How to Demonstrate Your Strategic Thinking Skills

We all know that developing strategic thinking skills is important, but many don’t realize how critical it is to your career advancement to show these skills to your boss and other senior leaders. Showing strategic thinking skills tells your bosses that you’re able to think for yourself and make decisions that position the organization for the future. It assures them that you aren’t making decisions in a vacuum but are considering how other departments might be affected or how the outside world will respond.

When I’m helping my coaching clients learn to think more strategically, I emphasize that developing and demonstrating these skills are very different challenges.

Developing great strategic thinking skills requires you to gain exposure to strategic roles, synthesize broad information, participate in a culture of curiosity, and gather experiences that allow you to identify patterns and connect the dots in novel ways. That’s why high-potential and leadership development programs often include job rotations, cross-functional projects, and face time with senior leadership — these all accelerate the development of strategic thinking.
Demonstrating strategic thinking, on the other hand, requires that you are simultaneously a marketer, a salesperson, and a change agent. Proactive and widespread communication of your strategic efforts combined with the courage to challenge others and initiate and drive your strategic ideas are what make your boss and peers take notice.
The case of one of my coaching clients illustrates the steps you need to take to show off your strategic thinking skills. Tim Waters (not his real name), vice president of the U.S. supply chain for a growing medical products company, hoped to be named global senior vice president of supply chain but sensed that his promotion discussions were stalled. Tim had a good reputation for responding to business unit leads, and he worked tirelessly and effectively to keep the supply chain functioning well. He was therefore surprised to receive informal feedback from the head of HR, a longtime colleague and friend, who said that a few influential executives had voiced concern that Tim “wasn’t strategic enough.” These executives felt Tim was good at keeping the trains running, but he had not driven proactive change in the organization or set a strategic vision for supply chain. Tim was a strong strategic thinker, but he wasn’t doing it in a way his bosses could see it. He decided to engage an executive coach to help him learn how to demonstrate these skills.

Bring a point of view to the table
Your leaders want to know what you think, and they view your worthiness for promotion through the lens of how ready you are to make bigger decisions. By asking yourself, “Do people know where I stand?” you can sharpen your ability to demonstrate this skill.

Tim made efforts to update his understanding of trends and to refresh his network but realized that he wasn’t putting the knowledge learned to good use. One of the first changes he made was to instruct his assistant to block out 30 minutes on his calendar before important meetings. He knew that barely having time to collect his thoughts before going into meetings made him unprepared, less vocal, and less capable of synthesizing and sharing his knowledge. Just a half hour, once or twice a week, would allow him to shape his point of view on important issues.

Tim’s efforts began to pay off over time, and he was able to shift his contributions in senior executive meetings from operational input to strategic input. He took time to package his ideas into a vision for the organization and engaged his peers in new discussions about how the vision could impact their areas.

Having greater clarity of vision also enhanced Tim’s effectiveness as a supervisor. Tim was able to see how his team was missing the specific skills needed to support the vision. Now, instead of having reactive discussions with his HR business partner, he was able to engage in forward-looking discussions about strategic hiring and leadership development opportunities for his team. Demonstrating that you think strategically about hiring and talent development is a surefire way to make your leaders notice you.

Show that you can initiate innovation and bring strategic change
To be viewed as a strategic thinker, you must also demonstrate that you can use your knowledge to put new ideas into action. No matter your level, you can demonstrate strategic thinking by executing an innovative project that shows that your understanding extends beyond your current function.

Tim channeled the new energy and vision he had gained into a strategic planning process that culminated in formal recommendations for the supply chain group. Tim communicated the project and its milestones across the organization, allowing the executive team to see that he could lead a strategic initiative; previously, Tim would have kept it behind the scenes. Boldly suggesting value-added changes was a welcome shift to both Tim and his colleagues. Tim felt he had greater control, projecting greater confidence because he was no longer just reacting to others’ suggestions and issues, and Tim’s colleagues also appreciated that he was initiating improvements without their prodding.

Tim’s journey to demonstrating strategic thinking took him longer than he had expected, but over time, his boss, peers, and team noticed the changes and viewed them positively. Tim was promoted to the global role a year later and was ultimately better equipped to navigate the role.

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How to Stop Worrying About What Other People Think of You

If you want to be your best and perform at a high level, fear of people’s opinions may be holding you back.

Think about a time when you were extremely anxious — say, before standing up to publicly speak, raising your hand in a big meeting, or even walking through a room of strangers. The reason you felt small and scared and tense is you were worried about social disapproval.

Our fear of other people’s opinions, or FOPO as I call it, has become an irrational and unproductive obsession in the modern world, and its negative effects reach far beyond performance.

If you start paying less and less attention to what makes you you — your talents, beliefs, and values — and start conforming to what others may or may not think, you’ll harm your potential. You’ll start playing it safe because you’re afraid of what will happen on the other side of the critique. You’ll fear being ridiculed or rejected. When challenged, you’ll surrender your viewpoint. You won’t raise your hand when you can’t control the outcome. You won’t go for that promotion because you won’t think you’re qualified.

Unfortunately, FOPO is part of the human condition since we’re operating with an ancient brain. A craving for social approval made our ancestors cautious and savvy; thousands of years ago, if the responsibility for the failed hunt fell on your shoulders, your place in the tribe could be threatened. The desire to fit in and the paralyzing fear of being disliked undermine our ability to pursue the lives we want to create.

This underscores why we need to train and condition our mind — so the tail is not wagging the dog.

If you find yourself experiencing FOPO, there are ways to dampen the intensity of your stress responses. Once you’re aware of your thoughts, guide yourself toward confidence-building statements (I am a good public speaker, I’ve put in the work so that I can trust my abilities, I have a lot of great things to say, I’m completely prepared for this promotion). These statements will help you focus on your skills and abilities rather than others’ opinions. Take deep breaths, too. This will signal to your brain that you’re not in immediate danger.

But, if you really want to conquer FOPO, you’ll need to cultivate more self-awareness. Most of us go through life with a general sense of who we are, and, in a lot of circumstances, that’s enough. We get by. But if you want to be your best while being less fearful of people’s opinions, you need to develop a stronger and much deeper sense of who you are.

You can start by developing a personal philosophy — a word or phrase that expresses your basic beliefs and values. The personal philosophy of Pete Carroll, my business partner and head coach of the Seattle Seahawks, is “always compete.” For Coach Carroll, always competing means spending every day working hard to get better and reach his fullest potential. This philosophy isn’t a platitude or slogan; rather, it’s his compass, guiding his actions, thoughts, and decisions. As a coach. A father. A friend. In every area of life.

When coming up with a personal philosophy, ask yourself a series of questions:

When I’m at my best, what beliefs lie just beneath the surface of my thoughts and actions?

Who are people that demonstrate characteristics and qualities that are in alignment with mine?

What are those qualities?

What are your favorite quotes? Your favorite words?

Once you’ve answered these questions, circle the words that stand out to you and cross out the ones that don’t. After studying what’s left, try to come up with a phrase or sentence that lines up with exactly who you are and how you want to live your life. Share the draft with a loved one, ask for input, and fine-tune your philosophy from there. Then commit it to memory and return to it daily.

Crafting a personal philosophy can be an eye-opening and powerful exercise. When I coach teams of executives, I often ask them to write down their personal philosophy and share it with the group. I’ll never forget the time a senior executive wowed everyone in the room. As tears welled up in his eyes, he straightened his back, held his head high, and said, “My philosophy is to walk worthy.” He told his colleagues that his parents were immigrants who had persevered through challenging circumstances to ensure he had better opportunities. Because of his parents’ hard work and sacrifice, he considered it his duty to live life as if his family crest were emblazoned across his chest. Every day, he tries to be worthy of their good deeds, and to be a great role model for the next generation.

I can’t overstate how important a personal philosophy is. Working with NFL players and coaches, extreme-sport athletes, and senior leaders at Fortune 50 companies, I’ve noticed that, beyond a relentless pursuit of being their best, what makes these high performers great is their clear sense of the principles that guide them. Because of their clarity, they’re more willing to push themselves, learn more, and embrace discomfort. They can shut out the noise and opinions of fans and media and listen to their own well-calibrated, internal compass.

Once you’ve developed your own personal philosophy, commit yourself to live in accordance with its tenets. Start at home. Tell that person you love them. Dance at a wedding. Take risks. Be respectfully weird. (That probably means, be you.) Then try it at work. Give a presentation. Go for that promotion. Do things that will engender the opinions of others. When you feel the power of FOPO holding you back, simply acknowledge it, and re-connect to your philosophy and the larger objective at hand.

Moving forward, solicit feedback from a short list of people who matter to you. Honest reflection is a vital component of mastery. During an episode of my podcast, “Finding Mastery,” Brené Brown, a renowned researcher and author of Dare to Lead, suggested that the names of those people should fit on a 1×1 inch index card. I add a second condition. The people on your card should have a great sense of the person you are and the person you’re working to become. Hold their views in high regard, letting the noise from the crowd fade away. Calibrate their feedback with your experience.

Most of all, remember that growth and learning take place when you’re operating at the edge of your capacity. Like blowing up a nearly inflated balloon, living in accordance with your personal philosophy will require more effort and power, but, the result, which is to authentically and artistically express who you are, will push you to live and work with more purpose and meaning.

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How to get rid of the HR work you never wanted to do in the first place

What comes to mind when you think about a treasure map? Pirates? A treasure chest buried on a remote island filled with golden coins of immeasurable value? Or maybe an old piece of weathered paper that shows directions to the elusive treasure, marked with an X on the map. All of those mental images suggest that you may have watched too many pirate movies over the years, but be that the case or not, we all long for the adventure and excitement of finding a treasure and benefiting from its riches.

I am confident that there are still some unclaimed treasures on the bottom of seas, but there are also some treasures in plain sight, right in front of us. By simply following our comfortable daily routines we don’t see what is right under our nose. One of these hidden treasures in the world of Human Resources is the journey from mostly hands-on tactical and in many cases paper-based processes to a time and place where HR can spend the majority of the time, focus and, attention on activities that make a huge difference for this business. Heck, now is not the time to be modest. HR professionals have the opportunity to create competitive advantages for their employer from inside HR and without adding on more hours to your workweek.
Would You Benefit from More Time?
Consider this: You somehow figured out a way to free up 8 hours of your workweek. You are super passionate about your well-being and want to build a program for your employees that will give them the resources, support, structure, and encouragement to live their best lives at work and home. After getting some input from the employees you get to work at building an incredible well-being program with features like bring your pets to workdays, catered healthy meal options, social hours for team building, and the list goes on and on. Your employees are thrilled with this non-traditional well-being program that is indeed created for them and not for saving the company a buck or two on health insurance. Do you think a program like this could positively impact how employees feel about their work and their employer? Do you think an environment like this could retain employees and attract new employees? You bet, and all of a sudden, you created a competitive advantage for your employer in the War for Talent just because you were able to free up some time from your workday to do something that truly matters and has strategic value to the business.

Let’s be quite honest, the demand for HR to do strategy work is not new, but in the past and maybe for most of you in the present, that means that you had to work harder, faster and spend more time to get everything done that’s on your plate. Strategy work was an add-on task, not a task that you could do instead of something else. After all, you understand how important it is to be a strategic partner to the business. “HRs role and responsibilities are continually expanding, and the work has to be accomplished with fewer resources than just three years ago”. All of this is precisely the reason why I want to share with you the HCM Treasure Map so that you have a tool that can help you in regaining control of your day (and to do more of the work you enjoy).
X Marks the Spot
The treasure map is a visual representation of how much time HR is spending on tactical vs. strategic work at different stages of the Human Capital Management (HCM) journey.

The orange-shaded areas represent process-oriented, tactical, and many cases even paper-based activities that are cumbersome and time-consuming. The blue-shaded area represents time spent on activities that have a strategic people focus and therefore directly support HR and Business Goals. Where is your HR function on this map?

Here is a brief overview of the three different stages going from left to right.

Manual Stage: As the name indicates, the Manual Stage is the home of tactical HR tasks that are manual and mostly paper-based. Due to the manual nature of the processes, there is a constant risk for errors to be introduced, which can negatively impact data quality and compliance risks. The tactical tasks are also very time consuming and cumbersome, which eats large chunks of time away from your day and leaves little to no time for strategic work.

Digital Stage: An early indicator for the move into the Digital Stage is the scanning of all historical HR records to eliminate the need for the countless filing cabinets that can be found in the HR record storage area or if you are one of the “lucky” ones in your office. Other than improved data security and the ability to search readable PDFs and more space in your office, there is not much else to gain from the Digital Stage. Unfortunately, this is where many companies stop their journey and therefore never end up benefiting from the treasure that is waiting for them at the Transformation Stage.

Transformation Stage (The Treasure Island): So, what does this promised land look like? It’s very simple; companies that reach the transformation stage have invested in a cloud-based HCM solution that allows them to leverage technology to redesign and rethink their HR processes. At the very core, this provides the opportunity to automate repetitive tasks, improve data quality and operate from a single database, which eliminates data discrepancies and automate compliance to mention just a few. All of which frees up HR time and resources that you can now finally use to do the work you have been longing to do all along, maybe it is even the reason why you decided to pursue a career in HR in the first place.

Let’s illustrate the power of the Transformation State with an example. In the manual and digital stage, it is a common occurrence for new hires to be greeted on their first day on the job by a pile of new hire paperwork that needs to be completed and that could easily take up the entire morning. In many cases, it takes even longer and becomes something HR has to chase down because the new hire did not remember to bring the SSNs for the children or forget the ID to complete the I-9.

In the Transformation Stage, the new hire paperwork is managed through the automated onboarding process and completed before the employees’ first day. Now, HR can focus on creating a personalized onboarding experience including orientation in the workplace, introductions to key employees and a culture training for the first day as well as ongoing check-ins for the first six months on the job to ensure the new employee feels cared for and well-integrated right from the start. This approach is proven to increase employee engagement and reduce turnover in the critical first 12 months on the job. Wow, what a difference in the HR side as well as for the new employee.
Where Will the Treasure Map Lead You?
How many other opportunities do you have in HR to automate, eliminate, or redesign process to free up some of your time and focus on value-added strategic work? A cloud-based HCM solution offers you the opportunity to be a strategic leader, to connect what HR does with crucial business goals while having access to real-time data to inform decision making to reduce cost and improve the employee experience.

There is an incredible treasure waiting for you. Set your sails and follow the HCM journey to make your way to the treasure island, but don’t get stuck at the reefs of the Digital Stage Island. Take action now; your rewards are vast opportunities and riches not unlike a treasure chest filled with gold coins.


The Truth About Open Offices

t’s never been easier for workers to collaborate—or so it seems. Open, flexible, activity-based spaces are displacing cubicles, making people more visible. Messaging is displacing phone calls, making people more accessible. Enterprise social media such as Slack and Microsoft Teams are displacing watercooler conversations, making people more connected. Virtual-meeting software such as Zoom, GoToMeeting, and Webex is displacing in-person meetings, making people ever-present. The architecture of collaboration has not changed so quickly since technological advances in lighting and ventilation made tall office buildings feasible, and one could argue that it has never before been so efficient. Designing workplaces for interaction between two or more individuals—or collaboration, from the Latin collaborare, meaning to work together—has never seemed so easy.

But as the physical and technological structures for omnichannel collaboration have spread, evidence suggests they are producing behaviors at odds with designers’ expectations and business managers’ desires. In a number of workplaces we have observed for research projects or consulting assignments, those structures have produced less interaction—or less meaningful interaction—not more.

In this article we discuss those unintended consequences and provide guidance on conducting experiments to uncover how your employees really interact. That will help you equip them with the spaces and technologies that best support their needs.

The Architecture and the Anatomy of Collaboration
Workers are surrounded by a physical architecture: individual offices, cubicles, or open seating; a single floor, multiple floors, or multiple buildings; a dedicated space for the organization, a space shared with other companies, or a home office. That physical architecture is paired with a digital architecture: email, enterprise social media, mobile messaging, and so forth.

But although knowledge workers are influenced by this architecture, they decide, individually and collectively, when to interact. Even in open spaces with colleagues in close proximity, people who want to eschew interactions have an amazing capacity to do so. They avoid eye contact, discover an immediate need to use the bathroom or take a walk, or become so engrossed in their tasks that they are selectively deaf (perhaps with the help of headphones). Ironically, the proliferation of ways to interact makes it easier not to respond: For example, workers can simply ignore a digital message.

When employees do want to interact, they choose the channel: face-to-face, video conference, phone, social media, email, messaging, and so on. Someone initiating an exchange decides how long it should last and whether it should be synchronous (a meeting or a huddle) or asynchronous (a message or a post). The recipient of, say, an email, a Slack message, or a text decides whether to respond immediately, down the road, or never. These individual behaviors together make up an anatomy of collaboration similar to an anthill or a beehive. It is generated organically as people work and is shaped by the beliefs, assumptions, values, and ways of thinking that define the organization’s culture.

Architecture is easy to observe—you just look at blueprints, models, technology, or the space around you. Until recently the anatomy of collaboration was hard to observe. But technology has made it possible to detect and analyze the flows of communication.

Sensors are all the rage. Sensors in chairs measure how long workers are at their desks. Sensors in the floor measure when and how they move. Sensors in RFID badges and smartphones track where they go. Sensors (in the form of video cameras) track whom they are with. Panasonic has added WiFi sensors to lighting systems, which can monitor face-to-face interactions across entire buildings and workplaces.

When the firms switched to open offices, face-to-face interactions fell by 70%.

Another way to detect interactions is by collecting the digital “breadcrumbs” people leave when they book a meeting, send an email, open a browser window, post on Slack or Teams, or make a call, thanks to systems designed to save communication metadata. Increasingly, employers can use advanced analytics tools to study that data to understand employees’ collective behaviors. Algorithms that assess workers’ movements and interactions can learn to distinguish collaboration from mere copresence. Ones that analyze workers’ past behaviors can learn to predict their next moves, individually and collectively, and estimate the probability of a valuable collision between people.

These advances have allowed us to confirm something many people have suspected: Collaboration’s architecture and anatomy are not lining up. Using advanced wearables and capturing data on all electronic interactions, we—along with Stephen Turban, one of Ethan’s former students, who is currently at Fulbright University Vietnam—tracked face-to-face and digital interactions at the headquarters of two Fortune 500 firms before and after the companies transitioned from cubicles to open offices. We chose the most representative workplaces we could find; we waited until people had settled in to their new spaces to track their postmove interactions; and, for accuracy, we varied the length of time over which we tracked them. With the first company, we collected data for three weeks before the redesign, starting one month prior, and for three weeks roughly two months after it. With the second, we collected data for eight weeks before the redesign, starting three months prior, and for eight weeks roughly two months after it. We aligned our data-collection periods with seasonal business cycles for apples-to-apples comparisons—for example, we collected data during the same weeks of the quarter. We found that face-to-face interactions dropped by roughly 70% after the firms transitioned to open offices, while electronic interactions increased to compensate.

Why did that happen? The work of the 18th-century French philosopher Denis Diderot suggests an answer. He wrote that performers should “imagine a huge wall across the front of the stage, separating you from the audience, and behave exactly as if the curtain had never risen.” He called this the fourth wall. It prevents actors from being distracted by the audience and allows them to divorce themselves from what they cannot control (the audience) and focus only on what they can (the scene), much as a basketball player shoots the ball without really seeing the cheering (or booing) fans behind the hoop. It creates the intimacy of what some call public solitude. The larger the audience, the more important the fourth wall.

People in open offices create a fourth wall, and their colleagues come to respect it. If someone is working intently, people don’t interrupt her. If someone starts a conversation and a colleague shoots him a look of annoyance, he won’t do it again. Especially in open spaces, fourth-wall norms spread quickly.

Proximity Matters
A separate finding of our and others’ research is that team members’ location has a big impact on both their physical and their digital interactions. In general, the farther apart people are, the less they communicate. Research that one of us (Ben) was involved in at the MIT Media Lab shows that the probability that any two people on a corporate campus will interact physically or digitally is directly proportional to the distance between their desks. More broadly, one of the most robust findings in sociology—proposed long before we had the technology to prove it through data—is that propinquity, or proximity, predicts social interaction.

Consider a study conducted at the headquarters of a major consumer products company by Humanyze, an organizational analytics software firm headed by one of us (Ben) that helps companies understand how their teams interact. It found that people on the same team were six times as likely to interact if they were on the same floor, and people on different teams were nine times as likely to interact if they were on the same floor. A study we conducted at the main campus of a Fortune 500 retailer with more than a dozen buildings showed that just 10% of all communications occurred between employees whose desks were more than 500 meters apart. These findings suggest that locating people in proximate buildings won’t improve collaboration; to increase interactions, workers should be in the same building, ideally on the same floor.

And remote work, while undeniably cost-effective, tends to significantly inhibit collaboration even over digital channels. While studying a major technology company from 2008 to 2012, we found that remote workers communicated nearly 80% less about their assignments than colocated team members did; in 17% of projects they didn’t communicate at all. The obvious implication: If team members need to interact to achieve project milestones on time, you don’t want them working remotely.

Nourish an Anatomy of Collaboration
Since publishing academic articles on the offices we’ve studied, we have been asked for more details about those spaces. Some people seem to believe that a better blueprint could solve the collaboration conundrum. Architects, property managers, and manufacturers of office systems reinforce that view by using data from employee surveys and prior space utilization to identify individual needs and building “flexible,” “agile,” “activity based” spaces to allow workers to craft their own spaces to suit them. But collaboration is a team sport. Offices that are overly focused on supporting individual preferences are unlikely to do an optimal job of supporting the overall team or the collection of teams that need to work together. So hybrid open-office designs are not a panacea. If you are going to let people choose the spaces that best meet their individual needs, your workers might as well be remote.

Leaders need to make the call about what collective behaviors should be encouraged or discouraged and how. Their means should include not just the design of workspace configurations and technologies but the design of tasks, roles, and culture as well.

If keeping real estate costs in check is the priority, leaders should be honest about that with themselves and their employees. Most office redesigns aren’t undertaken to promote collaboration. They start with objectives like the one described by the head of real estate at a Fortune 50 company: “The leadership team has just given me a mandate to restack our headquarters to fit another 1,000 employees in here.” Tremendous progress has been made designing offices that can accommodate more people in a given space. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: Companies often reinvest the resulting savings in important ways.

A Return to Tight Quarters
During much of the 1990s, organizations hired employees faster than they expanded their offices. With layoffs in the early 2000s recession, and again in 2008, surviving workers regained some space, largely because companies held long-term leases and were loath to invest in office reconfigurations. But as hiring rebounded, leases came due, and redesign budgets recovered, organizations again began fitting their people into smaller and smaller spaces.

If the aim really is to boost collaboration, you need to increase the right kinds of interactions and decrease ineffective ones. You’ll have to carefully choose your trade-offs. That means you need to understand current patterns of interaction and consider how you want to change them. Using sensors and digital data to track interactions at a large German bank, MIT researchers found that in cases where intrateam cohesion was more predictive of productivity and worker satisfaction than cross-team collisions were, increasing interactions between teams undermined performance. So they moved teams into separate rooms. And after using Humanyze technology to track interactions, a major energy company decided to increase communication between departments that had strong process dependencies and reduce communication between other departments by colocating some in a new building and moving others offsite.

If people need uninterrupted time to focus, distractions are costly. When that’s the case, creating more opportunities for collaboration can amplify the cost without providing a corresponding benefit.

Conduct Real Experiments
The best way to find the optimal workplace design for particular groups is to run rigorous experiments. That means collecting and analyzing data on interactions, developing a hypothesis about how to improve them, and testing your hypothesis against a control group. Mori Building, one of the largest property-management companies in Japan, did this in early 2016 when it sought to create more-productive collaboration among the teams in its corporate headquarters. The office architecture was open, but by using wearable sensors (some of which were supplied by Humanyze) to track face-to-face interactions, Mori discovered that employees largely communicated only with those on their own team. People generally stayed in their team’s reserved seating area and rarely ventured into the open seating areas—which accounted for some 20% of the space.

So Mori’s building-environment-development division staged an experiment to see whether it could influence anatomy with architecture. It chose a corporate floor on which seating was arranged by team (interior design, real estate consulting, sales, and so on). Part of the space remained the same (the control group), and part was turned into “free address” space—open seating, with no desk assignments. When Mori measured face-to-face interactions in that configuration, the results were clear: Although interactions between teams increased, those within teams fell drastically, with people spending 1.26 times as much of their day working in isolation.

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Culture Is Not Enough

A few years ago in Europe, I asked a group of business leaders if they had the right culture. Someone responded that their company had purchased tickets to the opera. Today, the issue of culture is no longer a joke or afterthought; it is central to business success. Peter Drucker is attributed to have said, “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” Culture was the word of the year for Merriam Webster dictionary in 2014 and has been the cover and regular stories in management books and articles and the subject of 100’s of corporate off-sites.

Many firms that are seeking cultural transformation lack clarity on how. One firm wants to refresh its culture by updating its value statement and making sure that employees act consistently with the new values. Another firm has spent millions in advertising to revive its brand in the market, but they are not seeing the results they anticipated. Another firm has recognized market changes, and they want to revamp their mission, vision, and strategic agenda to anticipate and respond to these changes. Finally, another firm wants to change (or transform or disrupt) their “culture” but is not sure what that really means or how to proceed.

Too often, many of these well-intended culture transformation journeys begin with fanfare and promises and end with fizzle and disappointment; the culture journey is a cul de sac recycling old ideas that end up with gibberish and cluttered intellectual concepts that yield few results. Let me offer 4 options for achieving the promised impact of culture.

First make sense of elements of an overall transformation journey. As leaders embark on transformation efforts, they should be clear about four overlappings, but different, concepts—purpose, values, brand, and culture.

• Purpose represents an aspiration for what can be; it can include a vision of an idealized state of what we want to become, a mission statement for why we exist, and strategies and goals of where and when to invest to get there.

• Values represent core beliefs, what we stand for, and how we go about doing our work. Values, using a tree metaphor, are the roots. They are often articulated by the founder, stated in a value statement, and stable over time. They are also often generic and consistent across companies, including noble values such as integrity, empowerment, excellence, accountability, service, passion, and so forth.

• Brand represents what a company is known for in the marketplace, shifting from a specific product (Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream) to a firm brand (Unilever’s commitment to sustainability). Brand represents promises made to customers about a specific product and also how the firm will interact with customers in all exchanges.

• The right culture is the identity of the firm in the mind of its key customers made real to employees. This definition moves internal values focus to the value of values because it connects culture to the marketplace. This cultural definition translates the external firm brand with customer promises into internal organization actions for employees.

As shown in Figure 1, these four concepts can then be connected to ensure that a firm turns purpose into the right action that yields desired results. Without connecting these concepts, change efforts concerning them often lack impact.

• Purpose without values lacks heart and passion.
• Values without purpose are aimless.
• Purpose without brand identity results in empty promises.
• Brand identity without culture delivers false hopes.
• Values without culture have no sustainable impact.
• Culture without brand identity is indistinct.

So as leaders try to create their future, they can be deliberate about building purpose statements that articulate what can be, conscious of values that give meaning to employees, aspirational about creating a firm brand with key customers, and disciplined to build the right culture that connects customer promises to employee actions.

Figure 1: Relationship Among Purpose, Value, Brand, and Culture

Second, define the right culture. Following the logic of Figure 1, the value of culture is that it shapes the right behavior. Who defines what is right … the leader’s personal values or the customer who acts on those values? Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO, recently said, “Last week in my email to you I synthesized our strategic direction as a productivity and platform company. Having a clear focus is the start of the journey, not the end. The more difficult steps are creating the organization and culture to bring our ambitions to life. [sic]”

Culture matters, but the right culture matters more. Generic values (like integrity, trust, transparency) obviously matter, but the real differentiating value of values is helping organizations turn customer promises into tailored internal cultural norms.

In this logic, culture is more than employee experiences, physical setting, norms, values, beliefs, and statements of noble purpose. The right culture turns a firm’s external brand into a set of internal thoughts and actions.

A cultural transformation journey starts with customer promises and firm brand that provide a clear direction for the culture change journey. Culture can then be managed against this desired destination. Culture can be measured not just in how employees behave, but how employee behaviors affect customer promises and vice versa.

A number of months ago, the New York Times wrote a scathing piece on the dysfunctions of the Amazon culture. They cited employee abuses, which are obviously wrong in any setting, but they went on to criticize the culture as demanding, rigorous, and driven.

When I teach any group and ask “Who has purchased from Amazon?” nearly everyone raises their hand, many committed to Amazon prime. Then, when I probe “Why?” the answers are consistent: easy to work with, accessible from anywhere, predictable delivery within a short time frame, low cost, and so forth. So, I then ask, if these are the reasons you (and millions of other customers) choose Amazon, what does Amazon have to do inside to realize these customer values? Quickly, participants realize that to meet their (the customer) expectations, Amazon requires a culture of discipline, rigor, standardization, and precision. Customers want Amazon to be predictable, so they need a culture consistent with those promises. Amazon has the right culture for their customers.

Likewise, Marriott’s commitment to customer service comes from an internal culture of high employee service; Disney’s theme park culture of guest experience requires an internal culture of employee experience. Apple’s public commitment to innovation draws on an internal culture of employee experimentation. Walmart’s “always low prices” identity leads to a culture of cost-consciousness in all aspects of work.

Again, culture matters, but the right culture matters much more. Leaders can work with marketing and advertising groups to articulate the desired firm brand. Leaders can then work with HR professionals to turn this external identity into a set of organization policies and employee actions.

Third, focus on actions that make a real difference. Don’t invest in a brand that communicates to the marketplace without equal investment in how it translates to the employee actions in the workplace. Ad agencies would be wise to couple their brand-building activities with investments in how to make these real to employees who fulfill customer promises. For example, we have seen some ad agencies (that propose a firm’s brand) work with leadership development experts to make sure that the leadership brand reflects the developing firm brand. When a customer is promised a service, the employee who renders the service needs to fulfill it per the agreement.

At the bottom of Figure 1 are actions and impacts that are a result of a company’s culture. We want to not just talk about culture: we want to make it the right culture. With the values being the roots of the tree, the right culture constitutes the branches that grow into the future and sustain the underlying values. In creating a new, right, and sustainable culture, leaders shape four agendas:

• Intellectual agenda: What is the message we want to share about what we are known for both outside to customers and inside to employees?

• Behavioral agenda: How does the desired culture shape daily personal employee behavior?

• Process agenda: What processes (e.g., staffing, training, resource allocation, etc.) need to be aligned to the desired culture?

• Leadership agenda: How can leaders personally model the desired culture?

Few would doubt that “culture” matters to employees, customers, and investors; most have experienced good and bad cultures. Turning cultural aspiration into sustained impact is enhanced by connecting culture to purpose, values, and brand, by forming the right culture, and by turning cultural ideas into employee actions and organization systems.


Why Leadership Development Often Fails

You walk into your place of work tomorrow. You find out that one of the key leaders in your organization, a good person who has made a tremendous impact on your life and the lives of many of those you work with, suddenly died in a freak accident.

Is your organization ready to replace this key leader?

The statistics around this are horrifying, and according to them, it’s highly unlikely you’re ready. I’d know; I’ve based my career on turning these statistics around.

For instance, only 7% of CEOs believe their companies are creating effective global leaders. Or how about only 25% of organizations saying that they have a successor identified for one out of ten critical leadership positions. That’s right: Only 25% of organizations are ready to replace only 10% of their critical positions. That means that about 97.5% of critical leadership positions are unprepared to be filled by anyone.

How is this possible when businesses annually spend over $3 billion on leadership development alone? How are we failing so epically in creating new leaders? That’s what we’re going to discuss.

Which Path Is Right?

One of the largest problems in leadership development is knowing where to even get started. There are thousands of development programs, all of which scream that their method is the only method you need to turn your

To understand where to start, you can’t just “take an expert’s word for it.” You need to actually know your team to discover their needs, and then you can begin to look for a program that will help them most.

Leadership Expert — Or Great Salesperson?

You’ve heard them speak, and wow! They were so motivational! They spoke so much truth! They gave great tips that you know will greatly impact your team!

Then what happens a few months later? None of these tips/tricks/techniques are being utilized in your team. Why?

The individual you heard or learned from was a great salesperson, and they got you to pay thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of dollars for their “exclusive” patented training. They have techniques that can work — but there’s a difference between can and will.

If you really want lessons to stick and long-term impact to occur, you need a system that continues to develop you and your team. Weekend workshops or an hour-long stage lesson cannot provide a system you can utilize; it’s impossible. If you want these “experts” to continue to teach you, they will charge you again (or if they’re really good salespeople, they’ll offer their advanced courses).

What Worked For You May Not Work For Others

One other problem that comes up is what is known as the fallacy of composition, or, “If this is true for me, it must be true of everyone on my team.” Many leaders don’t treat their teammates as individuals and therefore put their own needs on their team when the rest of the team often needs something entirely different.

This can also tie closely with the “curse of knowledge” bias, where a leader assumes that their team has certain knowledge already, when in reality, their background never provided that knowledge. Based on this misunderstanding, leaders often will put their team into programs that they are not ready for.

These same biases also play out for whoever you have as a presenter. They often give knowledge that works for them, which they understand from their own background, but they have not made it truly applicable to you, your team or your organization, creating an unseen gap which cannot be filled in the short period that you have with these individuals.

‘Laws’ Act As A Barrier To Achievement

In our day and age, we love to have “laws” in development. These are irrefutable, indisputable, undeniable laws to success and leadership.

Here’s the problem with calling them “laws,” though: The word “law” implies that if you break them, then you’re in trouble. Often, these laws are completely impossible to follow to a T. Even in books and courses they often admit as much.

But when we see them as laws and we break them, unconsciously people tend to believe they are incompetent and don’t deserve to lead. When we miss the mark (which is inevitable because we’re human), we unconsciously feel like we deserve to go to “leadership jail.” Once here, it is difficult to pull oneself into a feeling of worthiness in a leadership position.

What Is A Leader, Anyhow?

Do you know what the definition of a leader is? Neither do most people. The dictionary says one thing, the thesaurus implies it’s a position, while my favorite, John Maxwell, says it is “influence: nothing more, nothing less.”

Yet do any of these actually hit at what it is we want? Not really.

We are looking for a person who is able to lead, at any level, and is able to help others unlock their potential. Yet most “leadership” programs aren’t designed to create what we’re looking for.

How To Rise To Become A Legendary Leader

What we need to realize is that one class or one workshop is not what we need.

Your perspective is not the only perspective, and often an outside view from a mentor or leadership coach is needed to help.

We need to treat individuals as exactly that: individuals, each with their own needs and differing places to develop.

We need continual development programs that expand as these individuals grow.

We need to understand that we seek to create what I call “legendary leaders.” This is what I hope you seek out when you are looking to dramatically make changes in your team, organization or business.


Robots Can Lead Recruitment by Discovering Talent

The role of artificial intelligence has been steadily increasing and there’s no shortage of experts hailing it as the next big transformation in the way Human Resources departments are run.
There’s more than a grain a truth in those predictions because any significant tool does affect business as usual.

But I’ve written before about some of the problems with using AI in recruitment, including the risks of perpetuating rather than eliminating some of the bias problems that have plagued hiring processes.

Aside from recruiting, some companies are looking at the potential of AI for improving the employee experience, mining worker data to optimize potential perks. Those kinds of programs offer promise, but as I’ve mentioned it’s important to keep an eye out for specific issues.

A recent report about an IBM program now used to reverse engineer job market challenges, and thereby identify overlooked talent, represents the next chapter in the ways AI could impact HR. The idea of the program, called SkillsBuild, is to find potential recruits in disadvantaged groups by focusing on skills rather than background, education or pedigree.

Skills count
The idea of focusing on skills rather than education is a novel approach.

Obviously, no true Human Resources professional ever made a hire of a candidate with a certain educational background for the sake of that background alone. But a candidate’s education is taken as an indication of hers or his critical thinking ability, drive and affinity for learning.

Unfortunately, there’s the risk of allowing certain kinds of degrees to signal other aspects of a candidate’s background — including pedigree, which is how a preponderance of those with privileged backgrounds lead to homogeneity in the workplace.

Targeting for training
One of the benefits of the program is that it doesn’t set out necessarily to find attained skills within overlooked populations. Rather, it looks instead for the kinds of traits that would enable success and then targets those candidates for further training.

The program relies on a certain kind of candidate profiling that bypasses traditional indicators of attractiveness. “It takes a full assessment of the individual’s cognitive abilities, and creates a comprehensive competency profile that’s unique to them, then uses algorithms that match them to jobs that require different competencies,” Denise Leaser, president of the program, told CNBC. That includes characteristics such as empathy and deductive reasoning.

Meeting a need
One of the strongest promises of this program is that it focuses on segments of job-seeking populations that may not otherwise be plumbed for competitive candidates.

The first part of the program is being unveiled in Europe, with an emphasis on asylum seekers and other disadvantaged groups.

It’s a particularly effective approach due to the shortfall in competitive candidates for an increasing number of tech jobs.

AI: as good as its engineers
As with any artificial intelligence program, though, it’s important to remember that AI is susceptible to systematizing the unexamined biases of its engineers. That means it’s crucial to submit programs to an iterative assessment process to identify and correct failures.

It’s also critical to solicit input from people with a broad base of perspectives when developing AI programs. But as the IBM program shows, it’s a shift that holds as much promise as it does risks.

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Supporting Career Development From the Inside Out

When I decided to make career change development coaching a focus for my work, I invested my time and money in my education including becoming a certified yoga teacher, getting an MA in Organizational Psychology at Columbia University, and a certification in life/organizational from the Hudson Institute. I also attended classes and programs with many experts in the field of personal growth and career development and completed a traditional Lakota Vision Quest.

My goal was to find a holistic approach that would value career dreams and help people develop careers from the inside out. The method is informed by an ongoing process I began twenty years ago in my graduate program, of interviewing people who LOVE their work. That qualitative research continues in the interviews I am doing today for these posts on compassionate leadership.

In this intensive search for a complete 360-degree approach to career and life planning, I ultimately decided to create a new approach based on what I learned from what I call the super- satisfied careerists. The result has become The Donnellan Method. I started developing this process in 1999 and have used its current iteration for the last fifteen years as the foundation for one-to-one and group career transformation programs. This year, my team and I have honed and used this approach in partnership with the SC College of Business at Cornell University and the Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver with both alumni and student cohorts.

Today In: Leadership
This twelve-part foundation for curriculum helps people examine their past, assess their present and plan their future through the lens of what I call Soul Work. Soul Work is the absolute best use of your passions and purpose. In our experience, anyone can find soul work or a calling, if they are willing to do the work:

In addition to providing a core curriculum, we have a comprehensive facilitation method that provides tools and techniques that can be used by any leader, helper or coach who is guiding people through a career change. Here are ten tenets that are part of this approach that integrates the head with the heart:

Dream Advocacy – We maintain faith in the possibility that clients can find and practice their soul work, meet (or more fully meet) their highest potential, and make positive changes in their lives.
Wisdom – We espouse a “lead from behind” approach: we respect clients’ limits, show gentleness towards their vulnerability, and never impose our own values or hopes on them.
Trust – We are patient with our clients and the process, and help our clients to be patient as well. We believe in the power of trusting relationships and our methodology.
Partnership – We acknowledge when a client’s issue or block is beyond our expertise and show savvy in assessing client needs, conferring with our colleagues and making referrals to other professionals.
Safety – We are able to witness, hold the space for, and appropriately respond to a full range of emotions. We listen deeply and openly. We are tolerant and supportive of differing values.
Focus – We appropriately use self-disclosure, focusing on the process and needs of the client and knowing that self-disclosure should be used instructional and prudently.
Expertise – We judiciously use and balance strategizing, advising, guiding, questioning, challenging, giving honest feedback, and listening.
Awareness – We know our own issues, strengths, biases, projections, fears, and sore spots and we seek out coaching from a mentor whenever we have a question or concern that we cannot manage ourselves.
Grace – We expect and accept that some aspects of the process of finding and following a calling are mystical. We develop our attunement to this and honor our clients’ personal experience of grace, intuition, and spirituality.
Mastery – We proactively learn and strive to become masterful in our practice so we will be up to date on career technology, trends and resources while being the best guides we can be in meeting the objectives and expectations of our clients.

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The Best And Worst Advice For Job Seekers And Interviewers In A Neurodiverse World

This piece is full of tips, but it also takes a more holistic look at work, who we hire and why exuding confidence and embracing difference is what brands (and people who build them) need most in 2020. In addition to offering job interview advice you’ve probably never heard put in quite this way, my hope is to reboot the way the corporate world sees ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, executive function and processing deficits and the people who live, work and succeed with them. These are basic tips—for both job seekers and interviewers—to get a difficult conversation about thinking and working differently started:

Tips for Job Seekers

Don’t Label Yourself. Be Yourself. Medical labels are only your friend when you are seeking a diagnosis or treatment. In the workplace, there’s no need for you to talk about them unless you want to.
Quit Trying On Normal. If you’ve been raised with a learning disability, the number of times you have been shamed as a young person for your behavior may be indelibly etched in your brain. One way to gain confidence is to openly talk about those battles in the past tense. They are successes.
Purposely Position Yourself As Different. Why shy away from it? Who do you know who gets excited about meeting a super-average person? Unique is very 2020. Talk about your flexibility or creativity, your self-awareness and your empathy for others. You’ve survived all the crap doled out in high school and beyond. That means you had to be resilient, make frenemies, use humor as a shield or empathy to gain buy-in. Reframe learning disabilities as leadership qualities in the workplace.
Question Monoculture. Maybe you’ve noticed—the world has no normal these days, whether you are talking politics, bioethics or work-family balance. Think of the business world as being in its teenage years when it comes to disruption. If you have a teenager who asks constantly at school functions, you’ve heard: Can’t you just act normal for once? Of course normal isn’t possible, few parents seem normal to high schoolers. Unless you can self-destruct and disappear in a Lebron-style poof of colored chalk or arrive in JVN style to the parent-teacher conference, they’ll have to deal with you.
Zig When Others Zag. The worst five words my parents ever said to me as a teen? We’re not like other families. Thankfully, times are changing. Standing out and standing up is becoming the new normal. Some people say that not doing things the way other people do makes you uniquely qualified to bring new solutions and ideas to work. If so, maybe you rolled your eyes as in Right, who would believe that line? Interviewees need to be sure they tell their story in a unique way but make their point clear, instructive, interesting and relevant. Most interviewers haven’t yet enough outwardly proud neurodiverse candidates to understand where you are coming from. When they do, you’ll be unforgettable in a good way. No interviewer forgets a great story of redemption, change or caring.
Know Your Craft or Be Enthusiastic About Learning. You will need the hard skills to back up those soft ones. But you may already be a curious, lifelong learner. The more adept you are in your field, the less anxious stressed or blindsided you’ll feel when change happens at work.
Tips for Hiring Managers

As an interviewer, you also need to get comfortable with neurodiversity. This can’t come from a training webinar alone. It comes from talking to real people who are neurodiverse. Meet with or speak with as many different sounding, different-thinking, different looking candidates as you can.

Know About Neurodiversity. Five years ago, Steve Silberman’s award-winning examination of autism, Neurotribes, was published. In it, he explains the idea of neurotypical behavior as existing on a spectrum. He reframes the word normal in positive, human, understandable ways. Another respected researcher and writer, Judy Singer, Neurodiversity: The Birth of An Idea also discussed diverse behaviors that make up a spectrum. The Australian sociologist became well known best for coining the word neurodiversity. In the 1990s, she coined the term as shorthand for a way to explain how there is a variation in the way the human brain socializes, learns and functions. Since then, another word for differentiation has emerged—neurodivergence. Still, many companies persist in wanting to boil their brand and the people who create it down into one culture—one norm. I don’t think one company culture will thrive in 2020.
Don’t Dwell On Labels Or Personality Tests. From a business standpoint, I think it’s important to know about these terms, but also not to dwell on them when it comes to assessing or learning more about different types of employees. More important to me than a label is an intention. Your why? and how? may be different than mine. But the least-acceptable way to use it as a source of discrimination. That discrimination, bias (or ok, unconscious bias) still runs rampant in the business community. Start talking about bias openly.
Listen Or Ask About Preferred Language. Take cues on language from interviewees. Some people want to be referred to as people with disabilities (people-first language) while others want to be referred to, for example, as autistic (vs. a person with autism) because it’s proudly part of their identity. I lean toward not separating a diagnosis and the person. One way is to think about whether you are coming at language in a respectful way or with a positive or negative bias. Do you set up firewalls or create bridges? Businesses today have a lot of firewalls. Build more bridges.
Quit The Normal Business. The rebel leader in me often asks: Why would anyone want to be normal? The disruptor in me asks: What does it mean when something is normalized? In the future, it will mean powerful teams creating more relevant, useful products through collaboration. Few organizations will be in the business of trying to be normal. It even sounds ridiculous when you say it today. Our mission is to save lives and be normal. Our vision is a normal world. We are in the business of creating normal things for normal people. If I was normal, I would say, good luck with that normal project. But proudly, I am not.

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Cracking the Code of Sustained Collaboration

Ask any leader whether his or her organization values collaboration, and you’ll get a resounding yes. Ask whether the firm’s strategies to increase collaboration have been successful, and you’ll probably receive a different answer.

“No change seems to stick or to produce what we expected,” an executive at a large pharmaceutical company recently told me. Most of the dozens of leaders I’ve interviewed on the subject report similar feelings of frustration: So much hope and effort, so little to show for it.

One problem is that leaders think about collaboration too narrowly: as a value to cultivate but not a skill to teach. Businesses have tried increasing it through various methods, from open offices to naming it an official corporate goal. While many of these approaches yield progress—mainly by creating opportunities for collaboration or demonstrating institutional support for it—they all try to influence employees through superficial or heavy-handed means, and research has shown that none of them reliably delivers truly robust collaboration.

What’s needed is a psychological approach. When I analyzed sustained collaborations in a wide range of industries, I found that they were marked by common mental attitudes: widespread respect for colleagues’ contributions, openness to experimenting with others’ ideas, and sensitivity to how one’s actions may affect both colleagues’ work and the mission’s outcome. Yet these attitudes are rare. Instead, most people display the opposite mentality, distrusting others and obsessing about their own status. The task for leaders is to encourage an outward focus in everyone, challenging the tendency we all have to fixate on ourselves—what we’d like to say and achieve—instead of what we can learn from others.

Daunting as it may sound, some organizations have cracked this code. In studying them I’ve identified six training techniques that enable both leaders and employees to work well together, learn from one another, and overcome the psychological barriers that get in the way of doing both. They all help people connect more fully and consistently. They impress upon employees that there’s a time to listen and explore others’ ideas, a time to express their own, and a time to critique ideas and select the ones to pursue—and that conflating those discussions undermines collaboration.

1. Teach People to Listen, Not Talk
The business world prizes good self-presentation. Employees think a lot about how to make the right impression—how to frame their arguments in discussions with bosses, get their points across in meetings, persuade or coerce their reports to do what they want. (Many also spend serious money on speaking coaches, media trainers, and the like.) This is understandable, given the competitive nature of our workplaces, but it has a cost. My research suggests that all too often when others are talking, we’re getting ready to speak instead of listening. That tendency only gets worse as we climb the corporate ladder.

We fail to listen because we’re anxious about our own performance, convinced that our ideas are better than others’, or both. As a result we get into conflicts that could be avoided, miss opportunities to advance the conversation, alienate the people who haven’t been heard, and diminish our teams’ effectiveness.

When we really listen, on the other hand, our egos and our self-involvement subside, giving everybody the space to understand the situation—and one another—and to focus on the mission. Listening can be improved by these practices:

Ask expansive questions.
This is one of the behaviors encouraged at the animation studio Pixar. People stepping into managerial roles are required to take, among other courses, a 90-minute lunchtime class on the art of listening, which is held in a conference room decorated with posters of movie characters reminding participants to “Stay curious” and “Build on others’ ideas.”

In the class, participants discuss the qualities of great listeners they’ve known (such as generosity in acknowledging the points of others) and practice “active listening.” That means suppressing the urge to interrupt or dominate a conversation, make it about yourself, or solve your conversation partners’ problems, and instead concentrating on the implications of their words. In one exercise participants practice asking their partners open-ended “what” and “how” questions—which prompt people to provide more information, reflect on their situations, and feel more heard—rather than yes-or-no questions, which can kill conversations. For instance, instead of saying to someone “Did you try asking others who’ve worked on similar projects for advice?” participants are coached to ask “In what ways have you reached out to others for advice?” (For more on how to ask good questions, see “Cross-Silo Leadership,” HBR, May–June 2019.)

Focus on the listener, not on yourself.
In another exercise, two coaches act out conversations to illustrate the difference between active listening and not really listening. One coach might say: “I’ve been so sick, and our calendar is so full, and I have this trip planned to see my family. There’s so much to do and I just don’t know how I’m going to pull it all off.” In the not-listening interaction, the other coach responds, “At least you get to go to Europe” or “I’m going to Croatia in two weeks, and I’m really excited.” In the active-listening version, she says, “That sounds really stressful—like you’ll feel guilty for leaving work and guilty if you don’t visit your family.” The coaches then ask the class to share their reactions and try the more effective approach in pairs.

Engage in “self-checks.”
The American roofing-systems unit of Webasto, a global automotive-equipment manufacturer, has developed a good approach to raising employees’ awareness. When Philipp Schramm became its CFO, in 2013, the unit’s financial performance was in a downward spiral. But that was not its only problem. “Something was dysfunctional,” recalls Schramm. “There was no working together, no trust, no respect.” So in 2016 he introduced the Listen Like a Leader course, which features various exercises, some of which are similar to Pixar’s.

Several times throughout the course participants engage in self-checks, in which they critique their own tendencies. People work in small groups and take turns sharing stories about times they’ve failed to listen to others and then reflect on common trends in all the stories.

The self-checks are reinforced by another exercise in which people pair up for multiple rounds of role-playing intended to help participants experience not being heard. One employee is told to describe an issue at work to the other. The listener is instructed to be inattentive during the first round, to parrot the speaker (repeat his or her statements) during the second, and to paraphrase the speaker (restate the message without acknowledging the speaker’s feelings or perspective) during the third. Employees play both roles in each round. The idea is to demonstrate that hearing someone’s words is not enough; you also need to take in the speaker’s tone, body language, emotions, and perspective, and the energy in the conversation. At the end they discuss what that kind of listening can accomplish and how one feels when truly listened to.

Become comfortable with silence.
This doesn’t mean just not speaking; it means communicating attentiveness and respect while you’re silent. And it’s a challenge for those who are in love with the sound of their own voices. Such people dominate discussions and don’t give others who are less vocal or who simply need more time to think an opportunity to talk.

In another exercise at Webasto, people sit in on a conversation simply to listen. They’re instructed to avoid negative nonverbal behavior—such as rolling their eyes when they disagree with someone. The course motto “I am the message!” serves as a reminder to use positive body language when interacting with colleagues.

In successful collaborations, judgment gives way to curiosity.

After taking the Listen Like a Leader class, employees have reported better interactions with their colleagues. Jeff Beatty, a program manager, reflected: “I thought leading was steamrolling people who got in your way—it was about aggressiveness and forcefulness. After going through the class, I can’t believe that my wife has put up with me for 30 years.”

2. Train People to Practice Empathy
Think about the last time you were in a conflict with a colleague. Chances are, you started feeling that the other person was either uncaring or not very bright, my research suggests. Being receptive to the views of someone we disagree with is no easy task, but when we approach the situation with a desire to understand our differences, we get a better outcome.

In successful collaborations, each person assumes that everyone else involved, regardless of background or title, is smart, caring, and fully invested. That mindset makes participants want to understand why others have differing views, which allows them to have constructive conversations. Judgment gives way to curiosity, and people come to see that other perspectives are as valuable as theirs. A couple of approaches can help here.

Expand others’ thinking.
At Pixar an exercise called “leading from the inside out” has participants present a relevant challenge to their collaborators on a project. Then their teammates ask questions but are instructed not to use them as a means of touting their own ideas. Instead, they’re supposed to help the presenter think through the problem differently, without offering judgment about the presenter’s perceptions or approach or those of other questioners. If a presenter describes the challenge of getting a team member to speak up more often in brainstorming meetings, for instance, the questioners could ask, “How has his behavior changed?” or “Are there other contexts where this person is more talkative?” If questioners try to sneak in their ideas or opinions, a coach will ask them to rephrase their questions. “We realize that, though simple, these techniques are hard to implement on a regular basis,” Jamie Woolf, Pixar’s leadership development manager, who serves as one of the two main coaches, told me. “So, when someone is, consciously or not, trying to promote his or her point of view, we intervene so that we give the person an opportunity to apply the technique correctly and others the opportunity to learn.”

With this approach, ideas get full attention and consideration. Creative solutions are generated, and team members feel that they’ve been truly heard.

Look for the unspoken.
An advertising and publicity firm I studied uses a similar approach but also trains participants to pay attention to what people are not saying. If a member of the creative team presents an idea for how to shape an ad campaign to the client’s needs, for instance, the colleagues listening are tasked with trying to understand his or her state of mind. During one session I observed, a colleague said to a presenter, “I noticed your voice was somewhat tentative, as if you were feeling uncertain about your idea. What are some of the strengths and weaknesses you see in it?”

When team members focus on conveying empathy more than on sharing their opinions, I’ve found, everyone feels more satisfied with the discussion. Showing empathy also makes others more likely to ask you for your point of view. Collaboration proceeds more smoothly.

While listening and empathizing allow others more space in a collaboration, you also need the courage to have tough conversations and offer your views frankly. The next three techniques focus on getting people there.

3. Make People More Comfortable with Feedback
Good collaboration involves giving and receiving feedback well—and from a position of influence rather than one of authority. The following methods can help.

Discuss feedback aversion openly.
One of Pixar’s classes trains new managers to provide feedback more often and effectively and also to get better at absorbing it. (For more on the importance of the latter skill, see “Find the Coaching in Criticism,” HBR, January–February 2014.) Coaches first explain that aversion to feedback is common. As givers of it, we want to avoid hurting others. (Even when we know our feedback can be helpful, my research has found, we choose not to provide it.) As recipients, we feel tension between the desire to improve and the desire to be accepted for who we are. The ensuing open discussion of reservations and challenges around feedback helps participants feel less alone.

Make feedback about others’ behavior direct, specific, and applicable.
At Pixar and other organizations, employees are asked to follow three rules for feedback: Be straightforward in both how you address a person and what you say about him or her; identify the particular behavior that worked (or didn’t); and describe the impact of the behavior on you and others. These practices help counteract a common problem: People’s feedback is too general. In an exercise Pixar designed to overcome it, participants are asked to think of a time when they might have offered positive feedback but didn’t, and then write down what they could have said, following the three rules. Next they practice delivering that feedback to a classmate and reflect on the experience. (In another exercise they do the same with critical feedback.) Recipients are asked to talk about their experience getting the feedback.

In this exercise a volunteer reads a piece of feedback that he or she has drafted to the group. The other participants are then asked to identify ways to improve it. If the volunteer says, “You keep missing deadlines,” for instance, the colleagues might suggest more specificity—perhaps “You missed three deadlines in the past month.”

This practice is important because even when we overcome our aversion to giving feedback, we tend not to be specific or direct. As Pixar’s Woolf told me, “Often leaders come to see me right before an important meeting they’re about to have and say, ‘Can I rehearse a bit more? I’m afraid of backpedaling and sugarcoating.’ After some rehearsing they’re able to walk into meetings with greater confidence and more clarity on how they’ll say what they want to say.”

Add a “plus” to others’ ideas.
Whenever a Pixar employee comments on a colleague’s idea or work during a brainstorming session, he or she must offer a “plus”—a suggestion for an improvement that doesn’t include judgment or harsh language. Pixar employees told me that this approach draws on three principles of improv comedy: First, accept all offers—that is, embrace the idea instead of rejecting it. Second, to ensure that you’re building on someone’s idea, say “Yes, and…” rather than “Yes, but…” Third, make your teammate look good by enhancing the scene or project he or she has started.

Provide live coaching.
Though tactics like plussing are well understood at Pixar, it isn’t always easy for employees at the company to put them into practice. For this reason, coaches there attend brainstorming meetings to reinforce good approaches and point out lapses. If a comment or a question doesn’t show “collaborative spirit,” the coach will ask that it be rephrased. Live coaching can be difficult—people are sometimes visibly annoyed by the interruptions—but coaches have learned to pay attention to the personalities in the room and adapt accordingly. For example, rather than asking a director to reframe a comment, a Pixar coach might ask him or her to describe the interaction that just occurred: what worked and what didn’t. “In the moment the feedback may not feel good,” Woolf told me. “As with medicine, it often takes a while for people to see the benefits. But they come to realize that feedback is a gift and is key to their personal development.”

4. Teach People to Lead and Follow
A lot of attention is paid, in the literature and in the practice of management, to what makes a truly effective leader. There has been much less consideration of how to follow, though that, too, is an important skill. In interviews at American Express, I learned that the company’s best collaborators—those known for adding value to interactions and solving problems in ways that left everyone better off—are adept at both leading and following, moving smoothly between the two as appropriate. That is, they’re good at flexing.

During the 17-day campaign to find and rescue a group of boys and their soccer coach from a rapidly flooding cave in Thailand in 2018, more and more people arrived on the scene to help: hydraulic engineers, geologists, divers, SEAL teams, NASA experts, doctors, and local politicians. Only through flexing were these collaborators able to contribute all they could and get the most out of those around them. At one point, for example, an inexperienced engineer proposed an unorthodox plan to use large tubes on the mountain above the cave to divert some of the rainwater that was making diving unsafe. Rather than dismissing the idea, senior engineers flexed, giving it the consideration it deserved. After testing revealed the idea’s promise, it was implemented, and the water stopped rising.

Because flexing requires ceding control to others, many of us find it difficult. A few simple exercises can make people more likely to flex:

Increase self-awareness.
In some of my classes, I ask students to rate themselves relative to their classmates in three areas: their ability to make good decisions, their ability to get along well with others, and their honesty. Then I ask them to compute their average across the three. Most people’s average is higher than 50% and typically in the 70th or 80th percentile, which demonstrates to the students how self-perceptions are often inflated. After all, it’s impossible for a majority of respondents to merit better-than-average ratings across all three desirable dimensions. Unfortunately, our overly optimistic self-perceptions drive our decisions about whether to allow others to have control. So it helps to build self-awareness using this kind of exercise.

Learn to delegate.
This isn’t important just for leaders; it’s also critical for people working on collaborations where multiple experts come together, such as the Thai cave rescue, and on cross-functional team projects. In a training session to help new Pixar managers delegate, participants discuss why it’s so difficult to pass the torch to others and the main reasons we tend to micromanage: It’s hard to let go of control, and we feel responsible for the outcome and are aware that the task needs to get done “right.” So we focus on the short-term results rather than the long-term goal of developing others through delegation. We favor getting the job done—fast—over the reasons for delegating (allowing others to feel engaged and to grow, and allowing ourselves more time and probably higher productivity in the long run). The coaches talk about cases of delegation gone wrong—whose central lesson is the need for trust—and present a four-quadrant chart, the “skill-will model,” which explains how to tailor delegation to the abilities and motivation of those being handed control.

5. Speak with Clarity and Avoid Abstractions
In any collaboration there are times for open discussion of ideas and times when someone, regardless of whether he or she is a leader, needs to cut through the confusion and clearly articulate the path forward. When we communicate with others, psychological research shows, we are often too indirect and abstract. Our words would carry more weight if we were more concrete and provided vivid images of goals. And our statements would also be judged more truthful.

Communication classes both at Pixar and at a large pharmaceutical company I studied included this role-playing exercise: Participants were instructed to think about something they needed to tell a team member and then ask themselves, “What am I trying to accomplish?” They were given time to practice their message. After they delivered it, the person playing the teammate told them whether they in fact had conveyed it with clarity and purpose. And if the teammate couldn’t understand why the conversation was happening, the participant was prompted to ask why and then to reframe the statement to be clearer and more specific and include a purpose. Take a statement like “The project led by our marketing colleagues needs more resources and attention to get to the finish line.” That might be revised as “The project that our marketing colleagues John and Ashley are leading needs an additional $5,000 and two more members to be completed by the end of the month. I believe two of us should volunteer to help, since meeting the deadline is important to maintaining a good relationship with our client.”

6. Train People to Have Win-Win Interactions
I often ask students to work in pairs to think through how to divide an orange. Each partner is told, without the other’s knowledge, a reason for wanting the fruit: One needs to make juice, and the other needs the peel for a muffin recipe. If they fail to explore each other’s interests, as most pairs do, the partners may end up fighting over the orange. Or they may decide to cut it in half, giving each side an equal if smaller-than-ideal share. Some people even quit when they can’t get the whole orange.

When we communicate, we are often too indirect and abstract.

Only a few pairs arrive at the optimal solution, in which one person gets the peel, the other gets the juice, and both are satisfied. How did they get there? By investigating each other’s needs.

This approach is the key to win-win interactions. In the successful collaborative projects I examined, people were open about their personal interests and how they thought they could contribute to solving the problem. Such transparency allows participants to explore everyone’s vision of winning and, ultimately, get more-favorable results.

Many organizations I’ve studied teach leaders and employees to find win-win solutions through exercises in which each participant has information that others lack—as is true in most real-world collaborations—and all are asked to try to reach the best deal possible for everyone. Afterward, the instructors suggest techniques that could have helped the parties discover one another’s interests better—such as asking questions and listening carefully—and produce more-successful deals. Sometimes the conversations are videotaped and shown to participants after they’ve had the chance to guess how much of the airtime they got in discussions.

By balancing talking (to express your own concerns and needs) with asking questions and letting others know what your understanding of their needs is, you can devise solutions that create more value. With a win-win mindset, collaborators are able to find opportunities in differences.

Because the six techniques are mutually supportive and even interdependent, it’s ideal for employees to learn and regularly use them all. It’s difficult to have win-win interactions if you spend most of your time talking, and it’s tough to learn about others’ interests if you don’t approach interactions with empathy. And conversations won’t be productive if you only listen and don’t offer your views—a balance is required.

The techniques also create a positive dynamic: Teammates with whom they’re practiced start feeling more respected and in turn are more likely to show others respect. And respect, my research shows, fuels enthusiasm, fosters openness to sharing information and learning from one another, and motivates people to embrace new opportunities for working together.

But this dynamic must be set in motion by those in charge. Many leaders—even ones steeped in enlightened management theory—fail to consistently treat others with respect or to do what it takes to earn it from others.

Leaders who are frustrated by a lack of collaboration can start by asking themselves a simple question: What have they done to encourage it today? It is only by regularly owning their own mistakes, listening actively and supportively to people’s ideas, and being respectful but direct when challenging others’ views and behavior that they can encourage lasting collaboration. By training people to employ the six techniques, leaders can make creative, productive teamwork a way of life.

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