A Model for Leaders – The Odysseus Archetype Part I

Emotional intelligence has been hailed by many as an important component of a business leader’s skill set these past couple of decades. One of the first, if not the first, character in Western Literature to display and employ emotional intelligence consistently is Odysseus, hero of Homer’s classic Odyssey.

Time and again, he carefully considers how to best approach and communicate with the different people he meets on his journey. This is not unlike many successful leaders today.

Homer has carefully constructed the character of Odysseus as an archetype of the model man. He is courageous and physically capable, much like Achilles, the main character in the Iliad. However, unlike Achilles, Odysseus brings emotional intelligence to every opportunity and issue. He understands the importance of individualized communication. He knows everyone has their own needs and desires and approaches them accordingly.

Most leaders also find they have to navigate difficult circumstances from time to time, ones where there was just no good answer. Odysseus, in Homer’s Odyssey, faced that very situation when coming to Scylla and Charybdis.

He was about to sail through a narrow strait. On one side was a whirlpool, Charybdis, which might sink his entire craft. On the other side lurked a six-headed, blood thirsty monster ready to pounce.

After considering the options, Odysseus made the decision to sail on the side of Scylla, knowing it would mean losing six of his crew, and possibly himself, to a horrible death. He made that hard decision so he wouldn’t take the chance of losing the entire ship.

Odysseus then made another tough choice. He resolved not to tell his crew of the hazards. He knew that knowledge would only make them anxious and unable to perform.

Scylla might not have been the path you would choose. The story allows us to see how one leader dealt with a very difficult decision. Seeing it from afar we can consider how we might have done something different and when our rock and a hard place situation arises.

So why consider this ancient Greek as a model for leaders today? In the paragraphs above we see analogies of situations in which we have found ourselves. Moreover, human nature doesn’t appear to have changed nearly as much as our technology. We remain, at our core, the same as people who lived millennia ago. One can readily discern this when studying the characters Homer and other classical authors construct.

There is value for leaders in the perspective of distance especially when (or because) it is devoid of our emotional involvement. Perspective is hard to come by when we’re in the thick of things. We are better able to judge and learn from the decisions our archetypes made. We see how they approached circumstances, what they thought, the actions taken and the results attained. Then we’re free to modify them to our present needs as we think best.

In the next post we’ll continue to discuss the Odysseus Archetype and show how it is a solid model for leaders of today to consider and use.

The Gordian Knot and Family Business

A Gordian Knot is a complicated problem where bold action achieves an otherwise elusive solution. In family business, the complicate problem is how to setup a succession plan that taps one or more family members (and sometimes a “near” family member–someone who through loyalty and years of service has become like a family member).

Having had countless discussions about planning for succession, two things rise to the surface as worthy of addressing here. First, there is a tendency to unfavorably compare the successor to the one he/she is replacing. The comparison typically goes something like this: He/she is “no [insert name of leader being replaced].”

Even when one accounts for the difference between the stage of each individual’s career (one is getting ready to leave while the other is near or at a mid-point), there are other factors that make such a comparison unfair. Specifically, the business has “grown-up” reflecting the strengths and weaknesses of its leader. Of course, a successor will be a relatively poor match to what is, in essence, a custom designed business based on the profile of the current leader.

Also, there is nothing that prepares one for leadership like leading. Being in the shadow of an effective leader or even an ineffective leader, is like drafting in a bike race. The real work is at the front.

This is all to say that comparing a future leader to a current leader is a distraction, at best. Better to answer the question, “does the future leader have the potential to lead the company going forward? Giving it and the people in it what they need from now on, not what they and it needed yesterday?”

Second, there is not enough emphasis placed on getting a potential successor experience in other positions and industries than the one she/he is in line for. Such diversity of experience “seasons” a leader and provides perspective on issues and management that is impossible to get while serving in a single organization. Admittedly, it takes courage to leave the known for the unknown. But the reward is, as is said, “priceless!”

There are other lessons for improving the chances of a successful succession like independently reviewing performance, independently assessing leadership potential, interim leadership until a successor is ready, mentors or peer advisory groups for the successor, etc. But the bold action is to determine if the successor has the potential to lead going forward, early on, and then test that potential and reinforce it by having him/her take a position in another company for at least a couple of years.

Contact us if you have questions, feedback or want some assistance addressing your Gordian Knot.

Lack of Turnover Hurts Your Business – Including Your Family Business

Turnover is hard. It’s painful. It means change and loss. It is the inconsistent with the sentiment of rewarding loyalty and hard work with loyalty and longevity.

Advocating for turnover flies in the face of advocating for building trust and predictability–at least superficially. It’s akin to advocating to burn a forest with all the dangers of a forest fire.

There is a reason why it sometimes makes sense to start a forest fire, however. After such a planned fire, old growth is cleared and new growth emerges.

Turnover in a business, including a family business, can have the same effect. It can lead to new responsibilities for those that remain. It often opens the doors to new ideas and ways of doing things. New employees often bring high levels of energy and engagement and their enthusiasm can be contagious.

Perhaps most importantly, adding people from the outside can add their “different” experience to the mix. There is nothing quite like inside knowledge about how other organizations do things when figuring out how to improve. The perspective such a new employee brings is often missing when turnover is low.

We’re not quite ready to say something like, “15% of your management staff should turnover every year” or that, “anyone who’s approaching their 20th anniversary should be let go.” We are saying that there is a price to pay for low turnover and that the occasional planned “burn” has tangible benefits.

Contact us if you have questions, feedback or want some assistance planning turnover.

Employee Engagement (Including Millennials)

During the past several months, multiple clients and peers have raised the “millennial issue.” This issue can be summarized by the question: how do you engage employees born after 1980 (and before ~2000)?

A quick check of Gallup’s Employee Engagement webpage indicates that overall employee engagement is only around 32% and so it seems, the question of how to engage millennials might be broadened to how to engage employees of all ages?

There is clear research supporting the hypothesis that both local leaders (managers) and senior leaders (executives) have a role in the level of employee engagement of an organization. That is, the attitudes of both managers and executives at an organization directly influence the level of employee engagement.

In the organizations that we work with, it is more common than not to hear that the employees would “do anything” for the owner. The loyalty that the owner creates is vulnerable on two fronts: the attitude of the local manager (that may undermine even the strongest owner loyalty) and the withdrawal of the owner (as he/she gradually or suddenly prepares to leave the company in someone else’s hands).

Fortunately, there is a solution that addresses vulnerability on both fronts. That solution is to develop executives and local managers in the art of leadership and, specifically, “Primal Leadership,” as described in the book, Primal Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, Richard E. Boyatzis and Annie McKee.

Although it is beyond the scope of this piece to go into any detail about Primal Leadership, it is worth noting that in Harvard Business Review, the authors stated: “A leader’s premier task—we would even say his primal task—is emotional leadership. A leader needs to make sure that not only is he regularly in an optimistic, authentic, high-energy mood, but also that, through his chosen actions, his followers feel and act that way, too [employee engagement]. Managing for financial results [performance], then, begins with the leader managing his inner life so that the right emotional and behavioral chain reaction occurs.”

Developing leaders at all levels to be “Primal Leaders” is THE PATH to improved performance, financial results, employee engagement and successful owner exits.

With millennials in the workforce, perhaps primal leadership is more important than ever.

Contact us if you have questions, feedback or want some assistance developing your leaders/increasing employee engagement.

Hiring for Emotional Intelligence

We’ve all seen bright and technically competent people fail in managerial/leadership roles because of poor or non-existent people skills. The study of this phenomena finds that success in a leadership role is strongly correlated with above average people skills or what has come to be known as, high emotional intelligence. Indeed, at the top levels of any organization, where most people are bright and technically competent, the only variable that reliably predicts success is emotional intelligence (not book smarts or “expertise”).

The trouble is, hiring decisions are often made on the basis of cognitive ability (smarts) and technical expertise (competence). If you are hiring for a mid-level technical role, an emphasis on smarts and competence is fine. But, if you are hiring a future manager or executive, you had better be evaluating the candidate’s emotional intelligence. If you don’t, you miss a read on the most important predictor of their success.

How do you assess emotional intelligence and the leadership potential of a candidate? You focus on their self-awareness, their ability to manage their feelings, their awareness of the feelings of others AND their history of managing their relationships with others.

Ask about times when they were frustrated or angry. Why did they feel that way? What did they do about it? Ask about conflict with others. Did they deal with it or ignore it? How did they resolve the conflict if they did? What did they think about how the other person felt (the one who they had conflict with)? What did they say/do to move beyond the conflict? How do they approach motivating others? What is their primary leadership style (the way they approach the task of getting others working)?

This is just a sample of the questions you might use to assess for emotional intelligence. The idea is to evaluate how the person navigates the emotional world of self and others.

Ignoring how the person navigates this emotional world leaves you at a huge disadvantage when the time comes to judge how the candidate will lead or manage others.

Contact us if you have questions, feedback or want some help assessing emotional intelligence.

Backroom Politics

It is normal to seek support from those around us who are more likely to agree than disagree. This is the desire that fuels most backroom politics or those meetings among well-meaning but like-minded people. We all want to hear more cheers than boos when it comes to our ideas and plans.

The trouble is, vigorous debate is productive. It results in better ideas and better plans almost without exception. It is not what happens in backrooms where support and freedom from debate are what people look for.

What this means for your organization is that you should be alarmed when people don’t embrace vigorous debate and take refuge among those most likely to see things the way they do. Taking refuge reduces the quality of debate, makes for poorer ideas and planning and can be destructive if agendas hatched in backrooms (I like to say, “in the dark”) start to collide with other agendas (agendas arrived at through vigorous debate or in other backrooms).

So, fight the very human tendency to avoid vigorous debate and discourage backroom politics. Your organization’s ideas, plans and ultimately execution will be better for it.

Contact us if you have questions or other feedback.


From Doer to Leader

Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others. ~Jack Welch

Many of the owners and executives we work with are making the transition from Doer to Leader. They are going from being the best in the room at what they do to being good at letting others being the best in the room.

In his book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, Marshall Goldsmith lists 20 habits that effective Doers NEED TO DROP to become effective Leaders. What these 20 habits have in common is the way the person views his or her role. The Doer sees himself as the central figure in solving every problem or need and isn’t afraid to put people in their place if they challenge this view. The leader, in contrast, sees herself as the facilitator of other people being central figures in meeting challenges. This usually means wrestling with the habits that have kept them as the central figure in the past.

In other words, the challenge of going from Doer to Leader is giving-up everything that has made you successful and turning into someone who promotes other’s success.

Easier said than done.

Goldsmith’s book is a great place to start if you are trying to make a transition from Doer to Leader. Other resources/tools are:

  • Join a group to help you make the transition (see here for more information about a group we sponsor).
  • Use WordRapport™ Email, our exclusive tool, to get feedback on how you are coming across to others in your email. See here for more information. 
  • Hire a coach who has made the transition so they can help you navigate it. 

Making the transition from Doer to Leader has many rewards. First is you become a more effective executive for your organization. Both you and your organization benefit from that. Also, if you do it well, you will be more relaxed and productive AND your work environment will be more rewarding for everyone!

Contact us if you have questions or other feedback.

The Real Challenge in Delegating

One of the things most coaches tell the managers they work with is to delegate. The speech goes something like this: You’ve got to learn to delegate because:

  • It frees you up to do more important things (you save time and get more done),
  • it helps develop the skills of subordinates (they learn new skills and take on more responsibility) and
  • it gives subordinates a path for growth (making their job more compelling).

There are two traps for those trying to delegate. The first is obvious and is most often cited when someone has trouble delegating: They just can’t give up the tasks to others. The hazards of this for the manager who cannot delegate are numerous and include:

  • Burnout,
  • inability to take on a greater role,
  • no development of subordinates leading to low morale, turnover and particularly harsh, the loss of the best people (who are always looking to grow and won’t tolerate never being asked to do more).

The second trap is less obvious but just as debilitating. That is the challenge of “letting go” when delegating. This means not only turning over a task to someone else (getting past trap one), it also means tolerating their doing it differently and perhaps not as well (at least at first).

The most effective managers understand that there are always multiple ways to do something well and that it takes time to perfect any of those ways. In a word, effective managers are more tolerant of how something gets done (as long as it does get done). They appreciate diversity in how someone else takes on a task and also seem to enjoy watching a new approach bloom. In other words, they “let go” when they delegate.

Like most of what is written here, it is easier to say, “delegate and watch with appreciation what happens next,” than to do it. Let us know if you would like to some help with it. You’ll be glad you did.

What Your Growing Company Can Learn from Deflategate

Deflategate has captured many people’s attention over the last three months. Some of those people, like me, will look for the lessons in how to handle everything from procedures to grievances. The issue that keeps rising to the surface for me, because I see it frequently in the growing companies I work in, is how to handle the breaking of some rule or policy.

What I see from the NFL, is their making it up as they go along. Now I may be biased (I admit to being a fan of the Patriots). But it seems inescapable that there is no consistent and well thought out procedure for handling the breaking of a rule. The NFL is consistent at penalizing offsides and too many players on the field. They are inconsistent when it comes to tampering with a football (if the Patriots even did that). See the Panthers and Vikings tampering incident from this past season, for comparison.  This is where the charge that they make it up as they go along comes from.

Learn from the NFL’s mistake. As your company grows, develop a process for handling misbehavior in all its human forms. Deliberate on what the process should be. Wait until the dust settles from the emotional upheaval of a transgression to do so. Write the process or procedure down. Be consistent in applying the process across the organization. Differentiate between levels of rule breaking and have ranges of consequences (make the punishment fit the crime). Have steps in punishment making it worse for repeat offenders. Don’t worry about getting it perfect. Things change and both rules and consequences change. But having a narrow range of responses and thoughtful precedents helps.

If your organization is growing, it is only a matter of time before someone breaks a rule. Don’t make it up as you go. At least not after the first time.