The Power of Vulnerability

Recently, I watched Dr. Brene Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability. It was insightful. It also reminded me that the toughest job I ever had was also the same one that taught me about the power of vulnerability.

It was 1999 and I had just been named as President at AT&T’s Global Services Division. I was ecstatic

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…for a short time. I had joined AT&T three years earlier as an outside recruit to help a great team turn around the Eastern Region at Global Services. Our team had tripled the growth rate to fifteen percent and maintained that growth rate for three years to build a strong $5B unit, all while improving employee and customer satisfaction.

After I was promoted, I thought my biggest priority was to quickly introduce myself to the great team that comprised the Central and Western Regions and get started expanding on the approach that had worked in the East. It quickly became evident, however, that things were brewing both inside and outside the company that created a set of challenges I had never encountered, and it brought me to a place I had never been before.

Inside the company, thirty days into the new assignment I got a new boss. He was not a fan of mine. Thirty days later I learned that due to budget cuts I needed to lay off fifty percent of my work force using a voluntary program with no exclusions. The best producers could leave. Shortly after, I learned that forty percent of my accounts would be shifted to other business units at year end.

Outside the company, we faced a competitor who was operating illegally. Specifically, Worldcom was reporting overstated revenue and profit growth at the same time they were waging a price war in our market. (CEO Bernie Ebers subsequently went to jail.) Our business targets had been set to match the competitor’s growth claims.

Employees were shaken and so was I. But I was able to rely on a roadmap that had served me well in other difficult situations. I had experience using discipline, support, creativity, and values to align our team. I also had experience with insight to keep me balanced in the face of the lunacy. The challenge was to find a way to connect our nationwide workforce in order to pull together and raise their game in spite of all that was going on around them.

The answer came as the senior leadership team continued our practice of open dialogue yet added a willingness to acknowledge and share our own feelings of concern for the future. Personally, I openly shared my concerns and my vulnerability. I made it clear that I was not sure what senior management’s plans for me would be in the future. I was not looking for sympathy but rather simply trying to model straight talk. This was not typical of senior leaders at AT&T. Then, at one particular all-hands meeting I decided to go even further.

At the meeting, I was asked by an employee about the health care coverage options available for those who voluntarily left the company. He went on to explain that his wife was recovering from cancer surgery. I chose that time to share a secret I had held for over ten years—that I too had battled cancer. You could have heard a pin drop in the auditorium as I shared my news. News about my disclosure spread quickly—I was surprised by how many times it came up in later discussions with employees. In hindsight, I may have actually “joined” the workforce at AT&T that day. While some might question the wisdom of this level of openness, for me it was the right decision and made a huge, positive difference. My vulnerability allowed me to connect to the team at AT&T. Brene Brown explains this very phenomenon in her talk.

Amazingly to some and in spite of all the challenges we faced, the Global Services team actually doubled our revenue growth rate that year, although we did not reach our plan. We also set record levels for customer satisfaction. Perhaps most significant was our record-setting employee satisfaction improvement. Employees—who saw half their peer group leave during the year including those who were being transferred out of our unit—reported a huge increase in their confidence in unit leadership.

There is no doubt that our team worked hard and smart that year. For me, however, the breakthrough that enabled this amazing performance was the level of teamwork prompted in part by our choice to be open, honest, and vulnerable.

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Listening to the Quiet Ones

Can you realize the full potential in a group if members don’t choose to openly share their thoughts? The answer is no. If team members are unwilling to speak their mind for any reason, good leaders must find a way to convince members to share their ideas in a way that works for them. I was reminded of this challenge recently when I had the opportunity to read Quiet: The Power of Introverts by Susan Cain. The book makes a compelling case for the increased innovation and productivity available to organizations when firms find ways to ensure contribution from everyone, including introverts.

The book brought me back to my arrival at AT&T in 1995 as the first outsider in 100 years recruited to lead a unit of “long lines” as a corporate officer. At the time, the $3B organization included 2,000 professionals and was under-performing in a number of areas. On arriving, my initial goal was to set up a series of town hall meetings to listen to employee thoughts, questions, and suggestions. When I did not get the level of interaction I had hoped, I asked a peer if she had any guidance. She told me to review the Employee Satisfaction Survey results.

The survey results were alarming. One particular question told me all I needed to know. The specific questions asked: Do you think it is safe to say what you think at AT&T? The prior year results for our unit showed that only 39% said yes. I learned that results across AT&T were similar for that particular question. Translation: on average, 6 out of 10 people would not tell you the full truth.

Whether these results were due to introversion or lack of trust, the simple truth was that I needed to confront this issue straight on if we were going to turn around performance. I needed to find a way for people to express their feelings and thoughts in a safe way.

I decided to get creative to set up a safe way to get employee input. Specifically, I actually signed a contract with our major competitor MCI for a toll-free 1-800-SAFE-2-SAY number that my employees could call at any time. MCI would transcribe employee comments and send me a written weekly report. Nobody’s voice could be recognized. My employees were amazed; while I am sure some in upper management were flabbergasted.

On my regular all-associates conference calls I would regularly pull from the prior week’s MCI report the “toughest” questions and answer them openly and honestly. At first people were surprised that no comment or question was over the line. Over time, more and more employees felt comfortable asking tougher questions in open forums. I am sure that many talented introverts continued to use this tool to communicate.

We also made progress on the safe to say question on the Employee Satisfaction Survey, becoming one of the only units to break the 50% mark. Perhaps not surprisingly, overall employee satisfaction hit record levels and customer satisfaction levels did the same. Our revenue growth rate TRIPLED from 5 to 15% and we grew to $5B over three years.

Question: What are you doing to ensure you are “hearing” from the quiet members of your team?

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Ethics and Sledgehammers

A recent Wall Street Journal article outlines the increasing efforts at a number of B-schools to beef up their focus on ethics. While the article also points out the challenge of measuring the return for this investment, there is no doubting the havoc created when ethical behavior is not followed.

Increasing ethics training in school is a good start, but from my experience leaders must double-down on the job as well, with consistent actions to ensure that a culture of ethical behavior is the most visible attribute in an organization. From a cost/benefit perspective, focusing on ethical behavior may be the only area where it makes sense to “kill a flee with a sledgehammer.”

Personally, as an undergraduate I was fortunate to attend Bentley University which started its Center of Business Ethics in 1976. Bentley’s focus on ethics helped me translate what I had learned growing up into the world of business.

At my very first job as a computer sales rep, I was assigned to the local government market in Massachusetts. There I learned quickly that ethics were a really big deal and the different rules in the public and private sectors. I remember making sure we had a clearly identified “cash cup” next to the coffee machine for government prospects to deposit their 25 cents. Since I was prohibited from any social contact with prospects or customers, my golf game never improved. I was well aware that violating the rules could cause disbarment from all government prospects in Massachusetts.

Later serving as President at AT&T’s Global Services Division, I made sure we mandated training for our global work force to ensure they understood every detail of behavior expected of them as part of a US company doing work abroad as laid out in the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). We required annual training certification including an understanding that violations could result in jail time, and ensured leaders at all levels regularly included related topics in monthly agendas.

In another assignment, I served as President at an internet start-up and did not have access to the resources of an AT&T to build formal ethics training programs. Our management team met regularly to discuss how we could include integrity as part of our daily discussions with our young workforce.

In my last corporate assignment, I served as President of Lucent’s Government Solutions Division. Serving the Federal Government involves a whole new level of rules and regulations. We set up a Compliance Office to ensure we took every step possible to set the right tone in our organization that ethics was our top priority. We used mandatory training, monthly newsletters, and regularly included compliance as a meeting agenda topic to ensure appropriate attention on ethics.

The (WSJ) article points out that everyone likely knows the meaning of right and wrong, but business has run under an axiom for a long time: if it is important, then you measure it. Measuring the implications of culture is not well understood. Harvard researchers Jim Heskett & John Kotter provide just such a study in their book Corporate Culture and Performance. Their research proves a values-based, change adaptive culture drives sustainable, measurable growth.

Some still believe ethics, like culture, is “soft.” Legendary management guru Peter Drucker said “what’s soft is hard and what’s hard is soft.” Translation: this stuff matters… a lot.

In my view, an organization has nothing more important than its reputation and leaders must make ethical behavior Job #1 and an active part of their objectives. In addition to good hiring and strong internal audit practices, robust training programs and constant reinforcement can help companies of all sizes support good choices. Ethical behavior is the key to long-term success with customers, employees, suppliers, partners, and the community at large.

My recommendation: educate and reinforce the importance of ethics early and often…and bring out the sledgehammer.

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Turnaround Success Starts with i3K!

Having been recruited to lead several organizations where it was said a “turnaround” was required, I have learned that organization-wide overhauls seldom work. In fact, some would argue that they’re often not necessary. Organizations are often not as bad as some would say when results are poor, just as they are not as grand as some would say when results are great.

The truth is that dramatically improving results in under-performing units most often involves “adjustments” when working with the same employees. The existing organization. It is key to create a culture where employees excel, and it starts with i3K.

i3K is a short-hand for Intelligence, Intensity, Integrity, and Kindness. I have personally used this standard successfully for years to determine if we have the right people on the bus. In his book Good To Great, Jim Collins offers a view that organizations would be well served if they adopted a “First Who…Then What” approach. i3K answers the question “How do I select the Who?”

Everyone wants to work with smart people. Most people don’t need a high IQ to perform well, but they do need to be able to anticipate and adapt to change. Within i3K, intelligence also includes EQ or emotional intelligence. It is important for people to be able to perceive, use, understand, and manage emotions to work well in teams.

In addition, people need to be willing and able to work hard. Many have linked success to a combination of inspiration and perspiration. Intensity can be sustained when people are productive and growing, while being supported, recognized, encouraged, inspired, and well-managed.

Cultures that support excellence are also based on absolute integrity. Honest and direct communications must become the norm. People need to be open and willing to share their thoughts and feelings without fear of reprisal. Everyone has to seek the complete, “all-in” truth in all situations as they collectively build a reputation for reliability.

Finally, while it is important to completely commit to the value statements provided by most organizations, my experience has taught me the single most important value to look for in team members is compassion. This quality is heralded and reinforced in many different places. The Golden Rule says “do unto others…” and the Talmud asserts “the highest form of wisdom is kindness.”

Utilizing the i3K standard, organizations can assemble teams of smart, hard-working, and compassionate people who trust each other. Once assembled, these teams self-regulate and can deliver incredible levels of speed, innovation and results. With the right people, sustained exceptional performance creates a really successful turnaround. It is true that depending on past execution, this level of performance may be referred to as a turnaround. In other instances, it’s simply called good leadership.

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Turnaround Success: Six Key Questions

Turnarounds are in the news these days. Political media are currently fueled by dueling debates about the merits of private equity firms and their turnaround tactics, including the impact on jobs. Business media report both on companies that have seemingly recovered from our economic tsunami and those that have yet to turnaround. In all cases, the key question is whether a company can sustain positive performance and continue to grow once it has turned around. With sustained growth, all constituents—employees, customers, investors, and the community at large—benefit.

In my experience leading successful business turnarounds in many different industries, the key challenge is to ask the right set of common questions. Specifically, finding answers to six key questions has led to consistent turnaround success and growth for companies ranging from a start-up to a multi-billion dollar worldwide organization.

If you are leading an organization in need of a turnaround or simply looking to improve your company’s performance, I urge you to thoughtfully consider your answers to each of the questions below.

1. Customers: What do they need to succeed and how can we be the best place for them to get it?

2. Competitors: Where are their strengths and weaknesses and how do we take market share from them?

3. Costs: Where are our opportunities to be more efficient and how to we improve our margins?

4. Capital: How do we ensure we have adequate investment resources and provide the best returns for our investors?

5. Community: How do we demonstrate social responsibility so strongly that the broader public views us as great partners?

6. Culture: How do we attract and retain the best team of people who can answer the first five questions today, and tomorrow when things change?

This “6-C” turnaround framework can be used as a starting point to assess your organization’s strengths and weaknesses. The answers to these six questions also hold the key to your company’s long-term success.

In particular, this framework points to the importance of culture. As legendary management expert Peter Drucker shared, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

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Leaders Need to D.I.S.C.onnect for Results

Many are questioning the state of leadership today. It’s no secret that the constant struggle in Washington has led to a disconnect between the governing and the governed. Less visibly, companies can find themselves with the same challenge between senior management and the employee base, at the very time they need to pull together to improve results. From my experience as a President of multiple companies focused on turnarounds, the biggest opportunity for leaders today may be our choice to connect the pieces that have been traditionally disconnected. In fact, I developed and deployed a successful strategy to D.I.S.C.onnect for results.

In my judgment, conventional thinking is no longer acceptable.

  1. Conventional thinking disconnects management and leadership. “Managers do the right things, while leaders do things right. Manage things and lead people.”
  2. Conventional thinking disconnects professional and personal pieces of an individual’s life. “It’s just business.”
  3. Conventional thinking disconnects the value of looking for guidance from personal reflection (feeling, thinking) as opposed to taking action (speaking, writing, acting) or relying exclusively on the opinions of others.
  4. Conventional thinking disconnects the power of ALL of the potential impact of the leaders in an organization from the impact of those few at the top.

Personally, I have had lots of success with connected leadership. I developed an All-In Leadership Roadmap when I ran organizations and needed to unlock the potential of all of my leaders. In each case, the key to success was a roadmap that included a focus on actions and attributes, and a D.I.S.C.onnect approach for connected leadership.

Specifically, the roadmap CONNECTS sets of choices, including Discipline, Insight, Support, and Creativity, and asks leaders to self assess their actions and their attributes in these areas. In my experience, the roadmap has led to increased engagement, results, resilience, and the development of cultures where people excel. These include employees, customers, partners, owners, and the communities in which companies do business—which, in fact, are all connected. Here are the highlights:

Discipline starts with a vision. Who are we and what do we stand for? It is followed by a strategic and plan to accomplish that vision. After we plan the work, we work the plan. Discipline is required to build trust. A key to connected leadership is the added focus on the importance of adjustments. Rather than solely relying on strong central control over decision-making, a connected leader will decentralize decision-making and build appropriate controls to make sure the organization has rapid response capabilities to make critical adjustments. While discipline does not guarantee complete control, it improves the probability of success.

Insight starts with self-understanding. A connected leader understands who they are and what they stand for. With all the change that surrounds businesses today, employees are looking for leaders who are reliable and confident in themselves. These leaders can integrate information that comes from others with their gut instincts and trust their own voice. They find that voice when they are focused, present, accepting, generous, and grateful. Connected leaders also understand the downside to the popular concept of multi-tasking. They understand that by devoting all of their focus to a given individual, true communication be enhanced and relationships will be strengthened.

Support for others is effective only after we truly understand their needs. It starts by listening to understand and learn from everyone and every opportunity. A connected leader is always willing to accept the input of others. It can be challenging for leaders who view their role to be confident, clear, concise, convincing, and compelling to also be open at all times to input, but it is an absolutely necessary component of connected leadership. It also includes questioning, inspiring, encouraging, enabling, and role modeling for others.

Creativity is at its fullest for each of us and is unleashed when we connect what we do to who we are. Specifically, when we connect our internal creativity (feelings and thoughts) to our external creativity (our written and spoken words and our actions) we dramatically increase both our effectiveness and our positive influence over others. Connected leaders know their words matter. They connect their email language with the words they use in everyday conversations. These leaders are also able to integrate their personal and professional roles and remain true to themselves and what they believe in.

Finally, the D.I.S.C.onnect strategy is underpinned by a strong focus on the core values of an organization. Whether a connected leader is engaged in managing or guiding others, values are visible in word and action. Truth, respect, teamwork, equality, service, and connection are among sets of values followed by many successful organizations today. Values become the ultimate glue that holds great organizations together when everything else changes.

The bottom line is when leaders choose to connect that which has traditionally been disconnected, amazing things can happen. Most significantly, the potential of leaders at all levels in any organization is released. When applied to a company where results have been going in the wrong direction, it leads to a successful turnaround. When applied to companies already going in the right direction, results improve and resilience grows.

Who knows what could happen if a D.I.S.C.onnect approach was introduced in Washington? Perhaps it is time for our leaders to try the unconventional.

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Business Lessons from a Diabetes Camp

November is National Diabetes Awareness Month and while the national discussion continues around health care costs, perhaps no other disease impacts a business’ bottom line today quite like diabetes. According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are just-under 26 million people with diabetes in the U.S. and there are an additional 79 million people with pre-diabetes—a condition where cardiovascular deterioration starts. That’s 105 million people, or 1 out of every 3 Americans affected. It is a good bet that many companies have a similar percentage of employees and retirees with the disease. With health care costs rising, many companies are looking to establish Wellness Programs to keep their employees healthier. Where is a company to turn for a model of success? The answer may be a kid’s diabetes camp in central Massachusetts.

Specifically, the Barton Center for Diabetes Education Inc. in North Oxford, MA operates the two longest running camps in the world for kids with diabetes. For almost 80 years, the Clara Barton Camp and Camp Joslin have taught girls and boys with diabetes how to live healthy and productive lives with balance and discipline. While these lessons help young people manage blood glucose levels, they also set a foundation for healthy living and overall success.

Today, the camps summarize their education focus in a program they call “Healthy Stars.” This simple and powerful program emphasizes connected choices to balance for health and life. For good health the program emphasizes a focus on nutrition, exercise, sleep, stress management, and wellness support (people and products). For life balance the program emphasizes a focus on personal growth, community service, faith, school and work, and family and friends. In both cases, the Barton Center advocates the following principles:

  • Take Responsibility
  • Set a Goal
  • Measure, Measure, Measure
  • Help Others
  • Have Fun
  • Don’t Give Up

The track record of success at the camps run by The Barton Center can be measured in any number of ways. In one way, a study was conducted with 250 campers that proved that those who attended at least 5 years (10 weeks) of camp displayed significantly improved health measurements. In another way, successful campers consistently choose to return to the camp as counselors to share lessons learned with future generations. The Barton Center has created a culture where people excel.

As companies look for new ways of controlling costs and increasing employee health and engagement, perhaps they can look to The Barton Center as a model that has developed a proven program to teach us that balance and discipline lead to good health and life balance and overall success.

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6 Secrets of Turnaround Success

Working as a senior turnaround specialist in many companies across many industries, I have come to rely on specific strategies to consistently deliver great results. Inside these strategies are 6 particular areas where focus has made all the difference for the teams that I have been fortunate to lead.

When arriving at a new opportunity, it is critical to establish a level of trust with current team members to enable information to flow. When a new “boss” arrives, s/he should employ a specific 30-day strategy of day 1 speeches, symbols, language, and stories to set the right tone. The most important element of the strategy, however, is a recognition of the importance of “co-mmunication.” Co-mmunication is defined as “the joint construction of meaning,” requires active participation by both parties, and is the only way to ensure you are developing the trust necessary to make real progress.

Operationally, it is critical to establish a culture of disciplined management. Components of a disciplined management strategy include envisioning, strategizing, planning, and implementing and measuring. While leaders work diligently to set plans, the certainty offered by Peter Drucker rings true—plans are right 1/3 of the time, fixable 1/3 of the time, and just flat wrong 1/3 of the time. Organizations that succeed specifically recognize that adjustment is a critical part of their management discipline.

Many organizations that underperform do not encourage support as a specific strategy to increase employee engagement. Components of a support strategy include encouraging, enabling, inspiring, questioning, and modeling. Organizations that turn around quickly, however, are those where senior leaders both employ support practices but also understand and appreciate the opportunity to be guided and supported by members of their employee base.

In turnaround situations, speed is a critical issue. To accelerate necessary progress, individuals in organizations need to be encouraged to connect their internal creativity (feeling and thinking), to their external creativity (speaking, writing, and acting). It is particularly important for turnaround leaders to look for passion in team members as an outward indicator of this important alignment.

In my experience, successful turnaround specialists also start with a good self-understanding and insight. They model presence, acceptance, focus, generosity, and gratitude. These leaders know who they are and maintain internal confidence in the face of adversity. Importantly, they keep their personal and professional lives connected and behave consistently in all situations based on who they are and what they stand for.

It is also critical to ensure clarity about what the organization stands for. Values statements that reference universal themes including truth, service, and connection are critical as are behaviors that are consistent with those values. If there is one value that I have found most critical, it is equality.

Organizations that create cultures with an underlying understanding of the true equality of each member are open to suggestions from all sources, co-mmunicate needed adjustments more easily, engage passionate and confident employees, and deliver breakthrough results.

Practice co-mmunication, expect adjustments, be guided by and look for passion in others, maintain confidence, and stand for equality. Taken together, these 6 “secrets” enable leaders at all levels in organizations and deliver outcomes that define successful turnarounds.

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