Why I’d Rather Be Naismith Than Gretzky

20140322-154810.jpgFor decades we’ve been using Wayne Gretzky as a business metaphor… and what a “great” metaphor he is: Gretzky is the leading point scorer ever in the NHL, has more assists than any other player has points, has the highest points in a single season four times over, and holds 40 regular-season + 15 playoff records.  When asked how he did it, Gretzky’s famous reply was that he skated to where the puck was going, instead of where it already was… and a business metaphor was born.

Recently, I contrasted Gretzky with James Naismith.  Who??  You know, the guy that invented basketball.  In 1891 he showed up at a YMCA and attached two empty peach buckets to opposing walls of the gym, 10 ft high… then he taught his students 13 rules for a new game, which he called “Basket Ball.”  Behold, an entire universe of new sport was born.

Imagine if you could somehow tally up every bit of economic value created by the invention of basketball – what is that worth?  Imagine every single equipment/uniform/merchandise sale, every ticket sold or salary paid, every advertising endorsement held by a basketball player, every training camp, every TV commercial played during a game, every video game about basketball.  I have no idea how you would calculate that figure… but if you could, it would be exponentially greater than Gretzky’s earnings.

Today more than ever, business is about ecosystems: any group of interdependent relationships between suppliers, providers, customers, and the products or services they consume.  Global, social, and mobile trends have blurred the lines between all parties, and the roles are evolving at a blistering pace.  Any organization that can take a leadership role in such an ecosystem and actively re-architect the “rules of the game” has potential to add incredible value for the entire ecosystem.  I saw this first-hand at Intuit, where an ecosystem was created by opening source code and inviting customers to become programmers… & of course it has been famously done by FaceBook, creating unimaginable value.

This month I joined Agero, the nation’s leading technology-enabled automotive service provider.  Their ecosystem consists of stranded car drivers, auto manufacturers/insurers/road clubs that offer roadside assistance policies, and the providers who actually come “rescue” drivers on the side of the road.  Agero has a fantastic opportunity to become the architect of this ecosystem, dramatically expanding the overall value of the system.  Although I can’t say much more about their plans at this time, they have an exciting future, and this is why I joined the team: To help Agero redefine the rules for an entirely different game…

Like Naismith.

Build Leadership Like Infrastructure… Cuz It IS Infrastructure.

At a recent dinner w/some execs from my co we got into a discussion about leadership development.   The most senior guy at the table said that leadership development should be allowed to happen organically within the company, without any structured approach.  As he told his story, we learned that he happened to get a good mentor early in his career who taught him how to be very effective.  Based on his experience, he concluded that it should happen that way for everyone else.

I violently disagreed: Assuming you believe that leadership capability is the single most critical priority for your company, then why rely on an anomaly that coincidentally aligns high-potential leaders with seasoned, effective coaches?  Rather than rely on luck or coincidence, I believe that great companies proactively align high potential leaders with the people who can accelerate their development – deliberately, repeatedly, and consistently.     Why not systematically build your leadership infrastructure the same way you plan & build your IT infrastructure?

At a minimum, you should be doing these things if you want to build a sustainable leadership infrastructure:

  • Don’t rely on anyone else to do this for you!   Many people have great HR organizations that connect your teams to quality leadership training.  This is good and you should partner with them.   But you should not wait on them.  You own the development of leadership within your team, not HR.
  • Conduct a recurring talent assessment: 1-2 times per year, conduct a formal evaluation of the performance and “promotability” of your top leadership level.  Then tell them where they stand v. their peers, and the specific areas you need them to develop.
  • Codify your own leadership processes, methods, & competencies.  Put what you know in writing so that you can effectively teach it to your teams.  By doing this, you will set clear expectations about their leadership “how.”
  • Develop your top leaders: Periodically you must take your teams away from the day-to-day operations, shut off the laptops, and actually teach your own team the leadership capabilities that you expect out of them.  (If you are reading this & thinking “but what would I teach them”… then you have a different problem.)

Bottom line: Approach “leadership development” systematically just like you do with every other part of your infrastructure.  

Is There A Shark In Your Boat?

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Just read the fascinating story of a great white shark jumping into Mossel Bay Research Lab’s research boat.   Read it here, it’s short and amazing.

Ever had a shark in your boat?  Sometimes it’s obvious: they are thrashing around (lots of unproductive activity), snapping their teeth, severing critical relationships and impairing your team.  Act immediately, no question.  But what about the more subtle yet equally dangerous behaviors you may be missing?  Here are a few signs you might have a shark-in-hiding.  Do you have someone on your team who:

  • Always waits to be told what to do?
  • Believes they are irreplaceable because of their knowledge?
  • Talks about courage but doesn’t demonstrate it?
  • Is consistently influenced by others… but rarely exerts influence themselves?
  • Doesn’t have strong convictions, is too easy going ( “whatever works for the team is cool with me.”)?
  • Has an “I’ll believe it when I see it” mentality?

Then you may have a shark in your boat.  Learn from the Mossel Bay’s Ocean Research team:

Protect your own team & boat.  Their first action was to isolate the shark from the rest of the team so that it wouldn’t injure anyone while thrashing around on the boat.  In your case, you may need to re-assign some duties, or otherwise de-scope the role of your shark.

Get help if you need it.   The shark cut the Ocean Research boat’s fuel lines, rendering them immobile.  And they lacked the water supply to keep the shark alive while they tried to help it.  In your case, you may need to get assistance from your boss, HR, or other coaching resources who are skilled to help your shark.

Teach him new skills.  Mossel Bay’s shark was so confused that when they put it back in the shallow water it didn’t know how to swim or where to go.  One of the researchers “walked the shark” in the shallows to help it re-orient and get moving in the right direction.  In most situations it’s appropriate to try to help coach the person up before you consider any other paths.

Set your shark free.  “Walking the shark” didn’t work for Mossel Bay…  so ultimately they devised a different way to take him back out to deep waters, eventually releasing him to go on his way.  In your case, this shouldn’t be your first step, but it’s one you cannot shy away from when it is required.

Bottom line:  Not all sharks are obvious.  You need to candidly assess your team, and deal with any lurking sharks before they do irreparable damage to your team, your area of responsibility, or your company!

The Things We Think & Do Not Say

No, I am not about to have a Jerry Maguire moment. But the title of Jerry’s infamous “memo” has always stuck with me and it seems to fit here.

This is simply a call for constructive honesty.  And it absolutely applies in your personal as well as professional life… Why do we sometimes avoid saying what we’re really thinking?  Because many people don’t care for conflict… And… many times we believe that “saying what we’re thinking” will lead to conflict… So… we consciously or subconsciously avoid conflict by not speaking our mind

So then, why do we sometimes avoid conflict?  Perhaps we lack the skills to successfully navigate conflict (maybe we don’t know how to voice disagreement in a constructive manner… or maybe we’ve never seen positive conflict resolution role-modeled!).  Maybe we think we’ll “get in trouble” for speaking our minds… with a boss, with a spouse??  Or, perhaps we have just given up the fight … we’re too “worn out” to stand up for what we believe?

If we don’t constructively state what we’re thinking, we sub-optimize the decision at hand because we withhold a critical input that might change the result/decision.  Also, these unexpressed opinions we have bottled up tend to create cynicism that can lead to toxicity (oh by the way your Doctor will tell you the same is true in your personal life – tons of medical research backs this up).  And usually, we end up saying it later anyway… in the wrong place at the wrong time… as negative “water cooler talk” or as an unproductive explosions that add no value at all.

Are you ready to try a different way?  Have confidence that your voice is valued:  the people who depend on you absolutely want to know what’s on your mind.  Make a choice to speak up even if it leads to disagreement… that’s actually healthy.  And practice doing it “the right way…” for example:

  • Don’t just shoot down what you think is a “bad idea”… suggest a better idea instead.  (If you are consistently negative with no positive suggestions, you will wear people out!);
  • Don’t “go in hot”… when possible allow yourself a bit of time to decompress before trying to work through a really difficult topic with someone;
  • Ask yourself if you are presenting your ideas in a way that will improve your relationship with the other person!
  • Deliberately pick a time, place, & setting that make sense to have a thoughtful discussion.

By the end of the movie, Jerry Maguire has stumbled onto something bigger than he could have imagined… and it all started because he spoke his mind.  Being honest with himself and with others led him down an unexpected path but ultimately to a richer life: he found love, a family, a successful business he actually liked working in, and the admiration of an industry. Hmm, maybe there’s something here for each of us…

Bottom line: as leaders we have to learn how to speak the truth as we see it, in a manner that leaves our relationship with the other person even stronger than it was before.

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Are You A Know-It-All?

Somewhere back in grade school, each of us became conditioned that we should always know the right answer.   We were tested on our knowledge of the facts, and how well we could regurgitate them.  15X15 always equaled 225, and the symbol for water was always H2O (I think).  Those of us with excessive drive who were destined to become future leaders learned a lesson: we were rewarded for knowing the “right answer.”

Fast forward.  You have now been in the workforce for 20+ years.  You have an important title and lead a lot of employees.   Do you still think you have to know all the answers?   Think again.  The world you move in today is not a fact-based place… it is an arena of gray, where decisions are based on a combination of the best available info, plus a healthy dose of judgment.

If you are still acting like you have to know all the answers, here’s what you are telling your team:
> None of you are as smart as me.  I know more than all of you.  You could never do my job because I know everything…  Yes, I have all the answers.
> Don’t try too hard because I’m just going to shoot you down if you come up with an opinion I don’t agree with…  Because I have all the answers.
> If there’s a really difficult problem at hand, I will always be your fallback so don’t worry too much about it yourself.   Don’t stretch yourself to find new and different solutions… Because I have all the answers.

This is a silly game that your team doesn’t really believe anyway.   Why don’t you ask them to solve some really difficult problems, and then hold them accountable for the results?  This will polarize your team: the stars will embrace this accountability and rise to the top, while your lower-performing leaders will also become more obvious.

Bottom line: everyone knows you don’t have all the answers, so stop acting like it.  Let your team get in the game and you’ll optimize results while developing your people.

“All Star vs Average”… Applied To Top Leaders

A couple of recent HBR posts by Bill Taylor  (author of Practically Radical) caught my eye.  They were brought on by Zuckerberg’s justification of FB’s recent FriendFeed acquisition at a value of roughly $4M per acquired employee.  An energetic debate followed via blog comments about whether an “all star” worker can really deliver exponentially more than a “good” worker. 

In context, the original discussion was about technical people like engineers and developers… but I’m intrigued by the application in the leadership realm… In fact I think it may be truer of leadership roles than technical roles.  Let’s set aside the topic of executive comp; here’s a personal example of the actual business results that an “all star” leader can deliver v. just an “average” leader.

Early in my career I worked at two different financial software companies… and they were a perfect example of the difference that the leader’s capability makes. Consider:
    > Both were founded at roughly the same time, each by a really smart guy
    > Both thought “I bet I can write software that makes accounting & taxation stuff way easier.”
    > Both were classic B-school studies with founders growing businesses beyond themselves.
    > Both (arguably) had access to the same supply of labor, capital, etc.
    > And, it’s a fair generalization to say they had the same basic opportunity. You get the point.

The Results?
After ~20 years in business, Company A topped out at less than $40M in revenue.  It was ultimately acquired by Company B which had exceeded $1.5B in revenue over the same time horizon.

The Difference?
I had an inside view to both companies and I believe that the leadership capability of the top guy made all the difference. In Company A the founder couldn’t figure out how to distribute leadership authority in a way that left him confident about the company’s direction.  In Company B, the top guy figured out that letting go was the only viable path to growth.  But the way he let go is actually the key: He figured out how to develop a robust leadership factory, teaching a common set of leadership values & methods, which led to a robust leadership infrastructure: a broad group of unified, high-performing leaders all running the same direction.

Bottom line:
There is little doubt in my mind that an “all star” leader v. a “good” leader will drive exponentially better business results.

Fail fast = learn fast.

The smartest people I know deliberately try to “break” their new ideas, or make them fail as quickly as possible… so that they can learn from the mistakes & optimize their ultimate results. 

They purposely create environments where they can quickly learn through rapid iteration: they may test ideas with customer advisory groups, or better yet actually run a new process with pilot groups.  Some use inexpensive prototypes for experimentation, allowing dozens of failures without incurring the high cost of full production.  You get the idea.

(Sidebar: Make sure to structure these experiments using the scientific method, rather than just shooting from the hip.  For more on this, I recommend you read Steve Spear – process improvement wizard, author, 5-time Shingo winner, consultant, and [disclaimer] a personal advisor.)

Key to this approach is a fundamental mindset question: How do you feel about failing?  Years of schooling & the conditioning of early career success may have you thinking you are supposed to “always know the right answer…” but let’s be honest: that’s statistically impossible.  We must get comfortable with admitting to the unknown, because this puts us into the “learning zone” and sets the right example for our teams.

Failure is tremendously helpful as long as it leads to accelerated learning.  Can you change your mindset about failure?

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