About Our Guest: Erika Andersen is an accomplished author, consultant, and coach. But what really sets her apart is her insistence on sustainability. She’s not interested in a simple consulting gig. She wants to make a measurable, long-term difference in people’s performance (and lives). Follow through and reinforcement are hallmarks of her work in organizational development and collaborative learning. Erika’s clients range from MTV Networks and NBC Universal to CitiGroup and Taco Bell. Her books include Growing Great Employees: Turning Ordinary People into Extraordinary Performers; Being Strategic: Plan for Success, Outthink Your Competitors, Stay Ahead of Change; and, coming in October, Leading So People Will Follow. I really like Erika. I trust her message and approach. Hers is definitely a voice worth hearing. – Doctor Duncan
You’ve sometimes used the metaphor of a gardener in discussing the work of managers and leaders. Can you elaborate on that?
I find gardening a really useful metaphor for people management, both in the specifics and in the core premise. Here’s what I mean: The essential truth about gardening is that you can’t make plants grow. You can get a plant that’s well-suited to the conditions you have in your garden and the role in the garden you want it to play, and you can provide the support (water, nutrients, pruning, etc.) that will best help it survive and thrive. But after that, it’s up to the plant.
In the same way, managers can make sure they get people who are best-suited to their organizations, and best able to play the role they want them to play, and provide them with the necessary support (listening, clear agreements, feedback, coaching) – but after that, it’s up to them. You can’t make employees grow and thrive; all you can do is create the optimal conditions and provide consistent support. But if you do that (in either gardening or managing), you’re most likely to get great results.
What do you see as some of the most common barriers to organizational performance?
Poor leadership. Most of the other barriers (a flawed business model, insufficient operating capital, lack of needed talent, over- or under-engineered systems, poor communication) come back, in the end, to poor leadership. People need and deserve leaders who are far-sighted, passionate, courageous, wise, generous and trustworthy. That is, leaders who articulate and then fully engage them in moving toward a clear and attainable vision (far-sighted); who commit honestly and deeply to ideas and initiatives about which they feel strongly (passionate); who make tough, necessary choices and take full responsibility for those choices (courageous); who reflect deeply to make informed decisions and learn from mistakes and successes (wise); who `assume positive intent and support their people’s success (generous); and who keep their word and deliver on their promises (trustworthy).
When an organization doesn’t have leaders with most of these attributes – especially at the top, but ideally at all levels of leadership – it’s virtually impossible to succeed long-term.
A lot of business people use the terms strategy and tactics interchangeably. How do you draw a distinction between the two?
Yes, and I’m thrilled that you asked! Helping people understand these two things, so they can use them as the powerful tools they are, is an important aspect of the work we do with clients.
We define being strategic as consistently making those core directional choices that will best move you toward your hoped-for future. Strategies are those core directional choices. Another way to think of a strategy is as a statement of intention, a way to state, simply and clearly: “This is a path we intend to take to achieve our vision.” Tactics are the ‘bricks in the path’ – the specific actions you’ll need to take to implement your strategy.
Here’s an example from a recent client session with the senior team of an entertainment company. One of the strategies they agreed upon to achieve their vision was Foster an environment that inspires creative thinking and pride of ownership — a clear statement of intention about this aspect of their business. Two of the tactics they came up with to execute this strategy: “Establish a monthly cross-departmental meeting to focus on an agreed upon, long-lead topic. At least one idea pursued from each meeting,” and “Recommend and execute feasible ways to make the physical environment supportive of creative thinking/pride of ownership.” Both great examples of specific, high-leverage actions to take in order to implement that strategy.
Many change efforts seem to create a “culture backlash.” What are some ways to manage – or avoid – that kind of resistance?
When change efforts don’t work (which is, sadly, more often than not) it’s generally because senior management tries to mandate the change without really engaging people or acknowledging the impact it will have on them. You cover this topic beautifully in your book Change-Friendly Leadership, and our approach is very much aligned with yours.
When we work with clients to shift their culture, we share with them that people will generally only change their behavior if the new behavior seems to them to be easy, rewarding and normal. Easy means they understand how to do it, feel competent to do it, don’t see any organizational impediments to do doing it – and in fact believe the organization will support them if they do. Rewarding means they see how it will give them something(s) they value. Normal means they believe it’s something that others like them are willing and able to do, and that it’s something that people whom they admire and respect do. If you make it clear to people what the change will entail, in terms of them behaving differently, and then work with them to make sure those changes are easy, rewarding, and normal for them – any ‘cultural backlash’ tends to dissipate.
What have you found to be the best ways to help people retain and productively use the learning they acquire in training?
Some of what I’ve noted above applies here, too: before we do management or leadership training in a client company, we help them make sure that the new behaviors will be both easy and normal to do in the organization, once learned. During the training, we focus with the participants on understanding how and why it will be rewarding for them to behave in these new ways, and make the skills as easy as possible to learn and practice.
Finally, after the training, we help build in reinforcement – primarily from making sure there are immediate opportunities to practice the skills, but also through e-learning, check-ins with their manager and/or learning partners, and follow-up training sessions. The main focus needs to be getting people to a point, as quickly as possible, where they’re seeing that the new behavior is working better for them than their previous approach. That’s when real growth happens.