Google It: Best Bosses are Coaches

March 13, 2011

Leave it to Google to confirm what we thought we knew.  Using the power of algorithmic analysis, Google turned its statistical search engines on its own management team to determine what makes a great manager.

Confirming what the Peter Principle suggested decades ago, Google has proven statistically that technical expertise does not a great manager make.  In 1972 Dr. Peter posited that the tendency of organizations is to promote people to their level of incompetence.  In the process, people who perform extremely well in one position often lack the qualities which are required to lead others to similar excellence.  As a result, promoting a great technician does not necessarily mean that he or she will prove to be a great manager.  To the contrary, unless possessed of an enhanced skill set, great technicians can be very poor managers and the team will suffer from lack of leadership.

As reported in today’s New York Times, over the last two years Google has been analyzing what makes a great supervisory leader at Google.  Rather than conducting an anecdotal study, Google applied statistical analysis to 10,000 manager observations using over 100 variables to determine not only what traits made a manager a great leader, but to prioritize those traits in terms of importance.

To human resources professionals it should be no surprise that technical competence in the area of subordinate performance was the least important leadership trait of the eight characteristics which data established as critical.  Instead, in statistical order of importance, the behavior traits of the best managers at Google are:

1.  Be a good coach

2.  Empower your team and don’t micromanage

3.  Express interest in team members’ success and personal well-being

4.  Don’t be a sissy:  Be productive and results oriented

5.  Be a good communicator and listen to your team

6.  Help your employees with career development

7.  Have a clear vision and strategy for the team

8.  Have key technical skills so you can help advise the team

There are three negative corollaries which failed leaders at Google exhibit as well:  1) Have trouble making a transition to the team, 2) Lack a consistent approach to performance management and career development and 3) Spend too little time managing and communicating.

Google reports that one-on-one coaching in these behavior traits with problem managers has resulted in as much as 75% improvement in their performance. These are not skills that great leaders are born with.  They can be taught!

Again, evidence continues to mount that those who want to lead change in organizations and people are those equipped to lead from within and “beneath”.  Rather than assuming hierarchical command and control, the best managers are those that are coaches, equippers and encouragers.  Excelling in a substantive skill is clearly not enough to lead others to great performance.  In fact, it the least important trait of great leaders.

Mangers at Google have now deprived the autocratic naysayers of the tired argument that “squishy, touchy, feely” personal empowerment behaviors are unhelpful in the highly competitive marketplace.  And they have done it with data.

The best leaders have always been those who invest in others, authentically demonstrate their interest and concern while demanding high performance and equipping their team members to provide it.

Don’t believe it?  “Google it.”


Watson Wins!: Are Lawyers in “Jeopardy”?

February 20, 2011

We all knew it would come to this. From the time back in 1968 when “2001: A Space Odessy” scared us senseless, we knew computers would one day rule the world . . . and the universe. Then it was Hal, the prophetic image of the all knowing computer possessed of the human capacity to dominate and destroy others.

When Watson trounced former Jeopardy champions, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter earlier this week, the machine beat the men. Watson finished with game winnings of $77,147, Jennings with $24,000 and Rutter with $21,600. In addition, Watson’s victory sent $1,000,000 to its (his) favorite charity. It seemed that we witnessed the Hal prophecy come true this week.

Or did we?

Some think so. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that “servers” such as doctors and lawyers hold jobs which are truly in jeopardy. According to hedge fund manager and author, Andy Kessler, technology will gradually replace those who answer questions from consumers under a grant of licensed exclusivity. See, Is Your Job an Endangered Species? Citing the degree to which ediscovery technology replaces the work previously done by lawyers and paralegals, Kessler observes that much of what lawyers currently do eventually will be done by computers (like Watson).

However, even Kessler’s pessimistic (or realistic) view of the impact of technology on the serving professions recognizes a significant difference between servers and creators. Until artificial intelligence can do more than merely search for answers (like Google and Watson), humans have the edge in the realm of creativity.

I was reminded of this also this week when I attended the Napier-Looby Bar Foundation banquet in Nashville which recognized the powerful work of lawyers in changing the world for the better. In addition to awards given to local members of the African-American bar for their work in social change, we heard from the “King of the Court”. Perry Wallace was the first black basketball player to play in the Southeastern Conference. He was recruited by Vanderbilt University in 1966 and was treated to unimaginable hostility in university arenas across the South as he broke through the previously all-white world of SEC basketball.

Wallace later went to law school at Columbia and has impacted the world through his work as a lawyer and educator. He currently serves as a professor of law at Washington College of Law. He has been a trial attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice. He told the story of his involvement in cases like that of a woman condemned to death by stoning for adultery in a Middle Eastern country while her adulterous partner was spared any penalty whatever.

Watson and his descendants will never accomplish feats of courage, conscience and creativity like that. There always will be a place for those who can change the course of history, not simply recount it.

However, lawyers who are content to perform tasks best performed by computers are an endangered species and will find their jobs outsourced and techno-sourced leaving the creative lawyers in greater demand than ever before.

Heeding the warnings of Kessler and Watson will serve the legal profession and the clients it serves extremely well. For example, turning the project management of activities and resources over to the process efficiency of computer systems will allow the creative lawyers greater freedom to build their professional resume, provide innovative solutions to client problems, improve their business portfolio and add value to their firms and their clients.

They will also begin to enjoy their world of professional achievement much more than merely working harder at doing what computers do best.

Take that, Watson!

Conversation: Antidote to Stereotypical Thinking

January 23, 2011

Bore: one who has the power of speech but not the capacity for conversation..”

Benjamin Disraeli

About 125 Nashville residents gathered last night on the 27th floor of the First Tennessee Bank building to explore creating a more peaceful community.  Members of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities sat at mixed tables of eight to socialize, eat a meal and discuss making Middle Tennessee less like the Middle East.  Rabbi Kliel Rose of the West End Synagogue, Imam Mohamed Ahmed of the Nashville Islamic Center and Dr. Lee Camp of the Lipscomb University theology faculty called their respective faith communities to dialog.  In addition, 10 Humphrey’s Fellows from Vanderbilt University attended representing countries including Kenya, Pakistan, Myanmar, Bahrain, India and the Philippines.

It was a remarkable event in many ways.  Most remarkable was the overwhelming desire for more respectful communities.  The conversations were rich and wonderful.  Although dialog was an important focus of the evening, the primary purpose was to create an action plan for building more respectful interfaith relationships and mobilizing the community in opposition to hate and violent rhetoric.

The religious leaders were passionate and articulate in their appeals for respectful dialog.  Imam Mohamed spoke of the irony that the building of a mosque could generate fear in a city where churches can occupy all four corners of a single intersection.  Rabbi Rose spoke of his desire to create a community where his four children need not question their value or acceptance.  Dr. Camp spoke of his hope that the truths Jesus articulated can be realized in the behavior of his followers.  Truths such as “love your enemy”, “turn the other cheek” and if asked for your shirt, “give them your coat also”.

Of course, this was not a newsworthy event.  Media were invited, but apparently determined more important news items needed coverage.  Muggings, car wrecks, celebrity hyjinks and political hyperbole make for better news than citizens mobilizing for peace.

Ideas were generated for improving interfaith relations.  Ideas as simple as “take the Imam to lunch” and “invite each of your neighbors into your home” were easy steps toward understanding.  Others required greater commitment and resources.  All were the result of thoughtful dialog.

Conflict managers know one thing for certain.  When people with differing views on any topic sit down face to face and seek to listen, the physiology of thought changes.  The path to peace is less focused on treaties than on talk.  Self-promoting monologues are not conversation.  Learning to listen is the power of dismantling stereotypical thinking.

Last night’s event was not an end, but only a beginning.  As most in attendance made specific commitments to engage in action, the journey begins.  If one person left with a better understanding of people unlike herself, the destination is closer.  If one person left more willing to accept that extremism on the part of any faith is not the norm but the exception, the path is more clear.

To all who came, thank you.  The stars shine brighter because you chose to listen.




Fundamentalism: Death by Choice

January 21, 2011

“All our problems, all our disputes, all our disagreements can be resolved quickly to mutual satisfaction if we address the question.”  Benazir Bhutto

A church confessional stands draped to protect it from the elements.  A sanctuary is empty and unused.  The Mary Queen of Peace Church in Habbaniya Cece lies vacant in a city which was once vibrant in its diversity and life.  Today Christians are leaving the cities in Iraq and elsewhere due to fundamentalist violence despite living for generations in peace with their Muslim neighbors.  However, not just Christians, but Muslims, Arabs and Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites all lived together for decades without friction in cities like Habbaniya Cece.  Now it is no longer satisfactory to be an Iraqi, a Muslim, an Arab, a Kurd, Sunni or Shiite.  One must choose the right label to coexist.  Exits from ancestral homes are occurring not based on national origin or religion, but based on the prevailing view of the “correct” perspective of faith as enforced by coercion and power.  See: Last Christians Ponder Leaving a Hometown in Iraq.

As tragic as this story is, it is symptomatic of the last gasps of a dying world view.  As Harvey Cox proclaimed in The Future of Faith, “fundamentalism is dead”  That is not to say that fundamentalism has been eradicated.  Instead, when threatened, power fights back with an unequaled vengeance.  The rise of terrorism born of fundamental belief is evidence of its death struggle.  However, it cannot survive as a prevailing political force.

Habbaniya Cece demonstrates why this is true.  When the circle of acceptance is drawn in ever decreasing size, eventually only I stand inside its permissive bounds.  And I have doubts about even me.  Absolute agreement on every “jot and tittle” is impossible.  Our ability to comprehend absolute truth requires us to accommodate our differences and learn how to generate dialog about the things on which we disagree in the pursuit of more complete understanding.  Fundamentalism make the faulty assumption that there is no room for diversity.

Once we accept that diversity is the nature of life and all living things, we are forced to discover how to accommodate and explore the differences.  Doing so requires us to embrace and learn to appreciate the differences in the search for relationship among opposing thought.

Neuroscience is teaching us that the brain processes the conflict of disagreement by learning how to listen and seek understanding.  Fundamentalism as a brain function operates at the level of fear (fight/flight/freeze) in the brain regions of the amygdala (autonomic) and hypothalamus (emotions) as unconscious “thought” processes.  Higher level thinking which occurs at the frontal cortex of the brain can assimilate contrary ideas and create meaning from the tensions of opposing thought.  The path to the frontal cortex requires discussion, dialog and respectful listening.  Thinking people are not victims of their emotions and the reptilian responses to conflict.  Physiologically, respectful conversation changes the thought processes of the brain and invokes frontal cortex thinking which is creative and prone to problem solving.

Disagreement is the first level of conflict which if not addressed can escalate through increasingly hostile responses to the point of violence.  Fundamentalism permits no disagreement.  Difference of opinion becomes an enemy which must be denied or destroyed.  Failing to address disagreement is the path to increased conflict and ultimately the violent use of force to eliminate the potential for divergent thought.

In contrast, those who promote peace are proponents of dialog and discussion.  Moving people out of fear and into executive level thinking is the work of conflict managers and peacemakers.  Fundamentalists are threatened by conversation, sharing ideas and seeking agreement.  That is why they cannot survive.  They are victims of their own primitive thinking.

Martin Luther King, Mahatma Ghandi, Benazir Bhutto and countless others have given their lives in the pursuit of peaceful, thoughtful dialog.  Others will follow.  Although many will die in the pursuit of peaceful co-existence, the alternative to respectful consultation which seeks understanding stands no chance of survival.  Fundamentalists of any persuasion, whether Christian, Hindu, Muslim or Jew, destroy life and their own prospects for living in the process.  Fundamentalism is not sustainable.

Will we chose thoughtful dialog, or will we run everyone out of town with whom we disagree?  The answer should be obvious.

Change Sponsors: The Change Agent’s Best (or Worst) Friend

January 15, 2011

“Sin is the refusal to keep growing.”  Saint Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335–394)

I recently had the privilege of meeting with the Executive Vice President of a major medical center whose title encompassed responsibility for strategic initiatives.  He said of himself, “I have become a perpetual change agent.”  In health care there is simply no option.  However, in what industry or profession today is maintaining the status quo ante a prescription for anything but irrelevance?

As resistant as most of us are to the suggestion of perpetual change, innately we know the absence of change is death.  Living entities will always be changing or they will cease to exist.  The only question is whether the change is moving us in a positive or a negative direction.  Positive change is innovation and improvement.  Negative change is decline and deterioration.  What this “perpetual change agent” understood is that because change is inevitable, being the proponent for positive change will advance the organization’s interests and those of all who labor in it.

A great piece posted this week on the Gallop Management Journal adds some significant instruction on managing change in organizations.  It is human nature to resist and fear change.  Change challenges our desire for clarity and control.  Change breeds uncertainty and uncertainty breeds fear of the unknown.  In organizations, the fear of change becomes magnified and exponentially increases resistance.  Complex adaptive systems are “hard wired” to resist change.

Ushering change in organizations requires conflict competent leadership.   As David Jones in the Gallop journal interview indicates, being a change agent is essential, but not enough.  Organizational change is most effective when it is incremental rather than transformational.  (See Adjacent Possibilities post.)  Changing an organization’s “stripes” is extremely difficult work and should only be attempted when the organization’s livelihood or survival is at stake.

More commonly, change amounts to constant improvement on the current state of affairs.  Incremental change is the most effective method of innovation,  but still leads most people to exclaim, “Will change never end!”  Of course, the answer is “No, the alternative to change is unacceptable.”  Change agents must constantly encourage, empower and equip people for the inevitability of change in their organizations.

Command and control organizations are the least well equipped to effect change.  Unless the people responsible for implementing and maintaining organizational change are autonomous, internally accountable and self-motivated, change will be resisted successfully.  A workforce which is not trusted and resourced for success cannot implement change.  Most change initiatives fail not because of an ineffective change agent, but due to the absence of a leader willing to serve as a change sponsor.

Change sponsors are the organizational leaders who can articulate the vision, reinforce it over time and reassure the organization that the change desired has top level support.  More change initiatives have failed due to uncommitted leaders than any other reason.

When the inevitable heat is generated by unwanted change, change sponsors will either stay the course or run for the hills.  All of us have seen organizations (churches, schools and businesses) in which the leadership announces a new direction only to reveal that when the critical commentary emerges, the engines are reversed.  When that occurs, change in that institution has become virtually impossible from that point forward.  No change agent can possibly succeed.  The change sponsor “didn’t mean it” and the resistance to change was rewarded.

Successful change in complex adaptive systems requires multi-level conflict competence.  The change sponsor must know how to weather the innate organizational resistance to change and opt for survival rather than death of the organization’s capacity to innovate.  The change agent must know how to induce and increase the likelihood of incremental change among those responsible for implementation.  The organization must have systems which encourage the positive processing of conflict heat generated by change.  Finally, the people responsible for change implementation must be provided the requisite level of autonomy and authority to accompany their responsibility and be encouraged to be totally accountable for the outcome of their tasks, good or bad.

The culture of consultation needed for perpetual change in organizations today does not naturally occur.   It requires leadership of the first order.  Change agents and change sponsors must work in close coordination and the system must embrace the resulting conflict in order to process it in healthy fashion.

Although most of us would prefer to press the “no change” button, the rate of change is such today that to do so would insure ejection from the cockpit of a supersonic jet without a parachute.

Don’t press that Easy Button!


Music City Miracle: Sport or Trascendent Experience?

December 31, 2010

“If I can’t outrun a placekicker, I don’t belong in the NFL.”

Kevin Dyson

I was present. There in the Club Section on the West side of the stadium looking down at the 2o yard line where it happened . . . right in front of me.  Really!   You can ask my son.  He was standing beside me.  Since that January day in 2000, I think I have talked with at least one million other people who claim to have been there.  But I really was.

We were almost out of hope, the clock was winding down on the Titan’s season in the Wild Card game which was our team’s last chance.  Only 16 seconds showed on the clock and the Buffalo Bills had just scored a field goal leaving them in the lead 16 to 15.  Following the kickoff, there was no option but to get out of bounds and hope against hope that a single play from scrimmage would generate the score needed to take the lead, win the game and move on in the playoffs.  But, there were only 16 seconds.  It would take a miracle.

The Bill’s kicker Steve Christie kicked off to Titans’ kickoff receiver Lorenzo Neal who (against all my shouting to the contrary) handed off the ball to Frank Wychek.  “No!!!!”  I shouted, “The sidelines, get to the sidelines and stop the clock.”  Then horrors of horrors, Wycheck passed the ball  to Kevin Dyson and the goal line was 75 yards away.  “No!!!! You can’t pass on a kickoff return.”  It seemed like an eternity passed while the crowd, first silent, then began to realize that Dyson was making his way down field with a phalanx of blockers in front of him. We erupted in a deafening roar as doctors, lawyers, bankers and factory workers began jumping up and down, hugging each other, crying, spilling their beer and just plain “loosing it”.  The mandatory official review of the play for a possible violation of NFL rules took another eternity.  Finally, the pass was ruled a lateral, the touchdown stood and the Titans were on their way to their first and only Super Bowl to end their season.

And I was there!  (Along with a million other of my closest friends.)

I’ve thought a lot about that day since January 8, 2000.  I have wondered how buttoned up business men and women could lose all sense of propriety in that setting.  I have wondered why church is more reserved and less transcendent than that moment.  I have asked myself why that experience was as transformational as the birth of a baby.  I have questioned my good judgment, my morality and even my sanity.

I need worry no more.  David Brooks made it all make sense today.  His New York Times column The Arena Culture was sent to me by my friend Dr. Eugene Regen and I don’t feel so guilty anymore.

Brooks points out that our increasingly secular culture has served to transform the religious experience into moments like the Music City Miracle.  Community can galvanize around an event like those last seconds of that playoff game in 2000.  Transcendence still lives because humanity needs it.  If religion can not provide transcendent experiences, people will find them, celebrate them and remember them for decades.  As Brooks writes, philosophers call this experience “whooshing up”.  We might find them at sporting spectacles, civil rights rallies or religious events.  The fact remains, we need them.  Our lives are given meaning through them.  Perspective is gained, exhilaration achieved and the Glorious Impossible becomes more real to us.

We can’t whoosh up individually.  It only happens in community.  Our highly individualized culture tries to convince us that whooshing up is unnecessary, unsophisticated and only enjoyed by the lowest forms of human life.

That’s simply not true.  Just ask the other million people with me and my son on the Club Level at Titans stadium that January 8 day in 2000.  We will never be the same.

When was the last time you “whooshed up”?

Peace on Earth

December 25, 2010

That peace was better than war; because in peace the sons did bury their fathers, but in wars the fathers bury their sons.
Tell a FriendFrancis Bacon


Colosseum Christmas


On Christmas Day the world over people stop to consider the possibility of peace. I was reminded of this universal desire yesterday as I made visits on Christmas Eve to Imam Mohamed Ahamed and Rabbi Kliel Rose here in Nashville to deliver materials for an upcoming event we are hosting together next year.  As he escorted me through the decorated fellowship hall in his synagogue, Rabbi Rose explained how American Jews enjoy being together and sharing a Chinese meal on Christmas Eve .  Later, at the Islamic Center, the Imam reached out to grasp my hand with both of his in a warm greeting of affection.  Each wished me “Merry Christmas” as we parted.

As a Christian who celebrates the Christ story, I stopped to consider the coming of Emmanuel, God with us.  I marvel at a God who for the sake of peace among men would assume human form and live in our midst.

At the close of 2010 with the promise of a new year approaching, I am overwhelmed by the deep longing in the human heart for peace.  No war is commenced with the intent that it last forever.  We all want wars to end.  No conflict is capable of perpetuating itself indefinitely.  All disputes will be over.  Even the “100 Years War” ultimately concluded after a mere 116 years of conflict between French and English dynasties each claiming the French throne.  Although the real “mother of all wars” introduced gunpowder and artillery into human warfare, it too ended.

Here’s to 2011 as the year we pursue reconciliation with greater commitment.  May we learn the tools of making peace and better managing the inevitable conflict that arises in our communities, our workplaces and in the relationships we treasure.

In the Spirit of Christmas 2010, “Peace on earth, good will to all men and women.”