Non-Verbal Leadership

September 22, 2009

In a recent article in the NYTimes, Linda Hudson described her first day on her job after being promoted to president at General Dynamics:

… I went out and bought my new fancy suits to wear to work and so on. And I’m at work on my very first day, and a lady at Nordstrom’s had showed me how to tie a scarf in a very unusual kind of way for my new suit. And I go to work and wear my suit, and I have my first day at work. And then I come back to work the next day, and I run into no fewer than a dozen women in the organization who have on scarves tied exactly like mine.

Hudson’s scarf is a great metaphor for the power of non-verbal leadership. Language matters in leadership, of course, but non-verbal leadership — the signals that leaders throw off in their actions and body language — can speak as loud, if not louder than those carefully-chosen words.  This phenomenon can be an enormous opportunity, as long as you understand and harness it.  Ms. Hudson got it immediately:

And that’s when I realized that life was never going to be the way it had been before, that people were watching everything I did. And it wasn’t just going to be about how I dressed. It was about my behavior, the example I set, the tone I set, the way I carried myself, how confident I was — all those kinds of things. It really was now about me and the context of setting the tone for the organization.

I try to focus my students on the non-verbal influence they have on their peers in the classroom, influence that they will eventually have on organizations. This is counter-intuitive in the beginning.  Students often think they’re only being evaluated on the two minutes they may contribute to a conversation in any given class, but I try to explain that the other 78 minutes matter just as much.  Our goal is to get as much out of the discussion as we can as a group, which means everyone needs to work hard when they’re not speaking, too.  It turns out that the body language of one student can have an incredible effect — positive or negative — on other students.

As a simple example, imagine the quality of participation when Student A speaks and Student B is leaning forward and listening carefully.  Not only is Student A much more likely to deliver on the high expectations of Student B in that moment, not only is she much more likely to step up and share something brilliant with her audience of believers, but she’s also more likely to stay focused on the collective learning of the group.  Student B’s eagerness to learn from Student A shuts down the possibility of narrow, self-promotional exchanges that can sometimes creep into the dynamics between students and teachers.  Student A can no longer just talk to me, the evaluator.  She must respond to Student B’s non-verbal invitation to help him improve.  Now consider the quality when Student B is barely listening, or appears bored or dismissive.  Why should Student A bother to do anything but think about herself?

In my experience, the classroom is a microcosm for organizational dynamics. It’s a laboratory for learning how our  choices influence others in the structure of a group.  As I’m reminded every day when I step into that laboratory, our non-verbal choices are a powerful tool for creating the conditions for others to thrive.  The next time you are in a conversation, take note of how the body language of listeners affects the speaker.  If you accept the premise that our job is to bring the best out of the speaker, then we need to learn how to lead non-verbally.  The first step is understanding that we’re accountable for it.

Hidden Risks of Crisis Leadership

September 14, 2009

The NYT’s Adam Bryant delivered an interesting interview with Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs.  Blankfein offers some suggestions for leading in a crisis, which can be summarized as keep talking, to everyone, both to better inform your choices and to communicate changing conditions and strategies.  Blankfein walked the halls constantly during the height of the financial crisis and left a daily voicemail for the entire organization.

Blankfein also speaks to the need to “be good” to your people without lowering standards, a theme I explored in an earlier post.  In his words:

…being good to them doesn’t mean you pay them more or you’re more liberal, or you let them get away with things. Most people, what they want is to be better.

Getting this right is a central part of good leadership, but it’s harder to do in a crisis.  There is often intense pressure to care too little about your people — to become distracted by anxiety and external events — or to care too much and lower your expectations of their performance.  The first reaction is more common, but the second is more insidious.

Anxiety is a deeply selfish emotion. We don’t think of it that way because it’s often threats to other people that trigger the sensation, but anxiety’s unique rush of hormones and chemicals is biologically designed to promote our own survival.  The response is self-distracting, by design.  It’s almost impossible to focus on the experience of other people in these moments, to perform the very act that makes leadership possible, and so we end up hardening ourselves to the people who need us most.  Anxiety is an indulgence that destroys our capacity to lead.

In contrast, a crisis tempts some of us to become overly sympathetic and lower our standards.  When people you care about are going through a tough time, it can feel reasonable to compromise and let them off the hook a bit.  But there are two significant costs to that choice.  First, it denies your team the opportunity to learn.  People, like muscles, need to push themselves beyond their comfort zone to grow.  They need to bump up against their perceived limits in order to break through them, and protecting them from reality disrupts that growth process.  Second, lowering standards signals your hidden belief that maybe they’re not up for it after all.  It reveals a lack of confidence in your people when the stakes really matter.  They will internalize the message.  Their performance will rise only to the level of your diminished expectations, and everyone will conclude that you were right.  It is hard for organizations to recover from those dynamics.

A provocative way to think about it is that a crisis tempts us all to become anxious mothers or protective fathers.  Leadership requires that we reject both of these unproductive stereotypes.

Why Your Message Is Not Getting Through

September 8, 2009

One way to describe my focus is “executive frustration.”  People typically call me when their customers or employees aren’t behaving the way they want them to, and I usually start hunting for clues in the blueprints of their service model. Customers and employees typically do exactly what an organization has set them up to do, whether intentional or not, and so the answer is often to tweak the model to change the behavior.  Once a service model is changed, however, the changes must be communicated in a way that the entire organization understands.  In my experience, when communication stumbles, there are three common culprits.

The first is a clash of expectations about volume.  Managers often think they’re communicating sufficiently, while employees feel like they’re getting very little information.  It’s typically managers who need to adjust.  Employees need to know a lot in order to focus, particularly in environments where uncertainty is high.  The things your people care most about may be on the line — everything from their sick child’s health insurance to the very core of their identities — and they have a very human need to manage their exposure to significant risk.  They have an obligation to fill in the blanks if you don’t, and ambiguity often gets interpreted negatively.

So be as thorough and clear as you can.  It doesn’t necessarily mean covering more territory, but rather going deeper with the territory you do cover.  Why are you moving in a new direction?  What is the specific cost imperative that requires 25% cuts?  How has the competitive landscape changed?  You hired your employees for their ability to inform their choices and ask smart questions — they’re not going to turn those skills off when the spotlight’s on you.

The second reason communication fails is that we underestimate the need for repetition and reinforcement.  Most executives I know only need to hear something once in order to internalize it.  And many choose to treat their employees with the same courtesy.  We’re all adults here, after all.  But the messages these executives are hearing “once” often get delivered in very intimate managerial settings.  They happen conversationally or in small groups, among collaborators with shared context, data and history.  They’re also typically followed by plenty of formal and informal opportunity for clarification.

This is rarely how messages are consumed in the broader organization.  Maybe the CEO gathers the troops and explains in a company-wide meeting that customer service is now a priority.  A few brave souls venture some clarifying questions during the Q&A session, but most soldier on and try to figure out the implications on their own.  Meanwhile, the message isn’t strongly reinforced by changes in organizational behavior.  Maybe employees continue to be measured on the efficiency of their customer interactions, or the responsibilities of the front line get more complex, making service even harder to deliver.  I wish these examples were exceptional, but they’re far too close to the norm.

Finally, communication depends on getting the tone right.  The vast majority of communication is non-verbal.  When frustration or anger creeps into your tone — particularly when the power dynamic is unequal — most people have a hard time focusing on the message.  It’s fight or flight time.  Your audience’s threat management system is kicking in, and most people are either plotting their escape or organizing their own communications arsenal for a rigorous defense.  In other words, when your tone is off, most reasonable people aren’t listening to a word you’re saying.

It’s safe to assume that someone, somewhere isn’t hearing you clearly enough. Consider these communications traps, and give them another shot.

The Cure for Service Complacency

September 1, 2009

The NYT described how the post office is responding to reduced demand as customers increasingly turn to alternatives for exchanging letters.  The action is late, arguably decades late, and not at all uncommon.  When organizations face limited competition (in the case of the post office, it was literally no competition), they often suffer from what I like to call service complacency.  Service complacency is the malaise that infects a culture when good service feels like a choice rather than a business necessity.

While this conclusion may seem reasonable on its surface — you have nowhere else to go, dear customer, so delighting you needn’t be my goal today — it denies an important truth.  Even if your competition is not visible today, your increasingly dissatisfied customers are a beacon for them.  And the new entrants that you can’t yet see often don’t show up in the form of direct competitors, but rather as enablers of the workarounds your customers have already resorted to using.  This is a much more serious threat since the rules of engagement aren’t immediately obvious.

In the case of the post office, customer dissatisfaction had been brewing for decades, but regulation literally gave customers no alternative.  This mix of high retention but low satisfaction was the perfect breeding ground for service complacency.  The post office’s most demanding customers started to get creative, which is often a red flag.   They started using fax machines, then e-mail, then e-mail with attachments.  When FedEx finally entered to deliver original documents quickly and reliably, the dynamics of the entire industry had already changed.  At this point, FedEx was not the post office’s biggest problem.

On the one hand, you could say this is just the march of technological innovation, and the post office could do nothing about it.  I think there’s more to the story than that.  Customers are typically slow to embrace innovation when existing solutions meet their needs.  But when an existing solution disappoints and disrespects them, which was the service experience that many post offices were delivering, then adoption of alternatives can happen at lightening speed.

How should the incumbent respond?  The are two enormous hurdles standing in its way.  First, it has to learn how to treat customers as if they have a choice.  And, second, it has to create an operational culture where controlling costs is a matter of survival.  Neither of these steps will be easy for the post office.  Competition has not forced the post office to care deeply about cost or service, and it’s hard to develop these muscles simply because Congress decides it’s time to start using them.

Today, the post office relies heavily on sending junk mail and packages that we order online.  This will not be enough to sustain it.  Unless the organization recognizes the intensity and range of its competitive threats, a fear that should show up in every single line item and every single customer interaction, then I’m not optimistic it will overcome its service complacency.

Lean Thinking at Starbucks

August 5, 2009

The WSJ wrote an article about the recent adoption of “lean thinking” at Starbucks.  Lean thinking is a philosophy popularized by Toyota’s famous Toyota Production System (TPS) that emphasizes rooting out waste in its many forms.  At Toyota, waste might be excess inventory.  At Starbucks, waste might be baristas taking too many steps to travel from the coffee beans to the espresso maker.  After reading the article, I’m not optimistic about the process of Starbucks trimming down.

Scott Heydon has the title Vice President of Lean Thinking at Starbucks, and two of his quotes set off alarm bells for me.  The first suggests that the impetus for the change is to free up the time and space for employees to deliver a better service experience.  The quote:

Mr Heydon says reducing waste will free up time for baristas – or “partners,” as the company calls them — to interact with customers and improve the Starbucks experience.

But Heydon follows quickly with this quote:

If Starbucks can reduce the time each employee spends making a drink, the company could make more drinks with the same number of workers or have fewer workers.

At first glance, this may not sound like an impending disaster.  After all, who doesn’t want better service and lower costs?  The danger lies in the ambivalent framing of the initiative, which is often good enough for the C Suite, but doesn’t fly on the front lines.  If the objective is to enhance the service experience, then a set of activities will reinforce that goal, and the definition of success will be fairly straightforward.  Alternatively, if the objective is to reduce costs, then a different set of activities will be required.  Eventually, these activities will be at odds with each other, and employees will get caught in the tension.

This is a well-worn path that can easily lower performance and increase employee cynicism.  The typical sequence of events is as follows: A manager sets out to make changes with the stated intention of improving the service experience.  Compelling rationale is used, invoking the experience as a driver of premium pricing.  Then, under the banner of improved service, the same manager starts talking about the efficiency gains of the changes.  You’re a barista with more time on your hands? Serve more customers!  Say good-bye to your colleagues!

This is dangerous for two reasons.  First, if your employees believe your commitment to service and then watch you measure productivity gains, you sacrifice focus and trust.  Not only do you breed confusion, but as clarity emerges, employee cynicism is not far behind.  Second, when senior executives begin to prioritize labor productivity over service, they often start to erode the competitive distinction that led to the premium pricing.  It’s one thing to purposefully pivot away from a premium position.  It’s another to creep away from it without making a clear strategic choice.

To be clear, I have seen companies achieve great success through cost-cutting initiatives.  But they were internally branded as cost-cutting initiatives, as a competitive rallying cry for employees and sometimes even customers.  Similarly, I have seen spectacular success when companies commit to enhancing their service experiences — again, internally branded commitments with the requisite decisions and activities in alignment.  I have even seen success with initiatives designed to improve both cost and service.  These typically work when a company is performing poorly compared to its peers and can make improvements on both dimensions, or when a company is in an innovative phase and looking for breakthrough ways to do things.

The problem is the disingenuous internal framing.  By far the most common approach is to try to dress up cost-cutting initiatives as service improvements, which breeds disappointment among employees, customers and owners.  And a tell-tale sign of this charade is shifts in messaging, particularly for multiple audiences.  Starbucks contradicted itself within minutes for the WSJ, which doesn’t make me optimistic that they’ll be an exception to the rule that these initiatives tend to cause more harm than good.

Avoiding Common Ground

August 3, 2009

John Chambers, Chairman and CEO of Cisco Systems, recently recalled advice he received from Sandy Weill, which essentially supports the prescription to always search for common ground with people:

“…when you’re interfacing with people who have dramatically different views from yours, you immediately gravitate to the areas that you share in common, and then focus on those. That’s how you build relationships, even with people who might have different views or different attitudes toward business than you.”

We would like to offer an alternate approach to collective progress.  Focus on what’s different, not on what’s common.  You likely already understand the logic and beliefs that got you to your current views.  Engaging someone with different views is an opportunity to understand the logic and beliefs driving a completely divergent position — which is where the breakthroughs in behavior are more likely to live.  Our advice is to challenge yourself with the question, how would a reasonable, intelligent, honorable person reach a diametrically opposed point of view?

It’s not an easy exercise. For it to work, you must genuinely believe that the person sitting across from you is as reasonable, intelligent, and honorable as you are.  In our observations, this is a significant stumbling block because it is tempting to conclude that someone who feels differently — particularly about an important or emotional topic — is somehow morally or intellectually flawed.  The political process is a constant reminder of how falling into this trap yields stagnation and mediocrity on both sides.  The search for consensus rather than understanding regularly produces incremental change, but rarely significant progress.  This is not good enough for many issues.  Healthcare is just one.

The insight that breaks open learning is more likely to be found in uncommon ground, in the presence of differences not similarities.  Consider the analysis of data, where learning occurs by exploring variation.  Indeed, if there is too much consistency in the data, it is difficult to produce any insights at all.  The same is true, in our experience, for human behavior.

The Employees You’re Slamming Are Behaving Rationally

May 11, 2009

It is difficult to find something written about change that doesn’t talk about how hard it is. My observation couldn’t be more different. I find that change happens in an instant — deciding what to change and finding the right levers for changing it, those are the complicated parts.

I’ll use culture as an example. I was recently working with some executives who were lamenting that their employees weren’t acting with a sense of urgency. And no matter how many times the senior management team implored employees to move faster, the needle on urgency didn’t move. The team concluded that employees just didn’t believe them that urgency really mattered.

They didn’t, for perfectly good reasons. When I asked the team to explain their employees’ behavior, they attributed all kinds of fundamental character flaws to these individuals they had carefully selected and trained — lazy, uncommitted, distracted, risk averse. I let them get all of that out of their system. And then I asked why a smart, well-intentioned employee would act without urgency in their organization.

It took a few tries to break the habit of judging and psychoanalyzing their employees, but eventually we got somewhere. It turns out that when employees made mistakes in this particular company, they were often pounced on by the most influential of the senior team. In some cases, it bordered on ridicule, a public hearing on someone’s judgment and intellect. Once we uncovered this pattern, we were 95% of the way towards change.

These employees were behaving rationally according to the dominant, if informal performance management system. Senior management could not have been clearer – only present polished work that you’re damn sure is right.  It was no surprise that few people revealed any intermediate progress. It made perfect sense to wait until every i was dotted, every t crossed, before making any sudden movements. That behavior looked like the absence of urgency. And senior managers’ actions were at the root of it.

The solution? It wasn’t to keep clarifying the importance of urgency. This team had to stop punishing small mistakes, particularly mistakes that were a consequence of working faster. And they had to start celebrating speed, with public acknowledgment that moving faster requires new behaviors like sharing unpolished ideas and building on each other’s work.

The lesson? Before setting out to change something, figure out why people might be behaving rationally in the culture and systems you’ve designed (or permitted). The least likely, least useful explanation is that good people have suddenly gone bad. The most likely explanation is that you’ve created an environment that is setting them up to fail. Now change your behaviors that are contributing to that environment. I promise it won’t take long.