Tag Archive for: Leadership

The gravity around “being competitive” and why it’s hurting uniqueness – for companies and for leaders

Recently, I was asked to join the BC Young Leaders Group to participate in their annual conference this year. I am always honoured to be asked to hang out with the young, bright minds working in the credit union system. The energy in the room and the passion for the purpose of cooperatives is a great way to fill my cup for a few months.

Their conference is titled “Executing Innovation” and they specifically asked me to talk about things like:

  1. How do you help your organization move forward when your superiors may be creating roadblocks?
  2. How to pitch ideas and generate buy-in
  3. How to develop an Innovation Mindset

I decided to call my presentation – Changing the “That Hasn’t Been Done Before” Mindset.  

Here’s why 🙂

When I was in business school (both times), there was much discussed about how to “be competitive” and “measure” your success. The challenge was that the measurement or comparison was always against others in the industry. The measurements in banking were not that hard to figure out — return on equity, return on assets, assets under management, efficiency ratio, productivity, etc. In fact, I would suggest that if you look at the balanced scorecards of multinational banks, community banks you’d likely see much of the same. If you went further and examined financial cooperatives you might also be surprised to see a small collection of the most used metrics that describe success.

In the businesses cases that I worked on in school, the success of the fictional business was a measurement against peer groups or others that competed in the same “vertical” industry. Both the Professors and the Students continually made reference to “being competitive”, “chasing the competition” and “closing the gap”. In today’s world, we are bombarded with Google alerts, Twitter lists and hashtag mentions of competitors, that we then use to immediately compare and contrast against the businesses that we lead.

The comparisons don’t stop with the businesses we lead either. The comparison and chase extends to the leaders in those businesses. The gravity for each of us to look, feel and appear like others is palpable. We likely all have leaders in our lives that we admire or perhaps even want to be like. I am no different. There were and still are many leaders that I look up to and hope that one day I could grow and develop to be more “like them”. It’s fine if you aspire to achieve the leadership outcomes that other great leaders achieve. I want to be more patient, more open minded, a better listener and more of a catalyst type of leader. I know leaders that do all of those things exceptionally well and I admire them greatly.

But the chase is dangerous for leaders.

It’s one thing to want to be better as a leader or business and then look for examples of what better could look like in one area or another. But the development and growth of both the leader and the business has to be in the context of being a better version of myself (or itself for businesses). As I said above, I want to be more patient. But I cannot let the pursuit and growth of being more patient tear away at the passion that I know helps me to succeed. Here is where the challenge lies. If I admire the patience of other leaders and just look to re-create that for myself, I might wake up one day very different than the “Eric version” of the leader I aspire to be. It’s the same for businesses and the evolution of the businesses we lead needs to be the same. There are other businesses I admire as being super innovative. I want to create a more innovative credit union, but it has to be a more innovative version of Conexus not just recreate a version of Conexus that looks like a different business. If we did, we might wake up one day with a business that is not aligned to our purpose or strays from our values un-intentionally. I had a great mentor very early in my career that made this point to me in a very direct way:

“As you grow as a leader, you still need to be yourself, everyone else is taken”

I realized later that was originally an Oscar Wilde quote, but it resonates with me and I use it frequently with those I mentor and coach.

The chase is also dangerous for businesses.

I was at a presentation a few years ago by Youngme Moon. She was speaking about this very issue which was highlighted in her book Different. I vividly recall a picture she showed during the presentation. It was something like the one below and she asked the conference participants which one of these we were as a business and how will we create a sense of uniqueness in the mind of our customers and potential customers.

How would you position yourself if you were the CEO of any one of these products? I know when I buy water, I care about which one I see in the cooler, how it is packaged (recyclable or not) and the size of the bottle compared to my thirst. That’s it, that’s all. I also don’t want to be a leader in any of these businesses where the consumer cares so very little about the choice. I appreciate that finding a financial partner and buying water is different and personal finance is certainly more emotive, but it was a great reminder of why uniqueness matters.

It was a sobering question when you really think about how you create competitive differentiation in the cluttered mind of the consumer. It’s also a question about how you go about the growth and development of the business and the leaders within and the danger of the “chase”. There is tremendous gravity around the chase, and we all need to be careful about allowing it to pull us places we don’t intend to be.

If you have or develop a bunch of leaders that look like each other and those leaders look, act and talk like those that work in many other businesses in your industry, what are the chances of you creating something unique, special and distinct for those that you seek to serve, either as customers or as employees (customers of the leadership environment you create)?

Very small indeed.

It’s hard enough to create new ideas, new strategies and uniqueness in business. It’s harder yet unless you are completely aware and conscious of the gravity to “sameness” and think regularly about how to grow, develop, learn and create in the context of being unique and in the case of leaders, being themselves.

I was reminded of this early by the very same mentor when he said:

Be careful. If you chase the competition, you might just catch them. Then what?

May we all celebrate those around us (business and leaders) that are unique and revel in being themselves, first and foremost.

To the BC Young Leaders – see you in a few weeks 🙂

Patience, “The Infinite Game” & Cooperatives

I just finished reading “The Infinite Game” from Simon Sinek. The book is based on earlier work from James Carse in 1986 about understanding the difference between a finite mindset and an infinite mindset. It was a provocative poke at the current state of business and capitalism and the need to ensure that both investors and business leaders are focused on the long game of creating value through their investment choices (for investors) and business decisions (for leaders). Sinek argues that business today talks about “winning” and “beating the competition” and the disconnect that creates in the behaviour of both investors and leaders. In the case of my industry – how do you “win” banking? There must be some secret scorecard for our industry right? Of course there isn’t. Ultimately, he argues that there is no such thing as “winning” in any industry, just arbitrary, near term business metrics that drive leaders and investors to a more short term view of their businesses.

At the same time, I have seen and read many articles suggesting that the global pandemic we find ourselves in will be an inflection point in terms of business disruption and that the behaviour of the consumer has been or will be forever changed. Watching in our own credit union how the pandemic has accelerated the move to digital transactions makes the argument easy to believe. Of course, time will tell if this is truly the “TSN turning point” for digital disruption in commerce. They say that you always overestimate the change that will take place in the near term and underestimate the level of change that will happen over the longer term. I don’t know who they are, but that has certainly been the case in my business career as business has evolved faster than I would have predicted over the longer term course of my career. That’s an easier way to say that I am old 😂.

For me, there are a number of signals that confirm that things are indeed changing. Here’s a few that have been top of mind for me lately:

Capital market shortcomings – Last week, Canadian markets were at virtually the same level as they were pre-pandemic. What?!? Are you telling me that investors believe that an identical stream of future cash flows will accrue to them from the same firms post pandemic as pre-pandemic? Really? On the contrary, I believe they are desperately betting on short term hail mary / efficiency / cost cutting / M & A / etc. will prop up share prices in the near term. Do you think this will incent business leaders to consider the strategic choices of this inflection point or drive for nearer term success that they can showcase as “beating the competition” and “winning” in a down market?

Cheap money – We are operating at historically low costs for money. This also artificially inflates near term success for firms and further, encourages higher leverage positions as money is considered to be on sale these days. That might not be all bad, if the additional cash is used to support new initiatives, research, growth and transformation but watching consumers and businesses and how they are taking advantage of low borrowing costs and where the additional money is being spent, makes me nervous.

Rapidly changing consumer expectations – Make no mistake that the mindset of the consumer is changed. I have read lots about how the health crisis has only accelerated the shift to digital for consumers and that the shift was already underway. Perhaps. But the speed with which consumer behaviour is changing is striking and businesses will need to respond not with tweaks to their model but transformative change. We will no longer have the time to make slow methodical changes to our business and still keep up with what consumers expect.

Growing concern about inequity and exclusion – the current business models have contributed to exclusion and income inequity and those challenges are being surfaced in front of all of us in a really big way. Look around. Every conversation I am in today involves inclusion, equity, diversity and a growing sense that all of us (POC, LGBTQIA2S+, Allies, CIS, Indigenous, Short fat bald guys, etc.) need to come together to make it better. It matters greatly that people feel like they can participate in the economy and have opportunities to succeed.

The demand for transparency / authenticity in business – In a similar way, I believe that we are on the cusp of a new era of expectations around transparency and authenticity in business. That doesn’t mean that everyone needs to be happy with the decisions you make, but what it does mean is that you are open, honest and transparent not just about WHAT you want to achieve but HOW you intend to get there. My sense is that there is a real desire for people to work, engage and partner with businesses that they trust and those that demonstrate values that align with their own. People don’t expect perfection, but they do expect to know what you stand for and they expect for you to try your best to live that everyday.

If we are at an inflection point in terms of business models and transformational changes are necessary to support new ways in which to serve customers and build businesses, then this is also a perfect time to reset expectations and mindsets of  both investors and business leaders. I have a few ideas on how leaders can stay focused on changing their mindset:

  1. Purpose: Business were historically created to solve problems and monetize the solution. Today, I believe that businesses and organizations exist to deliver on a purpose. What is your why? This clear articulation of why you exist and what you seek to do is not marketing fodder. It is a promise to employees, consumers and your community about what you stand for and what you will be held accountable to deliver. It is the call that will galvanize organizations, pull people together and inspire them to do great work. In our organization, we have done away with mission, vision and all of that other garbage I learned in business school. Today, in our organization, we have a single purpose and we are united in our passion to bring it to life. It is not a short statement of some metric – it is a moonshot of aspiration that permeates our DNA.
  2. Courage: It takes great courage for investors and business leaders to swim against the current. I am speaking next month to a group of young finance professionals on the west coast about changing the “it hasn’t been done that way before” mindset.  I have a few examples in my career of ideas that were pitched and ridiculed that today, seem brilliant. In a discussion with a colleague yesterday morning about this topic, he offered a new book for my reading list that speaks to this same idea. Offering new ideas and gathering momentum around them is hard and few do it well. Why do you think we have a whole industry that has emerged around change management, innovation, agile, etc? How are ideas surfaced in your company and what happens to them and those that propose them?
  3. Profit Models vs. Sustainability Models: We have worked hard in our business to think about financial performance through the lens of sustainability. This thinking goes back to a discussion about 15 years ago with a colleague in my former role and has taken that long to think through. Today, we think about how we are performing in the context of how much is sufficient to sustain the business and how much capacity do we have to invest in creating the next generation of ourselves. The amount we have available is calculated in almost real time and is used to accelerate or decelerate as necessary. The model has bled into decision making, Board reporting, pandemic responses, etc. as a more long term way to financially plan in our cooperative.
  4. Daily Improvement: Much has been made about agile, minimum viable products, fail fast, etc in current business literature.  I am no expert on all of those things but I believe the root of all of it is in the idea of constant improvement and continually moving towards the purpose of the organization. The products may change, the delivery model may evolve, new channels will be built – but at the end of the day are you constantly moving towards the purpose in #1 above. This is a very different mindset than “winning”. In the end, you just have to keep moving forward towards your purpose.
  5. Team: I start presentations about leadership development with a statement “that the business with the best people will win”.  I appreciate the irony in using the term “win” in the context of this blog but just realized that now so will change my statement after this reflection 😂.  The point is that the level of performance of any business is a direct correlation to the diversity, quality and smarts of the people that work there. I have had the luxury of working alongside of some very bright people in my career and some that come from very different backgrounds. The funny thing is that great people tend to follow each other around and there is a gravity that pulls them together. When you are able to find a few of them, more want to join. Working amidst a group of really bright, diverse minds gives you more courage, provides more critical thought and considers new and unique perspectives. I have another blog half written about the change it is taking from me as a leader to more consciously create and then harness the power of diverse teams, so will leave that for another day. Suffice to say that our success has been directly correlated to our level of human talent.

Leading in this challenging environment is hard. When I look back on my leadership journey, this may be the most difficult leadership environment that I will ever face. Will it lead to new thinking, new business models and new strategies for for us to pursue?  Or will this lead to more pressure on near term results, diminished strategic investments, less research and development, less continuous improvement and the pursuit of more efficiency in current business models. I hope it’s the former and I am trying hard to make it so.

The last thing I would offer, and selfishly, is that there are business models that work better in times like this. Business models that favour the creation of long term (i.e. generational) value, that incessantly focus on the customer, that care deeply about the “how” and the impact they have on communities and on people.

It’s never been a better time to be a cooperative ✌️.

Failing forward on the “Fail Forwards”

I posted earlier on my site about competitive advantage today being defined by the agility of an organization and the continuous speed with which is brings new value to the market. If you accept some of those arguments, then perhaps you will also accept that the new speed, iteration and “intrapreneurial” culture also brings the occasional “whoopsie” into the fray.

Most leaders I know would suggest that the organizations we lead are completely receptive to failure and that as leaders, we all support the tremendous learning and growth that comes from making mistakes. Sure we do 😂. If I hear one more musing about how you “miss 100% of the shots you don’t take” as encouragement for people to try new things, I might throw up in my mouth, if just a bit. I only say that because those kinds of things are so very easy to say, while at the same time, the experience that our employees have when failure actually occurs is not exactly as encouraging.

There has been much written about how organizations should respond to failure, harvest all the learnings, share those broadly and then go on to achieve unbelievable results as a result of the failure. Academics have long hypothesized about how the specific actions, body language, spoken/unspoken responses and behaviour of leaders all have a disproportionate and lasting affect on the those experiencing setbacks at work. Both positively and negatively. I have actually seen articles which would suggest that those initial, visible responses will have the single biggest impact on how these sorts of failures are digested by organizations and whether or not organizations truly learn and grow as a result.

That puts a lot of pressure on leaders and in particular on their own level of self awareness and self control. We all want things to work out perfectly and to succeed on things that matter. When they don’t workout that way, being in control of your emotions all the time is a hard thing to ask of anyone. For CEO’s, there is always more visibility and opinion on the choices you make and the consequence of choices. For me, when I make a mistake, I know there are 1,000 opinions on what I could have done differently. I offer that not to ask for any sympathy – I love my job and all that it brings. I offer it to demonstrate how hard it is to ask leaders to be perfect when it comes to admitting failure and really looking deeply for the lesson that exists within. It’s hard enough to admit defeat in a 1 on 1 conversation, it is infinitely harder for leaders to admit mistakes to the masses of people that count on them everyday. For that reason alone, it’s good to practice this level of transparency early in your leadership journey and graduate to admitting failure in progressively larger settings. You can get good at it, trust me, I have tried. Sometimes, I have done it well and other times, not so much 🤔.

Let me give you some real life examples

Organizational Design – Early in our journey to create more creativity and innovation in my current role, I had done lots of research on “ambidextrous organizational design“. I had grand ideas and made what was, at the time, very drastic organizational changes. The changes were very hard for the organization to digest. Our Teams could not connect “the why”, struggled with implementing the changes and to be candid, the changes were initially a bit of a disaster. I struggled with a long time to admit my failure in communicating, in researching and in listening better to the feedback I received at the time. Over the four years since then, we have slowly incorporated the learnings and are getting better at becoming more ambidextrous, but a more open admission of the failure at the time, I’m convinced, would have helped immensely. Missed opportunity for sure. #FacePalm.

The Fail Forward Awards – We revamped some of our internal recognition programs in the last few years and tried very hard to use this as an opportunity to drive home the cultural changes we wanted to make around creativity, innovation and accepting failure. We introduced a new awards category to our revamped programs that celebrated failures and importantly, incorporating the learnings from those missteps.  We did a fantastic job of almost all of this work – except one thing.  We had designed the program to allow you to nominate others in the organization for their failures.  Read that last sentence again.  OMG, yeah….oops. We quickly learned that was not the way to encourage people to open up publicly about failure and how they learned, grew and shared those learnings. We discovered the design flaw early, laughed at ourselves and the irony around failing forward on the “Fair Forward Award” design. Today, that program is one of the most hotly contested awards at our super cool, annual awards program and it is a real tangible way in which we are living our values as a learning organization. Quick recognition, transparent admission of an oversight, then a pivot to incorporate much better ways for people to share their own stories of setback, learning and growth and ta-dah, works much better. Easy right?!?

The better you get at demonstrating the vulnerability around your own imperfection / fears and the more courage you will build to allow you to share the learnings that come from mistakes. When people within the organization see leaders doing that regularly, it becomes so much easier for them to do it too. It also becomes less emotionally exhausting to lead others when you can leave your “I have to be perfect” backpack at home and just be yourself.

Inherently, people want to work for other humans – warts, flaws and all.  The sooner we act more human and let go of perfection, the easier it is for others to choose to follow.

Quick update from a reader of the blog – Jill let me know there was a “Museum of Failure” showcasing failed ideas but created as a way for all of us to learn from these whoopsies. Check it out!

I mentor primarily female leaders. Here’s my why and my awkward moments…

I have been involved in mentoring for almost 15 years. I was inspired early in my career by all of my mentors and the impact that they had on my growth. To this day, I rely on the things I learned from them and will forever grateful for their investment in me.

One mentor in particular made me promise that when I was in a position to make a difference, that I would “pay it forward” to invest in others. So here I am, in the midst of mentoring relationships 87, 88, 89 and 90 working hard to live up to his expectations.

A few years ago, it dawned on me that this was also a great opportunity to help bring more diversity to leadership within finance and more broadly within business. I started to think about the choices I had made in terms of the mentoring relationships that I pursued. Suffice to say that for whatever reason, I had not mentored many emerging female leaders in my first 20-30 mentoring relationships and I didn’t know why.

Fast forward to today – I am pretty direct with those interested in working together that I have “a default” to supporting the growth of female leaders through mentoring. There are lots of reasons why I have decided to “put a flag in the ground” and be so open about this both within Conexus and in our community. Here are some of them:

Better Performance: The academic science is clear that businesses with more diversity (gender and otherwise) outperform. Period. I present regularly in the GBus 875 class at the University of Regina and I usually start by citing work from the likes of McKinsey and Zenger Folkman on the correlation between gender diversity and business metrics like return on equity and leadership effectiveness. My role as a business leader is to help our organization perform better. This is an easy way to make that happen.  For the record, our organization is gender balanced both at the Board and Executive levels and while we still have work to do in development programming, we are making great progress.

Systemic Leadership Development Bias: The recent #BLM discussions in our community have highlighted the systemic biases that are present as it relates to race / ethnicity. If you look close around us in business and in society, there are many. In my opinion, the same is true for leadership development. Through all of the discussion about growing the number of women executives and directors, the systemic biases have received less attention than the pure numbers of women in these roles. I propose that the development programming, having been largely constructed and approved by the male leaders that were predominantly in place for years within organizations had a bias towards programming that inherently produced more male leaders. In our organization a number of years back, we experimented with development programming built purely to support the growth of female leaders. Some of it worked well, other parts not so much. That said, it was a fascinating experiment that helped me appreciate how the men and women potentially learn and grow differently. I also learned about the ways in which organizations can support and encourage females differently from males. I recognize the risk of over-generalizing the learnings but suffice to say, there are differences. For those of us of the “XY” group that are leaders responsible for building other leaders, it is important for us to understand and appreciate the difference. How we encourage the growth and development of all leaders is based on our appreciation of the differences that exist.

Coaching & Development of Leaders Needs to be Customized: In my experience of recruiting, hiring and developing some exceptional leaders, I have been more aware of looking for the subtle differences that existing when directly coaching, leading and growing successor candidates from both genders.  These differences are now starting to show up in how we discuss succession in our organization and it has also directly led to the growth and attraction of exceptional talent.

My Family Why: I have three teenage daughters that I hope someday will grow into superb community leaders, engaged in making a difference in areas they are passionate about. They deserve the same investment, coaching, support and mentoring as others and then they should have to compete for opportunities based on their ability to add value.

My journey has also included some more challenging conversations. Here are a few samples:

I had a prominent business leader reach out to me one day and ask about my advocacy and support of women leaders. He was quite curious that I would be so open and direct about working with female leaders. He was quick to connect my work to his potential fears in the context of the #MeToo movement and how any suggestion of impropriety might destroy my career. He was VERY clear in the discussion that for him, it wasn’t worth “the risk”. I was quick to point out that I wasn’t mentoring anyone over a martini, in a dimly lit bar, at 11:00 PM. I also pointed out that my mentoring relationships with other leaders (male and female) were largely the same in terms of specific development areas and the format of the meetings (coffee shops, business offices, time of day, etc.). He was not convinced and suggested that he would not “put himself in that position”. I have thought about that call several times since then. I am discouraged by his misplaced fear and also discouraged in the loss of another potential advocate for more gender balance.

I had a graduate student from the University of Regina reach out and ask me to mentor her. I met with her a couple of times and she was quite interested in my public statements about my mentoring choices and gender balance. She asked me if I had ever mentored a woman of colour.  GULP.  I hadn’t and I readily admitted that to her. While I am proud of my mentoring work, I didn’t feel very proud then. I wondered about whether I had ever had the chance or sought to source potential opportunities from other groups less represented in leadership ranks in our community and if so, why hadn’t I pursued those with the same energy. Perhaps that will be my next foray but suffice to say it was a powerful moment for me to recognize that advocacy can’t stop with just gender. Thank you Michelle for being so direct with me.

I have had more than a few fantastic male leaders (some in my own organization today), openly challenge me on my decisions to potentially exclude them from consideration of a mentoring relationship. Again.. OUCH. For someone who prides themselves on developing others, it was hard to hear. I completely understand their emotion of experiencing bias that excludes them. I also sympathize with females who have likely felt that way much longer and in more profound ways. I also wonder about how hypocritical my position appears to be as my career would likely have been very different had I not had access to the mentors I did  (who were almost all male). However, I feel strongly about my why and will press on. I do try to help ensure they have access to a mentor that will add value for them, even if it might not be me. For me, it’s a way to appease the guilt that comes from saying no and that I have disadvantaged a certain group. It is also not lost on me the experience some female leaders have had repeatedly in their careers. While the healthy challenge likely won’t go away (and it shouldn’t) the conversations aren’t always easy.

I attend lots of events in our community that are designed to support the growth of women leaders. Organizations like WESK, RaiseHERCo, YWCA, Women’s Leadership Forums, etc. are doing great work to create places to encourage and support the development of leaders. When I attend, I am usually the only guy there or there is only a handful of others. It makes me feel a bit misplaced and there are times when it is hard to connect. I am getting more comfortable with it over time and when it feels awkward, I remind myself of how it must feel for women leaders when they are one of only a few in the room for other business functions.  I use those feelings as a way to empathize about the feelings it creates, to learn and to appreciate how that might be the same to what others in our community experience. Being the token “dude” has become a bit of a badge of honour but there are lots of times when I have had to push myself to attend as I know it might feel awkward or uncomfortable.

I am mentoring a colleague today and recently, we got into a very deep discussion about the physiology of humans and the differences between XX and XY as we age. It was a very strange but powerful conversation. Afterwards, the two of us talked about how we might share our conversation more broadly within our organization to highlight how awkward it was initially, but how interesting it was to explore and learn from each other. I admit that I never was coached on how to have a conversation about aging (with other male leaders let alone my female colleague), but it was an indication of how the world is changing and it renewed my optimism about the potential for us to better support each other as teammates as we experience life and all that it brings us. Was it awkward? You better believe it. Was I scared shitless? Yes! Did I learn? Lots. Do I better appreciate the differences and use that in my discussions today with other leaders? You betcha. Thanks Nicole for your courage in having that conversation.

This journey is far from over for me. I remain super passionate about using mentoring opportunities to advocate for and develop more female leaders. I have learned to revel in my own discomfort and to accept that it will be hard, uncertain and I won’t know all the answers. I will also continue to be motivated by “my why” and to use the chances I am afforded to make a small difference in bringing more gender diversity to business through mentoring.

Lastly, to my own mentors – Dave, Dave, Jeff, Sean, Paul, Kim, Ian, Dean, Bruce, Alisdair, Laurie and Howard – thank you for everything 😀

For those active in mentoring, does any of this resonate with you? What would you add to the discussion?