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2016 Blizzard Taught Me Something about Focus

The big blizzard of 2016 taught me something about focus. The fabulous redhead and I live fairly far off the main road.  When it snows, even just a few inches, we’re likely to be snowed in until someone comes and plows us out.  Not that I mind, you understand.  I rather enjoy working, cozied up to the woodstove, when people assume I’m snowed in.

2016 Blizzard and Staying Focused

The blizzard of 2016 was big enough that we thought we’d better line up someone with a tractor to scrape our lane.  At some point we’d want to get out and mix with our fellow citizens.  Translation: we’d want to sit in front of the fireplace at Cracker Barrel and swap yarns with some of the locals.  So we called our friend Ricky.

2016 blizzardRicky is a prince of a man, willing to help anyone in need.  Besides, he has the best toys; he brought his new backhoe over.  But Ricky managed to get his backhoe stuck!  And, in the process of trying to extract himself — using some tricky maneuvers with the bucket and the backhoe arm at the same time — Ricky managed to run one of the tires off of the rim.  It was a frustrating day for Ricky, and I really empathized.

As we were waiting for help to come, Ricky admitted what had happened.  He had gotten a call on his cell phone and had answered it, just as he was approaching a culvert.  He lost just enough focus so that he ran the backhoe into a deep ditch.  And that’s when the troubles really got started.

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Posted by Martin Ramsay in Planning

How to be a Better Planner

How to Be a Better Planner

how to be a better plannerWe went through the exercise in our office again recently. As a group, we sat down, put our heads together for several hours and sculpted our professional plans and activities for the coming months. It was a good exercise – unquestionably productive use of our time.

The exercise itself caused me to pause and think about other professionals I encounter who never seem to find the time (or the inclination) to plan their leadership strategy and activities.

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Posted by Phillip Van Hooser in Planning, Success

The Merlin Exercise | A Roadmap to Goal Achievement

The Merlin Exercise

During a recent Leaders Ought To Know® on-site retreat, one of the participants presented an excellent challenge.  “How,” he asked, “Can management give some kind of arbitrary goal, such as increasing sales by 20% next year, without providing a roadmap to get there?”

Our participant is coming face-to-face with a fact of organizational change.  Studies by Columbia University asked the question, “Which is more difficult?  To articulate the desired future, or to describe the path to get there?”  The answer, of course, as our friend instinctively knows, is that the path is much more challenging.

I once had a client who said, “I don’t care about process; I only care about results!”  That is a fairly naive statement.  As my partner Phil Van Hooser says, “That’s like saying  I don’t care about chickens, I only care about eggs.”  Specifying a goal without providing a roadmap to get there is based on similar naive thinking.

An automotive manufacturer client announced two years ago its intentions to grow its market share substantially by 2014.  We immediately began asking about roadmaps: Would the number of dealerships be increased?  Was the expectation that each dealership would be able to sell more cars?  What was planned to reach these aggressive goals?  Unfortunately there were no real answers and the manufacturer finds itself today in the unenviable position of having to revise its projections down significantly.  And in a rather humiliatingly public way.

the merlin exerciseSo how do we go about creating a roadmap?  I use what I call the “Merlin Exercise.”  Merlin, you’ll recall, was the legendary magician who helped King Arthur.  In T. H. White’s book, The Once and Future King, Merlin was portrayed as moving backward through time.  Merlin knew when King Arthur’s next attack would come — because he could remember the future — but he didn’t know what he had for breakfast because it hasn’t happened yet for him.  The Merlin Exercise involves “remembering the future.”

Think about the goal that has been set.  “Remember” when you got there, when you achieved the goal.  Now think about what it would be like when you were “half way there.”  Whatever the time frame, ask yourself what would be happening, what tasks would be completed, and what would be left to do.  Now bring the time frame even closer, say, a quarter of the way there.  Think about what people will be doing, what you’ll be seeing, how things will be going.  Continue this process, bringing things closer to the present time.  Soon you’ll recognize what needs to happen right away, what you need to do to get started.

I’ve found the Merlin Exercise to be a useful way to help with the challenging process of developing a roadmap to a goal.  If you’d like to learn more, check out this video.

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Posted by Martin Ramsay in Front, Planning

Want the Most Qualified Candidate?

A while back, I found myself engaged in a rather spirited conversation with an admittedly frustrated manager. He had spent the better part of the morning sitting through one of my leadership training retreats. One in which we dissected the concept of various leadership roles, responsibilities and results. My single-minded focus had been to help those present develop a blueprint of sorts that could enhance their own daily personal leadership activities. It was a positive exercise. But, all morning I could tell the concepts weren’t exactly clicking with this individual. So during our first break, I pulled him aside and asked him, “Why isn’t this working for you?”

“Phil, it’s not that it’s not working,” he began earnestly. “I realize the importance of what you’re sharing. But, I keep waiting to hear you tell me what I really need most right now. Tell me why these new employees I have been hiring lately are not working out.” He continued.

“I do extensive searches to find the most qualified candidates available. Once we get them hired and trained, we provide them the necessary tools, resources and support to allow them to be successful in their new jobs. Then, I stand back anxiously awaiting their success. Instead, too often, I end up watching the wheels come off before my very eyes. My department’s productivity drops. Our quality ratings suffer. The customer is far from being satisfied. Trying to find what motivates these people is like trying to find the lost city of Atlantis. It’s impossible! In the midst of all that, the overall morale of my best, most senior employees has dropped to an all time low. Now, if you really want to make this a good, worthwhile leadership development program, just show me what I am doing wrong and help me fix it. Then I will leave here a happy man!”

The challenge was clearly before me. Though I admittedly didn’t have all the answers for his questions and frustrations, I did recognize one fundamental problem in his approach that, over time I’ve discovered, has tripped up a great number of otherwise well-meaning managers.

“Well, the first thing you should realize is you don’t always want the most qualified candidates for every job,” I stated rather matter-of-factly. The gentleman shot me a quick look of disbelief. I could almost hear him thinking, “So this is the clown they picked to help make our organization better?”

Despite what he might have been thinking, his spoken response was more subtle and measured. “I’m confused,” he admitted. “I’ve always been taught that a good manager surrounds himself with the most qualified people available. Now you’re telling me that those are exactly the persons I don’t want?”

“Possibly,” I countered. “And here’s the reason why. The ‘most qualified’ candidates, often are simply not the ‘best suited’ candidates for the jobs we need to fill. Do you understand what I mean?”

The manager’s confusion was obvious and predictable. I was suggesting a concept that ran counter to much of what he had been taught and had practiced throughout his professional managerial career. Yes, he was confused, but he was also curious. By his own earlier admission, the way he was doing it now was simply not working as he planned. He knew there had to be a better way, he just hadn’t discovered what that better way was. Therefore, he was open to suggestions. That’s what brought him to my training session in the first place.

For the next several minutes we talked as I shared with him some thoughts as to why the ‘best suited’ employees trumped the ‘most qualified’ employees almost every time. He seemed to find value in our discussion and maybe you will too.

One practical reason why we shouldn’t always hire the “most qualified” candidates is purely economic. We may not be able to afford them. As a result of the education and experience the “most qualified” individuals possess, they frequently expect and command premium compensation in the marketplace. To pay them what they are worth may be impractical due both to limited financial resources and to the possible internal inconsistencies that would be created by paying this “new” employee (regardless of how qualified he or she may be) at a rate over and above that which other more experienced, long term employees are paid.

A second practical reason involves professional flexibility. Many of us have discovered the hard way, that the more experienced and qualified an individual is, often the less flexible he or she may be to learning new and tailored ways of doing things. In other words, the “most qualified” individuals may already “know” what works (based on their past education and experiences) and therefore, be less willing to listen and learn about the history of how and why things are done the way they are in this organization.

Coupled with the reason listed above, another practical reason for concern deals with the type of reception offered the “most qualified” new employees by their new co-workers and teammates. If the existing work group is intimidated or frustrated by the manner in which new, highly touted employees enter the established work group, then dissension, teamwork and morale problems can result. It takes a skillful leader to be able to introduce new, high performing individuals into an established work group without negatively disrupting the chemistry of the group. It’s not impossible. It can be done. But it must always be done with great care and consideration.

Finally, observant leaders must always be on the lookout for any internal activity that might offer even the slightest impression or indication of legal impropriety or inappropriateness. Let me offer an example of what I mean. Assume, if you will, that you are just concluding an interview with an extremely well qualified candidate for a current job opening. During the course of the interview, you had already made the conscious decision that this candidate would not be a good fit for the position you have available. The candidate was obviously over-qualified, or too expensive, or too inflexible, or too cocky, or, well, you get the picture. It’s not that she is a bad person, it’s just that she’s not the “best suited” person for this job.

Just before bringing the interview to its end, you ask if she has any lingering questions? She offers only one, “What are you looking for in the candidate you will ultimately hire to fill this position?” Ever so innocently, you respond by saying among other things, “our intent is to fill this job with the ‘most qualified’ person available.” You didn’t really think about what you said, you just said it. But she thought very carefully about the specific words you used. You were just saying what you thought was the right thing to say. But what she heard was an implied promise.

Later on, once she learns that she has been passed over for the position, if she discovers the job was filled by a less educated, less experienced, less senior individual, a very real possibility exists that she will assume she has been ultimately discriminated against. After all, she heard you say, “Our intent is to fill this job with the ‘most qualified’ person available,” and in her mind, that means her. Is a lawsuit imminent? Not necessarily. That depends on factors too numerous to address here. But, why put ourselves in such a position of risk? It’s not worth it.

I can’t say whether or not the gentleman that initiated the exchange that led to this article actually left “a happy man” or not. I do think he left with a better understanding of the significance of the words we use, when coupled with the responsibility that comes with our roles as supervisors, managers and leaders. I wish the same for you.

Phillip Van Hooser
Leadership Expert, Keynote Speaker, Concept Director at LeadersOughtToKnow®

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Posted by Phillip Van Hooser in Front, Leadership, Planning, Succession Planning and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Why Leaders Should De-Brief

Why Leaders Should De-Brief

There is a lot of evidence available to support the wisdom and value of investing necessary time, effort and energy in the pre-planning of any worthwhile task or activity. Pausing long enough to consciously and thoroughly think through the process, including the anticipation of required steps, phases and alternatives, can ultimately mean the difference between success and failure in any endeavor.

In fact, it has been suggested by time management gurus that for every unit of time (i.e., minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, etc.) spent in planning a particular activity, upwards of four times that amount of time can be expected to be saved during the implementation phase of those plans. In other words, if we spend a measly fifteen minutes poring over atlases and maps, carefully predetermining our vacation driving route through unfamiliar terrain, we can reasonably expect to save an hour or more that might otherwise have been lost due to road construction and congestion, wrong turns, dead ends and having to stop to ask for directions. For those of us who, so far, have refused to surrender our pioneer spirit by becoming GPS-dependent (is it just me and my Kentucky/Daniel Boone roots or what?), such focused pre-planning serves as a key ingredient in a more enjoyable journey.

I was in the midst of developing and presenting a months-long, comprehensive leadership and customer service training initiative for the management team of the Ocala (FL) Police Department, when I received an unsolicited call from Captain Jack Suess (pronounced “cease”). The call went something like this:

Capt. Suess: “Phil, I’ve been talking with the Chief about the training you’re leading for our agency. We were thinking that since you’ve never worked as a cop that you might be interested in seeing how law enforcement really works from the inside out. Understanding what we really do might be helpful to you in offering unique perspectives and even additional applications for the training concepts you’re sharing with us.”

Van Hooser: “I certainly would be interested. What do you have in mind?”

Capt. Suess: “We’re in the final stages of an investigation that has been underway for several weeks. Our undercover people have surveillance information concerning two juveniles and a known convicted felon who we know to be actively selling crack cocaine out of one of the public housing complexes. These guys are known to be armed and dangerous. They are also street smart and unpredictable. It’s critical that we get them off the streets before they hurt someone. We’re in the final planning stages of a S.W.A.T. operation that is scheduled to take place tomorrow night. Would you like to ride along with me as an observer?”

My pulse quickened at Capt. Suess’ suggestion. Was it fear, trepidation, uncertainty? I didn’t really know and there wasn’t much time to figure it all out. Having to real idea of what I was getting myself into, I heard myself ask meekly…

Van Hooser: “Are you sure I won’t be in the way?”

Capt. Suess: “Absolutely not! We will be glad to have you along. And don’t worry, you will be perfectly safe.”

Van Hooser: “Worried? Do I seem worried?” I asked, as I laughed nervously.

As scheduled, the following day at noon I arrived at the Ocala Police Department headquarters where I found Capt. Suess waiting. I was quickly ushered into a briefing that was already underway. In the room were a dozen or more uniformed officers, two plain clothes officers–a policeman and policewoman, a representative from the State Attorney’s office and the Chief of Police himself.

For the next 45 minutes or so, I listened as the group discussed detailed plans for apprehending the suspects. They carefully evaluated the intelligence they had and matched that intelligence with the best time, place and manner to make the arrests. Significant time and attention was spent considering the safest and most efficient approach for all concerned–the officers, the local residents, potential bystanders, even the suspects themselves.

As I watched and listened intently to the goings-on in front of me, I had to remind myself that this was not some sort of reality show. It was no show at all. It was reality! In front of me were professionals of the highest order, in the midst of planning and strategizing how to do a difficult job assigned them in the most judicious manner.

Once the meeting adjourned, I headed out to the driving range with my host where I watched the group practice rolling stops and vehicle evacuations. Every stop was timed and rated. No detail was too minor for consideration.

The balance of that afternoon and evening was spent in equally impressive practice and careful preparation for the planned activities of the evening ahead. It was an amazing experience to be a part of.

Finally, by 10:00 p.m.–a full 10 hours after I had joined the planning process–everyone and everything was in place. I won’t attempt to provide a blow-by-blow description of the events of the evening. Once the action started there were screeching tires, screaming sirens, shouts and arrests–luckily, there were no shots fired. Simply put, the plan was initiated and the intended arrests were made. From an organizational standpoint, the plan worked and the bad guys were soon behind bars.

I must admit, it was an exhilarating experience, one I won’t soon forget. However, I must also admit that as we drove back into the police department parking lot at about 11:30 p.m., I was more than ready to call it a day. As I exited the patrol car, I stepped around and extended my hand to Capt. Suess. He just looked at me.

“Thank you for including me in all this. It’s been a very valuable day for me. I’ve learned a lot,” I said.

“You’re not free to go just yet,” Capt. Suess said matter-of-factly, without accepting my hand. “We still have the operation de-brief to attend to. Follow me,” he said, as he turned and headed for the administration building. My options being limited, I did as I was told.

I followed Capt. Suess back into the briefing room where the day had started for me almost 12 hours earlier. There we found most of the officers who had been engaged in the operation of the evening, already assembled. For the next 20 minutes or so, I listened to the roundtable conversation as it centered on specific answers to a handful of questions.

As I listened intently to the discussion around me, a professional reality soon settled over me. I realized that I had worked as a manager in corporate America for the better part of 10 years. I had been engaged in the planning and implementation of innumerable plans and projects during that period of time. However, in that briefing room on that evening I realized for the first time that I had never before been involved in any sort of de-briefing AFTER the operation had been concluded. As interesting as the previous 11+ hours had been, those last few minutes provided me the tidbit that would allow me to be a better leader and communicator from that point forward.

That night I learned the power of the de-brief. Since that night I have been sharing the lessons I learned there with my management audiences by way of 6 questions. Consider these 6 questions carefully. First, ask yourself how often you have used each in the past. Second, ask yourself how valuable they might be should you start using them now. Of course, to yield positive benefit each question needs to be asked openly, answered honestly and acted upon accordingly.

The 6 questions are:

  1. What did we do well?
  2. What did we do poorly?
  3. Who should be acknowledged publicly for their superior performance?
  4. Who should be redirected privately for their sub-par performance?
  5. What have we learned from this operation?
  6. What should we change before the next one?

We all recognize the power that resides in proper planning. But, as has been said before by others, feedback is the breakfast of champions.

Phillip Van Hooser
Leadership Expert, Keynote Speaker, Concept Director at LeadersOughtToKnow®

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Posted by Phillip Van Hooser in Communication Skills, Decision Making, Front, Leadership, Leadership Development, Planning, Success and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Planning for Your Leadership Successor?

During a recent Leaders Ought To Know retreat, I had the good fortune to sit down with the President & CEO of Helena Chemical Company, Mike McCarty. We discussed a number of leadership development issues. Here are excerpts from our conversation on the importance of organizational succession planning.


Phil:  Mike, you were asked a number of questions a few minutes ago, but one of the questions that intrigued me was what’s it like to be the president of a $1.3 billion multinational company, primarily, in the United States, but serving countries around the world. How do you answer a question like that?

Mike:  Well, I think the question was what is my biggest challenge of running almost a $4 billion dollar corporation and the response I gave to the individual was people is probably the biggest opportunity and challenge. When you have that many folks out there, you’re going to have a tremendous amount of opportunities. You’re biggest asset in the company are people, but your biggest opportunity are also people because with people, it also leads itself to change with companies. We’re in a constant state of change in our personal live, professional lives and we need to help, I need to help, guide that and lead that, which then creates the opportunities on the people side of the business and why we need to do these things.

My job in the company is to look out at where we’re going to go in the next five or ten years. I’ve got all the confidence in the world that all our managers and all our employees are going to take care of the day-to-day business and the annual business. We’ve got to look and I’ve got to look at the management team for the future. So the challenge, again, comes back to where do we go, how do we change and how do we communicate that change.

Phil:  You mentioned just a minute ago the importance of the people and also the challenge associated by people. Talk to me a little bit about succession planning within Helena Chemical. You know that most of the people that will be watching this are people who are focused in on leadership and leadership development, so on and so forth. First of all, how do you identify leaders within the organization both current and future and then how do you develop them so that you can prepare them for the challenges that are to come, as well?

Mike:  That’s a good question and a timely question for us because we’re in the process right now with my executive team. We’re going through a new strategic plan for our next five years. One of the things that has surfaced and we knew this is the area succession planning and it goes back to my generation of the company when we joined the company. I jokingly say we’re a bunch of young kids. We’re a bunch of 25 year olds that joined the company. We’ve all been here a long time now and we’re starting to see the retirements take place.

This is something that Helena will experience that we’ve never really experienced before and that’s going to be more of a mass retirement staggered over the next five years. Now, that leads itself to the opportunity of who replaces everyone in the company and succession planning. I’ve asked all of them to start to identify the next generation of who has that opportunity, of who may want to move to different geographies because, again, being a nationwide company, I think that, again, is a different opportunity. The younger generation I see today is not as prone to move as what we were when I was coming up in the industry.

Well, we’ve done a relatively good job of identifying those individuals. Now, it’s going to be creating the opportunities for them and as that takes place and we’re in the process of doing that right now. One of the things I’m trying to do is get that next generation in here to the corporate office because when you move to a corporate office, it’s a different environment from when you’ve been out in the field. We’ve all experienced that, but until you’re here, you really don’t know. My wish would be that we would have a very seamless transition of individuals and that’s what I’m trying to accomplish right now where we have staggered retirements of the executive team where they don’t all go at one time.

We’re starting to lose them now and if I just look at it for the 20 or 25 people that we have in that group, I feel we’re in very, very good shape. Where we’re going to have our opportunities, it’s kind of like the domino effect. As people move up into management and then they move up into the senior roles at the field level, who takes the place at the sales rep level and our branch manager level? That means we’re going to have to do a higher level of recruiting. So we’re going to need more people. We’re going to need more of that younger generation coming in, which is contrary to what’s really going on with the business in the U.S. today when we look at unemployment. We’re going to be out there actively recruiting at universities right now to try to take care of this issue that you had talked about with succession planning.


I’ll share more from this conversation in the coming days.

Phillip Van Hooser


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Posted by Phillip Van Hooser in Front, Leadership, Planning, Succession Planning and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leadership Storm Preparedness

“Oh, the weather outside is frightful…” Those are words traditionally sung during the Christmas season.  But in the spring of 2011, you might not be surprised to hear those words on the lips of thousands of residents across the Midwest and Southeastern United States. These regions have been beset with unusually severe weather manifesting itself in ruinous flooding, damaging thunderstorms and deadly tornadoes.  Just two nights ago, my family huddled in our basement during a “tornado warning” waiting what professional meteorologists predicted would be “a line of storms bearing great ferocity.”

That got me thinking, would I rather face a hurricane or a tornado?  Of course, the wise among us — Weather Channel storm chasers not included in this group — would certainly answer, neither of the above!

Let’s face it, if given the option, prudent people would avoid both.  But often than option doesn’t exist especially for those who live in tornado alleys or frequently experience the eye of a hurricane.

Hurricanes are bad – but they are predictable. Weather radar can spot a hurricane forming as a low pressure system, then becoming a tropical storm, days before it threatens life and property thousands of miles ahead in its path.

A tornado, on the other hand, is sneakier, more unpredictable and statistically, far more deadly.  (From 1979-2002, the average annual number of global deaths attributed to hurricanes has been 19 compared to 55 for tornadoes.) As sophisticated as Doppler weather radar is, weather forecasters admit that they can seldom confirm the existence of a tornado, much less predict what it will do, more than thirteen minutes in advance.  Why?  A tornado may or may not dip out of a thunderstorm’s cloud wall. When a tornado does form, it may be small and brief, or large and sustained.  It may stay on the ground for a few seconds or for several minutes.  Death and destruction can be minimal or horrific, as was the case recently in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and Joplin, Missouri.

So, what does all this talk about hurricanes and tornadoes mean for leaders?

As a leader, if you receive forecasted predictions of a crisis, you should be preparing for it.  People who reside in hurricane prone areas are warned repeatedly to be prepared.  The wise listen and respond.  Leaders must identify the predictable crisis that may occur on their watch and then prepare accordingly.  Some examples of crisis? Absenteeism jumps due to a flu outbreak, a key parts supplier goes on strike, or a major customer cancels an order.  It is reasonable to predict that crises like these could happen if we’re watching for the signs.

Leaders should not only keep an ear open to forecasts, they should also keep an eye on the sky for rapidly changing conditions in the economy, customer satisfaction and employee morale.  When storm clouds begin to form on the business front, assume that a tornado-like event could result.  Panic is not necessary.  Prudence and preparedness are.  If that unpredictable tornado does dip out of the cloud wall of uncertainty (e.g., an unforeseen lawsuit is filed against the company, an unwelcome suitor proposes a hostile takeover, or fuel costs rise above $4 per gallon), immediately assess the risk and damage.  Then, like people are doing throughout tornado riddled areas this week, get out there, do the clean up work and make a plan to avoid related risks in the future.

Oh, if you are wondering — thankfully, the line of weather basically skipped over us this time.  A few downed trees.  Electricity lost temporarily here and there, but most importantly, no injuries or loss of life.  Were we well prepared or just lucky?  I like to think it was a combination of both. But either way, we had a storm preparedness plan and we implemented it.

If you don’t have such plans in place, here are some resources to help you prepare for the storms of nature or storms of some other making. Be safe out there.

Phillip Van Hooser


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Posted by Phillip Van Hooser in Front, Leadership, Leadership Characteristics, Planning, Success and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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