Tag Archive for: leadership

The Most Important Leadership Book I Have Read (and the shortest blog post!)

Net: One of the most important roles of leaders and managers is to “look for people doing things right and tell them.”

Like most companies, The Loyalty Group (now the LoyaltyOne division of Alliance Data) had Operating Principles.  Ours were:

  • Work together
  • Be at cause
  • Respect & challenge each other
  • Teach & learn
  • Have fun

One of my goals when seizing the opportunity to start a new company was to create a culture where we were we were all driven by the goal of creating the future first and doing what others found impossible while treating people with respect and having fun along the way.  I quickly learned that simply espousing these principals and putting them on the walls of our offices was perhaps necessary but terribly insufficient to create the kind of culture we envisioned.

After a few (painful) false starts we built these principles into several company processes and policies:

  • Recruiting – no one was asked to join the company before a senior executive (often me) had shared our Operating Principles with the potential employee and received their commitment to leading by these principles.
  • We hired an industrial psychologist to conduct an anonymous employee feedback survey twice a year. The survey included questions about our managers’ leadership style and asked employees to rate their managers on how well they modeled “leading by the Operating Principles.”
  • 10% of the bonus for anyone who managed one or more employees was calculated based on their team members’ responses to “leading by the Operating Principles” questions.
  • We probably terminated more employees for violating our Operating Principles than for any other reason.

Given the importance of our Operating Principles and our commitment to taking employee feedback seriously, the semi-annual meeting when our industrial psychiatrist presented the results was well attended and no one was checking email or otherwise “not present.”

Although over two decades ago, I still remember the first meeting we had with our psychologist to review the employees’ feedback like it was yesterday.  Our team member’s feedback was fairly positive until she came to the section on “communication.”  Although our industrial psychologist was a highly professional and buttoned down PhD, I believe her exact words were “you all suck at communication.”  She clearly had our attention as everyone on the management team was at least somewhat stunned at her proclamation.  We thought we were doing all the right things when it came to communication – we had monthly town meetings, a frequent feedback culture, shared company updates through email blasts, I had lunch with five customer service representatives every month and our leadership team “double jacked” in our call center several times a year.

Our psychologist told us we needed to read The One Minute Manager.  Published several years before our meeting, I had seen the book in bookstores but never bought it.  At that time, I was a big reader, but focused on consuming “serious” books published by Harvard, MIT or Oxford; books on strategy, leadership and customer service.  The One Minute Manager looked to be about 50 pages long and I didn’t think it could possibly add value to me or other leaders of our company.  But given her feedback and alarming “you suck” conclusion, I bought it at Toronto’s Pearson Airport that evening and read it on my flight to Montreal.

The book’s most important message was simple: Leaders and managers should make it a priority to “look for people doing things right and tell them.” This is especially important for entry level team members and anyone joining an “apprenticeship business,” like Bain Consulting in the 80’s, Loyalty or Year Up where, over the course of their existence, these industry leaders have developed approaches, processes and other practices to deliver their mission.

Looking for people doing things right and telling them is critical for at least two reasons:

  1. Team members, especially those new to the company or industry, often do not realize when they are doing something “right.” I remember this being modeled expertly by my Bridgespan colleague Susan Wolf Ditkoff when we were developing a strategy for the nonprofit Common Cents.  On one occasion, Mandy Taft, a relatively new member of our team (but with significant work experience prior to joining Bridgespan) had presented to our client.  As soon as we got in a taxi for LGA, Susan said to Mandy “you did a great job presenting this morning and let me tell you exactly what you did that was effective…”
  2. Thankfully, our industrial psychologist told us exactly what we were doing wrong during the meeting mentioned above at the Loyalty Group. Our leadership error wasn’t that we didn’t give positive feedback – it was that we almost always followed up a “great work” comment with something like “but, did you ever think about doing this…” or “what if we added this…”  Unbeknownst to us, a lot of our team members where hearing “she/he thinks I could have done this better.”  Immediately after this session, our leadership team made it a priority to “look for people doing things right and tell them” and also were more conscious of and thoughtful about adding constructive feedback – often separating the “plus” from the “delta” in Year Up parlance.

Although I believe LoyaltyOne’s specific operating principles have evolved over the past two decades, I’m pretty sure their spirit lives on and that they are one of the major contributors to the company’s extraordinary track record. Long after I handed over the leadership reigns to JS and BAP, the company continues to define what it means to “create the future while treating people with respect and having fun along the way.”  Few companies can match their accomplishments, including: 20%+ annual growth; one of the key drivers of the highest performing North American stocks; perennially selected as one of the best companies to work for, best companies for diversity, best companies for women,and best corporate culture.  I will forever be grateful to Sir Keith Mills who gave me the opportunity to play a small part in getting this wonderful enterprise off the ground, but the real credit goes to my leadership team members, every one of our associates and those that continue to lead the company into the future.

Love to hear your favorite leadership books or others that have had a significant impact on you.

CHU

 

Leading by f*ing up

My brilliant friend Morra Aarons-Mele, creator of the podcast “Hiding in the Bathroom” and author of a book by the same name subtitled “An Introvert’s Roadmap to Getting Out There (When You Would Rather Stay Home),” recently posted the poignant question “How do you stop obsessing over a f-up?” on Facebook.

I responded to her post:

Here’s how I TRY to put f-ups behind me. 1. Write it down 2. Identify lessons learned, if any. 3. Share my mistakes with team members and mentees.

 At our company The Loyalty Group, we hosted annual Experience Sharing Conferences with the management teams of our sister companies from around the world. A highlight was always the presentations by each CEO on the biggest mistakes made over the past year. One of our Operating Principles was “Learn from you mistakes, don’t dwell on them. Identify the lessons learned, share them and move on.”

Morra’s question and several recent experiences with leaders who seem hesitant to ever admit – much less promote – their mistakes stimulated this article.

Here’s what you can do to use your mistakes to add value to the missions you pursue and the teams you lead:

  1. Be ruthlessly self-candid about the mistakes you have made. Recognize them.
  2. After you recover, think about the lessons learned. What – in hindsight – could you have done before the moment of your mistake to have prevented it?  I have often found this simple matrix from Chapter 3 of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People helpful:

 

In his book, Covey makes the important point that leaders often find their days consumed with responding to and managing both work and personal “emergencies” and “crisis.”  They live in Quadrant 1, spending their time on critically important and urgent issues.  His more important insight is that many of these crisis could have been avoided if leaders focused more on and invested in Quadrant 2 activities and issues:

One of the challenges of this paradox is – in most cases – if you don’t invest in Quadrant 2 initiatives today, you likely won’t lose a customer, key employee or experience other professional or personal pain today.  E.g. If you don’t get some exercise today, it’s unlikely that will lead to a heart attack.  Another challenge is we often find it difficult to find the time to prioritize Quadrant 2 activities because we end up spending all of our time putting out Quadrant 1 fires.  This analysis may be helpful as you think through the lessons learned from your most recent mistake. One of our insights was that we needed to make Quadrant 2 initiatives mandatory and – on the rare occasion  when all else failed – give them same “nights and weekends” priority we would Quadrant 1 emergencies.

  1. Share –  and even consider promoting – the mistakes you have made with your colleagues, the teams you lead and the people you mentor. In order to successfully do this, you need to both lead by example – share your own mistakes – and ensure you have created a consistent culture and a work environment where employees feel safe sharing their own mistakes.  One way we did this at The Loyalty Group (now Alliance Data’s LoyaltyOne division) was to incorporate the company’s 10 Operating Principles into to our bi-annual employee feedback survey.  One section of the survey asked employees to rate their manager’s performance re “leading by each of the Operating Principles” over the past six months on a one to 10 scale.   And we put some teeth in our commitment to leading by our Operating Principles by basing 10% of all managers’ annual bonus on their team members’ responses to these questions.  Perhaps more importantly, I am sure we fired more managers for not leading by our Operating Principles than for any other reason.
  2. Continuously analyze the root causes of mistakes and make sure you are investing in training, capabilities, programs and other resources to decrease the probability of repeating them.
  3. Although we all try to not make the same mistake twice and thereby modeling Einstein’s axiom “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different results is the definition of insanity,” mistakes will inevitably happen.  Sometimes more than once.  If this happens, repeat steps 1-5 and keep moving forward.  I’s OK to cut yourself some slack.

Please share your experiences with learning by and leading from your mistakes.

CHU

Three I Leadership

During the time I was CEO of The Loyalty Group, we grew from three entrepreneurs in a Toronto hotel room to over 600 employees when we sold the business to Alliance Data System (NYSE: ADS) in 1998.  Throughout this period, I thought a lot about both leadership and how to help our people develop the requisite skills to advance as far as they wanted to in their careers.

Nothing gives me greater pleasure that seeing those who worked with me do extremely well.  Two great examples are John Scullion and Brian Sinclair.  In 1993, I had to use all of my selling skills to convince John to leave the high profile corporate travel business Ryder Travel and join a company whose balance sheet looked similar to some now defunct Wall Street firms.  John is now President and COO of Alliance Data Systems, with a market cap of several billion dollars.  Brian Sinclair, whose first job out of college was an AIR MILES analyst, is now the Managing Director of Nectar, the wildly successful coalition loyalty program in the UK that recently sold to Aeroplan for $700MM.

After we visited Brian at his London offices last summer, my 12 year old daughter Jordan remarked, “You gave him his first job and now he has a better job than you!”  Although I thought about reminding her that the flexibility of my firm enabled our father-daughter trip to London, my wiser side prevailed and I responded, “That’s right, and nothing could make me happier than seeing people I hired doing really well.  That means I hired great people and hopefully they learned a few things from working with me.”

One of the things I came to understand about leadership and developing executive talent became what I call the “Three I’s of Leadership.”  I realized to build a successful high growth company while delivering on our cultural goal of “doing what others consider the impossible, while treating people with respect and having fun along the way,” we needed leaders with the following skills:

  • Intellectual Leadership – Leaders who had both the raw brain power to identify opportunities and solve challenges and very deep skills in their specific areas of expertise.
  • Implementational Leadership – Leaders who were not just “consulting smart.” Executives who could actually stop thinking, developing models and drawing 2 x 2 matricies and “land the helicopter, get the troops in the field and make things happen”, to quote a former client.
  • Inspirational Leadership – Leaders who could get things done without making everyone who worked for them want to quit.

Over time, I found out two things about this model:

Three I Leadership can be, and usually is, a shared set of skills. Although no senior executive can have below threshold skills in any of the areas, many highly successful companies are lead by “Three I Leadership Teams.”  I first realized this through being involved in YPO (the Young President’s Organization) where I spent a lot of time with other Presidents of successful companies. My original belief was that successful CEO’s had to be “A” players in all three leadership skill sets, but I observed several who clearly were not what anyone would consider “motivate the troops inspirational” and others who were brilliant “idea machines,”  but needed someone to keep them from trying to implement every idea as soon as it burst into their heads.  All I observed were very smart, but not all would qualify for Mensa.

I soon realized that almost everyone had built a “Three I Team” around themselves by hiring direct reports that balanced and complimented their skill sets. There was the collaboration principle at work again.  Once I realized the importance of Three I Teams (and the stupidity of expecting every senior executive to be naturally gifted at all three), I started using the model to help my direct reports work on their weakest areas and to make sure we had Three I Teams leading all of our major groups and strategic initiatives.

I later began using the Three I model in recruiting and would ask candidates to distribute 100 points across the Three I’s to indicate their leadership strengths and weaknesses. One of the funniest reactions I received to this question came from an executive who had worked at American Express during the 90’s when Harvey Golub was CEO.  He responded something like, “That’s a great model.  Harvey is 60 intellectual, 40 implementational and 0 inspirational.” Then he became even more excited and said, “No, that’s not correct.  He is 60 intellectual, 60 implementational and negative 20 inspirational.”  Although the candidate was clearly exaggerating in jest, he was making my point exactly as Ken Chenault was Gulob’s number two at the time. I had the good fortune to spend time with Ken in the late 90’s as he had to personally approve American Express’s deal to  become an AIR MILES Sponsor.  Then and now, there may not be a better example of a “High I Inspirational” leader than Ken.

The model can apply to the leadership teams of organizations large and small. I recently thought about this model and how it applies to little league baseball coaches.  A coach needs to know the game of baseball, the complex rules, how to catch, hit, run and steal bases, etc.  Knowing how to play baseball is necessary, but insufficient. Someone on the coaching staff needs to know how to teach young kids to play baseball – how to learn the game and improve their skills. What drills are most effective in practice; how to spot a batting stance off balance or throwing motion without follow-through and how to make the subtle changes to correct these errors.  Finally, as all sports are partly mind games and baseball can be incredibly stressful for young athletes, at least one of the coaches has to be able to keep the kids fired up and have a vast vocabulary of positive things to say no matter what happens at the plate!

If this model makes sense to you, try it inside your own organization.  If it applies, consider building it into your professional development systems and recruiting strategies.  Collaborate by letting me know if it worked and what you have done to build upon it.

 

Note:  This post was originally written on November 11, 2008. 

What business can learn about leadership and collaboration from Little League Baseball

Although you wouldn’t know it from the 50 degree weather we have had the last three days, it is spring in Boston, which means my 9 year old son is playing baseball again.  Helping coach his little league team reminded me of the leadership model we developed at the Loyalty Group that others have found helpful and I thought I would share it with you.

During the time I was CEO of The Loyalty Group, we grew from three entrepreneurs in a Toronto hotel room to over 600 employees when we sold the business to Alliance Data System (NYSE: ADS).  Throughout this period, I thought a lot about both leadership and how to help executives develop the requisite skills to advance as far as they wanted to in their careers, as this was one of my most important roles. Few things give me greater satisfaction than seeing several of the people I hired continue to grow and be successful in their careers. Indeed, many of those I hired and mentored have taken Loyalty to levels of success we didn’t even dream of during my tenure, and we were pretty big dreamers back then.

One of the things I came to understand about leadership and developing executive talent became what we called the “Three I’s of Leadership.”  I realized to build a successful high growth company while delivering on our cultural goal of “creating business success that others consider impossible, while treating people with respect and having fun along the way” we needed leaders with the following skills:

  • Intellectual Leadership – Leaders who had both the raw brain power to identify opportunities and solve challenges and very deep skills in their specific areas of expertise.
  • Implementational Leadership – Leaders who were not just “consulting smart” but who could get things done to move the business forward.  Executives who could actually stop thinking, developing models and drawing matrices and “land the helicopter, get the troops in the field and make things happen.”
  • Inspirational Leadership – Leaders who could get things done through others without making everyone quit.

Over time, I found out two things about this model:

Three I Leadership can be, and usually is, a shared set of skills.

Although no senior executive can have below threshold skills in any of the three areas, many highly successful companies are led by “Three I Leadership Teams.”  I first realized this through being involved in YPO (the Young Presidents Organization) where I spent a lot of time with other Presidents of successful companies. My original belief was that successful CEO’s had to be “A” players in all three leadership skill sets, but I realized that this often wasn’t the case.  I observed several very successful CEO’s who clearly were not what anyone would consider “motivate the troops inspirational” and others who although incredibly smart “idea machines,” needed someone to figure out what ideas should actually be implemented and then take the idea from the white board (or the back of the napkin) to the business and the bottom line.  All I observed were very smart, but not all would qualify for Mensa.

I soon realized that almost everyone had built a “Three I Team” around themselves by hiring direct reports that balanced and complimented their skill sets. There was the collaboration principle at work again.  Once I realized the importance of Three I Teams – and the stupidity of expecting every senior executive to be naturally gifted at all three – I started using the model to help my direct reports work on their weakest areas and made sure we had Three I Teams leading all of our major groups and strategic initiatives.

I later began using the Three I model in recruiting and would ask candidates to distribute 100 points across the Three I’s to indicate their leadership strengths and weaknesses. One of the funniest reactions I received to this question came from an executive who had worked at American Express during the 90’s when Harvey Golub was CEO.  He responded something like: “That’s a great model.  Harvey is 60 intellectual, 40 implementational and 0 inspirational.” Then he became even more excited and said, “No, that’s not correct, he is 60 intellectual, 60 implementational and negative 20 inspirational.”  Although the candidate was clearly exaggerating in jest, he was making my point exactly as Ken Chenault was Gulob’s number two at the time. Then and now, there may not be a better example of a “High I Inspirational” leader than Ken.

The model can apply to the leadership teams of organizations large and small.

Back to my baseball analogy.  Last year, I thought about this regarding little league baseball coaches.  A coach needs to know the game of baseball, the complex rules, how to catch, hit, run and steal bases, etc.  But knowing how to play baseball is necessary, but insufficient. Someone on the coaching staff needs to know how to teach young kids how to play baseball – how to learn the game and improve their skills. What drills are most effective in practice; how to spot a batting stance off balance or a throwing motion without follow-through and how to make the subtle changes to correct these errors.  Finally, as all sports are partly mind games, and baseball can be incredibly stressful for young athletes, at least one of the coaches has to be able to keep the kids fired up and have a vast vocabulary of positive things to say no matter what happens at on the field – a swinging strike becomes a “good cut, “bases loaded means “we now have an easy out at every base,” etc.

If this model makes sense to you, try it inside your own organization.  If it applies, consider building it into your professional development systems and recruiting strategies.  If you use it, collaborate with us by letting me know how it worked and what you have done to improve the model.