For over seven years I worked with some private equity (PE) owned organizations. To say it was an education is an understatement. Like most of the best learning-on-the-job, I made some mistakes, especially early on. However, I am grateful for the experience it gave me. In retrospect, it feels like I received another Master’s degree because the way they think and look at businesses was often different than my earlier learning.
Most people understand that PE invests in companies because they believe that they can create more value than the current operations and business structure are able to achieve. The company I worked with didn’t buy distressed companies. For the most part, they bought good companies where they believed there was unrealized value to be found through some combination of growth, operational excellence initiatives and other efficiencies. They invested in companies and often in the leadership and people strategies and systems – which is how they found me.
Here is what they taught me:
For the record I am aware that some people think of PE as unethical or evil. I knew that when I signed on. As I had no experience I wanted to make my own call. Did they do some things that I thought were short-sighted? Yes, I believe they did. But that is really wired into their goals. With a 3-5-year window for some kind of event (e.g., sale, spin, etc.), they aren’t in it for the long hall. Sometimes they chose people to lead their acquisitions that I think were better suited for other roles (and that is putting it very nicely). In the end, why I continued to do the work is that they did some things exceptionally well. Under their ownership, performance improved. Leaders and teams were challenged to learn new skills and grow (sometimes for the first time) and they sharpened their financial and operational chops. People got a chance to get better. I believe I helped with that and for everything I learned, I hope I was able to contribute something back.
The most important thing they taught me was that every business model and structure has strengths and weaknesses. I have come to think of businesses as “evil” when they allow an abusive or uncaring manager to stay in place, when they allow unethical behavior or mismanagement that has the potential to drive the business into the ground. Having worked in over 12 industries for the last 17 years, with both private and public companies, I can say with confidence that these types of leaders can be found in every type of business. In the end, what separates most good businesses from bad is whether or not they are led by smart, ethical people who care about their employees and demonstrate that through their actions and words. Thankfully, I find these leaders everywhere.
I just completed a project with a new client. We met when I did another project for his organization last year. Thankfully this is how I get most of my work. This project was complex, high stakes, involved a very important client of theirs, and working with some of their senior leaders. For me the project was interesting and it gave me an opportunity to learn more about their business, people and industry. Usually it doesn’t get any better than that. Except in this instance, it does because I also got to work with a leader who brought out the best in me and inspired me to work above and beyond what I needed to do. He motivated a ton of discretionary effort.
Discretionary effort is a largely untapped goldmine of the best, most inspired and innovative contribution that your employees, under the right circumstances and leadership, provide to your business for free. You pay them to do their job. You can’t really pay them for their discretionary effort because it is priceless. Leaders who can evoke this through their behavior, words and actions, are able to tap into what I believe is the holy grail of leadership.
So, what did this client do? For starters, he:
Halfway through the project I told my husband about how I felt and how motivating it was to work with this client (of course keeping client name, etc. anonymous). Hubby looked at me and said, “Wow, and now there is no way you are going to disappoint this guy.” Bingo! That’s the secret sauce! I would be mortified if this guy didn’t love me and the work I was delivering.
You get the picture. This is a guy most smart people would charge up a steep hill for regardless of how difficult it is.
Are there drawbacks with this inspirational leadership? Yes, there are. Some people aren’t worthy of it and they take advantage of it and instead of getting their discretionary effort they use it as an excuse to do less. Some folks aren’t wired for it – they don’t need much recognition. But I don’t see either of these scenarios as often, especially with top talent, and the benefits far outweigh the risks. Because most of us show up wanting to do our best work. The way we lead can light a fire that brings out the best contribution or it can turn people off: full on commitment or half-hearted compliance. In the long run, which do you think it better for your business?
Oh, and there is one more drawback if you are a consultant, you feel pretty bummed when the project ends.
Being an effective leader requires at least a fair amount of self-awareness. Self-awareness is being conscious of and able to articulate your own individual needs, motivations, and feelings. It also means that you are aware that how you experience the world is different from others.
Many leaders think they are self-aware but fewer actually are. Why is this? It’s complicated. From my experience working with hundreds of leaders with diverse backgrounds and expertise, few leaders receive honest feedback from their boss and team. And the higher up you are the less likely people are to tell you the truth about how they experience your leadership. Too much is at stake (including their job) so there is a strong bias to not share feedback. The c-level receives the least feedback. A cornerstone of building self-awareness is access to powerful feedback from those who know you well. This is why a majority of leaders benefit from a formal feedback process (e.g., qualitative interviews, validated personality profiles and multi-rater feedback).
Your success as a leader is measured by the success of myriad others. The higher up you are in the organization, the more people you have reporting to you, and the more this matters. As a leader when you speak and act, it impacts a lot of people. If what you say and do is congruent, everyone sees this and it nurtures trust and climate in a positive way. If what you say and do is incongruent, it diminishes trust and your team’s motivation. The more self-aware you are as a leader, the more likely your words and actions are aligned.
An example of how a lack of self-awareness presents is a leader I will call Sara. Sara tells everyone, “I never micromanage my team.” Sara “fully delegates” an important project to her team. When the project is almost done, she starts asking lots of questions and casts doubt on decisions her team has already made. The project gets derailed as the team realizes they have to go back to square one. Sara’s words don’t match her actions and that is usually the telltale sign of a lack of self-awareness. You can imagine the negative impact Sara’s behavior has on trust, engagement and productivity. It is monumentally ineffective.
Is building greater self-awareness worth it? Absolutely. Here’s why: an investment in your leadership effectiveness by building greater self-awareness impacts the effectiveness and achievement of your team. No matter where you start, you can learn to become more self-aware. Like anything worthwhile, it takes time and intention. I am convinced that it makes for a more skillful leader and creates a happier, less stressful life.
Living near and often working in Chicago, I always feel we do a good job embracing and celebrating our LGBT community. I feel proud of this. Sometimes I delude myself into thinking that we don’t need to talk about it anymore, that it is a no brainer, and that being LGBT is accepted as what it is, normal. Then I hear stories from clients about where they are from or about why they are not out in their workplace and I realize we still have miles to go. It makes me ask the question, “what more can we do?” The most simple, elegant answer is to make sure that we celebrate all the ways we are made, especially in the workplace.
Most straight folks I know talk about acceptance of their LBGT colleagues. That is a good start. But to really embrace and celebrate is different. Let me explain what I mean.
When I get to know clients I love hearing about their parents, significant others, their spouses, and their families. Often, when they talk about the people they love most, their whole being lights up. I have a client who is a West Point graduate and was a leader in the Air Force. He is a commanding, smart, “tough as nails”, and at times very intimidating man. But when he talks about his wife and kids, he brims with joy and it seems to immediately remind him the reason he works so hard in a difficult and demanding job. When clients talk about their kids I can see the love they have for them and it makes them happy to talk about them. Even when their kids are having problems and it is tough going at home, talking about them with colleagues seems to relieve the worry for many. These connections are not distractions, they are additive and they are part of what makes most of us who we are.
I think of all that comes from these families, the joy, worry, passion, angst, and love, as energy. Energy that gets us out of bed, gives us purpose, lights up a dreary workday, and periodically, on a bad day, reminds us of why we don’t quit our jobs. I also happen to believe that our families, whatever they look like, have the ability to make us more empathic, caring, inspired and motivated at work, especially when who we are and who we love is completely accepted and celebrated. We need all this energy to bring our best to work and life, and anything that diminishes it, or who we are, is not good.
Some clients do this well. They make a point of celebrating their employees through family friendly policies of all types, and being public about supporting LGBT employees. Celebration involves both words and actions. Celebration requires that leaders at all levels speak and act openly in support of their LGBT colleagues. It requires that if a disparaging term is used to describe a person who is LGBT in a quiet, one-on-one meeting, that no matter the discomfort, we openly share our concern and dislike about the other person’s use of the term. Celebration requires us to stand up, speak up and delight in all our amazing ability to love and be loved.
One of the Achilles heels of most clients continues to be how to deal with a low performing team member. It’s hard to understand when you evaluate the costs. It’s easier to understand when you factor in the emotional component. Though it can be complicated, the most prevalent reason I find that leaders allow it to persist is that it’s difficult, time consuming and emotionally challenging to coach an underperforming leader or team member. So they put off dealing with the problem to the point where they may sacrifice:
Dealing with low performance can be time consuming and requires skill. Putting off dealing with a performance issue makes it more challenging to resolve. Most importantly it is undermining the fact that something else might be going on and unless you address it, will most likely continue. Underperformance is often about poor job, culture or boss fit, or something larger going on in the employee’s life. If you are a leader, your job is to inspire and motivate high performance from everyone. Allowing underperformance is bad for your team, reputation, business and ultimately for the individual who is not being asked to contribute their best. In the end that is what we all want to do.
Teams need norms. Some teams call them "ground rules" or "operating principals". It’s no surprise that when MIT and Google studied team effectiveness, they found that having team norms was essential. I used to underestimate the process of creating team norms and see them as a “check the box” moment with team facilitation. After working with a lot of teams, especially over time, I learned how important they are and I use a more rigorous process.
Why are team ground rules so important?
Really great teams are often diverse. Members bring different knowledge, skills, backgrounds, experiences and personalities. The more diverse the team, the more profound the differences in expectations for what productive interactions look like. If you have read my other posts on the importance of psychological safety to team effectiveness, you will understand that the more safe people feel to speak up, be authentic and share their best, the more effective the team will be. And of course the reverse is true – if people feel like their way of being, communicating or interacting is discounted or dismissed, they will be less likely to speak up or contribute in other ways
Creating team ground rules or norms is a way of creating an “interaction playbook” of how you want team members to show up, be present, communicate (listening and speaking), make decisions, appreciate and follow through. The goal is to create a set of behavioral norms all members agree to honor and uphold. If you want to access the optimal contribution, you want everyone to feel like their experiences, insights and perspectives matter (even if you don't agree with them). This process of creating team norms allows everyone to create a space where they feel comfortable and safe to contribute, challenge others and most importantly, perform.
Here are a few pointers for creating effective team ground rules/norms:
The hardest part is for team members to keep the norms alive and call each other on behaviors that run counter to those to which they have agreed. In the end, creating a space where all can contribute their best work is more than worth it.
This is the second of a series on successful teams. As a higher level of trust on a team supports more effective interactions (See my April post), shared purpose strengthens team cohesion and collaboration. When referring to the term “shared purpose”, I am not talking about a lofty vision. I am referring to the practical reason that binds all the endeavors and activities of the team members. The shared purpose describes what everyone on the team is trying to accomplish – the overarching, collective goal of all of the work they do. Unlike a team charter, that defines the goals and boundaries (the “contract”) under which a project team will work, the shared purpose applies to all types of teams. The clearer everyone is on what they have in common, the more likely they are to work across boundaries and acknowledge interdependencies.
So often when I am working with a team who reports to senior executive, they act as separate entities with completely different goals. In many ways this is understandable. They have different functions, different expertise and roles in the organization. On a daily basis, their work may feel very different from that of their peers on the same team. However, when I get to know them and their work, their areas of interdependence become much clearer. And if they don’t acknowledge their interdependencies, they are often ignoring the collaborative efforts that would make them more efficient, effective and successful. Identifying and discussing shared purpose allows teams to stand above their inherent differences, disciplines and expertise and reminds them of their collective reason for existing.
How can you spot a lack of shared purpose on a team? There are some clear signs that a team is not aware of or leveraging their shared purpose:
In my experience working with hundreds of teams, when teams are clear on their shared purpose, their energy is focused on achievement vs. political jockeying or internal competition. Creating shared purpose on a team requires reflection, preparation and time to stand above the day-to-day activity to discuss and agree. If done right, it is guaranteed to make your team more collaborative and successful.
This is the first of a series of posts on how teams work. There is some updated research to which I have referred (several times) in my other posts on teams. However this series is a deeper dive on a few topics that I have found to be important in creating a successful team. Most of what I have learned in practice over the last 20 years aligns well with the research. There are nuances that happen in action working with real teams that deserve a deeper dive.
A couple years ago I was working with a CEO and his direct team. They were a pretty successful team. However, the CEO wanted them to create higher performance in their lines of business and to pursue more innovation and growth in their product offerings. He felt that this would require that they challenge him and each other more and that they make decisions and implement faster. When I started working with them, they clearly got along and there was little friction in their team meetings. They were a bit more candid in the individual meetings I had with each of them, but all but one felt that they had good working relationships with each other and didn’t see much need to work on their team dynamics. For the most part it became clear the CEO was driving this project. This is never a good thing by the way. I like to have a lot more buy-in. So that is where I needed to start.
As I got to know them I started to hear about some of the “meetings after the meetings” and how they let each other down in various ways. I observed that their divisions were way more interdependent than they realized (or admitted) and there was more friction at the next level because they were missing deadlines and not handing off projects to each other’s teams as promised. It became clear to me that they didn’t have real trust. Here are some behaviors that tell me a team trusts each other:
It is a big bonus if they perform AND can demonstrate that they care about each other as people. To be a successful team, you need both. You might be thinking, “Well such perfect teams don’t exist.” I would agree that they are not the norm. But teams that actively work on trust, and it is work, reap the performance rewards. They also tend to like each other more. To be clear, being honest does not mean you can be a jerk. Being a jerk is largely ineffective and can undermine team cohesion in a big way especially if you take it to the point of being a bully. That is a subject for a whole other post.
Teams need to talk about what signals trust for them. Once they agree on this and ground rules, they can start to hold each other accountable. With the team I referred to earlier, I can identify the day they started making progress. In a meeting the CEO was asking why an important project was so behind. It turns out that two of his direct reports who were mutually accountable for aspects of the project, had yet to discuss. He looked at the two executives and said, “You two always say what a great relationship you have. I will say that I have to doubt that. If you can’t trust each other enough to hold each other accountable, you don’t have a very good relationship. So we really do have work to do.” He was right.
I believe that our work and relationships at work serve as an important lab for our “growing up”. Most of us arrive at our first jobs barely formed. If we are lucky we have lots of enthusiasm and energy to make up the serious lack of skills. For highly technical folks this may be less true as their undergraduate degrees or training may involve more hands-on practice, building and “making”. But most of us are still learning about the “world of work” when we get our first real job and we have big developmental leaps ahead.
Growing up at work, much like general life, is equally as uncomfortable as it is fun and exciting. The percents will vary for each of us at various times. We will work on fun projects with people we respect and admire. And there will be times when we work on projects we dislike (or find futile) and with people we don’t like. When the latter happens, even when we are advanced in our careers, I believe it is a golden moment. In my experience, not liking something or someone is much more about us than about the project or the person. If we are open to observing and exploring the discomfort, it can provide a fruitful line of inquiry. In so many ways learning to work with a difficult colleague or on a project we don’t like helps us find out who we are and develop new skills. When we come through a challenge, we have a possibility to become more skillful: more adaptable, humble, and more compassionate for others, and ourselves. As in Taoist teaching, challenging work and people are like water over stones, always uncovering more facets of who we are while rounding out the rough (or unskilled) patches.
Often leaders hit a point in their careers where they don’t experience as much, if any real challenge. They will have business challenges for sure. But at the upper levels of management, they will be handing most of these challenges off to their team. The real challenges become much more about inspiring peak contribution of each member of your team and the performance of your organization as a whole. At the highest levels of leadership it is less realistic to expect our direct reports to challenge us to grow. The stakes are often too high. We need more challenge to come from our peers, boss and board.
I can’t tell you how many times I have heard members of a CEO’s team say, “We all actually get along really well. The real conflict is at our next level. They can’t seem to get along!” Pardon me if I am skeptical. In my humble practitioners experience, it is way more likely that all the things that you are not discussing or resolving at your level, are handed down a level. The unresolved disagreements that exist on the top team are being played out at the next level.
Many leadership teams need help to become more open and honest in their meetings. It can take time and practice. Sometimes it will require changing the composition of the top team and creating greater psychological safety to discuss the “undiscussables”. A skillful internal consultant can sometimes help or collaborate on this. But often this role is too dangerous. There is always a chance that in their discomfort the team will blame and reject the facilitator. This response, though ineffective, is understandable. For this and myriad other reasons, there can be great benefit from leveraging an external facilitator.
We all need to be challenged at every stage in our careers. The opportunity to learn, grow and “grow up” never ends. We can always learn and get better. Most of us require the challenge of others and support through the inherent growing pains. Feeling more confident and skillful saying whatever needs to be said and doing what needs to be done in service of creating a great enterprise, makes it all worth it.
Whenever I work with teams, I work hard to create a space where everyone feels they can speak up and that they can take risks with their contributions and learning. This is part of creating “psychological safety”, or having confidence that you will not be punished, embarrassed, or rejected for speaking up. Amy Edmondson, a Harvard business school professor and researcher published a study in 1999 about psychological safety on teams. She wrote, “It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.”
If you want to learn a bit more about psychological safety and teams and you haven’t yet read Charles Duhigg’s fantastic New York Times article from February 25, 2016, it’s a good place to start. I have referred to it before – but it’s worth mentioning again. In it, Edmondson is quoted and there are some other good references.
I discovered this requirement for successful teams from my own experiences leading teams as an operation’s manager and then later facilitating them in my current work. At this point in my career I can say that I have worked with hundreds of teams. It is some of my favorite work. When I first started out I made some mistakes that contributed to a few people not feeling safe. Those experiences have stuck with me. Though I didn’t mean to cause people to feel embarrassed, my actions and words contributed to it. Thankfully after these experiences I vowed to become more skillful and get better at facilitating teams and I did.
Creating psychological safety on teams requires skill. The more diverse the team, the more skill required by the team leader or facilitator. Setting up good ground rules that the team will use every time they meet (and in other sub-team meetings) is a foundation that has been shown to be important in creating a successful team. In my experience teams sometimes make this a “check the box” exercise. I now make a bigger deal of it when I facilitate teams. Equity in team members talking, listening and making sure all feel that their ideas matter, is also very important. Some lucky teams seem to naturally be better at this. But when the expected outcomes are complex or will have a big impact, most teams will need help starting off right. Skillful facilitation will go a long way in helping a team “form” and creating a successful team launch.
One thing I know for sure is that if you want a successful team, you need to create a team climate where everyone is more likely to bring their “A game”. There is so much to benefit from everyone being all in – it’s the point of a team. If you could do it yourself, you should. But if you need a team, a successful one will need to feel safe.
Welcome to Moira's blog. I write a bi-monthly post about the work of building better people strategies, systems, teams and leaders.