Thoughts from the C-Suite


When I first entered corporate management, I had the benefit of working, a few layers down, for the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.  This CEO was a shirtsleeves boss, literally a leader who walked the floor of every plant the company managed back in the eighties. He was known for arriving earlier than expected whenever he had a management or customer meeting at any of those many plants. He’d leave his jacket at the front desk and would spend significant time walking up to employees he encountered as he, often alone, toured the plant getting that employee’s view of the business. This leadership process gave him a first hand experience of the firm’s successes and challenges in serving its customers. It served him well as that great leader led his firm to become the number one company in its industry.

I personally had my own direct experience with our CEO on one of those walk arounds.  I was part of the team that had recently built a new plant in New York City.  As head of customer service, I was individually responsible for outfitting our customer conference rooms, spending the company’s money on what were then the best conference room chairs and tables money could buy to support the client working environment the business required.

The CEO stopped by earlier than expected at our big customer celebration of building this multi-million dollar facility and came up to me and asked for a quiet tour of the plant. I walked the plant with him and introduced him to our employees as we walked the floor.  Mr. Lake spent a couple of minutes with each of these employees,  many of them new to the firm, and asked about their roles and what they expected from the challenges they would have there. I was taken by his knowledge of the equipment and the individual jobs required of this sophisticated computer driven platform.

We finished our tour in the client conference rooms. He asked me why we had outfitted these conference rooms the way we had. I explained the customer work environment these rooms supported, often days of legal and investment document generation at these tables as initial public offerings and merger and acquisitions were finally hammered out and prepared for the financial markets. To my astonishment and candidly feeling a bit shaky, the CEO looked at the chairs I had just purchased and said something to the effect that he wanted to try out one of these quite expensive chairs. He proceeded to sit down, push the chair on its wheels and throw his weight back.  He got up and said “ the chair was a good buy” and then thanked me for my time and joined the senior execs who were just gathering to prepare for the event.

I learned a lot from my personnel time with this highly successful CEO about leadership, attention to detail and being completely engaged in all aspects of the business. I made it part of my own development as a manager and a business leader. As a  coach and mentor to new business leaders, it’s an experience that remains a best practice, no matter what business or discipline a senior executive is responsible for.  Especially in today’s rapid fire change environment where technology and business fluctuations are a common experience, “walking the floor” remains a sound process for engaging directly with those who have the customer as their primary focus. Billions have been spent on analysis and sophisticated processes from consulting firms, business gurus and business schools, much of it helpful, some less so. The “walk the floor” ROI of the time spent in individual conversations with those who work for your company, understanding why what works and what challenges are in the front of best customer outcome, is often priceless. Build it into your leadership character, so that it is continuous and balanced. It is a proven discovery method that helps shape an executive’s understanding of the business. 

It is not a “gotcha” process.To make it worthwhile, “walking the floor”information is precious and conversation with the business leader is there to be shared for the betterment of the business without fear of retribution or retaliation. That takes practice and care in making it core to your own  management style and a done in a disciplined way. For more on this and other business practices, please reach out to Better Leaders.  We’re here to help and to serve.

Welcome back

Welcome back! Those of you who’ve been checking in from time to time know that we’ve been quiet on this
page of the website for a while. Now we’re back, with a lot of ideas triggered by work with our clients.

Also, the “we” behind Better Leaders now includes Jim Fagan as a Partner and Principal, joining Sandi and me as the Principals in the firm. Jim brings more than 40 years of leadership and management experience to his roles as a coach and consultant for our clients. Please see Jim’s background on the About Our Team page of this web site.Together we renew our commitment to our existing and future clients as we assist you in maximizing your results and achieving your goals.

We believe that the primary differentiating factor we offer is our insight, which is hard to demonstrate in the absence of a real business situation your team is dealing with. We think that case studies are the closest we can get to ‘real’ to give you a feeling something like actually being there. We also believe that the quality and
depth of our observations based upon extensive experience fuel the quality of our insights; and that the
relationships we develop with your team and others we are in contact with enhance the amount and depth of
data we get as well as the analysis we are able to do. All of which feed into our management/leadership
insight, and make it rigorous and defensible.

So, experiential insight, supported by broad and deep observations, real relationships and rigorous analysis are some of the differentiating elements of our better solutions, which we hope will be clearer from the stories we can tell here.

But the final definer of “better solution” is that it appeals to your team who now want to make it their own, do it, and CAN. This requirement rests on how well we (your management team and our consultants) find solutions that (mostly) fit their skill sets, how well we inspire them, and how well we supplement their skill sets to fill in their gaps. We also support them during their learning and execution (which happen together), reward good work and gently redirect “good tries”, and celebrate team successes.

Those are the kind of client stories we’ll be sharing with you here – stories that show the whole
process or that highlight parts of it. We hope you’ll be able to suss out enough from these stories to recognize
how we might help your team, and that it’s worth at least letting us help you to write your own success story
with us.

Owning your Power: Effective Dynamics in the Workplace (Part 2)

Business woman working on laptop computer at officeLast week we examined the idea of relinquishing power and trusting others. It’s important that that as a manager, the greatest thing you can do is to establish a working relationship built on respect. It’s not letting go when you relinquish power, it’s allowing others the opportunity and space to shine. Remember that sometimes, a lighter touch will go further with your colleagues. Instead of demanding something, ask for it. Instead of directing a discussion, simply offer your opinion. Make an extra effort to express your appreciation to those around you. In other situations, you will need to assert your position with full intentionality, and accept the fact that not everyone will be content with your decision.

The process of settling into this new dynamic with your colleagues is rarely comfortable. If you feel like a fraud, don’t worry: you’re not. The “impostor syndrome” is a well-documented and common phenomenon where high-achievers fear being “found out” as something less. Your colleagues can see your strengths, even if you can’t. There’s a reason why you’ve gotten to where you are. It might feel uncomfortable or unnatural at first, but everything will fall into place once you’ve recognized and accepted your power. The challenge now is to harness your power constructively.

Power isn’t easy. Push too hard, and you’re overbearing. Be too chummy, and people will whisper that you’re not up to task. There is no neutral: get used to the reality that everything you do will be scrutinized and interpreted for better or worse…or for worse and worse.

Every leader attains more power through his or her journey, but not all recognize it immediately. When you do, you’ll need to reconcile the gap between your self-perception and your rightful role. Once you’ve internalized your power, it’s simply a matter of making a few small shifts to start seeing seismic results.

Owning your Power: Effective Dynamics in the Workplace (Part 1)

Business manager with employees in backgroundWith the unusual ability to bridge sales and execution teams, Bill quickly rose through the corporate ranks at a global company. When the time came to elevate his work to match his new SVP title, he found himself consumed by lower-level tasks in his old department.

Bill was afraid of giving up his familiar role—he was damn good at it. Once he understood his fear, he gave up micromanaging and entrusted others to fulfill his old job. When he learned to let go, he gained the greater vision to truly lead.

*   *   *

A significant part of effective leadership is learning to relinquish control and trust the dynamic of the team you’ve built. Subsequently, one of the hardest parts about stepping into a new role is the daunting task of molding those relationships and that trust between colleagues so that you are able to focus on the bigger picture. Staying in tune with the attitudes and responses of those around you will help immensely in your quest to optimize your role as their leader.

Oftentimes, external validation from your peers is much subtler than you’d expect, making it hard to judge their perception of you as a leader. However, you can keep an eye out for cues in their behavior that can tell you the level of respect you command, and the subsequent power you hold.

For you, external expectations from your peers will shift, often without warning. People will assume you have the answers, and they will act on your words. Colleagues will attach themselves to you and look to you for guidance. These are all natural, good things, assuming you can notice the change and adapt appropriately. For most executives, adapting is easy—once they grow conscious of the need.

The more power you have, the greater impact your actions make, so be mindful of how you relate to others with this new-found influence. If you’re looking for an end-all be-all approach to leadership, you’re wasting your time. Flexibility in how you respond to people and situations will quite suddenly become the most important tool in your arsenal when you are given heightened responsibility.

Owning Your Power: Awareness and Authority (Part 1)

“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”

Cheerful team of business people in the meeting room with the bo-Shakespeare, Henry IV, 1597

 As general manager at a tech company, Mary (renamed for anonymity) was in line for a big promotion. But one thing stood in her way: an influential higher-up—let’s call him Bob—was not too fond of her. Or so she thought.

In reality, Bob found Mary talented, sharp, and invaluable. But he agreed that there was one thing standing in her way: herself. Mary simply wasn’t asserting her authority—in meetings, with her direct reports…to anyone. In effect, she needed to recognize and own her power.

*   *   *

We are all well aware that power changes things. That’s not a premise dipped in ego; it’s a reality that escapes many ascendant executives. Power changes how you’re thought of, how you’re treated, and, crucially, what’s expected from you.

We are probably less aware of the more subtle changes that power brings. As your role and responsibilities grow within an organization, the mantle of power can settle gently, almost imperceptibly. You may not recognize it, but the people around you certainly will.

In order to manipulate this change as one for the better, you have to learn how to own your power and shift the dynamic in your favor. This means recognizing and internalizing your power, as well as changing your behavior to reflect your new responsibility. First you need to understand how it happens, notice when it’s happening, and take action to be a better leader.

*   *   *

How does power come to settle on your shoulders? It can happen gradually. A need emerges, and you take it on. You learn a skill, command a project, and claim even more responsibility. Over time, your reputation, your skill set, and your power all grow. Power can also manifest in a sudden or unexpected way–perhaps something changes, resulting in a promotion. Maybe your skills and contacts become more valuable due to a shift in market circumstances.

It’s also important to realize that while a corner office and generous pay raise are clear enough signs, newly attained power is rarely so obvious. One model of power famously posited by French and Raven states that power derives from six sources: 1) the threat of punishment, 2) the promise of a payoff, 3) titles and positions, 4) personal charisma, 5) extensive knowledge, and 6) persuasive facts and arguments.

Because we don’t usually examine our performance from an outside perspective, it’s often extremely difficult for people to recognize their own power. Despite a new title or salary (extrinsic changes), people often feel as though they haven’t changed intrinsically

Fostering a sense of self-awareness is crucial to your success as a leader, as is learning to read those around you for signs of a paradigm shift. Recognizing your power is the first step to owning it, and the way you handle that authority once you’ve identified it will make all the difference in your performance. Our next blog will delve further into the notion of how to own your power in the workplace by creating an effective dynamic with your colleagues.


Why is Change So Difficult?

bigstock-Confusion-And-Business-Career-44655397Everyone loves a change of scenery.  What makes personal change so hard?  Part of the reason we love a change of scenery is that it’s the scenery changing – not US.  Many of us believe we love change; usually that means we love to stand in one place and watch change happen around us, especially if it’s change in the direction we want.

Uncontrollable change – change that’s imposed, change started or driven by others, or by events – is very uncomfortable for many of us.  Even when that change is beneficial to us, even when we actually want that change. The hardest change is changing yourself, particularly if what you’re doing is working pretty well  to begin with.

While most successful people are very open to change (we’re always looking for a way to do something a little better, for a new “edge”), it can be risky to tamper with a formula that we’ve relied on and which has gotten us where we are – what if we change the wrong thing and ruin it all?  We know that the million things we do, as a package, work together to make us successful; we may not always know which of those million things are really responsible for our success. We become a little superstious, like the baseball player who wears the same pair of underwear every game because the first time he wore them he got a home run.  That makes it hard to try new things, even when we know in our heart of hearts that we can be better than we are now.  In the worst cases, we get a little paralysed.

We know that we have to change, we might even WANT to change; it’s just hard to identify the right change and make it happen, and to take the risk of changing something that’s working without knowing for sure whether the results will be good or disastrous.

Where the right change begins

Figuring out how and what to change begins with recognizing those things that most contribute to our success; the relatively few things among the millions we do that actually make us successful.  Those things are almost always the result of using our talents.

Paradoxically, while we’re very good at spotting the talents of others, we are usually blind to our own  Identifying them, let alone valuing and developing them, is a really difficult task.  Among other reasons, we’ve always had them; we didn’t have to work to get them.  Using them is second nature to us – valuing them is like valuing the ability to breathe. In fact, the only thing noticeable to us about our talents is how often other people don’t use them. That’s because they don’t have them.

If you’re wondering what your innate talents are, ask yourself: what do you do easily, almost naturally (like breathing) that people respond to and act as if you’ve just pulled off a miraculous feat? Other people’s talents look like magic to those who don’t hold the same talents. By recognizing your own talents and the talents of others you can begin to strategize change. Are you in the best position to capitalize on your talents? Are the team members that you’re managing given the opportunity to use their innate talents to succeed? Be wary of changes that make sense on paper but go against the grain of everyone’s talents. The change you want to create  will allow your best people to blossom, not crush them.

Remember, keep an eye out for indications of your talents and let your talents steer change.  The better you know your talents, the better you can use them, nurture them, develop them – and succeed.