How honey bees demonstrate transformational leadership

During my high school years, I was a self-employed beekeeper. During those four years, I learned a great deal about the social construct of honey bees. One was about teamwork and engagement. The self-sacrificing teamwork bees demonstrate remains an example to me today.

A beehive depends on its food source, honey, for survival. Bees divide and conquer responsibilities to gather nectar. One role of the worker bee is that of forager. Foragers are further divided into finders and gatherers. Finders will travel as far as one mile from a hive to look for nectar sources. They return to communicate with the gatherers about the location of the nectar. Through an intricate bee dance, they tell the gatherers the distance and direction to the nectar. The gatherers then go out, collect the nectar and bring it back to the hive.

Think about this. These worker bees are highly engaged with the goal of hive prosperity. No leader tells them what to do every day. They organize themselves, determine the necessary work, and do it.

Occasionally big changes happen in their environment. Weather may impact nectar sources. Swarming changes the population and temperament of the hive. Through these and other changes, worker bees adjust, persevere and continue to succeed.

It truly is amazing.

This is a nearly perfect model of teamwork and engagement a leader might strive for. To achieve this, ask yourself these questions.

  1. Is the end goal perfectly clear? Is my message clear and uncluttered?
  2. Is my organization structured to allow for innovation and independent thinking?
  3. Have I established an environment where employees can succeed?
  4. Are there mechanisms in place for departments to effectively communicate with one another?

As a transformational leader, you want to ensure your employees are self-sufficient, and can drive their work without day-to-day intervention by you. Just like the honey bees, the success of your outcomes is driven in part by their ability to work on their own to determine what needs to be done, where and by when.

Dedicated to your profitable transformation,


Steve’s top ten list – an executive’s favorite blogs

Recently I spoke with an executive client. He told me he had been reading my newsletter, now going into its third year. He shared with me that he had a list of top 10 favorites. Here they are:

  1. How senior leaders hold the keys to successful transformation
  2. When top down doesn’t make sense – an inquisitive approach to transformation
  3. How to drive greater value by listening
  4. How to ensure your success as a leader of change
  5. How to encourage transformational resistance, and reap greater rewards
  6. Why it’s wise not to take short cuts when executing change
  7. How to eliminate cross-functional dysfunction during large scale process change
  8. How trust enables high speed transformation
  9. Resistance is not only good, it’s necessary
  10. How not to manage change

I appreciate his feedback. In fact, this is one way to advance your transformation. Praise good work when you see it, and be sure others know about it.

Dedicated to your profitable transformation,


My most memorable Thanksgiving

The first 10 years of my life were spent in Chicago. In the fall of my 11th year my parents purchased a 30-acre run-down farm in southwest Michigan. Kind of like Green Acres, only not as bad.

Our first over night trip there was Thanksgiving. We drove over from Chicago with a suitcase, a hot plate and a cooler. There was an old porcelain surfaced table and a couple of chairs left in the kitchen, but that’s the only furniture we had. Thanksgiving dinner was canned turkey, canned vegetables and bread and butter. No stuffing. No cranberry sauce. No pumpkin pie. Dad found a crate in the basement to use as a third chair, and we sat around that old table and enjoyed our simple Thanksgiving in that dimly lit kitchen.

After that first Thanksgiving we went there every weekend, holidays and most of the summers. After nearly three years and the purchase of a second farm, we moved there permanently.. Those first years, though, are among my favorite memories growing up “on the farm.” We had farmland, woods and a creek. I built a small fort in a pine grove. I learned how to drive a tractor. I tromped up and down the creek. I helped my dad clear brush, plant grapes and restore the old peg and beam barn. One neighbor was an older couple – the quintessential farm couple with an old tractor, chickens and some cows. They took me under their wing and I learned how to milk a cow, make butter, and tend chickens. It was quite an adventure for a young suburban boy.

I am grateful for those first two-three years I had on the farm. I learned as much or more through those experiences as I did in school. That first Thanksgiving, though, is one of my best memories – in part because it was so simple and in part because it started a new way of life for me.

May you be blessed with a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday and enjoy it with important family and friends.

Dedicated to your profitable transformation,


The biggest mistakes leaders make when making decisions

Recently I read an article that talked about big mistakes leaders make when making decisions. One situation is when the leader tells people they have input into the decision when they really don’t. Employees provide input to the decision only to find out later this was a ploy to gain their buy-in. There was never any intent to use their input.

I agree. This is a ploy that only ends up hurting the leader in the long run. It is disingenuous, and drives lack of trust. When you are leading a large-scale transformational change in your organization, building trust is paramount to your success.

Instead, be clear and honest about who is making the decision. Limit input to the decision to your immediate leadership team. Then enroll employees to implement the change. It’s crucial that employees help you define the implementation, but not the decision itself.

Dedicated to your profitable transformation,


How your humility drives greater success when leading transformational change

I recently read an article in the Wall Street Journal that shared why the best bosses are humble bosses. This reminded me of a few things. First, it reminded me of Patrick Lencioni’s book, “The Ideal Team Player: How to Recognize and Cultivate the Three Essential Virtues” (Jossey-Bass, April 2016).

The article also reminded me of a few of my executive clients – particularly those with whom I enjoyed working with the most. They are truly humble leaders. Let’s dig into this further – what does it mean to be a humble leader?

  1. Ask for feedback. Here are few forms:
    1. Direct reports. Requesting feedback on the progress the organization is making as it navigates transformational change helps the leader and her team adjust the purpose to ensure they are driving to optimal outcomes.
    2. All other employees. In town hall meetings and other forums, don’t fill the hour with presentations. Allow at least 1/3 of the time for thoughtful questions and feedback. Ask meaningful questions of the audience to engaged thoughtful feedback.
    3. Coach. Hire a coach to help you improve your leadership. Look for areas of strength and build on those. Expect honest feedback from your coach – that’s why you are paying them.
  2. Build healthy conflict. In your team meetings if you see dissent growing in your leadership team, don’t avoid it, dive into it. This especially applies to items you bring to the agenda. Ask team members to clarify their position. Seek out points of difference. Help team members express their concerns productively. Watch for body language that suggests discomfort. Be careful not to embarrass but be sure that all voices are heard.
  3. Learn from failure. I do not encourage exacerbating wounds, but I do encourage thoughtful discussion about lessons learned. Even in your most successful transformational changes, there are things you might have done differently. Take time to explore those, along with the things you and your team did right.

Use this outline above to assess your own humble leadership. Are you doing these things? How well? If you experienced no hesitation answering any of these questions positively, then it is quite likely that your transformation will be among the few that succeed. Congratulations.

Dedicated to your profitable transformation,


How focus on purpose enables transformational change

This is personal. In the 1960’s growing up in Chicago’s suburbs, my parents furnished their home with just about everything from Sears. My mother and I frequented the big Sears store in the Loop. After we moved to Michigan, my father offered several shares of Sears’ stock as collateral for a loan for my first business (Salisbury’s Apiaries, another story for another day). We watched in 1973 as the world’s tallest building, the Sears Tower, opened in Chicago’s loop.

By then the winds of change had already started to blow. In 1977, I started my career at Whirlpool Corporation. Whirlpool was Sears’ largest supplier and Sears its biggest customer. One year later, I attended a company quarterly meeting where a senior leader told us that the executive team was concerned about Sears’ future, and Whirlpool would put greater focus on their own brands and marketing strategy. That was 40 years ago. Sadly, their predictions proved true. Sears is now all but gone.

What happened? Walmart entered the national marketplace in the 1970’s. Sears could not fulfill product commitments. Sears went into the insurance and real estate businesses which diluted their focus. With the rise of the internet, they were late to the party. They stopped investing in their stores.

They lost their way. They did not remain true to their purpose. They became complacent and distracted. They lost touch with their employees. These issues caused them to lose touch with their marketplace.

Over and over I see successful leaders do one thing quite well. They define and stay true to their purpose. Whatever the scale of the transformation they:

  • Define a clear purpose, and state it in terms of tangible outcomes.
  • Ensure their leadership team is aligned to these outcomes.
  • Work to eliminate cross-functional dysfunction that hampers realization of the outcomes.
  • Communicate frequently and repetitively about the value of the transformation and its outcomes.
  • Seek real time feedback from all levels of the organization to assess progress and potentially modify the course of action required to implement their transformation.
  • Enroll employees to drive the transformation. Managers define processes and measures; front-line employees determine how the changes will impact them and their peers and act accordingly.

As a leader driving transformational change in your organization, ask yourself the questions posed  above.

Having worked with executives driving successful transformational change, I am uniquely qualified to help you achieve the value you expect from your program. Contact me today to learn more about how I can help you.

Dedicated to your profitable transformation,


Why the idea of Change Management is Wrong!

I’ve been doing this work for decades, and I have never really thought of it as managing change. Rather, I think of it as leading transformations – or transformational leadership. There are two primary focuses.

  1. When an organization goes through some sort of change, it is transforming from one state to a new state. The focus first needs to be on the outcomes of the transformation – not on the transformation itself.
  2. While it is true that the work must be managed, the focus must also be on the work required to lead the organization to the new state, not merely on managing the activities that accomplish the transformation.

My own experience, backed up by study after study, indicates that the focus on leadership during transformation is essential. The number one attribute of successful transformations is actively visible sponsorship – or leadership. If the leadership team is not aligned to the purpose and working to ensure the organization is enrolled to drive it forward, the chance of success drops significantly.

For a long time, I was self-critical because plans I developed at the beginning of a project were often significantly altered as we proceeded through the transformation. Once I realized that changing the plan was representative of the growth of the leaders leading the transformation, changing the plan became an indicator of successful leadership transformation – a key ingredient to the approach outlined above. I a reminded of a quote by Abraham Lincoln, “I shall adopt new views as fast as they shall appear to be true views.”

Therefore, it behooves those of us in the business to start calling this work what it is: Transformational Leadership. Everything we do to help an organization drive to a successful transformational change is rooted in this concept.

Dedicated to your profitable transformation,


How enrolling your employees ensures transformational success

In the last two months, I’ve had the opportunity to fly on two very different airlines. Southwest Airlines is one of them. I fly Southwest often and appreciate the lighthearted behavior of the flight attendants. They are happy, helpful and clearly engaged in making the travel experience more enjoyable for their passengers. The other airline (I’ll call it Airline B) provided a 180-degree different experience. The attendants slammed down drinks and snacks on our tray tables. They were clearly unhappy and the last thing on their mind was providing an enjoyable travel experience. It made for a long, uncomfortable trip.

I did a little research. Southwest has a history of successful transformational change. It’s in their DNA. Airline B does not. Failed mergers. Failed cultural change. It’s no wonder.

Organizations that encourage a healthy culture are more apt to have successful transformational change because their employees are enrolled in the process. This means that leaders must:

  1. Take time to communicate with employees to understand their level of excitement and concern for the transformation.
  2. Use the results of these conversations to shape the implementation of the transformation. This could mean adjustments to speed, timing, sequencing, or even scope.
  3. Determine effective, meaningful ways to enroll employees to help drive the transformation.
  4. Enlist middle managers to identify new measures to monitor progress and hold the organization accountable for enforcing the transformation.

One enrollment strategy I’ve implemented for many of my clients is a Change Action Network (CAN). The basic features of a CAN are that it is made up of front-line employees representing the cross functional areas of the company – or at least those functions impacted by the transformation. A CAN might take on many different roles and features, depending on the nature of the transformation.

There are many ways you can enroll your employees in the transformation. Regardless, take one minute right now to assess your performance against the four criteria listed above. How are you doing with your transformation?

Dedicated to your profitable transformation,


How discovering your values accelerates transformational change.

Thousands if not millions of people talk about crime in Chicago. The overall crime rate in Chicago is 35%, higher than the national average. While down in 2017, Chicago’s murder rate soared 72% in 2016; shootings were up more than 88% (Source: Chicago Police Department). The gang violence and murder problem are regularly featured on the national and international news.

One organization that is doing something about this problem is BUILD Chicago. They have one mission; to transform the lives of at-risk youth. This past weekend I had the opportunity to lead a retreat for BUILD Chicago. One of our activities was to identify their organization’s values. In a brief two- hour working session, I guided the leadership team through a process to identify their four values: Empathy, Passion, Persistence and Innovation. The next day, we worked with the rest of their organization to further define these values and begin the process of adoption and integration.

Since I started working with BUILD Chicago a year ago, they have nearly doubled their staff, and have taken significant action to improve and grow their culture. Both of these are large undertakings on their own. Together, if not led properly, are quite risky.

By grounding his entire organization in these values, CEO Adam Alonzo is ensuring that as they go through this high growth phase, they also develop their culture. In the process, they are implementing accountability measures to keep the team on track and moving quickly in the right direction.

By the end of the retreat it was clear to me that beyond the massive transformation, this organization is going through, seeds of an even larger transformation are being planted. While relatively unknown today, BUILD Chicago is on the cusp of explosive growth focused on making exponential improvements in the city of Chicago. Why?

  1. Strong leadership and sponsorship. The CEO is hungry for growth and is willing and able to work with his entire organization to make this happen.
  2. The leadership is aligned. The entire leadership team is aligned to both the outcome of the cultural transformation and the organizational objectives associated with growth. This includes the values we discovered during the retreat.
  3. The entire organization is enrolled in both changes. Believe me, if you experienced the energy I have during this retreat, you’d know this to be a fact.

In my years of working with all kinds of organizations through all kinds of change, I have found these to be the three most important ingredients to successful transformative change.

How are you doing with your transformation?

Dedicated to your profitable transformation,


How your strong sense of purpose drives successful transformation

Another of my all-time favorite movies is “Secretariat,” a film about an American Thoroughbred racehorse who, in 1973, became the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years. His record-breaking victory in the Belmont Stakes, which he won by 31 lengths, is widely regarded as one of the greatest races of all time.

Secretariat’s owner, Penney Chenery Tweedy, overcame significant barriers to lead him to multiple victories over his short career.

  • She changed her life as a 19-year-old housewife and fundraiser in Colorado.
  • During Secretariat’s run, she commuted between her career as a housewife in Colorado to the stables in Virginia and other various locations where races were held. Remember, we’re talking about the early 1970’s when air travel was much different than today.
  • In the early 1970’s, women were not considered able to viably participate in horse racing.
  • She had to deal with a huge financial issue upon the passing of her father.

Despite these barriers she:

  • Knew she had a winner.
  • Engaged people who would support her cause.
  • Had faith in her purpose – to enable Secretariat’s success.
  • Persevered in the face of adversity.

As a result, Secretariat not only won the Triple Crown, he set speed records in all three races. His time in the Kentucky Derby still stands as the Churchill Downs track record for ​1 1⁄4 miles, and his time in the Belmont Stakes stands as the American record for ​1 1⁄2 miles on the dirt.

One of the most successful transformations in which I was involved was the Whirlpool acquisition and subsequent integration of Maytag. Our leaders set a strong purpose – to create the largest home appliance manufacturer in the world. The intent was to create a combined company to more effectively compete globally by providing the greatest innovation for consumers at competitive prices. We were successful for many reasons, including:

  • We had clear purpose.
  • We focused on this and set aside other distractions.
  • We had a strong leadership structure in place to drive the transformation.
  • We motivated and enrolled employees in the change and acknowledged and their contributions.

These two stories – Secretariat and Whirlpool/Maytag share these attributes. How does your transformation measure up?

Dedicated to your profitable transformation,