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Betting on the Future

April 30th, 2011 by ITAdmin

Steve Collins
© Lead International

Daniel Burrus’ new book, Flash Foresight, offer the unusual promise on the cover of helping the reader to “see the invisible and do the impossible.” Sounds less like a business book and more like a magician’s guidebook. As a futurist, Burrus has an impressive track record of predicting developments in the technology field since the 1980’s.

However, his methodology for seeing the invisible turns out to be his ability to see the hard trends and anticipate the soft trends. Burrus defines a hard trend as “a projection based on measurable, tangible, fully predictable facts, events, or objects.” The central point being that a hard trend is something that will happen. For example, the growth in the earth’s population and advances in technology are hard trends. In terms of your strategic planning, you don’t need to spend any time debating if these things are going to happen.

A soft trend, by contrast, is something that might happen and, therefore, we have a chance to do something about. People often confuse the two and end up missing the opportunity to shape the future most positively in their direction. Incorporating hard and soft trend thinking into your planning, allows you to know what is certain and what is still to be determined. A common theme in many corporate success stories features company leaders clearly seeing the hard trend and then adapting their strategy to meet the demand and outmaneuver the competition.

Of course, a clear understanding of what is certain and what is not does not guarantee “doing the impossible.” Burrus offers six more principles for that. The two most interesting are “Take your biggest problem – and skip it” and “Go opposite.” Both principles seem contrary to human nature, which is why they offer hope as a way of being the first to see and capture emerging marketplace opportunities.

Burrus writes, “The key to unraveling our biggest problems is to recognize that they are typically not our real problem. Skipping our biggest problem, instead of trying to solve it, sets our mind free to discover and engage the real problem.” Obviously, this is appealing advice since most of the time we feel duty bound to put our best effort to solve our biggest problem. And usually this is an unpleasant task requiring not just physical effort but zapping us mentally and emotionally. But, as Burrus notes, in a world of rapidly changing everything, the solution is more likely to be found in new opportunities.

The other bit of wisdom in this principle is our propensity to be working on the wrong problem. This largely relates to past successes, sunk costs, and a general proclivity towards forming emotional attachments. To realize that fixing the past is not a prerequisite to enjoying future success propels us towards our most innovative solutions.

Business history offers a number of examples of companies whose success was based on being different, not better. In fact, this has become so widely articulated, one wonders if  “going opposite” will soon mean “copying others.” Probably not. There is still much appeal to looking at the success of others and figuring that the shortest path to success is to simply build a better mouse trap. Additionally, this principle doesn’t tell us to go 45 degrees in a different direction, but encourages us to think differently by 180 degrees.  This requires a willingness to bet big in a new direction. Because, as Burrus warns, “If it can be done, it will be done – and if you don’t do it, someone else will.”

The world seems to be moving faster and a bit more out of control as we move deeper into the 21st century. The temptation is to hang on tight to what you know that works, and pray that your organization can make it through the storm. Unfortunately, the hard trends like population growth, technology, and globalization are going to make it impossible to stand still, much less go backwards. Fortunately, we have the soft trends and the opportunities to make decisions that will allow us to shape the future. The two sides of the change coin, opportunities and threats, require leaders who are wise in their interpretations of current events and bold in their future experiments.

Simplifying Your Next Change

February 13th, 2011 by ITAdmin

Steve Collins
©Lead International

Several years ago I wrote an article based on Pfeffer and Sutton’s book, The Knowing-Doing Gap. The book accurately captures management’s biggest problem – getting people to actually do what they already know to do. While there are several significant knowledge problems yet to be solved, like perpetual energy and climate control that would make life radically better, those are not the daily challenges facing most managers. Most training and consulting solutions do a good job of knowledge transfer. Part of this is because the individuals and organizations already possess most of the needed knowledge early in the process. The frustration is that despite everyone’s ability to pass the written portion of the driving test, drivers still can’t successfully navigate the car out of the parking lot.

This frustration has led to a number of books and articles on behavioral change. Many of the authors have drawn their conclusions from the same academic and case studies. One that caught my attention was Influencers by the team at Vital Smarts. The subtitle, “The Power to Change Anything,” seemed to be a classic example of over promising.  However, the authors lay out a very logical presentation of the factors that make the most differences. After reading through their successful examples, the reader does find hope that if you follow their prescription, change will happen. Of course, therein lies the paradox of writing a book about behavioral change. The book gives you the required information but whether the reader implements it is largely out of the authors’ hands.

Fortunately, most of normal psychology is easily understood since, as normal people, we can easily relate to what is normal behavior. Research shows that people ask two basic questions before engaging in any change activity:

Is the change worth it?

Can I do this new behavior?

A negative response to either one dooms the change effort from the beginning. So, any change strategy needs to address both motivation (is it worth it?) and ability (can I do it?).

The authors of Influencer rightly recognize that most of the time, we attempt to address these two questions with verbal persuasion. Unfortunately, this is usually the least effective in overcoming resistance. Like a tennis match, our defensive colleagues simply volley back with their own neat justifications of why the status quo is superior. The key is to help people see where their information is inaccurate and incomplete. This usually requires people to actually receive the information differently and to experience a new reality.

The change experience has to focus on behaviors and, more importantly, on the “vital few.” The “Influencer” strategy starts with a search for those key behaviors and then builds a multi pronged program that addresses both motivation and ability. One proven key behavior search approach is to look for the “positive deviant.” Who are the people in the organization or community who are achieving the desired results and why? What are the vital behaviors they practice and how do we make those the norms and not the exception? The authors argue that to make that happen requires a thoughtful plan that touches on six different areas of influence that combine personal and social components.

The natural place to start this process is with personal motivation. The authors of Influencer lean heavily on the use of intrinsic rewards and the importance of helping people see that change will require a long and sometimes difficult journey. Because of this, people need to find a way to experience the benefits even if it is vicariously. One of the best ways to do this is through stories that feature characters that struggle through issues and reach the desired benefit. TV and radio programming have influenced community change efforts by creating heroic characters that mirrored common people in the community who were able to transform themselves. Each of the examples in the book highlighted the importance of not trying to impose change but rather letting people choose change.

Equally important in the motivation process is social influences or, as the authors describe it, “harnessing the power of peer pressure.” Enlisting “opinion leaders” is critical in the process. Change management is not about winning a simple majority. Change happens most frequently when the “early adopters” of change are socially connected and well respected.

Both personal and social motivation are fueled and sustained by structural motivation.  This involves designing rewards and accountability into the change process. The authors correctly note that in a well balanced change effort, the focus on rewards comes third in the process. If you have provided the proper motivation on the personal and social dimension, then you can naturally emphasize the intrinsic rewards of change. Organizations that start out trying to “buy” the change with promises of extrinsic rewards, generally start a cycle where every step towards change becomes an expensive proposition.

The authors also start the search for answering the question, “Can I do this new behavior” by looking at personal ability. Through the concept of “deliberate practice,” individuals can break down the needed behaviors into smaller components allowing them to master each task or activity. Repeated practice of new and difficult skills is seldom fun. However, a step by step approach allows the individual to see progress towards the goal and make corrective actions in a productive way. Without this intentionality, it is easy to accept defeat early in the process.

Similar to the power of social motivation, social ability focuses on the multiplier effect of engaging the collective strength of the group. Creating a sense of mutual accountability is critical to obtaining everyone’s best efforts. Many change efforts fail because of the devastating effect when some members of the group choose not to participate fully. Usually change efforts are not able to build in a large margin of error, so receiving a half hearted effort from part of the team during a critical period dooms the whole enterprise. Successful change efforts have to focus on effective team building behaviors along side the required new individual behaviors.

The final influencer, “structural ability” illustrates how leaders can effectively shape the environment to make the change easier. This can include the physical layout, the presentation of information, and the tools and technology. In times of change, people are looking for consistency of words and actions. The environmental factors can either provide the glue that pulls everything together or create the “disconnect” that has everyone focused on what’s missing instead of what is present.

As with most of today’s management writings, the authors have not offered a radical explanation or solution to the challenge of change management. We all recognize that the problems and the solutions come down to human behavior which does not always fit into a standardized description. However, they have highlighted an approach that allows leaders to reduce the confusion and diffusion of change efforts by focusing on a few vital behaviors. Once those are known, the change effort drives all its energy towards increasing the motivation and developing the capabilities to make those behaviors the desired norm. Hopefully, with this more strategic approach to change, the members of the organization will be spend more of their energy devoted to changing their behavior and less energy trying to guess what is management’s “real agenda” with their latest change program.

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Steve Collins
©Lead International

Is there anything new that can be written about Leadership? Liz Wiseman’s book, Multipliers, illustrates the challenge of trying to frame solutions and concepts in new and creative diagrams and terms. On one level, she seems to have largely rediscovered Jim Collins’ “Level 5” Leader. Although, Collins was not the first to unearth a leadership model built around commitment to a greater goal and investing in others so they feel a part of the journey. Reading leadership books can produce the feeling of watching reruns of your favorite childhood TV shows. You know all the punch lines and plot twists and viewing the shows is just to provide some background noise as your mind processes the more important issues of the day. But all of a sudden, you find your attention drawn into the story line and you begin laughing at a line of dialogue or character’s reaction that you have seen a dozen times.

I experienced several such moments in reading Multipliers. Not so much fits of laughter as much as times of reading something so familiar, and so true, you pause to appreciate the power of the concept. Wiseman basically lines up leaders on a scale between “Diminishers” and “Multipliers.” Not much new in this distinction. Like many models, the two descriptors represent the extremes, with most leaders falling somewhere in between but moving in one direction or the other.

The question, of course, is “Why would anyone choose to be a ‘Diminisher?’” It is a bit like asking “Why would anyone smoke?” Most smokers will stipulate the health risks, but clearly, the power of the nicotine habit, peer pressure, and the enjoyment of the moment guide the daily decision to light up. Wiseman describes the “Accidental Diminisher,” who never quite realizes the effect they are having on those they are supposed to be leading. Often these are bright individuals who have risen through the ranks primarily because of their intelligence. Being the smartest kid in the class or the smartest engineer in the room can easily be as addictive as nicotine. After a few years of being the one everyone else looks to for the solution, you pretty much forget how to pass the ball and let some else score.

Wiseman accurately contrasts some core practices that naturally flow from the leader’s self identification, as either the one answering all the questions or the one mobilizing everyone towards finding the answers. Not surprisingly, multipliers are “talent magnets.” If you think you have all the answers yourself, you certainly don’t waste time recruiting and developing other people to answer the same questions. Perhaps most leaders don’t overtly tell this to themselves, but that hidden belief is a primary driver in how a leader prioritizes their time.

Next, Wiseman contrasts the multiplier role of “liberator” with the diminisher role of “Tyrant.” I don’t know that I have ever seen a CEO interview on CNBC where they used the term tyrant to describe their leadership role. A liberator is described as someone who “creates space, listens more than talks, admits and shares mistakes, and demands best work.”  Most leaders, whether diminishers or multipliers, would probably find themselves somewhere in that description. Wiseman notes a key difference is that liberators create an intense work climate, while tyrants create a tense one. Most tyrant leaders don’t know the difference, but their followers surely do.

The third multiplier role, “challenger,” has much to do with a leader’s communication skills, but even more to do with their imagination. Asking the big questions, the questions without current answers, requires vulnerability. The “smartest kid in the class” syndrome creates artificial boundaries that reinforce the need to only ask questions where you can be the first to raise your hand and supply the right answer. Wiseman terms this the “Know it all” role where the scope of the project is determined by what the leader already knows. Working alongside a leader who is also on the same journey to discover a solution to a great problem is one of the most motivating experiences of your work life.

How multipliers make decisions is found in the contrast between the “Debate Maker” and the “Decision Maker.” Not surprisingly, the diminisher frames issues purely from his perspective, dominates the discussion, and swiftly forces a decision. No doubt, the diminisher applauds himself for including others, getting everyone on board, and most importantly, ensuring that the right decision was made. The organization is lucky to have her in this position or the whole enterprise would be doomed. It is easy to see that once this pattern is established, it is unlikely to change and it is the natural progression from the faulty leadership practices highlighted above.

The final multiplier role presented by Wiseman is the “Investor.”  Successful leadership is more than creating a positive work environment, it is giving people ownership. For the multiplier at heart, the concept that you are always working yourself out of job comes naturally. Creating space, sharing mistakes, facilitating a debate, and asking the big questions are not management techniques you think about, it is who you are. For a number of reasons, you have recognized a simple, powerful truth that the best people to work with and for you are similar to you. They bring an owner mentality to work everyday.

Wiseman correctly points out that all of us have “diminisher” tendencies from time to time, but some of us have fully ingrained diminisher habits. Like any recovery program, Wiseman says it starts with recognition of the problem and resolve to change and then move step by step towards your goal. My guess is that like many recovery programs, the success rate may not be that high. Not because we lack the appropriate understanding of how to move towards a multiplier leadership style, but we enjoy being the genius rather than enabling others to bask in the glory of that title.

Unfortunately, the diminishers can only make the intellectual connection between people and results and, therefore, continue to reach for their next unilateral decision like it is one more cigarette. To be a multiplier, requires a somewhat selfish calculating realization that the achievement of my most treasured goals are only possible by developing others whose shoulders I will ride on to victory. And, also a fairly large dose of wisdom is most helpful. Wisdom to see that developing other leaders and helping people reach their potential is inextricably linked to the process and the outcome for the issues they care most about. They fail to see that their greatest legacy will be their people.

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Growing Your Talent

January 25th, 2011 by ITAdmin

Growing Your Talent

Steve Collins

©2009 Lead International

Some times my reading list reminds me of the Bill Murray film, Groundhog Day .

Murray’s character relives the same day over and over and over and in the process is able to change his behaviors and attitudes. This spring, I have written about the keys to success identified by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers and Geoff Colvin in Talent is Overrated. Both highlighted the need for consistent practice and significant experiences to achieve world class status.

Daniel Coyle has added his research and voice to the argument with his book, The Talent Code – Greatness isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s how.  Like Gladwell and Colvin, Coyle’s mission is move our concept of success beyond a mysterious blessing bestowed at birth to an intentional path we can carve for ourselves.  Coyle breaks down the successful formula into 1. Deep Practice  2. Ignition 3.Master Coaching.  In Colvin’s book, he focused on “Deliberate practice, passion, and continuous feedback.”  An earlier article on Gladwell highlighted his findings on 10,000 hours of practice or experience and the need for passion. Starting to feel the Groundhog Day effect? However, just like in the movie, each repeated encounter with the concept brings us closer to changing our behavior.

Coyle provides a new dimension to the discussion with a neurological factor called myelin.  While our neurons and synapses are still vital to developing our skills and talent, neurologists are beginning to talk about the insulation that wraps the nerve fibers (myelin) as the key player.  Obviously going too deep in a discussion on brain anatomy will likely confuse the writer and the reader, but the compelling part of Coyle’s presentation is that “timing is everything.” This is especially true in performance whether it is music, sports, communication, or decision making.  The greater the insulation (myelin wrap) the stronger and faster the electric signal travels through the chain of neurons. The more that particular circuit gets fired, the more myelin wrap, and the more optimal the circuit.  With deliberate or deep practice, the right circuits are getting fired repeatedly forming the insulation where it leads to the desired benefit. Coyle sums it up, “skill is myelin insulation that wraps neural circuits and that grows according to certain signals.” He adds, “It is not that practice makes perfect, it is practice makes myelin.”

Coyle argues that the most effective way to build a good circuit is to fire it, then correct the mistakes, and continue to repeat the process. Similar to Colvin’s argument, practice is not particularly pleasant. Repeated firing, especially making adjustments to overcome mistakes is not the most fun. The good news is that with intentional, focused training you can accomplish your training goal in much less time than others who are just putting in time, However, that doesn’t mean Coyle has discovered a short cut to greatness. His equation like Gladwell’s and Colvin’s includes 10,000 hours. And that is not 10,000 hours of scrimmaging or playing your favorite musical pieces.

Coyle offers three rules to deep practice. First, you have to think in chunks or a small set of activities that when combined make up the skill. To use the chunk approach, you first have to see the whole so you get a feel for what you are going to be imitating. Then you break it down into the bite size pieces that can be memorized and then you can begin to link together the chunks. All this is done in slow motion. Apparently, slowing things down allows you to attend to the errors and to develop a deep learning of the fundamental process. Not surprisingly, rule two is to repeat it.  Most world class experts can only “deep practice” between three and five hours a day because of the physical and mental energy that it requires.

Rule Three is “Learn to Feel It.” Deep practice is the opposite of being on auto pilot and the practice time passing by effortlessly. Martha Graham calls it, “divine dissatisfaction.” This doesn’t mean that practice becomes the worst time of the day.  Initially, it may feel that way, but for those who really move into the deep practice phase, an intensity develops where reaching for next wrung offers the needed reward.

The list of world class achievers who lacked passion for their endeavor has to be pretty short. Coyle identifies a couple of interesting sources for what he calls “ignition.” One is seeing someone similar who has achieved that world class status we desire. Coyle’s examples range from South Korean golfers and Russian tennis players who rose to the top of their professions after one of their own broke through to the top.  Coyle notes that after the break through example, the talent boom usually hits a few years later after the required time for deep practice has taken effect.

Another influence on passion relates to the individual’s initial perception of potential and commitment. Coyle sites the example of beginning music students who were asked before their first lesion how long they planned to play the instrument. When the responses were measured, there was a strong correlation between performance time and how long they thought they would play the instrument. Interestingly, the difference was not reflected in the amount of practice time but in performance. With the same amount of practice time, the group with a longer term outlook outperformed the shorter term outlook by 400 percent. Starting out with some sense of direction and purpose plays a decisive role.  Coyle argues that this passion is really a reaction to a number of primal and environmental cues like seeing other succeed and believing you can too.  Environmental factors can come in different shapes and sizes. Coyle cites one study that shows a disproportionate number of world leaders lost at least one parent at an early age. One explanation is that losing a parent sent the message you are not safe and therefore you have to make your world different. Coyle added his observation that a disproportionate number of world class sprinters were younger siblings who grew up receiving the primal cue, “you’re behind – keep up. Obviously what creates that passion can be a variety of influences but the important thing is that the passion switch has to be turned on.

As I read, Coyle’s book I wondered how these findings might have influenced me 35 or 40 years ago, as I aspired to be a world class athlete. Could deep practice have overcome what I have always blamed on a lack of natural athletic talent? It is still hard to picture any amount of practice enabling me to jump like Michael Jordan.  I do think being intentional and continuous in our improvement process should apply to any endeavor at any age.  However, I was pleased when I reached the third element of Coyle’s formula, Master Coaching. This seemed a little closer to my stage in life. Coyle describes these master coaches not as the traditional great leader of commanding presences but rather as “talent whispers.” They listened more than they spoke, avoided motivational speeches, customized their message and approach, and offered small targeted commands for improvement.

Colye cited the work of two educational researchers who followed legendary basketball coach John Wooden through a season of practices and games. They were initially shocked to discover that Wooden spent little time on motivational speeches or praising and punishing but rather providing targeted information that allowed his players to practice a small element, receive feedback on any errors and repeat again. Their discovery was that Wooden basically put his players through “deep practice” every chance he had. This meant he planned his practices to the minute and knew exactly how to customize his instructions to meet the individual player’s needs.  However, it turns out it being a master coach is not just about being a master at deep practice. Coyle demonstrates that master coaches also have to turn on the passion switch. He cites one study that shows that most world class performers do not start their journey to greatness with a highly regarded professional teacher. So, while that teacher may not bring John Wooden’s deep practice skills, they do create and flame an enduring passion. Building those all important myelin circuits requires both deep practice and ignition.

Like Gladwell’s and Colvin’s book, Coyle’s is interesting and convincing. While he does spend a lot of time detailing the kind of world class performers in music and sports we all dreamed of being as children, his formula also applies to the more mundane areas of behavioral change. Continuing to spend time in our comfort zone and call it practice doesn’t really bring about change. And change doesn’t happen without passion (ignition) and usually doesn’t happen without the support and feedback of others like a masterful coach.  Come to think of it, Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day finally ended up breaking the cycle of living the same day through a combination of deep practice and ignition. If he had a master coach as well, he might have broken the cycle much earlier.

The Path to World Class

January 25th, 2011 by ITAdmin

The Path to World Class

Steve Collins

©2009 Lead International

Having fully bought into the idea that operating out of your strengths is the only way to go and that “talent” is the distinguishing factor in determining strength, I felt due diligence required me to purchase Geoff Colvin’s book, Talent is Overrated. Fortunately, Colvin didn’t dismiss the importance of strengths, but rather provided some interesting observations on how world class performers get that designation. However, Colvin certainly doesn’t try to make being world class sound like an easy process. If anything, it is a call to a long, hard journey.

According to Colvin’s research, great performance is not just a matter of having experience since we see great variations in performance levels among people with similar experience levels. Also, he argues that inborn or “natural” talent fails as an explanation since there are too many exceptions to the rule for both those with natural advantages yet never excel, and those who overcome limitations to become standouts. Finally, the connection between general intelligence and memory doesn’t provide a consistent linkage with great performance.

The real key to great performance, according to Colvin, is deliberate practice. The old saying, “practice makes perfect,” may conjure up images of a piano teacher or sports coach.  Simply running through the same drills without much thought or intentionality may qualify as “practice time,” but you are probably just reinforcing the same good and bad habits and not really moving to a higher level of performance. Colvin argues that deliberate practice is “designed” practice, typically designed by someone else who can see more clearly the areas needing the most work and learning. Noel Tichy identifies three concentric circles related to performance improvement. The inner circle is the “comfort zone,” the middle is the “learning zone,” and the outside circle is the “panic zone.” Deliberate practice takes place in the learning zone where we are practicing skills we have yet to master, but in which we have support to move towards performance improvement.

Deliberate practice should also allow for high repetition. Colvin’s research is consistent with other current findings in which often, what has been called natural talent has really been the result of a favorable environment that allows some individuals unique opportunities to practice skills from an early age. Tiger Woods received recognition as a child prodigy, but Colvin notes all the contributing environmental factors such as a father who was an expert golfer and coach with lots of time to invest in his son. Both father and son were very intentional in their approach to the game of golf. Malcolm Gladwell calls the time required as the “10,000 hour rule,” while Colvin cites research pointing towards 10 years. Regardless of which number is correct, the point is obvious, great performers are only “overnight sensations” because nobody was paying attention to them during the years of deliberate practice.

Colvin also notes that deliberate practice requires continuous feedback and is highly demanding mentally. Also, it isn’t much fun. The final descriptor is probably the reason most of us stop short of becoming world class. We reach the level where it is easy to be satisfied. We have reached a level of success, we are better than most, and we may still feel good that we are investing time in our development. Of course, by this point, just about all of that time investment is occurring in our “comfort zone.” To push ourselves physically, mentally, and emotionally requires an internal drive that, as we get older, often gets diluted with the demands of life.

The book’s final chapter specifically asks the question, “Where does the passion come from?” Colvin looks at research on creative thinking and the impact of extrinsic and intrinsic rewards. The general view has been that extrinsic rewards often constrain creative thinking and great performance and that intrinsic rewards are the only real drivers. However, Colvin finds compelling arguments that at certain points in the process of high performance, extrinsic rewards are critical. For example, at the beginning of the process, external threats kept individuals on track and persevering through the “un-fun” parts of deliberate practice. Recitals and contests are often helpful in this phase as they provide opportunities to receive external praise and recognition. Eventually, great performers must take ownership for their own motivation and set their own goals. But for most, recognition and praise is helpful in confirming that they are making progress towards being the best.

Colvin’s book certainly has implications for parents and organizational leaders. He cites a study by Benjamin Bloom of 120 young star performers in a variety of fields. The most consistent message from parents was, “To excel, to do one’s best, and to spend one’s time constructively.” Parents also played the key role of finding the right teachers and making sure the kids practiced. Another study of high achievers revealed that the home environments were characterized by “stimulating” environments with lots of opportunities to learn and high academic expectations and “supportive” environments with clear structure and roles and high levels of trust. Organizations must also find ways to create this culture of stimulation and support to develop an environment for deliberate practice to be the norm and not the exception.

As children, we all dream of being world class in some area, sports, entertainment, politics, etc., and yet, for most, it remains a dream. Colvin’s book, describes a level playing field at the beginning but one that gets decidedly slanted for those coming late to the game. To Colvin’s credit he ends his book by asking two important questions for those pondering the path of deliberate practice to achieve world class status. The first one, “What do you really want?” emphasizes the size of the sacrifice you are willing to make. The second question, “What do you really believe?” deals with getting past the self limiting belief that no path to greatness exists because you lack the natural talent.

While becoming world class is certainly a noble goal, the power of Colvin’s research lies in an effective method for improvement both individually and organizationally. Most of us recognize that remaining at the same level in every aspect of our life from this point until we die, is a rather dismal prospect. Knowing that it is possible to become a better parent, golfer, sales person, or cook, makes getting up in the morning a little easier. Through deliberate practice we can create a virtuous cycle where we experience the benefits of improved performance such as greater enjoyment, self esteem, and even greater purpose in our lives.

Tipping Points of Success

January 25th, 2011 by ITAdmin

Tipping Points of Success

Steve Collins

©2009 Lead International

In Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Outliers, he continues his focus on what really makes the difference in success.  In earlier books, he has examined how little things cause ideas to sweep across a community and even how our brain factors in, in both the little things and in making major decisions. In a world constantly on overload and moving at increasing speed, identifying what makes the difference among all the noise has become a critical skill worth developing. As usual, Gladwell has taken interesting events, dug deeper, thrown in some relevant research findings, and produced several “aha” moments where dots get connected.

In Outliers, Gladwell takes on no less than the subject of success and attempts to take “randomness” out of the equation, or at least to minimize it. However, we still have to face the reality that events largely outside of our control play an important part. For example, when you were born apparently has a lot to do with whether or not you become a hockey star and an IT billionaire. Gladwell demonstrates that children with birthdays earlier in the calendar year, and therefore bigger and stronger than players born later in the year, are disproportionately represented on little league all-star teams. These children are therefore more likely to receive the attention and efforts of better coaches as they progress in their athletic career.

Similarly, Gladwell notes that many of the leading computer entrepreneur icons like Bill Gates and Steven Jobs, were all born in the 1950’s, meaning they were just entering their teen years and deciding on what to pursue when computers were beginning to surface as the wave of the future. But Gladwell digs a bit deeper to identify what he calls the “10,000 hour rule.” Simply being born into a generation doesn’t really explain “unusual” success. Individuals like Gates and Jobs also had unique access to computers and experts which allowed them unusually large amounts of time to develop their skills. About 10,000 hours worth according to Gladwell’s calculation. At about the 10,000 hour mark, good things start to happen, and this applies not just to computing. Gladwell notes that the Beatles, early in their careers, accepted the opportunity to play in Hamburg, Germany on five different occasions. “Playing Hamburg” was far from a one night stand. A typical Hamburg trip was anywhere from between 20 and 100 nights, and each night required about five hours of performing.

In each of Gladwell’s examples, the 10,000 hour rule seems linked to passion as well as some tangible compensation. Most of us are not going to get the required time investment without strong internal, and sometimes external, motivation. But opportunity also plays a key role. Bill Gates was fortunate enough to be born into a wealthy family which sent him to a prestigious private school which could offer computer access long before others had the opportunity. Because of this opportunity, Gates had a chance to discover his passion and then that passion fueled the initiative to create enhanced  opportunities.

For the overachiever, we would expect “intelligence” to be present in above average abundance. According to Gladwell, it is, but perhaps not quite as abundant as you might imagine. Gladwell’s research shows that above an IQ of about 120, those extra IQ points don’t really translate into much of an advantage. While it might not hurt to have an IQ of 180, your chances of winning a Nobel Prize for Physics is not any different than if your IQ is 130. Gladwell notes an extensive study of students who were selected as five and six year olds because of their unusually high IQs. These students were then tracked for the rest of their lives. Of the 730 students, only 20 percent were labeled as true successes. Sixty percent ended up doing “satisfactorily.” While twenty percent were considered to have wasted their abilities. Of this last group, one-third did not finish college.

Linking mental intelligence (IQ) with social or emotional intelligence (EQ) appears to be an important factor in explaining success. Gladwell notes the impact of other factors like family background and cultural influences on the process. Interestingly, this captures what Gladwell calls the “legacy” and the impact that practices of our families and communities from generations in the past have on how we deal with current and future opportunities. We are not so free to define our own path as we may think or desire.  Gladwell explains this phenomenon by dissecting a feud between two families whose values are deeply rooted in the American South and its emphasis on personal honor. Also he explores a Korean Airlines plane crash caused by a reluctance to challenge the pilot, despite his crew clearly seeing that disaster was quickly becoming the only possible outcome. He even connects the intricacies required for rice farming with high math scores in East Asia.

Like the classic debate between nature and nurture, Gladwell has taken us on quite a ride, weaving between forces like demographic patterns, in which all we can do is accept the role of the individual who is able to capture the opportunity presented. Gladwell concludes the book with a very personal story of his grandmother, a Jamaican, and her determination to provide opportunity and education for his mother. Gladwell’s mother would go on to be an author as well as raise a bestselling one. In looking back at his mother’s family’s rise from Jamaican slaves, he sees “history’s gifts to my family,” but he also writes about his grandmother’s determination and resourcefulness to overcome situations where opportunities were not universally available.

Gladwell has successfully debunked the notion of the “self made man,” or at least shown its limitations. He has also illustrated several intangible, personal qualities that allow us to see that the dream of real success is seldom just given, but is more likely the product of those who are driven by their faith and passion in accordance with destiny.

Leading as Only You Can

January 25th, 2011 by ITAdmin

Leading as Only You Can

Steve Collins

©2009 Lead International

“Authentic” is one of the emerging descriptors for effective leadership.  On the surface it sounds like one of the easier competencies to pursue. Popular concepts like “charisma” and “dynamic” suggest a particular personality type that only a few are born with.  “Authentic” essentially means being true to yourself which is something everyone can be. In Bill George’s True North , a follow up to his best selling Authentic Leadership, he provides both a framework for getting there and a book full of compelling examples.

Bill George, oversaw the dramatic rise of Medtronics ($1.1 billion to $60 billion in revenue) before retiring and now teaches leadership at Harvard Business School. In True North, George writes very little about his own experiences at the helm (covered in more detail in the first book), and instead has researched over 125 leaders who qualify as “authentic.”

Just about every vignette or example highlights a successful individual who leads a significant organization. This is not a book about the leader next door but rather CEOs and executives from household name companies and not for profit organizations. While many of these leaders came from modest backgrounds, for the most part, they seem to have graduated from famous universities and used their talent and drive to have it all. Career paths that led to the top, significant and satisfying relationships and meaningful contributions to society all linked to their ability to discover and express their authenticity.

However, George does not paint this as a pain free process. In fact, the path to authenticity usually involved a major career disappointment, health issues, relationship failures, or all of the above.  George calls these events “crucibles” and they appear to play an indispensable role in the process. Despite the fact that it would appear intuitive for us to pursue our natural selves, the messages of the world and the marketplace all seem designed to draw us away from that path.  George uses labels like “imposter,” “rationalizer,” and “glory seeker” to capture the lies that prevent authenticity.

The movement towards authenticity requires self awareness, values and principles, motivations, a support team, and an integrated life. This results in a leadership style characterized by purpose, values, heart, relationships and self discipline.  George’s framework and terminology don’t sound too different from most of the leadership books on the market today.  What gives the book a certain, well, authenticity, is the honest voice of the leaders’ stories.   Somewhere in the process of getting ahead and getting to the top, they were blessed to have an opportunity to hit the pause button and ask, “why am I doing this?”

Interestingly, for some the answer meant moving to a less powerful position, while for other it simply reaffirmed their trajectory but now they had the motivation to continue the flight.  Being Authentic is obviously not a cookie cutter formula leading to the same conclusion for everyone. It does cause an aligning process between passion and purpose.

One of the more insightful components of the model, “building your support team,” is frequently overlooked in the practical application of leadership. In many situations, leaders feel the need to appear invulnerable or, at least, not susceptible to all the doubts and questions that plague mere followers. Sometimes it is just uncomfortable to share your failures and shortcomings with others. But a lot of times, it just doesn’t get on the priority list.  Having individuals in your life who can give you honest feedback, provide encouragement, and hold you accountability sounds like a no brainer. And yet the busyness of leading leads to a “doing” mindset not a “reflective” one.

George advocates starting with at least one person with whom you can be completely vulnerable and honest. This is someone who will always tell you the truth.  Family members, mentors, and coaches form the second line of defense. Again, a similar quality of transparency and honesty is required but in some cases they may speak more into specific areas of your leadership challenge.  Finally, George suggests having a personal support team of individuals who are on a similar journey and who meet regularly to share what they are learning and encourage one another. For over 30 years, George has met every Wednesday morning with a group of eight men for discussions that he calls, “open, probing, and profound.”

Although George’s study group all qualified as high fliers, I believe that authentic is not limited to those who graduate from Ivy League schools and experience life as fast trackers. The framework for authentic leadership that George has set forth applies to a lot of people I know. They may not operate on a large stage, but they have consistently made choices that reflect their values and passions and the result is a truly integrated life with a very visible moral compass.

The challenges facing young leaders these days definitely require authenticity. Some will make it all the way to the top of their organizations as influential leaders. But all of us should remember that being authentic enables everyone to lead lives of purpose and contribute to great causes wherever they find themselves on the organizational chart.  We need organizations full of authentic individuals not just led by an authentic leader.

Looking Way, Way into the Past for Today’s Solutions

Steve Collins

©2009 Lead International

Attempting to cover 13,000 years of history in less than 500 pages does not lend itself to an in-depth study but does match the reading preferences of most of us. Jared Diamond, in his Pulitzer Prize winning Guns, Germs, and Steel, does exactly that and provides us with plenty of detail. Of course, Diamond attempts to answer a more singular question of whether or not biological differences among races influence their rate of developing societies. The more precise question he raises is why did Europe, which was not always in the forefront of development, end up being the conquerors rather than the conquered? His title gives the obvious causes since all three items (Guns, Germs, and Steel) created disruption, devastation, and death when civilizations collided.

Diamond’s academic disciplines seem to uniquely qualify him for this task as he teaches physiology at a medical school, writes books on evolutionary biology, and is a professor of geography. Those pursuits alone give one pause before picking up the book, fearing you will be trapped in a scientific journey with a tour guide speaking a foreign tongue. Fortunately, Professor Diamond has written a very readable book that allows you to disagree, or at least hold out some suspicion with some of his hypothesis and perspectives, but his conclusions make sense.

Fundamentally, civilizations tend to gather where they can grow food. The earliest civilizations had more naturally domesticating plants that they could plant and harvest. Additionally, some of these same areas had large mammals that could be domesticated and used for productive purposes. Once the process reached critical mass, people gave up on the hunter-gatherer approach and stable communities emerged. Communities allow for other occupations to develop as people begin to acquire non portable possessions and, eventually, governing organizations are required to keep order with so many people living in close proximity and sharing community resources.

Because some people tend to wander off a bit and others like to see what’s on the other side of the mountain, farming, simple tool technology, and governing ideas tend to get spread around. Diamond makes the interesting observation that transfer of ideas moves much quicker across an East West Axis rather than North South. So, for example, ideas and approaches moved much quicker across Eurasia than from North and South America. This is largely due to the similarities in climate that allows similar crops and agricultural approaches to be used. Additionally, natural barriers like deserts and mountain ranges cut off the dissemination process.

However, Diamond notes that while the diffusion of ideas created an important building block of civilization, the advancement in technologies seems to also be influenced by less centralization rather than more. Diamond argues that the fragmentation of Europe actually produced a more fertile field for innovation than China’s more centralized approach. Although he also points out that those countries with long histories of good institutional approaches tend to benefit quicker from the introduction of new technologies.

Diamond’s work received attention from leaders we associate more with the future than the past, like Bill Gates of Microsoft fame. Gates and others wondered about the implications from studying the histories of entire human societies with emerging business groups and whether businesses be organized loosely or more centralized.

Like most interesting historical theories, Diamond’s conclusion highlights a complex formula where bits and pieces are in contradiction especially over a longer time continuum. Civilizations develop because people find a reason to live in ever larger communities which produces great demand for products and services and more motivated and intelligent people to provide them. But at some point all this centralization appears harmful to the process.

Diamond’s example of China highlights the challenge. China at several points in world history emerged as the leading civilization and produced numerous discoveries such as gunpowder, magnetic compasses, and paper. In the 1500’s it possessed a navy that would have enabled it to rule the seas and conquer the New World. Yet China’s leader’s decided not only against moving forward, they decided to abandon ocean going vessels, mechanical clocks, and water driven spinning machines.

Just as absolute power corrupts absolutely, apparently absolute power also enables for some absolutely good and bad decisions. Additionally, when power is diffused, there tends to be a lot more competition and reasons for being the first guy on the block to come up with the newest advance whether it means more protection, more land, or more money.

Knowing when to drive the process and when to let the system operate freely is at the heart of situational leadership. Successful organizations have to bring people together to reach a critical mass where individualism ( the hunter gatherer approach where I’m always looking for the next company to work for) and they have to remove barriers that prevent the flow of ideas. But somewhere in the process, leaders who want to build enduring, viable, and progressive communities have to create structures where collective wisdom can emerge and replace the all powerful leader.

Diamond’s argument that the tribal backwoodsmen of New Guinea, where he has conducted research for years, are equally as intelligent as the most sophisticated Wall Street Banker, rings true in the context of long term environmental factors that prevented the flow, development, and focus of ideas. For today’s leaders, a similar analysis requiring examining perhaps the past couple of decades rather than eight millenniums may yield some important insights in understanding what will produce the winner and losers in the years ahead.

The Leadership Reality

January 25th, 2011 by ITAdmin

The Leadership Reality

Steve Collins

©2010 Lead International

Leadership for all its hype and glory can be a pretty depressing experience.  Very few kids grow up saying, “someday I am going to be a vice president, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, or one heck of an assistant manager.  The prize is being king of the hill. Everything else is disappointment.  Of course, the reality of burnout, divorce, ulcers, and superficial relationships do tend to dampen the overall leadership experience.  In Leadership on the Line, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky have not written a book for those dreaming of being leaders. Rather they are addressing folks who have been there, felt the heat of the flame, and are asking, “why would I ever want to do that again?” They paint leadership as it is, a lonely often thankless task, where your somewhat noble attempts to get people to make needed changes in their best interest are met with personal attacks and lackluster compliance.  Fortunately, the authors’ objective is not to reduce the size of the leadership pool but to provide some helpful perspectives and approaches to keep more of us in the game.

One of the book’s best insights is drawing the distinction between technical problems and adaptive change. Technical problems are the easy ones. We know how to fix the problem. We just have to do it. The leader’s role is largely to be there and make sure the job gets done. Adaptive change is every leader’s opportunity to get shot by his boss, colleagues, followers and observers.  In adaptive change, the leader is asking his followers to do things they have never done before and deal with all the risks associated with being uncomfortable and the possibility they will fail.  These are the times when the leader discovers he is not just unpopular but he is the villain and the root cause of universal unhappiness.  Suddenly everything about him and everyone close to him is fair game for attack.

Heifetz, a Harvard Medical School graduate and Linsky, a Harvard Law School graduate, both teach at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and provide a number of good stories, many from personal experiences, to illustrate their recommendations for getting past the painful reactions and moving people towards productive responses.

One of the most useful realizations from the book is the inevitableness of being unpopular.  Nobody dreams of being a president with a 22% approval rating or a plant manager who is laying off half his workforce.  Hopefully, you can avoid those valley low experiences in your career.  But if you desire to really be a leader, not just a manager solving technical problems, you are going to have to challenge people to follow you through times of adaptive change.  That has never been truer than in today’s global economy.

So, once you have recognized that you are on the firing line, what do you do?  Heifetz and Linsky suggest first getting “to the balcony,” so you can assess what is going on.  Although, getting out of the line of fire may also come to mind.  “Getting to the balcony” does give you the objectivity to separate the personal attacks from the real substance, to see how you are contributing to the problems and what issues need to be addressed and what approaches need to be changed.  For some leaders “getting to the balcony” may sound a bit like abdicating in time of battle or sending the signal you are running from a fight.  Yet in every military campaign, product launch, and branch office opening, there is that inevitable moment when the best laid plans look badly out of step with the events on the ground.  Sometimes it simply means leaders need to stay the course but often it means a course direction of some magnitude is required.  Without the balcony perspective, a leader simply doesn’t know whether to forge ahead or to make turns in the road. He may not know who are his friends and his enemies, and he may miss the important signals from above and below that indicate how much support he can expect under different scenarios.

Heifetz and Linksy highlight another important process, “orchestrate the conflict.”  Leaders know as they push forward with adaptive change, their role is to regulate the pace of change.  To do that they have to know when to turn up the heat to get everyone’s attention and to create a sense of urgency, but also when to turn the heat down to keep everyone from burning out, giving up, or punching the leader in the nose.   Keeping the thermostat to the right temperature requires constant attention and a fair amount of wisdom.   As Heifetz and Linsky note, “As they put pressure on you to back away, drop the issue, or change behavior that upsets them, you will feel the heat, uncomfortably. In this sense, exercising leadership might be understood as disappointing people at a rate they can absorb.”

Much more has been written about crafting an exciting vision to produce followers eager to satisfy the leader’s every directive in pursuit of “winning the gold” rather than helping people cope with disappointment. But Heifetz and Linsky have tapped into the reality of being a leader in times of change. You are asking people to do the heavy lifting of changing behaviors, expectations, and sometimes their dreams.  Vision or pointing them to a better place is indispensable in that process but getting them to engage in the long march to get there requires a tactical focus as well.

Towards the end of the book, the authors deal with maintaining physical, emotional, and spiritual balance and offer some sound insights on focusing on what really matters in life and leadership. Their final chapter entitled, “Sacred Heart” deals with the greatest challenge a leader must face – in the midst of the hurt and darkness to remain open and vulnerable. “It’s the capacity to encompass the entire range of your human experience without hardening or closing yourself.  It means that even in the midst of disappointment and defeat, you remain connected to people and to the sources of your most profound purposes.”

Young leaders facing the firing line for the first time will hopefully discover useful tools and approaches like periodically assessing the situation, not letting the attacks divert you from the real issues, and pacing the introduction of change. But the greater lesson will be what you learn about yourself. Will you have the courage to forgive, the passion to pursue the cause because it is the right thing, and the wisdom to know what really matters?