A colleague and I were given the unpleasant job of firing a long-tenured advertising agency. The decision had nothing to do with performance; the agency was just the victim of a consolidation of vendors on our part. Our meeting with one of its partners was set for Monday morning. Coincidentally, the firm’s other partner invited my colleague (let’s call him John) and me to a dinner at his house over the intervening weekend. Saturday night came, and John and his wife were a late scratch.
My wife and I had a wonderful dinner at the agency principal’s house that Saturday (he and his wife happened to be among our best friends.) Monday came, and my friend’s partner joined John and me in John’s office. John looked at me and didn’t say a word. The task of giving the bad news fell entirely on me! I stumbled through, and the agency principal was more gracious than I expected or deserved. That night, my agency friend and I drank a couple scotches together. I reiterated what I said to his partner that this did not reflect their good work. He reiterated that this would not impact our friendship.
And John? He went on to lead marketing organizations and business units. By all accounts he has had a successful career. But I noticed he was vocal in earnings calls when there was good news to report, silent when news wasn’t so good. I wonder if this inability to deliver bad news got in the way of John even going farther in his career.
The SPIKES Protocol
Leaders have to learn how to give bad news. Being absent is not an option. Yet, I don’t remember being taught this particular skill at Wharton. My education on the subject was primarily through trial and error. And the errors can be painful for all parties.
There are professionals who leave school well versed in delivering bad news. Maybe that’s because bad news from an oncologist is often more devastating than bad news from a marketing Vice President. Baile, Buckman, et. al. (2000) provided the definitive "how to" in The Oncologist journal. The particular process they provided the medical profession is called the SPIKES protocol. Here are the elements:
S: SETTING UP the Interview. Find the right time. Arrange for privacy. Include significant others of the patient. Sit down. Make connections. Manage time and interruptions.
P: Assessing the Patient’s PERCEPTION. Ask before telling, such as, “What do you understand about why we conducted these tests?”
I: Obtaining the Patient’s INVITATION. Ask whether the patient wants all the details, or just the bottom line.
K: Giving KNOWLEDGE and Information to the Patient. Start by saying you have bad news to share. Use non-technical language. Temper how blunt you are.
E: Addressing the Patient’s EMOTIONS with Empathetic Responses. Check for the patient’s emotional response. Identify the emotion. Consider the reason for the emotion. Give the patient time to express their feelings. Connect with them by saying something that shows you understand what they are feeling.
S: STRATEGY and SUMMARY. Ask if the patient is ready to discuss a treatment plan. Share options with them. Share responsibility for treatment plan with the patient. Work to ensure patient understands the efficacy or purpose of treatment options.
I think the SPIKES protocol should be applied by business leaders in thinking through how to deliver their own bad news. Let’s consider two different audiences that might receive news: (1) subordinates, either direct or indirect reports and (2) bosses, including boards of directors, analysts or shareholders.
Sharing Bad News with your Employees
Perhaps you can hide behind your HR resources, and have them give news of terminations at an individual or group level to your team. Maybe you’ll just let news leak out that a decision has been taken by the Exec Team that is contrary to the position you took to support your people. Maybe employees can read in Fast Companyabout the fine paid out by your company that will mean no bonuses this year. And maybe you will lose the respect of your team by not being authentic with them.
The SPIKES protocol for delivering bad news to your employees is very similar to what doctors have to do:
S: Set up a meeting with urgency. People have the right to know as soon as possible. You may have a small cabinet of direct reports who get an early “heads up.” And they may have useful comments on your communication to a larger group. But it’s important to get your message out as soon as you can, or in coordination with communication by colleagues.
P: You can ask if people are aware of an issue. It invites them to speak up, which might be useful later on. And this can remind them of previous communication you’ve had with them.
I: Generally, obtaining an invitation to provide information is skipped. While you should be respectful of people’s desire for information, there is a message that must be received whether or not you are invited to provide it.
K: Explain how a decision was made. If you took a position contrary to a final decision, explain what won the day. People will know what your position was. They will now find you supporting a decision that was different than you had espoused. There has to be a reason why. Provide the justification.
Speak up to your audience. Doctors might dumb down their message to avoid medical speak. Talk to your audience in a way that matches its expertise. Prepare your comments. Be direct with your message. Ensure that people realize the decision taken is final.
E: Be frank about your own reaction, but avoid saying, “I know how you feel.” You still have a job; the people you are talking to might lose theirs. Practice your presentation well enough to avoid a written script. Ensure that your body language matches your verbal message.
Allow time for people to vent, but not to appeal the decision. Listen to what they have to say. It might feel like this is directed at you. Most of the time this is just how people process bad news and begin to think about how it will affect them.
S: Provide a glimpse into the future. Will the staff be asked to put in significant overtime for the next month? Will HR be contacting individuals to tell them about their future with the organization? Will the proposed acquisition mean that people need to turn over all documents to lawyers?
You may think that people will be numb after your announcement and may not absorb next steps easily. Give them more credit than that. How does this office calamity stack up to the patient who finds herself discussing treatment options with her oncologist immediately after receiving a diagnosis? Nobody wants to be left hanging after receiving bad news. Provide the remedy, or at least the options that might be taken to get to a better position. Get people to start focusing on the future.
Summarize, document, follow up and follow through. End your meeting with a concluding statement of the problem and the immediate next steps. Send a note that memorializes the discussion. You can acknowledge the emotions that were shared in the discussion and include the steps that will follow. And commit yourself to the process, to make sure that commitments you make or are made by others happen as intended.
Sharing Bad News with Bosses
Things don’t always go as planned in business. And sharing negative variances with the CEO, board members or shareholders is part of the job. In fact, it may be more career defining than offering good news. A variation of the SPIKES protocol works well to organize the discussion.
S: Set up the interview: Go to the boss’s office. Say, “I need fifteen minutes of your time. Is this a good time to talk?” Don’t pick a time when they have one foot out the door or are stressed from another significant issue. Don’t wait so long to bring up the issue that your delay becomes an issue of its own.
P, I & K: Assessing the boss’s existing perception, giving knowledge and obtaining an invitation are all mashed together. First, you need to command attention. Tell the boss, “I have some bad news on the Jones account.” No sugarcoating. Pause long enough to ensure comprehension. Follow up with a question to gauge perception or to remind them of previous warnings of potentially negative events: “Are you familiar with the negotiations we’ve been having with them?” The response may confirm familiarity (“Yes, I remember the issues you were having.”) Or if the boss admits to a lack of familiarity, you have set up an opportunity for them to invite you in (“I don’t think I am up to speed on that. What has been going on?”)
Follow up with information, at the level of detail that best addresses your audience. Some people want hard data. Others need to understand the process and timeline. Some just require the big picture or want to understand your perceptions of the client’s state of mind. You may not have to get to the root of the problem; addressing the symptoms may be all that is required. Be prepared to get to the heart of the issue, but as often as not, the boss will just want to address the immediate problem. The root cause can be addressed another day.
E: It is uncommon to get such an emotional response from the boss that you feel compelled to press the PAUSE button. But it can happen. So, read your audience, in case they are flipping out. And if you are facing a very emotional response, you can suggest that the solutions you’d like to share can be held for another time, after everybody has a chance to reflect.
There is another part of the empathy and emotional assessment to consider when talking to your boss. Think about your own emotions. Don’t make light of the situation. If it is not to be taken seriously, why would you bring it up to your boss? Don’t panic, either. Your boss will wonder how things got so bad without you saying anything before. Just the facts, ma’am!
S: In this case, when the boss is open to the discussion, suggest multiple solutions. It is fine to have a recommendation. If the bad news is ongoing, can affect achieving budget, hitting launch dates, etc., the boss might want more degrees of freedom than just agreeing to the action you plan on taking. Provide your assessment of probability of success and cost of each solution. Reach a decision with your boss and document that solution. Is there something that the boss has to do? Steps you or your team need to take? Summarize them and send a follow-up memo. In closing, if the situation is your fault, own up to it, apologize briefly and state the actions to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
If solutions are being shared with parties not in an executive role, providing options may not be appropriate. You don’t want your board of directors to decide on a tactical course of action. Simply share the chosen course of action, keeping other options in your back pocket, along with the rationale of why they are not the preferred solutions.
A Closing Thought
Neither my colleague, John, nor I ever went to medical school. But we both should have learned the very important skill of delivering bad news. Adopting the SPIKES protocol to the business world ensures that difficult messages are received in a timely manner, that information is concisely communicated, that emotional reactions are recognized and acknowledged and that steps are taken to put things back on the right track.
I once presented my business’s innovation pipeline to a company president at an R&D facility. As he commented on what he had seen, the president started combing his hair. While continuing his monologue, he looked down at his comb and began picking something off of it. The cleaning of his comb went on for about 15 seconds, an interminable length that left everybody else in the room disgusted and unable to focus on the feedback he gave us.
You might say that shows a lack of self-awareness. And a lot has been written about the connection between self-awareness, emotional intelligence and leadership. Daniel Goleman, in Emotional Intelligence, defines self-awareness as “knowing one’s internal states, preference, resources and intuitions.” Something else was going on at the R&D center, something that is another part of emotional intelligence and maybe more related to successful leadership. It’s really “social awareness.” Think of it as empathy, or at least the ability to understand both the needs of others and how others view you.
Organizations are social inventions. As important as self-awareness might be, you might know thyself and still fail unless the social element is mastered. I offer ten ways social awareness can play itself out when leaders find themselves in new roles. What’s important is consideration of how you look in the eyes of your stakeholders, while remaining true to yourself.
The single largest reason hiring managers give for somebody not working out is that they were not coachable, i.e., they did not listen to criticism or advice and adjust their actions accordingly. Leaders can demonstrate that they are coachable by explaining how the actions they take reflect the information they have received. Even if you are acting contrary to advice received, acknowledging the advice and explaining how it played into your thinking helps.
We generally don’t have a good language to talk about culture. It is often something more that you feel than you can describe. If you are joining a new company, or even if you are moving from one business unit to another, you will become aware of elements of culture. Even when there is a language for culture, it is often just plain wrong. Companies often have lofty lists of values, like Integrity, Results Orientation and Teamwork. What is actually valued, what behaviors are rewarded, might be making deep cuts during restructuring or only taking action with very little risk. Demonstrating published cultural traits will keep you out of trouble. Squaring your own authenticity with the real climate you face is critical to success.
Consider how frequently you communicate with your team and with others in the organization. It’s hard to do it too often. Consider how you communicate. Do you send emails, because that’s easiest? How about what is easiest or most effective to receive instead of what’s easiest to transmit? Maybe it’s a video of you in casual dress. Maybe it’s a voice mail blast on Friday afternoons. Maybe it is a series of town hall meetings or just walking around with minimal agenda. Don’t feel the need to tell people stuff all the time; ask questions. Let them tell you stuff instead!
Competence is the ability to do something successfully. Somebody was impressed enough with your skills to put you in the position you hold. How can you share those skills to make the organization more effective? If you are new to a culture, you may not understand what laws of physics apply in this environment. Learn how the organization solves a problem and consider if your own way might be an improvement. Rushing out and executing as you have succeeded before is great for an individual contributor, not for a leader. To come full circle, it’s unlikely you are capable of doing any significant task successfully in a new organization, unless you do it through other people, people who have their own way of doing things.
There is uncertainty in any new role. Still, you were selected to fill the spot. Somebody felt confident in your ability to deliver. You’ve impressed people. You should feel confident in your own abilities. Let’s consider how confidence applies to your team. Do they share your confidence in yourself? Do they think you have confidence in them? Your job might be to assess the team’s ability to do the job today and in the future. Fair enough. But does it help you for all of the people you count on to feel as if they are on a development plan? Taking a “hands on” approach can be important for you to learn the business. Taking authority away from people for an extended period of time will lead to reduced employee engagement and retention.
You need to deliver what you say you will. The University of Minnesota once hired a head football coach named Tim Brewster. Before his first year, he said there was no need to rebuild; his team was ready to compete for the Rose Bowl right now. That initial season, Minnesota’s record was 1-11. While he lasted 3 ½ years as coach, Brewster was a dead man walking after that first year. The moral: be careful what you promise. Don’t accept what you are being asked to deliver. This is your only chance to get a re-set. Call out the bullshit. Level-set goals. In doing so, you earn the respect of those who hired you and the support of those you will count on to meet your goals.
You may feel “all in” Day 1, but people in the organization who have been through tough times and stuck around, who can share inside jokes with each other, who have their shares vested, are not yet convinced. You can’t change that immediately, but you can convince people of your commitment over time. Create alignment by saying “we,” not “I.” Put in the hours in the early days. Be visible. Find opportunities to get together with people outside of work. Get involved in activities in the community that represent the business.
People across the organization are looking for evidence of how well you work and play with others. When you start a new role, you have ignorance and naivety as powerful assets. You are allowed to ask questions that will seem stupid later on. You can assume positive intent before it is demonstrated. And the quickest way to get colleagues to willingly support you is to provide them with something of value. This might be your expertise, your consideration of an option that your predecessor rejected or your investment in others accomplishing their goals.
Trust comes with the certainty that you won’t take advantage of my vulnerability. The people who work for you are at a power disadvantage to you, just based on the status of your positions. If I share something with you that can put me in an unfavorable light, or if I blow the whistle on a wrong that has been committed, I am taking a big risk. Respect the courage this action takes. Establish rules on what information can be safeguarded and what must be shared.
You might think you have a common touch, but the real common folk are nervous just thinking about climbing Mt Olympus to your office. People don’t want to hear you trumpet about your skills or your accomplishments in other environments. They want to be acknowledged as people who matter. They want to be valued for their achievements. They want to understand the “What’s in it for Me” of your agenda. Trade arrogance for humility. Keep your vision simple and your priorities few. Deliver your message directly and in person, if you can. Answer people’s questions with authenticity.
Ten aspects of social awareness are more than enough for anybody to remember. It’s easier to remember this: Being concerned with how you look is not always vanity. When it comes to how you look to the people you work with, it’s sanity!
Image by Bram Janssens
An executive’s skills come to the fore in a reorganization. While they make take on new responsibilities themselves, they face critical needs for leadership from those they serve. Boston Consulting Group surveyed 1600 executives from 35 countries, reflecting on reorganizations their companies enacted. Only forty-eight percent deemed their companies successful in their reorganization efforts. Here is a link to their findings and recommendations:
I have worked in corporations that had write-offs for reorganizations almost every year. Investors looked at my company as if it were Bullwinkle trying again to pull a rabbit out of his hat: “This time for sure!” They were not buying it. Instead of the bump in stock price often associated with the announcement of a reorganization, the downward spiral would accelerate.
As I researched the determinants of success or failure in reorganizations, it was clear that the focus has been on the front end rather than what happens when the reality of the chance sets in. Maybe this is appropriate, and my research is far less extensive than BCG's, but I want to suggest 5 mistakes the companies and leaders routinely make in execution that can lead to failed reorganizations.
1. The focus is on the “what” rather than the “how.”
OK, this is a not a specific feature of execution, but an overall statement of where attention is placed. Over 90% of the literature on reorganizations will be on conceptualizing the change. And a main takeaway is that it doesn’t start with an org chart. Craig Espelien recently wrote me about “a process that defines and aligns: current state, desired future state and how the work will flow. Once this is done, then an org structure will emerge.” Craig’s right. Structure should follow strategy.
There’s another part to reorganizations that gets little attention. These involve big changes, but the usual components of change management are not always applied. It is like using an award-winning architect and then hiring a discount contractor. Planning is important. Thinking through consequences and getting the plumbing right is vital. I’ll take good execution over great strategy any day.
2. The urge for secrecy means that the people who know how things get done are not consulted.
Why do we keep this secret? Because some people might get hurt by the outcomes, so we revert to behavior we learned in high school about breaking up with a sweetheart. Give out hints that something is amiss, send out a text saying, “It’s over!” and become invisible when they are around. In this way, leadership feels the least amount of discomfort.
Yes, some people inevitably lose their jobs in reorgs. News flash: the people who are told, “It’s over!” are often the lucky ones. They may feel hurt for a little while. But, usually, they receive a severance package. They find employment in a company that doesn’t have the problems that led to your reorganization. They get to choose what they do next, instead of being told what box they will fill.
How much does this hurt? Ask Steve Pearce. In late June of 2018 he was traded by the Toronto Blue Jays for a minor league player, after seeing limited action this year. That may have been a blow to his ego, but how bad is it to be traded to the Red Sox, where he hit 3 home runs in his team’s final two World Series wins, getting a championship ring in the process?
Back to why openness trumps secrecy… What is the harm in telling people that, because of a need for greater efficiency or to prepare for future growth, you need to look at structure and processes? Share with stakeholders the rationale for a reorganization and solicit input on the details of that desired future state and how to get there. More people will feel like they were part of the process, or at least that they were heard. You will get a better plan, greater alignment and a higher likelihood of a successfully executed integration.
3. The social aspect is overlooked.
This may be the single most underrated factor in determining success or failure of a reorganization. While efficiency is not the main goal of every reorganization, the net result is that some people will lose their jobs and other people will be moved into unfamiliar roles.
Consider that those who remain suffer from PTSD. They feel the loss of friends who are no longer with them on a daily basis. And they may feel a lack of competence in their new roles, and that takes a toll on their self-esteem. One of the key contributors to employee engagement is feeling that you work with your best friend. In reorganizations, these relationships can be sundered. The survivors will not be happy. Some will let you know it. Others will be more passive-aggressive.
It’s OK to acknowledge their hurt and to point out the sacrifices everybody has to make to eventually get to a better place. And it helps to give people some time to find their footing. Nobody in Cubeland is celebrating the day after the reorganization takes place. A big part of the healing, though, comes from people turning their attention to their new work and to the new social connections they need to make for that work to get done. Much of this will happen organically, but it helps to kick-start these new connections through facilitated sessions on any new processes, roles and responsibilities.
A leader's responsibilities might change as a result of a reorganization. You may have new direct reports and new teams that are uncertain about their relationship with you. It's important for you to connect with them. Tell them about yourself, what's important to you and how they fit into the picture. Be authentic; people are on high alert for BS.
4. Endings are not considered
In a poorly planned reorganization, those who remain inherit the work of those who left. Unless consideration was given to the nature of the work post-reorganization, the survivors end up with more work on their plates and no increase in compensation. That’s how you get the numbers to work. However, the change in the employment value equation turns those valuable people you want to keep into flight risks.
Why this oversight? Because nobody gave thought to what work needs to stop in order to create capacity for the fewer people who will be employed. Most companies are notoriously bad at endings, to declare what is no longer a priority or somebody’s responsibility. If you can let go of things that are not mission critical, you can find a lot of coins in the couch.
Columbia University’s Willie Pieterson and others have defined strategy as the art of sacrifice. Considering what not to do, even ceding business to competitors to focus on where you excel, can be a powerful precursor to any reorganizational design. There are few things more liberating for an organization.
5. Once the announcement is made, the communication is finished
Do people see evidence that the organization’s leadership supports the change? Is it enough to tell people the objectives of the organization at the time it’s announced, or do you need to reinforce the rationale?
People want to know why things are happening, what will happen and when. They need to know how they are impacted individually. They should be reassured of what will not change, like the corporate mission and values. And success will come when they are inspired to get behind the change.
If there ever were a time to manage by walking around, it’s when your people are trying to figure out their new reality. Corporate communications are important; personal communications equally so. There is no such thing as overcommunications at this critical stage.
Remember that communications are two-way. Stop talking long enough to listen. How do employees view the reorganization being executed? If problems surface, they can be addressed by providing additional attention, training or resources. Mid-course corrections are common, and the solutions are usually found in the people on the front line.
To close, as a leader in an organization, you make be closely involved in the development of a reorganization plan. For that reorganization to have a chance of succeeding, you have to be just as involved and even more visible in the hard work of implementation.
I once reported to a CEO whom I considered a friend. But circumstances intruded that impacted our relationship. Our subsidiary came under the direction of a new executive, somebody who had been a mentor of mine but didn’t know my boss.
Their first get-together was planned at a rustic retreat over a weekend, with our entire executive team in attendance. My boss told me to bring a sleeping bag and expect to sleep on the floor. I resisted. I mentioned my bad back. I suggested that I could commute each day to the retreat. The next thing I knew, I was pushed against the wall. My CEO, red-faced, was screaming at me about how I was undermining him, going around his back to his new boss. I don’t believe I gave him a reason to believe any of this, but he felt threatened, and the big guy got physical.
I never said a word about the incident to him, HR or anybody else in the office. I just started counting down the days before my next assignment would start. And so did he, reminding me repeatedly in front of my peers that I would not be around to see an initiative through, or that the "office spy" would be gone in a matter of months.
Physical bullying is pretty rare in the corporate world. But the Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute published the results of a study in 2017 that showed just how commonplace bullying is. Here are some highlights:
· 61% of Americans have been bullied in the workplace, have witnessed bullying there or are aware of it.
· 61% of bullies are bosses.
· Women are more often bullied than men; Hispanics are more often bullied than other ethnic groups.
· 45% of Americans believe companies, informed of a bullying boss, won’t do anything about it.
· 39% of targets of bullying suffer anxiety, panic attacks or depression.
· 29% of bullied employees never say anything about their experience, and 65% leave their companies.
At its roots, bullying is about how and why power is applied. In physics, power is a measure of energy transfer. In organizations, power is the ability to direct people’s energy to cause change. Nothing gets accomplished without the use of power. In companies, people are granted power typically because of their expertise, accomplishments, tenure, position in the hierarchy, connections, etc.
What people do with their power can vary. We hope it might be with an objective of accomplishing something good for the organization. But power can also be used for the benefit of that person in power. And when the objective is to accrue more power, when the balance of power in a relationship is made even more uneven, bad stuff happens.
The Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) defines bullying at work as "repeated, health-harming mistreatment of a person by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that is threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, or work interference or sabotage which prevents work from getting done, or verbal abuse."
Workplace bullying is often in the form of intimidation, insults, being ignored or talked over in meetings, having your mistakes publicized, your efforts undermined or credit for your achievements attributed to somebody else. Again, from the WBI, "it is driven by the bully's … need to control the targeted individual." The power relationship is unbalanced to begin with, and the person with the power acts to maintain or increase the imbalance.
Robert Sutton, author of The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Like Dirt notes that the risk of bullying increases as people climb higher in the hierarchy. He points to research showing“that being and feeling powerful provokes people to focus more on their own needs and wants, and to become oblivious to others’ needs and feelings. And as we all know, sh*t rolls downhill.”
Maybe the act of bullying is all about feeling like you have the power, to feel control over another, whether it’s real or not. My CEO worried that the power in our relationship was flipping, and his “flight or fight” response to the threat was to assert physical dominance. I submitted. He was bigger and stronger than I was. And he was my boss. But in the hangover after his action, he must have realized that it made no difference in my relationship with his boss. Maybe he hoped that I was making an implicit concession, that he was coercing me not to take advantage of my close ties with my mentor. Unfortunately, it came at the cost of a previously healthy manager-subordinate relationship.
What to do if you’re bullied
Remember that bullying may not be illegal unless it includes a threat of physical harm (assault or stalking), affects somebody of protected status (discrimination) or creates what a reasonable person would consider a hostile work environment. Taking legal action may require that you file a report within 180 days of an incident, which means making a decision on what to do with some urgency.
A lot of literature talks about the actions employees can take to deal with bullying. Here are steps you can take to avoid remaining a target:
1. Keep your cool. Escalating emotion may temporarily throw a bully off balance, but you risk a crushing reply.
2. Confront the bully with their behavior, explain how it feels on your end and set consequences that compel respect. Fordham organizational psychology professor Paul Baard suggests quickly and directly saying, “I don’t want to be spoken to that way. Cut it out!”
You probably won’t feel comfortable making this a face-to-face conversation, and that’s OK. An email provides both communication and documentation. Be careful to write with an assumption of positive intent: “I am not sure that you meant to be demeaning, but publicly criticizing my work in a rather personal way like you did is not a good way to get my cooperation.” Be prepared for a response that focuses on a difference of opinion on management style rather than an acknowledgement of bullying. You will not likely win in this exchange, but you serve notice.
3. Change the power equation. Make it about more than just about you, because a bully seldom just picks on one person. Bring in others to your side who are having the same issue, multiplying the credibility of your arguments. More risky actions are to ally with somebody who has more power than the bully or, if the bullying regularly occurs in public, to shame the thug publicly for punching down.
4. Eliminate power as the relationship’s defining characteristic. Call out the behavior and refuse to play the game. Suggest a more constructive relationship based on collaboration, or at least that the bully will get a more satisfactory reaction from somebody who doesn’t realize what’s going on.
5. Ignore and deflect. Give no reaction, with the expectation that the bully will lose interest.
It’s not just about you
While the results of these tactics may be stop you from being bullied, they are not likely to end the bully’s behavior. He or she will probably just move on to somebody else. Trying to end the bullying behavior takes a different approach.
1. Build a case. Just like James Comey reported, take contemporaneous notes and keep them in a journal. Here is where the well-timed email about an abusive event is important. Encourage colleagues in the same situation to keep notes, too. A single episode will be dismissed. But notes of repeated misbehavior following attempts by you and others to address it may be too compelling to ignore.
2. Present your documentation and that of colleagues. The question is, “To whom?” HR is the obvious choice, especially if your company has an ombudsman program. But it is not always the best choice. Human Resources has a mandate to protect the employer. Our news is replete with headlines of people in power who have abused their station for years, whose organizations knew about it and turned a blind eye. If your bully is a senior officer, the headwinds you feel are likely felt by HR as well.
WBI’s Gary Namie suggests going to a senior employee who is not the bully’s ally with the business case. An executive’s abusive action is turning four employees into flight risks, increasing absenteeism, impacting productivity and potentially creating a legal liability. All of these have costs to the company which can be estimated. All can go away with acknowledgement of the issue and corrective action.
Don’t settle for, “I’ll look into this.” Get a commitment on what action you can expect. Will somebody talk to the perpetrator? Will they seek a commitment to address behavior? How will you learn about next steps? Are there disciplinary action that could result from repeated abusive behavior? Is there anything that can be done to ensure your job status is unaffected?
And if nothing works?
Attacking bullying, particularly by senior people, is attacking the prevailing power structure. Sometimes, bullying might just have been bad management, where an individual is not aware of how their actions impact others until they are pointed out. Sometimes, bullies are shamed or threatened into changing their ways. But many times, change is not in the cards. What then?
1. Get counsel. Knowing your legal rights is important, not just as a victim of abuse of power but as a potential whistleblower. If you are among the 2/5 of bullied employees who deal with anxiety or panic as a result, talk to a professional.
2. Get out. If you find yourself the object of continued attacks, if your attempts to fix the problem are stonewalled, if you find your physical or emotional health suffering, why stay in this kind of environment? Not all organizations operate like this. Find one where you feel power is used constructively to build positive change for the organization.
Status is online
Almost any time an executive joins a new company, there is a mandate to change things. CEOs or VPs are seldom told, “Keep us on the same path we’ve been traveling.” Sometimes you hear, “We want you to be a change agent.” Other times it is specific: “We cannot continue to lose share on the most important part of our portfolio!” Sometimes, it’s just implied, like when a person with a strong sales background takes over for somebody with an operations bent.
There is an interesting rationale to hiring you to a senior position. My friend Richard Henry, President of RAH Content, refers to this as the tyranny of the unknown. Companies will assume that the person on the outside is more capable of implementing needed change than people on the inside. They have an unblemished record. Maybe nobody inside is ready for a senior role. Maybe it is thought that the way things have been done is not a recipe for future success, and that it takes people who have succeeded with another strategy to move the organization ahead. Maybe it that internal people’s growth is not recognized, and they continue to be viewed in the same light as when they were hired.
Here is the truth behind the change you are responsible for implementing… If you are hired into a company as a new executive, you don’t know how ANYTHING gets done in the organization. You don’t know processes. You don’t know culture. You may have a strategy, but in a 2013 Katzenbach Center study, it was shown that 64% of global senior executives saw culture as more critical to the success of change management than strategy or operating model. Maybe you’ll invest time to learn how things work. Maybe you'll rely on the people who do know how to get things done, as you figure out what to direct them to do.
How, then, can you possibly make change happen quickly? Let me offer five strategies:
1. Plan your work and work your 90-day plan.
Any executive taking on a new role should develop a 90-day plan. Build in your understanding of the company and environment, based on your research. Clarify your vision for success. Lay out what progress can you realistically make in that first quarter. What are the components of your action plan? What resources do you have to draw upon or acquire? What barriers are anticipated, and how can they be overcome? What quick wins can be accomplished, to demonstrate progress and to build relationships?
If you are being recruited for the position, share the plan with colleagues in your last round of interviews. It shows you have taken the job seriously, that you have projected yourself into the role that you seek and that you can show a path to accomplish things.
Why do companies focus on the first 90 days? Because, by Day 90, if there are red flags about you, many people expect they will show up. The honeymoon is over. There can be tangible evidence of your ability to deliver. You have enough exposure within the organization for a consensus about you to begin to form. The first 90 days plan is the equivalent of a coach who scripts out the first ten plays or so in a football game. It doesn’t indicate whether or not you will win, but it does establish the game plan.
A critical component of the 90-day plan is establishing relationships with the people who will help make change happen. Some might be directly involved in implementing the change. Others just have to keep out of the way!
It is unrealistic to accomplish the change you seek to make in 90 days. A company would hire a consultant to do that, not an executive. Accompanying the details of the first 90 days might be extended goals for the significant change you seek.
2. Be ready to scuttle part or all of that plan on Day 1.
You build the plan based on previous experience. But the laws of physics that worked for you in your past life might not hold in the new universe you face. Remember that your plan is a guess at what will work. When you run into the reality of your new situation, you must be quick to adapt. An environment may be more or less responsive to actions than you reckoned. Assumptions of available resources might prove inaccurate. Deadlines might have to change. Process might have to be rewired.
Expectations often change dramatically once you walk in the door. A colleague joined a hotel chain with a brief to introduce brand management throughout the organization. Once employed, he learned that authority from P&L to customer needs was wielded at the unit level. There was no easy short-term way to inject a centralized concept of branding.
3. Get key people onboard.
Medical marketers pay careful attention to key opinion leaders (KOLs), usually physicians whose written or verbal recommendations carry influence with others in their profession. You will find key opinion leaders in your company, and not necessarily where you’d expect when you look at an org chart.
Key opinion leaders often are at the confluence of several groups of interaction. They are hubs of communication. Watch what happens in an audience when a KOL reacts to a leader’s comments. Does the room react to their nods of agreement, crossed arms or rolled eyes? These people are worth cultivating.
Once they are identified, ask KOLs for their opinions. Not only do you get useful feedback, but the KOLs begin to feel invested in your course of action. They feel heard. They can become powerful ambassadors for your initiatives. And it is far more effective to use these people to influence dissenters than, as the new person, to win dissenters over yourself.
4. Tap into legacy.
If you can make a link from where the organization has been to where you are going, it is easier to bring people along. To quote Bruce Weindruch in Start with the Future and Work Back: A Heritage Management Manifesto, “Once you know where you want to go, the value of harnessing your history becomes immeasurable.“
Lots of organizations create awards that reinforce desired performance. A few wise people name these awards after legendary executives in the company’s past. In this way, employees see how somebody long-revered epitomized a particular behavior that is currently valued. People respond positively to a change that is framed as a reversion to core values held since the mythic beginning or in “glory days.”
5. Understand the value of your ignorance.
Being new allows you to ask naïve questions that can cast light on unnecessary paradigms. Why are things done the way they are? Why are these people involved in a process? Is the assessment of risk from an action accurate? Was the way you’ve succeeded in the past ever tried here? In the early days, it is easy to believe that these questions are not asked because you have an agenda, but because you really want to learn how things work.
Being new allows you to break norms. Maybe experiments can be tried that might not be approved otherwise. Maybe shortcuts in process can be explored. Apologies might be required when the rule-breaking becomes apparent. But as former Rear Admiral Grace Hopper said, “It is easier to beg forgiveness than to ask permission.”
Being new allows you to seek opinions of employees and to aggregate them into arguments for a course of action. In this way, you do not provide your opinion of a direction to be taken, but instead you offer your summation of the experiences and opinions of the organization at large.
Employees will cut you some slack on your ignorance of process, if you can compensate by demonstrating your competence in other areas that matter to them. Use your functional expertise to coach others. Use your management skills to achieve goals through other people.
All well and good so far. But before you climb on board a steamroller and flatten everything in your path, let’s consider four things that can go wrong along the way.
Leadership determined that your outside experience and competencies are better suited to affect change than the people inside the organization. How does this make those people inside the organization, those whom you will call on to execute your plan, feel? Mainly, that their talents, process, experience or judgment are seen as inferior to your own. That the company doesn’t value how they have been doing something as much as it values the potential of doing things differently.
When you proclaim your change agenda, you are reinforcing these negative feelings from the people on whom you must rely. Diplomacy is critical. Build up their esteem by giving credit to their strengths. Highlight the team’s successes to date and suggest how to invest in their continuation. Underline their critical role going forward. Figure out what’s in it for them, as it relates to the change ahead.
People don’t need to see their input put into action. They just need to feel part of the process. They want to know that theyhave not been ignored. Asking opinions, listening and playing back the feedback you receive can help avoid alienation. Even explaining why somebody’s point of view was not taken forward makes them feel like they are a contributor.
2. Lack of alignment
A former Wells Fargo executive with a strong sales background replaced an Operations person as CEO of a small Upper Midwest bank system. The organization was operationally sound; it needed a stimulus in growing its business.
The CEO commuted from one state to another for the job, raising concerns whether he would ever become part of the corporate community. He announced dozens of changes in his first two years – closing kiosks in grocery stores, launching apps, experimenting with video banking, etc. But he observed that the organization, led by long tenured employees, picked and chose which initiative to get behind. They believed they could outlast him. This was infuriating to him. He told a consultant, “I just want to fire all the SOBs!”
The consultant suggested that his company saw so many changes that employees believed he would forget about this month’s program as he initiated next month’s. What was missing was an overarching CHANGE, something that would link all the small changes together. Tell your employees that you are redefining banking convenience and show the link between this and all the steps you take. Or show that you can match the big guys in tech-driven service. If people understand the CHANGE, there is a better chance they’ll sign up for the changes. And if they don’t buy into the CHANGE, they shouldn’t stay with the company.
Alignment can come from clearly articulating a vision, the CHANGE, rather than focusing on the individual changes. Alignment can also be helped through the demonstration of success in the form of quick wins. Celebrate these accomplishments. They may not be strategic, but they build rapport and momentum.
3. Not delivering to expectations
You take on a position with assumptions of what will work. Early days on the job will pressure-test those assumptions. You build a plan preparing for the situation you will face. Plans can change. Even financial goals can be adjusted once you have a chance to understand the dynamics of the business.
Every leader gets a pass to adjust their thinking about objectives in the early learning phase. There are two actions that are not so easily forgiven. The first is failing to deliver against a set objective that has not been adjusted. If you cannot accomplish something, let people know. Don’t let a due date go unaddressed, if it cannot be met.
The second is making incremental adjustments to a target over time, rather than "ripping the bandage off." Delivering bad news once lets people adjust their thinking. Continually pushing back deadlines or reducing goals smells like incompetence or lack of courage. I’ve seen share prices take precipitous drops as investors lost faith in CEOs who continually made small downward adjustments to guidance.
4. Unforeseen consequences
Hit the target completion dates? Check! Accomplish goals on budget? Check! And yet, while accomplishing this task of great importance, while executing requested change, customer satisfaction suffers, employee turnover increases or your plant operates at full capacity, forcing a lucrative opportunity to go unaddressed. In our zeal to bring about change, it is easy to lose perspective, and it’s hard to ask important questions: Are we doing the right thing? Are there alternative actions that would yield even better results? Are there trade-outs to be recognized that will result from the changes we enact? Or how will this impact people the organization counts on every day?
In summary, a new leader coming from outside the organization is bound to be a source of change, if for no other reason than being ignorant of how things have been done. But usually, the reason you are hired is because of the change you can impact. Care must be taken to get alignment with the people who will help you deliver change, to provide the big picture in your direction and to be flexible enough to communicate the course corrections you have to make. Remember that the urgency of an immediate task needs to be balanced with the longer-term goals that will determine your ultimate success.
The courtship of a C-suite executive for a position in a company is a prolonged ordeal. Three to six months is pretty common. Even without the usual starts and stops in the process, the executive meets a variety of people --- potential peers, perhaps senior direct reports, and board members. In my last placement as a Chief Marketing Officer, I met with the CEO at least three times before receiving an offer, including extensive one-on-one sessions in his office and over dinner.
Once an offer is accepted, you move from “engagement” to “marriage.” The selling stops on both sides, and both you and the organization live with the realities that you face. And the most important reality you face is found in the relationship you have with your new boss, the CEO. Very early on in your tenure, the two of you need to establish how you will work together.
What, then, should get covered in an early meeting with the boss? A search of literature provides a dizzying array of options. Try “9 Questions to Ask Your New Boss,” “15 Ways to Impress Your Boss on Day 1” or “15 Ways to Make Your One-on-Ones Worth Your While.” There are 39 tactics to try in only three articles! I canvassed my LinkedIn network for a more manageable list of topics for this initial conversation. Because, who can find time to impress a CEO 15 ways on Day 1, much less remember 15 ways to impress? At a senior level and having just accepted a position, impressing the boss, even an intimidating one, is less important than establishing a good working relationship.
So, with help from my friends, here are five things to remember in the first meeting(s) with the CEO as your boss.
1. Communications. Amy Breidenbach Green noted the importance of understanding the CEO’s preferred communications style and methods. Do they prefer email, text or face-to-face? How often can you expect to connect with them? If you really have to get an important message for them, how should you send the Bat Signal? Is there a way to immediately short-cut their assistant if necessary? How do they respond to calls at night or over weekends? How/when do they typically provide feedback to their reports, and how can you provide feedback to them? How do they prefer to hear bad news? OK, it is becoming easier to see how there are a lot of questions to ask Day 1!
2. Scope of Responsibilities. Bob Foht used what he called “DO – TELL – ASK” when he spoke to the owners of GearGrid, after joining the company as CEO. To establish the extent of his responsibilities, he sought clarification on what he could just do without reporting it, what actions should he tell the owners about after the fact and what steps required that he ask permission before taking. In essence this is a simplified RACI.
DO – TELL -ASK is where potential disconnects can arise between your expectations of autonomy and the CEO’s need to keep on top of the business. It’s likely that nobody has asked this of the CEO before, so the “rules” are being made up on the fly. Consider this a starting point in your relationship; over time, things in the ASK pile might move to TELL.
Much of the literature on early interactions with bosses suggest asking about management style. I agree how important understanding management style can be. But asking about scope of responsibilities and communications can address the same thing in a more granular way.
3. Understanding the Priorities of the Moment. You, no doubt, are familiar with the corporate vision and other public statements of strategic objectives. By the time you sit down with the CEO, you are probably up to speed on corporate priorities. But what is important may deviate from what is urgent, and urgency might win out, in the moment you join the leadership team. These urgent matters are not often talked about with outsiders, so you might come on board completely ignorant of what is taking the leadership team’s energy and time.
Are there crises that are taking the C-suite’s attention away from your direct responsibilities? What priorities have been dropped to create capacity to handle a crisis? Are there problems within your area of responsibility that need immediate attention? Are there looming issues on the CEOs mind that you, too, can be thinking about?
4. The CEO’s Expectations of You. Somehow, even indirectly, the urgent issues raised will impact you. What does the CEO want from you? Should you be patient that they cannot spend time with you, while they address other issues? Can you collaborate with a colleague and produce what Michael Watkins calls a “quick win?” Do they believe you have experience in a similar situation, which can put you in the role of advisor?
The same questions stands for the long-term priorities: how can play a role in helping the CEO achieve their goals, even those that don’t seem to directly involve you?
You impressed the organization enough through the recruitment process to get this position; what were the strengths they saw in you that you can leverage immediately? How can your ignorance of how things get done be used to the organization’s advantage? Are there things that the “newbie” can say that would be more difficult for those who are entrenched?
5. Creating a Personal Rapport. When I asked Pat Anderson about his experiences getting to know his CEO, he turned the issue around, thinking about what he likes to do in early meetings with his own subordinates. At the top of his list was getting to know people as people.
It strikes me that a CEO will do the same thing in their initial meetings with you. Be open to sharing personal information that would not have come out in your interviews. Talking about your family or your interests, sharing a book or article you recently read or talking about house hunting if you’re hiring involves a move will provide a glimpse of you outside of the office. And this helps to build trust.
The power dynamics of your relationship makes it difficult for you to overtly take the lead, asking personal questions of the CEO that you don’t know the answers to. It is fair game to volunteer information about yourself in an appropriate setting. If there is a public way of knowing something about the CEO (where they went to school, non-profits they are associated with, etc.), these can be avenues to build a personal bond.
For a couple decades, I lived the life of a corporate nomad --- Washington DC, Kentucky, Connecticut, Toronto, Minnesota… even consideration of a move to Argentina. Before I realized it, the window had closed on what my family would endure. We moved from Minnesota to California, as I took a role leading a marketing organization. We bought a house in Orinda, CA, about as pretty a spot as you can find. We moved in just before the school year started.
From Day 1, the kids were miserable. They missed their friends. They missed their school. The happy life and sense of home they associated with Minnesota were yanked away. We had a buyer for our house, but the sale fell through. I came home from work, and I saw my wife looking at our Minnesota house for sale online, crying. By December, we had bought our old Minnesota house back from the relocation company and had everybody happily home for a Minnesota Christmas.
Then my commute started. I bought a condo in Walnut Creek. I flew to California Monday morning and back to Minnesota Friday afternoon. Made Platinum status on Delta by July each year. I took myself out of succession consideration for the CEO role, because I would not commit to more than a three-year tenure, one lap around a long-term incentive. After 2 ½ years of commuting, my business merged with another company, my position was eliminated and I moved back to Minnesota full-time.
There were lessons learned along the way, lessons I have heard repeated by others whose commutes cover long distances. The pain of failure is a good teacher. So, occasionally, is finding a strategy that works for you or others. Here are five critical considerations:
Mia Mulrennan is Chief Talent Officer for Edmentium. Prior to that, she was a consultant focusing on measuring customer-centricity among employees. Her book, Passed Over and Pissed Off, does a great job of addressing the sandwiched Generation X, which often sees leadership opportunities bypassed as Boomers transition directly to Millennials.
I’ve found a more micro application of being passed over and pissed off. Almost every time an executive (let’s call her Rene) finds herself in a new position, there is another person (Lars) who was passed over. Most of the time, there is a Lars who is internally situated. He is respected for his tenure and his institutional knowledge. He is a valuable asset because he knows how to get things done. And often Lars is the biggest management challenge Rene initially faces. The greater Lars’s expectation of getting Rene’s position, the harder this dilemma is.
It is human nature for Lars to view Rene as the manifestation of his own personal failure in not getting the big job. It is a blow to his ego. And it is hard to avoid a skepticism about why the new boss was a better choice. It’s easy to imagine that the decision reflects the tyranny of the unknown, a bias that somebody from the outside is viewed as superior to the more familiar. To make matters worse, Lars seldom gets an explanation for the choice. He shifts into “prove it” mode, judging Rene’s first tentative actions and questioning her motivations in a way that is usually damaging to the new relationship.
Many new executives will hope there is no problem, or that any attitude problem from Lars improves on its own without making an issue of it. But hope is not a strategy. While Rene will be seen as the organization’s leader, he is perhaps the culture’s key influencer. If Lars undermines Rene, even unintentionally, she has a lot to clean-up among her broader team.
I believe Rene should talk it out with Lars early on. In a one-on-one discussion, she can recognize his value to her and acknowledge that her presence is not the outcome he might have wanted. She must make clear that she is the boss, not a colleague. Rene should clarify the authority and autonomy that Lars is granted. And she must offer him the choice of getting on board as a willing contributor or getting help in an exit.
Lars may deny that an issue exists. In response, Rene can offer evidence she has observed or just point out how normal it is for there to be hurt or resentment and how difficult that can be for the team’s effectiveness.
The honesty of this approach is bound to impact Lars. He begins to realize how his internalizing the situation can affect things beyond himself. The option of an exit may be a shock or a welcome avenue. At a minimum, Rene gains respect from Lars by treating him like a grown-up and for establishing a context that is bigger than either of them.
That tough conversation between Rene and Lars will not be a one-shot deal. Passed over managers who make a commitment to stay usually do so when they have something to call their own. That is where the granting of some authority to Lars is important. Rene probably has bigger performance issues than Lars, however Ronald Reagan’s “Trust but verify” dictum is good advice. Lars will remain Rene’s biggest attitude issue for a while. This can impact the outcomes within his responsibility or it can leach out into the attitudes of the team towards Rene. She must remain vigilant and call out to Lars what she sees.
Sometime in our careers, and probably more times than we’d care to count, we have been pissed off about being passed over. But when you are the Rene doing the passing over, it might be easy to forget that there is usually an impacted Lars somewhere on your team. You might wish to avoid the direct personal confrontation with Lars. But there is a much broader constituency of team members who are depending on you getting your relationship with Lars on the right footing.
Leaving the Lars situation unaddressed avoids a face-to-face conflict short term. Long-term, it leads to metastasis. Being Rene requires addressing the situation early and staying vigilant for the longer term. Done correctly, even if you lose a talented lieutenant in the process, you establish your position as a leader, define the values that will guide your work and create the underpinnings for a stronger team.
Male executives, it is a good thing that you are re-examining your own behavior when it comes to sexual harassment. But you have only scratched the surface on gender issues.
An NPR poll recently reported that 87% of Americans favor zero tolerance on sexual harassment in the workplace. With mind-numbing rapidity, new allegations appear. Organizations like Guess, the Humane Society, the UN, CBS, the American Red Cross, the Metropolitan Opera, the California State Legislature and the US House of Representatives have all been in the headlines for sexual harassment charges IN THE PAST WEEK. These are the high profile examples that are making the news. We never hear about the silent majority of cases, where harassers are in small companies, agriculture and the hospitality industry.
OK, Mr. Clean Conscience Executive, congratulations! You are not guilty of sexual harassment in the workplace, nor have you actively covered up somebody else’s misdeeds. But there is a wide gap between being a criminal and being a Neanderthal who misses the opportunity to fully motivate the 50% of your workforce who are women. I am not using the term “Neanderthal” to be flippant. I am indicating that if you fit the description, you are about to be made extinct. Sexual harassment makes a person feel unsafe in the workplace. Gender inequality makes a person feel unvalued. And it can be socially driven as well as financially. Harassment and inequality both cost your company dearly. So, let me ask you ten questions, Mr. Clean, based on real-life situations many of us have faced but have been too oblivious to act upon.
Enabling sexual harassment:
· Are you as ignorant of competitive activity in the marketplace as you are of sexual harassment by peers in your company?
· If you suspected sexual harassment by peers, would you address it as quickly as you would about suspicions of other activities that could damage your company?
· Would you escalate your response if you thought you got a bullshit answer?
Fostering a climate of gender inequality:
· Why did your new female Legal VP come in at the lower third of the salary band, while your new male VP of Finance makes more than his predecessor?
· When you are interviewing two qualified people for a position, do you assume that the woman will have her career path interrupted by parental responsibilities, but the man will not?
· Do you assume that the only woman on your executive team is also the only Myers Briggs “F?”
· When you organize a fishing trip for your leadership team, have you invited the women who are team members?
· Do you make women on your team feel like tokens by asking, “How do you feel about this, as a woman?” Would you ask an African American or Jewish executive the same question?
· In meetings, are you ignoring a female manager’s comments or talking over them in a way you would not do with her male counterparts?
· Are women attributing their strong ideas to male colleagues, in order to have you accept them?
Sexual harassment is an offense that deserves to be put in the spotlight. But the more subtle issue of workplace gender inequality will continue to lurk in the shadows.
Executive Springboard President Steve Moss shares learning from years as an executive and a mentor.