You mean Twinkies really don’t last forever?

The snack food poster child for invincibility shows how some leaders can’t stomach change

They’ve been dropped from six-story buildings, electrocuted, pierced with sensors under laboratory beakers, even left for 30 years on the desk of a high school science teacher in Blue Hill, Maine.

Known more for their chemically-fortified stamina to endure the elements than any redeeming nutritional value, Twinkies (and their twice-reconstituted baker Hostess Brands) have been around since Calvin Coolidge slept in the White House. As of two weeks ago, turnaround artist Greg Rayburn has the job of pulling Hostess’ buns out of the fire. Good luck.

Success does not happen overnight; neither does failure. The company had a long, long time to consider whether white bread, chocolate cakes with 19.5 grams of fat and Twinkies with who knows what inside would hold up in a market turning its moral palette toward yogurt, granola bars and seven-grain bread. The company is privately held, but whether they had a board of “advisors” or simply executives with their hands over their eyes for this long, they are the namesake of one of their products.

Ding Dongs.

Still, while we can joke about Hostess, what about Kodak or RIM (Blackberry)? Why do companies that once commanded the market fall to such disgrace?

Sure, there are a lot of factors, but the common theme is that these companies believed their early market leadership made them invincible, allowed them to dither on their next major move. They drank their own Kool-Aid.

So, here is the question: Whether public or private, what is the role of the board on such matters? Do you have a board of advisors/directors who are intentionally different than you, representing challenging perspectives and experience? Do they have a greater stake in how you perform in the future rather than just today?

When was the last time any of them told you, “No”?


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So, what exactly are “defining moments?”

Whenever people hear the name of my coaching business, you can see that flicker of understanding across their face – it triggers something inside that stirs up some memory of when they felt on the spot, under the gun or at a crossroads in their personal or professional lives.

I was reviewing my business plan with a group of trusted advisors last week when one of them asked if I could spend some time defining, well, “defining moments.” What does that include? How do you know it is upon you? Is there a pattern?

Examples of defining moments abound: moving into a new leadership role, facing a visible and consequential decision, confronting the need for change, recovering from a failure or keeping your bearings amid spectacular success. What is more important than the actual circumstances is what these moments represent.

1.  A defining moment is some point in time where your character is revealed. It may be a decision, a speech, how you handle a difficult circumstance, even how you conduct yourself when all eyes are on you, but it has a lasting impact on others – and likely on you. As we all know, personality is the public face, but character comes from within. Often the hardest conversation we can have during difficult periods is the one we have with ourselves.

2. A defining moment challenges our status quo. If all of our decisions and actions are merely a replay of what we already know, we are simply playing out the same script. It is when we step back, take a breath, and gain fresh appreciation for what is at stake and what it calls for us to do and be, that we embrace defining moments for how they can shape us. Having a profound respect for the unknown is where learning begins.

3. Defining moments are hard. If they are not, we are not stretching ourselves. As my co-author Bob Parsanko and I portray in our upcoming book The Leader’s Climb, getting “stuck” is not a mark of failure; it is evidence we are willing to push the boundaries of our comfort zone. To get “unstuck” requires new thinking, new approaches. Isn’t that what we want in our lives? Wouldn’t you agree that your times of greatest learning and growth came during your most difficult experiences?

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Who Wrote the Screenplay for Your Life?

Most of us live scripted lives, whether we know it or not.

What makes us tick — or ticked? Why do we do what we do? Why do some things just roll off our back, while other things crank us up? What and where is that blasting cap inside that seems to so easily ignite fear or courage, hope or despair, anger or joy?

It’s a script. I believe every one of us has a script we are playing out in our lives.

Yes, assessment tools of all sorts (Strength Finder, MBTI, DiSC, et al) are important data points and the early window into our tendencies and motivations. However, I find that the more durable growth and change comes when we are willing to dive more deeply and get to our unique “script” — those beliefs and experiences that truly drive us. It is “the story of our lives.” (Hmm, you even hear people use that expression, often in a self-defeating way, right?) Some of us are conscious of the script, others not. For some, we wrote that script ourselves; for others (and often sadly) it was written by someone else — abusive parent, high school bully, estranged lover, or betraying friend or business partner.

Why does it matter to get to your script? Because we are either living out that script or running away from it. We can layer all kinds of practiced behaviors on our sense of self, and in doing so we can either be in denial of a bad script still ticking away, or lose sight of our true self. Still, when the pressure’s on, the script will start calling the shots. It’s a good idea to know what it is if we ever expect to be master of it.

The script gets to the heart of who you are. Anyone who knows me well or has worked with me knows that I am passionate about being honest about our own story, being aware of how it plays out and — ultimately — taking ownership of our lives.

Just like a good movie, we want it to turn out well.

It starts with a good script.  


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Turning Mirrors Into Windows – Getting a Clue About Why People Like You

I like my brain. It works pretty well. I’ve had it all my life. Sometimes I and my brain get into arguments, but by and large, we get along really well.

That’s the problem. What we think is our strongest attribute may not be at all what other people like about us. Even worse, sometimes what people like about us the most is the very thing we struggle to accept about ourselves.

Case in point. A good friend of mine is looking to take his business to the next level and is wringing his brain around on its stem trying to think through a list of professional capabilities (largely a function of intellect) to gain the attention of new clients. I simply asked him why people do business with him today, why they come back, why they invite him to lunch or a golf outing. The real answer is that people trust him, they flat-out like being around him. It would have been the last thing he put on his list, but it was first on theirs.  Competence earns you respect, but likeability earns you trust.

I had a trusted friend head-slap me today at breakfast on the same issue. He had to work at it, but he made his point that my thinking (what I tend to value the most) is clutter in the way of what people really want from me – my ability to care about them, be vulnerable about my own life, share stories about struggle and reward, and get excited about whatever we’re talking about. All the stuff that I tend to think is indulgent or less important is the very heart of my best relationships.

They are the same for you.

We tend to distrust our emotions, our heart. It feels private, maybe even irrelevant, as if our personal story has no place. Especially in business, we want so much to bring rational definition around our relationships. However, in doing so we more likely erect boundaries around the thing of greatest value we have to offer and what people regard most highly in us.

Turn your mirror into a window. Look through the lens of others to see yourself as they see you. Ask. Observe. Listen. Sense. There is a good reason they like you.

Find it.

Follow it.

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Getting Into the Habit of Disruption – how small breaks in the routine can lead to big change

Well, it has been a little more than a month since the day when many people commit themselves to some kind of New Year’s resolution.

How’s it going?

If you are like most, not particularly well.

I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions. Why? It seems to me that pegging my commitment to some date on the calendar exposes the fact that I really am not serious. After all, if I really wanted to change something in my life, why not start the process on the very day I decided it would be a good idea? Because, I must still want to hang onto my status quo just a bit longer, that’s why. Let’s get honest, right?

Formulas for change most often include some combination of a profound dissatisfaction with your current condition, a clear sense of the future state, all lashed together with a plan of action, usually involving manageable, rewarding steps.

I think there is another, often missing element – changing your routines.

We are creatures of habit. Settling into a routine – consciously or unconsciously – reduces risks and uncertainties, arguably leaving our energies focused on the less-routine things in our lives. But being a little disruptive – just like there are disruptive technologies or products that can rock an industry – conditions us to embrace change, often in areas we never imagined. We struggle to change the big stuff, but we can change our circumstances by varyin g our routines.

I moved to a new office this week and plan (weather permitting) to walk to it each day, rather than drive. I dragged my bass guitar out of the closet and am starting to practice again. I set my alarm for a different time than normal. I have downloaded some new apps. I am reading two books I never got around to reading before. I also am forging some new friendships with people who were never in my comfortable little circle until now. No big resolutions, just a willingness to embrace something different, something new. Out of the routine.

I don’t know where all that will lead, but it is bound to lead somewhere. Very likely somewhere better. Without all the struggle.

Have you thought about doing something different today?

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Honesty, clarity and … well, dog poops

My wife and I had to put down our 14-year-old dog Sally last week. Some kind of neurological “event” where she clearly lost motor function and—likely—cognitive function. Maybe a stroke. Don’t know, but what we did know was that it was time.

Given the humane urgency of it all, our grandkids who adored Sally did not have a chance to say goodbye first. The following weekend, they came over to our house. I asked our four-year-old granddaughter if she would like to go out in the backyard to pick up any of Sally’s remaining dog poops (hey, it seemed oddly ceremonial, and it was something she liked to do anyway on better days.).  When we finished the task, she leaned against me and in a sad, wistful voice said, “Pops, I kinda miss Sally now.” I gave her a hug and assured her gently: “She misses you, too, but at least now she is in dog heaven chasing rabbits and squirrels — and most importantly, she doesn’t hurt anymore.”

She pulled back a bit, looked up at me and, with a straight face, said, “Well, duh…she’s dead!”

I can’t make this stuff up. Really.

Funny as it may be coming from the mouth of a child, I see examples—good and bad—of such honesty and clarity in business. One of my clients has simply been courageous in telling employees where things stood during the recent economic downturn, and the employees took on the challenge as their own, stirring lots of ideas on generating revenue and cutting costs. By contrast, another executive simply could not see the benefit in laying out to employees the reality of some market threats they faced, so he instead fluffed up their condition by over-playing a few sales they had made and making a lot of some reorganizations. Sadly, the employees were all too aware of the company’s predicament; their trust in management sagged, as did the company’s fortunes.

Today’s well-connected and networked employees are pretty well-informed. Sure, there is some risk in laying out your challenges with them — some may bolt, some may fret — but it is a small risk to take for the benefit of lighting up good people to the cause. Moreover, it is an issue of trust. They can detect — well, poop — pretty quickly.

Do you trust your employees enough to be honest and clear about challenges you face? In turn, do they trust you to tell them the truth?


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The “simple” job of the CEO – setting the pace and context for decisions

I play bass guitar. I have since my junior year in high school when a buddy of mine came up with the improbable notion of forming a soul/funk garage band to play at local high school dances. Playing bass seemed easy and innocuous enough.

It is neither.

While lead guitarists and drummers get all the attention, it is the bass player who—almost surreptitiously—drives and defines the song. Just altering exactly when a bass note is played and how—soft, slap, punch or busy—can take the same song and give it an entirely different feel, ranging from rock to blues to soul to jazz. We bassists call that the groove. Also, the nature of low sound frequencies is that they are pervasive — they saturate the room. (That’s why you can put your home sound system’s subwoofer anywhere you want in the room and you can still hear the low notes no matter where you are sitting.)

The same is true with my third observation on the key characteristics of the CEO — setting a pace and a context for decision-making.

You can tell pretty quickly whether a CEO or business owner has that rhythm in how decisions are handled. A desk that is over-taken with pending and over-due decisions (what we all call a bottleneck) is most often the desk of an executive who has yet to understand how to create a context for others to make decisions. Too often, we share the decision itself, but less so the considerations that lead to that decision. The result is that too many decisions pile up with the CEO and the organization loses its pace — that sense of rhythm that keeps people moving and focused. Just like bass frequencies that saturate a room, when people in your organization start to feel that too many decisions are getting bottled-up with the CEO or executive team, they lose their groove. Sometimes they lose hope.

One antidote is to create and articulate a context so more people can make as good or better a decision as you. What are your priorities? What is your strategy? What values guide you? Who is affected by the decision and what are their views? What are your cultural norms? What are the odds of success and failure? Most importantly: Who is willing to own the decision and nurture it to success?

Pace is crucial. Decisions that take too long fall victim to over-analysis. People start to believe that the success of a decision is based on one more piece of data, rather than a personal commitment by a champion to make it a success. I like the way one of my clients puts it: Don’t spend all your time trying to get the small stuff right. There are only a few decisions you have to get right as CEO, and more often than not, they turn out right because you make the call and then work them continually.

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JoePa and the lost moral compass

The Moral Compass.

I was going to address this aspect of leadership in a couple of weeks as the third in my series on the essential areas of focus for the CEO, but perhaps … now is the right time.

How could this happen, right? How could a man who, by all measures, has been a moral stanchion for generations of athletes fail so terribly in chasing down the horror of what we now know about the child abuse scandal at Penn State?  Even beyond the obvious, immediate damage to the individual victims, what about the shrapnel that has now struck thousands of athletes who proudly spoke of learning under him, the good coaches now feeling their own roles under subtle suspicion, past and future alumni, or the once-sterling legacy of Joe Paterno himself? I believe Joe Paterno is a good man who has purposed himself to inspire thousands of students over his career. Still, it was the board of Penn State that exercised the higher leadership in making the statement through its firing of Joe and the college president that Penn State was bigger than any one person.

It is easy for any of us to feel certain how we would have responded had we heard of such suspicions, and certainly the circumstances themselves seem to warrant such clarity of action. However, it is troubling to me how often I see leaders turn a blind eye or deaf ear to lesser offenses that, in their own way, have a corrosive effect on the sense of what is right and wrong within the culture and behavior of their organizations. Take JoePa and Penn State out of the discussion for a moment, and let’s consider our own moral challenges.

I see even the most capable leaders fail to affirm and enforce the “moral code” of their organizations. The consequences are devastating. The progression is simple, clear and almost predictable.

Ignorance — They are simply unaware or out-of-touch with what everyone else seems to know. (Over time, it is fair that people call it being “clueless.”) Is that an excuse, or is it a responsibility of leadership to be curious, to seek out, to invite contrary voices, to create an environment where the unspeakable can be voiced?

Incompetence — They simply are perplexed or conflicted in how to deal with the issue. Maybe clear action comes with too many risks or trade-offs, or they abhor confrontation, or the whole thing is just too messy and unpleasant to deal with. Take the hit, deal with it. Leadership demands tough choices; the clarity they bring is invigorating. And affirming.

Indifference — They are aware of the issue, they could deal with it, but choose not to.  If your organization ever attaches this label to you or your leadership team, it is a hard crawl back to regain their trust. I wish there was an antidote to this alone, but it likely comes in dealing with the two precedents — ignorance or incompetence.

The excuse that we cannot tell adults how to behave, that it is not our business how people treat others, that someone’s value to a business outcome makes up for their character flaws, that we cannot make a judgment when we are not witness to an offense is just that — an excuse.

The CEO holds the moral compass. And everyone expects you to hold it high.

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The “simple” job of being a CEO

I was having breakfast with a board chairman recently and we were tossing around our respective philosophies about the essential qualities of a CEO. While we each had our own list, what we kept coming back to was this notion of focus — or as I put it, managing complexity by mastering simplicity. As Bob Parsanko—my good friend, fellow executive coach and now co-author of our upcoming book—likes to say: Leadership is easy, until it gets hard. To find the core issues, the common threads or themes, the basic matter at hand is a tough discipline the great leaders have mastered. Rudyard Kipling said it best when he wrote “…to keep your head when all about you are losing theirs…” It is all about focus.

Over this and the next two blogs, I will share what my experience with leaders bears out as the top three areas of focus for a CEO. If nothing else, perhaps it may prompt you to refine, articulate and more purposefully live out your key qualities.

To start…

Focusing positive energy on a clear vision. This is more than strategy; this is a vision that people can see as their own, a unique and compelling purpose for your enterprise. Knowing why your business is here, the difference you are making in the lives around you, is the stuff of legend. Such sense of significance and ambition attracts the best people, inspires many to do better, and ignites a fierce commitment to the future. I say often that people follow people of purpose; it is no different to have an organization fueled by purpose.

The CEO is the voice of that vision. That voice needs to be unique — simple, consistent and using a vocabulary that is yours alone. (Challenge question: If your vision simply says you want to be the “leader” in your sector, you likely do not have a vision. Nobody knows what that means until you give them a picture of what that “leading” business looks like, acts like, feels like and is accomplishing.)

The other part of this, though, is this notion of positive energy. I see many executives drain themselves by focusing too much on negative influences and distractions in their ranks. Instead, invest fully in those who are standing there with their hands raised, ready to get in the game. Focus on their positive energy and they will pull the organization forward in ways you can never push on your own. If there are stragglers and saboteurs in leadership positions in your business, get rid of them. Seriously. The others will applaud you for it.

The CEO is like someone managing valves — turning some on, some off, but keeping the flow going in the right directions at the right time. Clarity, direction — focus.

Next time: Deciding How to Make Decisions 

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Stress testing the heart of leadership

One of my best friends and longest-standing clients had a heart attack a month ago.

Fortunately, he survived, thanks to a great team of doctors and a one-inch arterial stint standing by only a half mile away at a hospital. In fact, when I talked with him last week, he had just gone for a long walk.

There are hundreds of people whose lives have been enriched by this man who took a collective gasp at the initial report, and all exhaled in relief when they heard the good news of his recovery. I heard some of the talk among his circle of family and friends, and without exception, none of it centered on his strategy, thinking or business acumen (which he has in abundance). The talk reflected words like: courage, integrity, care, humor and, well … heart.  People follow him and believe in him because he has heart. Yes, his intellect and business savvy give shape and direction to their commitment, but his willingness to show and share his heart is what lights up his global organization. It has also become the heartbeat of the company’s culture.

Knowledge (or as I like to say “being the smartest person in the room”) is quickly becoming a commodity. Just have someone Google faster than you and see how the field can level. Heart is the distinguishing element of great leaders.

So, how do you know if you have the heart of a leader, and how can you know if others sense and see that? Well, the capacity of your physical heart is best measured when it is stress-tested. Most often, the same is true with leadership. Those defining moments that reveal the heart of a leader come during periods of risk and uncertainty, the bold moves.

So, the question we ask ourselves is whether we are inviting or embracing enough risk in our lives — personal or business — knowing that it is the better test of our heart and character.

When was the last time you had your “heart” checked?

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