Bob MacDonald on Business

Sage Advice for Superior Business Management

Bob MacDonald on Business header image 1


August 10th, 2014 · Building Better Business Managers, Business Management, Improving Your Business Leadership, Politics and Politicians Gone Awry

Despite promises to the contrary, America is creeping back into the internecine sectarian conflict in Iraq.

In the immortal words of Chester A. Riley, “What a revoltin’ development this is!” (Except for regular readers like Marvis Anderson, you probably are too young to remember this iconic line often evoked by William Bendix on the 1950′s television show Life of Riley) Nevertheless, the sentiment almost certainly best expresses the feelings of most when it comes to America’s active military reengagement in Iraq.

One has to ask: Will we never learn from the mistakes of the past to prevent mistakes in the present? It’s not the purpose of this piece to explore or take sides in the debate over past, present or future involvement in Iraq, but our history in Iraq can serve as a superb leadership “teaching lesson.” For those who seek to be strong, effective leaders, knowing the history and observing the actions – good or bad – of those in position of leadership during our years in Iraq, is a great way to learn lessons that can help anyone become a successful leader.

History should teach us

Any objective analysis of the history of America’s involvement in Iraq since the launch of the “shock and awe” aerial attack in March, 2003, right up to last Friday’s bombing of Islamic militant positions in northern Iraq will show that virtually every fundamental principle of good leadership has been violated — again and again.

Starting with President Bush’s flawed justification for involvement in Iraq – based on nonexistent or manufactured intelligence – right up to President Obama’s rationalization for the current bombing – to protect American diplomats – virtually every decision was reactive rather than proactive. They all lacked the must-have components of successful leadership.

Fortuitously, anyone who recognizes, understands and seeks to learn from these mistakes can’t help but be a better leader. So what are we to learn from the muddled leadership that plagued the incursion in Iraq resulting in the loss of thousands of American lives (not to mention several hundred thousand Iraqis killed) and trillions of dollars – American dollars – wasted?

The first – and maybe most important – lesson to learn is that:

Any objective, large or small, must be realistic, transparent and achievable.

When a goal fails to meet any of these prerequisites – let alone all three of them – the chances of success become unrealistic. The result will be confusion and dissent among followers, causing efforts to be wasted. When President Bush said the objective of the American invasion of Iraq was to “build a free democratic society in Iraq,” he was setting an unrealistic goal; ignoring centuries of sectarian and religious conflict between the sects and tribes that populated the area of Iraq. Ironically, President Obama committed exactly the same error by setting the same objectives in Afghanistan.

Another basic lesson to learn is that as a leader, never promise more than you can deliver and always deliver more than you promise. When MissionaccomplishedObama “ended the Iraq war” and withdrew all troops, he made the promise that “America’s involvement in the war was over” and Iraq would have to rise or fall on its own; America would not return to the war. Now stuck with that pledge, he has to search for excuses to go back on his promise. “We are not getting back into the conflict,” says Obama, “but just protecting our people who are there.” (If Obama’s real objective is to protect the American diplomats in the Kurdish capital of Erbil, why not just evacuate them?) Making a promise that can’t be or isn’t delivered on by the leader only serves to weaken the leader.

One could go on and on with specific examples of how those who propagated and managed the war in Iraq violated fundamental principles of leadership, but it would be better to explore the core tenets of effective leadership that were so utterly nonexistent from our political leaders in the Iraq war.

Successful leaders always exhibit the four Cs: They are clear, constant, consistent and concise in what they say, seek and do. It sounds so simple, but these four Cs are essential and powerful elements of true leadership. In short, leaders not only “talk the talk,” they “walk the walk.” (The Cs displayed by those leaders running the Iraq war were: Contradictory, inconsistent, complicated and confusing!)

Effective leaders paint a vision of the objective that is clear, focused and easy to understand. And while the objectives may (should) be difficult and challenging, they must be seen as realistically possible. Ask yourself: How clear, focused, understandable and realistic was the vision painted to justify America’s war in Iraq? From effective leaders once a vision has been offered and accepted, there are no contradictions; there are no broken promises; there are no half-baked or shifting agendas.

Consistency must be a hallmark of leadership. Consistency comes down to something very simple: When communicating with followers say what you mean and mean what you say. Measure that type of consistency against what we heard from leaders during the Iraq war. A leader must constantly remind and reinforce the objective in a consistent way. Being consistent does not mean being inflexible in adjusting to shifting conditions, but it means not easily changing direction away from the ultimate objective.

Leaders understand that the best way to keep things moving toward the objective is to always be consciously concise in their communications and direction. The best way to accomplish this is to focus on keeping things simple. The truth is that anyone – especially political leaders and bureaucrats – can take a simple issue and make it complicated, but leadership can be defined as taking a complicated issue and making it simple and understandable. Something we didn’t see much of in the Iraq war.

There is no doubt that always being clear, constant, consistent and concise is not easy. The challenges any leader faces are dynamic, challenging and often changing, but what often differentiates successful leaders from failed ones is the effort to use the four Cs of leadership as their guidelines for their words and action.

And the Moral of the Story …

An effective and ultimately successful leader employs techniques that are – without fail – clear, constant, consistent and concise. Without uniform application of these principles leadership becomes rudderless and ineffective. Inconsistency from a leader breeds confusion, frustration and loss of respect from followers.

The answer for any leader is to consistently say what you mean and mean what you say. Speak the truth concisely and avoid the urge to confuse and complicate. And, above all establish a clear vision of the objective and constantly keep that vision before those charged with making it happen. One final thought: Effective leaders never promise more than they can deliver and always deliver more than they promise.

The truth is that if this style of leadership had been applied to Iraq, our actions would have been significantly different and there would be no discussion of going back in to make the same leadership mistakes again. Particularly the kind open-ended military mission which Obama admits, ” . . . will be a long-term project.”

PDF Creator    Send article as PDF   

→ 1 CommentTags: ··

Having a Sense of Urgency is the Only Way to Avoid a Sense of Panic

August 3rd, 2014 · Business Management, Improving Your Business Leadership, Politics and Politicians Gone Awry

When a sense of urgency is missing, crisis management becomes the SOP.

All of us have experienced the feeling of panic as the deadline to complete a task that seemed buried in the distance future suddenly hangs ominously before us. Remember those school days when we were given ample notice of a term paper due, but kept putting it off till the last minute? Then, when we were reduced to panic city we just threw something together to get by.

There is no better example of this adolescent lack of a sense of urgency than the spectacle we witnessed this week in the halls of the US Congress. Members of Congress panichave known since the icy winds of January blew down Independence Avenue that they faced an August 1st deadline to pass critical legislation. That’s when lawmakers would break for a five-week vacation.

That reality should have created a sense of urgency to get things done in a systematic fashion. But noooo. They dallied for seven long months until the deadline was mere hours away. Then they were forced to cram all of the work into the three final frenetic days of the session. It is no surprise that neither our term paper nor the actions of Congress received passing grades. And it didn’t have to be that way.

The Magic of a Sense of Urgency

When decisions are made under crisis pressure they have the high risk of being bad decisions because they are targeted to meet the short-term predicament, rather than provide the needed long-term solutions. Having a sense of urgency means making decisions on important issues now, not pushing them off to when the pressure of a deadline forces panic choices. And the advantage of having a sense of urgency is that opportunities, issues and problems are tackled and dealt with when they arise and are not pushed off into the future when – facing a fixed deadline – they become a crisis.

The lack of a sense of urgency in facing change, opportunity or issues is a symptom of complacency. We may have successfully dealt with these issues in the past so there is no reason to worry about them now. There is often the complacent attitude that the deadline is so far off we have plenty of time to “get ‘er done.” The problem is that complacency – in any form and for any reason – ultimately leads to failure. And worse, it can become an egregious habit, a standard operating procedure.

It is my belief that measuring the sense of urgency exhibited by an individual or an organization to get things done is the best indicator of future performance – be it success or failure. Study the rise of a successful individual or organization and you will discover that there was always a high intensity sense of urgency to get things done in order to achieve success. Study the downfall of any successful individual or organization and you will find that as success was achieved complacency crept in and a sense of urgency was lost; leading to an environment of constant crisis management.

So what is this sense of urgency? Some confuse it with frenzied activity; the idea of doing something, anything, just so there is activity, but that is wrong. Just having a meeting about a problem is not exhibiting a sense of urgency, but making sure that a decision comes out of the meeting is. A sense of urgency means that all tasks, decisions and actions are tackled in a consistent timely fashion. But there is a difference between having a sense of urgency and shooting from the hip or making off-the-cuff decisions, just to be doing something.

The truth is that for a sense of urgency to be effective it calls for much more communication, teamwork, organization and planning than it does to be ruled by a looming big deadline. Exhibiting a sense of urgency simply means that you or the organization has a firm determination to get things done; and that calls for preparation, organization and planning.

Having a sense of urgency does not mean there are not deadlines to meet, but the deadlines should be simple and short-term in nature. When a sense of urgency is in place, that ultimate deadline waiting out in the future is never a problem, because all has been done that needs to be done before the deadline arrives; and it has been reached in an organized, systematic and efficient way – with little or no panic.

A Sense of Urgency is not Mystical but it can be Magical

At my former company – LifeUSA Insurance – every effort was made to embed a sense of urgency in the culture. When it came to service – for policyholders and agents – the objective was quality service, delivered quickly and efficiently. To this end the company established a standard called “the 48-hour challenge.” The objective was to issue a new policy within 48 hours of receiving the application at the company. (The industry average at that time was six weeks!) Many steps are required to issue a new policy, but with a deadline of 48 hours always in front of us, there was a high sense of urgency to accomplish the task. Simply put, there was no time for complacency.

You might think this high standard of urgency is easily doable when the company was an eager startup with little business and few employees. But the fact is, we maintained that gold standard when the company grew from five policies a week in the beginning to the time when the company MacDonaldQuotewas issuing thousands of policies each week. And all during this time our rate of success was never less than 98 percent.

Considering the desire for a sense of urgency at LifeUSA, when it came to providing general information and service to agents, can you guess what the group charged to perform this function was called? It was called – “The Fast Team.” Members of the group were proud of that moniker and worked with urgency to make it a reality.

Another big advantage of operating with a sense of urgency is that it wards off bureaucracy. A culture focused on a determination to get things done, leaves little room for the stultifying goo of indecision and delay that comes with bureaucracy. That’s the stuff that only leads to last minute, panicky actions in face of looming deadlines. As opposed to a bureaucratic culture, when a sense of urgency exists, the objective is to make decisions and move forward, not to avoid them and protect the status quo. Individuals working with a sense of urgency focus on what needs to be done and they are not distracted or delayed by the inconsequential aspects of process and procedure so evident in a bureaucracy.

A sense of urgency doesn’t just happen; successful leaders create it.

There is a general belief that the concept of urgency works only in smaller ventures, but that is incorrect. Whether or not an organization operates with a sense of urgency is not determined by the size of an organization, but by the quality of its leadership.

The effective leader of any group recognizes that the anxiety over a looming deadline may stimulate urgent action, but this is the wrong type of urgency that can be more destructive than productive. The strong leader understands that a sense of urgency to do things and to do them now – not tomorrow – is a type of glue that will bind a group together to operate efficiently and effectively.

The challenge for the leader is to focus on and drive a sense of urgency throughout the entire organization, motivating each and every employee. The effective leader understands that start-and-stop efforts cannot instill or retain a sense of urgency in the organization. Priorities need to be clear, consistent, achievable and staunchly supported. Deadlines must be set, adhered to and achieved. Those charged with the responsibility to do what needs to be done must be given the authority to do the job and be held accountable; with clear rewards offered for success. So long as the leader operates with this philosophy, the organization will adopt and maintain the sense of urgency needed to attain and retain success.

PDF24 Creator    Send article as PDF   

→ No CommentsTags: ··

Creating an Entrepreneurial Culture in a Bureaucratic World

July 27th, 2014 · Business Management

Do you have to be an entrepreneur to build an entrepreneurial culture?

There is no doubt that we live in a bureaucratic world. It is a structured world,  often frustratingly so,  defined by rules, process and procedures. And while the world seems to embrace bureaucracy, there are many — maybe just like you — who chafe under its constrictions and yearn for a more enterprising way of corporate life.

The generally accepted antidote for bureaucracy is what is called an “entrepreneurial culture,” and everyone wistfully talks about the value of building this type of culture. But behind the talk lies a very real trap: Those who are smothered in a large bureaucratic organization feel powerless to create an entrepreneurial culture.

bureaucracyWhen you’re mired in the bureaucratic trenches it’s difficult to believe you are in a position or have the power to fight bureaucracy by building an entrepreneurial culture. Why? Because many are handcuffed by the mistaken belief that being an entrepreneur is a prerequisite for creating an entrepreneurial culture. It is as though our notions of being an entrepreneur and crafting an entrepreneurial culture are conjoined as steadfastly as Siamese twins; that you can’t have one without the other.

That restrictive mindset prevents many from even attempting to build an entrepreneurial culture. They think that, since they can never be an entrepreneur, they give-up and give-in to bureaucracy; they’re convinced that creating an entrepreneurial culture in a bureaucratic world is nothing more than a pipe dream.

That is a false conclusion. It is not only possible, but also fairly easy to build an entrepreneurial culture in a bureaucratic world, even for those who are not entrepreneurs.

The right road to bureaucratic freedom is to first, rid yourself of the belief that the attributes essential to being a successful entrepreneur are the same characteristics that form the basis of an entrepreneurial culture. That’s not the case; they can be very different.

For example, while intuitively it seems likely that an organization led by en entrepreneur will have an entrepreneurial culture, the reality is that more times than not, this is not the case. The seldom-acknowledged truth is that while the culture of an organization led by a strong entrepreneur may not be bureaucratic, it is apt to be more autocratic than entrepreneurial.

Experience has taught me that what really constrains the creation of an entrepreneurial culture – especially in large organizations – is a matter of semantics. For lack of a better term, we have fallen into the trap of identifying a culture that offers members of the organization some of the benefits of being an entrepreneur – doing the job for their own benefit – as an “entrepreneurial culture,” but this creates more confusion than understanding. It would be better to let the concept of “entrepreneur” stand on its own and think about creating a “culture” that also stands on its own.

If we can just clear our minds of the accepted idea of what an “entrepreneurial culture” is supposed to be and instead, think in terms of an “open culture,” it will enable us to look at culture building from a completely different perspective. And while we are at it, let’s also cheat on the traditional rule that says only those at the top of an organization can determine its culture.

Over and over again I have had people say to me, “I am just a small cog in a large bureaucratic organization. How can I bring about cultural change?” The answer is to ignore the larger bureaucratic culture and think of creating a distinct culture within your span of control, such as a team leader, department head or division leader. Remember that culture for the group is defined by the style of the leader at any level.

So if we are willing to open our minds and suspend the rules that inhibit the creation of an entrepreneurial culture in a bureaucratic world by working to build an “open culture,” what would it look like? How would it behave?

  • It would be a culture with a strict adherence to a core set of values.
  • The culture would constantly focus on clearly defined objectives along with continuous support for members of the group and free flowing transparent communication.
  • It would be imbued with a sense of urgency as a operating lifestyle.
  • Stress accountability where risk is clearly encouraged and accomplishment rewarded.
  • When the group is successful, all of those within the group share in the sense of ownership, participation and rewards for the success achieved.

There is nothing in this concept of an “open culture” that can’t be adopted by any leader, at any level in any size organization – even the most bureaucratic. Don’t believe it? Are you going to suggest that within your span of control you can’t have a core set of values? That you can’t clearly define the objectives of the group you lead? That you are not allowed to have constant communication with members of your group? That just because you are not an entrepreneur, you can’t create a sense of urgency among those you supervise? The truth is that you don’t have to be an entrepreneur or CEO of a company in order to build an “open culture” in your area of leadership and control.

A Real-Life Example

My first job in corporate America was as second vice president of marketing support for a large, bureaucratic insurance company. Admittedly I was naive to corporate politics and bureaucracy and certainly was not an entrepreneur, but I stumbled onto the idea of creating a “culture within a culture.” In dealing with those in the marketing support department my objective was to build a culture that some might see as “entrepreneurial,” but I only thought of it as being “open.” It may have been different from the general culture of the company, but because this was within my province of control, I had the power to implement it. (As a symbol of rejecting the overall bureaucratic culture of the company, I even moved from my private executive office to a desk in the open area with members of the department.)

My approach was to create a common goal and mission for the department; establish a sense of “we” by forming parallel interests with all members of the department. I worked hard to offer consistent transparent communication, encourage risk taking and to share the success of the department with everyone. It was not long before the marketing support department was being recognized as one of the most efficient and effective in the company.

This success even motivated other department heads to begin making an effort to duplicate our “culture” in their departments. As a result, the culture of the company began to change from the bottom-up. This experience in culture building taught me a great lesson and propelled my career forward. The point here is that despite being in a relatively low-level position in a very large bureaucratic company, it is possible within your span of control – with the right attitude and approach – to build an “open culture.”

And the Moral of the Story …

While virtually everyone sings the praises of an entrepreneurial culture, there is also virtually universal belief that only an entrepreneur can create an entrepreneurial culture. It is this misunderstanding that leads to the conclusion that it is not possible to create an entrepreneurial culture in a bureaucratic world. If we continue to cling to the traditional beliefs of culture building, then the bureaucratic world will always win. But if we are willing to open our minds to what the culture is really all about, instead of what it is called, then it is possible to build an “open culture” in a bureaucratic world. And those who are willing to adopt this approach by implementing the concepts of an open culture will ultimately achieve success and recognition that will be the envy of any entrepreneur.


Create PDF    Send article as PDF   

→ No CommentsTags: ··