Byron Wien and Leadership Lessons Not to Be Taken For Granted

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meetingWhenever speaking in front of corporate groups or to my students I’m often taken aback by the cynical sneer of the empiricist who speaks only of the bottom line and dismisses what he or she calls the “softer skills.”

Sometimes it’s hard to convey to the cynic that his or her aspiration to achieve the empirical bottom line is dependent on what they just dismissed as “soft skills.”

Leadership, in the final analysis, is about our relationship to people and our relationship to ourselves. In many ways, it is these so called “soft skills” that make hard achievements possible. The most of pragmatic of leaders never take for granted self-awareness, self development, and interpersonal relationships.

A friend recently sent me a piece by Byron Wien, Vice Chairman of Blackstone Advisory Partners LP who accentuates this point. Who better to legitimize the importance of focusing on others and yourself than an individual who has spent so much time in what can be referred to as an empirically driven business?

I encourage you to read Life’s Lessons not only for the specific points it raises, but also for the message it sends out to those who believe in the false divide between soft skills of self-awareness and interpersonal relations and the hard skills of business and economics.

The message that Wien delivers is that leadership demands both.

Read Wien’s piece here.

What are you Seeing?

By | BLG Leadership Insights, Features, Managerial Competence, Political Competence | No Comments

lensPerhaps the most powerful sense we have in business is our ability to see.  By observing our products in action, our customer’s habits, and our supply chain and vender’s facilities we get a huge breadth and depth of information.  Arguably, seeing how your business works provides you with the most control over how you interpret the information you are presented with.

Yet how many of us spend the majority of our days holed up in our offices, sitting in meetings, and waiting around in conference rooms? Even when were active we’re probably running to catch the right train or hurrying to get home by a certain time.

You can always monitor interactions and relationships from your office in part, but how can you expand your view of business opportunities?  Can you really make good decisions when you rarely see your customers shop for and experience your product or service?  Can you generate “out-of-the-box” growth opportunities when most of your time is spent “inside your box?”

Is your world view unnecessarily limited because you are not seeing the world?  It is so easy for us — from entrepreneurs to corporate executives to professional service people — to fall into this routine. And it can be stifling your organization.

Designers and other creatives understand this more than anyone. Indeed, the very best creative people “see everything” and are constantly looking at everything. They know that through their eyes will come their next big idea or inspiration.   They have a sense that the more they see and the broader they see, the more they can inspiration they can tap into for future projects.

Managers, executives, entrepreneurs, and professionals need to adopt this mindset to be effective and innovative in today’s environment. You need to see more. You need to look wider.  And you need to look deeper. Your sense of sight will transform you, your organization, and, perhaps, your industry. If you remain planted in your Aeron chair (itself a product created by several very talented leaders who used their observations to create an innovative seat for the modern worker) you will never be able to grow, learn, or change.

This week do yourself and your organization a favor. Step out of the office.  Go someplace you haven’t been. Go see your customers or products in action. Go observe something new and really consider it. Keep those observations in the front or back of your mind. Do it the following week and see how it changes the way you lead.

Picture cred: Andrestand

Are You Acting Like the Victim of Your Customers?

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victimYour organization’s growth will be built on a combination of attracting new customers and growing business with your existing customer base.

If you have large, corporate customers sometimes that can feel daunting. Their huge size, relative to yours, may keep you feeling vulnerable. Culturally, the big fellas do things differently. They often have highly structured rigid processes, stringent quality control requirements, and policies that seem to control what you can and cannot do. These large customers often change the way you do business. Sometimes they change the way you like to do business.

It’s common for you or your salespeople to feel overwhelmed by your largest customers. Though they make your financials look good, their value can easily get lost when day-to-day demands and inevitable problems arise from the delivery of your products or services.

As a leader you have to choose the frame with which you talk about your largest customers.  To what extent do you frame your firm as the beneficiary of your largest customers?  And to what extent do you frame your firm as the “victim” of the corporate behemoth?  The answer could be the difference between a long-term and growing business relationship and the need to search for a new source of revenue.

It is easy to fall into the trap of framing your firm as the victim of your largest customers. You use phrases like, “they made us do it this way.”  Or, “they took advantage of us with that deduction.” Or, “their inflexibility is killing us.” These are the kind of comments that begin to frame your client relationship with a “victim’s” perspective.

In an odd way, playing the victim is seductive. Your people in the trenches are usually happy to commiserate about the tribulations they go through to sell and service the big customers. You’ll almost always find an audience eager to listen to your complaints (“at least the boss isn’t complaining about me!”).

If you haven’t been judicious about your use of the victim frame, this may become the de facto attitude that your team adopts. Once that takes hold, an unproductive spiral can begin. Slowly…or not so slowly…the victim attitude seeps its way into your relationships with your customers. Over time, customer relationships can become contentious, your responsiveness erodes, and pretty soon your staff acts as if they are somehow entitled to your customer’s business.

It’s only a matter of time before a competitor comes in and takes the business from you.
Your positive leadership actions can nip the destructive victim cycle in the bud. You need to constantly act as if you are the beneficiary of your customers.

You must encourage and use proactive language.  Employ comments like, “they’ve (your client) helped us grow to where we are today.” And “their requirements may actually help us improve our processes and help us attract other large customers.”

You get the idea.

This doesn’t mean that you put a moratorium on complaints.  Sometimes complaining can release tension, especially if everyone can share a (temporary) source of frustration. But it does mean that when those complaints surface, help your team deal with demanding and persnickety clients. Keep reminding them of the value that these large customers bring to your organization. You want your staff to nurture and deepen customer relationships, not whine about them constantly.

You want a virtuous cycle to take hold. One where you can reap the benefits of improved  customer relations and increased sales. As you look around at your organization’s network of customer relationships, ask yourself: “When I talk with my sales and service teams, am I framing our organization as a victim of our customers or as a beneficiary of our customers?”  Your answer may provide the key to your future growth and your success as a leader.

Leadership Skills for the New Academic Reality

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team work innovation

Program cuts, reduction in grant support, elimination of academic departments, reduction of organizational layers, centralization of administrative functions, constant changes in technology, and changes in pedagogy are just a few challenges that university and college leaders face today.

In this climate administrators and faculty members must make hard decisions on a daily basis, be aware of opportunities and risk, and be pragmatic in traversing the ever-changing terrain of higher education.

What makes it difficult to lead in higher education is not simply the obvious issues of fewer resources and additional external pressures, but the very nature of the institution itself.  The intransigent culture, turf protection, and multiple missions.  Universities, at times, appear to be fiefdoms, loosely held together by unstated good intentions and assumed commonality of purpose.

This veil of harmony has been sustained by the banal belief that things will, more or less, work out.  Now, as the rubber has hit the road, the pressure is on and leaders are forced not only to make promises and give commencement speeches, but also push agendas.  This calls for a new set of practical skills. At all levels of the university, leaders must be taught how to move agendas ahead in a world of differing mindsets, turf, and limited resources.

Today, at every university and college, new strategic plans are routinely put in place.  There are endless discussions and meetings about where to go. There is perpetual dialogue about aspiration and intention.  All this vision will amount to very little if our academic leaders do not learn the basic skills of moving agendas ahead. We can talk about where to go as long as we want, but we must make sure that at all levels of universities and colleges that leaders and potential leaders have the skills necessary to get there. Nothing will happen if academic leaders do not master the fundamental skills of political and managerial competence.

Political competence is the ability to understand what you can and cannot control, know when to take action, anticipate who is going to resist your agenda, and determine whom you need on your side to push your agenda forward.  Political competence is about knowing how map the political terrain, get others on your side, and lead coalitions.  More often than not, political competence is not understood as a critical core competence needed by all leaders at all levels of the organization. Political competence is often unstated.

Politically competent leaders develop a compelling agenda.  Few people are going to rally around you or your idea because they like you or feel that you are a good person.  The roots of long-term leadership success are in having an idea that serves a real need in the organization, makes sense, and generates excitement among a solid base of supporters.  The best agendas not only raise awareness of key challenges but also lay out a sound approach to achieving the desired results.

Managerial competence is about your ability to sustain the initiative and move toward a goal, and define who is going to do what, who is going to be accountable to whom, how people are going to be evaluated, how you’re going to keep the group together, and how you’re going to deal with obstacles and challenges.  Managerial competence is about your ability to implement and sustain momentum.

Managerial competence implies your capacity to stay focused on the goal while adjusting resources and activities to deal with constantly emerging contingencies.  Leaders who are managerially competent have both close and distant vision—they can deal with minutia while looking ahead and being aware of what adjustments have to be made.

Political competence means developing the ability to rally your team around your agenda. Managerial competence is your ability to support that team and sustain their momentum for results. The challenge is to create those programs that will give university and college leaders the specific skills necessary to move change in these complex settings.

Entrepreneurship and collaboration are essential to the modern university, and both require the skills of political and managerial competence.  Leadership in academic organizations, as in all organizations, requires the capacity to rally people around great ideas and see them through—whether in pursuing grants, centralizing IT, conducting research, decentralizing HR, establishing an off-campus distance learning program, conducting research, or creating a new professional programs.  The successful entrepreneurial leader—academic or administrative—is able to initiate, implement and execute an agenda.

Why Infographics are an Important Leadership Tool

By | Features, Managerial Competence, Political Competence, Social Media | One Comment


You can’t look at a magazine, a newspaper, a Web site, or a TV channel without coming across infographics. USA Today is acknowledged as a pioneer of the widespread use of infographics – in the lower left-hand corner of each of their sections. Today, infographics have become an art form, of sorts. They’re also becoming a valuable tool for leaders.

To put infographics in context, think about the road/highway metaphors we routinely use to communicate our goals and describe our progress. We develop strategy “road maps.” We hope to “drive results.” We try our hardest to avoid “blind spots.” And we either “step on the gas” or “put the brakes” on our projects.

But the most useful tool on the road, road signs, have not been part of a leader’s vocabulary—but that may be changing. Infographics may well become the leader’s road signs en route to success.

Infographics can help you quickly get your point across with visuals. It’s an engaging medium of communication and helps focus large, abstract, and complicated ideas and concepts.

Here are four reasons why infographics are efficient, helpful, and quick tools to help you engage and communicate with not only those you employ, but also clients.

1. Learning styles are different – words and numbers alone do not reach everyone

Some people like reading dense pages of text. They like details and don’t mind thumbing through binders of notes and numbers. But most don’t have the time for concentrated study. An increasing majority prefer to scan infographics because they communicate an idea with speed.

Infographics help you communicate with a wide audience that doesn’t have the time to root through long texts. Better yet, infographics are an important tool for reaching out to visual learners.

2. You need to simplify your key points to engage

With social media, mobile devices, and online distractions it’s harder than ever to engage people with your ideas. Even your own people.

A good infographic captures attention because it’s easily digestible, arresting, and informative. Like a great road sign, a great infographic can instantly communicate a point. By grabbing your colleague’s attention it can buy you enough time to discuss your idea further.

3. Great infographics have a depth of information behind them…and force you to think deeply

Just because an infographic usually only contains a few words, inhabits a small space, and doesn’t illustrate a lot of data, it doesn’t mean that it is intellectually light. On the contrary, a good infographic often tells a rich, deep story that’s been painstakingly distilled into a compelling image, words, and numbers.

Infographics, though appearing simple, often require more thought and work to compose than a long memo, plan, or report. Condensing, isolating, and conveying key data points in an attractive, concise way is an intellectual and creative challenge.

But there’s a big payoff. You are forced to simplify your story and your peers will understand your idea with minimal effort. Sounds like a win-win, right?

4. The best info-graphics tell stories

Your initiative, indeed, any organizational effort, is a story. A story that needs to be told and retold. A great infographic tells a story with clarity and precision. It is not simply a smattering of images, words, and numbers that look good when you add some design elements. A great info-graphic is a highly integrated collection of content that tells an important narrative. Done well, it can be an effective storytelling tool highlighting progress, change, development, and thought.


As you plan your next initiative consider creating an infographic to build awareness and a wide degree of support. Infographics may take extra effort to create, but they will take little effort to be understood by many people. By creating infographics you are creating road signs for your team and organization that will drive people toward common goals and projects.

6 Hacks Leaders & CEOs Use to Achieve Success

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Winston Churchill Rolling

Studying the biographies of great leaders is often an intimidating experience. As you skim the resumes of your favorite business heroes and read the obituaries of your much-loved political leader you think to yourself, “That can never be me.”

But that’s far from the truth. Most leaders had a pretty harrowing journey to the top and wouldn’t have achieved their success without relying on pragmatic, micro-skills that anybody can learn.

Follows are a few specific skills used by history’s greatest leaders that anyone can master:

1. Don’t let the judgment of others get in your way

Henry Ford was described by those who knew him as a “rather shiftless farmboy-turned mechanic who, at the age of thirty, was spending most of nights tinkering in a back room or laughing and joking with boys.”

Not high praise.

More damning was Henry’s father. One observer wrote, “I could see that old Mr. Ford was ashamed of a grown-up man like Henry fussing over a little thing like a quadricycle.”

Henry knew that his father didn’t approve and was “heartbroken”  about it. However, that didn’t stop him from fussing with his “quadricycle.”

Leaders need to dismiss criticisms. The path to success is often stop-and-go due to naysayers and doubters. Focus and persistence pays off.

2. Talk to everyone

Sam Walton writes in his biography, “In college…I would always speak to the person coming towards me. If I knew them, I would call them by name, but even if I didn’t I would still speak them.”

This positive, happy-go-lucky attitude made him recognizable to everyone on campus. Sure, he might of made some people think twice about his over-eagerness, but at least they knew who he was.

Walton’s talk-to-everyone policy paid off. “I was elected president of the senior men’s honor society,” Walton writes, “and officer in my fraternity, and president of the senior class.”

Like Walton, leaders should try to make it habit to talk to everyone they can. Some conversations may be unprofitable, but the conversational practice can help leaders earn respect from customers, loan officers, and clients.

3. Take every job seriously

In 1849 Andrew Carnegie became a telegraph messenger. By all accounts it was a dull, boring job.

However, Carnegie, unlike the droves of other young men who crowded the industry, didn’t think the gig was all that bad. He mastered the trade and got a raise. Over time he learned who each mover-and-shaker in Pittsburgh’s business community was since he helped send their messages via telegram.

Carnegie became so good at the art of telegraphing he could write down messages by ear rather than by studying sheets of transcribed Morse code.

When the Pennsylvania Railroad needed a new telegraph office manager—Carnegie, although young, was the only logical choice.

Carnegie was now on the ground floor of America’s fastest growing industry. He proved himself capable and, of course, the rest is history.

Leaders should handle all assignments, projects, and duties with respect and interest. A little application can go a long way.

4. It’s OK to be scared of risk

George Eastman didn’t quit his job at the Rochester Savings Bank when he started tinkering around with cameras, film, and dry plates. He stuck to his banking duties and only played with his camera equipment on the weekends and evenings. He may have remained at the bank longer while he experimented with his camera gear if it weren’t for the bank’s cruel management. They didn’t offer Eastman a promotion and instead gave it to a son of one of the bank managers. Furious, Eastman quit and started his small business, which grew into Eastman Kodak.

Eastman felt no rush to jump into business and didn’t enjoy the risks of entrepreneurship. He patiently developed products and inventions in his spare time and only started his own company only after being forced into unemployment.

Leaders need not be mavericks and renegades. They can wait it out for the right moment.

5. You don’t have to be a stick in the mud

Herb Kelleher, former CEO of Southwest Airlines, used humor to market his company, talk to his customers, and communicate with his staff.

Kelleher displayed his natural good humor when another company sued Southwest over a trademarked slogan. Kelleher took the legal battle into his own hands and challenged the CEO of the suing company to an arm-wrestling match. Kelleher won.

The relaxed, quirky atmosphere helped make Southwest a company people could relate to and trust. Kelleher’s easy ways and charm helped create an environment where it was fun to work.

But Kelleher was always the consummate professional. He comments, “What really adds up to professionalism is being very good at what you do in a very modest way.” Kelleher knew that he could have a good time just as long as the work got done.

Leaders don’t always need to be cold, reserved figures. They can be relatable and can enjoy a good time.

6. Burst the knowledge bubble

During WWII Prime Minister Winston Churchill failed to adequately defend Singapore, figuring that the minimal defenses stationed there were enough and that the Japanese forces in the Pacific theater wouldn’t dare attack what was considered an impregnable island.

However, Churchill and his staffers guessed wrong. Japanese forces descended on the island on Feb. 15th, 1942 and easily captured “60,000 Imperial troops in Singapore – 16,000 British, 14,000 Australian and 32,000 Indian soldiers.”  Not to mention resources and equipment.

Churchill accepted defeat and admitted he “ought to have known” about the danger. He asked four questions of his staff to figure out how he could have been so horribly informed. They were: “Why didn’t I know, why didn’t my advisers know, why wasn’t I told, why didn’t I ask?”

The disaster taught Churchill to be critical of what he knew and what he was told. Moreover, he forced himself to break out of his knowledge bubble by asking himself about his lack of inquisitiveness.  These invaluable questions help Churchill navigate the rest of the war with more conviction and confidence.

Individuals must actively break their knowledge bubble and make sure they are looking beyond what they are told. Leaders who look beyond what they are told and ask more probing, deeper questions will have a leg up on the competition.

Obstacles to Change in the Academic Setting

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professor-in-reposeUniversities and colleges are faced with unprecedented challenges.  Institutions of higher education cannot be managed by wishful thinking or the belief that everything will “work out.” For years, this traditional mindset allowed academic institutions to perch on an isolated peak in the midst of an oasis. This idyllic state can no longer be sustained.

The reality is simple.  Resources are limited. Expansion is restricted. Technology is changing the core pedagogy. Students and their parents are no longer complacent consumers. In this context universities and colleges must change while adhering to their core mission of excellence in research, teaching, and outreach. They must become agile, entrepreneurial, and creative.

However, the very processes and structures that have allowed universities and colleges to expand in earlier times and under different circumstances are now sources of deep inertia and resistance to change.  It may be the case that it is harder to drive change in institutions of higher learning than in private-sector organizations. What are the underlying factors that cause universities and colleges to resist change?

Intransigent culture

Institutions of higher education have long taken pride in their culture.  From the biggest Ivy League school to the smallest private institution, individual traditions have drawn students, engaged faculty and staff, and sustained the interest and support of alumni.  However, culture and traditions that have been useful in building a sense of community may be a source of resistance to change.

Turf protection

Universities and colleges are riddled with artificial divisions.  Questions of turf arise in schools, departments, and fields. Collaboration and cooperation are the first casualties of turf battles.  Lasting change cannot be put into place when people are overly worried about losing ground, personally or professionally.

Administrative and faculty divide

Administrators have a distinctly different role in than faculty do, and these roles sometimes clash.  Administrators are usually more concerned with the bottom-line and maximizing income and faculty are first committed to excellence in teaching and research, and not as obsessed with how the bills are paid.  It is important to recognize the potential conflict that can be caused by differing administrative and faculty mindsets.

Power pendulum

The power pendulum swings with regularity in the university setting.  Sometimes higher ed gets on a “centralization” kick, where core support functions (IT, HR, Finance) are done by a single office.  Other times higher ed goes in the opposite direction, and gives schools and departments more latitude in how they operate, and allows more decisions to be made on a local level.  Both centralization and decentralization pose different obstacles to change.

Duplication of structures

What is the mission of a university? Ask a dozen people and there will be a dozen answers.  Multiple missions within the university can lead to a duplication of administrative structures—and therefore, a greater acreage of turf that needs to be protected.

It is clear that the 21st century will usher in great change for universities and colleges, and no one is certain what this “change” will look like.  There are built-in obstacles that make change difficult (some may say impossible), but by first recognizing what stands in the way of change, administrators and faculty can begin to deal with the factors that stand in the way of change, and clear the way for the next generation of students.