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.

Hillary Clinton’s Loss In Michigan And How Leadership Teams Fail

Lance Forbes, Leadership Comments

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Originally posted at

No shortage of digital ink has been spilled examining the causes and amplifying the outrages of Hillary Clinton’s shocking electoral loss to Donald Trump last month. But, for leaders interested in things other than politics, Edward-Isaac Dovere‘s piece for Politico —  “How Clinton Lost Michigan–and Blew the Election” — is the most interesting and insightful piece of journalism to come out of this post-election period. Set aside the politics of the story, and even ignore the candidate herself. Dovere’s article is a fascinating autopsy of how an organization’s leadership team utterly failed, and a blueprint for leaders in any type of organization to avoid the same, predictable fate.

If you are an organizational leader, here are four lessons from Team Clinton’s loss that you should think long and hard about as it relates to how you lead:

1. The Hubris Of Knowing Better

Hubris — it is that special brand of Pride that has been a favorite character flaw used by storytellers since the days of Homer’s Greek epics. In The Illiad, it is Niobe’s pride in her lineage and fertility that causes her to anger the gods and lose all of her 14 children as a consequence. With the leadership brain-trust guiding Team Clinton’s operation from the campaign’s headquarters in Brooklyn, hubris pushed their faith in their own smarts to the extreme.

Everybody could see Hillary Clinton was cooked in Iowa. So when, a week-and-a-half out, the Service Employees International Union started hearing anxiety out of Michigan, union officials decided to reroute their volunteers, giving a desperate team on the ground around Detroit some hope.

. . .

Turn that bus around, the Clinton team ordered SEIU. Those volunteers needed to stay in Iowa to fool Donald Trump into competing there, not drive to Michigan, where the Democrat’s models projected a 5-point win through the morning of Election Day.

Michigan organizers were shocked. It was the latest case of Brooklyn ignoring on-the-ground intel and pleas for help in a race that they felt slipping away at the end.

“They believed they were more experienced, which they were. They believed they were smarter, which they weren’t,” said Donnie Fowler, who was consulting for the Democratic National Committee during the final months of the campaign. “They believed they had better information, which they didn’t.”

Set aside the bizarre tactic of trying to head-fake the other side rather than admit a weakness by shoring it up. This decision by the Clinton campaign’s management team was the classic calling card of Hubris, in which leaders succumb to the easy temptation of confusing experience with intelligence, and under-valuing the information and insights of front-line workers as a result.

2. The View From The Echo Chamber

Dovere’s long article is full of detailed accounts of an ongoing disagreement between the Clinton campaign’s national headquarters and the various local teams leading efforts at the state level in key battleground states. Yet, amidst the story of these arguments was this single line that was both astonishing and yet predictable:

Politico spoke to a dozen officials working on or with Clinton’s Michigan campaign, and more than a dozen scattered among other battleground states, her Brooklyn headquarters and in Washington who describe an ongoing fight about campaign tactics, an inability to get top leadership to change course.

Then again, according to senior people in Brooklyn, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook never heard any of those complaints directly from anyone on his state teams before Election Day.

There is no shortage of wisdom available to leaders teaching against the dangers of surrounding themselves with “yes men,” usually citing Abraham Lincoln’s Team of Rivals in the process. Any leader who actively seeks out uniformity of opinion and only positive news is doomed to fail.

Far more common, however, is the phenomenon of the management team putting the leader into the self-reinforcing isolation of an echo chamber all on their own. In Hans Christian Andersen’s iconic tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes, each of the emperor’s ministers had his own self-interested reason for keeping the lie going:

“I know I’m not stupid,” the man thought, “so it must be that I’m unworthy of my good office. That’s strange. I mustn’t let anyone find it out, though.” So he praised the material he did not see. He declared he was delighted with the beautiful colors and the exquisite pattern. To the Emperor he said, “It held me spellbound.”

If campaign manager Robbie Mook was kept in the dark about the concerns of various state officials, it’s hard to imagine it was for reasons much different than those of the Emperor’s ministers: self-image protection.

3. Falling In Love With The Plan

It should go without saying that strategic planning is a vital component of any leader’s hopes of successfully accomplishing the organization’s mission. However, there is a real danger in becoming too attached to the view of the world that is part of that planning. Emotional attachment to the models we create is perfectly understandable. However, when it is unacknowledged, and the pride of ownership masks itself as scientific objectivity, a nasty leadership failure will likely result as new, contradictory information is disbelieved or ignored.

The anecdotes are different but the narrative is the same across battlegrounds, where Democratic operatives lament a one-size-fits-all approach drawn entirely from pre-selected data — operatives spit out “the model, the model,” as they complain about it — guiding Mook’s decisions on field, television, everything else. That’s the same data operation, of course, that predicted Clinton would win the Iowa caucuses by 6 percentage points (she scraped by with two-tenths of a point), and that predicted she’d beat Bernie Sanders in Michigan (he won by 1.5 points).

. . .

“It was very surgical and corporate. They had their model, this is how they’re going to do it. Their thing was, ‘We don’t have to leave [literature] at the doors, everyone knows who Hillary Clinton is,’”

. . .

Operatives watched packets of real-time voter information piled up in bins at the coordinated campaign headquarters. The sheets were updated only when they got ripped, or soaked with coffee. Existing packets with notes from the volunteers, including highlighting how much Trump inclination there was among some of the white male union members the Clinton campaign was sure would be with her, were tossed in the garbage.

. . .

On the morning of Election Day, internal Clinton campaign numbers had her winning Michigan by 5 points. By 1 p.m., an aide on the ground called headquarters; the voter turnout tracking system they’d built themselves in defiance of orders — Brooklyn had told operatives in the state they didn’t care about those numbers, and specifically told them not to use any resources to get them — showed urban precincts down 25 percent. Maybe they should get worried, the Michigan operatives said.

Nope, they were told. She was going to win by 5. All Brooklyn’s data said so.

When I read accounts like this, I can’t help but envision a 16th Century sailing ship on an exploration mission, in which the professional cartographers hunched over their maps in the hull of the ship keep insisting to the captain that there is no land ahead because the maps say there isn’t … even as the dirty uneducated deck hands up on deck keep shouting “Land HO!”

There’s a reason racing tire engineers actually go to the track to see their designs tested: to gain actual data that may just expose flaws in their plan’s design. In Team Clinton’s case, they had actual experience in the Michigan primary that should have told them their model of Michigan’s electorate was flawed. Instead, the contradictory data was ignored. When new information is dismissed as mere unreliable anecdote, and the proof of such is the very fact that the new information contradicts the model, a management team is well on its way towards a leadership failure.

4. Dancing To Fear’s Tune

All of the above leadership errors can fall broadly into the category of an over-estimation of and reliance upon the team’s own professional expertise. It is, therefore, striking to read near the end of Dovere’s article of the ill-fated decisions made by the campaign’s strategic leadership team as a result of that most unscientific of motivators: Fear.

But there also were millions approved for transfer from Clinton’s campaign for use by the DNC — which, under a plan devised by Brazile to drum up urban turnout out of fear that Trump would win the popular vote while losing the electoral vote, got dumped into Chicago and New Orleans, far from anywhere that would have made a difference in the election.

Regardless of what one thinks of the Electoral College and its role in selecting who will serve as President, Team Clinton knew from Day One the rules governing how the election would be won or lost: winning required earning at least 270 electoral college votes as assigned by the results of each state’s individual election results. By the rules in place since the dawn of the Republic, a national popular vote total is interesting trivia, at best, and an irrelevancy at worst.

The Clinton campaign leadership feared a scenario in which Donald Trump appeared more popular but still lost. As a result of that fear, they made the head-scratching choice to spend much needed dollars and efforts in running up vote totals in states in which the extra margin of victory literally meant nothing, while ignoring places like Michigan in which a relatively small margin of victory ended up costing them everything.

Leaders everywhere, read the account of Team Clinton’s failure and take note:

• Humility is the set of brakes that will keep you from driving off the cliff;

• Everyone becomes stupid inside of an echo chamber, eventually;

• If your model doesn’t leave room for Reality to have a say, throw out the model;

• Fear is a liar.

The Wood Behind the Walls

Lance Ideas, Leadership Comments

Reading Time: 4 minutes

For the past week I have been living in a Nyquil commercial, only without the peaceful night’s sleep at the end of the little cup of emerald syrup. I have been sick with a seasonal whatever, and missed a week of work (and blogging too) as a result. After the first couple of days, I paid a visit to my family doctor. He checked me out only to inform me that my scourge was likely viral, and time was really the only prescription he could offer. (He did give me something to mitigate the symptoms, mercifully.) So I rested and waited, and the weekend came … and I began feeling worse. By Sunday night, I was sure that whatever I had started with had now transmogrified into a full-blown sinus infection.

Then Monday came, and something amazing happened. I called my doctor’s office and asked the receptionist to ask my doctor to phone in a prescription for an antibiotic to my pharmacy without requiring me to come in for another visit. Within an hour, I was in the drive-thru at my pharmacy picking up what I hoped to be my sweet relief. I downed my first daily dose before leaving the parking lot.

Amazing. (And I’m not talking about the wonders of Levofloxacin.)

I placed a phone call and spoke to a voice. That voice, after hearing me recite my name and date of birth, took my request at face value. I assume she relayed my plea to an actual doctor — presumably mine — who, without even speaking to me himself, much less actually examining me, authorized a prescription for me. The authority of my doctor was then relayed to my pharmacy by phone (or, more likely, by email), and a pharmacist I’ve never met set out to measure out the correct medication for my ailment. Without knowing for sure that any of this had actually happened, I dragged myself into my car and drove to my pharmacy, fully expecting an amber-colored bottle of Hope to be ready by the time I got there. Through the glass of the drive-thru I provided my name and date of birth again, and received a bottle of pills in exchange for a swipe of my debit card … itself a promise of funds to be delivered by my bank on my authority at some point in the near future. I swallowed my first dose without first using my phone to Google “levofloxacin” to make sure it was what I should be taking. Of course, how would I know if the white capsules in the bottle are actually the antibiotic listed on the label? Nevermind: I didn’t even stop to read the label before opening the bottle and getting started down the road to recovery.

None of this happens without Trust — not the interpersonal kind, but the broader systemic trust. Institutional trust. For all of the other requirements that go into a system of people working together, the most fundamental is Trust. This is true for every commercial transaction, every interpersonal relationship, and every organizational enterprise. The great achievement of Civilization itself begins with the systemic scaling of the bonds of trust beyond the boundaries of instinct, where familial and tribal connections reside. The interconnecting “web of trust” is what enabled mankind to move from an existence that was naturally “nasty, brutish, and short” to the world of moonshots and miracles. The foundational element of Western Civilization itself — the Rule of Law — is a manifestation of the principle of Trust applied to the governing of the affairs of men: laws that are codified and applicable to all equally can be trusted and relied upon; laws that are the subject of the whims of the current strongman in charge cannot.

The unseen force of Trust is also a critical component of a defining feature of our modern world: speed. Yesterday I went from worsening symptoms to the first dose of recovery in 60 minutes because of the system of trust built into our commercial health care system. (The many failings of that same system are a discussion for another time.) Everything from produce to Christmas toys move across expanses of miles at magical speeds because of the system of trust built into our transportation and shipping systems. While in physics Speed is the measure of distance over time, in human affairs, it is equally the measure of Effort x Trust.

Unfortunately, Trust is also one of the first casualties when Leaders fail, whether through avarice, short-sightedness, or incompetence. The temptation to offer easy promises of grand fixes to current problems … and to use scape-goats to explain away the failure to deliver on those promises … is powerful. When indulged, a cycle is born, and the system — whether a team, a company, or a nation — begins to breakdown. Institutional trust is sacrificed on the altar of a failed leader’s personal interest, and the whole suffers for it. The Trust that makes the system work is so much a part of the background of life that people have long stopped noticing its importance. Like the load-bearing studs behind the painted walls of a grand house, Trust does the invisible work of holding the organizational structure together. Sacrificing it for any reason is the equivalent of pulling out the timbers of a wall to build furniture for the house. Such cannibalism cannot last long until the new custom furniture lies hidden beneath the ruin of the collapsed home it was meant to decorate.

As a Leader, you can do nothing more valuable for the cause you are leading than to preserve, defend, and expand the Trust within your organization’s system. There is no strategy, initiative, or opportunity of greater worth to the success of everything you are trying to accomplish. Lead accordingly.

(And if my Boss is reading: thanks to the wonders of modern pharmaceuticals, I fully expect to be back in the office tomorrow.)