Clear Leadership

Clarity is a passion of mine. My colleagues at FCG will tell you that I go into spasms when a client responds to something we said with, “Huh? I don’t understand what you mean.” Argh! I tell my colleagues repeatedly, “that’s the worst thing we can hear!” Our job at FCG is to bring clarity to a client’s confusion. We help them sort out the issues and make good decisions. Bringing more confusion to a client is like a doctor bringing more sickness to a patient. First, do no harm! Or in our case: Don’t add to the confusion!

So, I was delighted when a client shared a book recommendation called, “Clear Leadership.” The tie-in with our work was the chapter in the book about appreciation. The author, Gervase Bushe, promotes appreciation as a powerful way to unleash the potential of an organization. My last two LOL’s have addressed that topic. Beyond advocating for appreciation, Bushe is excellent on the topic of clarity. He argues that much of the communication in firms is “mush.” That’s our experience at FCG as well. In Bushe’s words:

Interactions between people are based on stories they’ve made up about each other that they haven’t checked out directly with the other person. I call this condition ‘interpersonal mush,’ and I am convinced that collaboration is not sustainable in interpersonal mush.”

To form a successful partnership with colleagues one has to eliminate mush. Bushe defines partnership as, “a relationship between two or more people who are jointly committed to the success of whatever process or project they are engaged in.” For senior teams (e.g. exco’s), FCG would simplify it down to, “a relationship between two or more people who are jointly committed to the success of their shared mission.” And to be successful in partnership, Bushe says four skillsets are necessary:

  1. Self-awareness (emotional intelligence)
  2. Descriptiveness (candor and transparency)
  3. Curiosity (mutual understanding)
  4. Appreciation (identifying and amplifying the strengths)

For those of you who have followed FCG’s work closely, you realize that this is exactly what we’ve been preaching for over 15 years. (When I first described “Clear Leadership” to Keith Robinson in my perky and animated excitement, he looked puzzled and asked, “Did you learn anything new?” His question gave me pause. Hmmm. Was I just excited because Bushe was affirming all of our belief systems?! Partly, yes. But also, Bushe has added some really good concepts and techniques to the toolkit.)

For example, Bushe introduces what he calls the “cube” and it captures the four important elements of one’s experience in a conversation:

Observing: what are the facts? What can we all agree to? Thinking: What story did you make up about the facts? What is your opinion, evaluation, judgment?
Wanting: What is it that you want? What does a successful outcome look like? Feeling: What is your reaction to the story? Does it evoke anger, sadness, joy, fear?

For clear communication to occur, it is very helpful to master the cube. Much of the “mush” in communication occurs because people don’t understand the distinctions. For example, people confuse observations (facts) with thinking (stories). Consider each of the following statements and pick out the observations:

  • I observe you are upset.
  • I observe he is hungry.
  • I observe her working hard.

None of these is an observation! They are all thoughts (stories) about someone’s behavior. As Bushe writes, “to get clear, you need to be able to tell the difference between what you think, feel, want and observe.” FCG’s advice in this regard is to know the difference between fact and story, and then to hold your story lightly. (Because it is only your opinion, not the final Truth.) Further, both FCG and Bushe argue for the importance of “checking out your story.” For example, Friday FCG was with a client and the CEO said, “I’m irritated that David was in Boston and was too lazy to go visit our big client.” Keith and I both jumped on that one: “Have you checked out your story with David?” The CEO’s response, “No.” Untold damage occurs on teams (and in marriages) when we “run” with our stories instead of checking them out. So Bushe and FCG both argue that this is where curiosity plays a big role. Instead of getting judgmental—“David is lazy”—get curious: why did David not visit our client? (In this case, the CEO did check out his story later and found that David had indeed called the client to schedule a meeting but the client was unavailable for a meeting!)

Bushe suggests that good transparency on a team would mean that each team member could skillfully provide a description (i.e. the descriptive skills) of an event from all four quadrants of the cube. In the case above, the CEO might say, “I observe that David did not visit our client in Boston. My story is that he’s lazy. I’m irritated by that. Because I want our clients to receive world class treatment from our firm.” This would be an accurate description of what the CEO was experiencing in the here-and-now. Anyone listening would know where the CEO was coming from. And in this case, a really good suggestion from a colleague would be, “check out your story.” Teams that learn and practice this behavior eliminate much of the mush in their conversations.

The final quadrant of the cube—the “Wants” piece—is also useful in cutting through mush. Instead of guessing what people want, teach the team to state it explicitly. Bushe writes:

“One rule of partnership is that people have to say what they want. The second rule is that they shouldn’t expect to get it.”

We practice this rule often at FCG. We state what we want—I request such-and-such—and then allow team members to comply or not. For example, my request of team members is that they turn off their smart phones when we meet. If they do so, great. If not, well, that’s their business. At least I’ve made my request clearly. (Note: when we talk about requests, we are NOT talking about things like embezzling from the firm: “Please don’t steal our money.” That’s not a request, that should be an agreement with your partners!)

Another way to cut through mush is to use clear language. Be precise. Bushe writes, “If someone enters the room and feels cold, he is most likely to say, ‘it’s cold in here.’ Coldness is a sensation, an inner experience. I have canvassed rooms of people and found that some are cold, some are hot, and some are neither.” When we get the hang of this precision in language, we stop making statements like, “this is a fun company to work for.” Instead, we make an accurate statement like, “I have fun working here.” (Whether other people do or do not have fun is uncertain.) Owning one’s experience and making “I” statements can really help with clarity. I was with a CIO recently who said, “When you go and look at the stocks they’ve put in my portfolio, you just want to scream about the mess they’ve made. We’ve worked really hard to improve the process, but you look at their attitude and just have to shake your head.”

Obviously, the CIO is the one who just wants to scream. The “you” language is so prevalent that most of us have learned to translate it when we hear it. But who is the “we” that has worked so hard to improve the process? It turns out it was the CIO, but that wasn’t obvious until I asked. Bushe writes, “The rule of clear language is very simple—say ‘I’ when you are talking about your own experience.”

FCG would add that pronouns can get very complicated as well. Instead of saying, “He was unwilling to share resources with her because he knew that she would get upset.” Say: “Paul was unwilling to share resources with Mary because Paul knew that Susan would get upset.” This precision may seem a bit overdone but it is well worth the effort because it eliminates confusion. Some common examples of the confusion:

  • We need to take a break (when really I need to take a break).
  • We’re glad you came (when really I’m glad you came).
  • It’s scary to tell the boss the truth (when really I’m scared to tell the boss the truth).

Bushe has some very useful and practical advice for leaders, such as “Make statements before asking questions.” Hmmm, you might wonder. Why do that? Bushe gives this example:

The boss says, “Do you support our plans or don’t you?” This seems to be a straightforward question, but what kind of “story” will it generate in the listener? One might infer undertones of distrust. Another might begin trying to imagine why the question is being asked. A third might think that her reservations

 about the plans are clearly not welcome. Questions lead to more clarity all around only when they are preceded by descriptive statement. For example the boss could say, “Yesterday you seemed really committed to our plan when you were describing it to Sally, but today you keep hedging on your commitment. I’m feeling confused. Do you support our plans or don’t you?” Make a statement before you ask the question.

The book is full of these tips for clarity, which I love. Perhaps the most useful one is about candor. When FCG asks teams why they are less than fully candid, the most common response is: If I am fully candid, I might hurt someone’s feelings. The underlying reality here is that “most of us have been trained in one way or another to hold others responsible for our experience (i.e. you make me feel…).” Bushe gives this example:

Let’s say you work for me, and you start to tell me that the plan we are executing is not going to work. I start to get anxious, and instead of listening to your concerns and delving more deeply into where they are coming from, I argue with you about why you are wrong and why the plan will work. Or maybe, instead of arguing, I give you a pep talk about how it will all work out if we stay the course, and ask you to get on board. In either case, I am trying to get you to have a different experience about the plan so I won’t feel anxious. Rather than taking responsibility for creating my own experience (the anxiety), I’m implicitly making you responsible for my experience. You have to change so I won’t feel anxious!

FCG witnesses this form of mush week after week. Team members are unwilling to be honest about their views because they might offend someone. The remedy is to discuss and agree as a team that each member is responsible for his/her own reactions. And that it is expected of team members to candidly state their views as objectively and respectfully as possible, regardless of how others react. This simple understanding and agreement could profoundly transform a team’s conversations. I take responsibility for my reactions; you take responsibility for yours. Clear? Good. Now, can we talk…J

Stay curious,


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Appreciation:  Can you stand just a little more?! 

Last week’s LOL—“FCG’s Secret Weapon”—got a surprising response from readers, with several saying it was the most important piece they’d read in years. Hey, thanks for that appreciation! (Keith Robinson finally intervened at the airport and told me to stop showing these emails to strangers…) Now that I’ve composed myself, let me dig in a little deeper on this topic.

Appreciation is indeed a secret weapon. Secret because the belief system in the investment world is so skewed towards criticism as the tool of choice. Being critical is important to investment success, so any card carrying CFA must have honed her critical skills. The problem occurs when we become the proverbial “hammer” that sees everything as a nail. The reasoning goes: “if my critical skills are so useful in stock selection and strategy sessions, then they must be useful in managing my team as well.” FCG works with leaders who are convinced that if they just criticize the underperforming analyst enough, the performance will turn around. It’s really not far from the old joke: “The beatings will continue until morale improves.” We laugh at that joke because the logic is so warped. And yet we behave–manage our people–that way all the time. How do I know this? Because I do it all the time! “My name is Jim and I’m a recovering critic.” (How many can relate?)

Appreciation is the antidote. Experts in the field of relationships (John Gottman) and coaching (Phil Jackson) agree that 5-to-1 is a good ratio for appreciation-to-criticism. Note: they don’t eliminate constructive criticism, but they do keep it in the proper measure.  And lots of research on coaching indicates that the best way to coach is not to harp on the negative but to show the coachee the right method. A simple example. If you are a poor bowler—which I am—it helps to be given the instruction: “finish with your thumb pointing towards the pin you want to hit.” Rather than, “hey, bonehead, stop throwing gutter balls!” In the first case, I’m given a concrete suggestion to work with and practice. In the second, I’m merely criticized. We’ve seen PMs rail at analysts for bad stock picks without giving any constructive feedback about the process.  What did they miss? How could the thinking be improved? Often when we give PMs this advice they respond with, “I shouldn’t have to coddle these people!” And, presto, we’re back to the belief system: “I can beat them into better performance.”

So, let’s talk accountability. Because that is a fair question when we are talking about performance and appreciation. “What!? I’m supposed to praise these people when they put howling dogs in my portfolio?!” No, not at all. But in our experience the best accountability begins with clear agreements around what you expect from your team members. Once you’ve agreed to performance standards, then write them down!  It should be very clear to all what good performance looks like. The accountability piece is handled through feedback. An example? Let’s say the PM and her analysts have agreed that the requirement is one new idea per analyst per month. By June, one of the analysts has only brought in 4 ideas, rather than the 6 that were agreed to. So, the feedback would look like the PM stating the facts—all analysts are expected to bring in one idea per month—and then the additional fact that the analyst in question has only delivered 4. The PM would then get curious about the shortfall. The analyst would too. Together in a constructive dialogue (read: appreciative inquiry) they would explore how to close the gap. At year-end, if the gap has been closed, great. If not, then the second accountability lever may need to be pulled: compensation. If the analyst has fallen short by 25% (only 9 ideas, not 12), then perhaps pay is cut accordingly. The third and final lever is: employment. If the analyst continues to fall short after both feedback and compensation have been used as levers, then the conversation shifts to suitability of the role. Does the analyst have the “will” to do the work (properly motivated?) and does she have the “skill” (properly trained?)? In our experience, appreciation and accountability can live well together in a high performing shop.

Returning then to appreciation as a way to lead a firm or manage people, it may be helpful to spell out the underlying beliefs that support an appreciative approach.

Appreciative Principle Description/Comment
Topics Create Outcomes What we choose to study makes a difference. How we frame questions determines what we inquire into and what the outcomes will look like. If Henry Ford had framed his question about “How to make faster horses” he would have created a very different solution.
Inquiry Creates Change Asking questions is very powerful. So, ask good questions. Not: “why is he so bad?” but rather, “how can he improve?” Our minds are like Google search engines, they will dutifully go off and answer the question we ask. So, be careful. Ask appreciative questions.
Pictures Inspire Action Humans move in the direction of their images of the future. The more positive and hopeful the image of the future, the more positive the movement towards it. Vision is important.
Live the Future Now Be the change you want to see in your firm. Don’t wait. Acting “as if” is self-fulfilling. This works both ways. Act as if nothing will change and guess what? Nothing does!
Autonomy Liberates Power People perform better and are more engaged when they have the freedom to choose how, what and when they contribute. The more you trust your employees with autonomy, the more they commit to you and the firm.
Words Create Worlds The culture of a firm is created through language and conversations. Leaders should be careful to encourage positive stories about the firm, and “correct” the negative ones. Many negative stories in a firm (read: gossip) are simply inaccurate. Leaders must be aware of them and manage them constructively. Often the best approach is to meet the negative stories head on.

Strength leads to Success

Identify and build on strength. Both for individuals and for firms: leverage your core strengths.

In our experience, firms that understand these principles and begin to work them into their management style and firm culture create a sustainable advantage. So, to remember these principles, remind yourself that if your firm wants to reach the tip of the summit, then they must practice “TIPLAWS” (rules for reaching the top).

After writing the last LOL, FCG had another very positive experience using the appreciative approach. We were working with a common situation: the older founders of the firm in conflict the younger “new” talent.  The story line usually goes like this: (and the current situation was largely the same)

Older founders: “We have given you a platform on which to perform. We bet on you when you had no track record. You should be grateful to us.”

Younger staff: “We have worked hard to create a winning track record, which allows for future success. You should be grateful to US!”

Note: the underlying request in both cases is—yup—appreciation! Dammit, appreciate me for what I did! We have seen these conflicts degenerate into wrestling matches in which both sides try for a head-lock, submission, and final pin: “You’re right. I’m wrong.” And, of course, that never happens! J

In fact, the case in point had reached what we call the “nuclear option” with each side’s finger hovering above the “red launch button.” The young talent quits, and the founders shutter the firm.

But thanks to the appreciative approach, we got both sides talking in a more positive and hopeful manner by asking constructive questions and finding common ground. Everyone in the discussion could rally around the goal of making clients happy. They could also rally around the idea of making themselves happy by:  1) doing the work they love and 2) being treated in a respectful and appreciative way.

We also created a positive picture of the future. Specifically, that owners and talent both imagined a future scenario in which the PM and his team could operate largely independently once the current situation had stabilized. There was a palpable easing of tension in the room when all the participants realized that the preferred future was possible for all parties. Of course, the devil is in the details, so there’s more work to do. But FCG is very hopeful for a good outcome, IF the dialogue remains constructive. That is, appreciative.

Ok, that’s the update on our secret weapon. Please send more compliments, and don’t be afraid to use adjectives.

Stay curious and appreciative,


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FCG’s Secret Weapon

I realize that none of us is supposed to think about anything this weekend except the BIG GAME, but let me commit a little heresy and share some wisdom from FCG. I’ll try to sprinkle in comments about the Super Bowl to remain holy and proper.  (Seattle is going to win big, sorry Boston. You read it here BEFORE the game…)

Ok, so our white paper on “The Investment Challenge: Remaining Relevant through Compelling Value” is put to bed, so I can get back to my weekly LOL’s. Do read the white paper, or least the Executive Summary. It has some really good ideas.

Speaking of which, I want to tell you about FCG’s secret weapon: appreciation. We joke about our industry having ADD: Appreciation Deficit Disorder. But it’s true. When asked about this deficit, CIO’s respond with straight faces that more appreciation will result in 1) less work, and 2) demands for more money. Seriously. We hear this from otherwise intelligent, decent people.

Appreciation is a greatly under-utilized tool in the leader’s toolkit. The simple act of appreciating your staff will pay huge dividends. And it’s free, last time we checked. Some CIOs respond, correctly, that they don’t want to walk around the floor giving false praise. Good instinct. We agree. But here’s a different approach. Appreciation can simply be the act of paying close attention to someone. Webster defines appreciation as: full awareness or understanding of something. So, you could practice appreciation by simply asking a staff member how their work is coming. And then, this is the key, paying close attention to their response. The skill of “active listening” (i.e. listening very closely to someone) is based on appreciation. And this behavior—active listening—can take a grand total of 30 seconds. And it requires no artificial flattery. Just give your people full attention. Simple.

But there is more to appreciation. And this is where it gets really interesting. (Don’t forget: Seattle will win…) Appreciation is a powerful cultural tool for positive change. As investment professionals, we’ve all been deeply immersed in the “problem solving” paradigm. We are good at analyzing situations, and then extracting the problems: what’s wrong with this company? What’s wrong with this industry? What’s wrong with this employee? It’s so embedded in our psyches that we can hardly find language other than: what’s the problem? What’s the root cause? Where are things screwed up? But there is another, more effective approach. It is called “Appreciative Inquiry” and has been researched and practiced for several decades. And it works.

The basic difference between “problem solving” and “appreciative inquiry” is shown in the chart below:

The big difference between these two approaches is the focus of attention. Traditional problem solving focuses on the defects, i.e. what’s wrong. Whereas appreciative inquiry focuses on the successes, i.e. what’s right. As logical as it sounds—to focus on the positive—we get great resistance from investment teams because they are SO conditioned to solve problems. Mind you, we are not throwing analytical skills out the window! They are valuable. But the research is clear: what you focus on grows. So, if you focus on problems, they get bigger! Let’s be clear: if you want to fix a flat tire, you must focus on the flat tire and find a new functional tire to replace it. The mistake comes when you treat people—or teams—as machines (i.e. tires, engines, etc.).  When you do this, you fall into the trap of reinforcing the negative.

An example may help. Imagine your tribes are experiencing turfism, jealousy, and conflict. You decide to have a team-building intervention as recommended by traditional conflict resolution consultants. This sort of intervention would call for:

“managers to articulate why they see one another as troublesome or problematic. Following the perseverance effect in social cognition theory, once one puts forth a causal explanation for one’s belief, the belief is actually strengthened. Therefore, if one were to say one sees a co-worker as crabby and unapproachable because the co-worker is selfish, moody, and insecure the chances would be greater that, merely because one formed and articulated this causal explanation, one’s belief about the co-worker would be stronger. Once becomes even more convinced that the co-worker is selfish, moody, and insecure.”[1]

And often these kinds of intervention make the problems worse. Because you focus on and re-inforce the “stories” about one another. FCG uses a different approach–the appreciative one–with good results. A recent example involves the two big department in a state agency: investments and benefits delivery. We met with the department leaders and their senior teams for an intervention. And instead of dragging in the “elephants” and slaying them one by one, we worked with the appreciative approach: what’s working? We largely ignored the stated problems and went directly to: what successes has the agency experienced? What are you most proud of? Team members spent a few minutes privately writing them down, then shared them with a neighbor. The positive energy in the room was palpable. We then asked what had happened since our last meeting (two months before) that was positive. Again, the group was able to name lots of changes and behaviors that contributed to better communication, more trust, higher effectiveness. Our questions to the group were aimed at teasing out the best practices. So, when one pair of team members talked about their improved communication, we asked questions like, “What specifically allowed for the improvement?” And then their attention naturally went to the things that were working.

Admittedly, the agency had made changes to their personnel during this time period. And it helped. They moved out the people who were underperforming. FCG does not believe that Appreciative Inquiry replaces the need to have strong players in the right roles.

So, if the appreciative approach is so much more effective than traditional problem solving, why isn’t it used more often? One explanation I think is that traditional problem solving makes us look more intelligent. And don’t we love to look smart! Studies in this regard are telling. A clever researcher asked a control group to read Broadway Theatre Reviews. Participants were asked to sort them into two piles: smart reviewers and not-so-smart reviewers. When the piles were analyzed, the results were clear: critical reviews were considered “smart” while complimentary reviews—“your family will love this show. It is a really feel-good experience.”—were put in the not-so-smart pile. Here’s the catch: all the reviews were written by the same person! We look smarter when we are being critical. Again, we love to look smart.

We also resist the appreciative approach to change because it smacks of “polyannish” thinking. How can we solve the hard issues, when we are simply rolling around in this positive fluff? Let’s be clear: FCG is not recommending that you ignore tough issues. (Or stay with underperformers.) Quite the opposite. Acknowledge them and resolve them. Just don’t fall into the trap of “worshipping the problems,” as one of our clients calls it. Also, sometimes the feelings about bad team dynamics run so deep that a period of venting is needed. The classic, “get it off your chest” catharsis. Fine, but then return to the appreciative premise: what’s working in the organization, or the team?

Further, don’t confuse this approach to improving team dynamics with the critical thinking that helps with investment decisions. That sort of critical thinking is very valuable when used appropriately, say in the analysis of investment decisions. The trick is to turn off that critical thinking when you move to interpersonal issues. You won’t help a team perform better by criticizing them. And you won’t help an individual raise her game by dwelling on her flaws.

And, by the way, this appreciative approach works great with kids and significant others! I know, I’ve experimented with it often, and with good success.  Honey does work better than vinegar.

Now, back to the really important stuff: sorry Boston, it’s nothing personal, I just have it from Divine Authority that the Seahawks will win big. And if you want to read a laugh-out-loud column that really spoofs the Super Bowl hoopla, follow this link:

Stay curious and don’t deflate any balls this weekend…


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[1] David Cooperrider, “Generative Metaphor Intervention: A New Approach for Working with Systems Divided by Conflict and Caught in Defensive Perception” Available from FCG if you wish to read it.