Friday, February 24, 2017

How Leaders Undermine Their Own Initiatives

I've participated in numerous strategic initiatives and other change efforts over the years. They've involved issues such as leadership transition, business development, project delivery, client service, quality management, employee recruiting and retention, and safety—to name a few. To be perfectly honest, most of them failed to achieve the desired goals.

That's no real surprise. Research shows that about 70% of corporate change initiatives fall short. There are many reasons why this is so. But in my experience, one reason stands out: Leaders failed to lead. Often these were individuals who weren't fully on board to begin with. But a surprising number of these initiatives stumbled mostly due to the failings of their own creators—CEOs, principals, and other top executives, in many cases.

So how can leaders undermine their own initiatives? Here are some common mistakes that I've observed and how to avoid them:

Failing to make the business case for the change. The typical A/E firm is populated by smart people who are independent thinkers and resist making changes just because management said so. Externally-driven changes are easiest to sell; management prerogative much less so. It's also important to try to personalize the benefits. "This is good for you," is far more persuasive than "this is good for the company."

Being too prescriptive in what steps need to be taken. I often see leaders who are many years removed from doing technical work dictating how technical work should be done differently. It's generally bad form for leaders to hand down specific work process changes without seeking input from those who must implement them. Who's the expert here? You'll not only get more buy-in when people have a say in how to improve what they do, but you'll probably get better ideas as well.

Not building consensus among the right people. Change management guru John Kotter writes that forming a "guiding coalition" is critical to success. This means that you need to assemble a team with enough authority, influence, and expertise to lead the change process. They must also have enough wherewithal to overcome the inevitable laggards and skeptics in the ranks, some of whom will occupy positions of influence themselves. Senior executives often overestimate their singular ability to get employees engaged in a change effort. They need a strong team, speaking and acting in concert with each other.

Being too uninvolved. The potential downside of having a strong team is the temptation to step back from actively leading the effort. Leadership by ideas and words is not nearly so powerful as leadership by example. If you want people to think that the change is important, you need to be personally involved in it. You may not be directly needed to lead many of the activities associated with the initiative (in fact, it's often better for others to take the lead), but your mere presence sends the message "this matters." 

Overlooking the power of culture. Imagine an arm wrestling contest between your firm's strategy and its culture. Which wins? Culture, hands down. Many a strategic initiative has been defeated by entrenched corporate culture. The two must be aligned, or one has to change. If it's culture, you have a monumental challenge on your hands. It's doable (and necessary at times), but it takes a careful plan and strong leadership across the organization.

Not talking about it enough. If I wanted to know what really matters in your firm, I could ask. But I'd get a more honest answer by simply listening over several days to what your people talk about. The power of conversation is widely underestimated in change initiatives. If you want to change actions, change the conversation. And talk about the new way a lot. Stories are particularly powerful reinforcers.

Acting contrary to the message. One of the quickest ways to bring down your efforts to change course is to contradict what you say by what you do. I mentioned a common example of this earlier: Not being personally involved in something you said was important. Or perhaps you personally fail to make the changes you have asked of others. Or not providing positive reinforcement to those who get on board, or holding accountable those who don't. When you set a new direction, remember that others will be watching to see if you're walking that way.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Do You Really Need an Elevator Pitch?

Back in the days when I attended industry trade shows, I always spent some time roaming the exhibit floor checking out our competitors. I would make note of their exhibits and collect their handouts for later analysis. Occasionally I would learn something from competitors that I wanted our firm to emulate. More often, I learned what not to do.

For example, I was frequently entertained by competitors' responses to a common question: "So what does your firm do?" Their answers more often than not indicated that not much forethought had gone into them. The large national firms that we usually competed against seemed to struggle most. Their most common answer? Some variation of "we do a little of everything."

I suppose that response was intended to impress. It always had the opposite affect on me and, I suspect, on others. So I worked at perfecting my so-called "elevator pitch," a 30-second summary of what distinguished our company. It was unique and to-the-point, and I could deliver it flawlessly, whether manning the trade show booth or mingling at a networking function.

Yet it never quite felt right to me, perhaps because it was more like reciting lines of a script than conversing. Maybe it was because it was designed to provoke still further inquiry about my firm, shifting the focus from the other party. Eventually I came to believe that the importance of having a pre-rehearsed elevator pitch was overhyped.

That conclusion flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Google the term elevator pitch and you'll find that the overwhelming sentiment is that having one is essential—both for your firm and yourself. And don't get me wrong, I think being able to respond in a coherent and concise fashion to the question "What do you do?" is far better than the run-of-the-mill answers I usually hear.

So my advice is this: Give some thought to how to effectively introduce yourself and your firm with an economy of words, but without coming across like telemarketer. A few tips to keep in mind:

Avoid the hype; state simply what you do. Many sales experts advise starting your pitch with a slogan or hook that sets you apart and creates immediate interest. To say, "We design spaces that bring out the best in the people who occupy them" certainly is more memorable than simply saying, "We're an architecture firm." But what first impression are you really creating? For many, that kind of line comes across as cheesy. Better to stick with the facts without seasoning them with unsubstantiated or arguably trivial claims.

Be specific without trying to be comprehensive. Of course, there's a better answer than merely stating, "We're an architecture firm." You should add a few details to at least distinguish your firm from every other architecture firm out there. For example: "We specialize in educational facilities, anything from vocational schools to universities to military training centers." But what if your firm works in several other markets? This is where many feel they have to choose between taking five minutes to answer or summarizing with something like the aforementioned "we do a little of everything."

A common mistake in marketing departments across our industry is trying so hard to be inclusive of all the firm does that they give too little attention to what the firm does best. When your window is only 30 seconds or so, you can't afford to be comprehensive without sounding generic—unless your firm is narrowly specialized. So highlight your strengths. If these don't align with what the other party might be looking for, you can add something like: "Plus we have worked with a number of manufacturing companies like yours" (if that's true, of course).

Quickly shift the attention to the other party. For many, the ideal elevator pitch has the other person asking further questions, giving you more time to toot your own horn. I don't agree. Many of the questions asked in conversation between strangers have more to do with being courteous or trying to keep the conservation going than actually being interested in the other party. If your elevator pitch practically begs an explanation, don't assume that follow-up questions are an expression of real interest.

The one thing you can be certain about is that the other person is interested in himself or herself. Therefore, the best way to have a conversation that might lead to something more is to encourage the other party to do most of the talking. Quickly answer the introductory question about you or your firm, then shift the focus away from yourself. Ask great questions that show genuine interest, not the usual salesy interrogation. There will be a time for you to do more of the talking, but try to avoid doing that at the start of the conversation.

Be memorable for what you don't say. I like this advice from consultant Michael McLaughlin: You're more likely to make a favorable first impression if you demonstrate more interest in the other person than in what you have to say. People who ask insightful questions, who really listen, and who seem genuinely interested in others are in short supply. Be one of them if you really want to stand out. It's much better than even the most clever elevator pitch.