Category Archives: 2021

Following a Tough Act

Category : 2021

Before America’s Got Talent, American Idol, and The Voice catapulted unknown wannabes to stardom, scores of people in the early decades of the 20th century searched for a stairway to the stars in vaudeville. Each show’s 10-15 unrelated acts might include acrobats, animal shows, comedians, musicians, and lecturing celebrities. If you had the good fortune of following the human frog, Guy Visser and his singing duck, or the guy swinging a chair held by his teeth, you had a good chance of leaving a memorable impression with the audience. But if Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Bert Williams, or Eddie Foy and the Seven Little Foys performed before you, you’d likely look wistfully from off-stage and sigh to yourself, “That’s a tough act to follow.”

After a carefully planned and well-executed succession and selection process, in February 2020, Michael Miebach was named CEO at Mastercard as Ajay Banga transitioned from CEO to Chairman. By any measure, Ajay is a tough act to follow. During his tenure, revenues tripled, net income grew sixfold, and the company’s market cap ballooned from less than $30 million to over $300 million. While the coming months will measure the outcome of the move, Mastercard’s planning and Miebach’s preparation clearly position him for success.

You don’t need to achieve stellar results to be a hero if you are hired to turn around a situation where your predecessor floundered. Examples from business, non-profits, and every other corner of life give evidence that following a superstar has its own set of risks and challenges. As England’s Prince Charles walked behind his father’s casket during the funeral of Prince Philip, one can’t help but wonder if Charles’ mind drifted to when he will walk behind the bier of the beloved Queen Elizabeth II, thinking to himself, “Mummy is a tough act to follow.”

Consulting firm McKinsey reports that after two years, between 27 and 46 percent of executive transitions are measured as disappointing or an outright failure. Those numbers haven’t changed in over a decade. It is worth noting that the executives who stumbled were intelligent, capable, and brought a history of success and results in a previous executive leadership role.

There are several steps an executive can take to help ensure success when following someone who previously crushed a role. These are adapted from HBR’s article titled, How Insider CEOs Succeed, cited below.

Get out of the Shadows

Someone like Indra Nooyi, Jack Welch, Bill Gates, or Ursula Burns can leave an enduring shadow from which a successor quickly needs to emerge. If the new executive is promoted from within the company, he or she also must quickly step beyond the shadow created by a previous role. More than one talented leader has struggled to gain broad acceptance across an organization because people were slow to embrace the person in a broader or different role.

Act for the Future, While Respecting the Past

After making even a minor change in the business, any executive following a star is likely to hear, “Marsha would have never done that,” or “I knew someone from Ops was not right for that role,” or “He is forgetting who helped him get where he is.” While prudently protecting a predecessor’s legacy, a new executive easily becomes another McKinsey statistic if he/she does not concisely and with certainty chart a course for the future. The plan may require adjustment along the way, but a new CEO will struggle if people don’t see a clear path to the next milestone in the journey.

Get Over It and On with It

An internal promotion to a senior role, or a move from a competitor places before a new executive an enticing and potentially perilous opportunity to fix the past. If a previous leader ignored or allowed inequities or disparities in diversity, pay, and opportunities, a new leader has an opening to set a new course and clean up the past. The danger lies in the temptation to use new levels of authority to settle a grievance or resolve a grudge with a former peer who is now a direct report. A sure way to burn through relational capital and create distrust in a new team is for a leader to invest time and energy in fixing what needs to be forgotten.

Keep the Right Plates Spinning

Any new CEO or senior executive finds the job, at least initially, quickly takes on the feel of the guy spinning plates on the Ed Sullivan show. (The Guinness record is a couple in Thailand keeping 108 plates simultaneously in motion.) An enterprise is successful when the leaders of the company focus on and balance their energies toward generating cash flow, growing consistently, creating profitability and shareholder value, investing in the people that ensure success, and managing assets effectively. It is easy for an internally promoted executive to stay involved in a previous role or for any leader to favor one aspect of the business over another. Companies with a record of strong, repeated performance are organizations where the leaders know how to balance the drivers of success.

Make Your Leadership About Influence, Not Authority

Ken Blanchard is right when he says, “The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority.” A new leader improves the likelihood of success if his or her investment in executing a strategy is married to a commensurate investment in building the relationships that ensure the results endure. Listening until people feel heard, communicating with transparency, caring enough about a relationship to engage in and resolve a conflict, telling the truth, and keeping commitments are fundamental to building the relational web that can protect a leader when they miss the bar and fall.

Two reliable executive resources offer a deeper look into this subject:

How Insider CEOS Succeed, https://hbr.org/2020/03/how-insider-ceos-succeed.

Why Smart Executives Fail, https://mba.tuck.dartmouth.edu/pages/faculty/syd.finkelstein/causes.html.


The Terror of a Blank Page

Category : 2021

Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration; the rest of us get up and go to work.                                                                            –  Stephen King

Writer’s block. Even the most talented authors collide with it. Could-have-been writers let it defeat them and dam up the flow of great ideas. Successful writers recognize writer’s block for the myth it is and find ways to defeat this crippling curse of composition.

Before you click on the next item in your inbox, pause for a moment to consider the parallels between writer’s block—the inability to produce or create something new on a page, and leader’s block—the inability to create or produce something new in a career. Whatever the level of responsibility or the industry focus of a role, most executives have a brief, or extended encounter with that debilitating feeling that somewhere in the past, the executive “peaked” and his or her market value is now static or perhaps, on a downward trajectory.

Novelist James Ellroy discovered a quick cure for this adversary of achievement—”the necessity of earning a living.” For some leaders, upkeep is sufficient motivation keep them going for a while. But from the boardroom to the mailroom, the simple exchange of time and energy for money—even a lot of money—quickly loses its motivating power and ability to keep the engine of productivity running indefinitely.

A brief scan of the alleged sources of writer’s block reflect many of the forces that plague an executive staring at what feels like a blank page in a career.

  • Uncertainty that promotes indecision.
  • Boredom that smothers motivation.
  • Perfectionism that fuels immobility.
  • Stress that precipitates inaction.
  • Distractions that cloud the end goal.

Changing the analogy momentarily, experienced pilots know you can’t get out of a stall by coasting. Counterintuitively, to recover from a stall, you push the nose of the plane down and accelerate. Only when adequate speed is achieved can you level the wings and return to normal flight. Writers and executives wanting to regain altitude act purposefully and decisively as well.

  • Embrace the reality—not the myth. Admitting you’re burned out, stuck, or just sick of what you’re doing will advance you much faster than listening to the mental reasons that justify your inaction. Experienced authors know writer’s block is solved more by perspiration than by inspiration.
  • Do something. In every industry and every role, one differentiator between those who succeed and those who do not is that successful people learn to do things they don’t like or want to do in pursuit of a greater objective. When it’s time to explore a new opportunity forward momentum is easily generated by choosing to do one thing every day to change the current situation.
  • Release your expectations—so you can grasp something new. By any measure, 2020 created a corporate upheaval unlike anything we have seen before. Thousands of businesses closed forever. Millions of people filed for unemployment. And while that whirlwind of economic pain swirled around us, new business applications in 2020 surpassed those filed in 2019 by over 20%. Thousands of people facing the blank page of a COVID-driven career change opted to write a new story. Economists call this “creative destruction,” a process where, as one economic structure dissolves, another is created in its place.
  • Expand your thinking. By the time people reach the second or third decade of a career, they become extremely skilled at thinking the same thoughts over again and calling it “exploring new options.” Any executive serious about overcoming career inertia will benefit greatly from reading widely, listening to new voices, and choosing to invest time with people holding viewpoints the executive doesn’t embrace.
  • Take a break. When facing complexity, uncertainty, and the need for action, initially slowing down or even stopping, can result in faster, more purposeful action later. While it was nice to save money on oil changes and travel insurance in 2020, shelved vacation plans and delayed breaks prompted some to fill time normally allocated to leisure with more work. Zoom now brings work into any room where you allow it. Allocating a few hours every week to something other than work will feed your ability to move past a blank page of complacency to a book full of possibility.

If it’s time for a change, a good place to begin is with a conversation. Leapfrog Executive Services can help you evaluate your options and prepare yourself for the next chapter in your story.


Wait A Minute!

Category : 2021

Depending on which research, opinion, tweet, or meme you favor, a lot of life is invested in waiting. The acceleration provided by technology intensifies the frustration we feel during moments when we can do nothing but . . . wait.

During 2020, a large amount of wait time was invested in—

  • Waiting for a download
  • Waiting for meal delivery
  • Waiting for someone to open a Zoom or Teams meeting
  • Waiting for a quarantine period to end

After winter forced a week of disaster and dismay into our lives, the wait list now includes—

  • Waiting for the end of a power outage
  • Waiting for a pipe to thaw
  • Waiting for a pipe to burst
  • Waiting for a plumber

Teaching the value of waiting is much preferred to learning the value of waiting.

The internet brims with platonic blather about the value and importance of waiting. But it is worth noting that the author of the quotation, “Anything worth having is worth waiting for,” is unknown. That probably means no thinking person in touch with reality has ever made that statement anytime or anywhere. For most people, the more honest sentiment is, “Anything worth having is worth screaming for, demanding, fighting for, and whining about until you get it—now.”

When Mozart introduced his The Abduction from the Seraglio opera in 1782, Emperor Joseph II allegedly told the brilliant composer the piece was beautiful but contained, “Too many notes.” Mozart responded, “Just as many as necessary, Your Majesty.” Therein lies Mozart’s genius—knowing how many notes were necessary and when a note became superfluous.

While COVID’s economic and social tsunami changed the notes for many executives, it didn’t alter the tendency for many leaders to continue filling every space in life with as many notes as possible. It is tempting to smother the uncertainty of change with the clamor of activity.

Whether it arrives by circumstance, choice, design, or default, waiting is like a rest in a musical composition. While filling one measure, one beat, or only a moment, a rest in a piece of music indicates an absence of sound. A rest isn’t an interval when nothing is happening, but rather a deliberate moment when space is leveraged to give greater meaning or emphasis to what just happened or to what is to come.

Professionally, a brief or protracted period of waiting invites a leader to take a breath, reconsider priorities, reimagine a strategy, or jettison something that waiting reveals is no longer worthy of time, attention, or energy. When circumstances push us into a period of waiting, we adjust our perspective, tap our perseverance, and act with persistence to do what we can while we wait on what we desire.

Effective communicators know the value of active listening—making a conscious effort to hear and comprehend the words, emotions, and intent in what is spoken. Active listening keeps us engaged in an interaction, so we respond, rather than react. Executives wanting to engage fully and effectively with what is ahead in 2021 will invest time in learning the skill of active waiting—deliberately capturing insight from and fully using the present moment, while anticipating and planning for the future.

Even athletes and performers at the top of a game value the competitive edge offered through timely coaching. If you want to use the current moment to help you prepare for your next step, Leapfrog Executive Services can help. Call us today to learn more.


Your Professional Stress Test

Category : 2021

“The most serious mistakes are not being made as a result of wrong answers. The truly dangerous thing is asking the wrong questions.” (Peter Drucker)

Most people welcome the news they need a heart stress test with about the same enthusiasm they throw at learning it’s time for a colonoscopy. In both scenarios, the patient isn’t very keen on the procedure. But what makes both events daunting is the anticipation that the conversation afterward might bring the individual face-to-face with information they don’t want to hear.

Reverting to Drucker’s comment at the top of this article—any of us can be tempted to adopt the strategy that says, “If I don’t ask the question, I don’t have to deal with the answer.”

A heart stress test evaluates how well your heart handles the workload you give it. The simple activity of walking on a treadmill or riding a stationary bike can expose potential problems and help a doctor prescribe the best plan of treatment. In response to the financial crisis a few years ago, financial institutions are required to conduct computer-simulated stress testing to analyze how a bank, its financial portfolio, and the institution’s internal controls would handle a drastic and unexpected economic shift. At a personal level, there are a plethora of assessments, evaluations, and even silly questions you can use to assess your internal responses to the circumstances and events of your life.

Whether targeting your physical health, unexpected events, or your responses to what happens, it is helpful to remember—

We don’t fall apart because of life’s pressures. We fall apart when we respond to life’s pressures with inadequate resources.

Men and women and the companies they lead demonstrate endurance, resilience, and even growth in good, bad, and ever-changing circumstances when they know survival doesn’t depend on the right set of conditions as much as it depends on responding to life’s situations with adequate resources.

Ten years ago, Harvard Business Review featured Stress-Test Your Strategy: The 7 Questions to Ask by Robert Simons (https://hbr.org/2010/11/stress-test-your-strategy-the-7-questions-to-ask). Though directed at a business, with slight adaptation, Simon’s questions offer a valuable framework for stress-testing a professional’s career strategy. A few minutes invested in answering these questions might expose an area of vulnerability that you would be wise to address as you engage with 2021.

  1. Who is your customer? Periodically ask yourself who or what motivates you to do what you do. The need for clear focus and a balanced perspective never diminishes.
  2. What values drive you? A lack of congruence between our values and our actions clouds our vision and complicates decision-making.
  3. How do you measure success? We all face the possibility the ladder we’re climbing with determination and relentless effort might be leaning against the wrong wall.
  4. What do you do with the inherent tensions in life? Decisions always involve logic and emotion. Every action carries with it a level of risk. The need to balance timely action with prudent reflection never goes away. Successful leaders leverage tension—they don’t avoid it.
  5. How do you create accountability? One of the risks inherent in career progression is having fewer people in your orbit that challenge you and ask hard questions. Wise leaders choose to be accountable before they are told to be accountable.
  6. How prepared are you for the unexpected? If 2020 taught us anything it was the cold reality that when you think things can’t get worse—the can and do. Personally and corporately, planning for contingencies and the unanticipated is a life habit more than an annual exercise.

Health experts tell us that beyond fundamental health and lifestyle choices, physical fitness is measured by three things—strength, endurance, and flexibility. Professional fitness can be assessed the same way—having the resources you need, staying at it when you want to quit, and adapting to changes as an expected part of life.


A POTEMKIN VILLAGE TALE

Category : 2021

While the origin of the story is suspect, its meaning and application remain.

Search the pages of 18th century Russian history—or folklore, and you find the story of Grigori Aleksasndrovich Potëmkin, an army officer, statesman, and one of the romantic loves of Catherine the Great. Potëmkin’s notable military successes were followed by a gigantic failure to colonize the Ukrainian steppe. A now believed to be fabricated account alleges that when Catherine toured the area, Potëmkin ordered the construction of elaborate village façades to hide the reality of his failure from the Empress.

Tragically, a respected personality from history is remembered more for what he didn’t do than for what he accomplished. For centuries, a Potemkin village has carried the meaning of “an impressive façade or show designed to hide an undesirable fact or condition.” The Theresienstadt camp in Germany was used by the Nazis to hide the horrors of their final solution. Sitting on the north side of the Korean Demilitarized Zone, Kijŏng-dong or Peace Village is more propaganda than substance. Using the concept positively, an hour east of Gothenburg, Sweden, Volvo has constructed AstaZero, a replica of a New York neighborhood where sensor prototypes are given a realistic environment for testing.

In 2017, Photographer Gregor Sailer published the results of a two-year journey capturing images of Potemkin villages scattered across the globe. Sailer shares photos of European-style villages in China, a fake middle-eastern town in the Mojave desert, and a Russian city designed to impress, of course, Vladimir Putin.

From long-forgotten dot-com darlings to WorldCom to Lehman Brothers to a bevy of high-tech companies scattered across the globe today, corporations and the executives that lead them construct elaborate Potemkin villages to lure investors, gain traction in a market, inflate a stock price, or blatantly line the pockets of those behind the schemes. Conversely, Forbes, Newsweek, IndustryWeek, and Reader’s Digest provide annual lists of companies whose brands have remained strong, trusted, and respected for decades.

Any executive facing the challenges, uncertainties, and unknowns of 2021 must choose whether to build his or her personal brand on Potemkinesque imagery or to anchor that brand in authenticity, realism, truthfulness, consistency, and delivered results that focus on more than a financial statement or EPS. Decades of examining corporate results under business school microscopes have confirmed multiple times—the results of a company seldom surpass the character of a company’s leader. Codes of ethics, compliance training, and mission statements appearing as virtual backgrounds during Zoom calls aren’t enough to ensure protection from the Potemkin virus.

Employees in companies of every size are asking for a corporate a purpose bigger than the bottom line and are increasingly intolerant of leadership that is duplicitous, careless with the truth, or unwilling to engage in the conflict that inevitably emerges when a company chooses a path of principle over expedience. An executive in pursuit of enduring results has a pivotal opportunity to choose a path to success built on truth, integrity, and the ability to say, “No,” to anything inconsistent with the leader’s or the company’s values.

Potemkin’s fictitious tale underscores that while a legacy built on a façade may be remembered, it isn’t respected. John Maxwell is right when he says “You build trust with others each time you choose integrity over image, truth over convenience, or honor over personal gain.”


A State of Readiness

Category : 2021

Our 2021 is off to a great start. Are you and your business ready for what’s ahead in the new year? We are! Give us a call to discuss your HR leadership retained search needs.

 readiness
[ˈredēnəs]

NOUN
1.  the state of being fully prepared for something.
“your muscles tense in readiness for action”
synonyms:
preparedness · preparation · fitness · ready · at the ready · available · on hand · 
[more]

2. willingness to do something.
“Spain had indicated a readiness to accept his terms”
synonyms:
willingness · inclination · enthusiasm · eagerness · keenness · gameness · promptness · quickness · alacrity · ease · facility · address

3. immediacy, quickness, or promptness.
“quickness of hearing and readiness of speech were essential”
synonyms:
promptness · quickness · rapidity · swiftness · speed · speediness · 
[more]