23 June 2009

How did you get here? And where do you go from here?

This morning, I presented this speech to our first Leadership Class at Force 3. The class is taking place at the Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland.

Eight years ago, I had the honor of addressing the first leadership class that my company at that time, Transcentive, ever held. I gave those remarks in June of 2001. And our leadership program became the launching pad for greatness for Transcentive’s professionals as we dealt with the tragedies of 9/11 during which we lost several of our customer and partner community, the dot.com meltdown which changed the complexion of the entire technology industry and specific to Transcentive’s business, changes in stock option regulations that almost swamped our industry.

In preparing for this program, I shared with Rocky and with Jim the remarks I had made at that time. When he read them, Rocky thought that they still resounded today and asked me to address you with similar thoughts. It was interesting that many of the same themes still apply today.

As many of you know, I like to read. I like to learn. Perhaps I get that honestly from my mother who was a teacher for some 35 years. Of all the books that I have read, one of my favorite books is The Last Word on Power, by Tracey Goss. What Tracey says is that everything that got you to where you are today will hold you back from succeeding in the future. At first glance this seems a bid absurd. But in reasoning through her words and arguments, it now appears perfectly clear to me. The stuff I did in the past to succeed, was intended to solve the issues, problems and situations that I encountered at that time. My new role at Force 3 has required drastically different thinking. Drastically different responsibilities in a drastically different market. When it comes down to it, if you think that life has changed, or that your role at work has changed, how could applying the same recipe to it really work?

Think about managers for a moment. We insert managers into most organizations to help direct workers and projects. Most managers got to that position by succeeding in what they had done in the past. Either you were an individual contributor and you got good at your contributions, or you were a manager of people or projects and you were able to drill your team and help cause some successes. Either way, you were promoted based upon what you had already done under very different circumstances. So how can we expect that same person to be prepared for this new role without providing them with new training or guidance? But in most cases we don’t! And it leads directly to something that has become known as the Peter principal. We promote people until they get to a point where they are no longer successful. Until their success formula breaks down.

These two concepts – Tracey Goss’s and Peter’s both actually converge. If you are not capable of giving up your past, or reinventing yourself, you have no chance succeeding going forward.

· What if we kept acting as if 9/11 never happened,
· or expect to keep acting the same despite the financial meltdown?
· What if we kept acting like we were still a 100 person company.
· What if we kept acting like Obama never got elected.

You get the picture. Our actions change because the world in which we live is different. Our situations are different. And in fact all of our jobs are different.

But many people end up as positional managers. Positional managers are managers who manage based upon what position they hold. Like, I am the Sales Director so the sales people will do what I say. In fact positional authority often does cause short term action.

But in the long run positional managers are ineffective. They are limited by what they know, how much domain they can control, and how demanding they are. Their people respond only to their demands. They do not trust their manager, nor care about the end results. Since often times it is the positional manager who then succeeds (if there is success) and the workers get only the blame. This is sort of like treating people like machine parts. Henry Ford era. Think about the professional basketball coach Phil Jackson trying to get 5 prima donnas to listen to what he tells them to do. That simply does not work in this day and age.

What’s required are Leaders! Leaders are managers who have figured out that their position (their title) is meaningless. I tend to call it the second step of becoming an effective manager.

Leaders attract talent they don’t herd them.
Leaders inspire workers, they don’t push them.
Leaders listen more often than speaking.
Leaders motivate they don’t just manage.
Leaders do the right things, they don’t just do things right.

So let’s talk a little more about leaders and how they differ from managers. First of all effective leaders are genuine. What does that mean? Well first of all, we know in today’s complex environment that it’s impossible to know everything about everything. Certainly life and industry used to be much simpler. But today, can you really tell me that you know everything they need to know to get the job done? Do you really know how to do even just your own job? Aren’t there things you wish you knew? Aren’t there books or seminars or people you could talk to or other companies who MIGHT do things better, more efficiently, more innovatively than what you today are doing in your own departments?

So the starting point is: check your ego at the door!

Second step, realize that there is no involuntary servitude in this country. Your department, your coworkers and everyone across the entire organization is there because they CHOOSE to be, not because they have to be. Many of you already know that. We’ve experienced extremely high turnover for a company our size and for our position and performance and potential. The reason for it is US! Don’t point to any other cause other than we are inept at leading (and perhaps in hiring). People leave because they are not being led, or they don’t chose to be lead by YOU! Once you realize that, you’ll find that in order for you to succeed, you need to connect with your people and ensure that they are ready and eager to be lead…by YOU! If you think about it it’s an awesome task.

The main reason that people want to be led by you is that you empower them. You offer them the opportunity to be great. And you make sure they know when they are and they aren’t. And then empower them to do it better than you ever could on your own. That doesn’t mean they run haywire throughout the organization. That doesn’t mean that you don’t mentor them, provide them with insights that perhaps you learned the hard way, that doesn’t mean that you don’t reward and punish their behavior. It does mean that you start out with great people (good hiring is very important) that are BETTER than you or can become BETTER than you in figuring out how to do the job. So that’s step 3, find better people than you to do the job. Remember Phil Jackson and our basketball analogy. No successful coach is nearly capable of going out and beating his players. So why wouldn’t you hire people who are better than you at that job?

Then fourth, you got to give them a good reason to excel! Why should they WANT to do a good job. To me again the answer is pretty clear. WIIFM. What’s in it for them? Figure it out, in advance and respond to it. Our millennials, generation X’s and Y’s are motivated by different things that perhaps our parents or even ourselves. They want freedom, they want recognition, certainly they want rewards, but most of all they don’t want a wet blanket manager who holds them down and suffocates their initiatives.

This is all driven by your workers knowing that you care.

People don’t care about how much you know unless and until they know how much you care.

That is until you convince your team that you care enough to make them great. And by the way, if its bullshit. If you just say you care and every action that you take is to try to make YOURSELF look better, it won’t work.

That you care enough to ensure that they get credit for what they do. That you care enough to discipline them when they stray.

Caring includes, setting the example yourself. When you become a leader, you’ve got to walk your own talk. That is, never ask someone to do something that you wouldn’t do yourself. That means that just because you’re the boss, doesn’t mean that you don’t have to get your hands dirty. That means that you participate, you put yourself in a position where you are just as vulnerable as they are. You become one of the team, not just the boss. That means putting yourself in a position where you can fail and look bad just like them? To do this you have to become a very sensitive listening device. Stop talking and start listening.

And most of all, seek out the people in your organization that themselves can become great leaders. Because the highest level and most important contribution to a business organization is not being a great contributor, although where would we be without them, its not being a manager of projects or people, although we need them as well, and its not even being a leader of people, although that would propel most any organization to greatness. The real challenge is to become a leader of leaders.

Since coming to Force 3, I’ve pushed our executives to each identify of their own successors. Now that may seem a little foolish. It also may sound like I was ready to replace these managers and just wanted their help in selecting the “who”. But in fact it was a test of leadership. Because you see that despite all you may have heard or what you may think, the way to make yourself indispensable in an organization is to make yourself dispensable. If you are not able to do this, then… your organization will always need you around to do the work. That means when you are not there, productivity lags. That means when you are called upon to reach the next level, you will be skipped over, because there is no one there to fill your void. Think about it. Sounds pretty logical. The best managers are the ones in which their departments manage themselves.

How do you find these future leaders?

· They are the ones with passion and motivation.
· They are the ones that ask to do more.
· They are the ones that are not just looking out for themselves.
· They are the ones who don’t take anything for granted.
· They are always wrestling with the status quo and looking for better ways to succeed.

You’ll know a leader as the one who heads the team into the forest. Climbs the highest tree herself. Surveys the territory and then declares: Wrong Forest! Not just seeing the forest from the trees; but being willing to acknowledge mistakes and make bold moves to correct past actions.

Leaders are forever raising the performance bar, and they like to keep score. They are the optimistic ones. The ones you feel good talking with. The ones that don’t suck the energy out of you and point out all the reasons something can’t get done, but rather ask why not? They may not be the smartest. They may not have the most experience in our particular business. But you know when you meet them that they can do whatever it is you need of them. They don’t have a big ego. They usually describe their past successes as having been either lucky or caused by the greatness of their team.

And so why this program? Leadership is not something you are necessarily born with. It can be learned but does require a commitment. A commitment like what we asked you to start here, by preparing for and attending this week.

And so how do we get there. First of all it takes commitment. Your senior management team’s commitment is required. Because if they don’t raise the bar, no one else can. So you have our commitment. First embodied by this program. And soon to become a part of everything we do at Force 3.

What’s in it for you? I think this is an opportunity unlike any I’ve ever been given. So take advantage of it. It’s your ticket to your next level of thinking and hopefully acting. It’s your next step along the way of your progress to give you an opportunity to become a better leader of whatever it is you are going to lead? Whether that be your children, your civic group, your tribe, your department, your country, or your company. I believe you will find it’s worth the effort. Work hard at it and together we’ll see real tangible results. By creating a culture of leadership we’ll together be able to take this company in new directions and to levels we’ve never dreamed were possible. Because institutionalizing leadership, as we are starting today, is the ultimate act of leadership.

Enjoy the next three days. Work hard and come away with new ideas and new motivation to make Force 3 and even greater part of our collective community than it is today.


  1. Les, have you heard about "lidless" leadership? I forget where I read that, but the term reminds me very much of what you are talking about here. The question is how to find where your lids are and how to blow them up. It's based on a premise that people instinctively want to do and give their best, so leaders are not "doing" anything per se, but removing lids on themselves and others. I thought it was a neat image.

  2. Michael -

    The book is The 21 Immutable Laws of Leadership by Maxwell. He calls it the "Law of the Lid". The leader places the lid on the leadership quotient of the group. The higher she puts it, the more the opportunity. But it can be no higher.