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Tag: leadership

Communicating context to drive specific behaviours

Words like “consultant”, “workdriver” and “special projects” still create a PTSD style effect in my head. These words drip with corporate context, very clearly and precisely signalling whether you were succeeding or failing. The email announcing a VP moving to “special projects” triggered a global cascade of watercooler conversations where we each dissected and calibrated their missteps and realigned our own. It feels like a high performing culture because you’re communicating in flow – there are barely any words exchanged but you can replay together how a pattern of behaviour over years became fatal for said VP. It’s almost a cult like sensation. People worry about leaving because they fear never experiencing this level of flow (read: intelligence) ever again?

Tim Fung from Airtasker reminded me of that on his webinar this morning. Why do leaders communicate? His example was a mistake he made, sending an email whilst under stress that the expected working hours were 8:30am – 6pm. On reflection, he wasn’t trying to communicate an expected outcome – people in seats. Instead his company was under serious financial pressure and the next few weeks required a mammoth effort to keep the dream alive, but he failed to communicate that context and lost good people because of it.

So what was Tim trying to communicate? Well the zeitgeist answer would be that he was trying to communicate a cultural expectation. But if your company goals are service quality and people focus, perhaps that internal culture would be counterproductive? No, this wasn’t an attempt at ongoing cultural change.

Tim specifically reflected that the goal of this communication was to set context. He wants to know that when a specific context is shared, a certain set of behaviours are triggered at scale. For example if an “investor presentation” is announced for a few weeks time, an increasingly large ship needs to transform immediately. The operations team cut costs, HR cancels all off-sites, engineering ships the shiny MVP that wasn’t quite ready. This is not a cultural theme that persists during the year, but instead a carefully communicated and indoctrinated context that dictates specific behaviour.

I suppose most of the time this context, just like culture, is set through repetition. But what if you could construct context more deliberately? If there are 3 regular events that are critical to your business every year, how could you communicate the context of those events in a crystal clear way? For example if you are Apple and your company’s innovation appetite pivots on the annual WWDC event, how do you describe that context to a new hire or even a customer?

Pivot points get a lot of discussion in the startup world, but I think these context events are the pivot points every company needs to know, and communicate heavily and precisely.

Leading Product through COVID-19

Last week Liam invited me to participate in a webinar titled “Pivoting Product and Product teams through a Crisis”. It was a real honour to be invited, as the panel was made up of a number of great product leaders from Sydney. Mable in particular has seen some big swings in supply and demand, as well as winning a very exciting Department of Health contract.

If you’d like to view the webinar, please see this YouTube video:

Pivoting Product and Product teams through a Crisis

Real men pay salaries

“Real men don’t earn salaries, they pay salaries”. This quote from “A Sparrow Falls”, the Wilbur Smith book that I am currently reading, really struck me like a slap in the face. Why was it so painful? How do I get to the stage where I am paying the salaries?

Lately I have been trying to build my management and leadership skills. Amongst other things, this involved taking a Leadership training course at Google. It emphasised a number of pretty deep concepts, things like being an authentic person and this importance of bringing this authenticity to work with you (which is a fairly intimidating concept). There were of course articles from the Harvard Business Review to cover, including the four steps in the art of persuasion. These being:

  1. Establish Credibility – demonstrate you know your stuff
  2. Frame for Common Ground – find the stuff you both agree on
  3. Provide Evidence – demonstrate something new that builds on your common ground
  4. Connect Emotionally – expand the current ground with them at your side

Next steps? Find mentors. I loved watching an interview of Jack Dorsey, one of the founders of Twitter and now Squareup. He isn’t an amazing presenter, however I feel that I present in a similar way and have a similar view on the world. Reading his Vanity Fair interview and numerous Venture Beat articles, it paints an inspirational picture of a guy who throws every part of him into his goals and passions. Is this authentic leadership? He built everything himself form scratch, based on his passion and getting his hands dirty. The noble story of the engineer, putting the product first and that product now paying the salaries.

Or what about someone like Greg Ellis, the current CEO of REA? I watched his CEO Hub interview today on Business Spectator. He built his career like a pyramid. Rather than rising to the top with a single skillbase and being forced to add to it while riding product growth, he worked the other way around. Build marketing, sales, HR, legal and other skills at the best companies you can find, and then find or make one of your own. Is this any more or less a noble to be paying the salaries?

Or maybe it’s like Alan Noble explained this week. It’s not about mentors, it’s about surrounding yourself with great people and taking the opportunities when you see them. Meanwhile, where is that copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People

Vision and leadership

Seth GodinSeth Godin is my favourite marketing guru, and he recently published a free e-book that has statements from 70+ great thinkers. For me, reading these statements was the perfect way to reflect on the past year and motivate myself for a big 2010.

There was one slide in particular that resonated for me. The ability to create a vision is a product management skill that I have really tried to build, but I never realised that by creating a vision you are demonstrating leadership. It is so easy to put vision in the “too hard” basket and let your daily grind expand to fill your day. A leader rises above this by setting a vision that resonates with those around you and motivates them to do the same.

In a down economy – particularly one that has taken most of us by surprise – things get very tactical. We are just trying to survive. What worked yesterday does not necessarily work today. What works today may not necessarily work tomorrow. Decisions become pragmatic.

But after a while this wears on people. They don’t know why their efforts matter. They cannot connect their actions to a larger story. Their work becomes a matter of just going through the motions, living from weekend to weekend, paycheck to paycheck.

This is where great leadership makes all the difference. Leadership is more than influence. It is
about reminding people of what it is we are trying to build – and why it matters. It is about painting a picture of a better future.
It comes down to pointing the way and saying, “C’mon. We can do this!”

When times are tough, vision is the first casualty. Before conditions can improve, it is the first thing we must recover.

Company Culture at Netflix

How many companies clearly define their culture and HR policy in a public way? Jack Welch of GE famously held the view that the bottom 10% of the company should be fired every year, but in the days of labor shortages that would be frowned upon. That’s why it was refreshing for me to see this slideshow from Netflix. Have a read for yourself, although be warned it is quite long and detailed:

So what do I think? Firstly it is awesome that a company publishes this kind of presentation, everyone should be proud of who they work for and have no problems articulating that to the public. I don’t think there are many companies who are so upfront, open and honest about who they are (in many cases even being aware would be a great start).

In particular I liked:

  • “adequate performance gets a generous severence package” – provocative but also highly motivating to myself at least. There is nothing better than being in a team where you know everyone cares as much as you do, and nothing worse than putting your heart into something that sits in someone’s “to do” list.
  • Brilliant Jerks –  the cost to teamwork is too high. I have had managers who make excuses for a brilliant jerk because they hate the thought of rehiring for a person that is currently letting them put their feet up.
  • Rare Responsible Person – Doesn’t wait to be told what to do, Never feels “that’s not my job”. Everyone should pitch in, no-one should feel territorial. If I am struggling I will put my hand up and ask for advice, and I expect others to do the same and welcome my input.
  • Value simplicity – No-one can manage lots of small products successfully. Focus on what works, and keep making it work even better.
  • High Performance People make few errors – Hire well, trust your people to do their job. Don’t cotton wool bad people and have checks and balances to make sure they don’t do damage. That adds huge amounts of waste and overhead.
  • Control through context– Managers should communicate a clear strategy and whatever happens within that strategy is up to the employee.

What did you get out of it? Does your company even have a policy or statement on culture?

Top 10 traits of bad leaders

Harvard Business Publishing summarised the 360-degree feedback data on over 11,000 leaders from a study completed by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman. Here are the 10 most common leadership shortcomings, how many apply to you or your leader?

  1. Lack energy and enthusiasm
  2. Accept their own mediocre performance
  3. Lack clear vision and direction
  4. Have poor judgement
  5. Don’t collaborate
  6. Don’t follow the standards they set for others
  7. Resist new ideas
  8. Don’t learn from mistakes
  9. Lack interpersonal skills
  10. Fail to develop others

It is interesting to note that the most successful and least successful differed most significantly in their energy and enthusiasm. Can a good leader therefore be trained or are they born? I see some similarities to the concept of “culture comes from the top”. If the CEO demonstrates energy and enthusiasm this has a huge impact on their report’s motivation to follow, and this energy in turn cascades down the chain. Finally poor management is one of the top 10 reasons employees quit their job, so the consequences of bad leaders are serious.

The Top-Down effect

The org chart shows the culture flow

A company culture is something that is very difficult to describe, let alone create. One of the blogs I read, systematicHR, posted up an interesting response post which covers the top-down flow effect that a CEO has on company culture. I think the closing lines sum it up very nicely:

The CEO absolutely defines culture whether they intend to or not.  HR then further defines what that strategy will look like.

So what are some ways that a CEO can do this? Well I like realestate.com.au‘s approach of having a CEO blog and bi-annual company conferences where the CEO presents the company achievements, strategy and goals. Just engaging in this open communication helps create an open culture, but the real key is in the actual organisational strategy. As the post says, this strategy will directly dictate culture and will change depending on the nature of the business.

Having worked in a sales organisation almost 5 years I would say there is a very fine line between a competitive and a demoralising organisational strategy (and therefore company culture). The nature of sales people and cycles makes this line a fluctuating target. The two biggest things I believe are:

  • Consistency – client spread, discipline, sense of fairness
  • Communication – Competitive but still collaborative (teams help)

In the end I guess the key is to clearly communicate and inspire passion for what you do. People will pick this up whether it is active or passive and positive or negative. The moral of the story is be aware of your influence.

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