Thursday, December 22, 2016

Spin vs. Sorry: How to Mess Up Well & Become Authentic

Guest post from Bill Munn:

“It was my mistake. I’m sorry. Please forgive me."
It’s important to get these phrases written down, before they become obsolete.

For a few decades now, the popularity of “spin,” with its tempting save-face claims, has elbowed out the use of a simple, honest apology. The reasons (read: excuses) for this are numerous and seemingly convincing:
·         We can’t afford bad publicity.
·         We need to frame this so fewer people are defamed.
·         We are a litigious society. We can’t admit this; we’ll be sued.
·         We should keep quiet or the media will drag us through the mud.
The list goes on.
But here’s a fact: things go wrong. Companies make blunders. People mess up. And some of those little oops moments create big ripples. The law of unintended consequences is constantly in effect.
So the variable isn’t whether or not things will go wrong. It’s how you’ll deal with it when they do.

The Oops-I-Messed-Up Approach, Care of Seventh Generation Inc.
My client, Seventh Generation, recently messed up—then handled it so beautifully that I now use them as the ultimate example of how to make a mistake, apologize, and move forward successfully.

When I asked them for the details, I learned a lot.
The marketplace knows that the core vision of Seventh Generation is focused on providing environmentally sound products. What many don’t know is that their CEO, John Replogle, and his team and board are also dedicated to authenticity in their dealings with team members, customers, suppliers, everyone. 

In October 2012, their baby wipes were selling great, largely through Amazon’s subscription program, which allows customers to set a schedule for automatically replenishing their supply. It’s a win-win for consumer and company alike—one that’s hugely dependent on customer loyalty.
At the time, 70% of Seventh Generation’s baby wipe sales came from this program. But that was about to change.

When the company launched a new, improved wipe—one that looked different and cost more—they started shipping it to subscribers, higher price and all. Just one glitch: no one told the subscribers that. Oops.
Customers responded fast and furiously. They called, wrote, complained on Amazon, and lit up social media. Sales started cliff diving, eventually hitting 50% of prior levels.

Now’s the time for spin, right? Wrong.
When John Moorhead, the new ecommerce brand manager, learned that the company hadn’t communicated with customers on this matter, his first reaction was, “We need to apologize.”

Even though he was relatively new to the scene, Moorhead knew of the company’s commitment to transparency and understood its importance.
The company launched a campaign of personal notes, phone calls, and responses to feedback, social media, and press. The message was simple: “We messed up, we’re sorry, and we’re fixing it as fast as we can."

Replogle himself publicly described the oversight as a mistake. That’s not a word you hear CEOs using often enough—but it’s a term that great leaders don’t shy away from for a minute.
Within 12 months, sales had recovered, the team had learned much about how their customers viewed wipes, and the company had institutionalized the communication fix.

In short, from adversity and authenticity (and the corresponding apology) came advancement.
Seventh Generation’s commitment to authenticity is so strong that communications manager Brandi Thomas actually has proud memories of this blunder: “As a PR person, I don't always get to call the Wall Street Journal to tell them I want to share one of our mistakes, so this story is one my favorites," she told me recently.

Let’s hear it for the power of a strong corporate vision.
The Ugly Truth about Falsehood

Look alert the next time one of your advisers asks, “How are we going to spin this?”
The term “spin” comes from the practice of spinning a yarn, telling a story, sharing fiction. In other words, something made up—false.

As a leader, I doubt you want false. But if those excuses—ahem—“reasons” for choosing spin still have you convinced, think about what’s ahead, namely, more spin and less credibility for your name.
When the spin is exposed or called into doubt, you hit a slippery slope: add new information to assuage doubt, explain what you “technically” meant when you first said X, trip, slip, fall. 

Once it gets messy enough, you throw your hands in the air and go for what I call a redirected apology, which is an apology that attempts to deflect all responsibility away from yourself, often onto the audience.
In other words, it’s not an apology at all.

·         “I’m sorry you misinterpreted my meaning.”
·         “I apologize that my attempt to fix this backfired because of what he did.”
·         “I’m sorry that you were offended by what I said.”
Maybe some people call that an apology. I call it a thinly veiled attempt at scapegoating.
The more you do this, the more calloused your audience becomes. And the more your credibility crumbles.

The Solution & Its Outcome
Let’s go back to the beginning of all this. What if, at the moment you had realized you goofed up, you had ignored those advisers and started with “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to create confusion/frustration/etc., but I made a mistake. I hope you’ll forgive me, but forgiven or not, I’m going to see if it can be fixed. And I will personally report back to you.”

In those rare cases where we see leaders show honest contrition, without spin, the story tends to die very quickly. Or, better yet, it turns positive, reflecting on the honesty.
And don’t forget that you can choose authenticity at anytime, even if you opted for spin early on and are already buried in your own mess. Better late than never.

Authenticity can be hard. Apologizing is humbling. But humility builds wisdom. That’s the simple, honest truth. No apology necessary.

Bill Munn is a leadership coach, speaker, former Dow 30 top executive, former university teacher of finance and economics, and author of the new book WHY MAKE EAGLES SWIM?:  Embracing Natural Strengths In Leadership & Life. For more information visit

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Employee Motivation and the Holiday Season

Guest post by Mackenzie Kyle: 

Ah, the holiday season.  A time to be nice to your fellow humans, a time to reflect on the accomplishments of the past year, and to look forward to the excitement that the New Year brings.  Or, from a more Scrooge-like perspective, a time when team members slack off, the company throws expensive parties where certain people drink too much and do things everyone wants to forget, team members gather to exchange awkward Secret Santa gifts that no one wants, and very little productive activity takes place.

Love it or hate it, it’s not a season we can afford to ignore.  Extending from American Thanksgiving until the hangover subsides around January 3, we’re talking about a little more than 6 weeks or a little more than 10% of the working year.  Not only is it a lot of time, it comes with certain expectations about being an occasion for organizations to show appreciation to their people.  The reaction of many organizations is to follow the traditional checklist of office parties, gift giving, and expecting that productivity will be low, all the while resenting the process and expense, and anxiously awaiting the arrival of the New Year.

But does it have to be that way?  As with most things in life, the answer is: of course not.  But also as with most things in life, taking a step back to develop a broader perspective on the situation is required; no improvement is possible without change, and positive change is rarely accomplished without understanding the bigger picture.  And in the case of the holidays, a missing part of that bigger picture is frequently an understanding of what team members actually want.  Traditional ‘rewards’ such as office parties are often viewed as obligations (and therefore not very motivating) by staff, not just by management.

To put some perspective on motivation during the holidays, think about these 4 things:

1. The common perception of the December holiday period is that it is a time to rest, recharge, and to plan for the upcoming year.  Although this may not apply to your entire team, many great team members work hard throughout the year with the expectation that they will get a bit of downtime during the holiday period.  Any attempt to take that away by expecting productivity to be maintained at the level you might see in March or October, is unlikely to be met, and is likely to create resentment among the team.  So be reasonable in setting expectations, which means accepting that while productivity may be lower, this is a healthy part of the work cycle.

2. Don’t assume you know how the team wants to mark the occasion.  Particularly in large offices, parties with spouses that total several hundred attendees mean that there is little time for the team to connect, lots of time for awkward socializing with people you only meet once a year and whose names you can’t remember, and ultimately an experience that is more punishing than rewarding.  Throw in the opportunity for people to do inappropriate things when nerves combine with alcohol, and you have a recipe that you don’t want to make into an actual dish.

Instead of assuming, talk to your team about how they would like to celebrate, and be prepared to go against tradition.  Some groups like to take every Friday in December to go for drinks after work.  Some teams want to play paintball.  And yes, some teams will want to do a more traditional holiday party.  There is no right or wrong here; only right or wrong for your team.  And the only way to know is to engage the team in the discussion.

3. Set clear expectations for behaviour and productivity during the holidays.  Nothing is worse than pretending it’s business as usual if in fact times are slower, and people have to make an effort to appear busy.  Instead, engage the team in planning in the November time frame, work with them to set some quantifiable goals for what needs to be accomplished over the holidays, goals that reflect a realistic level of effort, and talk with each team member about what that means they’ll be doing during that time frame.  Than manage the group to those expectations.  Accomplishing these realistic goals becomes a motivator for the team, and leads to a sense of satisfaction, rather than disappointment at what didn’t happen.

4. Now is NOT the time to tolerate behaviour that wouldn’t normally be acceptable.  There is never a time for that, and we can’t make an exception during the holidays without creating issues.  Although productivity expectations may be lower during this period, failing to deliver on what was agreed to is never acceptable. Similarly, allowing people (often with the help of alcohol) to start acting like your gropey Uncle Greg gets at weddings should not be tolerated.  Hold your team to the same standard of behaviour and respect as the rest of the year.

Remember: keeping a team engaged and motivated is a long-term process, not something to think about once a year.  In the same way we shouldn’t wait for the holidays to treat our fellow human beings with respect and kindness, we can’t think about our motivation and engagement strategy as existing only in a particular time frame.  Although the elements may be different depending on the circumstances the calendar brings, it needs to be a coherent strategy that is implemented throughout the year. 

Mackenzie Kyle is the Regional Managing Partner for MNP, a national Consulting and Accounting firm and the author of The Performance Principle: A Practical Guide to Understanding Motivation in the Modern Workplace.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Trying not to Lose is Different than Trying to Win

Guest post from Michael G. Winston:

Today’s winning leader is not just here to weather the storm; they are here to completely change the game.

To survive and prosper in 2017, companies must adopt a way of managing that is based on their capacity to learn and change—consciously, continuously, and quickly.
Anticipating and preparing for change is the essence of competitive advantage. The leaders who dominate in this new era will not only understand the changes affecting them, but they will seize them, master them, and use them to their advantage to achieve ever-higher performance.

While every leader plans and communicates their strategy before the competition begins, once in the race, it’s often necessary to make split-second decisions to redirect efforts. If you don’t notice the shifts in the wind and adjust quickly, you may lose your strategic options. Since opportunities come and go rapidly, you can quickly become a victim of changing circumstances.

Business flows in cycles: bulls follow bears; bears chase bulls. There is opportunity to enhance one’s competitive position in every phase of those cycles. Successful companies and leaders constantly search for market opportunities/threats and take quick, creative action. You can feel the organizational pulse rate by the speed with which they commit to action, allocating and reallocating resources (time, talent, and capital) to pursue opportunities. Decisions are made quickly, and
vision is translated into action. People are recognized and rewarded for these practices.

However, many companies don’t seize opportunities prompted by change because they cannot see opportunities prompted by change. They are so busy making the most of yesterday’s opportunities, they cannot see today’s or create tomorrow’s. What worked in the past no longer guarantees success in the present, let alone the future.

New leadership is needed—leadership that goes against the grain, challenges conventional wisdom, and pushes the status quo. Developing the mindset and ability to embrace change is a considerable challenge. World-class competitors can do it. They know that change is accelerating and that in a time of constant change, the ability to learn and change faster than their competitors is a competitive advantage.

Many excellent companies fall from grace because business conditions shift and they fail to adapt. With fluctuating markets, proliferating technologies, and changing political frontiers, the challenge is no longer to manage growth. Now managers must cope with sudden shifts in the rules of the game. Are you ready? How will you handle sudden and radical changes in business conditions?

Many companies are still in survival mode after the 2008 recession. They are trying to survive, not grow. The same is true of some executives. Trying not to lose is far different than trying to win.

It’s time to lean forward and position yourself and your company for greatness and achieve world-class performance. Regain your Olympic-like competitive edge, rekindle your desire to compete and win. Place a premium on exemplary performance in all dimensions: quality, productivity, service, and value. Growth and innovation are not only possible but necessary during dark times. Here’s a snapshot of the difference:

TRYING NOT TO LOSE                                         TRYING TO WIN
Hold                                                                             Build
Survive                                                                        Thrive
Divest                                                                          Invest
Pause                                                                          Pounce
Scarcity                                                                        Abundance
Wait                                                                             Anticipate
Reduce cost                                                                 Add Value
Delay                                                                           Accelerate
Consent                                                                       Invent
Imitate                                                                         Innovate
Realistic goals                                                              Stretch goals

Today’s winning leader is not just here to weather the storm; they are here to completely change the game. World-class competition is the ultimate proving ground of people, teams, and organizations. Just as we saw in this summer’s Olympics, competition brings together exquisitely prepared men and women in a pressure-cooker atmosphere—each of them vying for victory. The line between success and failure is often razor thin…no more than a hundredth of a second or a few millimeters. The winners will be those who best prepare both physically and mentally and give the extra effort that leads to victory.

About the Author:
Michael Winston had a career of distinction in executive positions for over three decades in five Fortune 100 companies across three industries. He served in executive positions for Motorola, Merrill Lynch, McDonnell Douglas, Lockheed and Countrywide. As global head of leadership and organization strategy, he worked closely with C-Suite Officers to develop business models, craft strategies and structure, create cultures and develop leaders.
As Enterprise Chief Leadership Officer for Countrywide Financial, Winston rebuilt the strategy, leadership and culture and tried to stop the fraud, corruption and deception he observed. His warnings were dismissed and ignored. Winston’s experiences in confronting Countrywide executives about fraud, market manipulation and insider-trading are highlighted in numerous media reports including this New York Times feature. He is a founding member of the Bank Whistleblowers United, and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois, a Master’s Degree from the University of Notre Dame and attended executive programs at Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.
For more information about Winston visit him on LinkedIn and on, His book, World-Class Performance, is available for purchase on Amazon and other fine booksellers. 

Ask Not What Your Habit Can Do for You, but What Your Habit Can Do for Others

Guest post from Michael Bungay Stanier:

For those in a leadership role, the responsibility to lead and direct employees falls to you. Let’s assume that your employees respect you, like you and feel that you’re leading them down a good path. You work hard and your workplace runs smoothly.

But what if you could work a little less hard, positively change the way you lead and do it all by simply asking a few more questions and talking a little less — by creating a new habit?

It’s easy to cast this idea aside. After all, you’re an established leader in your industry, so you must be doing something right. Change is hard, and creating a new habit doesn’t happen overnight.

For my book The Coaching Habit, I studied the neuroscience of habits and engagement and then, based on my research, created seven simple coaching questions to make it possible to coach in 10 minutes or less. The point of it all is to help busy managers learn how to make coaching an everyday habit and become better leaders.

It’s simple, really. To be an effective coach, stay quiet a little longer, offer a little less advice and ask the seven essential questions.

Unfortunately, just because the idea is simple doesn’t mean it’s easy to implement.

Change Is Hard

As you likely know, changing a behavior can be difficult.

According to a Duke University study, at least 45% of our waking behavior is habitual. Have you ever arrived home from work only to realize you don’t really remember how you got there? You know you drove, but you can’t recall details of the commute. That’s a perfect example of habitual behavior.

We are creatures of habit, so it’s no surprise that you may be less than excited to attempt to change your behavior and create a new habit. But hear me out.­­­

How to Build a New Habit

First let’s look at how to build an effective new habit. You need five components: a reason, a trigger, a micro-habit, effective practice, and a plan.

Let’s assume your reason to change is that you want to better coach your employees. The trigger is one particular employee who often looks for your insight on any given issue at the weekly meeting. This typically triggers your usual behavior of offering advice — instead of actually coaching.

Since your end goal is to do a better job of coaching, think about that routine response and then come up with one small step that, if you took it, would help you move toward your goal. For instance, you might vow that the next time the employee looks to you for guidance at the meeting, instead of jumping in with advice, you’ll ask, “What ideas do you have that might work?” This small change in your behavior will go a long way if you make it a micro-habit and add to it.

Once you’ve come up with your micro-habit, you just need to put it to effective practice. It may sound easy to sit back and ask questions instead of offering advice but, believe me, it can be hard to tame our advice monsters, and you’ll need to practice this as often as you can.

And finally, make a plan for how to get back on track should you fall off it. (You might not figure out the plan until you do get off track, and that’s okay.) You may miss a coaching opportunity here and there, but you needn’t give up. The more often you ask questions, the easier it becomes to do so.

All this is fine and dandy if you’re committed to implementing a new coaching habit, but you may still be wondering . . .

If Your Familiar and Efficient Ways Are Working, Why Change Them?

There is a difference between efficient and effective. If you’re still not convinced of the payoff your new coaching habit will have, think less about how your habit will affect you and more about how it will positively affect others. Your new habit will do wonders for the people around you, and the sooner you visualize that, the more likely you are to commit to the change. (Assuming, of course, that you like the people around you!)

How Will My Habit Help Others?

It turns out that one of the best ways to help people learn is by asking them questions. If I ask you a question and you are forced to come up with the answer, you’re more likely to remember what you learned through the experience than if I were to just tell you the answer — because you’re forced to create your own connections and put in effort to find the answer.

By asking your employee questions instead of offering advice, you do just that — force them to come up with options and ideas, which they are more likely to learn from than if you were to just tell them what to do.

Plus, by asking questions, you get to the heart of whatever issue your employee is facing — sometimes it’s not the surface issue that’s really affecting them, and you won’t realize this until you’ve delved a little deeper.

Hopefully by now you’re seeing the benefit your new habit will have on others, but here’s a little extra incentive: Not only will your employees learn and develop thanks to your new habit, but you’ll benefit too. You won’t have to jump in with all the answers and take on more. In fact, you’ll get to do less work while having more impact.

About Michael Bungay Stanier
Author of The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier is Senior Partner of Box of Crayons, a company that helps organizations do less Good Work and more Great Work. It is best known for its coaching programs, which give busy managers practical tools to coach in 10 minutes or less.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Don’t Just Lead – Guide!

Guest post from Chris Maxwell:

I’ve always been a fan of adventure stories, and some of the most engaging of these are about great mountaineers and the triumphs and tragedies they have experienced.  Business leaders, too, revel in inspiring stories of overcoming adversity, and the metaphor of striving to reach a distant peak, with all its challenges and rewards, works beautifully in the workplace.  As Ed Bernbaum, a mountaineer and Senior Fellow at the Mountain Institute writes, “Just as Everest stretches people to do more than they thought they could, so companies want to stretch their employees to reach the loftiest goals, to be number one in the field, to provide the best product or service in the industry group.”

But in my view, rather than the extreme mountaineer, it’s the mountain guide we can learn the most from.  Perhaps that’s because the thought of guiding others to reach their own summits at work is something we can all relate to -- and wish for.

Over the past decade, I organized over twenty, guide-led expeditions designed to build leadership and teamwork skills for Wharton Business School students.  These ventures took place on high peaks and trails around the world, including remote locations in North America, Patagonia, and Iceland.  Although the expeditions were mentally and physically challenging, each allowed relatively inexperienced travelers to participate.  What the guides taught us about leading is now being put into practice by participants working in top organizations around the world.

Here’s what I found -- guides display six important leadership strengths that work as well in business as they do in the mountains:

1. Guides demonstrate social Intelligence, the ability to build and maintain positive relationships.  Guides quickly establish personal relationships that don’t fracture easily under pressure.  Christian Hoogerheyde, a project manager at Socrata, a Seattle-based cloud software company, says his Icelandic guide’s social skills “serve as a lesson to me every time I try to establish a new client’s trust.”

2. Guides are adaptable, and expertly change their leadership style as conditions on the mountain change.  One guide told me that he would teach his clients in the lodge, coach clients on steep snow slopes, and guide firmly when things got tough.  Seychelle Hicks, a team manager at Silicon Valley’s Bloomreach, says her expert guide helped her learn to navigate rough terrain on the mountain, coaching and leading by example. The experience helped her become more comfortable with using a variety of leadership styles at work, and to “adapt throughout the day to our customers, resourcing demands, building a self-directed team -- and only jumping in when needed.”

3. Guides empower others to reach their own summits.  Edmund Reese, an executive at American Express who was a member of a climbing team, says “The leadership lessons taught by both the guides and the mountain itself has honed my focus on embracing the front lines.  If we build leadership in others, we develop a stronger line and an overall stronger organization.”

4. Guides are trust-builders.  On an expedition to remote Navarino Island at the very tip of South America, one guide told me, “Modeling what trust means is key.  It’s never about talking about things.  It’s about showing them.”  John Sims, CFO at Snowden Lane Partners who climbed the Grand Teton with a guide-led team, says, “Without trust in your teammates, you will only do as much as faith in your own limited abilities will take you.”

5. Guides are risk-aware and provide safety in uncertain conditions.  Lyndsey Bunting, now director of financial analysis at Birchbox, left her job in investment banking to serve with the Peace Corps in a remote area of Panama.  Although she fell ill on her first guided summit attempt, she successfully returned to lead a team to the summit a year later.  She says, “Whether it’s a skill we’ve had to learn from a tough life, like many of the world’s poorest populations, or from mountain climbing or other pursuits, functioning and thriving in uncertainty is something that we’re all able to learn.”

6. Guides see the big picture.  Less-experienced climbers may be lured by a beckoning summit, often falling victim to what’s known as “summit fever,” but the wisest guides take a more holistic view of the endeavor.  Deborah Horn, a manager at Microsoft, found that her climb was cut short by a fierce storm.  “At our night camp,” she says, “our guide delivered the message that we would have to end our climb.  I learned that even if the summit isn’t attained, the journey is just as valuable and rewarding as standing on the peak.”

Chris Maxwell, PhD, is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Leadership and Change Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. His book, Lead Like a Guide:  How World-Class Mountain Guides Inspire Us to Be Better Leaders, is published by Praeger (September 2016).