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Putting People on the Ledge

Category : 2018

The image is so Rockwellian and the setting so unique that many say the photo is faked. Wherever you fall on the authenticity spectrum, the carefully-staged picture of eleven construction workers eating lunch on an I-beam, 850 feet above Manhattan’s 41st street accomplished its purpose. Staged as a publicity event in 1932 during the final phase of constructing Rockefeller Center, a creative photographer found a way to shout to the world that Americans were dreaming, constructing, and most importantly-working.

Eighty years later, many workers from New York to Los Angeles feel like they are sitting on a beam-or at least a ledge, and they want off. We’re still dreaming and working. We’re still creating innovations in stone and code that create opportunity and generate economic growth. But as companies and HR organizations try to put the latest trends in corporate culture, workplace structure, and employee engagement into systems that aren’t ready for change, the result is, to borrow Seth Godin’s idea – a meatball sundae – combining two good things that don’t go together.

After multiple losses of valuable talent, a company found the courage to look at exit interviews and own what they saw. The leaders discovered and admitted, they were a top-down, autocratic organization run by a close-knit leadership team and couldn’t function any other way. Whatever business experts said they ought to be, they knew what they were-and they stopped ladling meatballs on their sundae of success in an effort to be what they weren’t.

As the open office concept gained steam, companies from Amazon to Zale have tried to make working at the office feel like working at Starbucks. For many businesses, an open office space filled with tables and intimate conference spaces is a perfect fit for the work people do. Forcing that design on a business that demands confidentiality and discretion puts people on a ledge of discomfort while they try to reconcile what they do with an environment they’ve been told will help them interact more with one another.

A July 2018 article by Dice cited research that found “face-to-face interactions decreased roughly 70 percent as the office opened up.” People generated 56 percent more email and received 20 percent more email. Workers sent 75 percent more words via messaging apps. Researchers found, “In boundaryless space, electronic interaction replaced F2F interaction.”

Consulting companies offer a plethora of change management initiatives and new ways to navigate the risks associated with major corporate shifts of any kind. Why? Because most change initiatives get initiated but don’t endure. Efforts to get people to act differently (the true measure of corporate culture) are not accompanied by the harder work of helping people think differently. The result is the same thing that happens at your local gym in January. The place is packed with people that were told in December to act differently, but don’t invest the needed time in learning to think differently. By March, reality prevails over intent, and the crowd at the gym gets back to its normal size.

This is not an advocation for stuffy, staid, and sclerosis-like environments. It is an encouragement to avoid creating unnecessary stress by ensuring any change in culture is, to borrow from design thinking-

  • Desirable – There is the necessary human commitment to make it work.
  • Viable – The business has the capacity to make it happen.
  • Feasible – The company has the technical capability (internal resources) to be successful.

Putting people on a ledge makes great photography – but not always a great place to work.

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Winning The Corporate Long Game

Category : 2018

What can an executive looking for career longevity learn from companies that found their way through repeated cycles of change, disruption, and competition?

Start by looking at those who lost the game. Only 74 (15%) of the inaugural Standard and Poor’s (S&P) 500 companies remain on the list today. A mere 12 of those companies have outperformed the S&P index. Only 11% (54 companies) of the original Fortune 500 are still contributing to the global economy.

Woolworth’s, Eastern Airlines, Blockbuster, General Foods, Kodak, and maybe soon-to-be-added Sears-were names on the marquee of corporate success for decades. Their failed strategies make them footnotes in business school case studies. In 2018, 126-year-old GE became a S&P used-to-be.

What causes the great to fail? A Credit Suisse study, cited in an August 24, 2017 article in Money concludes, “the disruptive force of technology is killing off older companies earlier and at a much faster rate than decades ago, squeezing employers, investors, and other stakeholders.”


The survival or demise of a transnational enterprise has more to do with decisions than disruption. The forces of change in our global economy are unavoidable. How executives respond to those dynamics determines the lifespan of a company-and the longevity of the leader. Executives in companies that employ those forces thrive. Those that fail to adapt are quickly forgotten. Netflix, Amazon, Twitter, and Salesforce.com enjoy places of prominence on the S&P today. They, like all of the long-term S&P companies must make prudent, forward-thinking decisions to remain viable contenders.

The difference is determined by decisions. Though slightly dated, a 2010 McKinsey survey of 2,207 executives, found only 28% rated their strategic decisions as “generally good.” Sixty percent saw bad decisions made as frequently as good. McKinsey concluded, “the proclivity of bad decision making is usually intensified by poor decision-making systems in organizations.” Executive development firm Navalent’s 10-year longitudinal study on executive leadership concluded that 61% of executives appointed to senior leadership roles were not ready for the challenges they encountered. Perhaps that helps explain why over 50% of executives fail within the first 18 months in the role.

The decisions an executive makes to ensure his/her longevity closely parallel what companies must do to survive in an unpredictable and unprecedented market.

Recognize and engage disruptive forces. When executives and the companies they lead encounter the unexpected, they do well to take a chapter from the playbook of Jujitsu. “Ju” means to be flexible, pliable, yielding. Jitsu is an art or technique. Combined, they create a method of using an opponent’s force rather than confronting it with an opposing force. This does not mean executives and enterprises accept the “resistance is futile” message of a Star Trek Borg. It does mean leaders who want more than a shooting star career trajectory must give serious attention to assessing and adapting both the impact and nuance of business evolution. We manage change no more than we manage time. All we do with both is manage the choices that determine our outcomes. Industry changing innovation is disruptive. Downsizing, rightsizing, offshoring, and unexpected terminations are realties of the 21st century. Leaders and companies that thrive in disruption do so by engagement not avoidance.

Release what worked in the past. A powerful mantra for any executive wanting longevity is to look at any situation remembering, “This is not that.” When an acquisition opportunity looks like one completed successfully in the past, it isn’t the same and should not be managed as if it is. Quaker Oats’ highly successful acquisition of Gatorade in 1988 prompted their purchase of Snapple in 1993 for $1.7 billion. Multiple unanticipated factors made this one of the worst acquisition stories in history, and Snapple was sold four years later for $300 million. An effort to replicate a past success in a new environment is an inadequate response to today’s market dynamics. The same job title in a different context, demands a fresh approach.

Re-invent. Re-invent. Re-invent. Western Union used to send telegrams-now it sends money. Gaming giant Nintendo started as a playing card company. IT services company Wipro began by manufacturing and selling vegetable oil to Indian housewives. American Express morphed from serving banks, to offering money orders, to creating the first traveler’s checks, to the global financial services and travel company it is today. Executives with successful long game strategies learn how to market their contributions more than their experience. They speak of their capabilities in industry-agnostic terms. Leaders positioned for ensuring success are willing to move out of a comfort zone of familiarity to the unknown of opportunity.

No stranger to opportunity, failure, and innovation, Richard Branson wisely reminds us “Every success story is a tale of constant adaptation, revision, and change.”

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Toxic Collaboration

Category : 2018

If you feel like most of your day is invested in email, meetings, and phone calls-you’re right. Those near-constant collaborative engagements consume 85% of the day for most people, according to research by Connected Commons, cited in the July-August Harvard Business Review.

Are those 51 hours of your 60-hour week (or near 80 hours of your 90-hour week) driving results or driving you crazy?

That is a question worth asking. A parallel article in the same HBR issue looks at how CEOs use their time. The research concludes, “It is vital for CEOs to block off meaningful amounts of uninterrupted time alone to give themselves space to think, reflect, and prepare,” (HBR, p. 50). Meaningful reflection and endless collaboration are mutually exclusive options.

Collaboration isn’t on-site baristas, free snacks, office areas that look like Starbucks, ping-pong in the COO’s office, first Friday neck massages in the lobby, or a really great document management system. Collaboration is “the action of working with someone to produce or create something.” While that is the intended goal of hours invested in hard-to-understand conference calls (“Can you hear me now?”) and easily-misinterpreted email (“That’s not what I meant.”), evidence indicates that for some leaders, collaboration is as destructive as it is productive.

The need to be needed, a well-intended desire to be seen as helpful (aka team player), and a lack of self-management are powerful accelerants for the all-consuming fire of collaboration. The factor that separates this all-consuming beast from its more productive cousin is value.

People that maximize these points of connection have learned when and how to recognize they are no longer bringing value and excuse themselves when they aren’t. Being a team player doesn’t require being on the field every minute of every game. One executive was quoted by HBR saying, “I have come to the realization that if people really need me they will find me. I am probably skipping 30% of my meetings now, and work seems to be getting done just fine.”

The leader that wants to engage with a team, while taking back some of that 85%, will eliminate hours in meetings and the emails that follow them by simply requiring that anyone wanting the leader’s time, clarify what value they think the leader brings to the issue, problem, or topic. If that question can’t be answered, the leader will be wise to reconsider his/her participation. When copied on another email chain, a leader would benefit from remembering that everything that arrives in an in-box does not demand a response.

Collaboration is here to stay. Whether it is leveraged productively is the leader’s choice.

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Lasting Impressions

Category : 2018

“How you begin is how you are listened to,
and how you end is how you are remembered.”
                                           – Unknown

An impression. You create one in seconds. A poor one can follow you for a lifetime.

From early childhood, parents teach the importance of making a good first impression. Few of us realize how quickly impressions are created, how long they last, and how difficult they can be to dislodge from someone’s mind.

An impression is an idea, feeling, or opinion you create about someone or something – often without conscious thought. For professionals and companies today, like giving attention to a brand, the impact of first-and last impressions can’t be under-emphasized.

Some argue, “Look at billionaires. They don’t care about impressing people.” Yes, from Mark Zuckerberg’s characteristic T shirt and hoodie to Bill Gates’ mop top haircut to Sergey Brin’s “I’m still a geek” look, the uber-wealthy do sport some intriguing styles. And when you are a member of the Forbes Three Comma Club, you can dress any way you want. Until then, impressions matter.

Corporations that understand the importance of impressions jealously guard how a company name and logo appear. Surveys, focus groups, and market analysis are an integral part of any marketing effort to determine the impact of an impression before it is attempted.

In many situations, our impressions have little, if any tangible evidence to support them. The Association for Psychological Science reports that a series of experiments by two Princeton psychologists determined that an impression from a face is formed in a tenth of a second, and subsequent longer exposures don’t significantly alter the “first impression.” Research found people judge trustworthiness the quickest, and over time, those judgments don’t change.

That unfortunate reality is compounded when the first impression is created online. Jeremy Biesanz, Ph.D. at the University of British Columbia worked with more than 1,000 people exploring the accuracy and bias of first impressions formed under varying circumstances. Biesanz discovered the accuracy of impressions varied little between mediums, but impressions formed on-line tend to be more negative than those created in-person.

Another study found that after a first impression is formed, people tend to hang on to the impression, even after they are given facts that contradict what is believed. Add to that our universal tendency toward confirmation bias (seeking and assigning more weight to evidence that supports a conclusion) and all of us are forced to give at least some attention to caring about the impressions we create.

This does not mean professionals should shift their attention to impression management. Whether a company or a professional, manage your brand well, and you will have less difficulty managing the impressions you create.

Here are three areas where impressions matter:

Thanks to social media, you no longer have a separate personal and professional life or presence-you have a life and anyone, anywhere can dig into it and draw conclusions about you without ever meeting or interacting with you. A casual scan at LinkedIn profiles shows glamour shots, people with their children, a Hollywood character’s photo (likely in violation of a copyright), wedding photos, a shirtless weightlifter, or someone slugging their way through a Tough Mudder. Facebook images and postings often leave little room for interpretation. Like it or not, you must be conscious of what your social media presence says about you. For companies, managing social media impressions is as much about watching what others say about you as about managing what you say about yourself.

A quick search for resume images will give you dozens of examples of documents that quickly create an impression that even a great interview could have trouble erasing. Knowing that words comprise only six per cent of how we communicate, relying on a resume to create a first impression is a risky proposition, at best. A well-written resume focused on defined outcomes should reinforce an impression-not be the first attempt to create one.

The first few seconds of an interview are crucial for creating a positive impression. Mishandling the innocuous, “Tell me about yourself” question can set an interview on a course that will be difficult to correct. Assuming a business casual dress code or becoming too informal during an interview can easily cause the conversation to derail. If you are the interviewer, resist your inherent tendency to make a judgment in the first seconds of a meeting and spend the next hour looking for evidence to convince yourself you are right. As you draw mental conclusions, ask yourself, “What am I missing?” or “How could I be wrong?” or “Where is there evidence that disconfirms my conclusion?”

Malcom Gladwell reminds us, “We don’t know where our first impressions come from or precisely what they mean, so we don’t always appreciate their fragility.”

Company, executive, or professional, the impression you create is fragile. Handle it with care.

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Energizing Executive Innovation

Category : 2018

“Let him that would move the world, first move himself.”
– Socrates

Any CEO in touch with reality will tell you that innovation is critical to a company’s enduring success. Surveys reveal that between 23 and 45 percent of CEOs place innovation as their top priority. If innovation holds a supreme place in the minds of C-level executives, why do many leaders stumble in their efforts to innovate themselves as they progress in their careers?

The failure to capture an opportunity to innovate was pivotal in the demise of companies like Blockbuster, Macy’s, Blackberry, Yahoo, and Kodak (who?). Apple’s $3 billion purchase of Beats and Facebook’s $19 billion investment in WhatsApp prove that there are few, if any, quick-fix innovations. Whether built or bought, a credible innovation needs a clear path to its salability, scalability, and profitability.

Businesses often fail because leaders fail. While the landscape of a market can be impacted by circumstance, the direction of an enterprise is determined by choice – the daily decisions of the executives leading a company.

The innovation conundrum emerges from the reality that what gets a leader to the C-suite is often not what enables a leader to succeed and stay there. Executives move up through organizations by solving problems and producing consistent-even predictable results. An executive’s career progresses when he/she is right much more often than wrong. Over time, it is not unusual to see a leader treat life more like an equation than the experiment that it is. While consistent process is critical to corporate success, an unwillingness to explore new options (a new process), is a sure route to joining the 460 companies that were on the original Fortune 500 list and are no longer there.

William Pollard is right. “Learning and innovation go hand in hand. The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow.” To bring innovation to a company, or to innovate in one’s life, a leader needs to generate or get a lot of ideas, and develop a significant level of comfort with risk – as illustrated in the following Innovation Matrix.

The Innovation Matrix


Copyright © 2015, Joseph Jordan, Jordan Development, Inc.

This is not counsel to throw caution to the wind. We have a name for people who like risk and possess very few new ideas for generating either business or personal growth – they are gamblers, betting it all on one role or in one place.

Those who avoid all risk and lack ideas become defenders  -protecting what they have without any vision for what could be. They see mistakes as failures, not setbacks, so they avoid the unfamiliar and stay with what they know.

Some executives don’t lack for ideas, but their risk aversion keeps them in safe (predictable) territory. They might venture into the world of progressive innovation, but they more often adapt to what is than reach out for new possibilities. They’ll take a change in title, but avoid a significant change in responsibilities.

True innovators generate far more ideas than they ever implement, but their risk profiles allow them to embrace an idea, consider its validity, and pursue or reject it in a short span of time. Companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Samsung are known for their innovations because they are led by executives who embrace innovation at a personal level.

An executive wanting to offer impactful leadership a decade from now, will benefit from assessing his/her innovation profile, taking action to generate ideas of what a future leadership role might look like, and developing greater comfort with embracing the risk of growth and opportunity.

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Thank You For Your Feedback…I Have No Plans To Change My Behavior

Category : 2018

Ask ten CEOs if their organizations promote a high-performance culture and you will get ten positive responses. In a highly-competitive global market, no top executive would admit to anything less.

Characteristically, a performance-driven culture provides a plentitude of feedback and coaching that is shared up, down, and across the organization. If companies are so committed to coaching for performance, why do surveys continue to validate the lack of bench strength and talent being readied for senior roles?

Could the onus for the talent gap fall as much to the people given coaching as to the need for better coaching? Candidly, why do many leaders in executive development programs complete those programs thinking and acting much like they did when the program began?

Coaching changes results when the person receiving coaching desires to change and wants the process to impact his or her behavior. Executive coach Martin Goldsmith says, “Coaching works best with high potential people who are willing to make a concerted effort to change.”

We should never underestimate the ability of a human being to quietly and effectively resist a desperately-needed change. Every January, health clubs are crowded with people who, for a variety of reasons, join a gym to “get in shape.” Let a few weeks pass and the crowd generally returns to normal, with only a few permanent additions. Those that stick around are the few that decided to change more than behavior-they made a fundamental shift in how they thought about their health and exercise.

Changing what you do will give you better results. Changing how you think will create sustainably better results that continue over time.

Perhaps corporate development would have a greater impact on building that needed bench of talent if high-potentials, succession candidates, or super-achievers weren’t allowed to begin a coaching program before they were assessed for—

  • Self-awareness (the “known to others, unknown to self” box in the Johari window should be very small)
  • Candor (about him/herself, not about other people)
  • Openness to critical (perhaps disapproving) feedback about his/her actions, style of engagement, leadership, etc.
  • A desire (a strong feeling of wanting) to change more than a willingness (being prepared to do something) to change

It is hard to build a strong leader in a weak or broken system. Change requires risk and often, failure. Successful coaching programs also demand the full and accepting support of senior leadership. Top executives need to model what they want to see and hold people accountable for the changes they need to make. People wanting to change how they work and engage with others need the freedom to mess it up on the way to dramatic improvement.

Rare are the people who have lost weight or gotten healthy for another person. If organizations want to see greater impact from their investments in coaching talent, they would do well to look as much at the mind-set of the candidate as the quality of the coaching.