The Three Most Frequently Asked Questions

Recently a colleague asked me to share the three questions I most often field from clients.

What is it that we are really trying to accomplish? In summary this is all about clarity of purpose. When leaders ask me this question, sometimes it’s rhetorical, but often, it’s a real question to help them sort out clarity for their goals. I’ve written volumes about this topic in this column, and in the Chicago Business Journal. Here is one of my personal favorites.

What stands in the way of our progress? Typically, this references resistance. Organizational resistance to transformational change can be a real roadblock. Yet it doesn’t have to be. You can learn from it and use it to help navigate your organization to the outcomes you desire. Here are a couple of columns that explore this in detail, and how to leverage it for success.

How to align the leadership team to the outcomes? Cross-functional dysfunction is more often rooted in misalignment at goals at the top of the organization. A recent McKinsey study notes that 83% of executives believe there are silos in their organization, and 97% believe silos create issues for their company. Read my column next week – it explores this further and provides simple guidance to follow to resolve cross-functional dysfunction.

Do you have a question you’d like to ask? Send me an email, and we’ll feature your question in this column.

Dedicated to your profitable transformation,


I’d love to hear your thoughts on this article. Please go out to LinkedIn to add your comments.

How Inquiry vs. Advocacy can Mitigate Resistance

We recently had a ceiling repaired in one of our condo bathrooms. The cause of the damage was poorly sealed plumbing in the unit above ours. A contractor was selected to do the work. Working with them to schedule the repairs was easy. Working with the gentleman who did the work provides a case study in advocacy vs. inquiry and managing resistance. We will call him Sam.

Sam appeared at our door on time on the day we had scheduled the work. As he began the work, he explained that the damage was caused by poor ventilation in our bathroom, and the wrong vent grill. Sam was persistent about advocating his rationale for our issues despite my challenge to his rationale. I politely disagreed with his assessment – I was resistant. We agreed that he would talk with the building maintenance team to find out about proper ventilation.

Sam returned the next day to complete the job. I asked him what he had learned from our maintenance team and it was clear that he had not spoken with them at all. Instead he continued to advocate for his position that the ventilation was wrong, and I should take action to correct it. Later that day I did in fact speak with our maintenance supervisor who assured me that I was right about the damage, the leak and the ventilation.

Sam’s handling of this issue illustrates two important transformational leadership behaviors – and how not to demonstrate them.

The first is advocacy vs. inquiry. If you are trying to change someone’s perception of a situation, you will not gain any ground by continuing to advocate your position, and not asking questions about why people think the way they do. Not once in our exchange did Sam ask me how I came to believe why the situation had occurred, my previous experience with construction (I built a house 20 years ago), or my tenure with the bathroom. Had he asked questions to better understand my position, he would have built some credibility.

The other is handling resistance. This goes hand in hand with advocacy vs. inquiry. I clearly rejected Sam’s diagnosis of the problem and he knew it. We agreed to a course of action. He failed to follow through with it. Had he explored why I rejected his diagnosis (inquiry), followed through with his commitment to find out more information, and demonstrate some willingness to adjust his course of action, we might have had a more positive outcome. We would at least be aligned. We weren’t. He completed the project and left reinforcing the idea that the ventilation was to blame. I simply said thank you and closed the door.

Don’t be like Sam. Take time to understand others’ points of view when you are leading a transformation. Then take action to address concerns and follow through with those who express concern. You’ll build credibility, improve your leadership, and have a far greater chance of success.

Dedicated to your profitable transformation,


I’d love to hear your thoughts on this article. Please go out to LinkedIn to add your comments.

How Hierarchical Adherence Slows your Transformation

For the last century, we’ve encouraged a strong organizational structure with a top-down, command and control leadership style. While this has driven significant efficiencies, it can also block your success with organizational transformation.

Dedicated to your profitable transformation,


I’d love to hear your thoughts on this video. Please join the discussion on LinkedIn to add your comments.


How Humility Helped One New Leader Start His New Role

Adam Alonso is the Chief Executive Officer of BUILD Chicago Inc. BUILD Chicago’s mission is to engage at-risk youth in schools and on the streets to help them realize their potential and contribute to our communities. Recently I had the opportunity to talk with Adam about leading transformationally.

Steve: What does it mean to you to be a transformational leader?

Adam: To me it means to bring people together through a shared vision. Leading by example, rolling up your sleeves and visibly following through on your action. It also means to have empathy, be humble, be honest, and be confident. Regarding humility – this is important. Don’t believe your own press. Don’t promote yourself to the team. Let your work speak for itself.

Steve: Tell me about a time when this was particularly challenging or rewarding for you.

Adam: When I first arrived at BUILD, I was not wanted here. There was a large group of employees who would have preferred another leader. I started by talking with every employee. We jointly discovered opportunities for improvement. We put much-needed discipline in place – such as being in the office for eight hours every day. This wasn’t popular, but we did it. Other basics included dressing professionally and keeping the place clean. I learned who my allies were, and we worked together to drive these basic elements of discipline. I was very clear and held them to these higher standards. We lost several employees who couldn’t adjust to the increased discipline. As new employees came in, we set the foundation for the new culture.

Steve: How did you clarify the purpose of this transformation?

Adam: It was ultra-chaotic around me. I determined not to become sucked into this. I experienced all of this and as an outsider had limited insight but great perspective. We needed to drive greater discipline and structure. I listened to suggestions and gave people the chance to engage. I went into this with 100% trust in them and gave them a 100% benefit of the doubt, even though there was a large group of dissidents. Slowly we moved them out and built the new organization and culture.

Steve: In what ways did you experience cross-functional dysfunction, and how did you address this?

Adam: Early on we had a youth conference at a local high school that drew more than 100 attendees. I learned that the employee in charge of the event, Rick, was doing this all by himself. No one assisted him in setting this up. He established all the speakers, logistics, refreshments, everything. Other leaders did not help. People were in silos and did not speak with each other. To remedy this, I used this example and was quite clear with the leadership team that this behavior was not acceptable. We need to help one another prepare and host these large events. I set clear expectations and we performed postmortems on these. Over time, this improved greatly.

Steve: Were there cultural attributes that made the transformation easier or more difficult?

Adam: This organization was siloed with a great deal of mistrust, even within a team. People threw each other under the bus. We talked a great deal about changing it, but in the beginning, it was grueling. It had become so ingrained. There was an informal power structure that was untouchable. The good news was that everyone had enthusiasm for the mission and over time their passion outweighed the negative behavior. As we shared our positive experiences, it grabbed their heart and gave me a platform to move forward.

Steve: How did you enroll others in the transformation?

Adam: Much of this was done by clarifying the need for greater structure and discipline. There was also some negative reinforcement that worked in our favor: when people began leaving the organization some of those who remained were alarmed. The realized they either needed to engage or leave. They had to choose. It worked. People who stayed determined for themselves that the new culture was good for them and good for the organization for which they had so much passion.

Steve: How did you become more of a coach?

Adam: This is a more recent development. I’ve learned to ask the right questions. I’m moving from the role of manager to become more of a coach. I am holding people accountable by asking them about what they did and how they can learn from it – both best practices and lessons learned.

Steve: If you could give one piece of advice, what would it be?

Adam: To me, it’s all about humility. Yes, you have position and power, but don’t let this go to your head. Don’t believe your own press. Humility and kindness will take you far. It doesn’t mean being weak – you still need to hold people accountable.

Endnote: At the beginning of Adam’s tenure at BUILD, he was met with a great deal of resistance. As with most other organizations, people resist when culture is threatened. It is often the senior managers who become unseen detractors. Therefore, organizational transformation rarely follows a straightforward path. Instead, it is a social movement that spreads commitment.

Dedicated to your profitable transformation,


I’d love to hear your thoughts on this article. Please join the discussion on LinkedIn to add your comments.

Would you like to contribute to a fantastic cause? Your contribution will go to efforts to work with at-risk youth across Chicagoland. You can donate to BUILD here.

How Wrong Assumptions Impact your Success

Another failed project.

As statistics prove, the probability is high that you will experience failed projects. About one in three projects fail to achieve the objectives established at the outset.

I see executives regularly believe three assumptions that cause false starts and delays when they begin to implement their strategies or any transformational change.

  1. Executives believe they create strategy that is clear enough to successfully execute.
  2. Executives believe they are the only ones who can lead transformational change.
  3. Executives believe that aligning their immediate teams is only about behavior.

Let’s take these one at a time, debunk them and offer solutions.

Assumption 1: Executives believe they create strategy that is clear enough to successfully execute.

  • Why this assumption is wrong: I’ve seen this proven wrong time and time again, and studies support this. Up to 90% of executives admit their own strategies are not executable.
  • The impact: The leading causes of this failure are lack of clear purpose understood across the leadership team and lack of a clear execution plan that all employees can rally around.
  • How you can correct it: Ensure your purpose is clear and that its outcomes are relatable, especially to the front-line. Be sure your leadership team understands the implications of these outcomes in each of their functions. Build a plan to enroll employees to drive success and long-term sustainability.

Assumption 2: Executives believe they are the only ones who can lead transformational change.

  • Why this assumption is wrong: If you believe that you are the only one who can lead the implementation of your strategy, then you are in for a long, drawn-out implementation. Don’t plan on seeing your family anytime soon.
  • The impact: Besides long hours? With limited ownership, the most critical impact is the lack of sustainability. If you are the only author of the change, and others don’t have an opportunity to enroll, customize and help implement, the probability of it sticking is near zero.
  • How you can correct it: The best leaders take time to establish frameworks so that first-line supervisors and front-line employees lead a bulk of the effort. For supervisors, this might be defining new operational metrics and linkages across the organization. Front-line employees can author new business processes and guidelines to operate in the new environment.

Assumption 3: Executives believe that aligning their immediate teams is only about behavior.

  • Why this assumption is wrong: The most common response I’ve heard about dealing with alignment and resolving cross-functional dysfunction is that leaders think this is the “soft, fluffy stuff.” Far from it. Understanding how a change in one area impacts other areas is essential for success.
  • The impact: When you implement any strategy or any change, there are impacts to the way people work in each function of your organization. Not understanding how this impacts their interdependencies will significantly slow your transformation – or cause it to fail.
  • How you can correct it: Alignment is not just about building greater organizational trust and establishing an environment where employees can engage in healthy debate and challenge one another. It’s also about being crystal clear about up-stream and down-stream impacts that result from the implementation of the change – and planning appropriately for these changes.

Dedicated to your profitable transformation,


How to Drive a New Culture to Embrace the Digital Age

“Things are moving so fast we can’t keep up!”

Two weeks ago, Macy’s announced that they were falling short of their 2019 financial goals. Sears and JC Penney are closing more stores. Even Walmart and Walgreen’s have announced they will close stores. Brick and mortar are giving way to the digital age. Amazon continues to grow at breakneck speed. Over ten years, Amazon’s revenue has increased about 12 times, whereas Target Stores’ revenue has increased about 1.2 times.

When we look at the retail industry specifically, and others more generally, it’s clear that traditional organizational structures are falling short. They are unable to keep pace with the demands of the digital economy.

The advancement of the Internet over the past two decades has taught us that we must run our organizations differently for our businesses to thrive, and perhaps even survive. This digital transformation is inevitable. To successfully move into the future, leaders need to strike a balance between organizational hierarchy and cross-functional coordination. While there still needs to be accountability for results, organizations need to be able to move faster to achieve these results.

In the late 1800s, Fredrick Taylor pioneered the idea of specialization to speed production. Before this, companies employed craftsman to build one product at a time. This was slow, tedious, and drove enormous variability in the quality of the end products. Taylor pioneered greater efficiency through organizational structure and discipline. No one person produced a product any longer. Through a structured organizational design, different workers had responsibility for small components of the product’s fabrication and construction. In time, this expanded to other parts of the organization. Payroll clerks computed payroll check amounts, and accounting personnel wrote the paychecks. Order-takers received phone calls from customers who wanted to place orders, a warehouse clerk prepared the product for shipment, and a transportation clerk shipped the product to the buyer. All this structure drove phenomenal efficiency. One Fortune 150 company drove $160 million of annual cost out of their supply chain through these efficiencies. Throughout most of the 20th century, organizations employed Taylor’s ideas to drive more and more cost out of their production.

However, this specialization drove hierarchical adherence which in turn promoted cross-functional dysfunction – especially during times of change. If leaders wanted to deploy a new product design or improve business processes across the organization, they ran into huge amounts of resistance from their employees.. This led to lots of failure of organizations to achieve results in desired time frames, if at all.

This means that organizations must reduce their dependence on hierarchical adherence and drive more toward teams that work more effectively cross-functionally. People in these organizations must operate at higher levels of cross-functional collaboration, requiring greater trust, healthy dissent, and greater ability to engage in informal accountability.

This starts at the top. The leader of an organization must be willing to give up traditional command and control in favor of a more facilitative approach. He or she must be passionate about their  organization’s mission, must be humble, and must demonstrate greater trust and willingness to engage in healthy dissent.

In addition to these personal characteristics, these leaders must also:

  1. Hold their leadership team accountable to strip away the armor and work cross-functionally – more than ever. They must model and require more openness, more willingness and a greater propensity to challenge each other.
  2. Promote and model the idea that employees across the organization work together more effectively to drive these outcomes and are willing to challenge each other to do so.

All leaders must give up the old command and control mentality that Fredrick Taylor inspired. They must become more of a coach, helping direct reports, and the entire organization drive to these new behaviors which in turn drives to a greater culture of cross-functional effectiveness.

This article is the subject of my upcoming webinar, How to Drive a New Culture to Embrace the Digital Age, which will be produced and delivered by PMO Strategies. Click here for more info.


Dedicated to your profitable transformation,




How you can implement a strategy with no sponsorship

“No sponsor? Are you kidding me?”

Normally I write this newsletter for executives. This week, my assumption is that you who are reading this are not an executive in your organization and you have recently been tasked to implement a change for which there is weak, or worse, no sponsorship.

Study after study say that lack of active and visible sponsorship is the number one cause of project failure. My experience working with dozens of organizations is similar. Yet even as a consultant, I’ve driven change without having an executive sponsor, so I know it’s possible.

Note – this is not for the faint of heart. Be prepared for long hours, elongated timelines and lots of frustration. But it’s possible. I offer an approach here:

  1. First, be crystal clear on the outcomes. Corporate has just handed down a policy or process change you must implement, but you have no support. Having complete clarity on what this means to you and your team is the critical first step.
  2. Identify the value. Why, why, why? Why is it necessary to do what you’ve been asked to do? How will this improve sales, customer satisfaction, productivity, or other end metrics?
  3. Build a coalition. Based on the nature of the change, you’ll be able to determine who needs to be involved to help make this change happen. Map it out. Identify what you’ll need from each of them. Bring them together. Discuss the impacts. Collectively determine how they can fulfill the work to achieve the change.
  4. Influence your coalition to act. Influence them some more. Then influence them even more. Influence. Ask questions. Don’t advocate. Ask. Influence. When you are done, influence more.
  5. Show progress. Give your coalition, and impacted employees, an opportunity to see and celebrate progress. Even if it is miniscule. What might seem inconsequential to you may not be to them.
  6. Celebrate success. Cake. Ice cream. Hot dogs or caviar. Whatever. Make it fun and defer the success to them. Give them all the credit. All of it.

Can I guarantee your success? No. But if you follow these steps, you’ll increase the probability that you’ll be smiling at the end, and you will develop your leadership skills in the process.

Dedicated to your profitable transformation,


How one leader drove a major cultural change

Michael Robinson recently concluded his role as a senior executive for a major pharmaceutical company. I had the chance to interview Michael about a massive transformational change that he led.

Steve: What does it mean to you to be a transformational leader?

Michael: It’s three things. One, building a leadership team that aligns on creating a clear and concise vision for the transformation. This vision is used to develop engagement throughout the entire organization. The leadership team must be aligned and committed. Second, an engagement strategy to inspire and align the organization for the transformation. Finally, execution must be realistic, staged and thoughtfully monitored and measured.

Steve: Tell me about a time when this was particularly rewarding for you.

Michael: I lead the creation of a US Medical Affairs team of about 400 employees throughout the United States. About half were located at corporate headquarters, the other half were in the field and mostly working from home. The field medical team was in critical condition as indicated by disastrously low organizational engagement scores. We had to work to rebuild the confidence of this team, and simultaneously demonstrate their value to the rest of the company. Within the first year of this project, we managed to improve engagement scores from 22 to 77 (out of 100). This kind of improvement in employee engagement is remarkable and was extremely rewarding. Unfavorable attrition plummeted from 16% to 2% in two short years.

Steve: How did you clarify the purpose of this transformation?

Michael: The purpose of the transformation was clarified by strategic leadership engagement and a communication plan. Early on, I sat down with every field medical team member to discuss issues and opportunities for the new organization. Through the balance of the first year, I met with most employees. During these meetings I asked open-ended questions and actively listened for feedback. The communication plan strategically linked and reinforced every key message in the vision. In summary, we “lived” the change in every layer of the organization and fostered broad listening and engagement.

Steve: In what ways did you experience cross-functional dysfunction, and how did you address this?

Michael: The most significant manifestation of this occurred in the alignment of the purpose and value of the field medical team throughout my organization and with the commercial team. We met with cross functional colleagues at all levels to understand current and future state, embracing the value of the field team, and giving leaders and employees alike a platform for expressing opinions.

Steve: What cultural attributes made this transformation easier or more difficult?

Michael: We started this project with low employee engagement scores particularly in the category of Trust and Transparency – “can you trust your leader?” When this is your starting point, one first must gain back the trust of the employees. Therefore, we put much effort into our leadership engagement and communication plan. This included multiple channels to listen and communicate WITH employees – leadership forums, group lunches with the leader, employee of the month program, change agent network of employees, newsletters and all employee meetings were live.

Steve: How did you enroll the team into the transformation?

Michael: Employees must first be able to trust leadership to steer them in the right direction. They must also be able to identify with the stated vision for the transformation and understand the “why” behind the work. This begins with the leadership team traveling throughout the various locations of the organization. Once we had the leadership team in place, we took the first six months to develop trust and buy-in. The leadership team gradually came together around a common vision, and we practiced healthy conflict to achieve solid buy-in and alignment to the vision. This was critical to the success of the transformation and was time well spent. We also developed a Change Agent Network of selected U.S. employees that independently identified and developed projects that were in line with the overall vision and were important to the employees. Organized in this manner, employees collectively shared feedback and identified workstreams to execute at the front-line to drive the transformation.

Steve: Outside of your immediate function, what other organizational challenges did you face?

Michael: Medical Affairs was new to the company. Therefore, the value the Medical Affairs team could bring was poorly understood. To address this, the project began with top senior cross-functional leadership aligned to the vision and goals for the transformation. We reviewed progress frequently, and cross-functional teams were brought together to understand each other’s roles and the ways they work together. This was done in large group and small group settings with senior leadership observing the progress firsthand.

Steve: How did you become more of a coach?

Michael: The most significant way in which I became more of a coach was in encouraging and managing healthy conflict. The leadership team must come together as a team and align as a team. In order to successfully do that, we had to engage in healthy conflict and disagreement. This took several months to accomplish and was frequently re-visited. Also, I am a firm believer in the visibility of the leader. I had to be approachable and listen to all employees. I made myself available to engage employees at all levels.

Steve: If you could give one piece of advice, what would it be?

Michael: Listen. Listen. And listen. Any successful transformation project must have the trust and engagement of the employees in the organization. Trust only begins if the leader is willing to actively listen. The leader must bring the organization along in the transformation. Pushing out a vision that the leader wants to accomplish without first having listened to and engaged with the employees extensively, is doomed to fail or not stick long-term. Take the time upfront, listen to the needs of the organization.

Dedicated to your profitable transformation,


How passive resistance slows your transformation

“Steven! The basement is flooded,” my wife cried.

Every year our lawn care service cleans the eave troughs at our farmhouse in Michigan. The proof that they have done a great job is a dry basement.

A few days ago, a heavy thunderstorm pummeled us with a downpour. Imagine my surprise as I watched the eave troughs all around the house overflow until the storm was over. The next morning, we found pools of water in our normally dry basement. Determined to restore my basement to dryness, my wife and I donned our work clothes, and dragged a ladder and garden hose out of the barn. Within minutes we discovered that although the eaves troughs were clear, the down spouts were plugged with years of debris. After two hours of disassembling, clearing and reinstalling the downspouts we proclaimed the project complete. Water flowed freely.

Transformational change is like rainwater. Your team will take the path of least resistance to achieve its goals – or attempt to. It’s often those unseen obstructions that create resistance for you to achieve your goals.

Like those downspouts, you might need to proactively seek out and address areas of resistance in your organization. Metaphorically speaking, you might need to poke around a bit to find out where there is resistance, why it exists, and take steps to adapt to the risks it manifests.

Dedicated to your profitable transformation,