VIDEO: Be Authentic When You Speak

The ability to communicate is not merely the ability to string words together coherently. It is the ability to authentically connect with people.

If you are in charge of an organization you may have the ability to tell people what to do, but you will never have the ability to tell them what to think. Great leaders do. They win over followers on the strength of what they say and how they act, and that is why the sincerity of communication is so critical.

Good leaders understand that public leadership is public theater, and rather than shy from it, they embrace it — authentically. And so, too, do their followers.

First posted on Smart Brief on 9/21/2012

What Executives Need to Succeed (HBR)

“I don’t know anything about cars,” revealed Edward Whitacre in an interview with Bloomberg News given after being named the new chairman of General Motors. “A business is a business, and I think I can learn about cars. I’m not that old, and I think the business principles are the same.”

Long-time Michigan political observer, Jack Lessenberry, lauded GM’s hiring of Whitacre as an example of the new leadership the company will require if it is to succeed.

But Whitacre is joining a company with a history of rejecting executives from the outside. H. Ross Perot and Jerry York, as a surrogate for investor Kirk Kerkorian, tried without success to shake things up at the board level. Another senior executive who failed to change G.M. was Elmer Johnson. According to the New York Times, Johnson was so frustrated he wrote a memo saying “Teamwork has been replaced by Balkanization. Our culture discourages open, frank debate among G.M. executives in the pursuit of problem resolution.”

Hiring an executive from the outside for any company is always a gamble. According to a 2008 study conducted by the Institute for Executive Development (IED) and the Alexcel Group, thirty percent of executives hired from the outside fail to meet expectations within the first two years. One key reason that executives — not simply those from the outside — fail, is an inability to collaborate with others.

Negative trends aside, it is useful to consider those positive characteristics that will make the newcomer an asset to his new business.

Keen intelligence. Not only do you have to be a quick study, you have to be able to size up the gaps as well as the opportunities. Learning the business is the easy part; finding out what works and what doesn’t requires not only experience but insight. Lou Gerstner, a former McKinsey partner, was particularly adept at determining corporate strengths and weaknesses. After trimming IBM to fighting weight, Gerstner pursued strategies that would capitalize on IBM’s unique capabilities rather seeking to be all things to all customers.

People skills. It is common sense to value your people but it may be “so common” that it is often neglected. The outside leader needs to reach out to employees and treat them as colleagues. One technique that many executives employ and that I encourage newly promoted executives to adopt when meeting their direct reports for the first time is to ask: what can I do to help you? Such a question does two things: one, it establishes the direct reports as the experts; two, it positions the leader as one who wants his people to succeed.

Strong will. The hidebound mindset that made hiring someone from the outside necessary will seek to maintain the status quo. Some in senior management will feel slighted that one of their own is not running the show. While they do want the organization to succeed, they will want to protect their domains and their influence. A new leader must stand up to entrenched powers and their stale ideas.Therefore, he will have to fight hard to be heard, believed and eventually followed in his own organization.

One executive who has shown strong backbone in bending the culture of his new employer, Ford Motor Company, to a common purpose is former Boeing executive, Alan Mulally. As reported in Fortune, Mulally, as CEO, has instituted the One Ford approach, which seeks globally-derived vehicle platforms as well as a more collaborative approach to planning and execution. [Note: While Mulally was new to the auto industry when Ford hired him in 2006, he is an engineer with extensive background in product development and manufacturing.]

Organizations bear responsibility for the high washout rate. The IED/Alexcel study also demonstrated that on-boarding programs and mentoring programs are valuable. Executive coaching, too, can help. In other words, don’t let the executive fend for himself; provide him assistance.

For the sake of us taxpayers who have a stake in General Motors, I hope the company provides Whitacre — as well as any other outsiders he may bring with him — with more than a tutorial on the automotive business. He, like all outside executives, needs the support of management so that he can earn its trust and help the company succeed in very trying times.

First posted on 6/15/2009

VIDEO: Kiss Up, Kick Down Boss

The next time you want to hire an executive for your organization, find out how he treats people who work for him.

Senior executives are the face of the organization. When selecting them, you need to be careful that they radiate the values of your organization. Your brand image is at stake. One bad hire in a senior position can be harmful to a corporate reputation.

First posted on Smart Brief on 10/05/2012

Find Ways to Make Good News (HBR)

Stephen Tyrone Johns died as he lived, helping other people. Johns opened the door for the man who shot him, a white supremacist who opened fire at the Holocaust Museum where Johns worked as a security guard. Friends and co-workers remember Johns, an imposing man who stood six-and-a-half feet tall, as a “gentle giant” who enjoyed his work and was well liked by others.

To its credit, played the Johns story on its home page on and off for a day or so. Typically the victims don’t get much coverage; only the killers. In the coming days and weeks we will still get our fill of information about the man who shot Mr. Johns, but it was heartening to see CNN go counter to this trend.

CNN’s coverage also shows those of us who write and teach about leadership that while we cannot change the world overnight, we certainly can seek to change things within our own control. And so here’s a suggestion for any leader who is wrestling with tough issues in these tough times: You should continue to address the impact of the financial crisis on your business, but you owe yourself and your people a break from the relentless progress of bad news.

Challenge yourself to find one good piece of good news every day, or every other day, and share it with your people. You will find these stories in the news at large but also in your company specifically. Share these stories with your colleagues. Going a step further, you might even consider making some good news, too. Here are some suggestions to spread some good cheer.

  • Recognize a colleague for a contribution she has made and publicly thank her for it.
  • Spring for lunch for the team; nothing fancy — pizza and sandwiches will do.
  • Hand out coupons for free movie tickets or DVD rentals.
  • Sponsor a community volunteer day, e.g. give people a day off to work in their communities.
  • Create opportunities to share positive work experiences and lessons learned in your team meetings.

Spreading good cheer will not save your department from further cutbacks; it will not help your company be a more formidable competitor. It may not even save your job. But what it will do is get you in the habit of thinking more positively. That has its virtues. Not only will you brighten the lives of those with whom you work. You will also train yourself to approach your own job with a more optimistic attitude.

First posted on 6.18.2009