Skip to content

A bridge too far …

During World War II, the Allied forces attempted to seize control of several bridges to secure what they thought would be their final advance into Germany in 1944. During this operation, called Operation Market Garden, the Allies ran into deeper resistance than they had expected at Arnhem and failed to capture a key bridge, ending their hopes of ending the war that year. The events of the operation were captured in the movie “A Bridge Too Far”.

What does this have to do with business and leadership? Simple. We’re going through change and as we go through change there are many temptations to go too far. This may stretch our resources and cause us to come up short, ultimately delaying our ability to make the changes we want to make.

Going too far generally starts with good intentions. Everyone is excited about change. As a leader, I am passionate about wanting to see our people and our organization succeed. I am proud of what they are accomplishing and energized about the possibilities we can create. However, it’s that very energy that can cause us to proceed too fast and get too far out in front, eventually leading to burnout and disenchantment.

I was pretty sure I wouldn’t fall prey to this. I did my homework on change management. I read many books and articles and took change management training. I studied the successes and failures of others. I then developed a sharp plan to very specifically attack the challenges we had. I saw things happening in a paced environment over the next three to five years. I was focused. I was clear. I was purposeful. I boiled our strategic priorities down to three, a number I love to focus on at all times. And even with all of that, just a couple of days ago I looked down at the list of initiatives meant to support those three strategic priorities and found myself starting at a two pages of items. We had gone too far and now we were exposed.

I’m acting fast. By the end of this week I will have pared that list down. I will re-emphasize our quick wins. I will defer some initiatives. I will ensure everyone on the team is focused on no more than three things at a time, in some cases having a singular focus. I will get back in front of people and communicate to them our strategic priorities. I will emphasize we need to be focused and sharp, starting with me. I will demonstrate my commitment to that principle, and to them, by talking about the things we will not do as much as the things we will do.

I can do this because my one project through this change is the change. It’s the one thing I have said I am accountable for. At the top of the list through the change is looking after our people. They have waited a long time for these changes to be made. They know the value the changes can mean to our company and to them. I won’t cheat them of victory just because we’re anxious to taste it. It’s a long season. We’re only just starting. If we burn out now we won’t have enough energy left when the playoffs come; when it really matters.

To ensure I remain focused I will remind myself that too much is too much. Our list will always be too long however our priorities will be just so. However, to live up to that we must have priorities and not a big list of things to do. The list is always too long. The priorities just so. I fell down by letting us temporarily wonder beyond our most immediate priorities. I let people start nailing things to the wall without consideration for how cluttered that would soon look. As more was added, more needed to be taken down.

I am starting with working with every one of our senior leaders to ensure they have a small number of priorities. My best tool in all of that is to ask them what they would do if they could do only thing this year.  They hate that. They always begin by telling me they couldn’t possibly do one thing. I always remind them they have no choice in this exercise. They must only do one thing. Eventually they choose one. And that’s when they realize what their single biggest priority is. I then ask when they can get that one thing done by. Now we have the semblance of a plan coming together. We then move to the next item, rarely going beyonds three.

Why three you ask? Three is a powerful number. It has a nice natural rhythm to it. Three things are easy to remember and easy to write down. Almost everyone can remember three things, fewer can remember four and no one can remember ten. Three things look good on a list. It’s enough things to get done but not too many to do. Three sides form a triangle. Triangles are great shapes. The base is wide enough to be firm and sturdy, representing stability, with the two sides rising to a sharp point, signifying progression.

The interesting part of this process is how much more quickly I recognize opportunities for change in myself and my approach and how much more readily I accept the need to change. In previous roles I would have pushed through, failing to even recognize or accept there was a problem. I would have been angry people couldn’t keep up. I would have blamed them for not being able to see the big picture and accuse them of trying to slow us – me – down. I would have focused only on my energy and not that of others. I would have stubbornly persisted, keeping my head down and my feet going. I would have compounded the error.

I am also pleased I passed an important test. I easily could have become emotionally invested in the big list of things. After all, many of those things I put there. I want to accomplish them. However, it is more important to accomplish the right things and not just many things. I easily let things go because I remained focus on my singular task. I emotionally invested in the right thing – creating a world class team – and not the wrong things. I am pleased with that because it is another sign of my development. It tells me I am ready for even bigger and tougher challenges. I am passing this test. I can pass others.

The results I am seeing in myself are a great reminder of the need to pace change. Several years ago I decided to more purposefully change. I quickly made change but not all of the change I needed to make. The personal changes I am working on now are only possible because of the building blocks I carefully put in place years ago. I couldn’t imagine back then doing some of the things I am doing now. It would have seemed overwhelming, and if so, might never have happened. Slow down to speed up. My coach tells me that often. I detested it when she first said it. I honour it now.

A bridge too far? Well, it remains apt. The bridge is too far, however I can learn from Operation Market Garden, and leave that bridge for another day. I can see it. I may even be able to taste it. But it will sit there until we’re ready. Anything more or less than that may result in defeat.


Naming stuff just to name stuff is lame stuff

I have to put up with a lot of stuff in my role and one of the more amusing and frustrating is having to put up with other executives and their opinions about branding. Everyone seems to have an opinion on it. And normally that opinion is, to put it kindly, misguided. And yet they not only offer it, but they often persist in having us pursue it.

They make many mistakes when it comes to branding, starting with a misunderstanding around what it even is. They think it’s all about having a product name, the logo, the tagline and the design elements. Want to guess what’s it all about? Here is a clue. None of the above. Repeat after me. None. Of. The. Above.

A brand is all about the end to end client experience. Without that, it’s nothing. With it, it’s everything. Yes, the product name, the logo, the tagline and the design elements must support the experience, but it all starts and ends with the experience.

Many mistakes will begin with a desire to have a product name in the first place. We’re guilty of that. We have a great brand already but we want to bastardize it by bringing in new brands for every product that comes along. Soon you have brand proliferation and brand confusion. General Motors had (has?) lots of problems and brand proliferation was one of them. They had too many brands. And too many brands ends up creating brand dilution and brand confusion. You lose the ability to focus and to properly position your brands in the marketplace. When that happens consumers get confused and they tune out. Think about all the brands GM had to support. First, there was the GM brand itself. Then there were each of the manufacturing division brands such as Saturn, Chevrolet and Cadillac. Then you had each of the individual car brands, such as the Avalanche, Enclave and Escalade. That’s a lot of brands to maintain, even with significant advertising and marketing expenditures. By cutting down their brands GM can focus the same resources on fewer stories, garnering more bang for the buck. They still have work to do. If they asked me I’d recommend stop investing in the GM brand itself, because it isn’t a brand, it’s a corporate holding company and publicly traded stock that is a keeper of the brands. But I digress.

What was insane in our world is we don’t have the same advertising and marketing resources as GM does and we still thought it desirable to name stuff, because names were cool. Who decided that? Non-marketers. And then they got pissed off at the marketers for failing to push the product out the door and create interest in the brands. Yep. Welcome to my hell. Think about financial products. What comes to mind? Life insurance. Mutual funds. Certificates of deposit. Right? And if you could buy those products from World Class Financial Company, why wouldn’t you lead with that company name and then call the product what it is? Well, you would. Unless you weren’t a marketer but only thought you were. If you thought you were a marketer but were really an investment banker, accountant, teller, broker or actuary you might think it would be cool to “brand” your products and give them names such as Sunseeker and Everest and Axis. No one would know what the hell you were talking about or trying to recommend to them, but hey, you’d have a cool name.

Not that long ago we launched a new product and were able to actually call the product by a much more intuitive name. Lots of people were sad at first. They wanted us to brand the product. I pointed out we wanted to sell the product. That was goal number one. And to sell the product we had to call it what it was. So we did. And we’re selling lots of the product because we’re not spending time trying to explain the name. Rather, we’re getting to spend our time explaining how the product fits a client’s particular situation and the benefits the product provides them. Those are valuable conversations to have. Explaining what the heck a “Retirostrata” is not.

It helped we had some research to prove our point. We have some pretty interesting product names on our shelf. We went to the top recommenders of one of them (we will call it Product X) and asked them what they thought about Product X. Only one person even referred to it as Product X. Most said they called it by it’s generic product name because people weren’t buying Product X, but were buying the company behind it or the benefit it provided. The best moment was when a few asked what was Product X, because they didn’t know. Yep. They did. Some of the top recommenders of Product X didn’t know we called it Product X.

I often remark we only have so much time in front of our customers and ask how do we want to spend that time? Explaining away things that are essentially proprietary to us or things that are proprietary to consumers? Which is more important? Let’s run through the options again. You have thirty minutes with a potential consumer of financial services. How do you want to spend those thirty minutes? Option A is explaining what the heck a “Retirostrata” is, how we came up with that name and why that name is really, really cool. Or do you want to go with Option B and use that time to uncover a need and present options that clearly meet that need?

Here’s an example. Let’s say you want to book a hotel room and you call up Hotel X. Hotel X says “can we offer you a stay in our Evening Bliss Cocoon?” How do you respond to that? Would something along the lines of “ah, I just want a room”, sound about right? To which Hotel X might then say “the Evening Bliss Cocoon is a room”. So why call it something different than what it is. Hotels don’t need to offer Evening Bliss Cocoons. They need to offer rooms. They might offer Standard, Deluxe and Premium rooms, but they all remain rooms.

Your potential buyers are busy people. They don’t have time to figure out what you are trying to tell them. Your marketing staff are also busy people. They don’t have time or the resources to position badly positioned brands from the get-go. Your team needs to get to the point. Quickly. Your potential buyers need to make decisions. Quickly.

When your name is lame you will know who to blame.

Are you an owner, or a steward?

Have you ever seen three year olds fight over a toy? Mine! Mine! That’s what they shout. It’s childish. Which makes sense because they are children and what they are learning to do is share, oddly enough. So what excuse does an executive have who has to “own” something? It’s equally childish, but disconcertingly so because they should be fully mature adults by now. Last time I checked we didn’t hire any three year olds around where I work, but some people sure act like one.

It drives me bonkers that people think they should own something in a business context. We all work with people like this, don’t we? They are the ones who say stuff like “what do I own” or “what part of this do I own?”. Now some of you may think I am missing the boat; that what these folks are really all about is accountability. I want to be clear. I’m not talking about the people who are prepared to be accountable. I’m talking about corporate hoarders. Those folks who have a desperate need to control, to make every decision, to “own” something, anything, heck maybe even everything.

I think our desire to own something comes from our society’s perspective on ownership and freedom. In the Western world, property ownership is synonymous with freedom; an enviable and inalienable right. Ownership also tends to imply wealth. Owners of things certainly tend to be wealthier than renters of things. So who wouldn’t want to be an owner under those circumstances?

Well, ownership, in this context, tends to mean starvation for everyone else. It means you alone “own” this, whatever this is. There’s no room for others in your sense of ownership. You are like a seagull pecking over whatever you find, “mine, mine, mine”. Ownership goes against the grain of everything you need to do. You don’t “own” anything. You steward it until someone else can come along and do the same.

When you build a sense of “ownership” you starve out those who want to contribute to what you are trying to accomplish. You become a corporate hoarder of sorts, compiling the material trappings of executive rank without actually achieving anything material. Want to know if you are an “owner”? Listen to yourself. How many times do you use “me, myself or I” when “we, us and ours” would do just fine?

You want proof you don’t own it? Try to take it with you when you retire. Better yet, what are the chances they retire you first? Are you taking your staff with you? What about that corner office? Is it going with you? What about the revenues and profits of the business? How about the customers? Are you getting the trademarks, copyrights and patents? No. You might get a gold watch. It doesn’t belong to you. Your title doesn’t belong to you. Your office doesn’t belong to you. None of it belongs to you.

I have known lots of “owners” and I’ve seen everyone one of them go, most times under terms they didn’t write. It’s proof positive they didn’t own what they thought they owned. One day they led teams of hundreds and had big offices with fancy titles and pay packages. Next day, all gone. It now belonged to someone else. How’s that for ownership?

Here’s another clue. Ever walk by the elevators and see the postings for the latest retired person? Ever notice those notices say stuff like “Martha has been with us for 42 years” or “Bill is retiring after 37 years of service”? Our company has been around for over 100 years. 100 years! I haven’t noticed anyone who had 100 years of service yet. The original employees left long ago, all before any current employee was even born. And you want to claim you “own” this? Sorry. Ain’t buying it.

I’m not an owner. I’m a steward. I don’t own things. I’m accountable for them. My job is to prepare someone else to do my job and to do it even better than I did it. I certainly don’t own the team. I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t like that. Slavery was abolished years ago. I certainly don’t own the company, although I do have a very tiny piece of it. I am a steward;  a temporary guardian of what is precious to so many. I want to breathe life into that and not smother the life out of it. And when I leave, whether it is my choice or not, I will hold my head high, secure in the knowledge I did the best I could do and not caring at all that they “took” something from me because it was never mine in the first place.

Know what I mean?

Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who is trying to explain something to you and they keep asking you “know what I mean”? Ah, no actually. I have no bloody clue at all what you are talking about!

Here’s how this person normally sounds:

“Hey Jim. I was working with Sally and she’s quite upset. She’s not …uh …happy. Know what I mean? You know. That Baker Report. It …. um … got to her. It kind of ticked her off. Know what I mean?”

Nope. Still don’t know what you mean. The reason I don’t know what you mean is you sound like an idiot and you have done nothing to actually describe the problem to me or why I should be interested in it. And when I tell you I don’t know what you mean you exasperate the problem by continuing to ask me if I know what you mean.

Folks, this isn’t rocket science. If you want someone to know what you mean, say it. And precisely it. Don’t skirt around the issue. Don’t fumble around the issue. And certainly don’t ever say “know what I mean”, because the odds are pretty good that no one will know what you mean. Know what I mean?



You are what they say you are

Bill Parcells, NFL coaching legend, once said “you are what your record says you are”. It was his way of reminding his players, and others, it didn’t matter what you thought your record should be or could be, it only mattered what it was. If you had a losing record, you had a losing record. Sure, you can find excuses all day long if you look for them hard enough. Too many injuries. A bad call here and there. The weather did us in! We lost on a fluky play. They got lucky! Yeah, and they still won and you still lost. You are what your record says you are.

This was a lesson I almost learned too late. For large portions of my life, going back as long as I could remember, I was told I needed to listen more effectively, to partner with others better, to be more patient, to be less opinionated and to be more open to feedback. I can remember my mother telling me in my teen years to get rid of the chip I had on my shoulder. I wasn’t listening then. I wasn’t listening for a long time. It was too easy to believe it was always someone else’s problem. People were stupid. Or they acted inappropriately. They were the ones who needed to change. They were too soft. They were too immature. They were unprofessional. I was the one working hard to add value. I was the one who could see the problems we needed to fix. I, I, I ….

Yeah. There was a lot of “I” in that, except for the “I” that mattered. As in “I can change” or “I need to change” or “I’m to blame”. I was stupid. I was lazy. I was arrogant. How’s that for an “I” statement?

I did have a lot of value to add and some of the others I worked with didn’t always have the right stuff. They were naysayers. They were ladder climbers. They were self-preservationists. They were egotistical. But so was I. By pointing the finger at others I was no better than any of them. By blaming everyone but the one guy that mattered I couldn’t ever make the changes that needed to happen. That’s because the first change I had to make was in me. And that couldn’t happen until I accepted I was what my record says I was.

What was my record? I was a hard working guy who could get things done but too often at the expense of others. I was destructive as much as I was constructive. I would eagerly chew into a project, without little care some of the people became chewed up along the way. I’d tackle initiatives with fervour and if that meant someone was tackled along the way, so be it. I was right. They were wrong. I was all too willing to lead the charge, even if it meant a few casualties along the way. That was my record. A go-getter who would get you if you got in the way. The nicest thing people said about me? He’s “passionate”. Here’s a hint. If you ever hear you are “passionate”, it means you are an angry, ornery and excitable little prick. That’s what it means.

I saw none of that. What I saw was “go-getter”. I saw “leader”. I saw “superstar”. It frustrated me to hear otherwise and I reacted badly to it. I decided everyone else was to blame. I set out to prove my case. That only served to create even more destructive behaviours. It wasn’t until my coach asked me to consider what would happen if I just assumed I could change that I really started to pay attention to my record. What if they were right and I was wrong? Would I do anything differently? What changes would I make? Who would I reach out to?

The process started by accepting I was what they said I was, or I was what my record says I was. I was a 8 and 8 team, always full of promise but always just shy of fulfilling it. The process of change began by identifying what I wanted my record to be. I then systematically put in processes to ensure I achieved that record. It was maddeningly frustrating at first as I assumed in every interaction I was at fault or more kindly, I could make change. There were some heavy and dark moments, but with each one my coach would gently ask me “but if you could change, what would that change be”. I never failed to find something I could improve. And then bit by bit, I rebuilt my record. I’m still building it. In my lowest moments I am still impatient. I can still push too hard. I am still prone to lash out. But my record is improving. I’m starting to make the playoffs and soon I will win championships. Because it’s no longer about me. It’s all about them. I am better at building bridges and not tearing them down. I am better at seeing the big picture. I am better at helping others win. I am better at partnering. I am better. And I will continue to get better. That’s my new record.

I still hear I am passionate from time to time, but far less than I used to. I’m now hearing I have “energy” and I like that word a whole lot more. A couple of years back I described myself as lightening. Powerful, energetic, but destructive. Getting that down to powerful and energetic would be a great thing. I’m close. I know I will get there. My record says I will.


Are you “T” or “I” shaped?

What kind of shape are you? Are you “T” shaped or “I” shaped? So soon after the holidays you may think you are “O” shaped!

In today’s world it is critical to be “T” shaped. What’s a “T” shaped person? Think “T” for “team”. “T” shaped people are great collaborators, they build high potential teams, they bring people together, they aren’t ladder climbers and they empower rather than direct. This is in contrast to “I” shaped people. Think “I” for individual. They keep information to themselves, they look after themselves, they climb ladders (and usually will climb over you to do so), they direct, they keep you from those above them, they don’t highlight you and what you can do.

Here’s a good mental image for you. Stand up. Put your arms straight down beside you. That’s a “I” shaped person. You get your orders from above and you pass them down to the people below. You don’t reach out to others. If they have a problem, that’s their problem. Now, stretch your arms out to the side, shoulder height. That’s a “T” shape. You reach out to others. You help, not hinder. You move in all directions and not just vertically. When you see a job to be done, you get it done. In your mind it is all “big team and little me”.

I used to be “I” shaped and not always by design. I worked for a “I” shaped company and it reinforced “I” shaped behaviours. It rewarded people who directed. It rewarded people who told others what to do. It was a very traditional hierarchy and it taught me how to do business a certain way. We even referred to our organizational structure as “silos”. Can’t get much more “I” shaped than that, can you? But here is the rub. It was successful! That only reinforced why I should be “I” shaped.

It was easy for me to be “I shaped though. I thought I got things done operating that way. In my mind it was easier to simply tell people what to do then coach them how to do it, or even harder, to collaborate with them to get things done. I got things done by force, determination and will. And because I got things done my company tolerated how I got things done. And since others took the same basic approach, there were few complaints. Well, there were a few, and I did have to face up to them but since most senior officers exhibited similar behaviours I didn’t think they had a lot of credibility when they told me to change when they were doing what I was doing. Bottom line was I didn’t have what it took to be “T” shaped. At least not then.

So what changed? Well, it started with recognizing change was needed. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, too many really. If you looked at all the mistakes I have made you’d wonder how the heck did this guy get to where he is? Well, there have been a few constants in my life and one has been a willingness to look within. That would be the one element of being “T” shaped that I had. Not that I didn’t try to blame others or my surroundings, because I did. It just never seemed to work so I had to keep looking within because that’s all that was left. I may be stubborn and impatient but I’m not stupid. I figured it out eventually.

Things were changing around me and that helped shape my change from “I” to “T”. I was unhappy with the results being “I” shaped activity created and not just from me but to me. Remember, I was in a “I” shaped organization and as much as I was “I” shaped to others, others were “I” shaped to me. I didn’t always feel valued or appreciated. I felt frustrated trying to raise issues I thought were important to the organization. Furthermore, our organization started to realize it needed to change. It was very successful but the world around us was changing. Our industry and competitive landscape was changing. Our organization was physically changing from being centralized in one or two primary locations to multiple locations around the world. And we were getting big. Real big. Trying to manage all of those resources to accomplish even the simplest things required a new way of doing business. I couldn’t be “I” shaped any more, but neither could the company.

But something really interesting happened as I was looking within that created a significant leap forward in my development. As part of my personal and executive growth, my personal coach helped me gain some insights into my personal values – those things that drive my behaviours and actions without thinking. The purpose of the exercise was to turn the unconscious into the conscious. If I could live my values more consciously I could create better and more consistent results. Prior to that exercise I would have said I liked to work independently, but as we examined that I came to the realization I actually loved to work in a team environment. I have an athletic background and while today that primarily means I golf (a supposed solitary sport and yes, how terribly cliched for an executive to play golf!) and hike I used to play team sports, primarily football and baseball. And I loved the “locker room” and missed it. I loved that sense of camaraderie, the sense of accomplishment when you achieved something together, knowing your role within the team. These were things that gave me a tremendous high. I then started to realize why I like to golf and hike. I’m not one of those golfers that can join any group and enjoy it. I most like to golf when I am playing with friends. A team. I don’t hike alone and most enjoy hiking when my wife or family joins me. More team. Not big teams mind you. Small teams. I’m at my best when I work in small groups. I leave the large group stuff to others.

It was an epiphany. For weeks I ran around the office telling everyone I really did like working in a team. They thought I had lost my mind. It didn’t matter. It was a big moment for me as those blindingly stupid observations about your life often are. Since that moment I haven’t looked back. I have been energized in my quest to become “T” shaped. And lo and behold, didn’t the organization soon thereafter change to become “T” shaped as well. The team I steward has people in three physical locations. We’re the link between the customer and the manufacturing plant. We don’t “own” anything other than helping people understand the desired client experience. That requires us to be “T” shaped. Big time.

I can now say I am “T” shaped, or at least on my way. What shape are you?

First 90 days … then what?

I’m in a new role and like any new role, the first ninety days are important. Not that there is anything special or magical about ninety. It could easily be the first eighty days or hundred days. Ninety days is easy to plan for though. It is three months.  I know, I know. You’re thinking “wow, what value from this post. I now know ninety days equals three months!”.

Those first ninety days are important because you want to establish the tone for your new team, get that mission/vision (or dare I say “manifesto” – see post of December 18, 2010) ingrained and create some quick wins to keep the momentum going. In my new role we’re creating a brand new team from people previously associated with eight or nine other teams (some of which no longer exist in the new world) with an entirely new vision for what it is we do as well as new approaches for how we do it. Expectations are high. That’s why these first ninety days are key. If we don’t create support for our vision, the vision will be lost. If we don’t create confidence for our team members in their roles in the new world, our team will be lost. And if we don’t create some quick wins, our customers will be lost.

With that in mind, I have a ninety day plan. It outlines who I need to approach and what I need to share with them. It documents how each member of the team is linked to our vision and my expectations of them. It clearly enunciates what the quick wins are. It even documents what I call the “wars and battles to be won”; all of the issues, concerns, barriers and roadblocks to success I need to jump on and solve. That’s all in the ninety plan. It is a specific roadmap, bit by bit, mile by mile, towards success, however we have defined it (and yes, that’s defined in the plan too!).

But here’s the rub. It lasts ninety days. Not ninety-one and certainly not seven hundred and twenty. I’m assuming our company will last at least that long and I’m hoping I will still be in the role, so why not a one year plan, five year plan or even a ten year plan? Where’s that plan? Why so much intensity on the first ninety days? Don’t your staff, your partners and your customers want you to be just as intense in the ninety days following the first ninety days and then the ninety days after that? Aren’t your competitors just as hungry to eat your lunch on day seven thousand as they are on day seven?

So this is what I am thinking. I think I need a rolling ninety day plan, updated at the end of every month. I want every day on the job to feel like the first day without the questions about where do I get stationary supplies and who I have to see to get my security badge. Every ninety days is critical, especially in this fast-paced, ultra competitive world we live in. The first ninety days are not the most important ninety day period of your career or your company or your team. They are important in a new role. But guess what? So are the next ninety days after that. There is never any time off. My plan ensures my focus will never waver. It ensures my energy will always be high. It ensures I am always productive. Maybe I will call it the “Infinity Plan”, even though I won’t be around to see the end of it.

See you on day ninety-one. I’m planning on it.