Steven's Blog

Cultivating Boldness

The scarcest resource in a business today is not talent, money, or technical ability, but rather independent thought and the courage to act on it.

A newly hired executive at a client company of mine is intelligent and capable enough to correctly identify lapses in compliance with company protocol, ineffectiveness of measures used in strategy and performance management, and failures of division heads to hold their managers accountable for decisions made. He knows how to address all of these issues and it is part of his role to do so. Yet, he hesitates to speak up for fear of creating friction with other executives and left his CEO in the dark about issues he’s identified, waiting for the “right time” to bring them up. Despite all his capability and talent, there is no way he can do his job effectively and that is a major problem for the company. His role is not just ensuring excellence in the business, but he also serves as the last defense in preventing serious failure.

Such pusillanimous behavior is often the product of systems of lifetime employment and seniority-based promotion, whether as part of an explicit policy or implicit practice. Such systems are common, but not unique to Japan. When there is no individual reward for successful results and merely risk of penalty for failure, widespread passivity naturally results.

If there happens to be widespread passivity in the organization you lead, you are neither alone nor without hope. As leader, you can cultivate boldness of action in your managers, even where it appears none exists, if you do it right. Click To Tweet

In my experience, leaders who have successfully transformed their businesses and cultivated boldness of action have four behaviors with staff in common.

1. They coach how to fail with aplomb as much as how to succeed with panache. There are always failures on the road to success. Show me someone who avoids all failure and I’ll show you someone who avoids learning. The best thing you can do to help your managers succeed and act with boldness is to teach them resilience in failure. The bold understand success is never permanent and failure is rarely fatal. It is only those who avoid action who think otherwise.

 2. Generosity with advice but stinginess with approval, and distinguishing between the two. Some managers claiming to seek your advice are really seeking your approval. When a manager asks, “Do you think I should reduce staff assigned to this non-performing account and re-assign them to one of our best customers?” He or she is asking you to approve the decision for him or her. If the decision does not work out, the manager can always claim he or she was just following your advice. Such a manager will rarely act at all without your explicit benediction and might simply wait for your orders. However, when a manager says, “I’ve decided to re-assign staff from a non-performing account to one of our best customers. In your experience, how is that best done to minimize our exposure to damage while maximizing opportunity with limited staff?” That’s seeking advice. Following advice must always be optional. The bold make their own decisions based on the best information they have and live with the results.

3. Allowance for failure as long as there is learning. Most good ideas don’t work out. Success only comes because some of them do. The CEO of an American company called one of his vice-presidents to his office who had just overseen a failed product launch costing the company more than one-hundred million dollars. The manager prepared his letter of resignation and handed it to the CEO upon sitting down. Surprised, the CEO said, “I’d be crazy to fire you! I’ve just invested one-hundred million dollars in your education! Now let’s talk about what we learned from this, what we will change, and what we will do next!”

4. Holding managers accountable for action. The absence of failure doesn’t make for success. The CEO of the Japan operation of a major global firm based in Europe had become frustrated with passivity among his executives and mid-level managers. He gathered them all into a room and told them, “I will never hold it against you for having tried to do something in the best interests of the business that didn’t work, but I will fire any one of you without compunction for inaction!” And later he did. None of the remaining managers are perfect just as no manager ever is, but each acts decisively and does succeed. And that’s all that matters. Success trumps perfection every time.

Not long ago, I was in the office of the Japan CEO of a European company. He complained to me about how Japanese managers are so passive compared to Americans like him and I. No matter how he tried, he could not get his senior staff to act independently without waiting for explicit instructions from him. He asked if I could help, and I can. However, when it came to talking about business with me, he balked. He was worried that his boss in the head office would disapprove of investing budget in this kind of change, even though he has independent authority to do so. He was afraid even to bring up the idea with his boss and ask. I told him it was unrealistic to expect his staff to act with boldness with him, while he is unwilling to do the same with his boss.

There is a fifth behavior of leaders who successfully cultivate boldness of action in their organizations so fundamental that it should go without saying, which is why I did not list it above with the others. They act with boldness themselves before expecting others to follow suit.

I have identified five common characteristics of robust strategy among my most successful clients.

If you would like to know what these are and where your business stands, send me an email, and I will send you a free PDF.

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