September 2010

The developmental digest for emerging leader/managers devoted to growth and excellence

September 2010

Coming Soon.


Section 1 - Topical Topics

Pivotal Leadership

Leaders matter!

Top leaders, bosses, matter even more. If you are the top person in your organization you have an awesome responsibility, likely more than you ever bargained for and certainly more than you’ve probably contemplated.

Over 95% of the workforce rely and depend on you to set the tone for the enterprise and to shield them from unwarranted stress and aggravation. If you do this well, they’ll stay with you; if you don’t, they’ll leave – not just the organization, they’ll leave you!

Two interesting surveys back this up fully. The Gallup Organization discovered that the relationship between a worker and his immediate supervisor is, by far, the greatest single reason why people leave their jobs. A 2009 Swedish study that tracked over 3100 men for more than ten years found that those with bad bosses suffered 20­40% more heart attacks than those with good bosses. Ouch!

You set the tone for the entire organization. Those who report directly to you, who experience your leadership competence first-hand, will not only suffer more than others but they’ll also pass along your quirks and foibles to others in the organization – with interest!

Whether you head up a Fortune 500 company or a more intimate entrepreneurial venture, your success is determined by your ability to stay in touch and in-tune with those persons with whom you interact most frequently and intensely. All bosses matter, and those at the top matter most of all!

I worked with a medium-sized organization in the recent past where the influence of the top boss was revealed in stark terms. The top boss did almost all of the talking at meetings, interrupted others continuously and silenced anyone who dissented. Every one of his direct reports vehemently complained about him behind his back but as soon as he left the meeting, his ‘number two’ started to behave in an identical way; when he left, the next one in line did the same. The top boss has a profound impact on organizational culture.

Whether we intend it or not, as top bosses we’re the focal point of attention for everyone else in the company. They may not be consciously aware of their interest, or even of its influence; it is no less profound!

What can be done?
Bosses need to convince others that they are in charge; if they do not do this their job is impossible, their lives are hell and their influence / tenure is short. This, however, is not enough; they must also inspire and sustain their people.

The best bosses stimulate and guide their people to success by utilizing people’s inherent strengths, as well as their cognitive competencies (knowledge, skills and experience), and by fostering optimal levels of contribution in small ways each and every day. The best bosses also boost performance by watching their people’s backs, making it safe for them to learn, to act and to take intelligent risks by shielding them from unnecessary distractions and external interferences.

Of course, when the worker succeeds, so does the boss. We don’t always keep this in proper perspective though, and bosses are often credited with far more influence over organizational wins and losses than they deserve – more than fifty percent rather than the actual fifteen percent. Success materializes too in the form of a longer-term legacy and the residual impact of both good and bad bosses remains with us for years after the event.

Below are four pointers that might assist you, as the top boss, to invest your time and efforts more productively. Keep your eye on the reality that your influence is both short and longer-term and that whatever you do is likely to be observed and mimicked by other leaders within your influence – both of these are magnifying factors.

1. Let your belief show . . .
Begin with belief in yourself; you can do what you can envision, every motivational speaker since James Allen (As a Man Thinketh) has reiterated this message. Stanford business professor, Bob Sutton, uses the expression, ‘fake it until you make it!’, until all the self doubt is resolved. People will not follow a leader who is unsure of him or herself. You cannot allow your uncertainty to show simply because others will naturally gravitate to those who are certain of their immediate purpose. All the extensive research on ‘belief follows behaviour’ supports this.

There’s a big difference though between self confidence and arrogance. The latter brooks no dissention and resists contrary opinions and alternative suggestions; the preferred approach, that of quiet confidence, will seek to influence others indirectly by using mutual examination of consequences and transparent evaluation of facts and decisions.

Facts, or the lack thereof, are rarely the critical issue; will-power and confidence will usually prevail, especially if you work to harness the strengths of your people. So, lead with your inherent strengths, offering them as cornerstones for emerging strategy; then solicit those of others which expand and enhance desired outcomes.

While the eventual objectives should be clearly stated and general dialogue processes defined, others need to be free to contribute as they will, to suggest constructive diversions along the way. The effective leader will welcome input but be gently assertive on the assessment and decision processes to be followed.

2. Be the Focus . . .
So, clarify the objectives and performance criteria of the enterprise by ‘steering’ processes rather than dictating or directing them. Watch carefully for the responses of others, recognizing and rewarding appropriate contributions to enterprise objectives and deliberately building on the competencies /confidence of others – and then watch your own self confidence grow as you proceed.

A leader focuses the desire for change that’s resident in others and then facilitates the creation of a sustainable new reality. The key words here are ‘focuses’ and ‘facilitates’, and top leaders recognize that this rarely calls for charisma; a coaching style of leadership will work best most of the time. The ‘power’ to make anything happen actually originates in those who follow, who ‘own’ the need for change - the leader only borrows it.

Focusing occurs when core ideas are identified and assimilated by those who need to take action. This means that visions need to be formulated in the minds of people not only by rational processes but also by emotional experiences. Action is not always taken on cerebral ideas (we all know what we should be doing to eliminate bad habits, don’t we?) but decisive action will often be precipitated by strong emotional experiences.

The most effective tool to use here is to guide the thoughts / feelings of others through questions of consequence; encourage people to come to decisions for themselves and in the sanctity of their own minds. This is so much easier than attempting to impose your thinking and emotions upon them and besides, you’ll have a lot less hard selling to do.

Focusing the behaviour of others is a dynamic process, rather like trying to balance a teeter-totter by placing your feet on both sides at the fulcrum. The movements are small, even tiny, but continuous; they take the form of nudges rather than heavy assaults, and often they occur below the threshold of awareness.

The best bosses work all the time to enhance their own self awareness, to stay in tune with their people’s worries and concerns, their trigger points and their quirks; on top of this, good bosses foster a climate of safety and reasonable security allowing for creative (but not careless) mistakes and well considered risks. When they cannot protect they show clear compassion, support and empathy. Watching the backs of your people will ensure that they watch yours!

3. Make it Easy . . .
Once we know what it is we have to do and why, and we’ve harnessed the committed efforts of others to parallel our own, the next most important task is make it easy and rewarding for them to do so. We need to protect, encourage and reinforce them.

If you’ve already elected to work with others’ inherent strengths (see above) then you’re more than halfway there – their engines are running and they’re in the driver’s seat. People prefer to do things that are meaningful and important to them – it validates them as individuals and it’s much more likely to be sustained when the pressures mount. The primary task of the boss is not to push for results but rather to steer.

You will likely need to clear the road ahead – to run point or interference. People are readily distracted from their main purpose since there’s so much activity in business and it’s a challenge to remain focused. Henry Minzberg, a celebrated management guru, once said that the main role of a manager was to attend meetings so that staff members are free to work – how true! Why then do so many managers demand results from their staff and then insist that they attend innumerable meetings? In a word – control!

Running interference for your people may mean that you need to protect them from both yourself as well as others. I commend the practice of Red Time – Green Time, an easy habit to acquire and one that’s capable of improving work efficiencies by significant amounts. Focused time is very productive, especially for those who need to be creative and innovative.

There’s also the contribution enhancer – reinforcement. We can derive a double benefit here for reinforcements, properly used, do not only make people feel good about themselves and their contributions but they also send strong signals about effectiveness and efficiency in processes. A useful tool in this respect is to adopt "feed forward” versus "feedback” where you focus your constructive critique for future performance rather than past performance – it works wonders!

4. Learn together – Grow together . . .
Many bosses appear to believe that deliberate learning is not only a last resort but also that it’s for everyone - else. Clearly, we can’t ignore the fact that the world around us is changing – volatile markets, escalating technologies, encroaching regulations and similar are a way of life. We must change just to stay where we are.

It’s not enough to assert that you’re on the right track; that track is a multi-lane, high speed highway and the last place you want to be is in the middle but standing still! We should all aspire to be a ‘learning organization’ a pivotal idea coined by Peter Senge of Fifth Discipline fame, but this seems to be a luxury we can ill-afford.

Here’s a simple practice that will shift you in that direction with very little investment; once a week call your direct reports together for a twenty-minute, stand-up meeting. Here’s the agenda – three questions that everyone contributes to:

  • What three things have gone well this past week and what can we learn from that?
  • What three things have not gone well and what do we learn from that?
  • What three things will we agree to do differently as a result of what we’ve just learned?

There’s review, open analyses, objectives/standards confirmation, priority setting and future focus all within twenty minutes. There’s collaboration as well and it’s centered on critical objectives, standards and performance that are the essence of the organization. This is the basis for continuous improvement or kaizen, much beloved of Deming and Juran, the quality gurus.

The secret is to stand up throughout the discussion (which adds energy and focus to the discussion) and to stick to the agenda (which respects your role as interference runner). It’s a "no-brainer” – just try it for a month and see what happens.

The Bottom Line . . .
The top boss’s role is pivotal and it’s definitely common sense – it’s analogous to that of a conductor in front of an orchestra. The essential purpose is to create a symphony out of many different talented contributions, not to usurp the instruments in order to demonstrate that (s)he can do it better. After all, what would be ‘added value’ for an audience; what would they expect and want to experience?

Think about it!

I’d welcome your questions, comments and suggestions. We can all learn through dialogue and your viewpoints will undoubtedly gain more value when shared. Please contact me at

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Timely Insights

  • Working with Strengths . . .
    Dr Alex Linley heads up a very useful enterprise called CAPP (Centre for Applied Positive Psychology) in the United Kingdom. A pioneer in this emerging field, he has done much to develop and promote the practical aspects of harnessing people’s passions to enhance contribution.
    He has two great ‘products’ that can help to unlock performance, centered on his REALISE2 strengths inventory tool. One of these is the developmental process that’s embedded in the tool itself, and the other is a weekly newsletter / blog which explains the featured strengths and their applications.
    I you haven’t tried this approach for your self, allow me to commend it. It’s easy and inexpensive and the benefits could be life-changing. Go to for the Assessment tool and to for the newsletter.
  • Coaching Works – Really . . .
    One of the toughest things to do is show that coaching drives actual business results. Dr David Rock, who I’ve promoted before several times, has recently completed a robust study (over two years) with a financial services client to address this issue. The results are indeed impressive and persuasive.
    With coaching as the only major intervention, a business unit saw a loss turned into a profit, and engagement up 50%. David uses a neuro-psychological approach which is elegantly yet practically explained in his book "Quiet Leadership”; the techniques are easily within the grasp of any leader / manager who’ll invest a few hours to read the book and put the ideas to work..
    More about the study here: and you’ll find the book on Amazon at 
  •  You Must Remember This . . .
    Scientific American Mind is a wonderful publication for anyone who didn’t get a User’s Manual along with their brain / mind. I’m still trying to work out how mine works and there’s so much fascinating stuff to learn.
    One particular article caught my attention this month, dealing with memory and its pivotal role in defining our behaviours and contributions. As a leader, you may need to know about this, so find a few minutes and click through to explore the miraculous tool that you use everyday – without thinking about it!

  • Quotable Quotes . . .
"The more tranquil a man becomes, the greater is his success, his influence, his power for good. Calmness of mind is one of the beautiful jewels of wisdom."    -- James Allen (As a Man Thinketh)

"This art of resting the mind and the power of dismissing from it all care and worry is probably one of the secrets of energy in our great men."            -- Captain J. A. Hadfield

"The truth is that there is nothing noble in being superior to somebody else. The only real nobility is in being superior to your former self."                -- Whitney Young

"Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power."                -- Lao-Tzu (The Art of War)

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Section 2 - Talk Back

Coach's Corner

A selection from frequently–asked questions
Dear Coach,
I run a design / manufacturing company with close to a hundred and fifty staff and we supply the automotive market with component parts. Despite all the talk of economic recovery we’re a long way from being out-of-the-woods yet. We still need to keep our expenses under tight control, work more efficiently, and do more with less – and so far we’ve avoided lay-offs.
Even though we’ve put in several new initiatives to secure and protect our people, there’s a lot of resentment, particularly among some of them, and they are painting us in management as the ‘enemy’. How can we get them back ‘onside’ and to realize that management really isn’t the problem?

What’s happening here is both normal and inevitable; it’s hard-wired into human thought processes that those whose decisions and actions create pain and discomfort for us are justifiable targets for our anger and resentment.

Way back in time, human-kind ensured the preservation of the species by focusing attention and ultimately blame on those who threatened us.  We learned to be suspicious of the unknown, cautious in our approach and defensive in our actions – we avoided them. We needed to know, beyond a reasonable doubt, that any stranger was not intending to harm us and also that they wouldn’t take advantage of us for their own ends.

This deeply entrenched behaviour isn’t as useful in modern times; it’s now become maladaptive – it doesn’t serve us as well as it once did, but it’s still there. In the ‘cut and thrust’ of today’s demanding business climate the tendency persists to ascribe evil motives to those who disrupt our legitimate expectations of an increasingly comfortable and predictable life experience. The result is mistrust, conflict and disengagement.

This is an immensely strong and pervasive response that cannot be ignored – it won’t just go away. It’s emotional too, so a reasoned argument will not ‘cut the mustard’. Delivering a prepared rallying speech to the troops will not help and making a case based on logic won’t persuade other people that this deep-seated resentment they are experiencing isn’t well justified.

Once antipathy and inertia set in they’re hard to move – but it can be done with a little patience and skill. What we’re attempting to do here is to shift other people’s perspectives (the way they frame situations) and perceptions (the values they attach to their experiences) – to get them to look at realities in a different way. This is an emotionally-based approach to what is, in fact, an emotional challenge. So the first step is to cease and desist with the rational arguments.

Whenever you put efficiency before effectiveness you encourage frustration. Our people don’t want to hear that it all has to be done differently; they need to understand what different things need to be done. Your appreciation of the challenges is likely founded on an interpretation of the facts that others don’t currently understand or accept.

If you cut costs by limiting overtime and canceling needed training, decrease autonomy and ask them to undertake additional work, they’re going to view it from their perspective and you’ll be to blame. This is the way that people have always dealt with threats and obstacles – and you’ve just made yourself the target.

Since the problem is seated more deeply, in the emotions, and it’s being perceived as a threat, this is where you need to go to confront it. Your people need to experience the new facts and realities for themselves – and first hand.

They have to tread the path you’ve already trodden, to be exposed to the predicament that you faced and to work on finding solutions for themselves; your job is to guide and support them as they do so. This takes time and effort, and some won’t be interested in taking this more difficult route. From their vantage point you are paid to do this and they have the inalienable right to bitch if they don’t like the outcomes.

Many though will work to understand for themselves the true nature and consequences of the situation and to attempt to design solutions. It’s possible that they could come up with better answers than you – great – but unlikely. What will happen is that, in the process of attempting this, they’ll become far more empathic and more receptive to the remedial strategies you’ve already prepared.

In short, if you want to create understanding then you need to create the problem in other people’s minds before you present the solutions. They have to experience the realities for themselves, to play with alternatives and juggle a few options. By doing so, they’ll amend their perspectives and their perceptions.

This doesn’t mean that you abdicate your responsibilities as leader and manager; it’s your job to make the calls. You’ll find more receptive minds though when they are able to see the world through your eyes, even if only for a short while

I hope this helps.


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The Racer’s Edge - By Greig Clark

"Winston has hundreds of ideas a day. The challenge is trying to figure out which of them are any good.” So said U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt to his chief military adviser, Gen. George C. Marshall, about British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during one of their wartime planning conferences.
And so it was. Winston’s military advice ran from the inspired (breaking the trench stalemate in the First World War by creating tank units to go "over them”) to the ridiculous (invading the Dardanelles and the "soft underbelly of Europe” to go "around them”). Like any good creative thinker, Sir Winston disliked doing things the same old way, especially if it wasn’t working. He probably knew well one popular definition of insanity — namely, trying for the 10th time that which didn’t succeed nine times before. Churchill wasn’t mad, but some of his advice was.

So, how do you systematically separate the wheat from the chaff, without taking too much time away from running the business?

In his book Taking Advice: How leaders get good counsel and use it wisely, former CEO Dan Ciampa writes that "to be most effective, especially during times of change, the people in charge must be shrewder and more discerning advice-takers”.  But in his business as an adviser to CEOs and boards, he has "met very few ‘smart clients’ who know how to make the best of the help available.”

That’s not good. So let me share my Five Steps to Taking Advice. The process is derived from my many years on both sides of the advisory table. I have tried to implement solicited and unsolicited advice as a lone-wolf entrepreneur (as I was building College Pro Painters) and as the CEO of companies that had boards (such as ARXX Building Products, now run by Second Cup founder Frank O’Dea). I have tried to give effective advice as a director of many companies I’ve invested in as a venture capitalist and now as an advisory-board member for seven entrepreneurial firms.

  1. Know what you want It is so hard to get us entrepreneurs to sit down and clarify the nature of the advice we’re looking for. Categorizing things helps. Ciampa lists four types of advice (strategic, operational, political, personal) and advisers (experts, experienced, partners, sounding board). Knowing which kind of advice you need and who might provide it can take you halfway to success, because it empowers the next four steps.

  2. Listen actively My favourite definition of "strategy” is the ability to "pay selective inattention to the irrelevant.” The two best techniques I know for separating the relevant from the irrelevant are asking questions and writing things down. Deliberately thinking of questions to ask keeps your mind active and your internal radar scanning for what’s relevant. Writing things down is better than mere listening but still allows for mental laziness, so I concentrate on finding the three key points to circle or write down.

  3. Filter, focus, commit At the end of a great time-management seminar I attended, my notes included 25 suggestions. Of these, I had circled 10. I filtered them down to three that: a) would work; and b) I might actually employ. Then I put those three on a sticky note and posted it at eye level beside my desk. (I see it now.) This can raise your commitment level by 25% versus just listening. However, you must write something actionable and specific, such as "raise my closing ratio by 10% by calling prospects about all outstanding proposals every Tuesday”.
    To take it up another 50%, state your commitment to another person. This gives you the racer’s edge. Asked how he was best able to help Michael Phelps win eight Olympic gold medals, swimming coach Bob Bowman said, "I helped him to dream and imagine, and then held him to those dreams and pushed him when he needed it”. Having someone to hold you accountable will substantially increase the probability that you will use the advice you have paid so much in time and money to acquire, consider and write down.

  4. Just do it!

  5. Review Did you do what you said you were going to do? Self-review works for some, but it’s better to commit to someone you’ve empowered to hold you accountable, as many of the entrepreneurs I advise have done with me.
While we all believe that other people’s advice can help us get better at what we do, it’s how we take it that makes all the difference to business leaders, athletes and, yes, military generals. Marshall went on to be what Roosevelt called the great "Organizer of Victory” in WWII and the architect of the highly successful Marshall Plan to rebuild a shattered Europe. He used some of Churchill’s advice to do both.

[Reprinted from ProfitXtra  (September 9-22)

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Section 3 - On The Horizon

15 Superb Questions

15 Superb Questions For Pivotal Leadership - by Jeff Haltrecht

Jeff Haltrecht is a principal Leadership Coach at the Polaris Learning Academy and the Facilitator of the Polaris Alumni; he is a regular contributor to Polaris Digest.

Asking yourself the hard questions is one of the best leadership skills a Top Leader can practice.  In his opening article, David challenges us to think about the impact our actions have on those who work with and for us, putting forth four easy to grasp concepts on how to better engage individuals in our organization.

For the Top Leader, reflection is critical to focusing the desire for change and facilitating the new reality.  This begs the question ‘How best to reflect on the issues and opportunities facing the company?’  The answer lies in the questions you ask of yourself and your team.

The more tough you are with the questions, the more open you are to disciplined debate, the more honest the answers will be; helping you focus and prioritize the organization on initiatives that build long-term value.  

Here we go…

  1. How can we simplify the business model in order to do fewer things better?
  2. What is our single biggest obstacle to doubling sales?
  3. What should we be working on, but can’t get to?
  4. What and/or who is keeping the organization from attaining it’s 5 year plan?
  5. Which personal goal do I wish I hadn’t missed last year?
  6. Can I articulate the organization’s competitive advantage in 2 phrases or less?
  7. How do we fit into our customer’s strategic plan?
  8. Who will run the organization/department if I became unavailable tomorrow?
  9. Do I know what motivates each of my direct reports and how they want to be rewarded?
  10. What would happen if I encouraged my front line employees to deal with customer issues on the spot?
  11. Am I comfortable surrendering more and more to the process and letting my people lead?
  12. Are we building a learning culture where people can thrive?
  13. How are we measuring the organization’s productivity?
  14. What’s going to happen if we don’t adapt the business model to the new consumer/customer behaviours caused by the recent economic crisis?
  15. Do I know what I should stop doing because of the stress it’s causing my body?

And one bonus question for you to ponder:

  • If my people are fearful of change, what am I personally doing to help them overcome it?

With answers in hand, pick 2 or 3 issues at a time and make them a priority for debate and change.  It could be organization-focused or it could be personal.  Either way, a few must make it into your monthly action plan.  When complete, tackle the next couple, trying not to overload yourself or the company all at once (obviously this is counterproductive).

Ask yourself these questions at minimum quarterly, if not more often.  Then start asking your direct reports similar styled questions that get their mind thinking around items that matter to you and the company’s success.

Don’t give people the answers and don’t make them feel insecure if they struggle with the truth.  The purpose is to stretch their thinking and let them know what matters to you.  You will find that over time, and it won’t take long, they will begin asking the questions of themselves and start evolving their behaviour.  Best of all, they will thank you for the opportunity to learn and grow together.

Do you have a favorite ‘tough-minded’ question of your own to share with readers of Polaris Digest?  Send it to me at and we'll include it in the October issue.  Thanks!

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Your Development

Polaris Leadership Academy now accepting new participants

Now is the time to register for participation in the next Polaris program.  This is your opportunity to grow significantly as a leader and to become a key driver of your organization’s future.

  • Are you finding it difficult to engage and mobilize your people and/or peers?
  • Do your messages and points of view go unheard in the organization?
  • Do you struggle to build strong relationships?
  • Do you often feel like a voice in the wilderness?
  • Do you know deep down that you could do more?

If you answered ‘yes’ to even one of these questions, you will profit from Polaris.  Through insightful assessment, tutoring and constructive coaching, we identify, stimulate and develop positive and enduring leaders and managers, helping you to prepare for more substantial contributions, more significant roles and greater responsibilities.

Over a period of a full year we cover 9 strategies in depth through a series of interactive workouts and practicums shared with peer-level colleagues and augmented by one-on-one individual coaching.  You will gain greater self insights and awareness of personal strengths and competencies as well as learn how to leverage knowledge, skills, experience and relationships to secure enhanced results. Through this experience you become increasingly focused, self confident and resilient, contributing real value to the organization in practical, measurable ways.

A new Polaris program will be launched in the Spring of 2011.  

Visit or call David at 416-254-4167 or Jeff at 905-601-0311 to find out more.

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