Five Completely False Acquisition Assumptions to Let Go of Today

April 5th, 2013 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Business, Change Leadership, Communication 9 Comments »

Is there such a thing as acquisition season? It seems that I have been in a lot of conversations about potential, pending, and actual acquisitions since the weather started to turn warmer. Even though acquisitions are more common than many people think, they are still notoriously tricky to pull off.

Leaders often begin an acquisition integration process by using the same methods that made them so successful in leading their organization on a day-to-day basis. Unfortunately, this just doesn’t work well for acquisitions, because an acquisition can be a big change, and change means you need to change many of your underlying assumptions.

In fact, you may need to change your assumptions about everything from long-standing customer and competitor relationships to who are your partners in the supply chain and what are the employees’ daily job responsibilities. The trick, of course, is not in the acquisition itself, but in the effective integration of the acquisition into the business.

Let’s review five of the most common deadly assumptions well-meaning leaders make about acquisitions, and what you can do to accelerate the integration process and produce a better and more synergistic integration.

1. Effective acquisition communication means close attention to messaging.” Depending on its size and scope, an acquisition can be a small change or an enormous one. The tendency is for leaders to make announcements and think they’re communicating, and to focus on what they say and not on what they hear.The most successful large-scale changes involve a two-way process, and it’s given the respect it deserves by being at least somewhat formalized and measured for its contribution to the success of the change.  It’s certainly a lot more than saying to managers, “So, how are your people doing? Everyone’s o.k., right? Great! Be sure to announce the latest acquisition updates at your next staff meeting.”

To get a better result and accelerate communication, set up a process for ensuring that concerns are raised through the hierarchy and addressed. Think there’s no hierarchy in the way? Think again. Trust me — I only hear that statement from people who are at the top of the heap, and virtually never from individual contributors. That’s not just a deadly assumption related to acquisitions – that one will kill you over time under any circumstance.

No matter how approachable you are, a medium or large acquisition is simply too big of a change to trust to strictly informal channels. If you’re communicating effectively during an acquisition, you are listening exponentially more than you are messaging, and you are not formulating your next thought while the employee is talking – you’re truly hearing and absorbing what he or she is saying.

2. With a few months of long hours, we can integrate people, processes, and systems.”  Most of your good and excellent people are already putting in long hours, and let’s be realistic — getting more hours from the weak performers isn’t going to help much, is it?Underestimating how much additional resource is needed for the integration is deadly because it creates drag on the organization as the integration misses deadlines and managers have to spend more and more time re-scoping the integration efforts in addition to doing their day jobs.

This can also create drag in the emotional mindset of frustrated and confused customers, dispirited employees, and angry partners. It takes a lot of courage, persistence, and tenacity to create and sustain a strong integration plan. Because the habit of most organizations is the habit of day-to-day operations, it takes serious effort to infuse the very different practices involved in managing a big change like an acquisition.

I’ve seen few successful acquisitions without a dedicated integration team, with the exception of very small ones with only a few employees. You’ll likely need dedicated resources in IT, a working group to integrate different business models and processes, and of course, the facilities and HR teams. You can begin moving in the right direction today by assessing the quality of the current plan and the resources in these areas. Hire an outside expert with amazing results in integrating processes and systems. I’ll help you get the people there, but you will need other experts to help you scope and execute processes and systems.

3. Better to reorganize slowly and in small pieces rather than upset the apple cart.”  There may be good business reasons for it, but never do a post-acquisition reorganization in bits and pieces on the assumption that it will ease people into the change.It’s a difficult truth, but some people may lose their jobs and if you need to make these cuts, it’s better to get on with the job. When leaders prolong confusing, duplicate, and overlapping roles, or lay off employees in seemingly random one’s and two’s, they increase cynicism, frustration, and the fear that the acquiring organization’s leaders are an inept, indecisive group of bureaucrats who can’t make up their minds.

The decision to let people go is so painful and exhausting for everyone involved (even me, and I’m just the outside consultant), but leaders must bite the bullet. If a reorganization is focused and takes weeks, not months, or as few months as is reasonable, the remaining employees at least will be able to focus on their work instead of wondering when the ax will fall.

4. Spin it up – we’ve got to keep people positive.”  Sure, everyone wants to follow an optimistic leader, and you should share all good news with great joy — but that doesn’t mean putting a positive spin on negative developments. You will kill your credibility, particularly among the employees of the acquired organization, most of whom have no relationship with you, and therefore no particular reason to trust you in the first place.Be honest, and share your plan to address the issues, or at least your timeline for pulling a plan together. Your people are living day-to-day with the consequences of any negative developments. They’re probably the ones who brought the problems to someone’s attention in the first place, if you’ve implemented a solid two-way communication process. Show your respect for them by treating these challenges with honesty and compassion.
5. And from deep in our unconscious selves… “the employees of the acquired company are so darn lucky to be part of our company, and they need to just get aligned with the way we do things around here.”  These days few leaders are crass enough to say this out loud, but the fact that we don’t say it out loud in no way addresses the fact that we feel it, if that’s what we feel. Attitudes and emotions leak out all over the place.But reverse this attitude quickly if you see it in yourself or in someone else, because if the undertone set by the acquiring company’s leadership is in any way superior, the employees of the acquired company will pick it up and head toward to door to your competitor at the first opportunity. You’ll also lose out on all you could have learned from the employees who stay, because you’ve inadvertently demeaned their knowledge, skills, and expertise.

I recall the time I found myself sitting in the regional sales office of an acquiring company.  When the SVP of Sales announced the acquisition of their largest, closest competitor, the sales team cheered and yelled, “We win! We win!”

The acquisition turned out to be a stunning success, in part because the SVP responded, “Hey, cut it out, you guys. Each of these people is part of our team now. We’re in it together and frankly, I’ve seen their numbers and they’re every bit as good as you are. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t have acquired the company.”

Accelerating integration is no small task, but make sure you and your team chase off the five deadly assumptions, and you’ll begin to gain the momentum you need.

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Fix My Boss

February 1st, 2013 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Business, Change Leadership, Communication No Comments »

It was a cold and dreary winter day. I sat in a conference room with a VP of Operations and his team of nine directors for their quarterly operations review. The most senior director, Paul, began his presentation. As the minutes ticked by, my mood began to match the grey day outside. It was downright depressing, and not because Paul reported bad news. On the contrary, Paul’s organization was excelling, with most of the dashboard a cheery green, and just a few spots of yellow and red to indicate areas where they were struggling.

Paul was an operations star who could manage a larger global scope than anyone else in the company. He had earned the respect of everyone who worked with him. Never one to arrive unprepared, Paul was now reporting on a mind-numbing 43 projects. Each slide in his seemingly endless deck shared every statistic we could ever want to know about the activities on a given subset of tasks on each project over the past three months. Every question, however obscure, was answered immediately, accurately, and with the utter confidence that can only come from knowing your voluminous material cold.

There was just one big problem with all of this. Paul wasn’t happy and he wasn’t engaged. He had been a global operations star for over a decade. He was part of a very small club, the rare few who can effectively manage complex technical operations in over 100 countries at the same time, no matter what happened. Need two thousand PC’s up and running in a remote Chinese city this month? No sweat. Need four hundred highly specialized technicians in Brazil for three months? Child’s play. Need a network installed in the throes of a civil war in northern Africa? Been there, done that. How about renegotiating an unfavorable mega-million-dollar contract with a key vendor? Shrug.

Paul felt agitated and unappreciated. He firmly believed his boss had pigeon-holed him as a “super-manager” and would never give him the level of strategic responsibilities that would excite him at this point in his career. Privately, he told me he was certain he was one of the strongest leaders in the company and that his boss just didn’t get it. Paul received calls from executive recruiters every week, and he was seriously considering going to work for a competitor he felt would appreciate his leadership.

However, the quarterly operations review revealed an essential truth that Paul had missed. On the inside, he saw himself as a strategic and very senior leader. On the outside, he still communicated as if he were one or even two levels down, indeed, a super-manager. By launching into detailed slides without context, reporting on past activities without context, and presenting data in rapid succession without interpretation, he might as well have been screaming, “I’m the best bleepin’ manager you’ve ever had, and that’s all I bring to the table.”

So what can we learn from Paul? Plenty, because Paul was holding on to an ego-driven belief that put blinders on him. In fact, if Paul could let go of this belief, he could get everything he wanted.

The belief was that his boss didn’t “get it.” Likewise, your boss may or may not really understand or appreciate your potential. It’s impossible to know for sure. However, you can greatly influence the situation by examining your own assumption that it’s all his or her problem.

Paul believed that by presenting data that proved his amazing performance, he was conveying what a stellar leader he was. He also believed that it was up to his boss to understand what a fine leader he was and treat him accordingly. Both of these unquestioned assumptions became barriers to Paul achieving the extraordinary leadership of which he was capable.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, people only heard data from Paul, not a vision. No wonder they saw him as a super-manager. Sure, he mentioned his strategy from time to time, in quarterly strategic planning off-site meetings, but never referred back to it before presenting his updates in operations reviews. By doing this, he made it difficult for people to engage with him. He required people who already have too much to remember to try to dig back into their memories and accurately recall his vision and strategy, and to interpret the data against that vision and strategy. One of these people was his boss, who worried that Paul’s poor communication was holding him back.

If you are not seen as the leader you believe yourself to be, check to make sure you’re communicating like an extraordinary leader. It may very well be that your boss is clueless (some certainly are), but if even 10% of the problem lies with you, you’ll just take it with you to your next boss instead of changing for the better.

Start with this list of questions. How well and how often do you do each of the following?

1. Leaders very explicitly point people toward a vision of the future.
   
2. They create a strategy to move the organization closer to this vision.
   
3. They remind everyone of the vision and the strategy at every opportunity, assuming that it’s perfectly normal for people to need to hear it several times before it resonates with them or can even be remembered amid all of the noise.
   
4. They keep their attitude positive and constructive. Instead of judging others as “not getting it,” they seek a better understanding of the circumstances that make it difficult for others to embrace this vision and strategy. This includes an honest examination of how they themselves may be making it difficult for others to embrace the vision and strategy, not just an assessment of outside factors.
   
5. They don’t just present data and assume the numbers speak for themselves, they interpret data so others will understand if there is progress toward the vision or risks to achieving the vision.

Luckily for Paul, one of his peers recognized what was happening in the operations review, and subtly provided the leadership role by saying things like:

“So I interpret this data to mean that we have more risk in the first strategy going forward. Is that how you see it?”
   
“Wasn’t one of the key elements of your vision a career path for all key talent? It looks like we’re 70% there, but there are significant challenges to reaching 100%.”
   
And when a heated debate ensued, she listened with a positive and constructive mindset, and then said, “What Paul is saying, George, is actually pretty close to what you’re saying. Let’s go back to the vision and strategy for this group and see if you’re really misaligned or actually in violent agreement, like I think you are. The strategy Paul’s referring to includes…”

Much to his surprise, Paul’s boss also turned out to be one of his biggest supporters. Paul just hadn’t been able to see it when his ego was bruised. With practice, feedback, and focus, Paul was able to see how he unconsciously created much of the problem that so frustrated him. He realized that much of the solution was in his control, not dependent on anyone else, that he held more power than he thought.

It was such an honor to work with Paul and his boss. I was truly elated to see his transformation. Of course, “Paul” is a fictitious character combining the traits, situation, and challenges of several clients, and it was exciting working with each of them. Do you recognize any aspect of yourself in the character of Paul? If so, that’s fantastic, because it means much of the power to get what you want lies with you, not with anybody else.

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Five Essential Tips for a Successful Leadership Transition

June 14th, 2012 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Business, Change Leadership, Communication, Management, Professional Development No Comments »

Leadership transitions are key inflection points in any enterprise. A well-executed transition will influence everything from customer retention to your employees’ morale and confidence in you, so this is one internal process you want to get right.

Passing the torchSo let the transitions begin! They’re going to happen whether you plan well or not, so take the bull by the horns and follow these tips to make them successful.

1. Discuss the transition with your spouse or life partner if you have one. It’s essential to have support from the most important people in your life because the transition is going to take a fair amount of your time as you move out of the role and support your successor moving into it. If you are also moving into a bigger role, regardless of how much you’ve prepared for it, you will find yourself stretched and likely spending more time at work for a while.

2. Discuss the goals of the transitioning leader and of the successor. This is usually not one conversation, but several. The goal is to truly understand one another’s goals rather than working on potentially false assumptions about one another’s goals.

So many transitions have wound up as explosions or no transition at all, due to false, unspoken assumptions about goals. A distant cousin of mine hired a young man who assumed he was being groomed as the successor. Thirty years later, the “successor” retired, while my cousin continued to run the business until well in his 80’s.

While this is a comically extreme example, it does illustrate the importance of moving from vague visions (“I’d like to move on to a new challenge in the next few years”) to tangible goals.

This is too important to crank out in one sitting. You need time to reflect. You may find that simply hearing the other leader’s goals gives you another perspective, and influences your own goals. Give yourselves the time you need. You may find that you create a slightly (or massively) different role for the successor than you have had.

3. Privately share your successor’s name with each of your direct reports before communicating to the rest of the organization. Several years ago, the Harvard Business Review wrote an article on challenges in succession planning. One of the findings that stuck with me was how many people live under the illusion that they personally are the chosen successor when in fact they have never been considered for promotion at any point in time.

Sometimes senior leaders manipulate conversations, which is a rotten thing to do. In many cases, though, I’ve seen that there is no manipulation. The senior leader’s words carry so much weight, and the individual wants that promotion so badly, he or she reads meaning into statements that simply wasn’t there.

Once you know who your successor is, and the two of you have had your conversations, do your direct reports the courtesy of sharing your decision personally and privately. Don’t assume you know who will be disappointed. Many leaders have read these tea leaves wrong, and are shocked at some of the people who thought they were next in line.

4. Create and communicate a shared vision that will be realized after the transition. Leadership transitions can be nerve-wracking for everyone involved. H-P is just the latest example of multiple failed leadership transitions and vision drift. People remember these events from the news and often from their own bad experiences, so they have every reason to be nervous if you create no vision for the future beyond the time when you are in charge. It will feel like the organization is going to fall off of a cliff once you leave. A solid vision, combined with a good plan, will go a long way toward inspiring faith.

5. Determine the path. Make a plan and work the plan. Treat it as a project that is every bit as important as your biggest customer projects. Unless the transition is prompted by a sudden event, you should ensure that the successor assumes more of your responsibilities each quarter or every six months, with a full transition of decision-making accountability and authority, too. Put dates on your plan, and target how often you will revisit the plan to check progress and make adjustments. It’s not unusual for these plans to have a few adjustments along the way, so don’t let that bother you.

And a free bonus tip: if you can afford to slow down the pace of other organizational changes during this time without negatively impacting the business, do it. For example, it is unwise for the current senior leader to make new hires unless this can’t be avoided. The incoming leader needs the opportunity to build his or her own team, and employees generally do not like being hired by one person, only to be told a few short months later that they’re now working for someone else.

For more information on managing a key leadership transition, contact us at lighten@selbygroup.com.

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Do Your Managers’ Decisions Keep Landing Back on Your Desk?

April 6th, 2012 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Business, Change Leadership, Communication, Management No Comments »

Tom shook his head in frustration and asked me, “Why do I have to keep overruling their decisions?  I thought the people closest to the customer were supposed to be the ones who knew the business the best.”

It had been a rhetorical question until very recently. Now he really wanted to know. A general manager with a brilliant track record, Tom had once again produced superior results for the stockholders and created thousands of jobs, but the personal toll was huge. Everyone worked unsustainably long hours, talent was hard to find, and now that the company was growing at a rapid clip, Tom and his management team absolutely had to scale.

I’m not revealing anything revolutionary when I say that you must drive decision-making down as a precondition to scale up. There are limits to how many decisions any one executive can make in 24 hours, even if you skip meals, a lot of sleep, and a personal life.

However, this fell off of many leaders’ priority lists in recent years. My conversation with Tom took place several years ago. Throughout the Great Recession, I rarely had this conversation with anyone. With so many companies in crisis mode, decision-making flew back up the ranks. Command and Tight Control became the norm. Executives became accustomed to making even small decisions that used to be in the hands of directors or even managers, such as approving job offers for individual contributors and signing off on $5000 PO’s. Directors started functioning like managers and managers like individual contributors.

As one manager put it, “The message was to get in the boat and row right now in exactly this direction until the boss yells to change direction, so we did.”

Now that the crisis has passed for so many companies, it’s time for most executives to delegate decision-making once again. It’s a hard shift to make after being in the habit of tight control for so long, so if you recognize yourself in this article, don’t beat yourself up. Once you’ve become accustomed to making do with extremely limited resources and powering your way through every situation, it takes a mental and emotional reset to make the changes that allow your talent to do all they’re capable of to support growth, let alone lead them on a path of learning and boomerangdevelopment so that they grow, too.

So how do you know if you need to let go? Take a look at the process steps below and see if you recognize yourself in any way. It’s a boomerang-like pattern:

  1. You hand off decision-making authority to one of your direct reports.
  2. He or she makes a poor decision, or at least one that’s not as good as the decision you would have made.
  3. You know you shouldn’t disempower this person but you don’t want to put the business at risk, so instead of taking the decision authority away, you ask for more frequent report-outs on the project to keep closer tabs on it.
  4. Your direct report spends additional time preparing reports for you and providing updates, leaving less time to think through subsequent decisions, get your guidance, and improve his or her judgment.
  5. You get more frequent updates but the decisions aren’t any better; it’s just more frequent reports about bad decisions.
  6. You lose confidence in the direct report, and start overriding his or her decisions during meetings or in email threads. Worse, you start questioning his or her judgment in other areas. It’s as if a shadow of doubt has been cast over everything he or she does.
  7. You now own the decision again, since you are the one making it. You also have the additional challenge of managing someone who feels micro-managed, humiliated, or insulted, and who spends more time covering his or her backside, ducking for cover, and agonizing over how to position every email to the boss. This person isn’t taking chances, growing, making mistakes, and learning. He or she is just executing your decisions and wondering why you changed.

As this sequence shows, much like additional vacation days, once you’ve given someone decision-making authority, it’s hard to take it back without creating a whole new set of problems.

I developed the following checklist to help you assess if you’ve got your ducks in a row to delegate an important decision. I’ve used this checklist myself as I was developing it, and found that it helped me identify some of my own blind spots. You can also use it after a delegated decision has gone bad (or even just sideways), and to assess what you need to change to continue improving your delegation going forward. You can even use it to stimulate your team’s thinking about how effectively they delegate, too. Consider this the Swiss Army Knife of delegation.

Checklist: The Sweet Spot for Effectively Driving Decision-Making Down in the Organization

Knowledge – does the person have full knowledge of…

square Downstream impact of decision?
square All key stakeholders and their interests?
square What the decision is and what it isn’t?
square Context of how this decision fits into the business?

Skills – how skilled is this person at…

square Communicating with stakeholders up, down, sideways, and outward?
square Choosing and using appropriate diagnostics such as root cause analysis, force field analysis, technical analysis, etc.?
square Decision-making itself, including awareness of his or her natural strengths and blind spots in decision-making?
square Building stakeholder relationships?
square Collaborating where appropriate or helpful?
square Persisting to see the decision through?

Leadership from You – are you ready, willing, and able to provide…

square A clear, clean hand-off?
square Coaching from the previous decision-maker (usually this is you) through several decision cycles?
square Advocacy to get needed resources?
square Specific feedback and dialogue?
square Consistent reinforcement when others appeal to you for a different decision?
square Appropriate time allocation for his or her learning curve before delegating full authority or authority for additional decisions?

I encourage you to use this list as a jumping off point for a conversation with your direct reports. Don’t just keep it to yourself. You can learn a lot more hearing their perspectives in addition to your own.

What would you add to this list? Is there anything with which you disagree? Let me know. I’m interested in learning your perspective.

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The #1 Reason 75% of Organizational Changes Fail, and How to be Part of the 25% that Succeed

September 2nd, 2011 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Business, Change Leadership, Communication, Management, Professional Development No Comments »

Have you ever tried to lead a major organizational change that failed? I did years ago, and it hurt! I still remember the sting and the embarrassment of having to retract all of my bold statements and retreat from my position.

That’s why, ever since, I’ve been an avid student of how to make organizational changes successful. Today, after leading and consulting on dozens of big organizational changes, I advise clients on how to avoid all of the mistakes I made and ensure that their changes will be smoother and more successful.

O.k., it’s time to spill the beans: The #1 reason changes fail is NOT that the change was driven by a bad business decision, although that sometimes happens. It’s not IT’s fault. People love to blame IT for failed change (“If only their technology had met our needs, we could implement a whole new way of doing business…”), but that’s rarely the reason a change fails.

No, the #1 reason organizational changes tank is this: the failure to manage the subjective human side. This includes aspects such as:

  • The uncomfortable individual process of experiencing change — the loss, feelings of uncertainty, denial, and general discomfort that nearly everyone experiences to some degree, from your most seasoned director to your youngest individual contributor
  • Inattention to organizational politics – the change initiative gets sabotaged, intentionally or not
  • Inattention to developing the information, knowledge, skills, and capabilities needed to sustain the change
  • The counteracting pressures on individuals, that you and the other leaders may not even realize you are putting on them

You CAN be successful, though, by using a structured process to manage the human aspects of implementing a complex change — in much the same way that you use a structured process to manage any other project.

Here are the key steps to make sure YOUR change is one of the 25% that succeed:

  1. Widen the circle of involvement to ensure that key stakeholders are involved, not just informed, every step of the way.
  2. Assemble a change leadership team. Some members of this team may be needed for just the project start-up, but others will need to stick with it through the entire change. Keep the membership flexible enough to accommodate this.
  3. Choose an appropriate organizational change methodology for the scale and depth of the change. If you need to incrementally improve processes, it will require a different approach than if you want to radically alter the fundamental way you view and manage the business.
  4. Regardless of the scale and depth of change, create and sustain:
    • highly visible leadership
    • a means to effectively develop any skills and capabilities the organization will need
    • a two-way process for communication throughout the change
  5. Pay attention and adjust as you receive feedback throughout the change. You can’t predict everything that will happen. There will be surprises.

Remember, failure to manage the subjective, human aspects of the change will slow your efforts and create a poor end result. Apply this process so your organization can not only survive through a big change, but thrive.

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How Can I Get My Peers to Change?

January 28th, 2011 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Change Leadership, Communication, Management No Comments »

“How do I get my peers to speed up decision-making?”

“How can I get the rest of the C-suite to agree to my recommendations for strategic investment? What worked at my old company isn’t working here. No one will commit.”

“How can I get these people on board? Even though I don’t report to them, I need to have their buy-in to move forward. They don’t have the authority to say yes to the budget, but they all have the influence to block it.”

What do these three questions have in common? The leader wants his or her peers to change, or more accurately, to change their behaviors. Peer-level influence is often the most challenging persuasion task, since you have no hierarchical authority to fall back on if data and logic don’t fully convince them.

Before influencing your peers, be sure to get behavioral and specific in your assessment of the challenge or problem as well as the change you want to see. Using the first example, what is the team doing or saying (or not doing or not saying) that leaves you with the opinion that decision-making is too slow? Which decisions are too slow? What specific behaviors do you think are causing decision-making to be slow, and what consequences are there to the business? Abstract arguments are fine as a starting point for your thinking, but you have to get down to the level of the action verb to be convincing to others.

Now that you’ve gotten clarity on the issue or opportunity, it’s time to consider the possible cause or causes of the current situation.

First, conduct an environmental scan. Is this behavior more or less the norm in this industry? If you’ve moved from a different industry, you need to get a handle on this before determining how you will influence peers. If the behaviors are the norm for the industry, you could be fighting a losing battle if you frame up your suggestion as an idea that’s important because you see it as important.

More effective alternatives are either to determine how this change would support something your peers already see as very important (such as empowering their entire workforce, or providing the highest level of customer service) or to begin seeding the idea that your organization’s best chance at breaking away from the competition may be to (in this example) accelerate decision-making and as such, the pace of work.

If your peer group doesn’t want to break away from the pack or feels secure in their current market position, you’re going to have to be patient because this is going to take a while. In most organizations, it’s more difficult to get big changes off the ground when there is no immediate threat. You’ll have to work to get the momentum going. Your peers may understandably be concerned about breaking something that isn’t broken by introducing a significant change. One of the simplest and most often overlooked tools is putting yourself in their shoes and truly seeking to understand their perspectives, even allowing their perspectives to influence yours and further shape your thinking.

After conducting an environmental scan, a second factor to consider is that the other team members may also be experiencing low personal trust (“I worry you will stab me in the back.”) or low professional trust (“I worry that you don’t know what you’re doing and that your decisions will sink us.”) or sometimes both. Do you see signs of this? It can be very hard on the ego to see this for what it is, but seeing it and acknowledging it is clearly prerequisite to resolving it.

The third factor to consider is that you may be experiencing extreme style differences on the team, far more than you’ve experienced on other teams. These can be efficiently addressed through the use of an appropriate style inventory and debrief, although in the C-suite, it can take some time get everyone in agreement to do an inventory. This may be best integrated into a more business-focused meeting or off-site at which you can immediately make style shifts in order to move the group forward while working on an immediate business objective.

So, first get down to the level of action verbs to define the challenge or problem. Then conduct an environmental scan, consider if personal or professional trust is inadequate between you and the rest of the team, and consider the possibility of extreme style differences. Adapt your approach based on what you learn from exploring each of these three factors, and you will soon become a much more influential person.

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Speed up Your Acquisition Integration, Starting Today

October 18th, 2010 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Business, Change Leadership, Communication No Comments »

Joe never meant to work for the same huge company three times, but without fail, each time he left to join the adventuresome world of a start-up, the start-up was acquired by his former employer within two years.

Joe is one of a growing number of clients who periodically find themselves leading the integration of an acquisition, either as a leader in the acquired company or a leader in the acquiring company.

Acquisitions continue to make headlines in the business press, and there is no doubt they are essential to the growth of many businesses. You’re certain to serve in a leadership role on at least one acquisition in the course of your career.

In fact, in fast-moving industries, or those involving highly specialized products and services, 100% organic growth is nothing more than a charming memory, and it’s the norm for large players to make several acquisitions each year, or even at the same time.

For you as a leader, this means that you must look for every opportunity to improve the speed at which you integrate each acquisition, but it’s not as easy as it looks.

Leaders often begin by using the same methods that make them so successful in leading an organization on a day-to-day basis. Unfortunately, this just doesn’t work well for acquisitions, because an acquisition can be a big change. In fact, everything can change, from long-standing customer and competitor relationships to the partners in the supply chain and employees’ daily jobs.

Let’s look at five of the most common mistakes that happen when well-meaning leaders use day-to-day management approaches to integrate an acquisition, and what you can do to accelerate the process and improve the outcome.

1. Viewing “acquisition communication” as the stuff you announce to people about the acquisition. Depending on its size and scope, an acquisition can be a small change or an enormous one. The tendency is for leaders to make announcements and think they’re communicating.

The most successful large-scale changes involve a two-way process, and it’s given the respect it deserves by being at least somewhat formalized and measured for its contribution to the success of the change.  It’s certainly a lot more than saying to the managers, “So, how are your people doing? Everyone’s o.k., right? Great! Be sure to announce the latest acquisition updates at your next staff meeting.”

To get a better result and accelerate communication, set up a process for ensuring that concerns are raised through the hierarchy and addressed. Think there’s no hierarchy in the way? Think again. I only hear that statement from people who are at the top of the heap, and virtually never from individual contributors!

No matter how approachable you are, a medium or large acquisition is simply too big of a change to trust to strictly informal channels.

Cheerful People2. Massively underestimating what it will take to integrate people, processes, and systems. When the level of effort is underestimated, it creates drag on the organization as the integration misses deadlines and managers have to spend more and more time re-scoping the integration efforts.

This can also create drag in the emotional mindset of frustrated and confused customers, dispirited employees, and angry partners. It takes a lot of courage, persistence, and tenacity to create and sustain a strong integration plan. Because the habit of most organizations is the habit of day-to-day operations, it takes serious effort to infuse the very different practices involved in managing a big change like an acquisition.

I’ve seen few successful acquisitions without a dedicated integration team, with the exception of very small ones with only a few employees. You’ll likely need dedicated resources in IT, a working group to integrate different business models and processes, and of course, the facilities and HR teams. You can begin moving in the right direction today by assessing the quality of the current plan and the resources in these areas.

3. Moving too slowly in reorganizing the company. It’s a difficult truth, but some people may lose their jobs and if you need to make these cuts, it’s better to get on with the job. When leaders prolong confusing, duplicate, and overlapping roles, or lay-off employees in seemingly random one’s and two’s, they increase cynicism, frustration, and the fear that the acquiring organization’s leaders are inept, indecisive beaurocrats who can’t make up their minds.

The decision to let people go is so painful and exhausting for everyone involved (even me, and I’m just the outside consultant), but leaders must bite the bullet. If a reorganization is focused and takes weeks, not months, or as few months as is reasonable, the remaining employees at least will be able to focus on their work instead of wondering when the ax will fall.

4. Corporate spin. Sure, everyone wants to follow an optimistic leader, but that doesn’t mean putting a positive spin on obviously negative developments. You will kill your credibility, particularly among the employees of the acquired organization, most of whom have no relationship with you, and therefore no particular reason to trust you in the first place.

Be honest, and share your plan to address the issues, or at least your timeline for pulling a plan together. Your people are living day-to-day with the consequences of any negative developments. They’re probably even the ones who brought the problems to your attention, if you’ve implemented a solid two-way communication process. Show your respect for them by treating these challenges with honesty and compassion.

5. And from deep in our unconscious selves…leaders of the acquiring company implying that the employees of the acquired company are so darn lucky to be part of this grand, glorious, big company. These days few leaders are crass enough to say this out loud, but the fact that we don’t say it out loud in no way addresses the fact that we feel it, if that’s what we feel. Attitudes and emotions leak out all over the place.

But reverse this attitude quickly if you see it in yourself or in someone else, because if the undertone set by the acquiring company’s leadership is in any way superior, the employees of the acquired company will pick it up and head toward to door to your competitor at the first opportunity. You’ll also lose out on all you could have learned from the employees who stay, because you’ve inadvertently demeaned their knowledge, skills, and expertise.

I recall the time I found myself sitting in the regional sales office of an acquiring company.  When the SVP of Sales announced the acquisition of their largest, closest competitor, the sales team cheered and yelled, “We win! We win!”

The acquisition turned out to be a stunning success, in part because the SVP responded, “Hey, cut it out, you guys. Each of these people is part of our team now. We’re in it together and frankly, I’ve seen their numbers and they’re every bit as good as you are. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t have acquired the company.”

Accelerating integration is no small task, but tackle these five areas, and you’ll begin to gain the momentum you need.

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The Invisible Blockade to Your Success

October 1st, 2010 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Business, Change Leadership, Management, Professional Development No Comments »

Today I’m going to introduce you to an insidious little brat that lives inside all of us. This little dude does fancy card tricks that keep us from seeing what’s really happening, and goes to great lengths to make sure we don’t change or grow.

BratHe puts blinders over our eyes but paints a scene on them so that we don’t even know the blinders are there. He doesn’t mean to be such a trouble-maker. Like most of our internal pests, he’s just an immature part of our personalities and he’s trying to protect us.

What’s this little bugger’s name? It’s Projection. What does Projection do? Projection takes something about you that you wouldn’t like and he hides it from you by telling you that it’s not a part of you at all, but that instead, it’s the main feature of someone else, or even an entire organization. By hiding that part of you from yourself, he keeps you from having to face it and own up to it.

What does he look like? The funny thing about his appearance is that he’s invisible to you. He knows that if you can see him, you just might make him go away. Sometimes other people can see him, but you can’t. In fact, he’s so invisible to you, it usually takes a great big smack across the forehead to realize he might be there.

Now, what does this have to do with work? A lot, since Projection distorts your ability to see things from more than one narrow perspective.

So if Projection is invisible, how can you reveal it and get out of your own way? I won’t kid you and say that it’s easy. Even those of us who’ve been improving our self-awareness for years can miss it, although we miss it less often. But you can get a good running start by doing these three things:

Listen to yourself for a week and see if you are telling “angel and devil” stories in which you’re the angel and another person, or even an entire organization, is the devil who’s causing all of your problems. If you are, stop telling yourself these stories. Just stop doing it and don’t look back.

Here’s an example of an angel & devil story involving a leader who’s always been aggressive about making the numbers but recently didn’t make his numbers: “I know I didn’t deliver the results. But the whole problem is this company’s culture because it’s all about the numbers.”

Really? Seriously? Sure, culture makes a difference, but this statement can only (possibly) be true if almost no one in the company delivered their results. If you’re a person who has always taken pride in delivering the numbers, it’s pretty darn painful to think that you played a key role in not delivering the results this time around, so Projection helps you out by telling you it’s these people who created an “all about numbers” culture. “They” caused you to miss your numbers.

Someone else might be able to see that you played a role in missing the target, regardless of how the culture functioned, but as long as Projection is hanging around, blocking your view, you won’t see that in yourself.

And, the bad news about this is that if it’s all someone else’s fault, you’ve painted yourself as a helpless victim who is powerless to change for the better. Gosh, that would mean taking off the angel’s halo. Yikes. Can’t do that. And this is why I say, “Take off the angel’s halo. Step away from the halo. Stop telling the angel & devil stories about yourself and these people right now. And don’t look back.”

Does this seem like it would be extremely difficult to see in yourself? You’re right — it is. So the second tip is to ask your strongest, bravest, boldest, and most frank colleague (not someone who reports to you) to tell you his or her opinion of how you might be getting in your own way.

While you’re at it, ask the second and third strongest, bravest, boldest, and most frank colleagues to share their opinions, too. Their feedback will help you see what you can’t see for yourself. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there. Ask your colleagues to illuminate the situation for you.

What if you don’t have anyone you can ask, or if they tell you but you don’t know what to do? That’s where the third tip comes in: hire someone to help you fill in the blanks, understand when Projection might be doing his thing, so you empower yourself to grow. Sometimes it takes a professional and an outside perspective to get you where you want to go.

Projection is like the badly-behaved toddler of our inner selves. He’s not intentionally trying to cause trouble, and he’s not capable of seeing what he’s doing for himself. It’s up to us as conscious beings to recognize when he might be there, running a little roughshod over our perspective, and to open our minds to multiple viewpoints and understand a situation more accurately so we can take control once again.

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The Five Essential Truths about Change

April 23rd, 2010 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Business, Change Leadership, Communication 2 Comments »

The holidays had been so good to me that I couldn’t fit into my pants. Since I wasn’t getting very far on my own, I joined Weight Watchers six weeks ago, and now almost all of my pants fit again.

As an observer of organizational culture and personal change, I also couldn’t resist the chance to reflect on why it was that I lost weight, how that change came to be, and what the implications might be for leaders and professionals who need to make your own changes, either personally or throughout your entire organization. Change is change, whether you’re unloading the layer of fat around your abdomen or introducing a new business strategy. The fundamental nature of human beings is the same in any setting.

For those unfamiliar with Weight Watchers, a quick primer: Weight Watchers is a weight loss program that is very popular in the United States, in large part, because they have the best record of success in helping people lose weight and keep it off.

Customers are called “members” and pay monthly dues in order to attend weekly 30-minute meetings and utilize on-line tools to help track food consumption and activity levels.

The meetings follow a prescribed, cheerful sequence. Upon arrival, the member checks in, steps on a scale, is congratulated for any weight lost in the prior week, or is told something encouraging if no weight loss occurred (“Better to plateau than gain!” “You gained a pound but it’s nothing you can’t handle. It’s a new week!”).

Next comes the meeting itself, with a theme such as Moving More or Using the Buddy System to Stay on Track. During the meeting, the meeting leader hands out awards (usually little stickers) to members who’ve had significant accomplishments, such as losing their first five pounds or increasing their exercise. The leader always asks who participated in the past week’s theme activity and what they did that made them successful. The level of engagement and interaction is very high.

Based on the success of Weight Watchers, my own experience as a leader and consultant, and my reflections on my personal experience, I offer these five absolute truths about change:

Absolute Truth #1: While a reasonable degree of planning is essential, you can think about, analyze, and plan for the change forever, but it won’t make you any more successful. Why? Because you have to start doing the change in order to know what’s really going to work.

I spent the first two weeks just figuring out what I was willing and unwilling to do to change. I honestly believed I had thought through this thoroughly before joining Weight Watchers, but the truth turned out to be that I couldn’t just think through it in my head. I had to be in the experience of changing in order to REALLY know what I was willing to do in order to experience a change.

What I learned about myself by doing instead of just thinking: I’m not willing to give up anything. Nothing. I’ll adjust the proportions of my food so that a greater percentage is vegetables and fruits, but, for me personally, there’s no point living under the illusion that I’ll just give up the dark chocolate, wine, and barbequed chicken (grilled with the skin and fat ON, thank you very much).

So that means that in order to change, I had to step up my exercise. The first two weeks helped me clarify the personal strategy that would work for me, even though a different strategy worked for others.

So often in my consulting practice, a new client wants to do exactly what a current client did, on the assumption that it can be copied to achieve the exact same result. My first responsibility is to deliver the bad news that the reason change management always has to be fully customized (and thus, yes, a larger budget item) is that every organization is unique; therefore, the exact strategy and tactics that worked in one place aren’t guaranteed to work at another.

It’s only by spending some time in the organization that we can ethically and intelligently narrow down the list of strategies and tactics, and it’s only by beginning to execute the change that we know what needs to be adjusted. It’s the difference between thinking about it and doing it.

Absolute Truth #2: Change requires you to face yourself and there is no way around that.

I spent the next two weeks pinpointing my own attitudes and behaviors that had been keeping me from the success I wanted.

One attitude was being stuck in the past, which came out in the form of being perplexed about why I gained weight when I wasn’t really doing anything differently. In fact, I wasn’t exercising as much and – oh, yeah – I’m older, and what worked at 36 doesn’t work at 46.

It’s easy to get stuck in the past as a leader, too. Are you still relying on the leadership training you attended when you were a new manager? That was probably more focused on the management aspects than the leadership aspects of your role. Still assuming that the 360-degree feedback you received in 2000 should guide your decisions? Maybe a few things have changed since then, and what worked a decade ago won’t work now.

I also had to face my inherent blind spots. The biggest is that I have such imprecise physical awareness. When I signed up, I was encouraged to set a goal weight, but all I knew was that I wanted my pants to fit again. I actually had no idea how many pounds that amounted to so I guessed 15. It turns out it’s more like 10. As a percentage, I was pretty far off the mark!

Often clients want to focus on turning their blind spots into strengths instead of focusing on honing their strengths, but this is a recipe for failure. It never, ever works. When it comes to your blind spots, it’s far better to swallow your pride and use tools to help you manage them. Tools are like training wheels for your blind spots.

In my case, that means relying religiously on the on-line tools to track and adjust the volume of food I consume, and to keep me honest about how much exertion I’m really putting out to burn that food off. While I’m slowly getting better at estimating on my own, it’s just more efficient for me to use the tools so I can focus my time and attention elsewhere.

It’s not good for your pride to have to rely on tools, but it will make you more effective, and isn’t that what really matters?

Absolute Truth #3: Sometimes the system doesn’t work as designed, but it works anyway, so enjoy the success and learn from it.

I don’t enjoy or learn much in the cheery meetings and am not motivated one way or the other by the weigh-in. Ironically, both Weight Watchers’ own studies and independent studies show that these are the two things in the program that are supposed to be most motivational and ensure weight loss.

In my case, I’m continuing to lose weight because I do NOT want to go to any more meetings than I absolutely have to! The very thing designed to be positive reinforcement actually serves as negative reinforcement, and it’s working just as well. Weight loss = no more meetings. Motivation enough.

Absolute Truth #4: You must accept the truth about what’s inside – you can look at all of the external factors all you want, but if you don’t transform your inner self, use your strengths, and set aside your pride, you will never get what you want.

My husband is a naturally thin person. My weight problem began when we started living together and eating dinner together. I had not really owned up to the truth, which is that living with someone who can eat twice as much as you is no excuse for not controlling your own weight.

The clients who are doomed are those who ask me to fix their team or the staff or the boss, but refuse to consider that they themselves will have to accept the truth about their own collusion in blocking the very change they are trying to create. If you can’t accept the truth and transform yourself, you will always be incapable of transforming your organization.

Absolute Truth #5: For anything you introduce into a business, there’s always a side effect to be managed.

I notice that there is a core at the Weight Watchers meetings, most of whom say they’ve been there a while. None of them is ever going to reach their weight loss goal, because they don’t want to, because they love the meetings. They feel affirmed and cared for. They get to see their Weight Watchers friends. They get to share in the struggle with the community. It’s part of their social life. They love bonding with the community through the struggle.

Part of their identity is as an overweight person, and if they succeed in reaching their target weight, they won’t feel like they’re really part of the community any more – even though Weight Watchers actually encourages their successful members to keep coming to meetings if they enjoy them.

So essentially this creates a weird side effect in that a bunch of people who don’t succeed keep hanging around and contributing to the business. They may lower the success rate overall, but they’ve also become the essential customers who warmly welcome newcomers into the fold during those critical early weeks when they’re most likely to drop out. They’re supportive and reliable attendees. Their dues provide a steady revenue stream.

Watching how Weight Watchers will handle this is of great interest to me, as you can well imagine. As a leader, you’ll always have to strike a balance between your ideal result and the many factors that might contribute to the success of the business, even if they seem perplexing or counterintuitive to you.

Well, gotta run now. Literally. It’s time to burn off that cupcake I ate yesterday.

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Seven Simple Tips from a Proven Leader

January 15th, 2010 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Business, Change Leadership, Communication, Management, Professional Development No Comments »

“I’m stumped. I brought Chuck into Cisco as top talent, a process improvement expert with a great track record at other companies. I know he’s high potential, but he’s really struggling, and he’s frustrated, and he’s not getting the results that he’s capable of. I’m afraid we’re going to lose him to a competitor. I’ve never had this problem before and I don’t know what else to do. Can you help?”

That was my introduction to Chuck Trent. As you can see by the fact that names have not been changed to protect the innocent, Chuck is no wimp who hides out. He started working to help support his family at the age of 12, he flew helicopter missions in Vietnam (medical and combat), he taught Los Angeles SWAT teams, and perhaps the scariest challenge of all – he’s supported seven kids! Now that they’re grown with kids of their own, I simply refer to Chuck’s family as The Cast of Thousands.

When I met Chuck, he was a man who had never experienced a big failure at work. Setbacks, sure. When he got back from Vietnam, the economy was terrible and no one wanted to hire vets so he swept buses for a living, and he’s had the usual setbacks we all suffer.

But those were situations largely beyond his control. This was different. Chuck had been brought into the fast-growing barely-controlled chaos of Cisco in 1999 for his talent in standardizing and optimizing complex processes.

I was there, working with many different groups in the company, and I can attest that they needed Chuck’s talent in the worst way. But it seemed that everything he tried to do stalled out. The star was producing average results and besides the pain to the business, it was deeply painful for him personally.

He was so exasperated that he told his boss he was beginning to question if he’d made the right decision to come there, because he just didn’t feel he could be successful there, and he didn’t know why. It felt like there was a “secret sauce” he needed to take advantage of the many opportunities there, and he was having a really difficult time understanding the culture.

Luckily, Al wasn’t about to let such a plum hire go off to the competitors, and he asked Chuck if he would like to work with a coach who could bring in an outside perspective and help him break through the blockades.

Before I share what Chuck did to break through the barriers and achieve his potential, I’m going to share what I saw Chuck do that so many people never do: he put his ego on ice. Open yourself to the tough feedback you need to hear to reach your personal best. The funny thing about putting your ego on ice and dropping your defenses is that, ironically, you get stronger by allowing yourself to feel the vulnerability.

In fact, what I learned interviewing Chuck’s team, peers, and internal clients was that Chuck brought specific strengths to the table, and lots of them. The challenge was not at all in what he did, but in how he was doing it.

And now, Chuck Trent’s seven tips to be an effective leader:

  1. Connect with the right people. This requires you to find out who the right people are. It’s not always who you think it is. Think about everyone who might be significantly impacted by your project, initiative, or plan.
  2. Adapt to people of different personality types. Chuck had taken the MBTI® several times before, but we dug much deeper. Not only was Chuck able to bring more of his true self to the role, he made concentrated efforts to get to know others and adapt to their personalities. As Chuck puts it, “It was the difference between hitting a brick wall and having a light bulb go off.”
  3. Build relationships at the lower levels to get to the higher-ups. Build strength with your peers. Sometimes you have to go sideways to get to the ultimate decision-maker.
  4. Learn how others learn and process information, and then adapt to them. Chuck asks directly and finds that many people know their learning styles and will tell him. In other cases he observes closely until he figures it out. How is this person responding to different types of data? Different presentations? Chuck is visual and dynamic, always drawing pictures and diagrams, but one of his largest client groups is highly verbal and structured in their style. He noticed that they all still used bulleted Power Point slides to convey important (and sometimes unimportant) information, so he started doing exactly the same thing when meeting with them. He found that they worked better with him that way and he got better results.
  5. Don’t expect people to connect with you before you connect with them. Do the outreach.
  6. Give to them before you ask for anything.
  7. Pick the battles that you fight. How much does it cost you to be right?

As with post-holiday weight loss, improvements like this are best taken one step at a time, so instead of trying all seven tips today, pick one that resonates with you and start with that, adding the others as you gain comfort and ease.

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