“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?


The Last Word on Trust

trustImagine being at work, in any workplace, and not trusting people? I don’t necessarily mean specific people, I mean people in general. Unfortunately, I think many of us are there unconsciously. This reality is covered up with “handy stories” justifying behavior that might otherwise be considered paranoid. I think you know the stories I mean, they usually include some element of “well you can never be too careful,” or “if you want something done right do it yourself.” These and similar “stories” are versions of how to avoid depending on or being vulnerable with others.

“Trust is more an attitude about myself, an estimate of my own capacities, my own ability to handle whatever comes up. If I do not trust someone, … , a more accurate statement might be that I am not happy with the way I act or feel when I am around this person.   It is my sense of being out of control that bothers me…”

                       Peter Block, Author, ‘Community: The Structure of Belonging’

Preparing for this post, it occurred to me that for many thoughtful people there are three truths about trust and no common definition. The three truths are:

  1.  If I trust, I can count on being disappointed.

  2. If I do not trust, my life will likely be safe but it will feel more like surviving than thriving.

  3. If I am up to anything of consequence—anything that will really make any difference—then I will need the involvement of others. Therefore, trusting is a foregone conclusion: I will trust or I will accomplish very little in this lifetime.

With the above three truths in mind, you would do well to establish a tolerance for disappointment. If this sounds paradoxical to you I empathize. It appears that there is always a paradox to be dealt with where trust is involved, especially if you insist on defining trust as having anything to do with someone else’s behavior.

Unfortunately, in my experience most people do create their definition of trust in terms of the behaviors of others. According to them you must “earn their trust” or some other such nonsense!

While it may seem counter intuitive, as in the case of the Peter Block quote above, there is considerable power in defining trust in reference to oneself. This opportunity is too often neglected at great personal loss and is dealt with masterfully in TRUST AGENTS: Using the Web to Build Influence, Improve Reputation, and Earn Trust.

Consider this:

A definition of trust that is filled with power is a function of my relationship with myself.

Do I have the confidence in myself to deal with whatever comes my way? Can I interact successfully with various personalities? Can I rely on employees, co-workers or managers who clearly have superior subject knowledge to my own? Can I honor my intentions when interacting with people of differing agendas? And most importantly, can I count on myself to respond and deliver without excuses even when someone has let me down?

This perspective on trust gives reason to think that you can be effective no matter what and no matter who is involved. And make no mistake about it, trust, like we often say about beauty, is in the eye of the beholder…it is a perspective. By adopting this perspective you place the responsibility for trust in your own lap. Your power comes from the fact that there never was anything you could do about anyone else’s behavior except to ask for what you wanted and hold them to account for what they said they would do.

I was blessed to have a manager who operated with me in this fashion early in my career. I made mistakes and each time he dealt with the situation gracefully and responsibly. If he had delegated something to me and it did not get done well he always held himself to account for having allowed me the opportunity to either meet his expectations, or let him down. This is not to say that he did not hold me to account; he did, and from our discussions around my accountabilities I learned from my mistakes. His trusting that he could deal with whatever mistake I might make allowed me the freedom to bring the best I had to offer and rapidly learn what worked and what did not. Of course, like any truly great manager his trust in me cost him in the end; I was promoted and moved on. And of course, he trusted that whoever took my place would eventually be exactly what he needed, until they moved on as well.

Where have you abdicated your responsibility for trust? When will you take it back?

When Employees Think About Engagement…What is Their Focus?


It is frequently my privilege to work with an owner of a smaller sized business, one where the owner is using their own money to make things happen. As someone who did this myself for over twenty years I have a real appreciation for the risk faced by people who undertake business ownership. I am also aware that facing these risks and achieving a certain amount of success can distort a business owner’s sense of what is really going on, especially when it comes to employee engagement.

A short time ago I was addressing a group of owners of smaller and medium sized businesses. The theme of the conversation with my audience that day was the importance of intentionally designing working relationships. Often I have found that employers will settle for relationships with employees grounded in what they need to have done, as though that is all that needs to be accounted for. That may in fact be a true representation of many an employer’s perspective but it certainly doesn’t account for the perspective of the employee.

During my talk one owner in particular was noticeably irritated, a couple of times mumbling something sarcastic to a nearby colleague. Eventually he butted into my conversation with this remark, “I have job openings now and I cannot find good people to fill them much less worry about establishing relationships. What do you have to say about that?” This was one of those comments that was delivered in a tone suggesting a confrontation might be at hand and the room got suddenly still. Not wanting to waste the moment or the anticipation I responded, “Well tell me this…why would any body want to work for you?” It hadn’t seemed possible but the room got even quieter.

After a moment another member of the audience chimed in with a comment directed at me, “It sounds like you are attacking him, he’s creating jobs for people. Shouldn’t we be grateful that someone is creating jobs and help him solve his problem?” So there it was, the time honored practice of coming to the defense of the “job creator.”

Should we be grateful to the job creators? I am not sure gratitude is the proper response. Respect for the “job creator” is probably appropriate, respect for bringing forth talents and abilities that are in limited supply in any population and using them to the economic advantage of themselves as well as others. Certainly not everyone has these talents; fewer still have the willingness to launch into the risk of business ownership and none that I know are doing this from some sense of altruism, they are trying to get something they want and creating jobs is a means to that end.

I find that all employers want their employees to give their best at all times. However, where they get tripped up is in being able to be explicit about needing their employees. As a fallback they adopt the attitude that employees should be grateful for the opportunity they have been provided and therefore engage as a function of this.

What this perspective does not take into account is that many employees, especially the ones you will want to keep are as future oriented as the employer. Any employee who is really valuable is very likely aware that the books are square with the delivery of every paycheck. They don’t get paid for what they will do; they are being paid for what they have done. Yves Morieux and Peter Tollman from The Boston Consulting Group have recently written a book titled, ‘Six Simple Rules: How to Manage Complexity Without Getting Complicated’ and they are very explicit on this point…

 “Engagement, therefore, is prospective, not retrospective. People do not choose to engage as a result of gratitude for how things have gone in the past, but rather as a reflection of what it will bring them.”

This is likely a point of view that highly sought after employees might have. So then, “what’s in it for me now?” is very likely a question on their minds.

Now back to my audience from a few weeks back. Yes Mr. Grumpy was a “job creator” but he wasn’t doing it out of the goodness of his heart. There was something he was trying to accomplish, something from which he anticipated a return on his investment greater than what he might get otherwise or from some other source. If, as I suspected, his attitude of begrudgingly offering these good jobs was as apparent to prospective employees as it was to me it was no wonder he was having trouble filling his vacancies. Prospective employees worth having can sniff this type of attitude out quickly and it does not offer them a future worthy of engagement.

The Challenge of Leading the Millennial Generation: Harnessing the Entrepreneurial Spirit

“Rather than answer the knotty questions about whether entrepreneurs are born or made employers need to turn their attention to more practical matter of promoting an environment of innovation.”

Last Friday afternoon I was fortunate enough to make time to attend the Western Big DogsWashington University Business Summit, an annual event hosted by the College of Business and Economics. The topic for the afternoon was entrepreneurism and innovation and focused on a panel that included three local entrepreneurs and one professional manager/former would be entrepreneur. This group was offered the opportunity to respond to a number of questions regarding their passion and vision and of course the question that has yet to be finally answered, are entrepreneurs born or can they be made?

Let’s be clear, entrepreneurism and innovation are hot topics, you might even call them trendy. Although the sure fire path to innovation remains a conundrum one thing we do know is that entrepreneurs, when they are in full flight, create opportunities for others to be employed and job creation in America is on everyone’s agenda if not for themselves certainly for their children.

To my satisfaction the three entrepreneurs on the panel agreed with me, entrepreneurs are very likely born and born in limited numbers. Maybe not born like from the womb but as the sum of their life experiences they arrive at the adult stage of life with a burning desire to make something happen, something big. You might recall the quote from Steve Jobs; “I want to put a ding in the universe!”

This idea of entrepreneurs being born versus developed has of course been debated and will continue to be so because as Americans we love the notion that we can be anything we want to be with hard work and blah, blah, blah. OK, knock yourself out with that if you want.

Meanwhile, I am also pretty sure from personal experience that a desire to own your own business or at least not work for anybody else does not make you an entrepreneur. (That would be me) I am just as certain that there is a difference between having an “entrepreneurial spirit” and being an entrepreneur. The case for this last assertion was made by the fourth member of Friday’s panel an admittedly “reformed entrepreneur” who had thought himself to be one early in life only to find that he didn’t have the constitution to deal with the inevitable failures inherent in the entrepreneurial life cycle.

Rather than answer the knotty questions about entrepreneurs being born or made employers need to turn their attention to more practical matter of promoting an environment of innovation. By that I mean encouraging the expression of an entrepreneurial spirit in their businesses and attracting the very talented millennial generation.

In late 2011… William Deresiewicz wrote an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times titled ‘Generation Sell’. In this piece Deresiewicz takes us through his analysis of the millennial generation that seems to be so troubling to work with or even understand for many managers today. His central thesis is that this is a generation of entrepreneurs.

While I do not to agree with Deresiewicz I do see merit in his observation that the Millennials operate with…

“…a distrust of large organizations, including government, as well as the sense, a legacy of the last decade, that it’s every man for himself.”

 …so their entrepreneurial inclinations are driven as much from a self-preservation strategy as the previous generation’s were driven by the desire for security.

While entrepreneurial in nature many of the Millennials are really “tweakers” and most continue to work in our mainstream organizations. They literally walk among us, having learned how to play the game by developing an ability to fit in rather than drop out and assume the risks and responsibilities of business ownership.

Given the continued premium many employers still place on compliance it is likely that we have not tapped the entrepreneurial instincts of this generation and likely as not this is why they will eventually leave us, not necessarily to start their own businesses but in hopes of finding an environment that welcomes their creativity. As managers we might do ourselves an enormous favor by asking not how we can get them to be like us but rather how can we give them reason to stay and invest themselves in our future.

In an article titled ‘The Tweaker’ Malcolm Gladwell identifies the difference inventor and “tweaker.” By definition…

“The visionary starts with a clean sheet of paper, and re-imagines the world. The tweaker inherits things as they are, and has to push and pull them toward some more nearly perfect solution. That is not a lesser task.”

Turning our Millennial employees loose to “tweak” may seem like an invitation to chaos. However, it also may just be a formula for the engagement and retention of our best and brightest.