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Trust & Leadership

Lisa McArthur, one of our esteemed consultants, tackles the topic of Trust & Leadership and provides practical, actionable steps you can take today to start improving both.

Into every leadership journey a little rain must fall. At some point, numbers start to head south; that key project begins to miss critical milestones. It happens to all of us. And when that rain does fall, remember that as a leader, you are defined not by your challenges – but by your response to them.

For many, missed targets or milestones trigger the instinct to micro-manage. After all, the only way to make sure you’re on top of everything is to put it all under a microscope and leave no stone unturned. Only a clear command-and-control style of leadership can help right the ship. Right?

So tempting; and yet so wrong!

The solution is not to overrule your team, it’s to get it working. Trust improves teamwork. Full stop. More reports and checkpoints will may provide more data, but chances are it is breakthrough ideas and approaches that will get you back on course. You need your team to focus on new possibilities and collectively take calculated risks.

To put it simply, they need to trust each other. Sounds simple, but as a leader, what does this mean? How can you build trust within your team? The trust equation, normally a descriptor of personal attributes, has something to add to team analysis:

1. Start with Intimacy

For those not familiar with the trust equation, intimacy is about creating safety and building a safe environment. Put yourself in a team member’s shoes. They have an idea that could help bring things back on track. Should they take a risk and offer the idea up to the group? What kind of reaction will they face? In a safe environment, new ideas are welcomed and become the seeds that can germinate true breakthough thinking.

Be honest. How does your team measure up? Are new ideas welcomed and used as building blocks or are they generally dismissed? If suggestions are met with a “we’ve tried that before” or “It’ll never work”, ideas will slowly stop coming.

As a leader, how are you building a “safe” environment to ensure that your team’s ideas are heard? At your next team meeting, try starting from a place of vulnerability. Talk about the issues at hand and your role in them. By taking a risk and being vulnerable you are showing your team that it is safe for them to take risks too!

Next, ask for help. We often resist asking for help for fear of appearing weak – but paradoxically, asking for help shows vulnerability, equality and a desire for collaboration. You’ve taken a risk (again) and shown your team that it is okay to do.

The plus – most of us are hard-wired to respond to honest requests for help. Get the brainstorming started and then listen. Really listen! Ask engaging questions, clarify and let the team build on each other’s ideas. New and innovative solutions are far more likely when everyone is fully engaged and feels safe to contribute.

2. “Check your S”

The “S” in the denominator of the trust equation is self-orientation – and a high number is not good. As a leader, you have to model low self-orientation. Are you focused on what YOU need – to report on a project’s progress or the latest operational results – or are you focused on what the TEAM needs? Even those leaders with the best intentions can find this difficult.

Acting as an “I”, we start directing and stop listening. How often have you asked for the latest sales results or project update only to then provide clear and specific direction on what you think is required?

Change your focus to “we”. Instead of the “I”, ask what the team needs to be successful – and then whatever it is, do it quickly. By changing your focus to the team, your actions will show your commitment to their success. Your commitment to the team’s success, and only the team’s success, lower’s your self-orientation. Done authentically, your team will respond in kind, re-committing themselves personally to the task at hand.

3. Build positive momentum with reliability

The biggest part of Reliability is, simply stated, do what you say you are going to do. We are all familiar with Newton’s first law of motion; “An object at rest, stays at rest. An object in motion stays in motion until acted upon by an external force.” How can you, as a leader, get the ball rolling?

Start small. Have the team set small, incremental targets. It’s important that the targets are set on the team’s terms, not yours. Make sure the targets are attainable and then celebrate each success. Suddenly, you have shifted the focus from what the team can’t do to what they can accomplish. With each small win, the team builds positive momentum and once you’re moving, no one will want to be the reason things come to a halt.

At the same time, resist encouraging sandbagging, or in its more polite form, “under-promising and over-delivering.” It’s just another form of lying to your clients, and it undercuts reliability, since it literally trains your clients to expect a disconnect between what you say and what you do. Which was the whole point in the first place.

4. Be honest

As a leader, your words have power. Now is the time to focus on clear, concise messages that your team will understand and take to heart. Now is not the time for nuanced explanations.

Words matter. If you are not sure of an answer – say so (in fact, “I don’t know” is one of the most credibility-enhancing things you can say – no one will suspect you of lying about that!). You can always go get the answer, but you won’t always get another chance to prove your honesty.

In environments where things get tough or are moving quickly, even tiny errors in facts or judgments can create large ripples in the team and create that ominous “spin” that suddenly brings all activity to an abrupt halt.

Life is full of ups and downs and rainy days; leadership is no different. Strong leaders understand how to build trust and foster an environment that encourages each team member to contribute to their fullest potential. The next time your team struggles, remember – don’t take over the job yourself – instead, lead with trust!

Trusting your colleagues will make you more trustworthy to your customers

If you’re trying to sell your services, you already know the value of being trusted. Being trusted increases value, cuts time, lowers costs, and increases profitability—both for us and for our clients.

As a solo practitioner, being trustworthy is pretty straightforward (note that I didn’t say it’s easy). But when you are part of a company and have to rely on other colleagues, it can feel much more complex.

What effect does trusting your colleagues have on being trustworthy with your client?

Let’s start with the obvious: we are all human, with very human needs. In the world of professional services, these needs probably show up as some flavor of wanting to help the client succeed, wanting to provide the right solution, wanting to be good at what we do, or wanting to be respected and liked.

In organizations where there is low trust, when you have to rely on your colleagues, these human needs can become vulnerabilities – actually getting in the way of doing what’s right for the client:

  • You become territorial about your client, or concerned about your credibility, so you limit and control access to your client
  • You’re not an expert in someone else’s knowledge area, so you don’t bring it to the client as a possible solution
  • You want to be the one to solve the client’s problems, so you take on more than you can handle, or tasks for which others are better suited

And so – despite the best of intentions and because of being only human – you become a bottleneck.  You limit your client’s access to all the company has to offer, and you create (at best) unnecessary complexity and delays in providing solutions, or (at worst) a single source of failure when things aren’t going well.

It takes a village

Building trust within your organization is a powerful way to overcome these vulnerabilities. The easiest way to explore this is through the Trust Equation:

 

When you trust your colleagues, you can be more trustworthy for your client. We can see this in all four variables of the trust equation.

When you trust your colleagues:

You don’t have to be the expert on everything, so you can bring more and better solutions, and be candid when he doesn’t personally know something, which increases your credibility

You can delegate work to better meet commitments on time, and get the information you need to alert the client if a commitment can’t be met, which increases your reliability

You know your colleagues and leadership stand behind you, so you can take more personal risk with your client, which increases your intimacy

You don’t worry about your colleagues’ motives, so you are willing to introduce more people to the client, and you can focus on the client’s needs without distraction, which demonstrates low self-orientation

Building Trust Internally

Trust in the workplace starts with the organization (Charles Green wrote a great blog about organizational trust), but trust among employees still is a personal choice – and while you cannot force someone to trust you, you can be more trustworthy.

In our workshops, we ask participants how they can be better trusted advisors to their colleagues. Here are five ways they identified to increase trustworthiness among employees:

  1. Be trusting. Extending trust is a powerful Intimacy move – taking the risk to trust someone creates space and momentum for them to trust you in return. The ultimate trust paradox.
  2. Respond fast. We’re all responsive to our clients, but how responsive are we to our colleagues? If you are busy with client work or need to prioritize requests for a short time, consider an automated email response that lets people know you are unavailable and when you will
  3. Listen more, and better. Good listening is a low self-orientation skill that creates high intimacy. Try holding your questions until the end of a presentation, acknowledging what someone said before asking them a question, or asking a coworker about their weekend (and then really listening to their response)
  4. Share information freely. It’s no accident that transparency is one of the four Trust Principles. Sharing information freely increases every variable of the trust equation, especially if it’s bad news (here’s a tip for sharing bad news).
  5. Seek to know others. For biggest impact, this is both knowing more people and knowing people at a deeper level. To expand your network, introduce two coworkers who don’t know each other, eat lunch in the cafeteria, or join a virtual community. To deepen relationships, address people by name, start a meeting with personal introductions, or invite a coworker for coffee.

So if you’re working hard to build trust with your clients, take a look at how you’re doing with your colleagues.

 

Building the Trust-based Organization, Part II

The Elephant In The OrganizationIn my last post, Building the Trust-based Organization Part I, I suggested that approaches to trust at the organizational level fell into several categories. Like the parable of the blind men and the elephant, all captured some part of the puzzle, but none grasped the entirety of the issue.  The five categories I listed were:

1. Trust as communication
2. Trust as reputation
3. Trust as recipe
4. Trust as rule-making
5. Trust as shared value.

I suggested a holistic approach would have a Point of View, a Diagnosis, and a Prescription.  Here is my attempt to offer such an approach.

Organizational Trust: A Point of View

Trust relationships are asynchronous – one party, the trustor, is the one who does the trusting, and who takes the risks. The other party, the trustee, is the one whom we speak of as being trustworthy. “Trust” is the result of a successful interaction between these two actors.

Trust is largely an interpersonal phenomenon. Trustworthiness is mostly personal, though we do speak of ‘trustworthy’ companies as having a track record or being reliable. Trusting, however, is a completely human action, not a corporate one.

Risk is necessary to trust: if risk is completely mitigated, we are left only with probability.

It follows that the most powerful meaning of “organizational trust” is not an organization that trusts or is trusted, but an organization that encourages personal trust relationships:

A trust-based organization is an organization which fosters and promotes the establishment of trust-based relationships between various stakeholders – employees, management, shareholders, customers, suppliers, and society.

Organizational Trust: Diagnosis

What is needed to create a trust-based organization? Since ‘trust’ is such a broad concept, it’s clear that themes like communications, regulations, and customer relationships will have a role. But to avoid a mere laundry list, what’s needed is some kind of primus inter pares relationship; or perhaps some necessary vs. sufficient distinctions.

My nomination is simple: an agreed-upon system of Virtues and Values. Virtues are personal, and represent the qualities sought out in employees and managers. Values are organizational, and reflect basic rules of relationship that ought to govern all relationships within the organization.

Some typical trust-based virtues include: candor, transparency, other-orientation, integrity, reliability, emotional intelligence, empathy.

I have suggested elsewhere Four Trust-based Organizational Values. They are expressed below in terms of customer relationships just to be specific, but they apply equally to relationships with suppliers, fellow-employees, and so forth.

  1. Lead with customer focus – for the sake of the customer. Begin interactions with other-focus rather than self-focus.
  2. Collaboration rather than self-orientation. Assume that the customer is a partner, not in opposition to us.  We are all, always, on the same side of the table.
  3. Live in the medium-to-long term, not the short term; interact with customers in relationship, not in transactional mode. Assume that all customers will be customers in perpetuity, with long memories.
  4. Use transparency as the default mode. Unless illegal or hurtful to others, share all information with customers as a general principle.

Advocates for Values.  I am not alone in citing Values as lying at the heart of the matter. McKinsey’s Marvin Bower put values at the center of his view of business, and McKinsey for many years was run from his mold. As Harvard Business School Dean McArthur said of Bower, “What made him a pioneer was that he took basic values into the business world.”

In 1953, Bower said, “…we don’t have rules, we have values…”

In 1974, he wrote, “One of the highest achievements in leadership is the ability to shape values in a way that builds successful institutions. At its most practical level, the benefit of a managed value system is that it guides the actions of all our people at all levels and in every part of our widespread empire.”

Bower’s biographer noted that Bower believed that “while financial considerations cannot be ignored, business goals must not be financial; if they are, the business will fail to serve its customers and ultimately enjoy less profit.”

The alumni of McKinsey – some, anyway – learned well. Harvey Golub said, “[values are] a powerful way to build a business…it worked for McKinsey and it worked for IDS and for American Express.”

IBM’s Lou Gerstner said: ‘“I believe that I learned from [Marvin] the importance of articulating a set of principles that drive people’s behavior and actions.”

[Note: McKinsey itself had some noticeable hiccups post-Bower. In my view, this is not an indictment of values-based management, but a sad example of how it requires constant values-vigilance].

The Case for Values.  The use of values as the basis for management is well-suited to the subject of trust, and this advantage shows up in numerous ways.

  • Values scale, in a way that performance management systems never can do.
  • Values are about relationships, in a way that incentives never can be; this makes them highly suitable to the subject matter of trust.
  • Values are infinitely teachable, in a way that value propositions or communications programs alone cannot aspire to.
  • Values are among the most un-copyable of competitive advantages.

Organizational Trust: Prescription

Managing a values-based organization will center around keeping the values vibrant. This is pointedly not done mainly through compensation and reward systems, corporate communications plans, or reputation management programs. Instead, it is done through the ways in which human beings have always influenced other human beings in relationship.  To name a few:

  1. Leading by example: trustworthy leaders show the way to their followers by their actions, not just their words
  2. Risk-taking: trusting others encourages them to be trustworthy, and, in turn, to themselves trust others
  3. Discussion: principles undiscussed are principles that die on the vine. Discussion, not one-to-many communication, is key to trust
  4. Ubiquitous articulation: trust principles should underpin many corporate decisions and actions; trust-creating leaders seize the opportunity for teaching points in every such case
  5. Recognition: Public praise for values well-lived is intrinsically motivating
  6. Confrontation: Trust-building leaders do not hesitate to overrule business decisions if they violate values, and to do so publicly in ways that teach lessons. Values, not value, are the ultimate arbiter of all actions.

To sum up: it’s a simple concept. Trust in a corporate setting is achieved by building trust-based organizations. Trust-based organizations are built to consciously increase the levels of trusting and of trustworthiness in all organizational relationships. The best approach to creating such an organization is values-based management and leadership. This is different from most approaches to management and leadership in vogue today.

The quotes about Marvin Bower were taken from:
Edersheim, Elizabeth Haas (2007-12-10). McKinsey’s Marvin Bower: Vision, Leadership, and the Creation of Management Consulting. Wiley.

How Neuroscience Over-reaches in Business

The Science of BusinessEvery age has its fads and fashions. Some of them hold up over time – competitive strategy, business process re-engineering, quality circles.  Applying neuroscience to business, I suggest, will not be one of them.

In Mark Twain’s classic Huckleberry Finn, there is a passage where Huck tries to explain to Jim that French people speak a different language. Jim would no more be able to understand a Frenchman, says Huck, than he could understand a dog, or a cow, or a cat – because they all speak different languages.

Jim’s retort is that a Frenchman is not a dog, cow or cat, but a man – and that therefore by all rights he should talk like a man, meaning English. As is true in Huckleberry Finn at a meta-level, it’s the truth of the innocents (this time voiced by Jim) that is the deeper truth. The difference between human languages is trivially and categorically distinct from the differences between the species.

Neuroscience in business is something like that. Neuroscientists seem to think that their research is revealing previously hidden secrets of leadership, influence, motivation, and decision-making. But all too often, all they’re doing is translating into French.

Overstating the Case

There are plenty of examples, frequently from highly distinguished, educated, and highly regarded people, of claims for neuroscience in business. For example:

The statements all follow a general pattern. First, a discussion about the structure of the brain, or the neurochemistry of a particular event type. Second, a correlation of those structures or chemistries with some management phenomenon.  And third, a conclusion about what can and should be done in management, based on the preceding two insights.

The Proof is In the Pudding

Here are actual examples from the authors themselves about the power of neuro-thinking to help management.

Here is Daniel Goleman distilling the neuroscience advice on how to help others change bad habits:

  1. Empathize before giving advice
  2. Be a good listener
  3. Offer a caring gesture
  4. Give them your full attention

Here are Crawford’s four lessons from neuroscience on how to improve innovation:

  1. Eat and sleep well, and don’t stress
  2. Expose yourself to new ideas
  3. Make it safe for people to share ideas
  4. Create playful environments.

Here is John Ryan on four neuroscience-derived “tactics to boost our performance and model success for our colleagues.

  1. Be positive
  2. Give detailed, positive feedback
  3. Stay healthy and in good physical shape
  4. Seek challenge, but not to the point of stress

Here is Pillay on ways that brain science can “enhance understanding within the executive environment

  1. Re-packaging old ideas in neuroscience terms can make them more acceptable
  2. Using the language of brain science can seem less personally threatening
  3. Brain science uncovers myths (he lists six myths, none of which need brain science to debunk)
  4. Giving further insights and evidence (e.g. “visualizing isn’t just New Agey,” and “the brain can change.”)
  5. Providing a system for targeted interventions
  6. Developing coaching protocols and tools.

Non Sequiturs and Blinding Flashes of the Obvious

I don’t know about you, but I find these conclusions to be either completely unrelated to the neuroscience itself (Pillay’s claim that people like scientific language, therefore the language helps people understand better), or numbingly old hat.

Do we really need the language of neuroscience to be convinced that we should be positive, healthy, empathetic and good listeners? Where are the now-decisively vanquished proponents of negative, unhealthy self-absorbed managers?

The neuro-fans do have one point, however. An MIT study evaluated the effect of logically irrelevant neuro-babble on listeners to a debate. They found:

Subjects in all three groups judged good explanations as more satisfying than bad ones. But subjects in the two nonexpert groups additionally judged that explanations with logically irrelevant neuroscience information were more satisfying than explanations without. The neuroscience information had a particularly striking effect on nonexperts’ judgments of bad explanations, masking otherwise salient problems in these explanations.

In other words – it all just sounds so much prettier when they say it in French.

[Note: I do believe there are valuable applications of neuroscience, particularly in designing targeted medical solutions. I just don’t see them much in evidence in business. And yet, it’s a mainstream fad. Ah, Barnum…]

 

Know Yourself. Wait, what does that even mean?

"To Thy Own Self Be True"In college, I majored in philosophy. I underlined all the important parts in my texbooks – the hard, the empirical, the deductive, the categorical. I underlined about half of each  book. What I skipped over were the soft and squishy parts: know thyself, be virtuous, metaphysics, that kind of thing.

Years later I deigned to go to the School for Practical Philosophy. After a class or two, I realized it was powerful stuff. I also realized it was about the other half of the book – all the things I hadn’t underlined.

I still eschew the metaphysics stuff in favor of David Hume, but I have become a complete convert on the subject of Know Thyself.

In fact, self-knowledge is one of the five trust skills that my co-author Andrea Howe and I describe in the Trusted Advisor FieldBook. In fact, it’s the capstone skill of the five skills we describe in that book, as well as in our workshop program Trust-based Leadership.

If “know yourself” strikes you as squishy, soft, fuzzy, left coast suburban buddhist hippie-talk homilies – like it used to strike me – then let me break it down and toughen it up for you. Because when you get it, it’s a lot tougher than the analytical subject-mastery behavioral neuro-babble that is too often celebrated in business today.

Know yourself means four things.

  1. To know yourself, you have to be able to see yourself objectively. The “you” that knows yourself cannot be the same as the “self” that you know. If you can’t do this, you’re doomed to always just doing and feeling the stuff that you always did and felt. You can’t do anything about it if you’re always in it.  (Hang on, I’ll tell you how later).
  2. If you know yourself, then you know what makes you the same as, and different from, the other 7.091 billion humanoids on the planet. And you are more same than different. Get over your terminal uniqueness. You are better than some billions, worse than other billions, on billions of continua. You fall into the broad middle billions of humanity. You ain’t all that.
  3. Seeing who you are and recognizing your right-sized place in humanity, you can now find freedom. You don’t owe anybody anything, nobody owes you anything. Everything is a gift, or nothing at all. You make your own luck, you create your own suck. Your life is what you make of it, nothing more, nothing less. Success is heavily an inside job –  happiness, completely.
  4. Once free, you can decide what to do with your freedom. Since you no longer need anything, you are free to give, and to make the world a better place. And the collateral damage of doing good is that you get good back in return.

Because the universe has a way of paying you back.  I’m not talking about metaphysics and karma, I’m talking human nature. Way more often than not, people return good for good and evil for evil. By leading with good, you greatly increase the odds of receiving good. It’s not a cosmic principle thing – it’s just how people work. That’s concrete.

And it’s a powerful enough rule that you can make book on it – and do business based on it. It’s not guaranteed in every situation, instance or transaction – but it is ironclad in the long run across multiple events.

What Good is Knowing Yourself?

You mean, besides making you happy and free and attractive to other people?  Well, OK, here’s just one concrete specific item.

You know how sometimes you find out that someone thinks way more highly of you than you thought they did? Or that they think much worse of you? Either way, you know the shock when you discover the disconnect?

Knowing yourself prevents those shocks, because there’s no disconnect. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. By knowing who you are and aren’t, you can maximize your potential. You don’t cause friction, waste and slippage by under- or over-shooting, or by seeking more or less from others than you should. When you know who you are, you can calibrate exactly what impact you will create in any given situation – no more guessing, wishing, hoping. That is empowering.

How Am I Supposed to Do This?

I know, I know – how do you do this stuff? Where’s the tips and tricks, top ten lists, business processes and metrics that you need to do things?

Andrea and I give you three concrete actions to take in The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook. They are:

  1. Look inward – basically, introspection. Lots of ways to do that. Write it down and share with others as you discover.
  2. Convert blind spots to insights – get feedback. Simple. Just go ask for it.
  3. Experiment – create learning opportunities. Put money where mouth is. Try stuff; evaluate; recalibrate; try again.

You can break each one down further – into processes, timeframes, sequences, metrics and milestones – if that’s your preferred style. Or, you can just swim in it. Both ways will work.

One last thing about knowing yourself. It’s not a step function, it’s incremental. You can always get better, and as you do, you reap the benefits at the same time. It’s a progressive thing. And anytime is a good time to start.

Leadership Development: the Trust Perspective

Leadership and Development, Trusted Advisor, Trust-Based LeadershipI rarely write blogposts promoting the services we offer. But since we have something new to offer – this is one of those times.

Are you involved with issues of leadership in your organization? Then you may be interested in our newest service offering, Trust-based Leadership.

And if learning and developments is not your thing, please pass it on to the appropriate person.

Trust-based Leadership joins our two other flagship programsBeing Trusted Advisors and Trust-based Selling. Here’s how it came about.

The Case for Trust-based Leadership

In 2011’s The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook: A Comprehensive Toolkit for Leading With Trust, Andrea Howe and I articulated the central role of trust in leadership. That may sound like a no-brainer, but it’s not all that obvious. Historically, the idea of “leadership” has been all about vertical relationships – leaders and followers, the high-potential few, charisma. Not so much anymore.

Now, critical business relationships have moved to the horizontal dimension: partners, joint ventures, alignment, startups, remote teams. In such environments, leaders have no direct control – they can’t give orders, they often can’t even offer incentives. What they can do, and must do, is influence people to move in the same general direction. And the number one driver of influence is – trust.

(For a longer discussion of this issue, see The New Leadership is Horizontal, Not Vertical).

Trust-based Leadership – the Program 

We’ve had this program in development since early summer 2012, and it’s finally ready. A one-day program, it’s almost entirely experiential. It is aimed at supervisory to mid-level  groups in all kinds of businesses and organizations. It comes with diagnostics and sustainment plans. See more details here.

It is based on material contained in The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook. Trainers have been certified, the program has been piloted (to rave reviews), and it’s available for train-the-trainer for larger organizations, starting now. (Available at first in the US only; but stay tuned).

Email me charlie@trustedadvisor.com or call me directly at 1-855-TRUST01, ext. 1001 (that’s 1-855-878-7801, ext. 1001) for more information, and I will reply to you personally. I’d like to talk more with you about this exciting new program.

Responding to RFPs – Joint Blogpost with Babette Ten Haken

[This jointly-written blogpost appears also on Babette Ten Haken’s blog, Sales Aerobics for Engineers]

Many Requests for Proposal (RFPs) are well written, and play an important role in the intelligent procurement processes of well-run companies. We both know that to be true, yet sometimes we have to wonder: Why is it that we see so many of the other kind? Is it lack of knowledge on the part of the RFP writer? An inability to alter processes that might have worked in the past?

You know the kind we’re talking about: RFP’s that are written to avoid talking to salespeople, that assume the only relevant variable is price, that are motivated by a fear that salespeople will gang up and collude against the buyer if it becomes known there’s a purchase afoot.  These types of RFPs are written from a defensive position, rather than as a confident and aggressive approach to creating mutually beneficial business relationships and outcomes.

We’ve both written about RFPs before (Charlie in Open Letter to Clients: Why You Should Drop RFPs; Babette in Do You Mean Business?  In this post we want to address how to respond to such RFPs.

Remember: There are good reasons for creating as well as responding to RFPs. Any hurt feelings you might have are irrelevant to your proper reaction. Strive for an objective, reasonable tone, devoid of blaming. That will help the central point you want to make.

A Sample Response

You might consider something like this as a starting draft:

Dear ___ :

I hope this finds you well, etc.

I wasn’t sure how to respond to your RFP regarding objectives, agenda and costs. Here’s why:

• In our initial call, I shared with you a list of objectives that past clients achieved through us.  I was trying to help you defineyour own objectives, rather than presume to tell you what your objective should be.

• We also discussed several alternative program designs, to help you craft your own agenda, rather than us simply proposing one for you.

Basically, I was trying to collaborate on a customized design rather than to sell a standardized product.

What I read into your RFP is that you’d prefer not to engage in a design discussion, but rather go straight to bid.  There is of course nothing wrong with that, and it’s completely your decision.  At the same time, I find that usually means one of two things:

1.     The customer really isn’t interested in customizing, preferring a standardized product; or

2.     The vendor decision has been pretty much made (and we’re not it).

Again, there’s nothing wrong with either one of those. But in either case, it’s hard on our end to justify investing the extra time. We have a mild preference for customized products; more importantly, we fear misunderstandings from purchases based on incomplete understandings.

Please don’t hear anything critical or complaining about this; nobody’s wrong, no feelings are hurt.  I just want to be clear and not leave conversations uncomfortable or unfinished.  I hope I’m not offending by being very candid and direct in this email; my intent is to make it OK for us to be truthful with each other.

Best wishes….

That was a real-life letter, by the way.

If you’re thinking, “that sounds way too direct,” ask yourself how many sales hours you spend requesting people to allow you to respond to one of these cattle-call documents, vs. the time you spend with prospective customers? Because that’s the price you’re paying for an inability to directly confront the issue.

Your goal is to reduce your responses to RFPs whose sole goal is price. That means you need to rethink your customer acquisition strategy too.

Understand whether your relationship with your customer merits strong consideration, or whether you feel you’ve already been placed in the “also-ran” category. If you believe your thought leadership and industry, product or platform expertise is genuinely of value to them, then this is why you give yourself permission to reply directly. Respond from a position of  confidence and knowledge.

What if It Doesn’t Work?

If you are right, they will see it your way and ask you to talk further. If they don’t ask you to talk further, it is because:

a.     It was price-driven anyway, in which case you just saved a lot of time, or

b.     You were wrong, and they actually don’t care about your expertise, in which case you saved a lot of time (and got something to think about), or

c.     You offended them.

If you’re concerned about the last possibility, then we urge you to write a better letter, because you’re still preparing to waste a lot of time.

Meantime, you might want to know the actual response to the real letter above:

LOL! The next steps are in our court.  We need to really look at the links you sent us and come up with a draft of what we would like to see and then get back to you.  I will certainly email/call you if we have any questions along the way. You are still very much in the running.

Was that a worthwhile letter? When was the last time you could have written such a letter? What will you do when the opportunity next presents itself?

 

Good Things Happen When you Swing the Bat

At a talk last week, new friend Petter Østberg told me an old story with a new twist. It takes a great sports metaphor for achievement – and steps it up a notch to leadership.

First, the metaphor at Level One.

If You Don’t Do A, You Can’t Get B

You’ve heard this one before as, “If you leave the putt short, you are 100% guaranteed to miss the putt; never leave it short of the hole.”

Or maybe you know The Great One, Wayne Gretzky: “You miss 100% of the shots you never take.”  It’s not just about scoring percentage, in other words, it’s also – very much – about shots on goal.

You also know, “No pain, no gain.” “You’ve got to pay to play.” One of my favorites is the thundering voice from heaven that comes down to the whining loser who is kvetching about never winning the lottery: “Do me a favor – first, buy a ticket.”

All these metaphors remind us of the need to take risks. In our misguided efforts to avoid the risk of doing the wrong thing (call that Type 1 error), we end up not doing the right thing (call that Type 2 error). And in life, as in nearly every sport, it is that Type 2 error that ends up being the Big Bomb.

To not take a risk is the biggest risk of all.

Petter’s story started out this way. A deceased dear friend of his helped run the Little League programs in their town. One of the lessons he taught kids was, “Good things happen when you swing the bat.” If all you do is “take” the pitch, you’re likely to end up striking out.

(Apologies to the non-baseball countries out there, but you get the idea).

Good, good. The youngsters are being taught this Big Truth as well, all’s joy in Mudville.

Getting People to Take Risks

But as David Maister points out powerfully in Strategy and the Fat Smoker, the trick is not cognitive. Just realizing you’re fat and shouldn’t smoke doesn’t mean you’re going to stop gorging and emulating a chimney. Would that it were that simple.

The failure of most corporate training programs (not to mention the people who take them) is to believe that cognition implies action. Entire classes of professions (lawyers come to mind) believe that if they can simply understand something, they have acquired the only thing they need to act upon it.

When it comes to algebra, fair enough.  Maybe even learning a foreign language.

But when it comes to altering substantive human behavior, that belief is So – Not – True.

So it is with golf, hockey, baseball, and I’m sure with cricket and futbol. Armchair athletes from the business world nod sagely as they receive this wisdom from Tiger, the Great One, His Airness, you name it.

“Yup,” they say, “that’s just how it is in my world; you gotta take that risk.”

But they don’t. They really, really don’t.

So: how do you get people to take risks?

Leadership and Role Modeling are Key to Change

Answer: you do it through role-modeling, and you do it young.

Back to Petter’s story.

The Little League coach didn’t just encourage his team to swing the bat. He told the kids’ coaches and the kids’ parents to tell their kids to swing the bat, and with the passing of this dedicated coach just before this year’s baseball season, you now hear his mantra – “Good things happen when you swing the bat” – echoed on every playing field in his town.

The kids got the message, but here’s what he told the coaches:

Look, guys. I know you all mean well. But when a kid swings at a pitch a foot over his head, what do I hear you tell him?  “Lay off the high cheese,” you yell, gesturing with your hand high above your head, “wait for a good one – wait for your pitch. ”

And that is just wrong. These kids look up to you. You’re their leader. This is one of the few remaining times in their lives they’re going to listen to someone, and it’s you they’re listening to now.

These players are very young, and they’ll get more coordinated, that’s nature, but they won’t become better batters unless they swing the bat. There are plenty of other people who will teach them over and over the dangers of taking a swing; don’t you add to that.

Because if they wait for life to serve them up “their” pitch, they’ll lead wasted lives, waiting for that pitch. In life, that pitch rarely comes.

Don’t do that to them. Instead, teach them that if you swing, all things are possible. If you don’t, nothing is. Don’t you wish someone had taught you that?

I know I do. Thanks Petter for that story, and lesson.

Blow Up Your Budgeting Process

If you work in a large organization – This Blog’s for You.

You know what season is coming soon – you dread it. ‘Tis the season of Planning & Budgeting; the annual ritual of much time, many iterations, and little meaning – full of sound and fury, signifying not much.

What if you could radically revolutionize that process? Almost blow it up? All in a socially and politically acceptable manner, of course.

Resource Allocation is So Last Millennium

Planning and budgeting processes are about resource allocation. Partly that’s to coordinate plans. But partly it’s about predicting the future – of markets, the economy, technology – so we can intelligently place resource bets. So that we can plan on having umbrellas in case it rains.

We have built processes to worry about the future so that we can place resource bets in advance. But what if we didn’t have to place those bets in advance? Who cares about predicting rain for tomorrow if I know there will be an umbrella within arm’s reach when I need it?

What if you always had access to an umbrella? What if you did not have to make capital investments, hire and train people, develop new products – until the day before you needed to? And you were then able to do so with the snap of a finger?

You wouldn’t waste time predicting the future – you’d just deal with it on arrival. And increasingly, that’s what the world looks like.

The umbrellas, it turns out, are right within our grasp, right when we need them – if we just know to look for them. And there are three places to look.

The Three Sources of Umbrellas When You Want Them

Old style planning and budgeting assumes scarcity of resources – few umbrellas. We need to re-think; to recognize the umbrellas are already there, and we’re just facing a sourcing or distribution problem.

The three keys to changing that problem definition are speed, collaboration, and transparency.

Speed. You probably budget for headcount. If so, you assume a certain elapsed time for a category of employee – let’s say, a three-month cycle.

What if you could cut that to three weeks? To three days?  Think contracting, outsourcing, working virtually, across time zones, modularizing work. It’s the way software and movies and consulting and projects get done now, why not extend it to “core” hiring?

Speed attacks the need to plan for umbrellas, because it reduces your exposure to time-spent-without-umbrella.

Collaboration. You probably budget for facilities and equipment – because you assume you must own or have first call on assets. But what if you could get all the access you need just by sharing with others? And save tons of money at the same time?

After all, you rent a room at the Marriott in Chicago instead of owning a condo there. Push that thinking further; it’s like doubling your proven resource reserves without spending a penny on exploration.

Why own a car when you can use Zipcar? Why are you paying Microsoft for software to sit on your PC getting old when you can access cloud software, always updated, for less? Why are you buying books instead of renting them? Why are you spending money on dedicated office space when you could share it out with other tenants? Why are you driving alone?

Collaboration attacks the need to plan for umbrellas, because it changes a resource scarcity problem to a capacity utilization problem, while expanding perceived capacity.

Transparency. You probably budget for knowledge management and IP development – because you think your organization must carefully nurture its precious wisdom. But what if you could generate more knowledge, and more know-how, by openly sharing what you have with everyone else?

This is the logic behind meet-ups, networks, communities of interest, affiliate marketing, tribes, wikis, webinars, curating, mash-ups, and Spindows.

Transparency attacks the need to plan for umbrellas, because it sensitizes everyone to the presence of more umbrellas, to the availability of umbrella substitutes, and to rain-control initiatives.  

——-

Help free your organization from the tyranny of old-think resource-constrained planning and budgeting processes. Ask yourself how to get your group’s work done faster, more collaboratively, and more transparently.

This is how to be a socially and politically acceptable business revolutionary.

(Props to my mastermind group of @StewartMHirsch, Scott Parker and John Malitoris for this post) 

Real People Real Trust: Transforming a Business from the Inside Out

Ron Prater has worked in government consulting firms for almost 20 years, including three years with Arthur Andersen LLP. In 2007, he set out with partner Alan Pentz to create a company that would apply real entrepreneurial curiosity to find new ways to solve the U.S. government’s biggest problems. The result is Corner Alliance. Find out how this organization, triggered by a crisis in its formative years, applied the principle of collaboration to devise a new and different kind of corporate culture.

Leadership Lessons

Ron and I have known each other through other people for years. A few months ago I was talking with Corner Alliance Director Sarah Agan, a mutual colleague and veteran consultant. I was intrigued by the unusual ways she described a recent all-hands meeting. “We practice ‘inner voice’ all the time,” she said. “And we have an explicit value to eat our own dog food.” Needless to say, I was intrigued by Sarah’s word choice and even more so by her animation. I wanted to find out more. So I set up some time to talk with Ron and Sarah together.

Ron explained it to me, “‘Eating our own dog food’ means we operate the way we advise our clients to—we follow the same processes and approaches we recommend to them.” “Essentially, we practice what we preach. It can be harder than it sounds when you’re trying to balance helping clients succeed while also trying to grow a sustainable business. And it hasn’t always been that way, even in our company’s short life.”

Learning the Hard Way

Corner Alliance had some growing pains in its early years. “We had a really tough time a few years ago when we lost a project that led to a serious financial struggle,” Ron confided. “I, along with my partner, Alan, and our Director of Operations, Brandi Greygor, responded in typical ways. Privately, we talked daily about how much money we had left in the company’s line of credit and what to do if we maxed out what the bank would loan us. Publicly, we sent a general message to staff that we all needed to ‘increase billability’ but we were afraid to state the full reason.

“We thought we were doing the right thing by keeping the true stress from our staff. The MBA books say it’s important to protect the people from the stress of running the business. And the HR consultants told us we had to follow proper procedures to avoid lawsuits if we did have to lay people off. So we kept things hidden.”

Going contrary to conventional business wisdom, Ron and the other principals listened to their own inner wisdom. “It’s not how our guts said to handle it. We faced a real inner conflict every day for months. How do you form a company of trust and transparency when it seems like all the advice you get—from grad school, friends, lawyers, and more—says to withhold information?

“Looking back,” Ron said, “I grew more personally from that very tough time than from every great year I had. While it was hard, the learning from those six months led to one of the most positive and significant turning points for Corner Alliance.”

Eat Your Own Dog Food

Out of the crisis came a big transformation for the company. “With cost-cutting, along with full transparency with our staff, we managed to stabilize our operations,” Ron said, “And we realized that, on the heels of such a hard and painful time, we had a real opportunity to fundamentally re-think and re-vision.

“So Alan and I announced to our staff that he and I would map out a new company strategy,” Ron elaborated, “including our top three strategic priorities. We told people at an all-hands meeting that we’d start by focusing on which clients to talk to and what to offer them. That message landed with a thud. Within the first few minutes of the meeting it was clear we had made a huge mistake and needed to rethink the approach.

“Our people said, ‘That’s not how we advise our clients to develop strategy. So why are we doing it that way?’”

That uh-oh moment led to a dramatically different plan to create the company’s strategy. “We realized we’d be stronger if we engaged the whole company in the company,” Ron continued. “And instead of starting with what we do and where we want to go, we started with who we are and what we wanted to stand for as a company,” Ron explained.


Put Values First

The group put first things first. “We focused first on our values, and to do that we created a conversation rather than creating a task,” Ron said. “We also found a way to make it a truly collaborative process, not just a collaborative process led by one person. We’ve never been about one-person trust—not at our core—so we found a way to define our values that would reflect that we all have to trust everyone else in the company.

“Since we’re a virtual company with staff in five different states, we selected an on-line tool to help us create the conversation. Everyone could contribute real-time, see each other’s inputs, make comments, and vote.”

Take Your Time

The process of defining yourself takes time Ron learned. “We allowed three weeks to generate ideas, and it took us about four months to solidify our values. If we had tried to get results in a one-day strategy session, our output would have been more generic—even with everyone participating,” Ron added. “People needed time to digest and think through what they stood for and then internalize that in relation to the company. The elapsed time allowed people to contribute at their best, and allowed the most important things to materialize organically.”

They ended up with 10 explicitly stated corporate values that are the foundation on which Corner Alliance continues to be built. Not surprisingly, “Eat our own dog food” was on the short list.

It’s a value that Sarah especially endorses. “We live that value even beyond our approach to strategy development,” she added. “Everyone takes turns running our internal meetings—everyone. We share leadership that way, and expand our capacity as leaders and facilitators at the same time. People get to experiment, practice, and learn in a safe environment, and they get real-time feedback. Just like the leaders we serve, we have to be willing to take risks and make mistakes to learn.”

Sarah continued, “It’s okay for things not to go well. What’s not okay is not learning from it. One of the greatest gifts we give each other is feedback. We are deliberate about creating a culture where we all recognize we’re both perfect and imperfect, where we can bring our whole selves—who we are and who we aren’t.”

Tell It Like It Is

Financial transparency is another key value that emerged from Corner Alliance’s collaborative strategy process. “Alan was instrumental in moving us to open-books management,” Ron said. “We now share just about everything with all employees every quarter, the exception being salary information. We have bi-weekly company-wide calls where everyone sees each other’s billability, our revenue, where we are exceeding or falling short of revenue projections.  We don’t hide anything bad or anything good.”

Ron is clear that the effect is palpable. “It has made a massive difference in everyone understanding the business impact of their decisions,” he stated. “It also supports one of our other corporate values, which is sustainability. I believe the whole firm really understands the state of Corner Alliance and can see that we have a really strong foundation for growth right now.”

Be Bold with Clients

That kind of transparency also now extends to Corner Alliance clients—in a bold and differentiated way. The stated value “inner voice” is about people sharing their internal dialog as much as possible, recognizing that’s often where the truth lies. Corner Alliance staff is encouraged to not leave important things unsaid.

“This is definitely not easy,” Ron emphasized. “It takes a commitment to practice over time with our clients and with each other. We actually label it, as in, ‘Using my inner voice, I’d like to say I think there are serious organizational risks associated with what you are considering.’ This makes it easier to do and hear as the person listening now knows that the person speaking is taking a risk.

“Our people know they’ve got the organization behind them every time they venture into inner voice territory,” Ron affirmed. “As Alan points out about using inner voice, ‘It’s a personal risk to reveal what you’re thinking but not saying. It’s a risk to the organization if you don’t.’ But we all also recognize it’s important to apply this value wisely, appropriately, and thoughtfully.”

Perhaps the most unexpected result from this dedication to speaking the truth is that clients have begun to pick up both the practice and the lingo. Ron explained, “When our clients started saying to us, ‘My inner voice is saying xyz,’ we knew we were onto something bigger.”

Reap the Rewards

The list of indicators that Corner Alliance is onto something is long, and now includes growing staff, secure multi-year prime contracts in place, and work with key government executives who have budgets in the billions. “Corner Alliance is poised for an incredible year in 2012,” Ron said with pride. “Not only are we making a difference in the business of government, but we get emails from clients saying, ‘You’ve changed my life.’”

The focus for 2012? “Helping people thrive by doing creative, meaningful work, and living the life they want—not just the work life they want,” said Ron.

The Bottom Line

Ron feels very strongly that what Corner Alliance has created was not led by or done by one person. “Featuring me for this article is actually counter to our culture,” Ron stressed. “Corner Alliance has been led by a collaborative approach using values as our core, and that’s precisely what will lead us into the future.”

And a promising future it is.

Connect with Ron on LinkedIn.

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The Real People, Real Trust series offers an insider view into the challenges, successes, and make-it-or-break-it moments of people from all corners of the world who are leading with trust. Check out our prior posts: read about Chip Grizzard: A CEO You Should Know; Ralph Catillo: How One Account Executive Stands Apart; Anna Dutton: A Fresh Perspective on Sales Operations; Heber Sambucetti: A Learning Consultant’s Approach to Leadership; Janet Andrews: What Trust-based Strategy Consulting Looks, Feels, and Sounds Like, and John Dunn: An Entrepreneur Wins with Partnership.