Leadership Philosophy

Originally posted to LInkedin at: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/article/leadership-philosophy-lessons-learned-bill-lapp/

In 2008 I was finishing up my Babson MBA and undertook an independent study class.  Sort of.  I was actually taking a required leadership class at Cisco and I figured I could get double credit.  As an output of that class I had to write a paper explaining my leadership philosophy.  In the almost 8 years since I have shared this paper with many first time managers/leaders.  The intent was to share some of the lessons I had to learn that they never teach you in a class.

When I submitted the paper to Babson the professor called me and asked what my sources were and whether or not I had plagiarized the work.  I had to walk her through radar discrimination algorithms and how I had learned them at MIT Lincoln Laboratory before she believed me.  Personally I don’t think there are any ground breaking takeaways in this work, but rather just raw experience written down.  Thus I am sharing it with a broader audience.  Also please note that as much as I would like to believe I can follow all of my lessons learned below on a daily basis, it is a daily struggle.

Hope this helps someone…

Leadership is the art of accomplishing more than the science of management says is possible

1                Talent Acquisition

Organization doesn’t really accomplish anything. Plans don’t accomplish anything, either. Theories of management don’t much matter. Endeavors succeed or fail because of the people involved. Only by attracting the best people will you accomplish great deeds. -Colin Powell [1]

1.1      Approach

Just as Colin Powell stated in the opening quote, a leader will only succeed by attracting the best people. Many first time managers are promoted as a result of their functional competence and not because of their demonstrated ability to lead others. These managers often achieve goals through task assignment and using their teams as extensions of themselves. You can identify these managers as those working harder not smarter and who are unable to leave their team alone for fear that they will not operate without him or her. They are afraid to let their team make mistakes and often swoop in to correct or prevent any misstep from occurring. I learned early on in my management career that if a leader operates in this manner they will be viewed as irreplaceable in that role and never receive new opportunities. Furthermore, the team will never perform better than their leader and the leader will always be the limiting factor.

My approach has been to quickly assess your team, make the tough decisions early on for who should stay and who should leave, tap professional networks to source talent, and then provide an empowered and safe ‘playground’ for them to operate in.

1.2      Assessing

When joining any team a leader must first assess the talent to assess who is strong, who is weak, and what are their talents[2]. He should be wary of pre-existing performance reviews or reputations as they can easily be misinterpreted or incorrect. A poor performer may only have been miscast in their role or had issues with the previous manager. A high performer may only be a good promoter who is all flash and no substance or living off of previous accomplishments. Rather, a leader should let the team know it is a fresh start for everyone and they will make my assessments based on contributions and performance.

Once a leader has had a chance to assess the talent distribution and personnel he should quickly determine who must stay and who must go. During the early years of Jack Welch’s career he was known as Neutron Jack for removing business or people that were being unproductive.[3] This approach may have been unpopular at the time but he believed it was the right thing to do for the future success of his employees and company. I too subscribe to this approach and have had to make difficult and unpopular decisions to remove highly regarded individuals, but I did so as I believed it would make the team

stronger in the long run. For the team members who are identified as high potential a leader should begin relationship building as well as career planning[1].

[1] Harari, Oren. “Colin Powell on Leadership”. Power Point Presentation

[2] Buckingham, Marcus and Curt Coffman. First, Break All The Rules: What The World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently. Simon & Schuster, 1999.

[3] Welch, Jack, and John A. Bryne. Straight from the Gut. New York: Warner Business Books, 2001.

1.1      Sourcing

Perhaps there are companies who have excellent recruiting personnel, if these companies exist than I have yet to see or work for one. Corporate recruiting these days often consists of an overworked recruiter taking the job description and posting to online classifieds and the company website. The best people are often stars at their jobs and aren’t actively looking at these locations. When these star employees seek a new challenge they typically utilize their professional network. As Peter Carbonara states “You can’t hire people who don’t apply.“[2]

A leader must always be building his talent pipeline even when he doesn’t have an available opening. He should constantly be evaluating peers, customers, or partners while they work[3], and if they show potential he should strike up a relationship. Professional networking sites such as LinkedIn can be used to keep in touch. Providing favors and assistance to the network even when the reward isn’t clear will almost without fail get paid back in the future come hiring time.

1.2      Selection

Early on in my management career I would review hundreds of resumes looking for the best fit of skills, experience, and value; not unlike a person analyzing product datasheets. I would find a few great resumes and fall in love before I even met them. I had made two cardinal sins of hiring without firing[4], I took applicants at face value and I ignored emotional intelligence. I got lucky with a few of the first hires but the majority struggled or failed. They had the right skills but the ambition, teamwork, communication, and intangibles were sorely lacking.

Since that first hiring experience I realized a life lesson in hiring, “What you know changes, who you are doesn’t”.[5] Combining the fast paced high tech market with my penchant for getting bored and instituting frequent change means that my team must be adaptable, quick to learn, and independent. The Infosys methodology for hiring provides an appropriate approach fro any leader in the fast paced technology environment.

“We don’t necessarily look for people who have the exact skills we need, instead we hire people that have the quality of ‘learnability’ and then we teach them the requisite skills.” Prospective employees are not tested for computer programming, a skill Infosys executives believed could be taught easily , but for (a) analytical and problem solving skills to help dynamic learning, the key to success in an industry where the state o the art changes rapidly; and (b) communication skills – not just the language skills but the ability to get ideas across

in both interactive and non-interactive situations – essential to developing deep and long term relationships with clients”[1]

In order to select the right talent a leader should adopt a few interviewing best practices. Create a structured interview process[2] where each interviewer covers a different topic, include interviewers outside your functional area to get varied perspectives, and never take answers at face value. The interviewer must sometimes be unconventional[3] in the line of questioning to find out what may be buried underneath. What makes the person tick? After all of this data collection, making the final decision can be difficult. When faced with this information overload, sometimes a leader just needs to go with his gut[4].

[1] Nanda, Ashish and Thomas Delong. Infosys Technologies. Harvard Business School Case Study, 2002.

[2] Fernández-Aráoz, Claudio. Hiring Without Firing. Harvard Business Review, July 1999

[3] Welch, Jack, and John A. Bryne. Straight from the Gut. New York: Warner Business Books, 2001.

[4] Gladwell, Maxwell. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Little, Brown and Company, 2005.

[1] Buckingham, Marcus and Curt Coffman. First, Break All The Rules: What The World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently. Simon & Schuster, 1999.

[2] Carbonara, Peter. Hire for Attitude, Train for Skill. Fast Company – Issue 04, 1996.

[3] Ibid

[4] Fernández-Aráoz, Claudio. Hiring Without Firing. Harvard Business Review, July 1999

[5] Carbonara, Peter. Hire for Attitude, Train for Skill. Fast Company – Issue 04, 1996.

1                Talent Leadership & Development

Four Keys to Management

  • Select for talent.
  • Define the right outcomes.
  • Focus on strengths.
  • Find the right fit. [1]

1.1      Introduction

Harnessing one’s own style is crucial in how they lead and develop their staff. My hard charging, fast paced, outspoken style paired with my inability to focus on tasks or topics for more than a few minutes at a time can make it difficult for those I lead. My approach has evolved over the years to match my style to the varied needs of my staff. I have paired key lessons from how to be a “One Minute Manager[2]” and “5 Patterns of Extra Ordinary Careers”[3] to create an environment where a playground is defined, goals are articulated, assistance provided upon demand, and then achievements assessed.

1.2      Create the Foundation

People with extraordinary careers do not claw their way to the top; they are carried there[4]. A leader must understand that he cannot be the best at everything and that he cannot scale to manage every task his team undertakes. A leader’s goal should be to have his people be better than himself.

Novice managers may subscribe to this theory and seek to empower their employees through delegation of tasks. Without much guidance these employees invariably falter at some point at which time the manager swoops in to save them and make sure the task is a success. The employee is often left feeling like a failure and the manager’s sense of self worth is increased. This is a pattern doomed to repeat itself with neither party advancing far beyond their current roles.

A leader should invest their time with each team member upfront to prepare them for their roles. It is during this period of investment that that a leader should describe the “playground” they will be operating in. Every playground has boundaries and rules that children must adhere to, but within that playground their imagination is left free to run wild. In the corporate world the playground is the bounding of an area of responsibility, what their roles and goals are, how value is created, and how they will be assessed. Setting the playground allows me to leverage my inclination to speak first, give opinions, and provide insight without undermining the individual’s ability to own the problem and resolution. The playground reduces the ambiguity and stress employees often feel when tasks are merely delegated without support.

By investing this time upfront to set the playground and mentor the leader is encouraging the employee to be entrepreneurial and creative in their solution. People with extraordinary careers understand how value is created in the workplace, and they translate that knowledge into action, building value over each phase of their careers.[5] By having the individual become self reliant and confident the leader is now freed up to invest his time in high value activities while providing one minute coaching sessions on an as requested basis. [6]

Below is a visual representation of this approach with the amount of effort invested by the leader as the y axis and time elapsed on the right.

Screen Shot 2021-11-01 at 2.13.21 PM

1.1      Coaching

1.1.1               Establish the Coaching Contract

Coaching can be one of the most difficult tasks a manager must do. Employees vary widely in their desired method of coaching or feedback.[1] Some people desire lots of real time feedback, some little feedback, some a direct approach, while others may like an indirect approach.

When the leader is setting the playground it is an ideal time to agree on a coaching approach and performance expectations. A leader should be brave enough to try a lot of stuff, keep what works and then prune dead branches[2]. While people are playing in the playground they are bound to make wrong turns. These wrong turns may be unexpected and can lead to mistakes. However, these turns can also be for the better and result in a shortcut or an innovative approach to an old problem. A leader should to allow the team to make these wrong turns but still be there to support them should they venture outside the safe confines of the playground.

[1] Weintraub, Joseph and James M. Hunt. The Coaching Manager: Developing Top Talent in Business. Sage Publications, Inc., 2002.

[2] Collins, Jim and Jerry Porras. Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. Collins Business, 2004.

[1] Buckingham, Marcus and Curt Coffman. First, Break All The Rules: What The World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently. Simon & Schuster, 1999.

[2] Blanchard, Kenneth. The One Minute Manager. Berkley Trade, 1983.

[3] Citrn, James and Richard Smith. The 5 Patterns of Extraordinary Careers: The Guide for Achieving Success and Satisfaction. Crown Business, 2003.

[4] Ibid

[5] Citrn, James and Richard Smith. The 5 Patterns of Extraordinary Careers: The Guide for Achieving Success and Satisfaction. Crown Business, 2003.

[6] Blanchard, Kenneth. The One Minute Manager. Berkley Trade, 1983

1.1.1               When to Coach

Having a manager who is unable to effectively determine the ideal opportunities for coaching can be like having an annoying backseat driver constantly chiding you or having your navigator sleep for the entire trip while you get lost. Honing his coaching radar is an essential skill for any leader.

Radar is a tool used to identify objects in space and determine which objects may be a dangerous missile or a harmless bird. Below is an example of a radar’s A-Scope, a tool used to draw a visual representation of radar pulses.   When a manager is thrust into leadership of a team without proper training he is confronted by an order of magnitude more events and tasks which his team is involved in than he had been exposed to as an individual knowledge worker. To an uneducated manager it is unclear which of these events are important and which are white noise. The A-Scope below is like an untrained manager – the events or pulses all look the same.

Screen Shot 2021-11-01 at 2.13.28 PM

Raw radar pulses often undergo a process called signal processing which uses complicated math to remove the white noise and provide a clearer picture where the height of the pulse indicates the importance of the object. Management training is akin to signal processing for a radar; it enables a manager to determine which events may require coaching or support. For example, the large spike seen in Figure 6: Educated Manager may be an excellent coaching opportunity.

Screen Shot 2021-11-01 at 2.13.33 PM

Effective signal processing is only the first step in correctly identifying an object. To interpret the results a radar must apply a signal detector. If the signal detector is too sensitive it will pick up false positives in the white noise. If the detector is too high it will miss everything. A properly placed signal detector will pick out the objects with the most importance. A trained leader must apply experience to his education so that he can properly place his signal detector. If he places it too low he will be seen as a micro manager as he inserts himself into the day to day tasks. If his detector is too high he will be a hands off manager and his team will falter without his guidance. When an experienced manager places his signal detector in the right place he is able to swoop in at just the right time to coach or support the team member. The red line in Figure 7: Educated Manager’s Signal Detectors is placed too low and having false positives rise above it. The green line is an appropriately placed detector where the critical event is captured while ignoring white noise.

Screen Shot 2021-11-01 at 2.13.38 PM

By properly applying his signal detector a leader can create an environment that allows mistakes to occur while they are in the white noise while simultaneously promoting self reflection so that the team can learn from these minor mistakes. When a critical event occurs the leader is able to watch it closely and assist with the appropriate support or coaching.

1.1.1               Coaching Approach

Management training in the 21st century is mimicking the self esteem concept used for children’s education. Everyone is equal, everyone is valued, you aren’t allowed to say anything negative, and you must ask open ended coaching questions for everything. In the beginning this was tremendously difficult for me as it did not lend itself to my action oriented and confident personality. My team felt I was asking leading questions and being insincere. After expressing this concern to a former manager of mine he drew a simple diagram to explain how to utilize situational coaching.

Screen Shot 2021-11-01 at 2.13.45 PM

If there is high criticality for a task and a long time to complete it, or a little time to do it but low criticality then a leader can delegate it. If there is a long time to complete the task it is likely that the leader has time to intervene should something go awry. If there is little time but low criticality then the impact is small and recoverable should things go poorly.   This prompts an employee’s empowerment and ability to do tasks on their own.

If there is little time available but the criticality is high then a leader must be direct and commanding in his approach. There is no room for failure. Should a brigade of firemen enter a burning building the fire chief does not have the luxury to ask probing questions of his team before the roof comes crashing down.

In between these two extremes are coaching and consulting. Consulting is when you ask for your employees’ insight or opinion before you make a decision. Coaching is when you leave the decision to your employee to make but make yourself available to assist or share your past experiences. In practice, new managers start at either delegating or commanding and rarely use the in between skills of coaching or consulting.

During these coaching sessions a few best practices of Dale Carnegie can be useful[1].   First, make the other person feel important – and do it sincerely. If you set up a safe and empowering work culture your employee is a key asset, don’t belittle or insult them. Second, talk about your own mistakes before criticizing the other person. Chances are you have made the same mistake they have. Finally, let the other person save face. People have pride and are smarter than we give them credit for. People often realize the mistakes they have made and don’t need to have them belaboured.

1.1      Career Development

Once a leader has selected the team, set the playground, and honed his coaching radar he has reached Camp #2 according to Buckingham and Coffman[2]. The team knows what is expected of them, they know how to contribute value, and they know they belong on the team. In order to reach Camp #3, the summit, they need to know where they are going. People often don’t work just for money[3] but rather to know they are developing themselves and improving. A leader can assist them in reaching Camp #3. Every few months a leader should set up time to talk openly with the employee about their goals and desires.

The three steps to a successful career discussion are to create a risk free environment for discussion, probe into their desires and talents to find out what they are passionate about, and then discuss how they could achieve those desires in their current role or other roles. Employees are likely to be guarded in discussing career desires outside their current job role in fear of retribution. The leader should let them know that he is open to supporting them in their progression within their current job role or others across the corporation. When asked by their manager what they want to do, employees often have no idea. It is the manager’s responsibility to guide them through this self reflection and exploration. Finally, the manager can advise the employee what roles may be available to them or how their current role could be changed to accommodate their goals. An employee who joins the team, does well, and grows into a better role encourages other ambitious employees to join the leader’s team.

2                Organizational Design

Comfort is not the objective in a visionary company. Indeed, visionary companies install powerful mechanisms to create discomfort – to obliterate complacency – and thereby stimulate change and improvement before the external world demands it [4]

2.1      Overview

Organizational design is more than just the reporting structure but includes symbolic, political, and human resource elements.[5] The structure dictates who reports to whom and what the lines of command are. Symbolic elements include the culture and shared values. The human resource element refers to the support and empowerment a team receives. Political aspects dictate how conflict and limited resources are handled. Building an organizational is like building a beautiful house; it takes a structure, a plan, resources, and desire.

2.2      Building the Framing (Structural)

Structure is often the only element a manager takes into account when designing their organization. While structure does play an important function it should only be viewed as the foundation upon which to build the rest of the house on. Common structures utilized are functional, divisional, matrix, network, and horizontal.

My first organizational structure was functional and responsibility was divided along product lines. While ownership and accountability was clear this structure lended itself to silo’ing and limited collaboration between functions. My current organizational structure is a matrix based on each group’s approach of proactive vs. reactive rather than product lines. The goal was to force knowledge sharing between the groups and instigate best practice sharing. While the matrix structure is ideal for this it has introduced stress into the front line employees when it is not clear which manager owns responsibility.

There are pros and cons to each approach and no design is perfect. A leader should do what best fits their most important goal.

2.3      Determine How House is Built (Symbolic)

Once an organizational structure is established the next step is to determine how the team will operate and make decisions, i.e. what is the vision, strategy, and culture.

One of the main questions employees consider when evaluating their job satisfaction is “Does the mission/purpose of my company make me feel my job is important?”[6] People will be loyal to an organization which has a unique identity and makes them feel that what they do is important. In a large company it can be difficult for front line employees to understand how their job impacts the overall company’s vision and strategy. If the employee is to be empowered to achieve extraordinary results then the “company must have such clarity about who they are, what they are about, and what they’re trying to achieve.”[7] It is the manager’s responsibility to connect these dots for the employee by developing a compelling vision for how the team and individuals can achieve its goals and then articulating how that maps into the corporate vision.

I further reinforce this vision and culture by utilizing talent for promotion. I endeavour to be very visible and energetic and manage by walking around. I seek to establish organizational traditions and values to provide cohesiveness and meaning.

2.4      Secure the Resources to Build the House (Political)

In order to secure the resources to fulfil the compelling vision a leader must work with his peers. In a corporation there are always limited resources and as a result conflict can arise between groups.

Rather than relying on manipulation a leader should always assume positive intent[8] from the different organizations and groups he interacts with. Fundamentally, all organizations want to do well and further the goals of corporation they just have different views or opinions on how to do so. A leader should first seek to understand the other organization’s goals, challenges, and opportunities and then share their own. Typically by approaching in this manner both groups can reach not only a compromise but true collaboration and a win-win situation.

2.5      Grow the Environment (Human Resources)

“The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”[9]

To create an empowered and high performing team you must create an open environment where questioning assumptions, providing feedback, and constructive confrontation is not only accepted but encouraged. Employees should feel free to come to their leader with any concerns, even concerns about the leader himself. The most important thing is the success of the team against its own goals and the goals of the corporation. By creating an open and supportive environment your employees will feel safe in taking risks, making mistakes, and going outside their comfort zone.

2.6      Blow it all Up

In the fast paced ecosystem of high technology methods of operation change at a break neck pace[10]. What’s worked well yesterday and today may not work well tomorrow. A leader must not let his ego get in the way[11] and he must be willing to look beyond his current success to see what will happen in the future.

In my last role, I had a high performing team that was considered a best practice across the corporation. When I was planning to leave my General Manager asked me, “What are the next steps for your team, what should be done?” My response surprised him when I replied, “Blow it all up.” Looking ahead six months I could forsee that the team would quickly become overloaded, attrition would be high, and it could not adapt to our transition from products to solutions.

So I went back and asked the team, “the only sacred cow is our ability to step in and lead in a crisis. Besides for that everything is open for debate. What should we do and where should we go?” This resulted in one of the best brainstorming sessions ever and a new vision and charter was born with our core values still intact.

Lou Gerstner calls this “being a change agent”.[12]   It is the ability to look ahead at what needs to be done and create the evolution or revolution to make it occur. “If an organization is to meet the challenges of a changing world, it must be prepared to change everything about itself except [its basic] beliefs as it moves through corporate life. The only sacred cow in an organization should be its basic philosophy of doing business.”

When leading a team the leader must always be looking ahead, not letting his ego get in the way, he must not be afraid to be a change agent, but he must be sure to preserve the core.

The Four “Lazy Manager” Rules of Thumb

2.7      You are Your People

To be successful in any endeavour a leader must surround himself with the best people. When entering into a new role a leader must disregard previous assessments and make his own judgments. He should be decisive in his assessment; if someone will not be a fit he should assist them to find a new role inside our outside his company. He should utilize his professional network to source new talent and find the stars that are not looking for a new job. When selecting talent a leader should not hire for skill, rather hire for attitude, learnability, and flexibility.

2.8      Set the Playground

A leader must invest time upfront with his employees to prepare them for their roles. He should define a playground that defines what their roles and goals are, how value is created, and how they will be assessed. He should encourage his employees to be entrepreneurial and creative in their solution. The playground is their area to experiment, make mistakes, reflect, and learn. If your employee ventures outside the playground, be there to support them and make sure they are safe.

2.9      Hone Your Coaching Radar

Managing a team adds orders of magnitude to the number of events and tasks ongoing. A leader cannot scale to manage them all. He must allow his team to run free in the playground but utilize his coaching radar to identify the critical coaching opportunities. He should take advantage of these opportunities and tailor his approach to ensure optimal results for these defining moments.

2.10  Build the House

A house is more than just its structure and includes the architectural vision, the people inside it, and the resourcing of people to maintain it. In order to have a successful organization a leader must leverage the four frames of structural, political, symbolic, and human resources. Once the house is built, a leader should stand on the roof and look far into the distance for how the next house needs to be built and don’t be afraid to change.

3                Actions Speak Louder than Words

In the end, this advice and evidence contained in this manifesto is only as valuable as the leader who is able to apply during their day to day jobs. Actions speak louder than words and it will be the tough decisions the leader makes under duress that sets the true performance of their team. A leader must walk the talk every day and every moment – which is often easier said than done.

[1] Carnegie, Dale. How to Win Friends and Influence People. Simon & Schuster, 1981.

[2] Buckingham, Marcus and Curt Coffman. First, Break All The Rules: What The World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently. Simon & Schuster, 1999.

[3] Pfeffer, Jeffrey. Six Dangerous Myths About Pay. Harvard Business Review, May-June 1998.

[4] Collins, Jim and Jerry Porras. Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. Collins Business, 2004.

[5] Bolman, Lee and Terrance Deal. Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership. Jossey-Bass, 2003.

[6] Buckingham, Marcus and Curt Coffman. First, Break All The Rules: What The World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently. Simon & Schuster, 1999.

[7] Collins, Jim and Jerry Porras. Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. Collins Business, 2004.

[8] Noori, Indra. “The Best Advice I Ever Got”. Fortune Magazine, http://money.cnn.com/galleries/2008/fortune/0804/gallery.bestadvice.fortune/7.html. Last Accessed July 31st 2008.

[9] Harari, Oren. “Colin Powell on Leadership”. Power Point Presentation

[10] Greiner, Larry. Evolution and Revolution as Organizations Grow. Harvard Business Review, May-June 1998.

[11] Harari, Oren. “Colin Powell on Leadership”. Power Point Presentation

[12] Gerstner, Louis. ­Who Said Elephants Can’t Dance? New York: Harper Business, 2002.

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