Holiday Tomatoes

Lance Ideas, Integrity, Leadership, People Comments

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Gold foil wrapper … snowflake graphics … “LIMITED EDITION” … of course you’re buying those special Christmas cherry tomatoes over the ones in the nondescript green plastic basket, right? If you think both the question and the packaging effort are ridiculous because there’s nothing particularly Christmas-y about cherry tomatoes, you’re quite right.

And you’re missing the point.

The logic of a Christmas-themed package of tomatoes makes no sense: the tomatoes are no different from the non-holiday tomatoes, and cherry tomatoes are hardly a staple of holiday recipes. The tomatoes beneath the eye-catching, reflective gold label are not “premium” tomatoes in any sense, and contrary to the “Limited Edition” moniker, there is nothing special or collectible about either these tomatoes or the container in which they are packaged.

But the art of visual marketing is not slaved to logic. Tagging something as a “limited edition” and covering it with holiday iconography is about something much more persuasive: subconscious emotional connections. By using holiday imagery, marketers aim to stimulate the warm and fuzzy feelings often associated with the Christmas holiday season deep in our subconscious, visually associate their brand with those feelings, and subtly tip the scales of consumers’ near-instantaneous subconscious decision making — a realm of decision-making explored by Malcolm Gladwell in his national bestseller, Blink. By using scarcity concepts like “limited edition,” the aim is to stimulate a much different set of deeply embedded emotions: fear of deprivation and missing out. The pairing of these positive and negative emotional hues is a powerful combination.


But this is a blog about leadership — not marketing and packaging — so, where am I going with this?

To lead is to persuade, and to persuade most effectively, a leader needs to understand how communicate to people in ways they will be felt as much (or more) as being heard and understood. Dr. Henry Cloud calls this leading so people’s brains can follow; Simon Sinek is singing a different verse of the same song when he notes that the best leaders make their people feel safe rather than afraid. Both messages are essentially the same: simply throwing logical explanations in front of your people without being mindful of the emotional effects your communication effort will stir up in them is a recipe for leadership failure.

To be clear: this is not a pitch advocating deeply cynical “positioning” that seeks to manipulate people through carefully selected wording and communication tactics. That’s one road to take from thinking about how subtle feelings shape reactions and decisions, but leading with Integrity demands a different path: communicating in emotionally mindful — even targeted — ways that are sincere, genuine, and truthful. Untether the science of what Roger Dooley calls neuromarketing from the ethical demands of Integrity, and the result is a nasty bit of dishonest manipulation. (You can listen to Dooley explain why during his recent appearance on The Learning Leader Show.)

The messages of effective leaders should be both informationally honest and emotionally aware, communicating with both integrity and insight. There’s a term for the leaders that make this balancing act look natural and routine: successful.

You might even call them “Limited Edition” leaders.

(Full disclosure: this post’s featured image is actually a photo of the new package of “Limited Edition” cherry tomatoes sitting on my kitchen counter this morning. Don’t judge.)


People Matters

Lance Leadership, People Comments

Reading Time: 3 minutes

It would be a crime on the high seas if a ship’s captain threw crew members overboard instead of cargo in an attempt to lighten the ship in the midst of a storm. Yet, corporations do this so routinely (routinely … routinely … routinely … routinely) that it is news when it doesn’t happen:


Oh wait


This isn’t a post saying layoffs are evil and never legitimate and that companies should go bankrupt fully staffed. But consider the difference between Bluebell’s CEO discussing massive layoffs (37% of its entire workforce) and HP’s CEO discussing the same at HP:  

There’s a difference there, and it’s not the monologue vs interview format.

For Bluebell’s Paul Kruse, the pain is evident in having to make the decision to sacrifice people — Bluebell’s people — in order to literally save the company after a true “black swan” event broadsided the company. For HP’s Meg Whitman, axing 55,000 of HP’s people is just part of the program to “restructure” the company, become “lean and efficient,” and hit the promised profit target of 7%-9%. (HP’s most recent quarterly performance turned in a profit margin of 6%.)


And that’s the difference. Throwing people overboard to save the ship is one thing — a tragic, but necessary act of duty. But throwing people overboard to turn a 6% profit into a 7% profit so that a forecast made to investment bankers can come true? That is quite another thing.

The ability to tell the difference, and move as a leader against the prevailing currents of conventional business wisdom, begins with this simple recognition: that this is about people, and they matter. So, say it with me:

  • They are people, not “resources”;
  • They are people, not “FTE’s”;
  • They are people, not “costs”;
  • They are people, not “headcount”;

This exercise is best when it is universal. In fact, it may be easier to start outside your organizational world and begin seeing people where too often we only see labels. For example:

  • They are people, not “consumers”;
  • They are people, not “illegals” (yep, went there!);
  • They are people, not [insert politically objectifying label of choice]”;
  • They are people, not cases/fetuses/”choices” (yep, went there too!);
  • They are people, not simply races/genders/orientations/religions;
  • They are people, not “sinners”/”infidels”;

I think that’s enough hot buttons for one day. Hopefully, the picture is clear. We live amongst people, work to serve people, and lead organizations of people. If we fail to see them as such, we will never lead in a way that treats them as people, values them as people, or receives the benefits of their energy, skill, creativity, and ingenuity that comes from them being PEOPLE.

The horrific events of yesterday put a lot of issues before the eyes of America, but there is one thing that is neither political, ideological, or controversial:

Life is singular, unpredictable, fleeting, precious, and final.

As a leader, you have been given much in the way of responsibility and authority, but also benefits and privileges. More than anyone in your organization, you have the power to set the course, choose the target, and determine the measure of what success means. You have the power to impact people’s lives  — your people — in heavy and profound ways. What will you do with those benefits, those privileges, that power, and your singular, unpredictable, fleeting, precious, and final life? Will you treasure your crew, or your cargo, on this journey of your leadership life?

When (not if) the storms come, which one will you grab first to throw overboard?

Those 3 Little Words

Lance Accountability, Integrity, Leadership Comments

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Dark insecurities forever whisper in our ear. Fear of exposure to vulnerability climbs in the driver’s seat of our mind: “Shields up! Cloaking device activated!” All of a sudden, the people we need to connect with the most are presented with an image — not of us, but of the mask we hide behind. Once this process is set in motion, performance replaces relationship and keeping up the appearance takes precedence over making a connection.

But there is a way out; this exhausting cycle can be broken. It’s hard, and it’s scary, but it gets easier with each iteration. It all begins with uttering three little words in those moments when the Fear is screaming to say anything else. Freedom lies just on the other side. Before you attempt to say them in person, try simply saying them to yourself in the mirror. Repeat after me:




So many people — whether leading or not — are quietly terrified of admitting what soon is apparent to anyone paying attention anyway:

  • I don’t know the answer.
  • I don’t know what you’re talking about.
  • I don’t know how to fix that.
  • I don’t know how to handle this.
  • I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.
  • I don’t know what the “market” will do next.
  • I don’t know what is wrong.
  • I don’t know how that happened.
  • I don’t know …

For over a decade as a prosecutor, I counseled more witnesses and victims in preparation for court than I can possibly count. In every single case, they heard the same thing from me:

Your job is to answer the questions truthfully, and if the truth is you don’t know the answer or don’t remember the information, then just say that. Even if the defense attorney comes back with a question like “That’s a pretty important detail. Shouldn’t you know that?” the only response is the honest: “Yes, I probably should. But I don’t.” There’s nothing more an attorney can do with an honest “I don’t know.” It’s a dead-end. Where witnesses get into trouble is when they are afraid to look like they don’t know an answer they feel they should know, so they start to guess. When witnesses start making guesses, then a whole world of fun opens up for cross-examining attorneys.

The same is no less true for Leaders of any level. Sincerely admitting to not knowing signals to your people a vulnerability, which is the key to building real trust. It puts your focus on the problem at hand and not on maintaining an image of gap-less competence. It lets your people know you are an actual person — an underrated image to keep cultivated because it’s Reality. It empowers them to help you. Most importantly, it models for your people how to do the same — admit when they don’t have the answer — because nothing is worse for an organization than a culture that hides truths like that.

Go on. Drop the mask.

Good, but Great?

Lance Excellence, Leadership Comments

Reading Time: 3 minutes

In Jim Collins’ seminal work, Good to Great, he and his team applied a rigorous, follow-the-evidence research method in order to answer a single question: what separated the good (and even very good) companies from the select few that became truly great over the long haul? While Collins and his team identified several factors, the answer starts at the top … this despite Collins’ explicit attempt to look elsewhere:

Our original question was, Can a good company become a great one and, if so, how? In fact, I gave the research teams explicit instructions to downplay the role of top executives in their analyses of this question so we wouldn’t slip into the simplistic “credit the leader” or “blame the leader” thinking that is so common today.

Of course, none of this is new to anyone remotely interested in organizational leadership over the last decade or so. What continues to be fascinating is watching Collins’ theory play out in real time.

playing-to-winConsider consumer goods giant Proctor & Gamble and their successful CEO, A.G. Lafley. From 2000-2009, Lafley oversaw an impressive turnaround of P&G, which had been losing its luster as it lost its focus. During that time, Lafley implemented a new strategic focus centered around focusing on core products, innovation, and deeper understanding of what the consumer wants. Lafley’s tenure also included the mega-acquisition of Gillette ($57M). Lafley’s success became the basis of his best-selling book on corporate strategy, Playing to Win.

But was Lafley a “Level 5” leader, and did he make P&G “great”? The cold calculus of Collins’ study framework watches what has happened since Lafley left P&G in 2009 and renders its verdict accordingly: No, and No.

One of the key characteristics of the Level 5 leader is the drive to build something bigger than themselves that lasts after they leave, and — as important — to identify a successor positioned to perform even better than they did themselves.

One final, yet compelling, note on our findings about Level 5: Because Level 5 leaders have ambition not for themselves but for their companies, they routinely select superb successors. Level 5 leaders want to see their companies become even more successful in the next generation and are comfortable with the idea that most people won’t even know that the roots of that success trace back to them. As one Level 5 CEO said, “I want to look from my porch, see the company as one of the great companies in the world someday, and be able to say, ‘I used to work there.’ ” By contrast, Level 4 leaders often fail to set up the company for enduring success. After all, what better testament to your own personal greatness than that the place falls apart after you leave?

In 2013, after only four years away, P&G had lost its mojo and brought Lafley back as CEO. Now, after two years back at the helm, Lafley will be stepping aside this fall, apparently having successfully righting the Good Ship P&G. What did he do during that time?

Upon his return, Lafley unveiled an agenda of sweeping cost cuts, and re-organization of the the company’s stable of consumer brands, including a plan to shed over half of P&G’s brands. At the time of Lafley’s return, P&G’s brands ranged from batteries to pet food, detergent, electric razors, deodorants, toothbrushes and toilet-paper. However, he made quick strides to pare down P&G’s portfolio.

“We have strengthened our brand and product innovation pipeline, while streamlining our cost structure. With our plans for portfolio realignment essentially complete, P&G is positioned to deliver improved results,” Lafley said in a statement Tuesday.

What makes that an indictment instead of an achievement from the Collins’ Level 5 point of view is this: that’s what Lafley had done during his near decade at the helm the first time. His best-selling strategy book is all about the success of strategically focusing on core products, competencies, and consumers. After a decade of driving that strategic focus into P&G, why did it unravel so quickly in four short years after his departure? And does anyone really think Lafley’s work over the last two years will keep P&G heading in the right direction after he leaves in the fall? If nearly ten years of leadership didn’t have a lasting effect on keeping P&G great, why would a short stint of two more?

What Is the Point…

Lance Accountability, Leadership, Simplicity Comments

Reading Time: 2 minutes

… of this team meeting? — Is there a decision to be made, or an action to take? If you are “updating” the rest of us on the “status” of your project, will our work or the things we must do be changed by knowing this new, updated status? Is it to bring people together to forge deeper connections as people and teammates, or is it to collect as many names on the meeting roster as defensible to elevate the apparent importance of the activity box you are checking?

… of this approval process? — Is this decision such that the business will be damaged tangibly if made incorrectly but quickly? Does the person with the approval authority have more relevant information needed to made the best decision than the person who is forced to ask for the approval? Is there even a reason or set of criteria by which approval of this decision would be withheld? Is slowing down the process somehow the purpose, or is that simply the necessary byproduct of yet another organizational CYA operation?

… of this email? — Is it to convey information quickly and conveniently, or avoid talking to people? Are you making use of a digital communication tool in this mobile, ever-connected world, or taking emotional comfort behind the digital wall of carefully chosen wording and edge-blunting emoticons?  🙂

… of this talk? — Is there something you want your audience to learn? … feel? … do? Does it even matter if they remember what you said at all? Does this activity check some expectation-meeting box somewhere? If it is simply about information delivery, are there not better mediums to use for that? If it is about changing the audience in some way, would you be changed by listening to you deliver this talk the way you always deliver your talks?

… of this jargon? — Do you rely on your acronyms, industry “terms of art,” and corporate-speak to communicate complex ideas rapidly … and are you using them with an audience for whom rapid understanding is enhanced by your jargonese? Or, is this clip-art, stock-image form or organizational speaking really about signaling who is an Insider, and who is not (as identified by either looks of confusion or easily recognizable efforts at forced apparent understanding)?

Answering these questions will help identify the myriad of ways to snatch precious time back from the jaws of Wasteful Agony, craft communications that clarify rather than confuse (or bore … or are simply ignored), and connect more closely to your people in ways you wouldn’t have guessed but will feel the effect of sure enough.

On the other hand, if you haven’t thought about these questions, let alone answered them with any rigor, your actions (meeting/process/email/talk/word choice) are just activities accomplishing little to nothing, and you are mindlessly going through the motions.

Just. Stop.

When a Leader mindlessly goes through the motions, the result is often worse than if no action had been taken at all.