Blogs, Leadership, Management, Productive

HBR: 4 Ways to Be More Effective at Execution

Do you have an execution problem? Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman.

4 Ways to Be More Effective at Execution

Most people recognize that execution is a critical skill and strive to perform it well, but they may a) underestimate how important it is to their career advancement or b) not realize that you can improve on execution without working longer hours.

On the first point, bosses place a premium on execution, which we define as the ability to achieve individual goals and objectives. In fact, when we asked senior managers to indicate the importance of this ability, they ranked it first on a list of 16 skills. Other raters in the organization ranked it fourth, behind inspiring and motivating, having integrity and honesty, and problem solving. We recognize that there are many parts of your job that are important, but if you want to move ahead in your career, it might be time to double down on simply getting more stuff done – it’s what your boss wants to see.

Which brings us to the second point. Many managers react with defensiveness or despair to this news; after all, most of the managers we know already feel like they’ve got too much to do. People who are lethargic, slow, or unfocused are rarely (at least in our experience) promoted to upper management positions. The leaders we know already work hard and long – and working harder and longer is not a viable option. In the short term this typically yields improved results, but in the long term leaders burn out. And if they’ve pushed their teams to do the same, team members quit.

But our data – gleaned from tens of thousands of 360-degree performance reviews — tells us that there are more sustainable methods of improving execution. We looked at thousands of leaders who were rated as being highly effective at execution and looked for the coinciding behaviors that enabled this skill. We found a set of behaviors that improve execution. Four behaviors in particular stood out:

Be clear and methodical

Many people who are energetic about execution tend to jump into activities and take action before they get organized, create a plan, or connect what they’re doing to the strategy of the organization. Having the discipline to organize people, assemble resources, and then generate a plan that others can commit to will collectively improve execution. So will making clear who is doing what; we have learned that when everyone is collectively responsible, that no one is responsible. Providing others with clear direction and a sense of connection to the strategy of the organization helps people understand how the work they are doing dovetails with the organization’s mission.

If you are quick to jump into action and tend to start project without a well-organized plan of attack, or if you get feedback on your lack of planning and organization, this suggestion might be one to focus on. An individual contributor might be able to get away with being disorganized, but it rarely works out well at the senior management level.

Set stretch goals and deadlines

Setting stretch goals helps the group achieve their objectives and generates greater engagement and satisfaction in team members. To push the group to achieve those goals, pair them with deadlines. While we may not like it, when someone gives us a deadline, our behavior changes. Simply setting deadlines for goals and objectives goes a long way toward achieving those goals and objectives! If you resist setting stretch goals for your team, start by asking your team questions like, “What would it take to accomplished this goal two weeks earlier?” We find that by challenging your team and supporting them in accomplishing a difficult goal, team members actually feel more engaged and satisfied with their jobs.

But don’t go overboard; we’ve also found that too much pushing can erode trust, which will hurt execution in the long run. When an untrusted leader asks for additional effort, people question their motives and resist their requests. Moreover, involving your team in the process of setting goals deadlines will increase their sense of commitment and autonomy.

Give more feedback, especially more positive feedback

This is all about improving execution through intrinsic motivation, rather than through goals and deadlines. Leaders who are great executors are skilled at giving feedback. Specifically, the leaders who rate most highly are those who deliver critical feedback by taking the time to listen to and understand their employees’ perspectives, rather than simply dropping a difficult message on someone and ending the conversation as quickly as possible.

But where we really saw a major difference was with positive feedback. Specifically, we found that leaders who are great at execution give a lot more positive recognition. Our research indicates that while giving a little more recognition did not affect execution, being above the 65th percentile on this skill had a major impact.

Resolve conflict and build team unity

Have you ever been part of a team so great that you love coming to work? Teams like this probably do all or most of the above – work assignments are clear and processes make sense, deadlines are ambitious but fair, and feedback is plentiful – but they also do something more. On these teams, it’s not just the boss motivating team members — the expectations of peer team members are powerful motivators, too. Creating this kind of team culture is an important element of good execution. While there’s a lot that goes into building high-performance teams, in our experience, perhaps the biggest single thing for leaders to focus on is resolving conflict. That’s because many of the problems within a team come from differences and conflict between team members; on high-performing teams, team members trust each other and conflict is constructive, not destructive or personal.

As you think about your ability to execute we feel that all three of these dimensions are critical. You may focus on one or two and find that one is lacking. But our research shows that balancing all four of these factors is the strategy that will improve execution most of all.

Finally, if you’ve made it this far and you really feel like you’re already doing all of these things, and yet somehow you’re still perceived as having an “execution problem,” consider this: in our research, we also found that there’s almost a one-to-one relationship between leaders who are seen as fast, and those who are seen as great executors. Previous work we’ve done has shown that some of the above things – setting stretch goals, having clear processes in place, and building trust, for example – will help you move faster. But you may also need to give your peers and bosses more evidence of your speed by, for example, being more transparent about how many projects you’re working on and where they are in your pipeline.

 

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Books, Leadership

Originals: Movers and Shapers

Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam M. Grant is an impressive book. He explores how to recognize a good idea, build a coalition of allies, choose the right time to act, and manage fear and doubt. Below is an excerpt from the book:

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To his credit, Dalio has been running an investigation of his own. Fascinated with understanding people who shape the world and eager to discern what they have in common, he’s been interviewing many of
the most influential originals of our time, and studying historical figures from Benjamin Franklin to Albert Einstein to Steve Jobs. Of course, all of them were driven and imaginative, but I was intrigued by three other qualities on Dalio’s list. “Shapers” are independent thinkers: curious, non-conforming, and rebellious. They practice brutal, nonhierarchical honesty. And they act in the face of risk, because their fear of not succeeding exceeds their fear of failing.

Dalio himself tits this description, and the hurdle facing him now is to find another shaper to fill his shoes. If he doesn’t, Bridgewater may vanish like Polaroid’s instant pictures. But Dalio knows that preventing groupthink is about more than the vision of a single leader. The greatest shapers don’t stop at introducing originality into the world. They create cultures that unleash originality in others.

 

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Books, Leadership

Leadership: Connections And Disconnections

Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time by Jeffrey Pfeffer is one of the best books I’ve read on leadership. This book is one for your bookshelf. Below is an excerpt from the book.

 

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The problem with leadership is at its core a story of disconnections:

  • the disconnect between what leaders say and what they do;
  • the disconnect between the leadership industry’s prescriptions and the reality of many leaders’ behaviors and traits;
  • the disconnect between the multidimensional nature of leadership performance and the simple, noncontingent answers so many people seek;
  • the disconnect between how the leadership industry is evaluated (happy sheets that tap inspiration and satisfaction) and the actual consequences of leader failures (miserable work-places and career derailments);
  • the disconnect between leader performance and behavior and the consequences those leaders face;
  • the disconnect between what most people seem to want (good news, nice stories, emotional uplift) and what they need (the truth);
  • the disconnect between what would make workplaces better and organizations more effective, and the base rate with which such prescriptions get implemented.

 

And there are even more disconnects-such as the disconnect between the leadership industry and the leaders whom that industry serves, and the disconnect between the people who bear the consequences of leader behavior and the leadership industry’s manifest and many failing.

Framed in this way, the remedy for the many leadership failures seems simple, and it is: to restore the broken connections, the linkages between behavior and its consequences, words and actions, prescriptions and reality.

But this task will not be easy. The disconnections serve many powerful interests, and they serve those interests extremely well. The leadership industry rolls along, profiting from the disconnect between its prescriptions and what gets done, a disconnection that means not only problems remain but also the business opportunities from speaking, writing, blogging, and so forth about those problems. Leaders love the disconnect that leaves them unaccountable for the workplaces they mess up and their poor performance and bad behavior. And worst of all, lots of people are complicit in the disconnect between the reality that exists and what they would prefer to believe and the stories they want to and often pay to hear.

It is possible to restore at least some of these connections, some of the time. One way to begin might be to reconnect with the real world. One of the important but troubling phenomena that occur in organizations of all types is that the higher you rise, the more that people will tell you how smart and right you are, and the less connection you will have to the realities of organizational life. So good leaders seek to keep themselves grounded in the realities of what they are doing and, more important, why they are doing it.

When Rudy Crew was in the process of being forced from his position as chancellor of New York City’s schools by that other Rudy, Rudy Giuliani — who, no surprise, has also written a book on leadership — Crew decided he needed to reconnect with the essential reality of why he was doing what he was doing, a reality embodied in the one million children in New York’s schools, many of whom could not read at grade level. These children looked like a young version of himself and represented the reason Rudy Crew went into education in the first place. So Crew decided to go to a school.

As Crew told the story to a class I taught, he went into a classroom, maybe it was second or third grade, and there was an African American child working on a math problem. He was not having a lot of success, as after he did the problem, the eraser would come out and the kid would rub out the answer and start over. Crew came up to the boy and asked him what he was doing and how it was going. The child replied that he was doing math and having trouble doing it. “Keep at it, you’ll get it,” said Crew.

As Crew and those accompanying him were preparing to leave that classroom a while later, the child came up to Crew and asked, “Mister, who are you?” Crew replied that he was the chancellor, the person in charge of all of the city’s schools. “Wow,” said the boy, “you’re the man.” And then, in the way
that only small children can, with complete openness and lack of malice, the kid asked Crew, “Are you any good at your job?” “Some days I think I am,” Crew replied, “and some days I’m not so sure.” The pupil looked up at Crew, smiled, and said, “Well, just keep at it. You’ll get it.”

I am not sure what will make a difference in the leadership crises that cost leaders their careers and provide too many employees with enervating work environments. But I am quite sure what will not work: more of the same inspiring sentiments based neither in the social science research about human behavior nor in the facts about the state of play in the leadership industry. In the end, people can handle the truth, and the sooner they confront those truths, the better off everyone will be. And until then, everyone, not just leaders, but everyone, will have to keep working away, until we get it.

 

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Blogs

HBR: 5 Strategy Questions Every Leader Should Make Time For

Below is a blog post from Harvard Business Review. Are you taking time out of your busy schedule to strategize? It requires substantial periods of careful, undisturbed reflection and consideration. Leadership is not just about doing things, it’s also about thinking. Make time for it!

5 Strategy Questions Every Leader Should Make Time For

Have you ever noticed that when you ask someone in your company, “How are you?” they are more likely to answer “Busy!” than “Very well, thank you”? That is because the norm in most companies is that you are supposed to be very busy – or otherwise at least pretend to be – because otherwise you can’t be all that important. The answers “I am not up to much” and “I have some time on my hands, actually” are not going to do much for your internal status and career.

However, that you are very busy all the time is actually a bit of problem when you are in charge of your company or unit’s strategy, and responsible for organizing it. Because it means that you don’t have much time to think and reflect. And thinking is in fact quite an important activity when it comes to assessing and developing a strategy.

The CEO of a large, global bank once told me: “It is very easy for someone in my position to be very busy all the time. There is always another meeting you really have to attend, and you can fly somewhere else pretty much every other day. However, I feel that that is not what I am paid to do. It is my job to carefully think about our strategy.”

I believe his view is spot-on. And there are other successful business leaders who understand the value of making time to think. Bill Gates, for example, was famous for taking a week off twice a year – spent in a secret waterfront cottage – just to think and reflect deeply about Microsoft and its future without any interruption. Similarly, Warren Buffett has said, “I insist on a lot of time being spent, almost every day, to just sit and think.”

If you can’t find time to think, it probably means that you haven’t organized your firm, unit, or team very well, and you are busy putting out little fires all the time. It also means that you are at risk of leading your company astray.

As famous management professor Henry Mintzberg has described, much of strategy is “emergent.” It is often not the result of a strategic plan just being implemented, but driven by opportunistic responses to unexpected events. Stuff happens. Companies often engage in new activities – customers, markets, products, and business models – serendipitously, in response to external events and lucky breaks. But this also means that business leaders need to make ample time to reflect on the configuration that has emerged. They need to systematically analyze and carefully think it through, and make adjustments where necessary.

Many leaders don’t make that time – at least not enough of it.

If you are in charge of an organization, force yourself to have regular and long stretches of uninterrupted time just to think things through. When you do so – and you should – here are five guiding questions that could help you reflect on the big picture.

  1. What does not fit? Ask yourself, of the various activities and businesses that you have moved into, do they make sense together? Individually, each of them may seem attractive, but can you explain why they would work well together; why the sum is greater than the parts?

As the late Steve Jobs explained to Apple’s employees when he axed a seemingly attractive business line, “Although micro-cosmically it made sense, macro-cosmically it didn’t add up.” If you can’t explain how the sum is greater than the parts, re-assess its components.

  1. What would an outsider do? Firms often suffer from legacy products, projects, or beliefs. Things they do or deliberately have not done. Some of them can be the result of what in Organization Theory we call “escalation of commitment.” We have committed to something, and determinedly fought for it – and perhaps for all the right reasons – but now that things have changed and it no longer makes sense, we may still be inclined to persist. A good question to ask yourself is “what would other, external people do, if they found themselves in charge of this company?”

Intel’s Andy Grove called it “the revolving door” when discussing strategy with then-CEO Gordon Moore; let’s pretend we are outsiders coming new to the job, ask ourselves what they would do, and then do it ourselves. It led Intel to withdraw from the business of memory chips, and focus on microprocessors. This resulted in more than a decade of 30 percent annual growth in revenue and 40 percent increase in net income.

  1. Is my organization consistent with my strategy? In 1990, Al West, the founder and CEO of SEI – the wealth management company that, at the time, was worth $195 million – found himself in a hospital bed for three months after a skiing accident. With not much more to do than stare at the ceiling and reflect on his company’s present and future, he realized that although they had declared innovation to be key in their strategy, the underlying organizational architecture was wholly unsuited for the job. When he went back to work, he slashed bureaucracy, implemented a team structure, and abandoned many company rules. The company started growing rapidly and is now worth about $8 billion.

As a consequence of his involuntary thinking time, West did what all business leaders should do: he asked himself whether the way his company was set up was ideal for its strategic aspirations. What would your organization look like if you could design it from scratch?

  1. Do I understand why we do it this way? When I am getting to know a new firm, for instance because I am writing a case study on them, I make it a habit to not only find out how they do things but also explicitly ask why. Why do you do it this way? You’d be surprised how often I get the answer “that’s how we have always done it” [while shrugging shoulders] and “everybody in our industry does it this way.”

The problem is that if you can’t even explain why your own company does it this way, I am quite unconvinced that it could not be done better. For example, when more than a decade ago I worked with a large British newspaper company, I asked why their papers were so big. Their answer was “all quality newspapers are big; customers would not want it any other way.” A few years later, a rival company – the Independent – halved the size of its newspaper, and saw a surge in circulation. Subsequently, many competitors followed, to similar effect. Yes, customers did want it. Later, I found out that the practice of large newspapers had begun in London, in 1712, because the English government started taxing newspapers by the number of pages they printed — the publishers responded by printing their stories on so-called broadsheets to minimize the number of sheets required.  This tax law was abolished in 1855 but newspapers just continued printing on the impractically large sheets of paper.

Many practices and habits are like that; they once started for perfectly good reasons but then companies just continued doing it that way, even when circumstances changed. Take time to think it through, and ask yourself: Do I really understand why we (still) do it this way? If you can’t answer this question, I am pretty sure it can be done better.

  1. What might be the long-term consequences? The final question to ask yourself, when carefully reflecting on your company’s strategy and organization, is what could possibly be the long-term consequences of your key strategic actions. Often we judge things by their short-term results, since these are most salient, and if they look good, persist in our course of action. However, for many strategic actions, the long-term effects may be different.

Consider a practice adopted by many of the UK’s IVF clinics – of selecting only relatively easy patients to treat, in order to boost short-term success rates (measured in terms of number of births resulting from the treatment). The practice seems to make commercial sense, because it (initially) makes a clinic look good in the industry’s “League Table.” But, as my research with Mihaela Stan from University College London showed, it backfires in the long run because it deprives an organization of valuable learning opportunities which in the long run leads to a lower relative success rate.

When you start a new strategy or practice it is of course impossible to measure such long-term consequences ex-ante, however, you can think them through. For instance, when we asked various medical professionals in these clinics what might be the benefits of treating difficult patients, they could understand and articulate the learning effects very well. They could not measure them, but with some careful thought they could understand the potential long-term consequences before even engaging in the strategic action. Actions often have different effects in the short and long run. Sit down and think them through.

Strategy, by definition, is about making complex decisions under uncertainty, with substantive, long-term consequences. Therefore, it requires substantial periods of careful, undisturbed reflection and consideration. Don’t just accept the situation and business constellation you have arrived at. Leadership is not just about doing things, it is also about thinking. Make time for it.

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Blogs, Leadership

Are you a “Come On” leader, or a “Go On” leader?

Why Lead Now

I recently went out for some drinks with friends of mine who both work in the medical profession. Each of us being in leadership roles of some form, the discussion turned to styles of leadership. They both agreed that, in their line of work, you couldn’t work with junior team members – new doctors, and nurses; and tomorrow’s leaders of the health system – simply by telling them what to do. You had to be there to show your team how things should be done, and then let them take the reins whilst you step back.

This reminded me of a speech I’d heard about four years ago. I don’t remember all of the details, but I remember the key opening line. In life, you’ll come across two types of leaders. There are “Come On” leaders – leading from the front, setting the example, and pioneering the way for their…

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Blogs, Leadership

Weaving Influence: Are You A Thought Leader?

Below is a blog post from Weaving Influence. How do you nurture your own sense of leadership?

Are You A Thought Leader?

A popular term in today’s digital world of content creation, “thought leadership” is not really a new concept at all. In fact, The Oxford English Dictionary gives its first citation for the phrase in 1887 by describing Henry Ward Beecher as “one of the great thought-leaders in America.” It was revived or reinvented by marketers in the 1980s, and in 1990 was used in a Wall Street Journal marketing article by Patrick Reilly.

When defined, a thought leader is an individual or firm that is recognized as an authority in a specialized field and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded. But in a world where people find desired information in thousands of locations – their favorite online publications, blogs, social platforms or served up in email newsletters and podcasts – becoming a thought leader is a much more common thing.  Therefore, competition is plentiful.

During my first month at Weaving Influence, I’ve been fortunate to work with a number of amazingly talented thought leaders and authors. I’m learning more about them and their contributions to our world through their books and the original content they create. Working smarter, being more fulfilled in life, becoming the leader you aspire to become – it’s much like attending an insightful, personal development seminar every day! These individuals are truly talented thought leaders who are sharing their insights into our world to benefit those who are willing to open their minds and become a better person.

Are you a thought leader? Being known as one seems like a fairly hefty mantle to wear. But the truth is, many of us are thought leaders on a smaller scale, we just don’t realize it.

You may be a thought leader among your peers and circle of friends, regularly offering insight to your area of expertise: Where should we have dinner for our anniversary? When visiting Chicago, what should we plan to see? Do you know how to plant a raised vegetable garden? That’s how thought leadership begins, with expertise that blossoms into widely-respected knowledge in your specialized field of expertise.

What will you do with your knowledge? How will you nurture it and grow it to become larger than life?

You can learn how by emulating the leaders that you aspire to be like, and using your own knowledge to help your peers, the next generation and potentially generations to come.

To become recognized as a thought leader takes diligence and hard work while you are gaining experience in your craft, and while spreading your insights. But it’s never too late to start. Large or small scale, the world becomes a better place when we share insights and lessons learned from each other.

Be a coach, a student mentor, or an admired leader. Create thought leadership in your own world and nurture it. Don’t be overwhelmed by the concept, just feed it. Watch it grow and many will reap the benefits.

Tell me something! How do you nurture your own sense of leadership?

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Blogs, Leadership

5 Secrets to Learning Better

Below is a blog post from LeadingBlog.

5 Secrets to Learning Better

With exam season upon us in the northern hemisphere, experimental psychologist Tom Stafford has offered some lessons for learning better. He and his colleague Mike Dewar, studied how people learn to play an online game. “Computer games provide a great way to study learning: they are something people spend many hours practicing, and they automatically record every action people take as they practice. Players even finish the game with a score that tells them how good they are.” 


Here is what they found:

1.    Space Your Practice. Cramming isn’t the answer. You should space out your studying. People who spaced out their practicing scored higher. “In fact, the longer the gaps the higher the scores.”

2.    Make Sure You Fail Occasionally. People that were the most inconsistent in the beginning had better scores later on. People who did better didn’t worry about making mistakes. They explored and made mistakes.

3.    Practice the Thing You’ll be Tested On. If your exam is an essay, then you need to practice writing. If it is fact retrieval then you need to practice retrieving information. Practice exams make good sense.

4.    Structure Information, Don’t Try to Remember It. There is almost no correlation between trying to remember something and actually remembering it. Our brains remember by making connections to existing memory. “You need to reorganize the information in some way – whether by making notes of your notes, thinking about how what you’re reading relates to other material, or practicing writing answers.”

5.    Rest and Sleep. Studying all night doesn’t help you. “New research shows that a brief rest after learning something can help you remember it a week later. Other experiments have shown that a full night’s sleep helps you learn new skills or retain information. Even napping can help consolidate your memories, and maybe even make you more creative.” Get your sleep. It’s more important than another hour of study.

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