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“What’s Next?” A Powerful Change Leadership Tool

“What’s Next?”  
 
Jim Harvey
Partner, NextBridge Consulting
 
Why question-asking is a critical leadership tool and should be one of the sharpest in your change toolbox.
“What’s Next?”  It’s a simple question, really. Yet it has the power to dramatically improve your leadership, your team and your organization. The power lies in the ability to create forward-looking, curious, engaged individuals. And, more broadly, to build change agility into the DNA of your organization.
In recent years, neuroscience has confirmed and explained much about the longstanding wisdom and effectiveness of asking questions. With greater use, it builds relationships and improves learning. Those, in turn, are fundamental to effective change leadership, team performance and building an agile culture.
We’ll circle back to the particular effectiveness of “What’s Next?” and what you can do starting today to improve your leadership. First, why are questions so effective?
“We run this company on questions, not answers.”
 
– Eric Schmidt, ex-CEO of Google and current Executive Chairman of Alphabet –
Why Do Questions Matter So Much?   
 
In part, the value of questions is directly related to their scarcity.  Too many leaders spend too much time telling and not enough time asking. According to Gary Cohen, author of Just Ask Leadership, “95% of leaders prefer to be asked questions, rather than told what to do. And yet, according to a survey I conducted, these same leaders gave instructions 58% of the time rather than asking coworkers for their input.” There’s a persistent belief that managers are supposed to have all the answers. Additionally, most business cultures place a premium on acting and doing. It’s no wonder that taking time to simply ask and reflect isn’t a consistent part of most leaders’ repertoire. The power of questions, and their impact on performance, lies squarely in their simplicity and their fundamental connection to relationships, learning and creativity.
“Telling creates resistance.  Asking creates relationships.”
 
– Andrew Sobel, Author of
Power Questions –
Questions Build Relationships.
 
At the heart of great leadership, teamwork and cultures are relationships. Their importance can’t be overstated. Years of research and practical observation demonstrate this. So how do you build relationships? Building rapport and trust are a good starting point. Fundamentally, people want to be listened to, understood, and even empathized with – no surprise to those familiar with emotional intelligence. Asking questions is a powerful way to do all three.
Neuroscience sheds some additional light on the impact of questions. MRIs show that when asked a question, there is greater neural activity in the areas of the brain related to reward and pleasure. Serotonin levels also increase. This is especially true when you’re asked for your opinion. Asking someone a question is like giving them a shot of chemical brain energy. The more important the question is to them, the bigger the shot. No wonder people rate those who ask questions as being friendlier.  Consider it yourself – would you prefer to be asked or told something?
“Without questions, there is no learning.”
 
– W. Edwards Deming, renowned expert in quality, continuous improvement and management –
Questions Increase Learning and Creativity.
 
Since Socrates developed (you guessed it) the Socratic method, the use of questions to promote learning has had an impact on everything from education to problem-solving to self-reflection.  More recently, research done by Clayton Christensen, Hal Gregersen and Jeff Dyer demonstrates that being inquisitive pays off. Their work shows that the most successful and innovative executives are the ones who ask great questions. They challenge the status quo, looking at everything from their business model to their strategy to their planning methodology.  Importantly, they also question their own assumptions.
Furthermore, neuroscientific research on learning shows that asking questions creates mental dexterity. It creates new neural pathways instead of deepening existing ones. Literally and figuratively, it keeps us from wearing mental ruts into our brains. A workforce with greater mental dexterity is exactly the kind of thing that helps build change-agile DNA into your culture.
“A lot of bad leadership comes from an inability or unwillingness to ask questions.”
 
– Michael Parker, former CEO of Dow Chemical –
What’s the Connection Between Asking Questions and Better Change Leadership and Teamwork?
 
Business research consistently bears out that the quality of the relationship an employee has with their manager is one of the top determinants of everything from engagement and retention to development and performance. Likewise, learning also impacts leadership effectiveness. Nimble learners on your team develop skills more quickly and become more versatile and useful to unit performance. The greater the opportunity and ability to learn, the more engaged and career-focused they become. All this bodes well for change agile employees.
Relationships and learning are also essential to high-performing teams. Openness to feedback, conflict resolution, collaboration and decision-making all benefit greatly from the quality of relationships among team members.  If you have a team of people who are good at asking questions and are used to being asked themselves, you have a team that – all other things being equal – will work more productively together. Their collective curiosity and openness to new ideas will engender more creativity and innovation.
Whether your team is engaged in basic problem solving, product development, or process reengineering, a team culture that is comfortable with and good at asking questions vastly outperforms more traditional, hierarchical, stoic teams.
What’s the Big Deal About “What’s Next?” 
 
It’s forward-looking. It encourages people to think and act in ways that are conducive to change and innovation. Asked regularly of ourselves and others, it creates a mindset and habit of behavior that finds its way into the culture. What’s more, this question engenders a bias toward continuous improvement, which is essential in a change-oriented organization.
“What’s next” is also the Swiss Army Knife of questions.  It’s relevant to just about any aspect of development, client relationship management and leadership.  What’s next in my career?  What should my team be focused on next with client X? Who should be next in line for that senior leadership role?  Where will our greatest competition be coming from over the next 3 years?
In most companies, there are business and HR processes and tools that help us ask and answer many of these questions. If effectively managed and genuinely embraced by the organization, they are enormously helpful in supporting the business and the underlying culture. But that’s the point – if the underlying culture discourages people from regularly asking good questions, those processes are building on an uneven foundation. Day-to-day conversations, relationships and team norms over time do so much to build culture.
“Instead of a ‘to do’ list, consider creating a ‘to ask’ list, to see what questions you really need answers to.”
 
– Andrew Finlayson, author of
Questions that Work –
What Can I Do Today? 
 
Certainly, there’s a lot more to building great leaders and great cultures than just asking questions.  But asking questions is a critical building block and a relatively easy skill to learn.  Where to start? Look at your schedule for the rest of the day. Add two questions you have for each major meeting or to-do item left on your plate. One question is for yourself (perhaps around a tough issue you haven’t figured out yet) and the other for an employee, a peer or your manager. At the start every day, do the same thing. Not only will you be asking more questions, you’ll be building in some valuable reflection time.
To accelerate your skill development, you should seek feedback on your questioning skills. At the end of a conversation or meeting ask: “what didn’t I ask that I could have?” People may shy away from providing honest feedback at first. Don’t let it deter you. Be creative.
Finally, get those around you to ask “what’s next?”  In the long run, acting as a role model is the most effective way to do this, but directly encouraging people to ask questions will help others develop the habit more quickly.
Is This the Magic Bullet?… and Other Caveats. 
 
Of course asking questions doesn’t solve all your problems.  However, if done genuinely and regularly, it sure does change the way others perceive you. And it makes you a more curious and knowledgeable person. That said, here are a few important caveats.
First, build trust within the relationship and within the conversation before you ask “what’s next?” You want to make sure your audience knows you value their past accomplishments and respect their ideas and feelings. For example, make sure your employees don’t think you’re never happy with their performance because every time you do something good, you’re asking for more.
Second, make sure you’re walking the talk. Demonstrate that you’re open to questions from others and that you ask yourself “what’s next” on a regular basis as well.
Third, it’s possible to ask bad questions, ask them at the wrong time, or ask too many of them. Here’s a way to think about it. You want to push the boundaries at least a little.  If you’re not making yourself and others at least a bit uncomfortable, you’re probably not asking the right questions.  But if you’re making them really uncomfortable, you’re probably not asking questions in the right way. Start small, learn from your successes and mis-steps, and keep at it.
“Poor leaders rarely ask questions of themselves or others.  Good leaders… ask many questions.  Great leaders ask the great questions.”
 
– Michael Marquardt, author of
Leading with Questions –
Being asked a question makes people feel good. Done regularly and effectively, it helps builds rapport and trust. And trust is arguably the most critical element of a strong relationship between manager and employee, and among high performing team members.
Executive-level role modelling is critical for speedy cultural change. The higher up in the organization it starts, the more comfortable others are doing it and the more fully it cascades. But for your own effectiveness and for your career, it’s important to start where you are. Asking good questions makes you more effective in your job and it enhances your credibility. It also demonstrates intelligence, curiosity, and your interest in others… without monopolizing the conversation. And asking “what’s next” encourages people to be future-oriented and change-focused.
Asking good questions should be a priority for every leader, and one of their go-to tools.  Don’t you think?
Would you like to talk with someone about specific ways to improve the change leadership skills and change-agility of your organization?  NextBridge has been doing just that for nearly 20 years.  How can we help you?

 

I Didn’t See It Coming

With all the storm coverage in the past few days, I don’t think there is anyone who can say they didn’t see it  coming. However, in our work lives, we are sometimes blindsided. When I was working with a client several years ago, their successor for a key job in Asia left for an opportunity to run a start up in California. The reaction of the CEO and Asian leader at the time was ‘we never saw it coming’.

Some people don’t want to have a plan B because they think it makes it too easy to not fully pursue plan A. As you go into your next planning cycle, include scenario planning around some key initiatives. Take the time to run through potential opportunities or issues that may arise. You may identify an even better plan than the one you had in mind, one that allows you to take advantage of an opportunity you didn’t think about before. Or you may be able to mitigate a threat should it actually arise.

The Clash asked us back in the 80’s Should I Stay or Should I Go?

 

Next!

succession rolesSeveral of you are thinking about succession for roles that will be vacant in a few years because of retirement — whatever that looks like these days. Just like so many other things boomers are redefining that, too. That’s another topic for another day.

The fact on the ground today is that there are targeted senior positions within organizations that are being impacted by the impending wave of retirement. And, those retirements are happening in organizations undergoing significant change. I saw it a couple of years ago in a client company where I was doing an organization design and workforce/succession planning engagement. One of the top 5 people in the company was planning on retirement in the next few years. He had grown with the company from it’s very early days some 25+ years ago and was an executive leader for most of that time. Identifying his successor wasn’t just about who could fill the job. There were two other key factors. The first impacted identifying the successor. The business was undergoing a significant shift in business strategy and the executive’s role and organization were going to be significantly different in the future. The second had to do with development. How do you transfer key knowledge without stifling the need for next generation thinking? How could the successor break through quickly on the executive team and as leader of the new organization? Here are 3 key steps anyone in this situation should take.

  • Define the future.  Don’t just fill the present. Too often succession planning uses a snapshot of the role today to identify its incumbent of tomorrow. Just as the business strategy drives budgeting and company financials, it should also drive the identification of successors.
  • Make change leadership a key assessment point for successors.  If a successor will be taking on the new role during significant change, make it a priority to assess his/her change and influence capabilities and if they’re lacking, build them. Sounds obvious.  Often overlooked.
  • Establish relationships as part of the development plan. The executive team will all be familiar with the successor but that won’t necessarily prevent real obstacles when he or she joins them and comes to the table with a different way of thinking.  Building those relationships prior to succession will help him or her develop strong partners among the executive team and allow the successor to begin to position him/herself as an equal

How To Build An Agile Organization

change 228 x 202

i4cp defines agility as ‘the ability to move quickly, decisively, and effectively in anticipating and taking advantage of change.” The question is, how do you create this ability in your organization? According to i4cp and based on my own experience, high performing organizations instill agility by being prepared. That’s right. You manage change by anticipating, planning and taking advantage of it.

How can you make that happen?

    • Make it a regular practice to look outside the organization to see what may be just over the horizon. Most organizations only look as far as the trends within their industry. The best organizations look at the broader context. They look at other industries from which they can learn lessons. They look at societal, political and economic changes. Opportunities are often identified where on the surface, none may seem to exist. When people are mentally able to analyze, play with and explore potential change, they are more easily able to embrace it when it actually occurs.
    • Assess your organization’s capabilities in the context of those potential changes. Do you have the talent and resources you need to take advantage of what the future may hold? If not, how will you develop or gain those capabilities.
    • Determine how agile people are in your organization. Do you hire for it? Is agility an expectation? Is it rewarded?
    • Leverage what makes you successful now but don’t rely on it for your future. Often, success can reduce one’s ability to change. However, when success is paired with the expectations that change is part of success and that change will happen, starting from a position of strength can make change more powerful.

How many of these characteristics describe your organization?

BUILDING THE PERFECT BEAST

organizational behaviorOrganizations are beastly. They can be complicated, unnerving, and overwhelming. Many times they are also ineffective or outdated.

Too often, we go along, adding new tasks, taking on different responsibilities, absorbing new groups into our department, division or territory without stopping to think about how this work should be done. We rarely say ‘can we do this work?” We take it on because saying no could have a negative impact on careers and the potential to be considered when something really exciting comes along.

When we do think about how we should be organized to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow, we may have a hard time seeing the opportunities for change that exist. The boxes are arranged a certain way on the paper. Certain people do certain jobs. We’ve always been successful in the past and we’ll continue to be successful just tweaking our organization here or there.

The plain fact is that sometimes, you have to start with a blank sheet of paper. You have to not be constrained by who you have on the team now or what the skill sets are. You need to start by asking ‘should we do this?’ before asking ‘how will we do this?” I recently worked with an executive and her team whose department played an important strategic role. She’d been in her role over 10 years and in that time, the organization had doubled in size, the culture had shifted towards increased speed and innovation and the industry was changing rapidly. In those 10 years, the way their group was organized had not changed in any substantive way. It was the same size with a highly tenured staff that by all accounts did a terrific job. However, the demands placed on it were several times what they once were and it was unsustainable. We had to step back and really look at what they needed to do to move the entire organization forward and what that meant for her group. The answer to how it would all get done could no longer be ‘who wants to take this on?’ We needed to look at what they should be doing, what they should say no to, the roles and structure and decide whether they had what they needed and if not, how to make that happen.

Take a look at your organization. Are you continuing to just ask people to do more? Or, is it time to take a hard look at what you’re doing, how you’re doing it and who’s doing it.

The Future Leader

leadersI saw my in-laws recently and once again, I had a conversation with my father-in-law about how baffling new technology is to him and how he wants nothing to do with it.  Why?  Complexity.  There are too many options, too many things coming at you at one time and it changes too rapidly.

More and more the core of leadership is about the ability to understand and integrate complexity.  Let’s look at the world of work today:

 

  • Economic uncertainty persists. We are slowly moving out of recession but it’s still not clear how this economy is going to grow.
  • Breakneck technological advances. Facebook. Twitter. Ipad.  Need I say more.
  • Generational diversity. Four generations in the workplace with each bringing their own values and constructs about work, its place in our lives, and how it should be done.
  • Multiple work options. Full time. Part time. Contractors. Temporary.  Virtual.  Many working side by side under very different job arrangements.
  • We compete and collaborate globally. Our global economies are intertwined.  Populations in India and China are becoming more educated and wage equity is expected by the middle of this century.

What do leaders need to succeed in the complex world of work?

In this complexity, a leader needs to see the way forward for their organization and create an environment that leverages the opportunities brought by complexity.  As you develop future leaders, consider what our research points to as the five key abilities for successful future senior leaders.

  • The ability to foresee societal, political and industry trends. It’s not enough to know your industry or your business anymore.  Competition and innovation can come from anywhere.  The future leader needs to be a lifelong learner and insatiably curious about what is coming from a wide variety of sectors.
  • The ability to think strategically. The future leader needs to be able to integrate this information and ideas to create strategies that will lay a foundation for growth.
  • The ability to create and communicate a compelling vision and strategy. Compelling is the key word here. Future leaders will need to engage a more diverse and dispersed workforce than ever before.
  • The ability to manage talent. Ideas, innovation, great products and great service will come from the talent in the organization. It is your competitive advantage.  It needs to be identified, developed and built just like any other key asset you have.
  • The ability to create a culture of accountability. People want to be associated with excellence.  They want to know that strong performance is viewed differently than just punching the clock.

 

What To Do When A Senior Leader Leaves

Executive ExodusI’ve been hearing from some of you about changes that are occurring in your company.  A few people have talked to me about senior leaders leaving their organizations — their manager or the executive who leads the division, department, or group.  Anytime someone leaves a work group it’s disruptive to the group but when a senior leader leaves, the organizational shock waves can really knock you back.

When a senior leader leaves and you are a leader in the organization, you are in a difficult position.  You are trying to navigate this change yourself and trying to provide guidance and support for others.

It’s common when a senior leader leaves, that the organization and you as an individual:

  • Feel like the rudder has come off the boat. As much as we talk about shared leadership, there are special expectations of leaders at the top.  They are the ones who establish a vision or direction and guide the organization in pursuit of that vision.  Without that, we feel we’re in a boat without a rudder.
  • Aren’t sure what to do.  People start to ask “is this still important?” “I was in the middle of this big project, will it continue?” “What about…?
  • Wait for the other shoe to drop. Now that X has left, how soon will it be until others leave?
  • Wonder what that person knows that they don’t. People will often question why the person left and because the reason isn’t often public information, people fill in the blank with negative reasons.

You’re thinking these things and you’re pretty sure you’re people are, too.  How do you lead now?

  • Reiterate that, unless a new person has been put in the role already and made a significant announcement, the direction has not changed. Clients and customers still need what they needed yesterday.  The products or services you provide haven’t changed.  You work in the same locations.
  • Use the opportunity to solve challenges collaboratively. If the person who left was your direct boss and you now find that you don’t have a sounding board, find a colleague you trust and can collaborate with around ideas and solutions to problems.
  • Take the bull by the horns. This may be that opportunity to shine you’ve been looking for.  When the world seems to be falling apart, if you are able to keep yourself and those around you together, you’ll be remembered.  Review what your team is doing.  Assess what the priorities are.  Maintain focus and direction.
  • Open up the dialogue. Talk and listen to the people on your team and the people around you.  Listen to the anxiety and concerns they’ll have, no matter how outlandish they seem.  Assure your people that, as of right now, you are still pursuing certain projects,  your customers still have needs, and that the business is still functioning as it was.  Let them know that the situation will probably be fluid and dynamic for the foreseeable future and commit to sharing what you can as soon as you can.
  • Talk to the new or interim leader as soon as you can. Introduce yourself and let him or her know that you want to provide whatever support you can during the transition.  Ask what he or she plans for the next 60 – 90 days.  Help this individual learn about your team. Position yourself to be viewed in a very positive way.  Do great work and help your team do great work.
  • Prepare for what may be next. It’s no secret that new senior leaders often change the membership of their new leadership teams.  If you reported directly to the previous incumbent, be prudent and prepare for the possibility that you may find yourself in different circumstances when the new leader is done putting his or her team in place.  Dust off your resume.  Make sure your network is working.  Think about what your next move could be if you needed to move on.

 

“The only constant is change.” – Unknown

change is the only constant

 

Over the past several years this saying and many others about change have become rather trite. “Change is everywhere and to be successful you must embrace it.” “Change is the new normal.” “Champions eat change for breakfast.” Yeah, we’ve heard it all before.

What is somewhat new about change is the sheer pace of it. With the advent of breakneck technology advances, change is not only constant but accelerating. Every few months there is a new social media outlet that can help you reach your customers while you’re still trying to figure out Twitter. Some businesses are wondering if they should create an app for their services. Messages can travel around your company, not to mention the world, in nanoseconds. And there are still the usual changes like new product introductions, reorganizations, and new workflows.

– How should you take a leadership position around change in the 2015 workplace?

– Answer the big question, “WHY?” People yearn for context. They want to understand why things happen and how they fit into that equation. As things move ever more quickly, we often forget to answer this simple question in our haste to “just get it done.”

– Listen to the reactions. Sometimes we think that in order to lead change, we need to be the cheerleader, playing down the realities that change is hard and that there will be bumps along the way. Take the time to listen and to respond in a realistic way to the reactions people have — the good, the bad and the ugly. In some situations it’s okay to say, “Yes, this stinks and at times it is going to be difficult. When we get through this, here is how we will be in a better place…”

Know that some people will be more ready to change than you. When it comes to introducing technological change, there are people in your organization who will be asking why the company isn’t moving more quickly. We have a whole generation who have grown up with IM, texting, Facebook and other forms of social media. Harness their enthusiasm to learn all you can about the benefits and the drawbacks of various technologies. Engage them in understanding how it could be used in your business or why your business isn’t ready for it.

Be a storyteller. Think back to your childhood. I could probably mention a story that you haven’t heard in 30 years and you could tell it to me. If I asked you to explain Freshman Algebra concepts to me, that would probably not be so easy for most of us. We are wired to remember stories. They help us put ourselves in situations and to remember information. Tell stories about the successes of previous changes where people first had doubts. Tell stories about how a team worked together to make it happen. Tell stories that help people paint a picture and understand how to move forward.

-Use social media. More and more of our organizations are using social media as way for people within the company to communicate with each other. Use social media yourself to ask questions, share updates, talk about successes, and ask for ideas. Again, if you need help in this area, there are people in your organization who are social media savvy. Encourage your team to use it as a way to have a productive conversation about the changes that are occurring. Soon you’ll see leaders emerge on your team, taking the reins of championing change.

Changing the Tire While the Bus is Going 60 mph

Transforming an Organization

One of the issues I often hear from client during times of change is ‘how can I implement change when I can’t even keep up with what I’m doing now?’ People often feel like they have to change the tire and steer the the bus while it’s going 60 mph. Change is like that. The world and your business don’t stop so that you can transform the culture, the strategy or the organization.

However, there are some things that can help you slow the bus down while you’re changing the tire.

          • Separate the urgent from the important. There is always something that needs our ‘urgent’ attention at work. The key is to decide if it’s urgent and important or urgent, but in the end, not really very important. If it’s the latter, let it go, especially if it doesn’t help with the transformation. If it’s urgent and important to the transformation, give it your full attention.
          • Remember that change is a process. When faced with transformation, we can get trapped into thinking it all has to happen now. Change takes time. Transformation doesn’t happen quickly. Create short-term milestones and work to achieve those milestones.
          • Enlist others. Involving others in the change effort has enormous benefit. It speeds up the buy in. It develops others abilities and capacity to change. And, it distributes the work. Some of you steer, some of you change the tire, some of you take care of the passengers on the bus to make sure it isn’t too much of a bumpy ride.

 

 

 

About Edith Onderick-Harvey

Edith Onderick-Harvey is a highly regarded consultant, leadership and talent expert, and speaker. Edith is frequently quoted in the media including The New York Times, CNN.com, HR Executive, and American Executive. As the President of Factor In Talent, Edith works with leaders to take performance — their own, their team’s and their organization’s — to the next level.

Designing the Organization

Organizational DesignI recently went through the process of re-vamping my website. Thinking through the website design was similar in many ways to the work I do with clients to design organizations that position themselves for future growth and change.

Whether working with world-class universities or businesses that are implementing a new business strategy or organizing for growth, similar questions need to be answered. The obvious questions is how do we allocate our resources to effectively implement our strategy? On a website its about pages, content and navigation. In an organization its about people, processes, roles and structure

When designing organizations, I ask several other key questions:

      • How will customers or stakeholders interact with us?
      • How do we create value in each part of the organization?
      • How do we create efficiency without forsaking effectiveness?
      • How do we think about what we need rather than building the organization around what we have?
      • How do we create the talent pipelines we need to take on new or different roles and responsibilities?

Interested in learning more about my organization design services and solutions? Click here.
About Edith Onderick-Harvey

Edith Onderick-Harvey is a highly regarded consultant, leadership and talent expert, and speaker. Edith is frequently quoted in the media including The New York Times, CNN.com, HR Executive, and American Executive. As the President of Factor In Talent, Edith works with leaders to take performance — their own, their team’s and their organization’s — to the next level.