statement, coming from the person in charge of planning the Allied invasion of Europe during World War II. What did he mean by the phrase “plans are nothing”?

Eisenhower and his team spent months and years building the team, the strategy, and the capabilities for a successful invasion. It was a planning process that incorporated input from all of his team members. Prior to the invasion, all of the key players knew not only what to do, but why they were supposed to do it. They understood how their role fit with that of the other team members. They knew the impact of any deviation from the plan.

Eisenhower knew that it was the planning process that would win the day. Yes, the plan would be documented and distributed, but it wasn’t the document itself that would assure success. It was the process of dialogue, challenge, expert input, assessment of resources, and adjusting to conditions that would spell success.

This is how it works with strategic planning. It’s not the plan…it’s the planning. When your team works together to identify the issues, develop the strategy, build the schedule, assign responsibilities and assess the costs, success is almost assured. Team members know what to do, when to do it, why it’s important and how any changes will affect others.

Creating a strategy that captures a visualization of the future everyone is working toward is a key element of strategic planning. If you’re interested in having a facilitated strategic planning meeting that moves you from concept to tangible implementation, check out our service offerings online, contact us, by email or better yet, give us a call at (800) 207-8192 to arrange for a complementary consultation to determine if you are ready for strategic planning and if our program is right for you.

Posted in Strategic Planning | Tagged , | Comments Off on “Plans are nothing… Planning is everything.”

Wide hallways, no elevators, open doors

Bell Labs was legendary for innovation. When asked what the secret of their success was, President Mervin Kelly said it was as simple as long, wide hallways, no elevators, and an open door policy.

Long hallways forced people to walk between offices to meet with colleagues. Along the way, odds were that they would run into someone else and engage in an ad hoc conversation. Wide hallways allowed them to step out of the traffic flow and continue their discussion. Ad hoc conversations generate synergy and collaboration.

Why no elevators? Well, have you noticed that conversation stops when people step into an elevator. People will continue their conversation while walking up or down the stairs. Interactive discussions are the core of collaboration.

And open doors? Magic can happen when people with their heads in the clouds interact with people who have their hands on the manufacturing machines.

Creating an innovative culture can be a powerful status quo changer. Getting the team onto the same page and committed to strategic goals like this is what strategic planning is all about. Our two-day intensive planning meeting helps foster innovation in strategic planning in a similar manner to the way Bell Labs fostered innovation in technology — you’ve got key people in a room, interacting and collaborating, even off-site to minimize distractions, thus somewhat mimicking the conditions of wide hallways, open doors, no elevators.

If you’re interested in having a facilitated strategic planning meeting that moves you from concept to tangible implementation, check out our service offerings online, contact us by email, or better yet, give us a call at (800) 207-8192 to arrange for a complementary consultation to determine if you are ready for strategic planning and if our program is right for you.

Posted in Innovation | Comments Off on Wide hallways, no elevators, open doors