The Power of Long-Term Leadership

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So many people champion Jack Welch as such a great leader, but, at least as far as I believe, the “Welch-Way” is the wrong way.  At GE, Jack Welch practiced short-term leadership.  Life at GE was like a roller coaster ride due to irrational decision making with little regard for long-term implications. Every year, Welch fired the bottom 10% of his managers at GE to balance the books.  And, GE profited, but it was rolling the dice and gambling with lives of employees for selfish gain — this is not strategy, this is greed.  No, this is not leadership; it is just a survival of the fittest culture that breeds infighting, deceit, and short-term results.

This type of short-term vs. long-term leadership is a big part of so many our current problems in business.  When getting in, making your nut, and getting out while the getting is good is the order of the day, it causes leaders to base their decisions on their OWN best interest not the best interest of the organization, the employees, or least of all, customers.  So if you are regularly wondering why millennials switch jobs so often or want to make a difference today even though they’ve only been in a job for a few months; it’s a symptom of the short-term thinking we’ve made a cultural norm over the last twenty years or so.

The solution though is shifting that cultural norm to creating workplace cultures where leaders lead for the long-term.  A good example is Costco, where Jeff Sinegal has shown us what long-term leadership means and how it produces results. While Welch was striking fear into the hearts of his managers (and his employees), Jeff Sinegal was creating strategies that kept employees employed even though the US was in an economic crisis.  Sinegal believed that the company should be helping employees in bad times, not letting them go.  He believed that keeping the family together created a strength and loyalty that would enable the company to come back with a vengeance when times got better.  So, while GE’s stock was on its roller coaster ride, Costco’s stock was (and still is) stable and predictable — nothing exciting, just predictable progress, performance, and profit, and when you’re in it for the long haul with the success of others as well as yourself at your core instead of selfish gain and immediate gratification, predictability is better than spontaneity.

And if long-term leadership is step one, creating a positive work environment must be step two.  When the environment at work is one of encouragement, where team-members help each other succeed, and one that meets people’s basic needs to live, learn, feel valued, and make significant contributions, we do more than just survive — we thrive…and so does the business…for the long term.


Tearing down walls with WALS


A few weeks ago I was blessed to be able to take a vacation to Hawaii.  While there, my wife connected with her second cousin who lives on the Big Island.  As it so happens, her husband, Dane, works for Ali’I Ocean Tours, one of those tour companies that takes people out in the ocean to snorkel.  The reason I am bringing this up is to share with you how the crew on this tour created a fantastic experience by demonstrating four critical practices of great service (and they did it without knowing they did it).  These four practices are built on the foundation of David Rock’s SCARF framework.  If you’re unfamiliar with SCARF, here is a very quick primer.

Neuroscience tells us that we humans are largely negatively biased, in other words, we tend, in our daily life experience, to look for negatives first for survival reasons.  Our brains spend a great deal of time looking for anything that might put us in danger, and, when it perceives something that just might be dangerous, will trigger various responses in order to steer us clear to safety.  This is not only true of things that cause physical pain but also things that cause mental pain.  This mental pain is typically the result of social discomfort.  A good example of this is when you walk into a room of people you don’t know and you get that little out-of-place feeling.

David Rock, an expert in neuroleadership, the application of findings from the field of neuroscience to the field of leadership, has, after much research and brain-scan analysis, observed five key areas that cause this social discomfort.  These five areas, forming the acronym SCARF, are:

  • Status: the need to feel important
  • Certainty: the need to know what’s going to happen
  • Autonomy: the need to have some level of control or input
  • Relatedness: the need to be part of the group, to be connected, to be safe in the group
  • Fairness: the need to feel things are not one-sided, that there is a fair exchange

Rock proposes that we should behave in ways that work with these elements rather than against them if we want our interactions to be low in social pain.  For example, if we do things to recognize people and make them feel welcome and part of the group, they will feel more comfortable which will cause them to mentally open doors to relationship rather than close them.  If we give people the chance to have input and give them information so they know what’s going to happen next, they will, again, feel more comfortable and open those mental doors.

We can apply this thinking to customer interactions with four SCARF-related practices that, if followed, will make for a more comfortable and socially pleasing service experience.  These four practices are:

  • Welcome: Give customers a proactive, warm greeting and make them feel at home.
  • Accommodate: Be flexible. Find solutions and look for ways to help.
  • Listen: Give people your full attention and encourage input.
  • Share: Be transparent and communicate relevant information, what to expect, updates, timelines, etc.

A keen eye will spot how these four practices, known as WALS, hit the sweet spot of all of the SCARF components.  When we welcome, we make people part of the group (Relatedness), when we accommodate, we give a sense of fair exchange (Fairness), when we listen we show others that they are important and that we want their input (Status and Autonomy), and finally, when we share information, we help people to feel more certain about the future (Certainty).

Now, getting back to my Hawaii experience with Dane and Ali’I Ocean Tours, here is how the entire event delivered the WALS practices and created something extraordinary.

WELCOME: When we arrived, we were met by Sharkey, another of the Ali’I crew, who welcomed us and made us feel totally at home.  There was never any of that, “we do this every day and you don’t, so pay attention” talk.  When we said we hadn’t done this before, he completely put things on our level, the novice level.  No terminology was used that we didn’t understand, it was all simple and very friendly.

ACCOMMODATE: As we started our journey, I was talking to Sharkey and mentioned a little disappointment that I wouldn’t be able to see really clearly in the goggles because I would have to remove my glasses.  Sharkey immediately jumped into action to solve this problem and turn my disappointment around.  He dug through a bag of goggles to find several that had magnification.  He looked at my glasses and then found a pair of goggles that were very close to my prescription.  They worked like a charm.  To say I was pleased would be an understatement, Sharkey’s quick action to accommodate my needs and turn what I thought would be a less than perfect snorkeling experience into an amazing snorkeling experience, was remarkable, a definite WOW moment.

LISTEN & SHARE: Throughout the tour, the entire crew, Dane, Sharkey and Ryan (the photographer/videographer who recorded the entire trip for posterity), spent inordinate amounts of time with people to listen to their questions and then happily provided answers that made the trip even more meaningful.  And every time we were going to do something new, they told us exactly what to expect, no one felt nervous about anything.  They made the entire trip informative and safe and every one of the guests were always put at ease.

The entire journey with the Ali’I crew was a pleasure and it stands as a perfect example of a truly customer-focused experience with the goal of making people feel safe, comfortable, and, ultimately, happy.  Now imagine your customers feeling this way about their experience with your business.  Imagine your employees delivering the WALS experience.  Imagine a big welcome where your customers feel like they are wanted.  Imagine more awareness of customer needs and employees urgently accommodating them.  Imagine your employees really listening to the customer and making them feel important and in control.  Imagine your employees sharing information with your customers and making them feel good about what they can expect. Imagine customers leaving happy and promoting your business to others.  Imagine all this and ask yourself, “What do we have to do to make this a reality?”

I’m going to say it starts with you practicing these things in your interactions.  When people see an example that leads to success, they begin to follow that lead.  From there, you must make WALS part of the culture, it must be part of your messaging, your internal marketing.  It must become part of the language of your business.  Your team must see it, hear it, and then live it.

I was inspired by Dane, Sharkey and Ryan.  They all worked like a well-oiled machine to deliver an amazing experience.  That’s something your business can do as well, just get to work…now!

Fording the Leadership Stream

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Leadership is not about doing all the work; it’s about leading those that do the work.  However, that can be very difficult, because in most organizations, leaders were at one time in that group of doers, now they are in the position of leading the doers and must effectively broker the talent on the team. You see, good teams are ones where every gift and talent is engaged to its utmost and this requires leadership to provide tools, guidance and recognition.  Here are some things to think about in leading a team successfully.

  1. A team’s chief purpose is to reach a goal for the team, not any individual, thus, team members do not compete with each other, they complete each other.
  2. The team must use its array of talents, but to be effective, it must do so in pursuit of a common goal.
  3. Every team member has a contribution to make.
  4. No team member or contribution is less important than another.
  5. Although team members are equally important, they are diverse and bring different things to the table and all should be individually acknowledged when appropriate.
  6. The best teams and leaders trust, care for, help, and sacrifice for each other.
  7. Team members must be trusted and given freedom to use their talents and to make mistakes in learning new skills. This is the key to future success.

Going from a doer to a leader can be difficult, particularly when, in most cases, the new leader knows how to do the work better than those they’re leading.  However, by focusing on the tips above, you should be able to ford this high water with fewer problems.


Let’s Put the Human Back Into People

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I was watching an old rerun of a show from the 1970’s the other day and one scene was supposed to be a city street, but it was clearly fake.  The buildings were all facades.  It seriously looked like a back lot instead of a real city street; the falseness made it hard to watch.

This reminded me of one of the problems I see regularly in businesses.  So many train their employees to do this or that and then expect them to deliver.  This may work when it comes to a task like operating a cash register or filling out the right forms but it simply fails when it comes to behaviors because behaviors are not tasks, they are emotional.

A while back I was facilitating a training class, and when I when out into the hallway, I noticed another class of some sort going on in the room across the way.  The sign said it was a customer service class and since the doors were open, I took a peek inside.  The attendees and the instructor were all standing in a circle and he was imploring them to listen carefully.  After the silence, they all talked about every sound they heard.  After this, the instructor told them to remember to employ the same focus when they listened to people.  It was a good exercise but it left me wondering how effective it would be if the attendees’ thinking is not one of really caring about the customer, their “listening” would be fake, it would be a facade.

So many of these training classes work hard on tasks but little on thinking, and without working on the thinking, it will all just be fake which customers will eventually see right through.  When a smile is a task, it is fake, but when a smile is a mentality, it is genuine.

How can we make these behavioral things genuine?  It obviously begins by changing mentalities and I believe that starts with making business human.  What I mean is making our dealings with people just that, dealings with people not things.  You see so many businesses treat people as things rather than people with needs, problems and goals.  And this isn’t limited to customers, it includes employees.  When we dehumanize people, it is so easy to take advantage of them, even hurt them, but once we put a human face on them and understand that they have the same issues, needs and dreams as us, it changes the game.  That smile can easily come through as genuine.  When we see others as just like us that smile at them becomes a smile back at ourselves.

How can you change things where you work?  How can you bring humans back into the conversation? When you make decisions at the boardroom table, do you include the employee, do you include the customer?

When we put the human back into people it changes our thinking, it takes fake concern to genuine concern.  This is how we go from behaviors as tasks (facades) to behaviors as genuine.  Truly working on this will change everything from our relationships in families to our relationships in our workplaces and in our customers’ experiences. To go from fake to genuine requires a change in thinking that makes people human and this is something no task training can do.


A New Year Change Challenge

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Things are fresh now and it is time to look ahead.  I always think this is a time to really think differently and get away from “the way we’ve always done it.”  That line of thinking is a killer.  It’s a killer to innovation, to growth and to a living organization where people think and try things, and I believe an environment where people are free and even encouraged to think and try things is the real secret sauce to success.

We are in a world where statistics say that more than half of employees are disengaged with their work and find their workplace maybe one step above being in prison.  When you think that roughly a third of our lives are spent in the workplace, you realize how much time people are spending in a tragic circumstance and how impactful this problem can be for individuals and families. I believe we must change this if we want our world to be successful in the long run, and, since this is the time when people are thinking about change, why not take advantage.

Here’s my change challenge. How can you influence a change in making engagement more of the norm?  What can you do to encourage thinking, innovation and creativity? How can you influence making it safe for employees to speak up, share their thoughts and challenge the status quo?  How can you empower more, encourage more and involve more people?  Make this year different by making it better for others.  Engage the disengaged, get them out of prison.