Practicing with a Purpose

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Two years ago I decided to take up the game of golf. After a few lessons, I bravely invited my husband, a high school golf coach, to watch me practice on the driving range. Five minutes in, he asked me a question that has made me better both in golf and in business. His question was, “What are you practicing?”

At first, I just looked at him curiously and said, “Golf?” He replied, “No, what are you practicing? Our team always practices with a purpose, focusing on something very specific they want to improve. What are you practicing?” I stopped and honestly, I had to think about my answer. What was my purpose, and what was I practicing?

I looked down at my club, looked out on the horizon at the distance targets, and said, “I am practicing my alignment. I want to have a shot that is in line with a target, more consistently.” He said, “Okay – work on alignment, only alignment. Don’t worry about distance or which club you are using at this point. Start with one, then try a couple more, but focus on alignment.” His words and this shift in focus unlocked a whole new thought process and approach for me. I improved my golf performance significantly by “practicing with a purpose”, and now we apply this principle in other performance areas for ourselves and others.

In business, this concept of practicing with a purpose is often called “deliberate practice”. The HBR article “The Making of an Expert” explains this concept: “Deliberate practice involves two kinds of learning: improving the skills you already have and extending the reach and range of your skills.” It takes forethought, focus, and sustained effort, and should be aimed at the desired performance outcome.

In our work with professionals, we have seen deliberate practice significantly impact their performance. We have witnessed improvements in business development, strengths-based development, employee engagement, and management skills development when individual performers strategically invest in practicing with a purpose. Let’s consider an example in business development.

Our training in strategic selling includes sales process, skills, and meeting execution. Our approach includes not only training but also coaching and practice for actual business development situations. If a participant wants to practice meeting execution, their practice for business development isn’t simply increasing their number of business development interactions or meetings and then reporting back. That would qualify as practice, yes, but not deliberate practice.

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Deliberate practice for enhancing business development meeting execution would include:

  1. Identifying the purpose for each interaction

  2. Planning the meetings in advance (e.g., players, broad questions, closes, etc.)

  3. Practicing responses to potential objections or tough questions

  4. Executing meetings

  5. Debriefing each experience to identify key learning opportunities  

In a recent team session, a participant shared that he has been focusing more intently on the discipline around the meeting rather than just holding meetings. As a result, he has had more productive conversations, uncovered previously unknown needs, built stronger relationships, and has had better meeting results overall.  

The goal of practicing with a purpose is to build both competence and confidence in the knowledge, skill, or performance area of focus. Research shows that while investing time in practice and repetition in practice is essential, it’s not the quantity, but rather the quality of practice that yields the most improvement. Effective aim and discipline toward the desired outcome will provide the most lift. In other words, deliberate practice makes the most significant difference.

In your leadership and management, what are you practicing? What can you do to improve your existing knowledge and skills or extend the reach and range of your abilities? Regardless of what you’re practicing, think about how you can do it with a purpose. Deliberate practice might be the key to unlocking that next level of expertise or performance to propel you forward to achieve your goals.

Being Strategic During Recovery

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Stress is a part of daily life and comes in many forms. “Negative” stress can come from work, tough family situations, health issues, time limitations, or challenging issues.  However, we can also experience “positive” stress from challenging ourselves physically or mentally through exercise, skill-building, study, or other types of new learning.

Recovery is what happens to our bodies during the time immediately following a dose of stress.  It could be a break in that tough meeting or significant presentation, or during an exercise regimen when you are taking a breather.  Recovery is when you or your body is processing what just happened. Believe it or not, recovery functions as a lever for high performance.    

While studying tennis players in the 1980s, noted performance psychologist James Loehr uncovered that the difference between the best tennis players and others was not in what they did during volleys, but rather what they did in between.  Yes – what they did when they weren’t hitting a tennis ball.  He discovered their behavior was distinctly different during times of recovery.

The highest performance tennis players used recovery to strategically shift their focus and reset.  This reset was structured and included the following:

  1. A positive physical response: replacing any “miss hit” with positive imagery or simply practicing positive body language

  2. Relaxation: often breathing deeply in and out a few times

  3. Mental preparation: contemplating the next play and visualizing it in a positive way

  4. Practicing rituals:  while they varied by person, these rituals (e.g., a series of planned actions) prompted refocus

Loehr called this process “the 16-second cure” because all four steps could be completed in about 16 seconds.  With this intentionality and structure, these tennis players produced better results.

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Think about the last time you experienced a stressful situation – maybe it was a phone call or meeting or simply a discussion.  What did you do immediately after? Did you have a period of recovery to regroup and refocus? Did you recover with intentionality and structure?

Similar to athletes, professionals need periods of recovery to perform at their highest level.  These periods of recovery can be short (e.g., 16 seconds) or long (e.g., a vacation) but they are very important. Extended periods of stress limit both effectiveness and development. We simply won’t perform our best or reach our full potential without recovery.  

The solution is to create our own strategic recovery process.  Each of us needs micro recovery strategies and macro recovery strategies.  For micro strategies, consider how you might adopt and adapt the four steps above, then start practicing those at meeting breaks, in between phone calls, or before meetings start.  For macro strategies, consider what works best for you – vacation at the beach, unplugging for a long weekend, a cruise, a personal retreat, etc. – and schedule it.

Regardless of what you do for recovery, practice it often. Do it with intention, and be deliberate. When your recovery is strategic and purposeful, you have the greatest opportunity to positively influence your overall performance.

The Value of Nontraditional Mentoring

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What is mentoring? In the traditional sense of the word, mentoring is when one offers wisdom, knowledge, experience or advice to others to help them progress in their career and life. Typically, in businesses that offer mentoring programs, the Mentor is someone with more tenure and experience. That person is paired with a Mentee, someone who is more junior in experience or is a newer colleague. The assumption in this model is that mentoring works one way, and in this case, it is “top down”.

However, truly progressive organizations have gone back to the origins of mentoring and the traditional description above. These companies recognize that mentoring is about learning, and learning can occur in many different ways through both traditional and nontraditional relationships. Two such examples of these nontraditional relationships are: reverse mentoring and reciprocal mentoring.

In reverse mentoring, a more senior, experienced professional is paired with a colleague that may vary in experience, background or perspective. The roles are switched here, so the senior professional becomes the Mentee and the other professional facilitates agenda topics and meeting dialogue as the Mentor.  In reciprocal mentoring, the pairing portion is the same; however, each professional in the pair takes turns playing the Mentor role.

Why do companies shake it up and offer something more than the traditional approach? The answer is simple – value. These nontraditional approaches provide a different level of impact and value not found in the traditional model. That value includes:

  • Leadership Development – The more experienced professional learns to be more open and gain perspective from others with diverse experiences and backgrounds, and their partner has an opportunity to lead and grow by facilitating the dialogue.

  • Open Communication – The nontraditional relationships openly support and reinforce two-way communication and sharing. This arrangement can help bridge the generational gap and promote a greater understanding of the needs surrounding diversity and inclusion.

  • Technology and Innovation Advances – It is no secret that the younger generations will be the most tech-savvy employees in the company. These nontraditional relationships can help transfer the knowledge of new technologies and their applications as well as open up conversations that can lead to more innovative ideas and processes. 

  • Employee Engagement – By flipping the roles, the Mentees turned Mentors often find a greater sense of purpose in their individual contributions. This helps drive their engagement and psychological commitment to the company.

  • A Learning Culture – As stated, these models are all about learning. By establishing mentoring relationships of all kinds, the organization demonstrates the value placed on learning in the environment.

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To gain this value and make the biggest impact possible with your company's mentorship offerings, consider evaluating your approach in two ways:

  1. For You – Take a fresh look at your Mentors. Consider how you gain the greatest perspective and knowledge, and the relationships you need to develop as a leader.  What nontraditional relationships might help you?

  2. For Your Organization – Challenge assumptions. Consider what is possible and what is needed. Could a nontraditional model strengthen your mentoring approach?

By taking a step back to contemplate your approach and ask these questions, you’ll be able to identify the strengths and opportunities for improvement. Most importantly, you will be equipped to make changes to achieve the greatest impact for you and your organization. 

Who is Your Talent Architect?

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On a recent trip, my family and I had a chance to tour The Star in Frisco, TX.  The Star is the home of the Dallas Cowboys World Headquarters. Now, before you think this is all about team or sports, consider this:  the Dallas Cowboys is the most valuable sports franchise in the world, currently estimated to be worth $4.8 Billion*.  

To me, this tour was not about football, it was about a high-performing, highly successful business, and how they created it.  Based on the history and examples shared, one strategy that has driven the success of this franchise became clear. The organization has a very specific, intentional, and comprehensive talent strategy to which they attribute much of the growth and success. 

Early on in the tour, we stopped in front of a display of binders encased in glass along a wall.  Our tour guide explained that these binders contained all the notes of Gil Brandt, the Cowboys’ chief talent scout from 1960-1988. Brandt, a 2019 inductee into the Football Hall of Fame, is revered as a pioneer who revolutionized scouting in the NFL. Most importantly for this franchise, he served as the “architect” (i.e., intentionally designing the elements) of talent and built a foundation of success by thoughtfully and carefully scouting and selecting players.

Brandt was comfortable with exploring new thinking, new processes, and trying things others hadn’t attempted.  He developed techniques and evaluation methods not previously used that included unique measurements, both physical and psychological.  He originated the use of computer data and analytics as part of the scouting process for football players, keeping some of the initial data on punch cards.  Brandt is also credited with being among the first to look outside of traditional sources for talent, including scouting and drafting non-football players and players from outside of the US and Canada.  

Brandt used unconventional thinking to create a competitive advantage through talent for the Cowboys franchise, and it worked.  During his tenure, the Cowboys compiled 20 consecutive winning seasons (1966-1985) and appeared in five Super Bowls, winning two of them.  Brandt oversaw the drafting of nine Cowboys who have been inducted into the Hall of Fame, and 13 of the 19 players in the Cowboys hallowed “Ring of Honor”.  

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As I studied Brandt’s highly detailed, handwritten notes of Michael Irvin and Larry Allen, I contemplated the lessons we can learn from this highly successful business. While there are many, three stood out immediately:

  1. Strategically, every organization needs someone who owns being the “architect for talent”.  With Brandt at the helm, talent acquisition was a strategic imperative and a significant organizational priority.  Brandt took it upon himself to drive results and innovate when needed. He transitioned player selection from a game of chance and art to a process that was more purposeful and scientific, built on traits deemed to produce success.  It was his full-time job, he was empowered to do it, and he owned it.

  2. Future thinking and market changes don’t just impact new products and services, the impact of both on talent needs to be considered to take results to the next level.  Brandt used foresight and signals to develop and inform part of the talent approach. The Cowboys sought input from outside their industry, noticed the use of unique tools in different sports, and looked at future trends and disruptions, considering how to turn these into opportunities for improvement in scouting talent.

  3. Regardless of the type of business, successful leaders do not fear going against the grain and you will rarely hear “but that’s not the way we do things around here”.  Brandt had no fear of breaking with the norm or trying something completely new to achieve a higher level of performance and improve the team overall. He was fully supported by the owners and others on the leadership team to do things differently, even if there was a risk of failure.

Regardless of what industry you are in or with whom you are competing, being intentional in your design for talent (i.e., "architecting your talent approach") is important for success and results. To make a difference for your team and your organization, consider how these lessons learned apply and what you can do to take talent strategy to the next level in your own “franchise”! 

Beyond the Assessment: So What? Now What?

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In our consulting practice, we use different assessments, two of which are Gallup’s CliftonStrengths® and Builder Profile 10.  It is not uncommon for a prospect or a client to really dial in on the aspect of an assessment. They want to know: “What will it tell me?” “What does the report look like?” “What will it show?”

While these are important questions for any assessment, the more important question is “How do I use the results to make a difference for me or for my business?”  In other words: So what? Now what?

Most assessments will provide you with a measurement – sometimes it’s a raw score and maybe a comparison to a benchmark, sometimes a ranking of intensity, or a description that elaborates on the meaning to you.  All of this is good information and serves well for self-reflection and self-awareness. However, that is just the first level of value. The greater value comes with how you take that information and aim it toward a business outcome, or in other words, your performance.  Let’s elaborate on the two assessment examples mentioned.

  1. CliftonStrengths® provides a better understanding of your innate talents – the natural way you think, feel, and behave every day.  The baseline assessment gives you a reading of your top five talents by measure of intensity. To turn it into action and drive performance, you must put it into the context of your goals. That is when it starts to more purposely and intentionally produce results. Consider this:

  • Coaching Example: Kate is an emerging leader with Responsibility in her top five. While this theme has served her well in taking personal ownership of tasks and projects, she is now being challenged to delegate more, let go, and facilitate others taking ownership.  As a part of her goals, she is shifting the focus of her Responsibility from actually owning the work itself to taking ownership of developing the others around her and equipping them to do the work by building competence, confidence, and trust in them.  By developing herself and others and continuing high quality and well-leveraged client service, she is using Responsibility to elevate her performance and become a more effective manager.

  1. Builder Profile 10 (BP10) is more narrow in scope than CliftonStrengths® and specifically identifies how you think about business (i.e, your entrepreneurial thinking) and those entrepreneurial talents you leverage in “building a business”.  For example, managers or owner-operators that are required to "build" (i.e. work “on” the business, grow profits, build client relationships, build people, manage the financials, and affect change) can gain critical insights for harnessing their skills.  BP10 helps you know how their most natural talents align with those outcomes.  It is most valuable when it is applied in the context of building the business or the practice.

  • Coaching Example: Tom is a new owner in a professional services firm where his primary responsibility is to grow a practice beyond himself in his area of technical expertise.  During a coaching conversation, he shared, “I’ve never seen myself as running or growing a business. My role has always been to serve clients and do it well using my knowledge and abilities.”  In taking the BP10, Tom discovered that two of his top entrepreneurial talents are Relationship and Delegation.  To date, he had been leveraging these talents with Clients directly and in working with two very junior staff. In considering goals for the growth of the practice, he pivoted and put together a plan for building a network of relationships that could help build the practice more intentionally.  He also identified what it would take for him to work more “on” the business to grow it vs. “in” the business as a technical guru. While he had the natural talents to Delegate, he wasn’t exercising them enough because he didn’t feel he could trust others with substantial pieces of the high-level work.  He put together a plan to build a stronger team with the goal of unlocking future growth.

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Taking assessments is like completing a personal health check – my weight is X, my blood pressure is X, and my cholesterol is X. Okay, so what? That is good data, but how is it is impacting my overall health and performance of my body, and does that matter to me?  Is it holding me back from doing what I want to do? Is it putting me at risk? Why do I care? To truly use the information effectively, I have to consider it in the context of my personal goals and decide, now what? What can I do with it to change, to improve, to be better, and/or to achieve my potential?

Other personal and/or work-related assessments are the same regardless of whether they are at the individual, team, or firm level. The assessment itself is useful for awareness. However, if you want to truly improve performance, use the data, and aim it at your goals, team goals, and/or firm goals.  Think about what the information means in the context of what you are trying to accomplish today, tomorrow, or within the next twelve months. Think about the “so what” and the “now what”, and most importantly, do something about it!   

Evolving From Employees to Entrepreneurs

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The world is changing significantly.  Some industries are feeling it more than others at the moment.  However, with emerging technologies, the shifting of talent availability, expectations and skill sets, and fluctuating markets, we can be almost certain that no industry will be immune.  That’s not new information though, so why is it blogworthy today?

Over the last few months, we’ve had many conversations with leaders about the sustainability of their organizations.  As we have teased out the source of their concern, one common thread is woven through each of these discussions. The high potential leaders within these organizations aren’t yet thinking like or demonstrating the entrepreneurial behaviors needed for a company to survive and compete in the future, and they are running out of time.

There are two primary dynamic forces at play:  

  • First, Baby Boomers are either facing retirement now or can see it hovering in the horizon. The first round of Generation X isn’t far behind. In fact, many organizations can see that the lineup of their leadership will completely turn over in the next decade. In both of those more seasoned generations, significant producers, revenue generators, and entrepreneurial thinkers have planted the seeds that have grown organizations to where they are today. They’ve been so successful that the following generations rose to the top with them, but they weren’t required to do the heavy lifting it took to start the growth curve or maintain it.

  • Second, massive change and disruption are occurring in certain markets that will create significant business impact over the next five years. There is a growing global nature to every business –whether it is deemed “international” or not.  Thus, that next wave of leaders will be facing many challenges not encountered or perhaps not experienced previously. Their bread and butter, cash cow products, and services that exist today are likely to be commoditized, resulting in an increase in pressure to create new competitive advantages, products, and lines of service.  New business models will also be in demand to serve the growing gig economy and the forecasts for increasing platforms of collaboration and coordination, or simply just for survival.

In short, the leaders of tomorrow will be called upon to be more like entrepreneurs than ever before. Whether they are in a firm where they become owners or in a corporation where they will reside in significant leadership roles, these up-and-comers must be able to run and grow a business in a dynamic environment.  They must be able to recognize opportunities (e.g., spot signals for innovation, generate ideas, create space for testing and failures, etc.), create demand, grow people, generate growth in revenue and profit, and scale products and services. In other words, they must grow from being an employee to becoming a resident entrepreneur within the organization.  

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The lesson for organizations and current leadership is to re-think and re-imagine their leadership development programs.  Leadership programs today are often centered around communication, people issues and development, strengthening targeted leadership characteristics or skills (e.g., EQ, conflict resolution, etc.), and business development.  

While those will still be critical skill development fields and have a shifting nature all their own, a new spotlight should be focused on developing leaders in:

  • Entrepreneurial thinking 

  • Foresight 

  • Change resiliency 

  • Globalization  

The crucial questions to ask yourself are:

  1. What kind of leaders are we building?

  2. Is our program creating future “functional” or “practice” leaders, or are we growing future “builders” - those who think like entrepreneurs and who have an “ownership” mentality, considering how to truly build a successful and sustainable organization?

  3. How are we developing entrepreneurial thinking and behaviors?

Regardless of your answers, if you have potential gaps, start filling them now. Build your high potential employees into entrepreneurs – not so they can run their own company someday, but more importantly, so that they are available and capable of driving the success of yours. Your organization’s future depends on it. 

The Importance of Unlearning

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Much has been written about the power of lifelong learning. Most successful professionals know how important it is to continually “sharpen the saw,”1 or stay current in knowledge, skills, and abilities to effectively perform and deliver results. If you look at great leaders, they are typically infinite learners. However, if you take a closer look, you might see that they also have the ability to unlearn.  

The ability to unlearn is a lesser-known concept that’s rarely spoken about; however, it is a critical component to success. As professionals grow both as individuals and within their careers, they are shaped by their background, experiences, and beliefs. Over time, while this collective wisdom is beneficial, it can also be inhibiting. If we get too attached to specific ways of thinking or processing, or if we begin to make assumptions, we may become blind to opportunity, or apply concepts to current situations that are not the most effective. The best leaders in a dynamic marketplace are able to “unlearn,” or not be constrained by the past, and are open to making space for new or potentially different ideas, models, or approaches.

Challenging assumptions, or even “unlearning” them, can be difficult and often requires gaining perspective through others. However, the benefits can provide a remarkable opportunity. Leaders with the ability to unlearn often spark innovation. They are disrupters, serial entrepreneurs, and/or catalysts for growth within their organizations.  They do not shy away from new experiences, “what if” questions”, journeys with no map, or starting new ventures with a blank piece of paper.  

In a world of constant change, strong leaders know not only how to learn, but also how to unlearn to embrace and even create the future for their organizations. In a 2017 interview, Barry Diller (previous Chairman and CEO of Paramount Pictures, Fox Broadcasting, and now IAC, a leading media, and internet company comprised of some of the world’s most recognized brands and products) spoke of this concept. In several of his roles over the course of his career, he has been able to achieve some remarkable innovations and breakthroughs, including introducing the “movie of the week” to ABC, developing the TV miniseries, building a “4th and alternative network” (FOX), and growing internet platforms for direct interactivity and community with consumers (e.g., including Match.com and Expedia).2  He attributes his own success to being able to “unlearn to learn, and learn to unlearn”, and continuing that cycle in whatever role, opportunity, or challenge he faces.  

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Consider your own learning agility.  How open are you to learning, and how proactive are you at pursuing new knowledge and skills? How effectively do you unlearn, challenge assumptions or that which is “sacred”, or resist the pull of automatically applying concepts that have always worked for you? Answering these questions can help you be more alert to your tendencies, both learning and unlearning. Successful leadership requires both! 

1 Source: Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey

2 Source: Masters of Scale podcast with Reid Hoffman, Session #15, The Infinite Learner (Part 2) – with IAC’s Barry Diller. December 12, 2017.


Are You Taking Notice in 2019?

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For the last several years, the trend of selecting a “word for the year” has been rising in popularity. Some examples of these words include “Limitless”, “Intentional”, “Create”, and “Forward”. The idea is that your word of choice clarifies your intent, intensifies your focus, and serves as a catalyst for action.  

For 2019 I decided I would give this a try. After much contemplation, I chose what I am guessing is a fairly uncommon word for this purpose – “Notice”.

One definition of Notice is, “the fact of observing or paying attention to something.” Another one is “to treat someone with a degree of attention or recognition.” It’s essentially having a heightened awareness of the people and things around you. In short, noticing is powerful and important.

According to Professor John Stilgoe of Harvard, the power of acute observation is one of nature's most useful tools for learning. When we notice, whether it is within or outside of the work environment, we learn. Noticing can illuminate blind spots and lead to new ideas. Additionally, it can broaden or change our perspective.

Think about your work environment. When was the last time you took a walk through your organization with a truly inquisitive, open mind and the intention of noticing? For example, have you:  

  • Looked at the work environment from the perspective of each employee working within it? 

  • Visited with people in each area or department to see and listen to what they experience daily?

  • Visited your client or customers on-site, observing and learning about their operations without assumption?  

Now think about the world outside of work. What is the most remarkable thing you saw the last time you were driving or walking around? When was the last time you studied a photograph or piece of art and discussed it with someone else? What have you noticed most about your family interactions recently, or their interactions with one another?

With the many distractions present in today’s fast-paced environment, we as leaders and managers are at risk of failing to notice what we should, when we should. However, it doesn’t have to be this way. We can practice taking notice. Easy ways to do this include:

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  1. Intentionally leaving our devices and screens behind us, walking into a new or different space, and keenly observing our surroundings.  

  2. Slowing down our own processes or routines and reconsidering each step to notice what can be done differently, more effectively, or by someone else.  

  3. Observing team interactions, specifically looking for demonstrated talents to notice the strengths of your team, then sharing your observations and positive reinforcement with the team.

  4. Noticing individuals you’re trying to communicate with by paying attention not just what they are saying, but also by listening to their feelings and emotions.   

  5. Being aware of how much time you are spending being physically, mentally, and emotionally present with the people around you.

To practice the act of noticing more effectively, purposely interrupt your normal behavior and challenge yourself to do something different. The above steps include simple ways to start.  

Become a stronger leader by taking more notice in 2019. You might be surprised by what you see.

Succeeding with New Year’s Resolutions and Goals

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Right before the new year, a friend of mine posted a note on Facebook that New Year’s resolutions actually start the first Tuesday after the first Monday of the new year. It occurred to me that taking this approach might actually extend some resolutions into the year longer than they might last otherwise!

In fact, an Inc. article by Peter Economy from Jan 1 of this year indicates that research on resolutions shows that about 60% of us admit that we make New Year’s resolutions, but only about 8% of us are successful in achieving them. Only 8%!

How do you buck this discouraging trend? How do you make a resolution stick? Or, how do you set yourself up for the success of achieving goals in the new year and becoming part of that 8%? From our experience, there are three essential elements to setting and sticking to resolutions or goals:

  1. Your "Why"
    Why are you doing it? Why does it matter? Why is it important to you? Quite frankly, having a truly meaningful goal or resolution serves as a catalyst to draw out your intrinsic motivation and create the right mindset for achievement. If the change you are trying to make is significant and important enough to you, you will be more motivated to follow it through and you will manage your efforts more intentionally. When you are clear about why you are pursuing something and the outcome you’re trying to achieve, you will have a sturdier foundation upon which to build your success. Start by choosing things that you value enough to create focus, make the right effort and keep working toward.

  2. Your Strengths
    How will you tap into your natural talents and strengths to help you achieve the goal? When we work with professionals in strengths-based development, this is a question we discuss frequently. What’s interesting is that a lot of people don’t always think about their strengths when it comes to resolutions or goals. When you are setting goals, you are more likely to succeed if you can bring an innate talent to bear – the way you already naturally think, feel, or behave.  

    For example, if you have a CliftonStrengths® theme of Strategic, Futuristic, Maximizer, or Woo, etc., how can you “aim” that strength toward your goal? If you haven’t done CliftonStrengths®, think about areas in your life where you have experienced successful performance and what personal strengths contributed to that success. Then, consider how those could be applied to your current resolutions or goals. Wharton professor Stuart Friedman calls this concept “Talent Transfer”. The bottom line is, be sure you purposefully reflect on, incorporate, and apply your talents and strengths toward achieving your goals.

  3. Your Positive Performance Experiences
    How will you keep going? How do you maintain momentum? As professionals, we are motivated by positive performance experiences. Thus, when we set resolutions or goals, we need to think not only about the plan (e.g., the action steps, timing, resources, accountability, positive reinforcement partner, etc.) but also about how we will measure our progress and assess our own personal success. How can you “chunk down” the steps of the goal to feel a regular sense of achievement?

    For example, if you want to start meditating, perhaps your measures include increasing the length of the sessions (10 mins, then 15 mins, etc.), the frequency of the sessions (daily, 3x a week, 5x a week, etc.), your consistency (completing one week, then one month, then three months, etc.). Regardless of what you choose, be sure you set interim milestones to be able to experience small wins along the way, not just at the end.  These positive performance experiences promote momentum and help you build toward success.

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As we embark on a new year, opportunities for continuous improvement and growth abound. Think about what you want to change (i.e., doing something new, dropping a habit, achieving a specific milestone, etc.) and be intentional in defining what it is you want to achieve. Be sure it is something that matters to you, that you apply your talents and strengths, and that you set yourself up for positive performance experiences. If you do these three things, you will be much more likely to join the 8%!

Understanding the Personal Impact of The Ladder of Inference

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In our last blog post, we explored the Ladder of Inference and its impact at the organizational level. What we didn’t explore was how it impacts all of us in one-on-one situations. Consider this:

In a recent workshop exercise, we asked participants to interview one another in pairs. In this case, the interviewers were only allowed to ask questions and could not elaborate or add commentary of any kind. In the debrief, participants commented about how tough it was to not talk or jump in with their own points of view or examples.

Why was this difficult? The ladder of inference kicks in as soon as the conversation begins. It is a natural human response. We start thinking about a time when we did something similar, and we want to immediately share. We think of when we saw the other person doing what it is they are talking about, and we want to reinforce what we notice. We are puzzled by the information they are sharing, or maybe we even disagree with it, so we start to prepare our rebuttal. Regardless of what we are thinking, one thing is clear – we have stopped listening.

We may not do it intentionally, but if we have stopped listening, we have limited our effectiveness regardless of the situation or role we are in. To achieve the best results for the individual and for us, we need to listen with intent. To do that, we must be able to harness our own tendencies and use the Ladder of Inference as a tool for more intentional communication. But how?   

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  1. Become more aware of your own thinking and reasoning (i.e., personal biases that might creep in, areas where you are most vulnerable to making assumptions, etc.)

  2. Be more open and suspend judgment. Take in as much data as possible before forming assumptions or drawing conclusions. This may require you to intentionally pause and not offer insights or elaborate until you know you’ve heard or solicited all the facts.

  3. Lean into questions. Inquire about the thinking and reasoning of others to ensure you are inviting in additional information and fully understanding their perspective.

  4. Be transparent. Make your thinking and reasoning more visible to others. Help them know how you are formulating your point of view.

Regardless of role or title, personal leadership is all about how we show up every day and interact with others. It’s how we communicate with them, what we share with them, how we treat them, how we honor them, how we help them, how we support them, and yes, how effectively we LISTEN to them.

Thus, understanding and knowing how we draw inferences and being more attentive to our listening and communication is critical to becoming a more effective leader day to day.


Understanding the Organizational Impact of The Ladder of Inference

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The Ladder of Inference is a mental model for communication – ours and others – and whether we are conscious of it or not, it impacts the way we interact every day. 

The concept of the Ladder of Inference was originally developed by Chris Argyris and is explored in The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook by Peter Senge. The basic premise is that we create our own “truth” by quickly assimilating data, evaluating the situation, and acting. Sometimes we do this based on mere assumptions that we don’t even realize we created as a part of the process. 

The ladder elements in their simplest form include the following:

  1. Make observations

  2. Select data that resonates

  3. Add meanings to this data

  4. Make assumptions based on these meanings

  5. Draw conclusions about what is happening

  6. Adopt beliefs about what is happening

  7. Take action based on these  beliefs

While there are many rungs on the ladder, it can take just seconds to climb them or make leaps in our mind.  In addition, it is a dynamic model, meaning the beliefs we form and actions we take can lead to us being selective about future data or observations.  Thus, it can create positive and negative self-fulfilling prophecies in very short periods of time. 

In the work environment, employees’ Ladders of Inference can promote or inhibit beliefs about what is really happening.  Consider this organizational example:

You have a manager meeting in which it is mentioned that a new flexible work program has been approved for one department in the organization and, if successful, will be rolled out to others. One or two questions are asked but given the limited time frame, it is noted that more information will be shared later. Now imagine the possible post-meeting discussions…

  • “Why didn’t they pilot it in our department? We’ve been asking for this for months. That team is clearly the favorite. They always get special treatment, and they always get everything first.”

  • “This is just not fair. Why didn’t they just roll the whole thing out all at once? It isn’t that hard to figure out something like this, but now that team is going to be able to provide input and none of the rest of us get any input. They don’t even do the same type of work we do, so the pilot isn’t even going to be relevant for anyone else.”

  • “Isn’t it exciting that they are finally open to a flexible work program? Maybe things will change around here after all! We are finally going to be able to work remotely whenever we want.”

This is just one example that demonstrates how people can take just a few data points or observations and very quickly make “leaps of abstraction”, they then report as their own “truth”.  Each has his or her point of view that was informed by some personal “leaps” on the Ladder of Inference.  The most effective way for an organization to combat these leaps of abstraction is to do as much as possible to “make your thinking and reasoning more visible”.  In other words, the antidote to these rapid assumptions is transparency. 

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Transparency in this context means communicating frequently and thoroughly about culture, goals, principles, vision, and change in a positive manner. As an organization, you want to create an environment where the authentic, observable data (e.g., actions, behaviors, language, etc.) helps create inferences that are more in alignment with the vision you have for the company.  Without attentiveness to communication or transparency, any type of existing or emerging cultural concerns or divide can be widened unintentionally by employees making quick assumptions or judgments with little data. 

If you are in a role that contributes to organizational transparency, consider how the Ladder of Inference might be at play in your work environment. What can you do that would fill the void of information? How can you share data or observations that contribute to positive inferences as opposed to negative ones? And how can you make thinking and reasoning more visible? Your attention to communication around all of these issues can make a big difference in the actions and beliefs of your employees, and ultimately to the success of your organization.

What is Your "Job 1"?

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In early 2016 one of my favorite clients asked me to watch A Faster Horse to pull out some key thoughts for a meeting. A Faster Horse is a documentary about the making of the 2015 Ford Mustang. The film shares the entire journey from design to production.  

I am not a car person so, honestly, I wasn’t really expecting to enjoy it much. But I have since watched the documentary no less than five times. Embedded in the story are lessons about innovation, leadership, mission orientation, teamwork, collaboration, quality, efficiency, determination, communication, and customer experience.  One specific point that jumped out at me both the first time I watched and again recently was the focus on “Job 1”.

So what is Job 1? For Ford, Job 1 is a simple, clearly defined, straightforward expectation: the ship date for a specific vehicle. It is the finish line for the whole team for the launch of a new model. Here are a couple of descriptions from leaders within Ford.

“Job 1 is mass production. It is the culmination of when everything comes together.”
- Frank Davis, Executive Director.

“Job 1 is when the car ships out on trains and on car carriers. They will go to real people and be in people’s driveways. When the first set of customers get in the car, that is Job 1.”
- Dave Pericak, Chief Program Engineer, 2015 Mustang

Some people might read those and say, so what? Everyone has deadlines. What is so special about Job 1? What becomes clear when you watch this documentary is that Job 1 isn’t just a date on the calendar – it’s more than that. It’s delivering a product on time that meets the brand expectations and experience for the model, and the entire team is responsible for reaching this goal. For the team, Job 1 is a foundational expectation that drives and sustains team focus and performance, even long-term. From the initial announcement to the unveiling of the 2015 Mustang, Job 1 took five years to reach.

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According to Gallup’s employee engagement research, about 50% of workers in the U.S. do not know what is expected of them at work. In other words, they don’t know what success looks like or what they might need to do to achieve it. To close that gap, leaders must be clear with their expectations. They must help employees know what Job 1 is and how to deliver on it. This includes not just the individual’s “technical job” but also how to work with others to get it done.

Working toward Job 1 includes establishing strategies and expectations on how to navigate priorities and handle challenges that arise. In addition, leaders must ensure that employees understand how their role fits within the big picture and aligns with the company’s strategic goals.

A foundation of clear expectations can provide a consistent mission orientation, regardless of reporting relationship. Consider this commentary from A Faster Horse:

“From the design team to marketing...there are literally thousands of people in the company working on Mustang. At the end of the day, maybe only about 30 of those people work for the Chief Program Engineer. The nature of the job is that you are accountable for everything but you don’t directly control any of the resources. It really comes down to getting people who don’t report to you to do what you need them to do. It’s the ultimate definition of being a leader.”
- Marcy Fisher, Team Mustang 2015 and Jay Thai-Tang, Team Mustang 2005

Clear expectations provide a roadmap for direction and are the foundation for employee engagement. While we may not all have a “mass production ship date”, it is likely we know and can define Job 1. It might be Job 1 within a specific role or team or Job 1 for the whole company. Regardless, these team-oriented goals must be communicated and discussed to have the greatest possible impact. What is your Job 1?

A Leader’s Role in Change

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Leadership makes a difference. In fact, the data shows that leadership makes the biggest difference when it comes to change. Prosci, a global research firm and team of change fanatics with the largest body of change management data, has found that:

The #1 contributor to successful change is active and visible sponsorship from leaders.*

In fact, in each of the firm’s ten benchmarking studies conducted since 1998, leadership has topped the list of what drives positive change results. The breakdown on the correlation to success from the 2018 best practices survey shows this:

Percentage of projects that met or exceeded project objectives based on sponsor effectiveness:

  • 29% Very ineffective sponsors

  • 42% Ineffective sponsors

  • 54% Moderately effective sponsors

  • 72% Extremely effective sponsors

In our work with organizations where we strive to get maximum adoption and usage for strategic initiated change, we have found the same to be true. When leaders provide direction and guidance, and more importantly, are committed, the desired outcomes are much more likely to be achieved.

To be clear, this commitment sets a high bar, and part of it is embracing the role of executive sponsor of the change. To sponsor something usually requires taking action. Most often these actions include introducing, providing resources and/or supporting the thing you are sponsoring. The leader’s role in being an executive sponsor for change is no different. A leader must do three things to be an “effective sponsor” for a change:

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  1. Be active and visible throughout the change period. From the time a change is conceptualized, to when it is introduced, and through all the phases of the project, a leader must be present. Effective leadership is not saying “We need to make this change. Go make it happen” only to have others take over. Rather, leadership must continually provide direction, support, and resources, and ensure obstacles and barriers are removed. This requires active ongoing dialogue and a continuous visible presence.

  2. Build sponsorship with key stakeholders. Effective change doesn’t just happen because one leader decides it must take place. Change that involves people, processes, and systems happens most effectively when the executive leader and sponsor identifies others who will be crucial for support and execution and gets them on board. This role of influencer is critical to ensuring the success of desired business outcomes as a result of change.

  3. Communicate, communicate, communicate.  One of the most essential elements a leader must master during change is communication. At the business level, leadership must answer the question of “why” a change is important to the business. They must also be prepared to share the risks of remaining unchanged and explain the desired outcomes. These messages need to be regular and consistent throughout the life of the project. In our experience with coaching change, we have found that it’s difficult for leaders to communicate too much, especially surrounding changes that are complex. It is not uncommon for employees to start to question, refresh, or backtrack on a change midstream. It’s up to the leadership messaging to help them stay the course.

If you are initiating strategic change in your organization, take one simple step to set yourself up for success: be intentional in identifying an “executive sponsor” or leader for the change. It doesn’t have to be the CEO, but it does have to be someone with influence, respect, and a strong voice in the organization. Be sure that individual understands change management and the three key actions they must take.

Finally, set an expectation that this person sponsors the change from inception to implementation and holds everyone accountable. By taking actionable steps toward clear and present leadership for change, you can make a significant difference in your company with incredible results!

The Forces Impacting the Future of Work

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At the heart of the future of work is one thing that cannot be ignored: people. Regardless of technological advances, globalization, or economic shifts, companies will still need people in order to succeed. As leaders, part of the key to positioning your organization to capitalize on talent and embrace the shape of work to come is to understand two things: the future workforce itself, and the nature of how technology will change the way people work.

First let’s talk about the future workforce. In recent years the primary focus has been incorporating Millennial and Gen Z workers into more dominant and influential roles within organizations. These generations have grown up fully immersed in a digital world. They bring expectations and ways of relating, both to one another and to the work itself, that are different and challenge most traditional workplaces. However, the generation blend that makes up the workforce is not the only shift that requires our attention. 

In their recent article “Forces of Change”, Jeff Schwartz, Heather Stockton, and Kelly Monahan of Deloitte share that, in addition to the changing demographics, one of the biggest trends shaping our workforce is the rise in “off-campus” and “off-balance sheet" workers (e.g., contractors or transactional remote workers). The way we fulfill our talent gaps and needs may look radically different now as new and evolving staffing strategies and alternative work arrangements are likely to become more prevalent and strategically valuable.

Alongside the workforce and the talent that composes it, technology is re-writing the rules of work as well.  Most studies indicate technologies like AI and machine learning will change how problems are or can be solved, thus ushering us into an era where work is truly augmented by technology. Rather than wholly replacing jobs, we will experience more collaborative work between talent and technology, or rather, true human-machine partnerships. Technology will not just provide efficiencies, it will extend human capabilities for solving problems, evaluating data, and acting on information.

These changes in the basic nature of work have many implications for organizations and require leaders to contemplate what the future could entail, including but not limited to:

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  • Challenging assumptions – reimagining work structure, organizational roles, staffing models, and advancement paths

  • Sourcing or growing diverse talents and skill sets – tapping into higher levels of critical thinking, cognitive, social, and soft skills

  • Elevating the change competency – creating greater organization agility and helping employees be more resilient and adaptable

  • Building great managers – coaching, growing, and supporting employees to celebrate strengths, promote engagement, and create affiliation

  • Promoting creativity and innovation – reengineering workflows and processes, cultivating opportunity identification, and allowing for experimentation

While different companies will collide with these changes in work at different times in the future, now is the time to assess your success in these areas and build capabilities to succeed in an era of augmented work. It is the time to contemplate the art of the possible - what we need and how we work. By doing so you will position your organization to capitalize on the most significant lever in the future of work – the people.

Why Leadership Teams Need Healthy Disagreement

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Much has been written about team building and the importance of being a cohesive team in creating and maintaining a successful organization. The research team at RHR International has even confirmed the value of teamwork in relation to specific team performance.

Often, when people hear “cohesive” and “strong teamwork”, they presume that manifests as consensus in approach or high harmony. At the enterprise level, though, we see something different. In fact, the RHR research shows that at the highest levels, a leadership team’s ability to have healthy disagreement and manage conflicting tensions is most predictive of top team performance.

In our work with teams, we have also anecdotally found this to be true. Leadership teams function much more effectively, make better decisions, and spark innovation when they can entertain various perspectives with healthy debate. It doesn’t mean that all team members must finally agree, but rather at the end of the day, viewpoints have been heard and vetted. To that end, these teams are highly effective at “mining for conflict” if they feel that a contrary view or opinion is held but not being put forth.

In order to have a healthy vs. debilitating disagreement, make an effort to see the customer’s point of view and keep it central in the conversation to ensure that what is best for the company vs. what is best for a specific team member is guiding the discussion. Be sure to also hold team members accountable for innovation and new ideas.

To increase the level of effectiveness in your teams, reflect on the actions, along with the interactions, within your meetings and projects. Are you always hearing affirmation of your ideas, or are dissenting viewpoints being offered? Are all viewpoints being heard, or are there some that need to be drawn out? Are you hearing enough input to truly sharpen ideas or simply to execute them?

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Your answers will provide insight into whether or not you are tapping into all possibilities. To improve, the best place to start is to set the tone and expectation that all views are not only welcome, but also vital. Then take steps to ensure all perspectives and opportunities are being offered. For it is through the views and actions of your team that you will create the strongest results.

Stopping the Epidemic of Poor Managers

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Archos Advisors’ David Graham asked an audience of nearly 200 people, “Have you ever left a job because of a bad manager?” It seemed like a simple enough, non-controversial question, yet the response was shocking. At least 80% of the people raised their hands.

Later in the session, I asked the same group what percentage of their current managers they would consider to be “high performance managers”. One person in the room responded 80%! I got excited – momentarily thinking this crowd might be different. Unfortunately, she was alone in such a positive response. As I continued to poll the room, the majority of the participants reported 50% or below.

Unfortunately, our anecdotal statistics are reinforced by national research that shows similar results. In a study of 2.5 million manager-led teams, Gallup Inc. found that one in two people have left a job because of a poor manager. Gallup also discovered that managers account for 70% of the variance in employee engagement across teams. Additionally, the same research shows that, through their impact, managers who are not engaged or who are actively disengaged cost the U.S. economy $319 billion to $398 billion annually*.

Based on these statistics alone, it is safe to say we have an epidemic of poor management that must be cured in order for us to achieve the greatest potential in our organizations. Not only does poor management have a significant impact on employees, it also has a very real influence on business results.

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The good news is that companies can take concrete steps to shift from having poor managers who cause people to leave to having great managers who are the number one reason people stay. These steps include:

  1. Defining and communicating expectations for. This may seem simple, but too often these expectations are weak. Does your organization expect project or workflow management or development and growth of people? Perhaps both? There are different expectations and outcomes depending on the answer to those questions. Both roles are important and necessary, but they aren’t always owned by the same person.

    Organizations must consider what is most effective for the business and what meets the needs of employees. Clear expectations and ownership of these different areas can create specific roles that can then be appropriately filled.

  2. Selecting for managerial talent. Determining who to put in the role of manager is one of the most critical decisions an organization will make, especially the manager who will “own” the role of people development and growth. Research shows that only one in 10 people have natural managerial talent, and an additional two in that 10 have functional talent that can be developed into effective managers1. When placing individuals in a manager role, companies should screen rigorously for managerial talent to make the most informed decisions.

  3. Educating and training managers on what it means to be “high-performance” and supporting them within that role. Companies need to train their managers on the needs of the current workforce and help them build skills to meet those needs. As managers execute this training in their new role, supporting them with coaching and reinforcement for their own professional growth is critical. For managers to be highly effective in their role, they personally need to be engaged, particularly through ongoing employer support.

          Three fundamental areas that require focus include:

  • How to be strengths-based to leverage talents.

  • How to be engagement-focused to build employee commitment.

  • How to be performance-oriented by setting clear expectations, coaching continuously, and establishing accountability.

How do we know these strategies work? Remember the professional who said 80% of her managers would be considered "high performance managers"? I asked how they were able to accomplish this high percentage.  She shared two specific company actions:

  • The company treats every manager role as an external hire and applies the same rigorous selection process to candidates for the position (i.e., assessments, behavior-based interviewing, etc.).

  • Once a manager is onboarded and clear on expectations, the company enrolls them in a specific, multi-level, mandatory training program that is executed over a significant length of time.

This company gets it.

What percent of your managers would you say are high-performing managers? What is the impact of that current percentage, and what if you improved it by 25%? Do you think that could impact your employee metrics or improve your bottom line? What is the impact long-term if you do nothing?

Be proactive to stop the epidemic that could be occurring within your own organization. Apply a critical eye to the steps described and identify one or two immediate actions that can help you improve your percentage. Remember, great managers make a difference not only in their influence on other employees but also on the bottom line, so it is worth the investment!

* Source: State of the American Manager Report, Gallup, Inc. Copyright 2015. All Rights Reserved.