Archive for May, 2011

From “Better Under Pressure,” Jeremy’s Story: Lacking a sense of agency

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

From The Mistake Bank:

Another great story from Better Under Pressure: How Great Leaders Bring Out the Best in Themselves and Others. This one is about “Jeremy,” a high potential executive who was struggling in a stretch role. Menkes uses the term “sense of agency” to describe taking personal accountability and responsibility for issues. He defines it in the book this way:

Sense of agency…refers to the degree to which people attribute their circumstances and the outcomes they experience to being within their own control.

This would be the opposite approach of the villain Tom Chaney (previously discussed in this post) in “True Grit,” whose catchphrase is, “Everything is against me.”

Here’s Jeremy’s story:

Jeremy was being groomed for possible promotion to the CEO role. His past success in commercializing products and executing their successful launch had dramatically raised his profile in the company. He had come to be seen as a possible successor to the CEO, and to further stretch him, the company placed him in charge of one of its underperforming divisions. When I met Jeremy, he had been in this new role for two years, and for the first time in his career, he was struggling to delivery. Many around the company had begun to question whether Jeremy had been promoted over his head, and he was feeling tremendous mounting pressure to show dramatic improvements in the division soon or be replaced.

…. An in-depth look at his track record, feedback from colleagues, and direct interviews with Jeremy himself revealed that his exceptional marketing talents and intense professional drive had led to an extraordinary level of success very early. But when he had been given a leadership position of dramatically increased scope, his tenure became marked with missteps. This is very normal, as leaders adjusting to a significant increase in responsibility invariably make many mistakes. Those who ultimately excel recognize and own these missteps quickly and use the experiences to grow into their positions of elevated authority and increased complexity. But for this learning curve to occur, it is absolutely crucial that they accept their role in these mistakes. If they have a low sense of agency, they cannot, and will fail.

As I got to know Jeremy, it became clear that the exceptional qualities that led to his raid ascent in the compnay were indeed impressive. He had a keen sense of market conditions and consumer needs and a knack for connecting the dots in a way that revealed dramatic new market opportunities. These high-profile successes earned him an expansive, well-deserved reputation in the compnay. But thus far, he had been thriving within divisions that already had well-established world-cleass operations in place. In Jeremy’s new position, he was being asked for the first time to turn a failing team into a strong one. It was an essential test if he was going to be a serious candidate for CEO, and it was one that exposed Jeremy’s Achilles heel. 

When I asked Jeremy why he had missed his units’s earning targets every quarter for two years, he immediately deflected responsibility for this critical problem. “This place was a mess when I got here,” he said. “I’m doing everything possible to get this thing turned around quickly, but the people here expect miracles. I need more time.” Jeremy went on to say he felt he was being judged unfairly by colleagues, that people saw him as a threat and were just waiting for him to fail. “They need to help make me successful, not criticize.” 

When pushed, Jeremy acknowledged that at least some of his colleagues seemed sincere in wanting him to be successful. But he still blamed his incompetent team for most of the problem. He fired some of those people, but then he found their replacements – people whom he had hired himself – “incompetent” as well…. 

Jeremy laid the blame for his division’s poor performance on others – even those he himself had fired – showing a very low sense of agency, which is what I explained to him in our feedback session. Until he was able to take ownership of his situation and the central role he played in bringing it about, I told him, he was never going to gain from the critical learning opportunity that had been handed to him with this job. No one was expecting him to flawlessly turn around a situation that was indeed challenging, but Jeremy’s problem was that he was showing no upward trajectory that could give his colleagues the confidence that he was learning from his mistakes and growing into the job.

pp. 91-93

Excerpted from “Better Under Pressure: How Great Leaders Bring Out the Best in Themselves and Others” by Justin Menkes. (c) 2011 Esaress Holding, Limited.

Amgen CEO Kevin Sharer realizes how he enabled a conflict between subordinates

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

From The Mistake Bank:

Another snippet from the new book “Better Under Pressure: How Great Leaders Bring Out the Best in Themselves and Others” by Justin Menkes. In an interview, Amgen CEO Kevin Sharer discusses how focusing on his role in enabling a conflict between two subordinates, rather than ordering them to work it out themselves, helped them all get the problem solved.

Sharer’s insistence throughout our conversation that his success was far from preordained reveals his acute awareness of actual circumstances. His openness to the very real possibilities that events could have unfolded unfavorably throughout his life is an essential part of his insistence of a clear-eyed view of his life choices. This kind of realism is at the heart of the adaptive capacity leaders need to have: to authentically believe in the value of self-improvement, leaders must also authentically embrace how their past imperfections had very real, and sometimes costly, consequences.

For example, Sharer described how two of his best people almost blew up over tension with each other, and how he was able to claim his own role in the issue. “I had assigned my two key guys to resolve a problem,” he told me. “I just said,’Would you guys please figure this out?’ They didn’t have a shared reality, and it wasn’t clear who was supposed to do what. Soon their differences of opinion were starting to cascade down. It was really tearing the company apart.”

Once it finally dawned on him that he might have had a role in the conflict from the beginning, he asked himself honestly what part of it he owned, and then he set things right. “I came up with a list about that long” – he spread his arms wide – “of my part of the problem. And when I briefed them the next Monday, I said, ‘Look, guys, before I tell you what’s gone wrong and what we need to do, let me tell you what I haven’t done.’ That cleared the air, and then we found a way to fix things. In fact, we got stronger as a team because of going through this fire together.”

pp. 71-72

Excerpted from “Better Under Pressure: How Great Leaders Bring Out the Best in Themselves and Others” by Justin Menkes. (c) 2011 Esaress Holding, Limited.

Leadership requires “an absence of shame around personal failures and imperfections”

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

From the terrific new book “Better Under Pressure: How Great Leaders Bring Out the Best in Themselves and Others” by Justin Menkes. Here he discusses the need for leaders to show “realistic optimism” and “face actual circumstances” head on:

When you as a leader possesses the kind of humility that enables your awareness of true circumstances, you can face all kinds of stimuli, from negative personal feedback to challenging market fluctuations to employees’ or customers’ emotional reactions, without experiencing personal disruption. This utter absence of shame around your miscalculations or outright failures is the critical differentiator of someone acutely in touch with actual circumstances and someone who is not.

p. 63

Excerpted from “Better Under Pressure: How Great Leaders Bring Out the Best in Themselves and Others” by Justin Menkes. (c) 2011 Esaress Holding, Limited.

A wise paragraph on risk

Thursday, May 12th, 2011

From Ndubuisi Ekekwe on HBR.org:

Accidents happen and organizations expose themselves to losses and reputational risks because of the ways they communicate the risks associated with their products and services. From engineering to finance, if risks are communicated very well, lesser accidents and crises will happen, simply on the strength that people will plan better. When risk communication fails, people become vulnerable.

What a “broken child” reminds us about life

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

From The Mistake Bank:

There’s an amazing exchange from Fresh Air when Teri Gross interviews Ian Brown, author of “The Boy in the Moon: A Father’s Journey to Understand His Extraordinary Son,” a memoir about life with his 15-year old son Walker, who suffers from a rare and severely disabling condition called cardiofaciocutaneous (CFC) syndrome.

Brown is discussing a quote from his wife imagining what the world would be like without people like Walker, when Teri Gross interrupts:

Brown:
What sort of a world would it be without Walkers? A world where there are only sort of Masters of the Universe…would be like Sparta.

Teri Gross:
Could we just stop here? I’m not a Master of the Universe. You know, I’m not broken, physiologically broken, like your boy. But I’m hardly a Master of the Universe. I think most of us are not Masters of the Universe. We’re all broken in our own special ways. So it’s not like we’re perfected people and we need constant reminders of imperfection. I’m not arguing for abortion here, I’m just saying…we’re not a population of perfection.

Brown:
No, no, absolutely not… although, you know, the imperative to know what to do, to have the answer, to…have the solution. I think that’s a very strong imperative. And Walker is…he’s more than a reminder of imperfection. Gradually, I’ve begun to realize, he is a way of…not the only way of being, but he’s an alternate way of being. Because you can’t be successful with Walker. You can’t “get it done.” You can’t “just do it,” as the ad says. You have to actually just be with him

I remember precisely where I was when I heard this: on Forster St., heading over the Harvey Taylor Bridge taking my son home from school. As I listened, I was reminded of something very current and yet age-old. An obsession with “winning.” What Brown is saying means this to me: Walker is important and his life is meaningful because he presents us a situation that is not winnable. It just is. The work involved with raising and caring for Walker will not end in triumph. It will persist, day by day, for as long as it lasts. That is its limitation and, in the end, its beauty.