Great leaders must have a powerful sense of agency

June 3rd, 2011

I’ve been reading Justin Menkes’ book “Better Under Pressure: How Great Leaders Bring Out the Best in Themselves and Others,” and it’s the best business book I’ve read this year by far.

I have to confess that I wasn’t initially sure I’d love it. “How to be a CEO” studies have gotten boring. But Menkes’ focus on personal accountability (rather than CEO self-aggrandization, swagger or getting power) has been a real surprise and very helpful for this site.

His idea of a “sense of agency” is a real revelation. (From the book: “Sense of agency…refers to the degree to which people attribute their circumstances and the outcomes they experience to being within their own control.”) Leaders with this sense do not feel that issues are someone else’e problem or out of their control. They are not defined by their circumstances. They find a way to make their circumstances better.

And they are not afraid to make mistakes. But rather than seek to offload blame on others, they, in Menkes’ term, “own their missteps,” even if they weren’t 100% responsible for them.

Let’s face it, for anything bigger than tripping on a crack in a sidewalk, very little that happens wrong is 100% our fault.

Menkes’ lesson, one that I think is embodied in the stories on this site, is that when things go wrong, the strongest leaders look inside, say what they could have done differently, learn those lessons, and improve their work going forward. As he writes, there’s a stage of every senior leader’s career when she is catapulted out of her comfort zone and into the unknown. For example, a VP of Engineering is asked to take over the company’s sales function. At that moment, her long-nurtured expertise (as stated in Milton Glaser’s fabulous video) is not helpful to her development.

Menkes writes, “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.”

Because at the end of the day, if you are the leader (even if you are merely the “CEO of your own job“), casting about for blame or deflecting criticism to others only serves to delay the fixing of the problem and to blur the important lessons you could have been learning.

This result happened to Jeremy (whose story was covered in this earlier Mistake Bank entry): for two years, his underperforming team continued to miss targets, and Jeremy continued to blame those he had hired, colleagues, everyone else but himself. And until he “owned the missteps,” he wasn’t going to make it.

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

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

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”

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

May 12th, 2011

From Ndubuisi Ekekwe on

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

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:

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.

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.

Steve Jobs admits Apple mistakes with location data… or does he?

April 28th, 2011

From The Mistake Bank:

I read this New York Times article with significant interest: “Jobs Concedes Apple Mistakes.” The article refers to the issue of iPhone users discovering that a large file of their past locations was stored on the handset.

It’s notable whenever a high-profile CEO, confronted with a public-relations issue, comes out and takes accountability for mistakes.

When I read through the article, and the AllThingsD interview Q+A that inspired it, I was hard-pressed to find a real expression of remorse or even of admitting mistakes. Here’s the closest thing I read:

[Interviewer:] Is there anything that you guys have learned over the last week or so and take away from this?

[Apple SVP Scott] Forstall: One thing I think we have learned is that the cache we had on the system–the point of that cache, is we do all the location calculations on the phone itself so no location calculations are done separately. You can imagine in an ideal world the entire crowdsourced database is on the phone and it just never has to talk to a server to do these calculations (or) to even get the cache.

What we do is we cache a subset of that. We picked a size, around 2MB, which is less than half a song. It turns out it was fairly large and could hold items for a long time.

We had that protected on the system. It had root protection and was sandboxed from any other application. But if someone hacks their phone and jailbreaks it, they can get to this and misunderstand the point of that.

It’s all anonymous and cannot be traced back to any individual phone or person. But we need to be even more careful about what files are on the phone, even if they are protected.

Also, there was a hell of a lot of pushback. For example:

[Interviewer]: A bunch of folks on the regulatory side, both in the U.S. and elsewhere, said they are going to look into this. Do you guys plan on testifying before Congress? How active do you personally and does Apple want to be?

Jobs: I think Apple will be testifying. They have asked us to come and we will honor their request, of course. I think it is great that they are investigating this and I think it will be interesting to see how agressive or lazy the press is on this in terms of investigating the rest of the participants in the industry and finding out what they do. Some of them don’t do what we do. That’s for sure.

In fact, the closest thing to a mistake discussed was iPhone users’ mistakes:

[Jobs]: We build a crowdsourced database of Wi-Fi and cell tower hot spots, but those can be over 100 miles away from where you are. Those are not telling you anything abut your location. That’s what people saw on the phone and mistook it for location.

So, in summary: Jobs didn’t concede any mistakes, and his lieutenant made the hedgiest-possible admission that the location cache stored far more data than was needed.

This is more a lesson in good PR than in CEO candor and learning from mistakes. Jobs and his team admitted 5-10% culpability and defended the remainder, blaming users, competitors and the press for the issue. And they did it so smoothly that they convinced the NYT headline writer that Jobs himself had “conceded” location mistakes–in fact, getting credit for candor and remorse while not showing any.

Would you like to contribute to the Mistake Bank?

April 27th, 2011

If you’ve enjoyed the stories on our Mistake Bank site, you might be interested in helping grow the site’s contents. I am looking for folks to spend thirty minutes on the phone being interviewed about their business mistakes for posting on the Mistake Bank. Believe me, it doesn’t hurt a bit!

Hear one of the interviews.

Please email me at if you’d like to be part of this project.

Don’t forget your “after-call work”

March 31st, 2011

This old post has come to my mind a few times the past month, so I thought it was worth a repost. If you want fresh material, visit The Mistake Bank.

I do a lot of work with call centers these days, and they have a concept called “after-call work.” Call-center reps spend their lives on the phone, but depending on their roles they have more or less work to do to close up the current transaction and become available for the next incoming call.

I spend a lot of time on the phone, too, and I have an unfortunate habit of rushing off to the next thing immediately after hanging up. As a result, my call notes might have gaps, I might not have captured an action item, and I won’t have thought through everything I need to do next with that project.

The same thing is true with email–I’ll read it and then move on before I’ve fully digested what’s in there, or written down what I need to do with it. Since I started using the “Getting Things Done” method, it’s become clearer what needs to be done with transactions like emails or phone calls–I need to determine if there’s something to follow up on, and then to file it away or document a to-do as necessary.

As a result, I’m trying to develop an after-call discipline, just like the reps I’ve worked with. The call isn’t over until I’ve reviewed my notes, filled in gaps, thought about next actions, and documented them in my to-do list.

Related post:
Giving myself the “Getting Things Done” treatment

Tina Brown’s New Newsweek features “My Favorite Mistake”

March 7th, 2011

From The Mistake Bank:

OK, it’s official. Mistake stories are the new black. Don’t believe me? Celebrity editor Tina Brown (a hell of an editor, by the way – I think the New Yorker was much improved by her tenure there) just published her first version of Newsweek magazine. And on the back page is a new feature called “My Favorite Mistake.” The first guest of honor, Harvey Weinstein. Here’s a snippet of Harvey’s story:

But my favorite mistake happened two years ago, when I had the opportunity to buy The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Two friends in London told me there was a book they loved. I read the book and thought it was great. Then I heard they were making a movie out of it. I got the people to show us the movie to see whether we’d want to distribute it in the United States, and everything about it in my gut said, “Do this—there’s a franchise here.” But my team said, ‘No, we should focus on bigger movies,’ and I let the committee overwhelm me. I didn’t listen to my very significant gut, and when I say significant, I mean size, geographically. And that was a big bloody mistake—an economic mistake, a company mistake. If you’re going to be in the business we are, it has to be because you want to champion movies that are different. This year, we got The King’s Speech, Blue Valentine, Company Men, and part of The Fighter. Small movies are intensive, but they’re so worth it. It’s what we have to do to be who we are.

Now I have to say that this is a particular type of mistake story that may not be the most instructive. As I read it, Harvey’s mistake was listening to his committee. In his eyes, he would have been better served ignoring their advice and buying the movie anyway. I guess this is the deepest personal reflection you can expect from a Hollywood mogul.

I wonder if there wasn’t a different mistake here: perhaps he wasn’t able to articulate his love and passion for the project clearly enough to convince his committee to change its decision. I think of the neat arguments of John Kotter in his new book “Buy-In: Saving Your Good Idea from Getting Shot Down” (here’s a summary of one of the arguments)- perhaps some of them would have been useful to Harvey in this situation.