Michael Baer's Stratecution Stories

"Strategy is overrated. We have a strategic plan. It's called doing things". – Herb Kelleher

Monthly Archives: April 2012

Failing Up – How to fail your way to the top

As a kid, I always wondered why baseball managers would flame-out on one team, and yet get hired immediately the following year by another team. It always seemed the same pool of tired old managers would be in place around the league, year-in and year-out, despite their performance history and lack of success elsewhere. Wow, I thought – no amount of failure made these guys unappealing or unsuitable elsewhere. That’s a pretty good gig.

I see a similar thing in business, as well. Lots of leaders learn to “fail up”, as I call it. From high-profile CEO’s who go company to company (can anyone say Mark Hurd?) to the folks in your organization who go higher and higher to universal bafflement. They figure out how to continue to get promoted, step over others, and get re-hired after they get found out. Again and again. People who leave trails of disaster, from one senior leadership role to another. People who cause nearly everyone to scratch their heads, asking “how did they get that job?”, and “how can everyone not see through them?” Well, I’m here to tell you that failing up is a simple – here is all you need to know in in 5 easy steps.

1) Focus on style over substance. Those who learn to fail up learn to look and act like leaders. So don’t waste your time on depth, substance, rigor or authenticity. Instead, learn to bluster and posture. In fact, perhaps, create your own individual style – I’m considering “gruff and terse and too busy for anyone else.” So people don’t find fault with me, they say “that’s just how he is”.

2) Manage up, never down. If you focus only on pleasing your bosses, you have a good chance of fooling them that you’re doing a great job. And those below you and around you, although helpful to getting the work done, won’t play a role in getting you promoted. So don’t waste time on respecting them, empowering them, and growing them.

3) Blame others for mistakes. If you want to fail up, you have to make sure that you are never associated with the errors and failures on your watch. So become adept at passing blame on to others. Always be ready to avoid responsibility – in fact, you are the victim. Someone else made the mistake, people didn’t do as you’d directed, people were disobedient, etc. Prepare your blame in advance, just in case.

4) Be a self-proclaimed expert of something. It’s helpful for your upward mobility to profess expertise in an area. Be the “automotive” expert. Or the “retail” expert. Or, better yet, the “turnaround” expert. So if you leave one company, you can be considered perfect for another. Thanks to myopic, insular hiring trends of so many industries, lots of companies are looking for people with insider “expertise”, vs. the best leader with the best, broad experience. So failure at one company in an industry simply leads to another job in the industry.

5) Be insanely over-confident. It’s important to demonstrate an outsized confidence level. It suggests incredible capability. And it doesn’t require any proof, history or evidence. So, despite a lack of true credibility, over-confidence can be rewarded with more and more responsibility. Thankfully, because you now know how to manage up and blame others, you are safe when your over-confidence leads you to fail. It wasn’t your fault!

So, there you have it – 5 steps towards failing up! Unfortunately for me, I’ve never been able to do any of this. So I’ve had to be content with succeeding down.

Just Be Helpful – Don’t aim for smart, nice, cool, or clever

If the human race wishes to have a prolonged and indefinite period of material prosperity, they have only got to behave in a peaceful and helpful way toward one another. Winston Churchill

How many times have you left a meeting after a lot of talking and pontificating, and not had any idea what anyone meant or what to do next? Too often, I’m sure. That’s probably because the folks in the room weren’t following a golden rule – to be helpful. Usually, people follow other rules, like the “score points” rule, or “protect myself” rule, or “show how smart I am” rule. But those are bad rules. The only rule worth a damn is the “be helpful” rule.

What is being helpful? Giving direction that helps take projects to the next step. Providing clarity to help teams drive solutions towards the right issues and outcomes. Factoring in realities, not just broad generalities, when giving feedback. And, in the words of Yishan Wong, CEO of Reddit, “focus primarily on making everyone around you succeed.” To me, that’s the number one role of a leader – to help those around him or her be better.

How can you be helpful?

Don’t be overly clever. We all like catchy phrases, pithy copy, creative sounding sound-bites. But this type of language is inappropriate to initiate or provide direction for action. For example, I always see way-too-clever writing in assignment briefs, a document meant to be directive and clear. The problem with clever is that it can have multiple meanings. Or it can be vague. Or the fact that it’s amusing makes people focus on the wrong point. When in doubt (which is always), use clear, direct language. That is what is helpful. Not something you write to show people how creative you are. Instead, let people know how helpful you are.

Don’t be nice. I’m a nice guy. And I tend to like nice people. However, I know that you need to choose to be helpful over nice, at least in business. For example, give helpful feedback, not “nice” feedback – even if the person may not like hearing it. And take the time to give constructive criticism, even if it feels like the nice thing to do would be to say nothing. Because being helpful IS being nice.

Make everyone around you better.  As I’ve said before, the number one job of leaders is to make those around them better. Period, end of story. And the way to do that is to be helpful to them. Give good briefs. Over-communicate. Provide timely and regular feedback. Give development plans and career paths. Be appreciative. And reward good work. You can’t get much more helpful than this.

Don’t try to “score points”. Another behavior that isn’t very helpful is the attempt to score points, vs. simply doing what helps solve problems and deliver good work. You know what I mean – when people strive to show how smart they are, by demonstrating knowledge, or asking difficult questions. But it’s easy to see through these attempts, as they fail the test of addressing the problem the team is trying to solve. Helping solve problems is the only real way to score points.

Clarity, clarity, clarity. I have worked with and for many very smart people in my career. People who can talk about anything, have opinions about everything, who can speak extemporaneously about a topic in a way that sounds like they’d been thinking about it for a year. I can’t do that. But some of these smart people can go on and on, and yet never make it clear what they mean. They talk and talk – but don’t say anything. I’d prefer the exact opposite – far fewer words, but much more meaning. Much clearer direction. Much more helpful.

Simple trumps complicated. If it takes 47 Powerpoint charts to say it, it’s probably not helpful. If it requires a 23-point diagram or infographic, it’s also likely not helpful. And if you need someone to translate into plain English what you’ve just said, it’s definitely not helpful. Distillation, concision, and sacrifice are the essence of helpfulness.

Which is why I hate jargon and buzzwords. So often they are fuzzy, catch-all’s that mean everything and nothing all at once. If someone tells you they want to “drive engagement with a breakthrough social media program that will go viral and drive successful metrics”, ask them to restate that with specific words. Because it could mean anything. I agree with Dan Palotta, who wrote in the HBR that “if it’s to people’s benefit that I understand them but I don’t, then they’re the ones who are stupid”.

So, from now on, use this simple barometer when working with partners, teams, clients, etc. – is my behavior helpful? Is the feedback, direction, reaction or commentary I am giving helpful in driving towards a positive outcome? Can I disengage my other desires – to appear smart, to be cool, to avoid failure, to be powerful – and focus solely on the joint success of my teammates? If so, then you have succeeded in helping yourself be helpful.

What do you all think?

Slow Is The New Fast – Sometimes you have to slow down in order to speed up

The world we live in seems to get faster every day – no matter how fast we move, we nevertheless seem to be constantly in need of catching up. Technology keeps us working and communicating, wherever and whenever, while our jobs seem to demand us to stay in touch, 24/7. Long-successful businesses all of a sudden face evolve-or-die scenarios, daily. Shareholders and analysts demand immediate results. We watch, real-time, for up-to-the-second data and analysis. Business is a marathon, as well as a sprint.

And in the advertising business, warp speed is table stakes. What once was given 6 months to complete is now given 2. Expectations of productivity have multiplied 10-fold. And the need to be prepared to react to the slightest market fluctuation keeps us all on the edge of our seats, ready to jump.

But I’m about to say something counter-intuitive (not too surprising, I know) – that in this speed-frenzied context, it’s never been more important to slow down. That’s right, I said SLOW DOWN.

Why? Because this need-for-speed has taken over our bodies and our brains. We shoot first, ask questions later. We react, respond, and do-do-do. We value action over thinking and praise response, no matter what. We develop processes that work on their own, like robotic speed-freaks. But sometimes, we need to press the pause button. We need to stop the presses, the mail-bots, the dashboards. Because, sometimes, we need to think slower – in order to work smarter.

This is exactly what Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman wrote about in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, which suggests there are two distinct systems that dictate how we think and make decisions. One is fast, intuitive and reactive, while the other is slow, deliberate, methodical, and rational. He argues that there are many situations in which we must force ourselves to “think slow”. A Harvard Business School article agreed, saying that “in a world that is more complex and uncertain and ambiguous we should be promoting slow and deliberative thinking.” Good leaders know why you should sometimes think slow. Do you?

Promote real, human contact. This need-for-speed has caused us to resort to e-contacts as the default state. Important programs that once required people physically together in a room working through issues now kick-off with an email. People work alone behind laptops and “hand-off” their responses, like passing the baton. But lots of activities demand more deliberate, in-person activities. And, counter-intuitively, you’ll be amazed to find that your productivity will grow, not plummet, with several humans in a room working on the same project at the same time.

A knee-jerk is still a jerk. Because we are constantly responding to situations and reacting to stimuli, we often develop patterns of response that we enable without thinking. A certain problem calls for a formula solution; a certain metric automatically receives a specific optimization.  We become run by rote, not mind.

Identifying these situations is the first step to recovery. Because, no matter how efficient we want to become, we still need a certain level of intentionality – conscious thought and connection to the path we’re actively choosing to solve our problem. Don’t let a knee-jerk be your answer to anything.

Don’t let process run the process. I’m a big believer in developing and leveraging processes as a way to routinize desirable behaviors, as well as to drive efficiency and quality control. But that doesn’t mean process is the be-all and end-all. Ensure that process is utilized with purpose and intent, as well. Don’t let activities happen mindlessly, simply because a process stipulates it to occur. Empower people to stop the assembly line if it doesn’t serve your purposes. Again, don’t let an efficient process drive you to speed to the next step if you’re not sure you’ve completed the last one, or you’re not comfortable with the outcome of the prior phase. Slow it down before speeding back up.

Wait for the cavalry. There are times when you feel the need to respond. You feel under the gun, you’re pressured and out-numbered, and you’re forced to respond defensively with the best you’ve got, under the circumstances. That’s what our always-on world has us believe. But sometimes you just need to slow down – and wait for the reinforcements. Take a pause and let time and your teammates help bail you out – with better information, more expertise and capability, and additional thinking. In fact, a “slow” response that solves your problem is actually more efficient than a fast one that requires multiple follow-ups, revisions and course-corrections.

Sometimes it’s the move you DON’T make. As I mentioned in a prior post, in some situations, the best thing to do is nothing. That is, despite the demanding pace and the emotions and passions we all have, it’s important not to rush to judgment or react impetuously or impulsively.  Control your emotions and remove yourself from the heat of the moment. It may be extremely hard to hold back from doing – our restless selves seem to demand action. But, slow down instead. First, seek understanding, before you allow yourself the potential to take action.

These are a number of reasons and situations you’ll be happy you took it slow. Do you have more? Do you disagree? I’d love to hear your thoughts and examples.

Know Where The Goalposts Are – Sometimes success is not about great work

Here’s something surprising that I’ve learned the hard way – focusing solely on delivering great work and positive results is not always the route to success. I know this may sound puzzling. I mean, you’re hired to do something. So you do it. Well. It results in positive and profitable results for the company you work for. And yet, it does not commensurately result in your own success. Why? How could this be the case? Well, there are several potential reasons. But the main reason – you failed in recognizing the appropriate goal posts.

Here are several specific reasons:

You failed to agree on your goals with your boss. As Michael Watkins says in “The First 90 Days”, one of the most important things you need to do upon starting a new job is to align with your boss on your expectations. Without doing that, you are essentially working in a vacuum. While you may believe you appropriately spent time diagnosing the key issues you faced and then addressed them systematically and successfully – if you haven’t negotiated this approach with your boss in advance, then there is a big possibility you haven’t delivered agreed-upon results.

An example: a number of years ago, I began running a new piece of business my company had just won. It was significantly more complex and fast-moving than we had expected or been prepared for upon winning it – and yet we had been forced into a pretty constricting 18-month contract without much immediate hope of increased fees. The first 6-9 months were a real tornado – we were drinking from the proverbial firehose. Assessing the situation – a demanding client, a stretched staff, a lot of missing expertise – I set my goals to be as nimble and can-do as possible, and sacrifice short-term margin in order to deliver solid initial results and set us up for long-term success. We started doing, learning (from both successes and mistakes), and leveraging all the resources we could during this time. We learned, got better and delivered against some pretty tall Client demands and expectations. I felt reasonably good about how we had dealt with the situation – and we had kept this new client happy. However, my management was not too pleased. They felt we’d burned too many resources, had sacrificed our margin, and had played too fast and loose with process to get things done. All of these things were necessary, short-term, in my opinion. However, I hadn’t aligned with my boss about them in advance. Shame on me.

You didn’t read the cultural tea leaves. There are lots of organizational or cultural realities that can impact your success in an organization more than just your work and your results. So, what worked for you in past assignments at other employers won’t necessarily work for you in your current position. Everything from management style, all the way down to your mode of dress, can undermine you within an organization.

In addition, there may be “pet” departments or specific people who have surprising power within an organization. Not knowing who are the untouchables, where the disparate powerbases are, and who has conflicting agendas can cause you to step on lots of land-mines. As counter-productive as it might sound, you should take nearly as much time assessing the organization as you do the business situations you face. ‘Nuff said.

Sometimes, obedience and falling-in-line is regarded more highly than independent success. There is a particular leadership personality-type that is more focused on their own needs and wants than those of their direct-reports. Robert Sutton calls these leaders “power-poisoned bosses” who “grab all the goodies for themselves”. I worked at a place where management responded to and rewarded “loyalty”. By that, what really was meant was unquestioned falling-in-line. It didn’t matter that the team I led grew top-line and bottom-line revenue for 3 years straight, that the client was extremely happy with us, and that we had developed dozens of programs that were the best case studies in the company. The leaders saw things through their own lenses. It’s irrelevant whether or not you, as an employee, think that’s a reasonable leadership style. It’s the reality you have to live with while you’re there. Naturally, I’m not there now, so it didn’t agree with me (nor I with it). But my failure was not recognizing it well enough (or just giving it lip-service) while I was in it.

Positive results are expected At the end of the day, you have to recognize that positive results are expected. So, doing good doesn’t necessarily translate into you doing well. And don’t waste your time comparing your results to others who are delivering less well – there are lots of other factors (already noted) that could be behind those people’s successes. While your business efforts might be delivering on corporate goals, your mis-steps in other areas will hold you back.

I’ve said (to myself, anyway) that doing great work, developing productive relationships internally and externally, and growing the careers of direct reports should be what we are graded on as employees. But, like it or not, there are lots of other equally important factors. Wherever you work, be conscious of these things. And, if you don’t like them, definitely seek new employment.

Thoughts? Experiences? Juicy examples? Please share.

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