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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.”

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Garlinghouse No, I’m not talking about some schlocky movie that didn’t make it into theatres this summer.  I’m talking about Brad Garlinghouse, a former Yahoo Senior Vice President who was hired this week to be a key part of the leadership team charged with spinning AOL out of Time Warner over the next year. For fans of memorable business communication, Garlinghouse is best known as the author, in 2006, of a memo to the top executives at Yahoo that came to be known as “the peanut butter manifesto.” 

Among other points in the manifesto, Garlinghouse wrote:

“I've heard our strategy described as spreading peanut butter across the myriad opportunities that continue to evolve in the online world. The result: a thin layer of investment spread across everything we do and thus we focus on nothing in particular.

I hate peanut butter. We all should”

His memo, which was eventually featured in a front page article in the Wall Street Journal, was a clarion call for Yahoo to get its act together and recapture its leadership position in the Internet space. That hasn’t happened yet (and may never happen), but the memo set off a chain of events which led to a change in top leadership and the implementation of many of the strategies that Garlinghouse wrote about.

So, as Garlinghouse joins AOL to help lead what is a combination of a turnaround and a start-up, I thought it was worth taking a look at the peanut butter manifesto to see what we can learn about how leaders can influence their bosses through highly effective communications. Here are a few takeaways:

Now that the Cash for Clunkers program is over, the results are coming in and it looks like the big winners from the program are Hyundai and Ford with year over year monthly sales increases of 47% and 17% respectively. The number three selling new car during the Clunkers program was the Ford Focus with the Ford Escape showing up in the top 10 as well. The other two American car companies actually showed declines in sales during August with GM down almost 20% from last year and Chrysler sales down 15%.

Fordceo What’s the difference between the three U.S. auto makers? Obviously, there are a lot of factors, but I’d argue the most important is leadership.  As I wrote in this blog back in August of 2007, my money was on Ford CEO Alan Mulally to lead a turnaround at Ford and it looks like that’s what he’s doing. I spent some time earlier today reading some recent articles about Mulally and watching some video interviews with him to try to determine what he’s done right since arriving at Ford from the Boeing Corporation in 2006.  (My sources include articles in Fortune magazine, Business Week, and the U.K. Guardian along with video interviews from Time magazine and the New Yorker

Based on that research, here are five Mulally success factors I’ve come up with that I think apply to any leader charged with leading a turnaround in their organization.

Mcerveris1 And for this latest edition of the Leadership Lessons Podcast, something completely different. I’m talking today with the Tony Award winning Broadway star Michael Cerveris. Since his Broadway debut in 1993 as the lead in The Who’s Tommy, Michael has been nominated for four Tony Awards including best actor for Sweeney Todd and winning best actor for his role as John Wilkes Booth in Stephen Sondheim’s The Assassins.  His credits are too numerous to mention here but you may also know him as The Observer in the Fox series, Fringe.  This Fall he’ll be appearing in the new film, The Vampire’s Assistant with Salma Hayek and John C. Reilly and, beginning in October, will open at Lincoln Center as one of the leads in In The Next Room.

An impressive career to be sure, but why is Michael doing a Leadership Lessons Podcast?

Tedkennedy1 Most Americans alive today cannot remember a time when a Kennedy of the generation of John, Robert and Ted was not playing a major public role in the life of the nation. The passing of Ted Kennedy this week literally marks the end of an era and is, I think, one reason why his death has moved so many people.  It is the clear end of an era in all of our lives.

There have been so many perceptive and thoughtful commentaries and remembrances written about Ted Kennedy in the past few days that it feels somewhat redundant on my part to add to the mix. Still, there are three quick things I want to address in this post.

First, I want to point you to some of the columns on Kennedy that I’ve found most thought provoking.  They include David Broder’s in the Washington Post, David Brooks’ in the New York Times and John F. Harris’s and Alexander Burns’ on Politico.com

Second, I want to share a couple of leadership lessons from Kennedy’s life that I think are important and that I have not seen clearly stated elsewhere (with complete acknowledgement that they may have been. I haven’t read everything.)

Bernanke2 In my presentations and group coaching work, I’m fond of quoting Charles DeGaulle’s observation that,  “The cemeteries are full of indispensable men.”  The point I’m trying to make with that line is that while every leader has unique opportunities and responsibilities in their role that only they can do, no one is personally indispensible.  President Obama’s renomination of Ben Bernanke for another term as Chairman of the Federal Reserve has me thinking that Bernanke may be the exception that proves DeGaulle’s rule. As Robert J. Samuelson writes in the Washington Post today, Bernanke, with his unique background as one of the world’s foremost experts on the Great Depression and his willingness to take decisive and innovative action to restore faith in the credit markets, could merit a Time magazine cover headline as “The Man Who Saved the World.”

Sandwich1 A lot of the clients I work with in our group coaching program are middle managers. They’ve moved beyond the level of front line leaders and supervisors, but have not yet reached the ranks of the most senior executives. They’re the directors, senior directors and vice presidents in the private sector and the GS-15’s and SES – 1’s in federal government. And, based on my experience in working with them over the years, I would say that more and more they are the meat in the sandwich. By that, I mean they’re constantly squeezed from pressure above them and below them in the organization.

Over the weekend, one of my colleagues from the Georgetown Leadership Coaching program, Marijo Puleo, shared a McKinsey survey report, Leaders in the Crisis, on the alumni list serve. In that same daily digest from the list serve there was an extended conversation sparked by another colleague who has a client in crisis. Like a lot of people these days, this client simply has too much work to get it all done and still have a semblance of a life. About ten coaches responded to that issue and said they’re seeing the same thing with their clients.

How much more evidence do we need that middle managers are the meat in the sandwich? The McKinsey survey had some interesting results that illustrate the point. Here are a few factoids for you.  Middle managers, compared to the top execs surveyed, are:

  • Less committed to staying with their organizations
  • Less enthusiastic about their work
  • Less satisfied with their own performance and
  • Far less satisfied than the seniors with how their bosses are doing. (Ouch!)

Does anyone else see a problem here? These are not just the people responsible for keeping things running during the current economic challenges, these are also the leaders that organizations are counting on for long term growth and success. The stakes around keeping this group engaged are pretty high. Here are a few ideas based on the McKinsey research about how to do a better job with that.

Have you ever noticed that the more stressed you get, the more likely you are to keep doing things that aren’t that productive (e.g. waste another 10 minutes surfing the web or eat that second piece of cake)?  Well, I don’t know if this will make you feel any better, but it turns out that lab rats do the same thing.

Labrat1As reported in the New York Times this week, new research out of Portugal shows that chronically stressed rats keep doing the same thing over and over (like compulsively pressing a bar for food they’re not going to eat), because they’re too stressed to do anything more productive. Of course, you might be stressed too if, like the lab rats, you had to live with dominant bully rats or periodically got zapped by a mild electric current. (Come to think of it, that doesn’t sound a whole lot different than getting buzzed by your Blackberry 200 times a day.)

Obamahealthcare As I wrote last week, the health care reform debate is, unfortunately, full of important lessons for leaders on how not to drive change. Admittedly, it’s a lot easier to observe what seems to be going wrong when you’re watching the process instead of being in the middle of it. Still, it seems like President Obama’s reform process is running off the rails. The White House spent last week playing defense on the health care reform town halls and the latest example is this morning’s confusion (as reported on Politico ) about whether or not a public insurance option is still on the table.  

How did we get here?  I think there are three lessons from how the President and his team have handled this that anyone who is responsible for leading dramatic change should pay attention to. 

Townhallrage You’ve no doubt seen the videos of members of Congress such as Arlen Specter and Claire McCaskill conducting (or, more accurately, trying to conduct) town hall meetings on health care reform. This seems to be rapidly turning into the summer of the shouters. My friend and blogging colleague John Baldoni picked up on this trend and posted a solid piece this week on how speakers should deal with an unruly crowd. My concern is that with all of the cable TV coverage of the health care shouters, leaders in other domains may soon face more of this behavior in town hall meeting type settings. The health care town halls feel like the latest example of how the bar for what passes as civil discourse in our country keeps getting lowered.  

So, with the goal of prepping you for leading and communicating effectively the next time you face a contentious group, I want to recap John’s good advice, see what we can learn about what not to do from Senator Specter and share with you a lesson I learned when I had to defend a tax increase to a bunch of beer fueled construction contractors twenty years ago.

 My wife, the healthy food blogger (www.thewholegang.org), and I played hooky from work last Friday afternoon and went to the 1:10 pm showing of the new movie, Julie and Julia. (We were there with all of the retired folks and I concluded that that looks like a pretty sweet gig.)  Anyway, it’s a great movie – two thumbs way up from both of us. Anytime you have Meryl Streep (as Julia Child) and Stanley Tucci (as her husband Paul Child) acting together you’re well on your way to a great movie.

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