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.

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.

United Breaks Guitars

July 13, 2009

United Airlines baggage handlers broke Dave Carroll’s guitar.  Google United Airlines these days and two links dominate:  United’s official site and a video of a song Carroll wrote called, “United Breaks Guitars.”  The video has been watched over a million times.

Carroll reports that he actually witnessed the instrument’s demise, when fellow passengers on his United flight looked out their windows and yelled, “they’re throwing guitars out there.”  He then began a fruitless campaign of trying to get the airline to reimburse him, a nine-month ordeal captured in the video by a parade of apathetic employees.  United’s explanation?  As reported by the Chicago Tribune, Carroll had made a procedural misstep by not filing a claim within 24 hours.  There was nothing they could do. Sorry.  And so Carroll wrote a song.

There is no question that the video is a PR problem of the worst kind.  As a friend of mine said, “I’ve seen more press about this song than actual United ads.”  Bad service and United Airlines are now powerfully linked in the minds of consumers. But United’s bigger problem is lurking in the hundreds of comments posted everywhere this story is being told, from individual blogs to pillars of the mainstream media.  These comments make a compelling case that indifference towards customers is business as usual at United.

United spokespeople now say that they’re going to use the video to help the company improve its service, and my prediction is that these efforts will fail.  The company’s language is tentative.  If Carroll’s experience illustrates a systematic pattern of failing customers — and the anecdotal evidence suggests that it does — then United’s leadership will need to do something much bigger than launch a superficial service initiative.  They will need to find the courage to return to the blueprints of the business model and take responsibility for the fact that they created a system that reliably produces mediocrity.

Having no direct experience with United’s service design, here’s my guess as to what drove the behaviors that infuriated Carroll:

1. A United call center agent in India turned down Carroll’s request for making good on the damaged guitar.  The agent was selected and trained to comply with an increasingly complex set of procedures, and he was likely measured by his ability to follow these procedures precisely and efficiently.  Did he do a good job?  The policy clearly states that claims must be filed within 24 hours, and he likely had no authority to override them.  His performance is probably also measured by the number of calls he can handle in a day and perhaps even the number of calls he can handle without passing them off.  Now put this individual —  probably the lowest paid employee at United — in a situation where customers are justified in yelling at him all day long, and it’s not difficult to predict the outcome.  In fact, the agent did his job well as the system’s architects designed it.  He followed the rules and handled the call quickly, without bothering his manager.

2. What about the baggage handler seen throwing the guitar?  It is not difficult to imagine his crew being told earlier that day that plane turnaround time is the most important driver of the airline’s success, that times had been creeping up, and that low employee effort was at least partially to blame.  What’s a reasonable response to these messages?  Getting the luggage off the cart and onto the plane as quickly as possible.  This would almost certainly require throwing bags, particularly if the time guidelines made it all but impossible to meet the turnaround goals by respecting each piece of luggage.

3. And the front-line service team on the planes and in the airports, the ones who likely fielded Carroll’s original complaint?  These teams are also responsible for all-important turnaround times, which in their case requires managing an incredible range of customer variance, from disabled passengers to families with screaming children and excessive baggage.  They probably regretted the damage to the guitar, but their jobs were on the line in a climate of declining resources to manage the problems within their direct control.  They were probably eager to return to the urgent challenge of getting passengers to their destination with fewer planes and fewer colleagues, to say nothing of fewer tools  (lunch, anyone?) to reduce the growing discomfort of  air travel today.

My point here is that if you’re committed to changing a service experience, try to understand why reasonable, well-intentioned employees are behaving in existing ways.  Only then can you expose the underlying causes of the service failure.  Most change initiatives come up short because they start with Carroll’s basic premise — that employees aren’t trying hard enough or don’t care enough.  In these situations, managers often conclude that inspiration, brow-beating and tweaks to the incentive structure will shame or motivate employees to perform better.  But employees are rarely the problem.  The problem is usually the service model in which employees are operating, which has set them up to fail systematically.

United’s leaders must take responsibility for their central role in frustrating their customers.  This means redesigning the system so that employees can succeed on a regular basis.  If the company follows Carroll’s lead and blames employees for the problem, I suspect that little will change, except the rising level of customer dissatisfaction.  For those with less musical talent than Carroll, this will mean voting with their feet not their voices.  In the absence of accountability at the top, United’s customers will desert them.

Employee Goodwill

June 17, 2009

British Airways has asked its employees to work for free for a month.  As CNN reported, the airline sent an e-mail out to its staff that “offered workers between one and four weeks of unpaid leave — but with the option to work during this period.”

How would this e-mail go over in your company?  What kind of relationship do you need to have with your employees for this message to be taken seriously?  In my experience, organizations spend a lot of time trying to measure the unmeasurable, trying to value concepts like culture and goodwill.  We know that these things often make or break the deal with customers and employees, but they don’t fit easily into a spreadsheet.  I would suggest that the organizational uptake on management’s offer to let people work for free is a very good measure of employee goodwill.

Employee goodwill matters in the best of times, particularly for service businesses.  As Heskett, Sasser, and Schlesinger argue in the Service Profit Chain, it is difficult to create value without employees, and so it helps to take great care of them.  But employee goodwill may matter even more in the worst of times, as the British Airways experience illustrates. The more that employees feel an organization is devoted to them, the more likely they’ll be to share the pain of adversity.  Strong relationships with your employees may help to buffer you against an unforgiving competitive environment.

On the flip side, antagonistic relationships between employees and organizations are never a good idea, but they may be disproportionately costly when the environment turns ugly. This dynamic is playing out around us with the widespread rise in layoffs and salary cuts.  Some of these wrenching decisions are being made a context of mutual trust and mutual regret. And some are happening in an environment of fear and anger, with untold costs to everyone involved, including customers.

We don’t yet know how the British Airways story will end, but I have a prediction. I think we’ll be able to confirm what we suspect, that employee goodwill makes an enormous competitive difference, particularly in hard times. And we may finally have a way to measure the size of that difference.  In the spirit of what-you-measure-is-what-you-get, this may increase the chance of its occurrence.

Leadership in Absentia

June 9, 2009


The decision to lead is not particularly complicated, at least not on the surface.  It’s a simple, often quiet commitment to create the conditions for other people’s success. The NYT had a great illustration of this philosophy in its article on Clarence Otis Jr., the CEO of Darden Restaurants.  In Otis’s words:

…leaders really think about others first. They think about the people who are on the team, trying to help them get the job done. They think about the people who they’re trying to do a job for. Your thoughts are always there first…you think last about “what does this mean for me?”

I was particularly moved by one of his reference points, his predecessor’s response to 9/11:

…we had an all-employee meeting…One of the first things he said was, ‘we are trying to understand where all our people are who are traveling.’ The second thing he said was: ‘We’ve got a lot of Muslim teammates, managers in our restaurants, employees in our restaurants, who are going to be under a lot of stress during this period. And so we need to make sure we’re attentive to that.’ And that was pretty powerful. Of all the things you could focus on that morning, he thought about the people who were on the road and then our Muslim colleagues.

Otis went on to describe a sometimes trickier part of the leadership task — giving people the room to learn and grow, and ultimately to succeed in your absence. Sometimes this means stepping down not up, being passive rather than active, being silent rather than vocal. These are not the leadership acts we tend to celebrate, but sometimes they’re the most crucial. This balance is Otis’s current focus:

It’s less and less about getting the work done and more and more about…getting the right people in place who have the talent and capability to get the work done and letting them do it… you’ve got to give other people the chance to speak, voice a point of view. Some people are passionate, but it manifests itself in a different way, and so they’re more reflective in conversation. And so, you’ve got to leave some space for them to fill.