Making business transformation… Strategic, Simple, Sustainable

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Research is repeatedly cited that 70 to 85% of jobs are found through networking.  Anecdotally, the majority of my new hires are those I’ve seen in action, so I suggest that it’s time well spent to network more effectively.

  1.  Be the Ant: Start networking today for tomorrow’s possibilities – Really get to know your co-workers and staff; where they’ll be in five years is unknown and where you’re going is only partly in your control.
  2.  Reach-out: Create opportunities rather than wait for them – Did someone start working in your area who is relocating?  Invite that person and some of your friends to lunch or for a home cooked meal.  If you were living out of a hotel room, what would you appreciate?
  3.  Excel: Do your current job well – Give it your best, especially with a role that you think you’re overqualified to do. Your reputation starts with how well you do what you do and the attitude you walk in with – everyday.
  4.  Share: Use the power of Linkedin to stay connected – Keep your profile up to date and ‘message’ others when you have news that they care about.


When you’re ready to change jobs, it’s sometimes surprising to learn who within your network opens the door to your next opportunity.  All of this happens because part of networking is also watching for talent and finding ways to give a hand up. I personally do this in honor of those who have helped me along the way- the pay-back is a strong team with few surprises.

Stock prices started rising at CSX when there was but a whisper of Hunter Harrison, former CEO of Canadian Pacific, moving to its helm.  This septuagenarian, now CEO at CSX, matters to shareholders because he improves operating ratios in an industry that has legitimate excuses.  Building a train takes time as productivity is limited by track space, inertia and locomotive availability; running trains efficiently on congested rail has its limits and safety is paramount but slows work down because “it’s hard to stop a train”.

I don’t have an opinion yet on Mr. Harrison’s long term impact, but he’ll start with some proven moves, coined as ‘Precision Railroading’:

  • Boundaryless metrics- train productivity based on the speed and accuracy of individual cars from pickup to destination instead of the scorecards at each terminal
  • Optimized run times – customers are incentivised to partner with their transporter to reduce cost by running during non-peak hours, avoiding congestion
  • Addressing the rulebooks – some “belt and suspenders” safety rules edited to keep employees both safe and productive

These changes have been repeated successfully by Harrison and the concepts are easy to find in the public domain.  So, why wouldn’t every transportation organization take a serious look at adopting some or all of these efficiency techniques?  It’s too late for some of the previous CSX leadership team, but we can all learn from them. At least once a year, consider the following for the organization:  

Who’s the “Hunter Harrison” in your industry… what best practices are you going to emulate… what’s needed to deploy quickly… what could your “Hunter” do next to disrupt the status quo?

It’s that time of year to reflect upon what we’ve learned from successes and failures and to consider next steps for personal growth.  In the spirit of giving, I’m sharing a framework that’s worked for me throughout my career; I hope that it gets you closer to your desired future.

First, what do I want to do just for myself?  What makes me feel good about me?  Yoga and Italian lessons are on my list for the new year.

Second, what’s my long range professional goal?  

  • Start with a vision of where you would like to be in five years; life and technology change too much to plan any further.  
  • Once you’ve painted a picture of your desired future, it’s time to talk with a few people who are already there about a realistic view of your gaps, and the experiences, education and results needed to get from here to there.  

When my long term aspirations were to make more impactful decisions in a corporate environment, it meant moving up in the organization.  To do that, I learned that I needed more customer facing experiences/roles, night school for an MBA and fate was smiling with an unexpected opportunity to participate in the pilot of an internal International Business program.

Third, how can I make the world a better place?  The peanut butter approach to giving back doesn’t work (a very small impact on several causes).  Instead, give more to the few platforms where your passions lie.  As an example, I believe that financial literacy gives students an idea of the cost of day to day life, credit card interest rates, how to interview for a position and salaries for the jobs that they plan for- so they aren’t blindsided as adults.  My concentrated effort included the time commitment as a board member for twelve years, along with volunteerism and donations to Junior Achievement.

Because professional and personal challenges are going to happen, a long range plan is more like a compass than a map.  It doesn’t predict the terrain that you’ll walk in life but it does provide the direction toward becoming your own hero.

Moving up within an organization should be transformational. Each step forward as a leader obviously starts with some added responsibilities; what is often missed is that delegating is one of those responsibilities necessary to create a highly functioning organization.

  • Front line supervisors: less doing – more enabling
  • Mid-level managers: less firefighting – more finding the right people and tools to execute on the stated goals… without the fires
  • Senior leaders: fewer details – more critical thinking and orchestrating the future

When looking in the mirror, it only gives one view of how a manager has transitioned after a promotion. And, it isn’t intuitive how much success factors shift from personal skills to organizational capabilities. Use 360 assessment tools to identify transformational blind spots, then seek out a mentor with relevant experience to help identify what to start, what to stop and what to build upon. Few leaders get it right the first time without some guidance and coaching at that next level of leadership.

Early in my career, I was told to dress for the job that I wanted.  Looking the part matters, but executive presence is much more than the right attire.  If you want to bring your best forward everyday, here’s what makes a difference in interviews and on the job:

  1. Be in the present and be prepared
  2. Listen more than talk
  3. Make decisions with the big picture in mind
  4. Say “yes” to unexpected opportunities
  5. Own your mistakes and articulate the growth that came from them
  6. Quantify your successes and give credit to those who helped make them happen
  7. Avoid subconscious messaging, choosing your body language is as important as choosing your words   

Executive presence defines how you show up; what is expected of you, as you transition from individual contributor to supervisor to functional or general manager, is a conversation for another day.   

Why does a talented individual contributor choose NOT to take manager’s position? It could be that there’s no interest in the potential for growth or that the administrative role might dilute their area of expertise. More likely, it is because that person has watched the legacy of managers who work an over-abundance of hours and appear to be perpetually stressed. The perceived time commitment and the responsibilities out-weigh the benefits and value of the role.

As leaders, we do this to ourselves. We understand that it’s our responsibility for deciding between priorities in our lives. What we often forget is that this segues with the team of people we’re responsible for developing, which requires delegating and mentoring. It also means that we need to step away to give others a chance to flourish.

Train and coach, then share some of your load; expect the same of the managers working for you.  Your HR Manager or trusted consultant can assist with a reassessment of how succession planning might improve for your organization.

An image of success should be woven into the fabric of every enterprise.  Within the threads are the faces of associates with the right skills and behaviors to achieve the desired outcome- that is what competency modeling provides.

1.  Take a critical look at the current state and decide if the culture that exists in your business today is what you want to propagate into the future.

2.  If it isn’t, select what you aspire to be known for as part the base of your operations three years from now.

3.  Focus on the vital few characteristics (no more than five) that will differentiate your team from the competition.

From this, you can identify or hire the ideal associates with desired skills and behaviors, retain them and build on their best qualities. Creating a competency model is relatively easy; it’s re-defining the future culture of an organization that requires the difficult conversations.

If you were to brainstorm ways to improve your operations with a group of energized college students, what could they come up with?  What if it were a group of farm hands?  Many of their ideas wouldn’t necessarily apply, but there are those few that could simplify how things are done, change the output or eliminate legacy processes.  The greatest innovations typically come from outside of a given industry.  It isn’t an expert in aerodynamics known for first flight and it won’t be business as usual that will change your paradigm.  

Before painting the walls fuchsia and hiring an innovation team, it’s time to have some fun with your associates.  Solve a business challenge by brainstorming as one team of detectives, another team of children and a third team of sports analysts.  How would they see and solve the problem?  Once fresh ideas are flowing, build on the best ones.  When you are ready for implementation, be sure to put baseline measurements in place to realize and communicate the impact of your efforts.

When associates show ownership for the customer experience and the results of their actions, you’ll likely find leaders known for trust and candor. The extreme example of a leader creating a culture of accountability is Pope Francis, who’s become change agent within one of the world’s oldest institutions.

To build a culture of accountability into an organization, let’s start with trust– it’s living the promise of integrity:

  • Credibility: choose words that are transparent
  • Reliability: take actions that can be depended upon
  • Openness: provide knowledge that matters to associates
  • Servant leadership: make the focus on others greater than focus on self

As for candor, think of the characteristics of leaders who create an aura within the enterprise.  Candid leaders:

  • Tell the truth, admit mistakes and expect others to do the same
  • Introduce courageous conversations
  • Employ the strength of diversity
  • Find inspired ideas in the opinions of naysayers

While accountability is a topic often discussed, there can be a wide gap between the theory and making it a sustainable practice. This is not simple; it requires senior leaders’ commitment and focus.  More importantly, it involves hard work and dedication to sustain it. When organizations take the challenge to hold themselves accountable, it is one of the best ways to both ensure success and boost associate morale.

If your personal business space needs attention, Kaizen (continuous improvement) can reduce the chaos for office dwellers, travelers, and telecommuters, alike.

  1. Reduce the Clutter (Sort): Take a look at the paper that’s weighing you down. Shred the obsolete*, finish or delegate what you can and create files for in-process and necessary records.  I resolve to shred it, do it, delegate it, or file it.
  2. Stop the Searching (Set in Order): Create electronic files with clear names and a taxonomy that will make sense for others looking for documents stored within.
  3. Ready in a Moment (Shine): When back in the office, reload whatever is needed for the next trip and clean things up.  The client notices everything.
  4. Document the Procedure (Standardize): Clear and simple instructions are the key to effective delegation.
  5. Make it a Habit (Sustain): Let’s practice the Five S’s once a week to keep a clean desk and a lightened load for that travel bag.

Getting personal space in order can be daunting, so start with me Monday on a ‘go forward’ plan.  Each week, make it a point to employ some S’s for new items coming in and address just a small piece of the legacy material that we’ve been staring at or carrying for too many miles.

*Before disposing of obsolete business records, review your organization’s records management policy and retention schedule.

Your phone number in China and Singapore matters, and wearing a red shirt in Thailand might be a poor choice.  Those are the relatively easy things to research before setting foot on new land; what’s not so easy is understanding the culture of a business.  Whether it’s a new customer, new acquisition or new job, it’s best to create a plan for assessing the culture of an organization before making your mark. Discovery includes:

  • How is risk viewed?
  • Is innovation celebrated or is status quo the place to be?
  • How many levels are there from top to bottom?
  • Do associates view their work as jobs or careers?
  • Are compliance and integrity part of the fabric or just words?
  • Is/was there a maniac with a mission at the top that created the culture?

Being culturally competent wherever you are helps avoid costly missteps.  If change is in order, find what’s working well and what fits with the future state to accelerate a successful transition.

The Kroger Co. markets to their 11 Million customers as individuals, and they do it using data that they have readily available. When a retail business sends out mailers, it is typically based on zip codes or demographics; using this method a 3% response rate is considered very successful. Over 70% of recipients use some portion of Kroger mailers.  Now, think about the added potential- have you ever gone into a grocery store with a coupon and only bought one item?

To break the mass marketing paradigm, Kroger employs loyalty program data to identify the unique buying habits of each customer; brand preferences, size choices and a bit of discovery is used to select twelve coupons mailed quarterly.  These “snowflake” mailers (each one is unique) have resulted in about $10 Billion in revenue.  

This is just one example of using data for both customer and organizational benefit.  Do you know what data is being warehoused in your organization?  If not, find out what’s available and brainstorm with a small group what might be used to improve sales, retention rates, resource management, or something else important that matters to your clients or organization.  If you aren’t currently capturing data, what information would change the game?

It can be surprising to learn what a person will tell us, if only we allow them time for reflection before we fill the silence ourselves.  My “ah-ha” moment occurred during a mock negotiation, with instructions to speak, then not speak again until the other party did- regardless of the length of the pause.  Many of us failed after only 5-10 seconds of silence.

Filling the gap in a conversation is what humans do and the pattern starts before we even begin to walk.  Restraining from speaking when there is silence is an effective way for us to let our customers, employees and inner circle say more. It is uncomfortable at first, but the payback is that we get to appear wise beyond our years.  By listening more, this might one day be true


Instincts alone in this complex world can be fatal.  About 15% of aircraft crashes occurred because the pilot became disoriented, then ignored or didn’t know how to read the instrument panel. It’s called spacial disorientation and if the person trusts their instincts rather than what instruments are telling them, then the odds aren’t good- 90% of these crashes result in fatalities.

Taking this into the office, spacial disorientation becomes decision making without the utilization of data.  The odds aren’t good here, either. Three things to check and re-check to get instrument rated for business:

  1. Is the data being monitored an indicator of something that really matters?
  2. Are the key indicators updated often enough to spot a problem/opportunity before the customer or competition?
  3. Is the data visible and easy to understand for associates who can make a difference?

If this is new for you, be a smart pilot and create a dashboard of the vital few data trends that matter.  If you’re a pro, periodically seek out blindspots. What might your cloudbank be?

To move up in most companies, the ones who succeed are typically fast learners, with self confidence, a great work ethic, good mentors and the willingness to take roles that will fill skill gaps. After “making it”, it becomes about hiring the right leaders and inspiring them to move beyond what they believe they can accomplish.

Servant leadership and building those around you benefits everyone involved, but the higher you go, the more difficult it can be to find your own inspiration. If this resonates with you, now is the time to solicit members for a “liquid network”. Change agents like Ben Franklin, Richard Branson, and Jack Welch created circles of people that they trusted, away from their normal workplace, to test ideas, laugh about their missteps and opine on new directions.

  • Who do you respect and trust?
  • Who thinks differently than you?
  • Who energizes your creative thoughts and provides honest feedback?

Schedule that lunch !

One common challenge at all levels of leadership is recognizing that our own biases color information. When the decision really matters, ask the question “what if I’m wrong?” It opens us to evaluate input differently and we can learn more about the way our associates think.

Exercise your critical thinking skills and consider how the following statements are true:

The sun stood still for three hours.

This square has three sides.

She didn’t eat for a year.

The fabric is both red and yellow throughout.

Here are my answers, can you come up with something else?

The sun stood still for three hours – it’s because of the earth’s movements that we perceive the sun to move

The square has three sides – it also has one, two, three, four, five, and six sides

She didn’t eat for a year – the person was on a liquid diet

The fabric is both red and yellow throughout – the fabric was orange

Welcome to the new normal. Millennials now represent the majority of the US workforce and Gen Xers are a close second ( If you or your key staff are Baby Boomers and are planning to retire within the next few years, there is a good chance that your organization will be negatively impacted by the vast amount of information walking out of the door. Three questions to mitigate this risk should be asked of those planning an exit:

  • What do you work on / know that really matters and no one else has a clue about?
  • When you leave, which ball that you’ve been juggling is most likely to fall?
  • And, what are the rare pieces of information that you’re privy to that shouldn’t be lost?

Capturing critical information should be done long before retirement announcements, and can be best captured using Head, Hands and Heart.

First, use your “Head” and utilize today’s technology. Make it part of your short term plan to capture important data and information in an electronic repository. If there are a few “go to” people who are tapped regularly for obscure contracts or data, work with them on scanning important records and assigning common sense key-words.

Second, there’s no better learning environment than doing, so facilitate getting some “Hands” dirty. Connect your high potential associates with those who have extensive in-house experience. Tie performance measures to successful transfer of knowledge on how and why things work the way that they do. Innovation is today’s buzz, but keeping the machine of your business running smoothly requires an organization’s brain trust.

Finally, if you are the one leaving, have a “Heart” and share your wealth of knowledge by mentoring someone who could use a hand up.

The word “innovation” seems to be a trigger for resistance, especially from established institutions. If we can’t get disruptive change started with those most knowledgeable in a field, then we’ve got to seek out those who don’t know where the boundaries are drawn.

Sean Parker, founder of Napster and founding President of Facebook, created a dialogue that got the six biggest cancer institutions to work together (similar to what he did with the record labels and Spotify). The hospitals now share their findings and the future benefits of each other’s successes. Sean also helped with researchers’ time by providing a substantial gift; as much as 90% of their focus was previously spent chasing grants. Finally, the funding that he provided didn’t follow the established funding stream but went to researchers with breakthrough concepts.

If you don’t have a “Sean”, walk away from a problem that you own, rejuvenate your mind and come back with a fresh perspective. Invite someone not ‘in the know’ to hear your story. They may see something that’s in your blindspot.

Your decisions between strategy and tactics are happening every day, even subconsciously. If your objective is to “not lose” or to avoid change in business or in life, the choices that you make are predictable and sometimes end up resulting in a waste of time. Your outcome is just as predictable. If you are playing to “win” or to improve the outcome, then you have to employ a strategy.

Games on smartphones are the simplest example of thinking tactically or strategically. Most people play with quick first moves before they view the landscape of what’s been dealt. They are using tactics and it comes with immediate gratification for the short term. The strategist studies the reality in front of them, then assesses multiple possibilities and risks to anticipate the next few moves- it’s the calm before the storm.

Your move.

Look for something new about the art and science of leadership every Friday.