Engagement Killers: They Come in All Shapes and Sizes


The people in my family, I mean myself and brothers and sisters, are basically working people. I don’t mean blue collar though that’s where my father came from, being an electrician for some forty years. I mean working people; for the most part we work for other people. That would be of course except for me. I am the exception in the family having had my own business for over 25 years mainly so I could do what I wanted to do.

The one thing we do have in common, my siblings and I, is that we are not goal driven, save for having a good family life. We’d like enough money to pay our bills but we don’t measure our life in a material way so being paid fairly is more important than being paid a lot. We’d like our work to be interesting, connected to something larger than ourselves, but we don’t expect to be entertained, that’s not why we are there.

We also have a good work ethic, we arrive on time, and we do good work, actually above average work because we have integrity about what we produce. We willingly stay late, we’ll help our co-workers, sometimes even without being asked. We like to see other people succeed and don’t look upon their success with any unusual amount of envy, we are happy for them. We want to be treated with respect, we’d like to know about things going on in the company that might effect us, we’d like to be asked our opinion on some things, not everything but some. We’d like to feel respected and we want to be told the truth, don’t lie to us; we’ll make you pay for that.

Given all this I’d say we are like most people, people who work for someone else, and most people do. Most people do good work, at least they have the capability to do good work, they have no grandiose ambition save for being able to pay their bills and they do not measure their lives in material terms. Most people do show up on time and everyday, they’ll willingly stay late, as long as it doesn’t become an expectation.

All this being said worker engagement, the measure of the degree to which workers are giving it everything they’ve got, just slugs along at embarrassingly low levels and has done so for the duration of time it has been measured.

Unfortunately you don’t have to look very hard for the culprit when seeking the source of worker’s low engagement; thoughtless management behavior!

So as I said, I come from a family of workers, one brother a nurse, one a shipping agent, a sister a banking administrator sometimes manager and another sister who work in corporate credit. Everyone of them has a kit bag full of stories about managers doing stupid, thoughtless things that left them feeling unappreciated, disrespected, lied to or taken for granted.

Here’s a question for you, how many bad management experiences does it take to squash an employee’s spirit? You don’t know do you? Well then answer me this, how many did it take to squash your spirit? This one you can answer and you can tell me the date time and name of the person involved and it doesn’t take you 30 seconds to do it. Now, even more importantly, have you gotten over it without lasting effects on your attitude towards employment or your employer?

So last week I was in Michigan having dinner with my sister who is involved in corporate credit. Just after we arrived at our table she began, “Well I had my annual review last week.” I could tell by her tone that she was disappointed. The year before she had told me her manager wrote Rockstar in the margin of her review then proceeded to give her an overall “Meets expectations” on the review saying that she was not allowed to give anyone a higher overall rating. So I asked, “How were you rated this year?” My sister replied, “Oh this year she wrote down Superstar and said she just didn’t know what she’d do without me.” So I asked, “And overall?” With a roll of her eyes she responded, “Meets expectations.”

I’d like to think that I don’t have to say a lot more here. The point is pretty obvious and yet, if confronted that manager would have what they considered a defensible stance on the action taken, despite the fact they if the very same thing happened to them they would be squashed. My sister is not squashed; she’s pissed, feels disrespected lied to and generally fed up. She’s looking for another job. Big surprise!

All We Have is Our Stories and They are the Pathway to Engagement


My father passed away two weeks ago, just short of his 92nd birthday. He was ready to move on and of course I will miss him but mostly I will celebrate his life. He was not well educated by today’s standards but I knew him as a man of wisdom. He never spoke unless he had something to say that was worth the time it took to listen. I learned the lesson that follows by listening to him.

From the time I began playing golf at age eleven until he stopped playing in his mid 70’s many of my most memorable moments with my father took place on a golf course much like the one pictured here. Summer afternoons in Michigan, dry breezes blowing, flat landscapes and lots and lots of trees. Neither my father nor I were particularly accomplished golfers, for us the game has always been more social than competitive, however, in order to pursue the game repeatedly and endure its challenges you do need to hit the occasional good shot. One of the things I remember most fondly from these occasions with my father was that somewhere during each round we played he would hit a particularly good shot and almost instantaneously exclaim, “That will keep me coming back!” The following quote from an anonymous source who could only have been an experienced golfer reminds me of those experiences with my father:

“Golf can best be defined as an endless series of tragedies obscured by the occasional miracle”


On more than one occasion I have mentioned my perspective on engagement; engagement is association by choice and choice alone. With this perspective in mind I’ll go further and offer a corollary thought; when a particular choice is favored anything that facilitates it being made ought to be enhanced.

In every work environment there is one feature that I believe we as leaders significantly under value and it is the role that story telling plays in facilitating the choice to engage or sustain engagement. Just to be clear, in this instance I am not talking about you as the leader using the power of story. Much has already been well written about the role of the leader as propagator of powerful business narratives.

Steve Denning is likely the most prolific and recognized authority on both the leaders as storyteller and the power of story to inspire action in the workplace. In 2011 he published the Second Edition of ‘The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of the Business Narrative’  . In a piece he posted to his blog that year he was very definite about the state of story telling and its role in leadership. “…the importance of storytelling as a leadership tool has become generally accepted, even in big organizations. “ And then later in the same piece he goes on to say, “…storytelling has gained recognition as a core competence of leadership.”¹

According to Denning, if as a leader you are not by this time developing your capacity as a storyteller you are running well behind the current arc of management thinking.

The stories I am referring to in this instance are not those of the leader but rather those of the people reporting to them, their stories about us and their work experience, the ones they tell each other and more importantly, the ones they tell themselves. The stories they are collecting and you must know that they are collecting daily. Are we managing this process to facilitate the choice to engage or sustain engagement?

Not much has been written about managing the process of “self story telling” in the workplace, and don’t we all know when we are being celebrated and related to as a stock player in some employee’s opera, the saga unfolds at any opportunity and without regard to responsibility. And are we ourselves so different? Left to our own devices most of us will focus our collection process and our life lessons on those experiences that involved us as the “good guy.”

If we are honest about a day in the workplace, especially in a knowledge-era company it is highly possible to describe a day as the anonymous golfer described that sport. “… an endless series of tragedies obscured by the occasional miracle.” And isn’t it the miracles that keep us coming back, isn’t it the miracles that satisfy our souls in spite of the sometimes seemingly endless string of setbacks, the no, no, no, no, no’s that are suddenly erased by the YES! But these miracles are most valuable when collected and shared, made public.

Managing this process is leadership at its best because it leaves the storytellers following the lead of their own voice and whose voice would they likely choose to follow most reliably?

* How simple might it be for you to gather your team once or twice a month and in a round table discussion have each person describe what happened at work recently that made it worth coming back this week?

  • By establishing this practice you would be sort of teeing up the choice for them, don’t you see?


Ever Wonder Why Some Problems Don’t Get Solved?…You are Not Alone

Chaos 3Do you ever think about the fact that as a nation we’ve been able to send manned vehicles to the moon and yet we are seemingly unable to deal with issues much closer to our planet like education reform? One, education reform, would seem much simpler than aiming a projectile at a moving target 240,000 miles away and managing to hit it not once but several times. And yet, despite the best minds applied to the problem our educational issues continue to mount.

Though the scale may be different we can recognize similar quandaries in our businesses. What gives?

Some years back I was working with a group of medical administrators around problems similar in nature to the ones described above. In the course of one discussion we distinguished that in many cases we are mightily frustrated when faced with problems that on their surface would seem to be solvable yet persist over time despite plenty of applied effort, time and expense. These are the problems that keep us up at night because we know we are smart enough to solve them but cannot.

As this discussion continued I noted one of the attendees had begun weeping quietly. At a break I asked about the tears I was seeing. She said that while we were talking she was reminded that for several years she had been ready to start a family but her husband, who claimed his mutual interest, continued to find ways to stall the process. First it was buying their first home than something else, always claiming that there was need to not further complicate their life at this time. After listening for a few minutes I offered that she had misidentified the challenge she was facing. She agreed and said that she now had insight into a course of action that would give her what she had been waiting for. We left the conversation at that point pending further updates.

About three months later we convened the same group of administrators for further dialogues. As she entered the room on our first day back the weeping woman took me aside and confided, with a grin, that she was pregnant. “Wow” I said, “that was fast, what happened?” She said that the evening after our last workshop she had gone home and declared to her husband that she was done waiting and she was going to start a family…with him or without him! Boom! Problem solved. Well, at least her gambit had worked and he husband chose to abandon his delaying tactics.

If you are wondering how this story relates to the distinction between space programs and educational reform let me explain.

Several years back researchers at Harvard University, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, developed a framework for categorizing and addressing problems that drew a distinction between those that were “technical” in nature (hit the moon with a missile type) and adaptive, (resolve a dispute with your spouse type). The later category they deemed to be “adaptive” in nature because they always, 1. Involved people, 2. Required change on the part of some or all of the parties involved and, 3. Were resolved primarily as a function of relationship rather than knowledge.

So now, armed with this distinction you tell me, when it comes to educational reform which category of problem is more at the heart of why we are unable to reform our educational system? You probably intuitively knew this but maybe did not have a vocabulary to name the dilemma.

Adaptive challenges persist because there is no possibility for resolution, not because there are no opportunities for solution. In fact that is what makes them most frustrating, we can see that they can be resolved we just cannot implement the solution. And, we continue to work on the wrong thing, the technical nature of the challenge, in hopes that maybe one time we’ll get lucky. We also pursue this course because it means we will not have to change or give anything up!

Organizationally adaptive challenges are addressed any number of ineffectual ways. Maybe its time to develop a new organizational chart? Maybe we should create a committee? Perhaps it is time to employ a consultant. A new position may seem to provide a new perspective. As you read this you may roll your eyes because you’ve been down this road.

There is no resolution for adaptive challenge save for creating a new space of possibility. Someone, maybe more than one someone needs to relinquish a position or perspective held dear. You’ve got to talk about what you’ll give up, not what there is to do. You’ve got to create an agenda where everyone involved wins to some degree that satisfies them.

Until work begins on creating possibility there is no amount of opportunity that will suffice.



“Four kinds of behavior account for 89 percent of leadership effectiveness.”

DawnThe title of this piece may sound familiar, not that you’ve seen it before but certainly you’ve seen countless others sounding a similar refrain, ‘Eureka! We’ve found the key to leadership!” Except we haven’t and we likely won’t given the place we look from as we continue to ponder the question of how to produce leaders, in business or any other arena.

The article, from which the title quote was clipped, ‘Decoding Leadership: What really matters’ appeared in the January issue of McKinsey Quarterly, a publication I always look forward to reviewing. Yet, when another piece purporting to have found a chunk of the leadership puzzle appears I am tempted to skip its content lest I have another of those “Charley Brown, Lucy and the football” moments I have so often experienced when exploring this subject. This time I thought, “Oh go ahead, this one might be different.” It isn’t, much to my chagrin I found myself in the midst of more of the same, “leadership as reported by a spectator to an event.”

It isn’t that I find fault with the authors, Claudio Feser, Fernanda Mayol, and Ramesh Srinivasan. I think their intentions are honorable and they intended to add to an already enormous body of information (491,000,000 references on Google alone). In fact I believe their premise was an attempt to simplify our understanding of leadership with their assertion that four types of leadership behavior …

  • Solving problems effectively
  • Operating with a Strong Results Orientation
  • Seeking Different Perspectives
  • Supporting others

… account for 89% of leadership effectiveness.

Unfortunately the authors leave us with the imperfect admonition to “encourage” these types of behaviors in our leadership development investments. Also unfortunately the authors offer, “We’re not saying that the centuries-old debate about what distinguishes great leaders is over or that context is unimportant.” To me this is on par with closing their article with “Hey, were just sayin!”

Am I being too snarky here? I do not mean to be but what I do intend is to make an attempt to end the reliance on the practice of claiming to understand the game on the field by describing it from the stands in the stadium, which is how I interpret the use of surveys to study leadership.

As it stands now all that we seem to understand about leadership comes for a subjective point of view, i.e., what constitutes leadership is in the eye of the beholder and therefore always after the fact. What about when I seize an opportunity, act decisively and fail? How often is that characterized as “careless” or “reckless” by those beholding my actions? Frequently is my guess.

So then what is there to do? Before you begin to wonder if I am going to present you with a football a la Lucy let me make it clear that I do not know anything for certain. What I do have is a question from a coaches’ perspective. How can we get those we wish to lead to see through the eyes of leadership before the fact? That would be the ticket, would it not?

If you’ve read any of the work of Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey on their theory of Immunity to Change, including possibly their book by the same name, you’ll recall that their premise is that behavioral change is actually constrained by competing commitments, wired in messages that direct action along certain courses. In the face of this wiring encouragement to act differently is doomed to fail because the internal dialogue is set to automatically produce behavior that has a track record of success, in the eyes of the actor at least. Heart patients returning to smoking after bypass surgery is one graphic example of the phenomenon. As a coach I have used techniques developed by this pair of researchers with more than a little success. They produce the equivalent of getting a subject to move around inside the house of their perspective to see the world outside through a different window. The outcome of the process, different perspectives allow more readily for different actions.

My thought on leadership at this point would be to return to the four behaviors distinguished in the subject article and work with potential leaders to see of they can discover through reflection why they are not acting in these ways. What blocks their vision if you will? Actually the potential leader probably needs to first create a value proposition for themselves in which acting in these manners lead to outcomes otherwise unattainable.

Short of this I am afraid we may have to resort to leaders wearing helmets with cameras attached. We’ll follow them about as they go through a day and shout instructions through a headset as we see opportunities to act that they are missing.

At the very least we could stop surveying the spectators in an effort to understand what it is like to be on the field of play.





Engage in non-Traditional Collaborations…”Oh the Places You’ll Go”


Oh, the places you’ll go! There is fun to be done! There are points to be scored. There are games to be won.

                                        Dr. Seuss

Turn back the clock to an April afternoon in Michigan in the spring of 1965. A young man leaves the back door of the high school gymnasium headed for baseball practice. Cleats slung over his shoulder, mitt under his arm, he is hailed by members of the track team and challenged to a footrace in the school parking lot. The young man has developed something of a reputation for being fleet of foot, at least on the baseball field, regularly stealing two and three bases a game. His colleagues on the track team want to see if he can translate his speed on the bases to speed on the track.

The runners gather at a line on the asphalt lot measured 100 yards from a finish near the baseball diamond. The young man was not prepared for this race; he wears low cut canvas sneakers and long pants. His challengers from the track team are dressed for their practice shorts and running shoes. At the sound of the starter they are off and 10.2 seconds later the young baseball player crosses the finish line ahead of the members of the track team.

The track coach who has been watching the proceedings approaches the base baller and asks him about joining the track squad. Flattered, the young man expresses interest provided that he can also remain on the baseball team, his first love. In response the coach says that the young man will have to choose between the two sports and points out that he could likely be very successful as a sprinter for the track squad. The young man thanks the coach for the offer but chooses to remain with the baseball team. Later that spring at the all-city track meet the 100-yard dash is won with a time of 10.0, two tenths of a second faster than the young baseball player had run in sneakers and long pants with no warm up that April afternoon.

Fast forward to early 2009, the former young baseball player, now an experienced OD consultant leads a cross-functional, multi-disciplinary initiative on behalf of a client interested in generating innovative thinking and solutions in some critical customer facing areas. Players in this initiative are offered the opportunity to work on one of five suggested projects where major improvements are necessary and desired within a twelve- month period. Each employee involved, chosen because they were identified as “high potential”, is allowed to self-select to work on a project where they feel their talents will be put to good use. These are real projects with real needs and real dollars (in the multi-millions) and real customer relationships at stake.

When the initiative nears completion, four of the five projects have shown solid progress. The fifth project team, working on the most entrenched and critical customer servicing processes, presents a set of ideas for segmenting and servicing customers that stands to revolutionize not only the client’s business model but the industry model as well. Key contributions to this revolutionary set of ideas have come from diverse and unanticipated sources. The project team leader is a woman with less than five years experience in this 40-year-old company. Her most valuable collaborators have been a senior Human Resource analyst who was virtually unknown outside of HR when this initiative began and a finance director who had no experience in the customer facing areas of the business in his fifteen-year career with the client company. Prior to this initiative the only one of these three people who would have been invited to participate on this project was the woman team leader and she would have been given a secondary role because of her limited experience.

The connection between these two stories is of course the baseball player turned OD consultant who never forgot what could have been that spring of 1965 if a different model had been in place. What if the track coach has focused his attention on making use of the best available talent, regardless of the source?

Your organization might not be as strapped for talent as you might imagine. Quite possibly your mental models for what it takes to contribute are the true limit to what you are experiencing when it comes to innovative thinking.

Where is your organization trapped by its adherence to a tradition of finding solutions to current problems from among the available functional knowledge and experience that created them?

What would it take to allow people with talent, passion, initiative and creativity to become involved regardless of current assignments or functional history?

Our Addiction to Jobs is Killing the American Dream

WARNING: This post may have more local flavor than you’d care for. I beg your indulgence!

Picture 248When my book, ‘THRIVE: Standing on Your Own Two Feet in a Borderless World’ was published in 2006 I had been sitting on the thoughts I shared there for nearly ten years. Over that period I had become deeply concerned about what I considered to be the culturally engrained addiction to jobs that was robbing the workplace of any real hope of ever being a marketplace for full engagement. When, I continually wondered, had the American Dream shifted from guaranteeing the freedom to choose one’s livelihood to guaranteeing the freedom, no the desperate need, to have…stuff?

Since that time my concern had only deepened.

As long as Americans remain addicted to jobs the game will always be about survival and the trade offs; environmentally, economically, psychologically and emotionally and will be nothing less than, in many cases, the quality of life for generations to come. There are many who know this is ultimately unworkable but the truth seems so hard to speak when the audience, the American workforce, believes it is entitled to economic security, needs economic security.

Here in Washington State we have recently seen examples of how this addiction plays out in actions that do not fit with the professed prevailing morality. The state’s largest employer, Boeing, strong armed economic concessions in the form of reduced taxes from an already stressed government with implied threats of moving large numbers of jobs out of the area. Whatever the citizens of Washington got from the deal that was made you can be sure is only temporary, not too long from now that very same employer will be back asking for more with the knowledge that the ‘state’ is addicted to the presence of their jobs here. And other large area employers are no doubt emboldened by Boeing’s success.

In his 1998 book, ‘The Hungry Spirit :Beyond Capitalism A Quest for Purpose in the Modern World’ author Charles Handy spoke passionately about the addiction to jobs he witnessed everywhere…

“Capitalism, which was supposed to set us free, may be enslaving us in its turn, with its insistence on the dominance of the economic imperative.”

He was not arguing for the abandonment of capitalism, far from it; he was, however, chiding us for having allowed the responsibility for our financial welfare, our economic viability as people, slip away and become the property of organizations…

“The old idea of property as the basis for wealth and power no longer works, when the thing that organizations think that they own turns out to be us.”

And make no mistake about it is we have willingly, albeit mostly unconsciously, allowed this addiction to take root with at least four generations of American workers since the onset of the industrial revolution. In that time a nation that was at one time made up of 90% self employed people focused on the freedom to earn a living as they chose had dwindled to around 6% by the late 1990’s. We had shifted from the focus on freedom to choose our livelihood to the willingness to accommodate just about any trade off in order to guarantee a job, no matter how mundane or unfulfilling it might be. Witness the proceedings around recent events concerning the proposal to build deep-water ports in the waters of the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington to ship coal to China. What is at stake is the irreplaceable natural asset of the northern Puget Sound. What has been offered in exchange is less than two thousand temporary jobs during a four-year construction period and then a handful of permanent positions. A handful of permanent positions matched up against the bounty of the Salish Sea. Why does this sound like trading a handful of beans for a cow?

But as much as I have been concerned about the economic enslavement of the American Dream…you see it was always about the freedom, not the material goods…there are signs that there is a shift in the wind that has blown us so far off course.

In a December 22nd article titled ‘Predictions for 2015: Power to the People’, entrepreneur Nicolas Kimla, writing in Innovation Insights, a Wired Inc. publication predicts boldly that new technologies are allowing small entrepreneurs new and extraordinary opportunities…

“What was not so widely predicted at the time, though — and what is now becoming exceedingly obvious — the power that Cloud services bring to entrepreneurial startups and small and medium businesses to compete with their corpulent corporate neighbors.”

Now, if we can just encourage a mindset shift, one that will allow for a landslide of entrepreneurship to help us recover the American Dream of the freedom to live as we choose. A shift that will once again allow us to stand on our own two feet in a borderless world.







Take the Blame Out of Responsibility…Accountability May Just Emerge


???????????????????????????????If I’ve heard it once I have heard it a thousand times, a senior manager lamenting over the lack of accountability in his or her workforce. Let’s just stop and think about it for a moment. I like a good challenge, I bet many people do, especially when it involves an opportunity to develop a skill, learn something new, make a contribution or be part of some larger accomplishment. But I am not looking for opportunities to be made to look incompetent, held up as the reason why something failed or in some way have my reputation damaged because I took part in some workplace activity that did not meet expectations or realize projected results.

If you want me to be accountable, give me a choice about my participation, allow me the courtesy to say no. Don’t ask me to do something then leave me feeling like I am on my own once I have made my commitment. I want it to be understood that if I say yes I don’t want the outcome to be viewed as the sum total of my accomplishments. Don’t ask for my accountability and then act like you can’t trust me anymore when I don’t come through.

I want my commitments to any result to be viewed as part of an ongoing relationship that will have its ups and downs but is viewed as something larger than the sum of its parts and no part is large enough to cancel out the rest. I want there to be recognition for simply stepping up to the challenge.

If you ask me to do something let me ask for what I need to produce the result in return, don’t let this be a one-way conversation. Understand that once I say yes you are still responsible too. Understand that my commitment is not a duty, unless we have a previous agreement I owe you nothing until it is negotiated in real time.

I do not want an open-ended job description with the dreaded phrase, “and other duties as assigned” tagged on at the end. How insulting. What the hell! Would you agree to that? I didn’t think so.

And how do you understand accountability by the way? If I were to guess based on observation I’d say that you mean who will get the blame when things don’t go as planned. Not a very attractive game by any means, at least not for a person with any amount of self-respect.

Now if we are speaking of a relationship built on the notion of win/win, you have my attention. If you are saying that I will have a say in how things go it gets even more attractive. Tell me you’ll be there when the going gets tough and I want to know where to sign up. Say it my choice and I am already on it. Let me decide how it gets done and my head starts to swim. If you let me see it as a game I am bound to go above and beyond. When it all falls apart and you ask me what I have learned I know this is the place I never want to leave.

It’s Always the Right Time to Think About Emotional Intelligence

Picture 248

Employees, and their managers will not be unable able to engage with their work at the levels needed today for sustained periods until the issue of Emotional Intelligence is addressed as a key component of competency in almost every occupation today. If you are not sure about this fact see if you can name quickly five occupations today that don’t involve some degree of complex conversation as a matter of business as usual.

In virtually every management development program I have created or delivered in the past 20 years the point has been made that the greatest challenge facing managers today is their own limited interest in developing their own emotional intelligence, acquiring a deeper understanding of this psychological breakthrough, probably now more appropriately defined in a workplace context as Social Intelligence. This is followed closely by their second greatest challenge, understanding the emotional intelligence  or needs among the people who report to them. This fact, born out by years of anecdotal references continues to bedevil managers today and the problems created as well as their consequences continue to grow. (In many instances we simply have the wrong people managing but that is a topic for another day)

It usually goes without saying but bears repeating here that business in general and certainly the experience of being at work must be considered a contact sportAs our economy has evolved over the last 25 years the amount of contact has by necessity increased dramatically and my experience strongly suggests that the majority of people in our American workforce are not adequately prepared to participate in a game that requires significant personal initiative and interpersonal skill. For that matter it is probably safe to say that just as many employers are not ready to participate with a highly socially intelligent workforce.

Evolution may be a catch-all phrase when talking about how the economy has “morphed” over the years but one feature is worth considering; the process generally happens outside of our standard measurements of time and so changes often go unnoticed for extended periods. Management in the American workplace is now standing in front of the outcome of just such an evolutionary outcome, what Peter Senge undoubtedly meant us all to notice when he popularized the term “unintended consequences” in his landmark work, The Fifth Discipline.  Educationally and emotionally many, many people in the workplace today are not prepared to deal successfully with the level of interpersonal complexity they face daily.

A quick look back may serve a purpose here. The previous economies offered the majority of people in the workforce

  • narrowly defined sets of tasks
  • high degrees of supervision and
  • limited individual discretion

Never mind whether this was good or bad, it was what it was and created the foundation for the standard of living we enjoy today. As the economy has proceeded along its path and we have been brought to where we are today certain aspects of that industrial economy were carried over, including some unfortunate ways of thinking about management, meanwhile what we need from employees has changed dramatically. Many managers say they want more initiative, creativity and passion from those reporting to them but are not able to recognize that these additives to the compliance that was the hallmark of a prior time in the workplace are not simple snap on modules. This outcome begs for transformational education and skill building is also required.

Before patting yourself on the back because you don’t fall into the category of the emotionally underdeveloped or see what I am talking about in your immediate reports ask you self and honestly answer these questions:

  • Am I able to participate successfully in every conversational exchange without hesitation or caution?
  • Am I able to have the conversations I really need to have with my reports so I am optimizing their development as well as their productivity?
  • Do I ever see instances where my reports “hold back” with me even though I have repeatedly encouraged them to talk to me about everything?

If you answered yes to any of these questions you were being honest and the question that remains is, “What is the price you are paying in terms of

  1. Your own full engagement at work
  2. Your own productivity
  3. The level of engagement and productivity of those you are charged with developing



As Leadership Emerges…What Will You Give Up?


It must be very complex, leadership that is. It must be or why would Amazon currently carry nearly 382,000 titles containing the word leadership? A quick Google query on the word “leadership” gives a response of over 143,000,000 entries. I smell a rat and I have smelled a rat for several years now. Maybe we should be looking at the conditions that allow leadership to emerge. Maybe leadership is naturally occurring and we hold it back, either consciously or unconsciously in our organizations.

In practice I have had occasion to have more than one senior leader say he or she was interested in seeing more leadership from the people in their organization. A typical response from me might be to ask, “Are you sure that’s what you want?” A provocative question like this better have a good follow up. If I am on my game this exchange can have the desired effect of creating a “teachable moment” or at least one where I have an opportunity to think I am offering something infinitely wise.

Charging into the awkward silence I might say, “I bet you have been taking responsibility for all of the critical decisions – and thus the critical thinking behind them. Your people feel alienated, with no sense of ownership, and you wonder why you can’t get them more engaged.” This exchange often has led to a visible shrug of recognition and a sheepish question from the potential client, “It sounds like you are saying I am the problem?” So here the “teachable moment” presents itself. My response to the potential client will be,  “First, you are not the problem but you are certainly part of the problem and if you are willing to at least be part of the solution we can make some progress.”

It is occasions like these that are also moments of truth for those of us who fancy ourselves organizational catalysts, the conversations that now follow are going to determine whether this potential client becomes a client or we walk out the door hat in hand.

From here the exchange might go something like this, ” To begin with when you have been saying you wanted more leadership I suspect that what you meant was more do as I want you to-ship.” This is always hard because invariably this assertion produces a flash of recognition coupled with awkward silence and the tension of embarrassment. But it passes fairly quickly!

I then ask the by now fully engaged executive or manager another question, “What are you willing to give up?” This question inevitably leads to a conversation that has the potential client see their role in the problem they’ve described…a shortage of leadership. And I continue, “Accountability, the precondition for leadership, is a choice you can offer not a sentence you can hand down. If what you truly want is leadership then you need to be prepared to give up something and generally the give up you are least likely to want to give is the final say in at least some aspect of running the business. So where is leadership most missing in your business and how are you controlling the situation?

This statement often brings up an authentic, ” I am not really comfortable with this!”  My rejoinder to that might echo the words of Sue Tupling, “Feeling uncomfortable? So you should!” Sue said exactly when she described the emotional hurdles many senior leaders face when they first begin to confront the need to let go in order to get what they want.

Personally, I have seen leaders knowingly choose control over business results or staff development on more than one occasion, especially when they knew they could make their numbers without letting go. So when we get to this stage the conversation invariably turns solemn, like something bad is about to happen. Thankfully, at least on some occasions something really productive happens and the executive or manager sees that not letting go is going to constrain them to live with results similar to those they have already achieved. They begin to see that if they are up to anything more the give up of control is the price of admission into a new realm of possibility.

But the potential client does not always see the light and on those occasions the question might become, “If you can make your numbers without letting go what are you whining about? Unless of course your intuition is telling you there is something more to be had than just making the numbers. Or maybe you simply want someone to blame if things don’t work out?” Shortly after this I usually leave their office… with my hat! I am obviously needed elsewhere


Squashing Engagement: The High Cost of Seeing Limitations Instead of Possibilities

“The iPhone is nothing more than a luxury bauble that will appeal to a few gadget freaks. In terms of its impact on the industry, the iPhone is less relevant.”

Matthew Lynn, Bloomberg News, 01/14/2007

Few of us have ever missed hitting the mark by as much as Matthew Lynn did in January of 2007 when he wrote the piece entitled ‘Apple iPhone Will Fail in a Late Defensive Move.’ If you have a moment I’ll ask you to take a look at this piece from a number of perspectives.

  • With your 2014 eyes simply enjoy the article for the sense of irony you experience as you read each argument Mr. Lynn outlines.
  • With your 2007 eyes (you must keep them somewhere!) stand alongside Mr. Lynn and imagine the world he was living in at the time he wrote his article. Crazy right, 2007, like it was “back in the day.”

Matthew Lynn was simply a columnist writing for a daily publication that focuses primarily on matters related to business, not technology. As you go through his column you’ll find clear references to the audience he believes he is addressing. Words like these, “…it is too early to start dumping your Nokia shares…” would seem to indicate that he knows the readers of Bloomberg Daily are investment oriented, financially motivated and management savvy. If he had been writing for another type of publication, ‘Wired’ for instance, he may have taken a different approach; actually it doesn’t sound like he is part of the ‘Wired’ readership either so that example may be a bit far fetched. But clearly he was writing for an audience that he thought he understood.

  • Now with an entirely different set of eyes see if you can imagine what the world would be like today if Matthew Lynn had been head of product development at Apple and the idea for the iPhone had been brought to him? Hard huh?
  • Now ask yourself how many improvements, much less paradigm busting ideas, get shot down by managers in your organization each year because when new ideas are  presented they get viewed through eyes that know their audience wants the future to look like the past?

Here’s the rub, Matthew Lynn still writes for Bloomberg Daily, he’s not a bad guy, he just couldn’t see the iPhone for what it was, all he could see was what it wasn’t and he knew nobody wanted that. Oh yes, and one more very important thing, nobody had to listen to what Mr. Lynn had to say, either then or now, Bloomberg News is very clear with their readership about that…

… (Matthew Lynn is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)


Unlike Mr. Lynn your employees do have to listen to their managers. I am betting in your organization when an employee brings an idea to a manager and he/she doesn’t see the merits they don’t quickly follow up by saying something like, “But hey, I only work here and this is just my opinion, you should feel free to ask my manager what he thinks of your idea.”

Honestly, using Matthew Lynn’s column from 2007 is sort of a cheap trick, there are not that many iPhone ideas floating around any organization. But all good ideas don’t have to be as great as that, maybe it is just as important that all new ideas get a fair hearing by more than one set of eyes and ears. In my experience it is very engaging for employees to know their ideas will be given serious consideration. Grown ups know they will not get everything they want but knowing they were authentically listened to will keep them coming back.

Do your employees feel invited to present new ideas even if they don’t necessarily agree with past practices? How about those reporting to you?