Acting on Difficult Advice

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There’s a time & place for external consultants in organizational transformations. They can help you in unique ways but you have to pay attention and act.

Some years ago I had a game-changing conversation with an exceptional guy we’d hired in. Everyone loved his straight-talking, he had a way of talking common sense that resonated all the way from individuals on teams to our execs. We knew that one or two conversations would never be enough so I asked him to join us permanently – he was exactly what we were looking for.

His response (paraphrased)

“I’m flattered and I’d love to – but one of the great things about what I do is that I can tell you the painful things you don’t want to hear – knowing I’m right – without having to worry about losing my job and knowing my boss has my back.”

We managed to get him to speak to our local leader at the time about what we were trying to achieve.

“…you do know that the level of change you need here is going to have an impact on productivity for a while right? Are you ready for that?”

“…absolutely not, we have to complete our transformation with no impact on our current delivery commitments to the business”

It wasn’t that his advice was wrong. It was that the boss didn’t feel safe to take the hit. Needless to say the rollout stumbled. Fortunately we knew it was coming and corrected as best we could.

If you invest in a consultant, It’s your responsibility (and risk) to act on their feedback. Be prepared for painful input and… please …do something with their advice – that’s what you paid them for in the first place right?

If there’s a risk or impact, weight it up, bring your stakeholders in, explain the situation and reset expectations. You are empowered to act but here’s the trick you’re missing! It doesn’t all have to be just on your shoulders.

In fact, you don’t have to have the difficult conversation yourself at all, you’ve just paid for someone to do it on your behalf. If they’re really that good, they’ll be more than capable and willing to do so and probably more credibly than you.

That kind of ROI is priceless.

Are You Empowered?

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Many large companies want to promote a culture of empowerment but what does that really mean?

In a small company or start-up you often truly are empowered to act beyond your boundaries.  In fact it goes beyond that, you’re responsible for acting fast.

Chances are if you don’t pick things up that need dealing with, either someone else will and leave you feeling distinctly mediocre or your team or company will suffer. Either way, the culture of empowerment in small companies transforms into shared accountability.

In a large corporation, does this really still work?

Whilst we may think this is a problem with corporate culture, it actually depends most on individual managers.

In a traditional hierarchical organization, telling your management staff that their teams are empowered sounds very noble and supportive but in reality it’s seen more like abdicating support. Pushing empowerment at this level usually means you want something done for free with no risk to yourself.

There’s a difference between staff being told they are empowered and actually being empowered.  In fact, as a senior manager; empowering your staff requires you to make it safe for your teams to act.  One great way to do this is to lead by example.

In a conversation with Dan North early last year, his quip really stuck with me…

“You are anointed with empowerment, go forth and be empowered.”

Here’s what’s often hidden behind the words…

  • There’s an approval process you need to go through beforehand.
  • When you’re done, I want a full report with metrics on my desk and a 1 slide PowerPoint summary for the executive team.
  • Here’s a catalog of things you can’t do or touch and people you can’t speak to.
  • Don’t screw up or it’s your ass on the line.

Let’s break that mindset…

First, take a look at your constraints. What things are you really not allowed to change. Probably nothing – as long as you can demonstrate something better.

Sadly, most of us have a mortgage and/or family to sustain, a career to maintain, are on the line for getting stuff delivered and are way over-stretched.  That’s not a very empowering position.

Truly empowered people are able to take calculated risks and perform valuable actions that they know are the right thing to do, they ask for forgiveness & approval later if needed and most of all, they have their manager’s unflagging support, even when they fail.

As a Manager, don’t abdicate your responsibilities to your teams; give them the tools and safety they need to really be empowered so that they can make a difference and feel supported in doing so.