Oct 31, 2011

Fooling The Boss - A Leadership Lesson Learned

Have you ever had a boss who could not take a bad news? I did.

Were you ever afraid to be the messenger delivering it? Even if it was not your fault? Even if there was nothing you could have done to prevent it?

I was. So what did I and my colleagues do? We hid all that could be hidden.

You can be disgusted all that you want, or you can admit you did the same. Or maybe YOU are that boss, or a leader we are afraid to tell the truth to?

(Maybe you noticed the ones who were inventing stories and numbers were doing better and were less criticized by the boss?)

I wonder how that helps. Abraham Lincoln's quote comes to mind: '' You may fool all the people some of the time, you can even fool some of the people all the time but you can not fool all the people all the time.''

And let's not forget fooling ourselves, which can last for a long, long time. It can cost our business and organization a lot of money too. It usually does.

And if you think it happens to stupid people and mediocre leaders who will never get to the top think again.

We all know that denial, running away from the truth never solved the problem unless it was a pimple, but that is not what destroys business. I wrote A Failing Business Specialities - Denial, Excuses And More recently, and am again inspired by recent story Joseph Jimenez, Novartis CEO has told to New York Times.

Here is what Jimenez considers one of his most important leadership lesson.

''I was a division president of another company. I was sent in to turn the division around after four years of under performance. It was a declining business. And when I got there, I completely misdiagnosed the problem. I said:''Look. We're missing our forecast every month. What’s wrong?''

I brought in a consulting firm, and we looked at what was wrong. And the answer was that we had a bad sales and operations planning process, where salespeople, marketing people and operations people were supposed to come together and plan out the next 18 months and then forecast off of that. So I said:''O.K. We’re going to fix this. We’re going to have the consulting team come in and help us make that a better, more robust process, with more analytics''

And it turned out it wasn’t at all about analytics. Because once we did that, and we put that new process in place, we still continued to miss forecasts. So I thought,''Something’s really wrong here''

I brought in a behavioral psychologist, and I said:''Look, either I’m misdiagnosing the problem or something’s fundamentally wrong in this organization. Come and help me figure it out.''She came in with her team and about four weeks later came back and said:''This isn't about skills or about process. You have a fundamental behavioral issue in the organization.People aren't telling the truth. So at all levels of the organization, they’ll come together, and they'll say, 'Here's our forecast for the month.' And they won’t believe it. They know they're not going to hit it when they’re saying it.''

(I can't tell you how many times I see this in my clients or friend's businesses and how bad it makes me feel. )

The thing she taught me — and this sounds obvious — is that behavior is a function of consequence. We had to change the behavior in the organization so that people felt safe to bring bad news. And I looked in the mirror, and I realized I was part of the problem. I didn’t want to hear the bad news, either. So I had to change how I behaved, and start to thank people for bringing me bad news.

This was the leadership lesson for Jimenez, bother to remember any of yours or share with us?

Not that I want to encourage everyone to start whining, complaining, or setting pathetic targets for himself, but that is clear, or is it?

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