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“Tell the devil’s advocate to go to hell!”  Straight from the pen of Tom Kelley, General Manager of Ideo and author of The Ten Faces Of Innovation. And isn’t he absolutely right? Isn’t the devil’s advocate the biggest innovation killer in America? Innovation is the lifeblood of all organizations, and the devil’s advocate is a toxic agent. Many in leadership still playing primarily with the left part of their brain still want to say, “Yes, but, but, but…”, but as our global race intensifies, it’s probably time to put a muzzle on the devil’s advocate and take it off only way down the road. When resources are being allocated between competing ideas and Darwinian selection takes over.

All the controversy over Marissa Mayer’s decision to end telecommuting at Yahoo reminded me of a response by Jack and Suzy Welch to a reader’s question about telecommuting in the April 16, 2007 issue of Business Week.  The Welches replied that it’s great except where you have eyes on a leadership track. Simply put, it kills your climb. True connected communication, much like it implies, requires a complete connection, including a look-me-in-the-eye, read-my-body-language nexus. People need to see how you operate in person before you’ll gain sufficient credibility to lead them effectively.  Sorry, you can’t phone in leadership.

Marshall Goldsmith, the legendary executive coach and leadership expert, talks about the leader who always has to add a little of his or her own ingenuity or twist to ideas generated by his or her direct reports. The problem is that while the leader may have improved the report’s idea by 5%, he or she has reduced the report’s commitment to executing it by 50% by stripping him or her of ownership of it. He calls it the “fallacy of added value” and it really rings true. I have seen this in operation many, many times…the leader who has to pee on an idea to make it his or her own, just like a dog would do in new territory, only to discover that his or her pee strips the original proprietor of any enthusiasm for playing in the new territory. Leaders, many times, more than you think, it is good to shut up and let your people gallop.

In my leadership and executive coaching practice, clients often ask the best advice I very received.  It is hard to name a single one, but this is the best in the sales presentation category:

Many years ago, one of my former partners at Montgomery Securities, John Skeen, gave me a practical approach to the process of persuasive communication. He pulled me aside after my first presentation to the partners. He said, “David, that was okay, but remember that every element – indeed every word – of every persuasive communication you ever make in a business setting must meet the following three criteria or it must be thrown out: it must be focused, conclusive, and engender greed or fear. There is no time to be anything but on point. No one wants your details; just provide your conclusions. And embed the message with something that tugs on the basic needs of your listener.” To this day, I edit my business communications accordingly.

One cannot effectively lead without a tremendous amount of courage. Sounds obvious, and yet I am continually amazed at the number of people who call themselves leaders who simply cannot do two things every leader must do. First, they can’t make a decision while there is still risk in it. Get me more facts. Get me more support from my board. Get me enough so that I can’t NOT make this decision. Give me slam dunks…I just don’t like to fire from outside. Second, they can’t make the tough interpersonal call. They can’t fire someone that ought to be fired. They can’t call a long-time partner and cancel a partnership that ought to be canceled. They can’t tell their board members bad news that they deserve to hear. I have worked with many leaders of billion dollar companies who could have had 50 billion dollar companies but for their inability to take risks and have the tough conversation. If their inability to do these things is just because they are soft-hearted, then we might debate whether they should be in leadership positions. Generally, though, their inability stems from fear. Fear of failing. Fear of not being liked. And what is fear? Merely a fiction created by the mind. There is not one shred of anything real in it. If we are present, if we are emotionally clear, fear doesn’t exist. We take risks and we make the tough calls.

In reading this a couple days ago, I was considering that I’ve met thousands of people seeking the big idea that will make them a lot of money. Something I’ve learned, though, is that while big ideas are fun, their role in making money is way overrated. Sure, if you came up with the idea for eBay or Amazon, you made a lot of money off the idea. But what you really did was win the lottery. Your passion, hard work and good leadership skills combined with a very unique set of circumstances – product, supply, demand, and timing – to produce a home run.

What the majority of entrepreneurs don’t realize is that the big idea is not essential to building a successful business. Just find a product or service you feel good about and can become impassioned about delivering, define premier quality in the eyes of the consumer, and go out and deliver it. It can be as mundane as a plumbing repair business. What is premier quality in the eyes of the consumer in that business? I’ll bet it involves reliability and dependability, honesty, clear communication, cleanliness, professionalism, and competence. Deliver these things, charge the premium prices you deserve, and you will capture all the market share you want and make a lot of money. This is true even if the market is crowded with competitors, because at least 80% of your competitors will not deliver premier quality.

If we have said this once to clients and early stage companies and entrepreneurs, we’ve said it a thousand times.  

Establishing and maintaining a culture and systems of accountability is one of the most challenging tasks of  leadership.   And yet it is critical to success.   Screw up on this, and you’ll fail. Do it right, you’ll succeed. Ram Charan and Larry Bossidy, in their book entitled Execution, say first put the right people in the right places.  Second, tell your people the results that you are seeking and the priorities that matter to you.  Third, talk about how they can achieve the results you are seeking.  Fourth, reward those who deliver the results you seek and link rewards to performance.  Finally, if they don’t produce the results you are seeking, do one of the following, without delay: provide additional coaching, withdraw rewards, give them other jobs where they have a better chance at succeeding, or let them go.

And never micro-manage (which dis-empowers people, diminishes their confidence, saps their initiative, and stifles their ability to think for themselves), always be actively involved (using knowledge to probe and question, bring weaknesses to light, and rally people to correct them), and understand the difference between the two. And, finally, the unvarnished truth is essential in every assessment you make and communication in which you participate.

And if you are looking for a tool that enables this process more effectively than you could every imagine, give us a ring.  We can deliver a tool backed by Jack Welch himself and one that he says he would have used at GE had it existed when he was in charge.


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