Real Leaders

Why Smart People Fail – 4 Steps for Convincing Leaders to Change

I’ve been working with Molly, a smart, young, frustrated leader in a big complex organization. I was asked to work with her because her department was continuously failing to deliver results on time or on budget. Senior management decided there was a morale problem, and that if people just worked harder results would improve.

So I was told by senior management to help Molly “grow up, quit whining and to show some leadership.” Of course when I talked to Molly I found a very different story. It was true, her people were discouraged and griping. It’s also true that they needed to work with more focus and commitment.

But their morale problem was not due to a lazy work ethic. 

The root cause was that Molly’s teams were prevented from being productive because they were at the end of a long chain of broken systems that produced bug-ridden computer code. Testing was supposed to integrate various work streams of code into a user interface that customers would love. But, to even get close to achieving that goal they were continuously rewriting the code itself and re-engineering the product to meet new business requirements. Of course Molly’s group was blamed for all the company’s troubles because their work was so visible and easy to measure.

Now there was a target on her back and stories that she was too young and too wimpy to get the job done.

Neither was true. Yet Molly was stuck, her confidence was waning and the stories about Molly being a loser were getting louder. We often hear the advice “don’t act like a victim.”

Well, what if you are a victim?

I find lots of victims in many organizations just like Molly. You see, competent people are often made to look like idiots because the system they work in isn’t designed to produce the results required.

What’s frustrating is that many lazy senior leaders believe that the answer to all performance problems is a stronger work ethic and a good attitude.

That’s just plain ignorant.

In fact, research shows that 81% of employees will do what is necessary to achieve results under three conditions:

  1.  They understand their job and how their efforts directly contribute to results.
  2. They have the skills and knowledge necessary to do their job.
  3. That the organizational systems that support their work are aligned so employees can invest their energy into achieving results instead of workarounds, rework, and fixing the morale problems.

You may be familiar with these principles as they are the bedrocks of total quality and lean management. Let me assure you most organizations have not mastered these three conditions.

To the contrary, I find many employees are confused about how their efforts make a difference.

Many don’t understand the organizations’ strategy and most find it very difficult to accomplish a constant stream of complex and often conflicting goals. These are failures of leadership, not failures of effort. So I told young Molly that she had to become the smartest leader in the organization. And that she had to prove it with hard facts. It took six weeks for her to gather the data that proved that her department was confronted with the impossible task of turning garbage into gold. She also came up with direct solutions that would improve results immediately.

What was challenging is that the solutions required other leaders to change the way they were doing things.

This made Molly’s direct boss very nervous so he kept asking her to water-down her plain spoken mandate for change. This, of course, made Molly very discouraged causing her to consider quitting altogether and look for a job in which she could excel.

I assured her that this was a leadership challenge she would face throughout her entire career.

I told her that the grass is always greener until you start cutting the grass. Instead I proposed that this was a magnificent problem for her to solve because it is one she will have to solve again and again no matter where she worked.

Here is my strategy for Molly. First, recruit powerful allies.

You do this by identifying excellent leaders. People who are really smart, get things done and are politically savvy. Recruit them by asking them to mentor you for one session. Tell them you have a problem that you think they have the answer to.

Second, be prepared.

Once you’ve recruited a mentor treat the meeting like an audience with the pope.  Be prepared with easy to understand and documented facts. Don’t spend more then 20% of your time explaining your problem. Propose well conceived solutions.  These are solutions that would really work if you could just get wider support to try them. Ask for your mentors input with an open mind.

Third, ask for help.

Borrow some strength from your mentor’s political capital by asking him/her to invest in you. Ask your new mentor if there is anything they can do to specifically blaze a trail for your solutions by talking to his team and his peers about it.

Fourth, make some noise.

If you were going to make change happen you need to be both calm and courageous. What this looks like is that you’re constantly and vividly describing the solutions to the problems your team faces. There will be many people who don’t like this.

Your job is to ignore the criticism.

You are not being whiny or weak.  Just don’t be emotional or dramatic. Be confident, expert and committed.

This will mean you must take full control of your inner story about yourself.

Under stress and uncertainty our brains freak out with self-doubt and second guessing. That is best overcome with being prepared with facts and logic and a willingness to consider all root cause solutions. Be inflexible on the goal and completely flexible on the true solution. Well, that’s what Molly did. It took 90 days. But it all came to a head one Thursday afternoon. Molly was in a meeting in which she was being asked to take on yet more unachievable goals with even less resources.

Without losing her cool and with the definiteness that was compelling… she pushed back.  Then she asserted her solutions again assuring the group that success was possible if changes were made. Later, an evening conference call that included several senior leaders including her mentor confirmed that new changes would be made to change the system that was making it impossible for Molly to succeed.

Molly was congratulated on her assertiveness, preparation and commitment to the organization success.

Yeah, I would say her stock went up. I know this experience is about a woman shaking things up in her workplace but I have helped many young male leaders by using the same formula.

It works because it uses both hard and soft power. Logic and emotion, facts and relationships.

So are you putting up with work systems that are actually designed to make you fail? Don’t put up with it.


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