Lessons from Clarence B. Jones

November 22nd, 2016 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Building Relationships, Change Leadership, Leadership No Comments »


Have you ever struggled with the politics involved in creating change?

In the picture above is Clarence B. Jones, attorney, strategic advisor, and speechwriter for Dr. Martin Luther King. Among his many achievements and contributions, he assisted King with his iconic speech, I Have a Dream.

Kirk and I met Dr. Jones on November 6, when he gave a talk at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco. His subject was Waging Peace in a Violent World.

I suppose I expected an idealist’s inspiring sermon, but of course, Dr. Jones is an attorney, strategist, and former Wall Street executive. His perspective involves painful but important realities about large scale, transformative change, realities that we may want to ignore, but that we ignore at our peril.

Here are three of his key points, along with some thoughts about applying them to changes you wish to make.

There are no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, only permanent interests.

clarencejoneswithmlkIt’s natural to believe that someone more powerful than you is your enemy. When he first began advising MLK, Dr. Jones viewed white men as the enemy. Friends and enemies, however, are not guaranteed for life.

Your friend may be your enemy tomorrow. Your enemy may be your friend tomorrow.

Your interests, however, are unchanging. You must be clear on your interests.

What are your interests?

You will not prevail unless the powerful majority sees that what you want is also in their interests.

It’s not enough to be right in principal or right on moral grounds. Change will happen when they see that their interests will also be served.

How do your ideas serve the powerful majority’s interests, not just your own team’s interests? Who stands to lose face, lose power, or lose money if your ideas are implemented? What can you offer? How can you align your idea with their interests?

For example, after working with a client and his direct reports over several weeks, I concluded that one of his VP’s was never going to get in alignment with the business strategy. He was also never going to believe that he should report to my client, because he thought he should be the GM himself.

The VP was very close to the COO and had been for the past decade. This is a classic political powder keg, a powerful and non-aligned leadership team member who has the ear of the boss’s boss and refuses to get on board with the rest of the team.

The client agreed with my perspective. It echoed his own.

So what did he do? How did he handle this constant threat to his success?

My client could have chosen to follow accepted processes to try to obliterate the guy and get his BU aligned. Had he followed proper nine-box talent matrix methodology, for example, he would have marked the guy as high potential but low performing because of his poor teamwork.

He didn’t. Instead, he searched for a way to get the VP’s interests aligned with his own, by finding a better-fit opportunity for him elsewhere – heading a newly-formed BU — instead of fighting a protracted political war that put the BU at risk.

You might be thinking, “But that’s not fair! The VP was rewarded for bad behavior!” You’re right. Sometimes the best outcome involves someone getting what they want, even though they don’t deserve it.

You must identify the strongest ally from the powerful majority and make him or her a leader in your cause.

Martin Luther King and his closest advisors came to the conclusion that only a powerful white man from the South would have the credibility with the white majority (over 85% of the population at that time) to push their movement forward. He was right. Civil rights were not enacted into law until Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

Imagine what it must have been like for them to realize that as the leaders of their own movement, they would never “be enough” to drive forward the transformative change they envisioned. What must it have been like to see that their ally was someone who had voted against every civil rights bill from 1937 to 1956, and who held racist beliefs even as he drove forward the Civil Rights Act?

Who are your prospective strong allies?

Sometimes your prospective strongest ally is a person you like and respect. That makes for a great day, week, month and year at work, doesn’t it?

Sometimes, however, the prospective strongest ally is a person you don’t like or don’t respect. In these situations, let your purpose and the relative importance of your goals and commitments drive your decisions. You may decide to hold your nose and form the alliance for the greater good after all.

Dr. Jones had a goal that to him was worth the alliances he made, however difficult those relationships proved to be.

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Why T May be the Most Important Letter in Culture

March 21st, 2016 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Cultural Fit, Leadership No Comments »

Diverse Team at Work

“I can’t wait to see what HR is going to do with this.”

The other day, I overheard someone wonder aloud what HR was going to do in response to particularly troublesome behavior by a group of managers.

As an anthropologist of company cultures, I see this question the same way a field anthropologist might see a shard of pottery: it’s an artifact that can give me insights into the culture, values, and unquestioned assumptions of that culture.

So, what does this artifact tell us?

It tells us there’s a very real possibility that the CEO, CHRO, and the rest of the senior leadership team are not fully aligned around what the culture should be.

Why? The comment indicates that HR is responsible for ensuring that managers consistently behave in ways that create and maintain the culture, and reflect the company’s values. However, culture emerges from the day-to-day behavioral choices of the CEO in particular, and the entire senior leadership team, not just the CHRO. It’s their responsibility to make it happen throughout the organization.

Why can’t we just let HR handle it?

It doesn’t matter what HR does to build the culture if the CEO serves as a role model for a culture built on a different set of values. Employees will follow the CEO’s lead every time, and they don’t just take their cues from what you reward. They also take their cues from what you tolerate, put up with, and don’t address.

In fact, these cues are much more powerful, because the human brain is hard-wired to notice and respond more powerfully to misalignment than alignment.

For example, if innovation is a core value, what’s the worst innovation-quashing behavior you tolerate today? For example, do mediocre “innovations” never get killed off so their resources can be reassigned to more promising projects, those with break-through potential? If so, might it be because you don’t reward managers who have the courage to get honest and stop advocating for resources for the mediocre projects they’ve been leading?

What if you want to emulate the most financially successful companies by developing a highly inclusive culture? What exclusionary behaviors do you tolerate? In average and poor-performing companies, people who don’t fit into the dominant group are constantly on the receiving end of “micro-inequities” and “micro-insults,” so over time they speak up less and less.

Here’s a common example. How many times have you heard a man call other men “ladies” in a gently mocking manner? That’s using the very definition of what I am (a woman) to make fun of men. Think about it. Would you ever say, “O.k. Hispanic people (or old people, or black people). Meeting’s over!”

If you’re having trouble recruiting women – or any other demographic group — while your competitor is not having any trouble at all, ask yourself what you are tolerating that they are not.

Here’s a truth serum that cuts straight to the heart of the issue.

Ask yourself, “What is the worst behavior I tolerate in others with regard to this value? What about the entire leadership team? What is the worst behavior we collectively tolerate with regard to this value?”

This will be an extremely uncomfortable conversation, to say the least, but it cuts to the chase and helps you begin exploring any gaps between the culture you have created and the one you want to create. There may not be precise right and wrong answers, but you’ll begin the journey to ensure cultural alignment and authenticity.

It helps to have professional facilitation, but even if you don’t want to invest the money in an outside expert, have the conversation anyway.

Do we make culture building too hard?

I would say yes, we do. It’s simple. Don’t make it complicated.

There’s an adage that your leadership will be established by the first person you hire and the first person you fire. The same applies to the culture you establish. It comes down to the senior leaders’ behaviors, particularly the CEO.

Bottom line — four things define culture:

  1. the behaviors you exhibit
  2. the behaviors you encourage in others
  3. the behaviors you discourage in others
  4. what you do when they do the wrong thing anyway

That’s it.

As long as the CEO, CHRO, and other leadership team members are consistent in these four essential leadership choices, then a strong, strategic, and forward-thinking HR team can ensure that the recruiting, leadership development, organizational development, compensation, and all other processes and systems support the culture you are working hard to create.

What do you think? Drop me a line in the comments below. I love hearing your perspectives.


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How to Lead People Who Know More Than You

July 31st, 2015 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Leadership, Management No Comments »





These words all describe what happens when you manage people who know more about their profession than you do. This happens because most managers try to lead experts the same way they manage people who are more junior.

Let’s face it – every leader who climbs above a first-line manager role will be in this situation. Whether you’re leading seasoned experts in your own field or broadening your scope to include functions in which you’ve never worked, you suddenly have to figure out how to lead people – a lot of people – to whom you seemingly have no value whatsoever to add.

And trust me, because they tell me openly, that is their assumption upon learning someone with less experience or from a different professional background is the new boss. Until you prove otherwise, they’ll just quietly hope you get promoted again or moved to another function, so you’ll soon be out of their way.

So what’s a leader to do when those you manage know more than you? Start with these three guidelines to become the best boss they’ve ever had:

If the employees are in a different profession, learn the basics of their profession and business situation well enough to understand each team member’s needs and concerns — but never, ever kid yourself about your true level of knowledge.

Do your research. It’s your job to understand the gist of what they do so you can understand what they need to produce superior results. Don’t show up for your first round of 1:1’s entirely clueless. You will gain their respect (at least a little) by showing up for these discussions prepared with basic knowledge and lots of good questions.

However, don’t try to show off the fact that you did some homework by making bold statements. You’ll kill your credibility. Your knowledge is the tip of the iceberg compared to theirs.

Share what you understand to be the basics of their situation, goals, and challenges they face, and ask for their feedback, corrections, and additions. Be honest that you understand you’re of little use in personally developing their expertise, but that you are committed to advocating for the resources they need to do their jobs well and to develop their careers with the company.

The greatest general managers recognize that it’s not their job to know everything. It’s their job to set direction, mobilize resources to get results, build the strongest and most productive teams they possibly can, and build a resilient organization for the future. They recognize that they can’t be good at all of these things while also developing deep expertise in every part of the business, and their people respect them for that.

Don’t actively manage anyone over 25 years of age unless there’s evidence they can’t self-manage.

More often than not, the employee who knows more than you also has several more years of professional experience than you, and certainly more years handling the workload unique to his or her job.

The exception to this can be employees who are in their first or second job. You will likely need to be more actively involved in managing their work not only to hit goals and deadlines in high-stakes, complex, and ambiguous situations, but also to help them develop their professional skills in self-management and collaboration. It’s a lot different from school, and they don’t have a great deal of experience, yet.

Granted, the exact age of 25 is a bit arbitrary, since for some highly specialized professions, a 25-year-old still has 3 – 5 more years of education to complete, and for go-getters who are already working in their teens, the age of 25 feels more like 30. Use your best judgment here. Just don’t leave inexperienced employees feeling lost, even if they are super-smart in their areas of expertise.

Assume mid-career professionals are self-managing, unless you see evidence otherwise.

At this stage, they don’t need a boss to personally direct and develop them. What they need is an effective advocate in the organization: someone who builds bridges where needed, sets boundaries where needed, and secures resources needed to get the job done well. Find out what they want to accomplish and the barriers they see in the way, and then double down your efforts to remove the barriers.

Also assume that all late-stage and second-career employees are self-managing. Invest the time to learn their interests and motivations for working in this profession at this stage in their careers and lives. What you learn may surprise you.

Fill the mentor gap by someone better qualified.

Warning! You may have to shove your ego aside to do this. I certainly know I do in these situations, and it’s not always easy.

Find at least one top performer in their profession, inside the company or out, who knows even more than they do. If you share the same profession, but simply have fewer years of experience, the same advice applies. Connect the team with this person as a resource, for those who would like to take advantage of it.

Even if team members don’t want to talk with a mentor for some reason, you will benefit from getting the mentor’s advice, and you’ll gain priceless perspective on the profession or industry.

In short, the biggest complaint I hear from people who work for bosses who know less than they do is that the boss tries too hard to be a boss, and not hard enough to be a leader. If you focus on these three tips, they will be eager to keep you around, instead of quietly cheering when you move on.

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The Hardest Assignment I Ever Gave an Executive

April 17th, 2015 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Leadership No Comments »

This week I found myself in a meeting with a client who told me that 15 years ago, I had given him the hardest assignment of his career. This assignment had such a powerful impact that he shared it with others over the years and, in fact, had just recommended it to an entire group of executives during a Q&A session last week. Talk about piquing my interest! Has it piqued yours? O.k., let’s see what it is.

The assignment is to pick just one thing you’ll intentionally get a B on this week, and do it exactly to a B standard.

Yes, seriously. That’s the assignment. What I mean by this is that you must plan to do the work to a level that would get a B grade if you were giving yourself a grade on your work. Don’t target an A, and then settle for a B if you don’t make it. Target a B grade and execute to a B grade.

Sounds easy. Why is it so hard?

It seems counterintuitive that executing B-quality work instead of A-quality work would be harder, not easier. After all, B-quality work takes considerably less time, which should make you a lot more productive, right?

However, this assignment brings up an incredible level of emotional discomfort, even pain. By targeting a B grade, you will be taking all of the following actions either directly or indirectly, and at least one of them is going to be mighty uncomfortable:

  1. Putting a project at risk, admittedly relatively little risk, but if you’ve been burned on a risk you took recently or in a big way, you’re going to feel that nervous, edgy energy come roaring back
  2. Admitting that you can’t do it all
  3. Admitting that you can’t excel at everything in your job
  4. Entering the murky waters of the tough judgment calls that are part and parcel of leading a complex business
  5. Signaling to a person or team that their project is not as important as someone else’s project. (Extra pain points if the person with the B-effort project is a great person to work with, while the person whose project gets your A work is a jerk who will stab you in the back the moment you turn around)

If you really want to take yourself on a white-knuckle ride, include your whole life, not just your work life. If a project for your spouse, child, or parent turns out to be the winner of the B-level effort, you might find yourself thinking twice about how often this has been happening. Ditto that for a project to maintain your mental and physical health.

So, if it’s painful and risky, why do it?

There’s really only one reason to do this executive coaching assignment, and it’s to make more conscious and better-informed decisions. You can only do this by bringing into daylight what you otherwise would keep doing unconsciously in the back of your mind.

The current reality, hard as it may be to accept, is that you’re probably not excelling at everything, someone’s disappointed in you or mad at you, and you’re putting projects at some degree of risk. These are part of the day-to-day reality of being in a leadership role.

But there’s a big difference between consciously and courageously aligning your actions with your real priorities versus assuming you’ll do it all and letting your priorities show after the fact, by what you do well vs. what got your B-level effort.

By actively, consciously deciding what is most important for you to do, and therefore deserving of your Grade A effort, you put a stake in the ground as a leader and gain greater control over your time, your life, and your sanity.

If anything in this article resonates with you, please do this tough assignment this week, and let me know how it goes in the comments below.


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