Leadership Lessons Ripped from the Headlines
Through his work as an executive coach, leadership strategist, speaker and author, Scott Eblin has become known as a thought leader in identifying the behaviors that executives need to pick up and let go as they transition into new and larger roles. President of the leadership development and strategy firm The Eblin Group Inc., Scott is a former Fortune 500 executive, with a coaching client list that runs the gamut from Astra Zeneca to the U.S. Navy. He is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success which Business Book Review calls a “fascinating read” that “is full of potentially career-saving advice.”
It’s difficult in situations like this to not blame the team member for sloppiness or laziness. Sometimes those kinds of reasons are the root cause. Oftentimes, though, it’s due to a lack of a process to eliminate errors from the system or a lack of understanding of how the work supports bigger picture objectives.
One of the quick-hit, easy to implement solutions that my client and I talked about was for him to get in the habit of asking his team members, “Is this your best work?” when they pass a report on to him. Of course, that question can lead to all kinds of useful conversations about what the standards are and need to be, why and when someone’s best work is required and what processes would need to be put in place to ensure that the best quality work is being produced. It also has the beauty of putting the responsibility for producing quality work more on the team than the leader. That’s how teams learn and grow in their capacity.
The situation reminded me of a story I’d heard about how Henry Kissinger motivated his staff to do their best when he was Secretary of State. The story is told by retired ambassador Winston Lord in a oral history project conducted at George Washington University:
Have you ever watched a great musician or athlete or speaker and say, “Wow, they must have been born with so much talent, I could never do that.” Well, don’t be so sure about that. As Geoff Colvin explains in his book, Talent Is Overrated, the difference between you and that person you admire basically comes down to one thing – practice and lots of it.
In this week’s Video Book Club review, I show off one of my most prized possessions, my red bass guitar to make a point about why I ended up being a coach instead of a rock star. Colvin actually explains it all in his book. I’ve practiced coaching a lot more than I’ve practiced the bass. The good thing about Colvin’s book is he offers useful advice for how to get better at the things you’re most passionate about.
DARPA hit my radar screen last week when I was in Monterrey, California to speak to a group of high potential commanders and captains at the Naval Postgraduate School. (Ironically enough, the topic was our Life GPS® model – that’s goals planning system, not global positioning system.) At the end of my talk, where, as usual, I tossed out a lot of open ended thought starter questions to the group, one of the participants, Captain Duane Ashton, came up to say hello and offer me his business card. Later in the day, I took a look at Capt. Ashton’s card and noticed that he’s a program manager at DARPA. I also noticed that there were some questions printed on the back. Here’s what’s printed on the back of Captain Ashton’s card:
One of the things that intrigued me about the interview was Ravitch’s take on why she thinks the program has failed. She says it’s the combination of measurement and punishment. Of the two, she has no problem with measurement. In fact, she supports it. Her point is that when there is punishment like job loss or school closures associated with the measurement, the players in the system are incented to game the system. According to Ravitch’s analysis, the effect of this in No Child has been for some school systems to dumb down their student testing or to adjust the scoring scale so it looks like their results are better than they actually are.
In this clip, he talks about how they sequence the planes for landing and launch. There’s a real emphasis on systems in running safe, efficient and effective flight operations. One of the things you notice right off the bat when you’re on the deck of an aircraft carrier is that the crew is wearing different color jerseys – red, green, white, purple and yellow. There’s a systemic reason for that and the Air Boss explains why that’s the case in this clip.
As I watched the Canadians celebrate, I doubt I was alone in thinking that sometimes it’s better not to win. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting for a second that the Americans didn’t play their skates off and give it everything they had. It would have been great to see them win. But, no one wins all the time, and, sometimes, intentionally or not, you serve the greater good when you don’t win.
In the world outside of sports, it’s easy to get caught up in a “must win all the time,” approach and mentality. There are a lot of factors in our culture and in the personality traits of many people who end up in leadership roles that reinforce a reflexive response to win. Especially when you’re in a long term relationship with the other party, it’s important to mindful of other options besides going for the win.
Here are four of them:
Last night, I was skimming the Sunday New York Times (after watching a thrilling gold medal hockey match between Canada and the U.S. Have to say I’ve never been so moved by another country’s national anthem as I was when listening to an arena full of Canadians in red jerseys singing “O Canada” with all their hearts after the gold medal ceremony. Way to go Canada. Really happy for you.). But, I digress. The article that caught my eye was a profile on Gretchen Rubin, the author of the bestselling book, The Happiness Project.
Still, there are some pretty big leadership mistakes that have been made at Toyota lately. I don’t think their mistakes are unique to Toyota. As Jim Collins outlines in his latest book, How The Mighty Fall, even the most successful organization’s fortunes can turn quickly. Often it is the success that established them in the first place that can lead to trouble down the road. With that idea in mind, here are three things I’ve noticed about the Toyota situation that I think are lessons for leaders in any field:
The setting as described in the Times is a Xerox sales meeting in Orlando with several hundred reps. Burns is “an old friend to many of them, and there are plenty of hugs to go around for the people she’s grown up with during her 30 years at the company. But there is also a new distance, a new curiosity about what she will do, given that she is no longer just Ursula. She is Ursula M. Burns, the C.E.O.”
That passage describes in a nutshell a phenomenon that many leaders experience at least once if not more in their careers. Whether it’s expected or not, you end up leading people you’ve worked with for years. Earlier today, I was interviewing two women who are senior executives in the financial services and pharmaceutical industries for the upcoming second edition of my book, The Next Level. Both of them offered some great advice on how to lead people who used to be your peers.
Here it is:
You can get a summary of the study from Hewitt (conducted with Fortune magazine and the RBL Group) here. In the meantime, I thought I’d share some high level conclusions from the research along with a bit of commentary.
The research says that there are Four Disciplines that the top companies for leaders follow: