Conducting your own 2009 review

We are all approaching our end of a year of many transitions.Four Questsions - Life-Work Coaching  

In the past I've written about using my Four Questions that Every Leader Must Ask as a guide for an end-of-the-year review and a way to plan for the next. 

This year, I have been impacted by people who have helped me see beyond the organizational leadership work that I have been doing for a decade and a half.  The result is a reframing of this material for individuals who living on the thinning line of life and work, and the expansion of my consulting work to include a new coaching program. 

While we do look at the change of the year as a time of reflection and new beginnings, the reality is that we can do this year round. However, if you have not, then there is now time like the present to begin to think differently about yourself as the new year approaches.

Today, in my Weekly Leader column - Reviewing Your 2009 Impact - I present the first step in a process of review and planning that will conclude in next week's column. I've prepared an one page listing of the questions that I ask in the column. I suggest that you print the list and the column and spend a few moments over the next week reflecting on the past year to 18 months.

I've said many times over the past couple years that I believe we are in the midst of one of the most significant transitions in all of human history. This is bigger than President Obama, the IPhone, the recession and the combine effects of 9/11, Katrina and the Iraq/Afghanistan war. The transition is, regardless of what you see happening in Washington, is a shift towards individual responsibility and collaborative relationships that transcend the old bureaucratic structures that are no longer able to manage the complexity of life today.

In order to be at our best, for ourselves, our families, our co-workers, our communities and for the world at large, we each need to thinking clearly about what we believe and the difference we are committed to making today. A starting place is gaining perspective and understanding about where we are and what we need to focus on next year.

I invite you to read today's column and begin to answer for yourself the Life / Work planning questions and if you are so inclined, share them with me. I believe that as you go through this process of reflection, that you'll begin to discuss opportunities that were always there, but that the lack of clarity of insight blocked your vision of them. It is my hope that from this exercise you'll find new opportunities in life and work that will enable you to have an impact that is far beyond what you would have imagine a year ago, or even yesterday.

Quick Takes: the help of a guardian angel

We live in a time where visual images become our reference point for understanding who we are and the time we live in. It was this thought that hit me as I read Grant McCracken's post on two new TV shows - In Plain Sight and The Cleaner - that feature a guardian angel motif.

In Plain Sight stars Mary McCormack as a U.S. Federal Marshal who helps relocate witnesses and then care for them when they f*** up, which they do eagerly and often.  She is, in other words, a kind of guardian angel.

The Cleaner stars Benjamin Bratt as a ex-drug addict who comes to the rescue of people in need,  and then cares for them when they f*** up, which they do eagerly and often.  He is, in other words, a kind of guardian angel. 

We are drawn to the idea of angelic intervention.  But of course TV has too much integrity to go for celestial trumpets, fluffy wings, smiling cherubim.  No, televisual angels come in street clothing and street cred.  Our angels are troubled, this is meant to make them troubling, and this is meant to turn TV into art. 

I don't get to watch much TV. So, I haven't seen either these shows, but I plan to catch up on them at their websites. I understand the idea behind the shows. I understand the connection of a stranger caring for another stranger. I understand being a guardian angel. It is to a large extent a factor in my work as a consultant.

I am a fan of the George Clooney film, Michael Clayton. I am because as I watched it for the first time, I realized that in my work as a consultant, that I'm a fixer. There is a guardian angel aspect to his role in the law practice.  He cares for people in trouble.

The guardian angel / fixer theme is a well used theme in film and television. There was the angel in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. Michael Landon was an angel in Highway to Heaven, as was Roma Downey in Touched by an Angel and David Boreanaz' vampire Angel.

What explains this character device? 

Two thoughts:
1. In spite of  "rugged individualism" as central theme in our culture, the theme of helpfulness is also present.  We see it in the image of the Boy Scout helping the elderly woman across the street. We see in people who take in stranded travelers, abandoned children and stray dogs.  I certainly see it in the out-pouring of help for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. 

A guardian angel is a helper, a servant. For almost a half century, the idea of servant leadership has gained increasing prominence. 

So, along with this independent streak is this helpful, servant one that provides a sufficient level of dramatic tension to make stories interesting.

2. I'd like to think that there are some producers, script writers and film companies who also see that there has been a diminishment of the ethic of service in public life.  Watch enough TV, and you can't help but be carried away with not just egotism run rampant, but actually sort of the reverse of my first comment. Instead of public life being filled with rugged individualists who are exemplars of servant leadership. We have celebrity figures who have an entourage that follows them everywhere, doing for them what they can't do for themselves. 

This reminds me of one of my favorite films, The Emperor's Club with Kevin Kine. In it, Kline a classics professor at a New England prep school, instructs his students about ancient values. Over the door of his class is a plaque commemorating the exploits of Shutruk Nahunte. The plaque reads:

I am Shutruk Nahunte, King of Anshand and Susa, Sovereign of the land of Elam. By the command of Inshushinak I destroyed Sippar, took the stele of Naram-Sin, and brought it back to Elam, where I erected it as an offering to my God, Inshushinak. Shutruk Nahunte - 1158 B.C.

Kline admonishes his class that Nahunte is a forgotten leader because he he was simply ambitious. The the theme of the film as well as of his classs, Kline tells them, "great ambition and conquest without contribution is without significance."

Whether the character in In Plain Sight or The Cleaner are ones who will become significant is unknown.  What is known is that legacy is tied to service.  As Waite Philips said, "The only things we keep permantly are those we give away."


Quick Takes: Insultant for Hire

Michael McKinney at Leadership Now posts an interesting review of Keith McFarland's The Breakthrough Company.

We need people who will tell us like it is in the right way. Often we don’t like to hear what they have to say but we should never discourage them. Frequently, leaders are the last to know. Keith McFarland author of The Breakthrough Company, calls these straight-shooters insultants. He describes them as those people “willing to ask the tough questions that cause a company to think critically about its fundamental assumptions. The value of insultants is that they will go to great lengths to get their companies to reevaluate a position or adapt to a changing environment.” 

I've used the term - insultant - on occasion. I know that I have served that role more times than I wish.

McKinney summarizes McFarland's points.

Be Empathetic. Yours isn’t the only point of view. Understand where others are coming from.

Don’t Attack. Finger pointing is not acceptable. “The most powerful tool in the insultant’s arsenal is the question—and knowing how to ask the right question at the right time.”

Don’t Triangulate. “Most people find talking behind someone’s back to be insulting—so effective insultants avoid it at all costs.”

Don’t Kid Yourself—Your Real Motivation Will Be Obvious. “If you mean to embarrass, demean, or criticize another person, while you might succeed in that goal, you will have unnecessarily sacrificed any opportunity you had to contribute change.”

Be a Grown-Up. “An insultant’s job is to make sure an issue gets a thorough vetting, not to convince everyone to see the world his or her way.”

Be Assertive and Persistent. “Not everyone will be receptive to the hard truth, so an insultant must be both assertive and persistent, returning to the issue as often as he or she thinks is necessary to get the point across.

This is practical wisdom at its best. There are two comments to this.

1. While insultant is a descriptive term, it is a bit inaccurate. I often refer to my role as the intimate outsider.  I delve deeply into various aspects of what is happening organizationally. My role is assess and offer an evaluation that has a practical application to it. However, it a couple instances, what they hired me to do, which I did, needed to include a blunt description of the dysfunction that was taking place in the organization. It was not welcomed by the leadership. The choice I had to make was just do what was expected and walk away, or do what my own ethical standards required, which was to speak honestly to the client about what I saw.

2. I have also come to understand that the only way I can do my job is to be clear about who the client is. My client ultimately is the same as their's. In a recent situation, a leadership change needed to be made. As the board wrestled with this decision, I kept putting their mission and the people that they serve before them. In effect, one of the things that we end up doing as consultants is being the champion of the organization's mission.

Recently, I came across a copy of a letter I had written a friend almost fifteen years ago. In the letter I was describing what was happening in my job and what I saw myself doing there and in the future. Remarkably, almost all that I had written to him, I am now presently doing. This is a couple years before I began my consulting practice. Much of that fits in McFarland's understanding of the consultant as insultant.

HT: Lee Thayer

Quick Takes: The conversation that isn't

Watch this video produced by Microsoft Digital Advertising Solutions about the conversation that needs to take place between advertisers and consumers.

I see this video from a number of angles. Let me give you one.

Put your consultant in the chair of the advertiser. You hire the firm thinking that they are going to bring their years of expertise to the task of helping you. What you find out is that they have a box full of numbers, and they are going to throw those numbers at you until some of them stick. 

The listening that goes on is for cues that signal - "This is how to approach this client."  Friends, there is no conversation here.

Here's what should happen. Don't buy a box. Chances are the consultant bought the box from someone else, and they only know one way to use. Look for a craftsperson who builds boxes. They show up with tools. When you tell them that you want a mission-style design, they give you mission-style, instead of suburban traditional. And if they don't know mission-style, they know where to find it.

I had a conversation with a colleague this week who has moved from the consultant's chair to the executive director's chair. This woman is bright and smart, tremendously insightful, and will do great work with this organization. She told me that she sees the consultant game changing. Narrow niche experts are not going to be able to do as well as they did in the past. Instead, generalists who are able to work with a wide variety of situations will be more valuable. When I asked her why, she said, "Because it is so much more complex. No one solution is going to work in every context. So, the consultant has to be able to flex with the consultant's need."  I totally agree.

So, the key is the conversation that takes place. If your relationship with your consultant is like this video, pay him off, and hire someone who knows how to listen and respond.

HT: Terry Heaton at POMO blog

The Intimate Outsider

Malcolm Gladwell writes:

I remember once having a discussion with a guy who knew a lot about professional basketball. He said he had asked a big sample of NBA players who they felt would be the most formidable one-on-one opponent in the league. The answer was fairly unanimous: Vince Carter. Now that's surprising. Why Carter and not Kobe Bryant or LeBron James or any number of other, far more accomplished, offensive players? The answer, this guy told me, was the same in nearly every case: "you have no idea how hard it is to do the things that Carter does."

    I've always remembered that story, because it strikes me that applies to nearly every case where an outsider tries to make sense of an insider's perspective. We can see all the things that someone, in a different profession than us, does. What we cannot know is the relative difficulty of those tasks. I know a reverse slam is harder than a simple dunk. But how much harder? And how much harder again would a slam be if you had a defender drapped all over you?

This is a huge issue in the appreciation of sports. I remember watching Phil Mickelson at the PGA (or was it the U.S Open?). He was in the rough, just off the green, and chipped within a few feet of the hole. Ho-hum, I thought. He bogeyed the hole. But the color man was incredulous. Mickelson, he pointed out, had taken a FULL swing at a ball in an impossible lie and sent it 20 feet, to within an easy putt of the hole. I've never played golf, so I had no idea how hard that was, or why that was anything special. The announcer, though, had a completely different perspective.


My job as a consultant is to learn to understand just how hard it is to lead any particular organization.  I don't assume I know anything going in, except that I'm here to learn to be an intimate outsider, which means to understand the best I can what is going on so we can make improvements or bring change or fix the problems. 

Outsiders have a different view of situations. If they can't develop an insider's view quickly, then all they have to offer is a box that they want to squeeze their clients into. 

To be an intimate outsider, you have to be curious about people and their organizations.  You can't come in with nothing more than your own conceptual template.  You have to humbly assume that there is more to learn than you have to offer.  So that what you offer is much more specific and focused, instead of scatter-shotted.

A friend once told me his mentor told him early in his career, "Most of the people you'll work for were C students."  If so, then most people have a difficult time identifying with the talent of a Vince Carter or a Phil Mickleson.  And the reverse is true, most of them can't understand how hard it is for most of us slugs to do the most average things.  And yet, we find ourselves working in the same organizations all the time.

So, one of the values of an intimate outsider (re: consultant) should be the bridging of the divide between the Vince Carter's of organizations and the "add someone's name here" of the world.  Facilitating understanding at a deep enough level that results in positive change is the goal.  And the fun thing is that there are things you can do that Vince cannot, and at some grand level, he needs us.  Comforting isn't it?

Is It Lonely Out Front?

Brad Respess posts the text from a Cadillac ad from 1915 that is quite eloquent.  He raises the question,

"Bubbling beneath the surface has been the question of whether or not the leader is liked by followers. Striving for success, making tough decisions, and being a leader (out in front of the pack) puts the leader’s neck on the line. Success and progression can be sweet; penalty can be bitter. Life as a true leader is bittersweet."

In his follow up book to True Success called The Art of Achievement, Tom Morris writes about the hardiness factor he discovered in the story of octogenarian Florida Scott Maxwell, from her book, The Measure of My Days.  To cope with loneliness and isolation, either because you have outlived your friends and family to an advanced, or because you are in leadership, requires a psychological hardiness that essential for sustaining a quality of life.   

Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner write about this in their excellent book,The Leadership Challenge.  They write about what psychologists Suzanne C. Kobasa and Salvatore R. Maddi also call "the hardiness factor."  They concluded that "psychological hardiness" is exhibited in leaders who ...

1 – believed that they had an influence on their environment and acted consistently with that belief;

2 – consistently considered how to change situations for advantage and never accepted events at face value;

3 – regarded change as part of the normal course of events;

4 – viewed change as a helpful path to positive development; and

5 -  were committed to learning and personal transformation.

            (HT: faithmaps)

When you are the leader out front, as opposed to a leader within a team, you have to have a strength of character that allows for the loneliness and isolation that is inherrent in this kind of leadership.  In many respects, it is easier to change companies to become the senior executive, than it is to rise up out of the ranks, especially if your closest friends are also your work colleagues.  This is one of the penalties that comes with leadership.  And leaders who last and excel do so because they have developed the hardiness factor.

One of the reasons that I felt led to become a consultant is that it allows me the opportunity to develop close friendships with leaders, who ordinarily would be in isolation.  I consider myself in my consultant's role as "the intimate outsider."  I know what is happening, but I don't have "a dog in the hunt."  Or, as friend once said, "You are the invisible hand."  Well, not quite, but the service to leaders is to strengthen their position, not to "strut my stuff."  My impact is seen through others as a result.

The penalty of leadership is often loneliness.  It requies clarity of purpose, resiliency in character, and the ability to know the limites between the persona of the organizational leader and the person who inhabits the position.  It means that you cannot treat your position as if you are in a popularity contest.  It cannot be about your own ego, though sadly, this is where many leaders are. And as a result their isolation is more than at the peer level, but also in terms of their perspective on what is happening in their organization. 

For a time, I asked leaders the following question:  "If you became a total failure today, a humiliation to your company and to everyone who knows you, who would stand by you."  I stopped asking the questions when I kept getting puzzled looks and silent responses, or, "Well, my mother, maybe my spouse."  When a leader doesn't know who is committed to him or her, then there is a problem.  Especially since relationships are central to effective leadership in the 21st century.

Senior executive leadership is not for everyone, as it requires moving out in front and leading the way.  Every one can exert leadership at certain levels through the example of their character and personal initiative in doing what is the right thing at the right time.  But to lead the pack is to accept a measure of loneliness that is never compensated for my high salaries and stock options.

Finally, go back and read what I posted by Peter Drucker a couple weeks ago.  It puts all this into the right perspective. 

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Mentoring, Consulting and Learning

Brad Respess has two compelling posts on mentoring and consulting.  In the first - Mentor Lost, Mentor Gained? - he celebrates the work of a consultant, Bas Hofland, as “possibly the most brilliant mind and best critical thinker in the industry.”  High praise, indeed. 

Every consultant would love to have a client as celebratory as Brad.  Of course, every client would love to have a consultant the quality of Bas.  It is great to see the perfect marriage of client need and consultant expertise. 

In the second posting - Mentoring Ain't Easy - he writes about the importance of mentoring.  He describes the difference between the Greek and Hebrew learning models as he learned in a Sunday school class.  While I am supportive of the point Brad is making, the distinctions made by his Sunday school teacher are historically inaccurate. 

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