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One of the most distinctive memories from my early days within the Army was one of my respected Sergeants suddenly and abruptly correcting one of my trainee peers.

My mate had mentioned the unmentionable…

We were discussing what we should do if we encounter an enemy that was larger or more dangerous than we had originally predicted, and someone mentioned the word ‘retreat’. The response from my sergeant was immediate, ‘Australians DO NOT retreat!’. He went on to explain that we might withdraw in the interest of finding a terrain that was more conducive and favourable for us, but we do not retreat.

This is a statement that has stuck with me since that time. It speaks of the importance of always moving forward and regaining the initiative. Of remaining focused and deliberate in everything we do. It accepts that at times we might have to take a step back, but this should only be done to regain our footing in which to be able to take more steps moving forward. Over the years this phrase has spread its utility into most aspects of my life such as:

The Importance of Strategy

But here is the catch, it is predisposed on an assumption that we know what direction we should be heading. What point is there moving forward if it is entirely the wrong direction?

This is why having a strategy is so incredibly important. A strategy is a framework which sanity tests our decisions in short time, in order to allow us to stay focused on heading in the right cardinal direction. I have seen so many people get this wrong at their detriment.

We need to ask ourselves does our strategy (personal or professional):

  • Detail what we are seeking to achieve (Mission)?
  • Explain what it looks like when we achieve it (Vision)?
  • Include a sequence of how we might actually transit there (Goals, pillars, objectives, measures of success)?
  • Contain an acknowledgement of what we are willing to invest (or give up) in order to achieve it (resource allocations)?

It is an area that is too often paid lip service, but it is this defining feature that separates good teams from the absolute best.

A strategy allows a team to make quicker decisions, allocate precious resources towards those efforts with the highest impact and effect, as well ignore those shiny distractions which enticingly seduce people off of the centre line of their success.

Stopping the rot

‘Moving forward’ all the time is extremely difficult. It requires consistency, dedication and focus. Traits that can be increasingly hard to come by these days.

Our world is full of ever-increasing distractions and information that act as ‘white noise’ to our concentration. This white noise can incrementally increase for some people to the point where it becomes debilitating to their decision-making abilities. Some teams can become so confused by the pressures associated with these distractions that they reactively overcompensate by creating more and more high priorities. Leaders become withdrawn as the idea of moving forward appears less and less tenable.

For these teams, a ‘circuit breaker’ is required. Something that can stop the spiralling confusion and provide some level of clarity. This often requires a combination of the following:

  1. Strong leaders & managers with clear roles and responsibilities. Kotter once described the distinction between Leadership and Management, explaining that leaders coordinate ‘change’ and managers coordinate ‘complexity’. I particularly like this description as it is a simple reference for teams to make in order to refocus and distribute their team’s efforts. It is a common observation that the teams that are drowning have not clearly identified the distinction in roles and responsibilities between key roles. Everyone is trying to do everything, and no one is doing it well.
  2. Objectivity. Sometimes people are so saturated in their problems that they cannot see the overall context. They are literally living minute by minute and the idea of popping their head about the parapet in order to refocus their direction is unimaginable. This is where objectivity is so key. A third set of eyes, from someone who is not so absorbed in the problem, can be invaluable in asking the right questions and assisting in resetting the focus.
  3. Horsepower. Some teams are under-resourced and under-supported – plain and simple. These teams have often been heading in the right direction but just do not have the horsepower or workforce to get their project over the line. They have been doing ‘more with less’ for so long that they have reached culmination, and they just need reinforcement. Jonathan Clark once said to me, ‘sometimes you don’t need more people standing around the hole telling you how to dig better, you just need them to jump in and help dig’.
  4. Prioritisation. It is common to see teams that have a massive list of ‘what to do’ they have forgotten to detail what they ‘do not need to do’. The list of what is not required is often more important than what need to do. It stops people being lured down the enticing trip falls we eluded to earlier…

Some of the readers might resonate with some of these observations. If you have, I would love to hear your comments, case studies, and ideas.

The Eighth Mile Consulting team has founded a reputation for helping teams navigate through this confusion. There is an amazing feeling of elation as a team steps over the line of success when things months prior looked dire and unachievable.

For those slugging their way through problems at this very time, remember:

  • We don’t retreat, we withdraw to more favourable conditions
  • We ensure the actions we are doing are working to an overarching strategy or design.
  • We don’t give up, but we do adapt our approach

 

 

Sometime back I posted this on LinkedIn, on the topic of leadership.

 

In response to this post many responded with a popular John Wooden quote;

“Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”

I would like to pull this apart in a little detail because I feel for some it might add some significant value in their personal and professional growth.

Now I openly admit that John Wooden is a smarter guy than me, and he has raised an important point about the importance of once’s character as a significant precursor to developing a good reputation. In essence, Wooden is saying that by consistently adhering to strong personal values one can focus on the things that create a good reputation. To this end, you will get no objection from me, the maths adds up.

But there is something missing… Objectivity.

Defining Leadership

Forbes defines leadership in the following way:

“Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal. Notice key elements of this definition: Leadership stems from social influence, not authority or power. Leadership requires others, and that implies they don’t need to be “direct reports”.

I personally think that this is one of the most astute definitions of Leadership that I have read in a long time. It speaks of service to others, of influence, and a lack of reliance on formal structures and authorities.

Leadership effectiveness

So, if we agree that a Leader needs positive influence over others in order to be considered a leader then surely our reputation is an incredibly important indicator of how we are tracking. One could reasonably argue that our reputation is a social litmus test which gives us a reading on whether:

  1. Our communication is landing effectively with others
  2. People align with our values and intent
  3. Our teams want to work for, and with us
  4. We are adequately explaining the context behind our initiatives and proposed changes
  5. We are suitably prepared for progression into ever increasingly complex situations and problem-sets.

Objectivity

Now I will concede that people often develop reputations that are not aligned with their personal intent or values.

These people might have initially approached situations with a personal strategy that was misaligned with the organisation’s culture or strategy. On occasions, this has potentially resulted in people developing a poor reputation that is not accurate with their true character.

But looking at this objectively, I am sure we can all agree that their reputation, in this case, is still indicative of a problem, or breakdown, somewhere along the line. This problem might be due to:

  1. A breakdown in communication
  2. Joining an organisation that had a misalignment of values in the first place
  3. Making decisions that were not understood by others
  4. A lack of personal accountability

The specifics of our reputations might be factually incorrect, but the indication that something is wrong is 100% accurate. It is our job to find out what it is and fix it.

Influence

Personally, I believe I am fortunate to have worked alongside some of the most amazing and influential leaders in the world. Every one of these leaders held amazingly positive reputations – even when they had made decisions that others had professionally disagreed with, they were still respected.

People respected these leaders due to their consistency and authenticity, enough so, that others would give them benefit of the doubt and remain loyal and avid followers in pursuit of supporting a higher team purpose. These leaders were an incredibly valuable resource, particularly in environments characterised by uncertainty, confusion, and complexity. They were often dragged from one problem to the next, leaving a positive legacy wherever they went.

With this as context, this is what is meant by ‘your reputation is your real business card’.

It is also important to note that these leaders were very well represented in forums where they could not represent themselves. Simply put, they had people covering their backs and supporting their messaging, even when they were not being watched. This is the power of positive reputation and influence! People want to help your teams, even when you are not watching or listening to them.

Legacy

One of my personal life goals is to leave a positive legacy and be remembered for being a ‘good person’. I will measure this on the day of my death bed, with the people that surround and support me, and the stories of positive (or negative) legacy I leave behind.

My reputation is critical for me to measure my success as a leader in my family, my friends, and my teams. I cannot conveniently discount its importance or its messaging throughout the course of my life.

Closing

I personally believe that the best leaders are those that are committed in the pursuit of truth.

The truth about themselves, their performance, their teams, and their impacts.

As leaders, we cannot be so quick to discount the importance of one’s reputation. It is the universe’s way of telling you that something is right or wrong in the way you are delivering your messages and interacting with others. This is valuable information for those that are genuinely wishing to improve the way they lead others.

 

Over the years I have heard consultants get a pretty bad rap. When I worked on the other side of the fence, I heard consultants described on occasions as ‘vultures’, ‘sharks’, ‘idiots’, ‘morons’ and everything in between. Ironically, the organisations which I worked in at the time had felt the need to bring them in order to get momentum and horsepower in areas where they were significantly lacking. On other occasions consultants were brought in to provide objectivity and impartiality.

I have only been a consultant for a relatively short time, and I chose the profession as it seemed like a logical choice which would enable me to support different organisations in achieving their goals, as well as entwine myself in varying and complex problems.

When we launched The Eighth Mile Consulting, we created a mantra and ethos of ‘good people, helping good people’ and made sure it translated in our service towards ‘positive projects and people only’. At the time we felt the need to do this in order to demonstrate some level of separation from what some people see as a ‘dirty’ word.

Since our launch we have kept true to our mantra and have supported only positive projects taking the form of social support projects, scholarship programs, Veteran services projects, leadership & professional development projects, medical projects, and more. It has been a roller coaster to say the least but here are some of the observations from a ‘bloody consultant’.

I hope that in providing some objective observations it might allow people to learn from some of the consistent friction areas experienced by many organisations

Be very wary of a ‘Yes’ culture

Just because your staff are telling you everything is alright; it doesn’t mean it’s true. In fact, no organisation I have ever worked in is without its faults. It is impossible to have a perfectly oiled system and operation. If you cannot find areas for improvement, then you aren’t looking hard enough, or your staff aren’t raising it to your attention.

If your staff are always telling you what you want to hear, and not what you need to hear then there might be some significant issues with trust or rapport in the team. Either:

  • They don’t trust the information will be kept confidential and used for its intended purpose
  • They think you will react adversely against them or another member of the team
  • They believe its easier to just go along with whatever their manager or supervisor says than to raise issues.

There is a term I have picked up on my journey called ‘malicious compliance’ and it refers to a tendency for jaded staff to literally follow directions from their supervisors despite knowing that it will have significantly negative effects. When this occurs disastrous things happen, and what is worse is the leaders are left holding the ashes, not knowing how they could have stopped it. Rapport and respect are the weapons against evils like malicious compliance.

Many executives have called us in because they don’t feel they have a good understanding about an issue in the organisation. In this way consultants are gather in order to ground truth what is actually happening and provide truthful feedback for the executive or manager. This can be hard to deliver sometimes, as it takes a very courageous and well intentioned leader to open their doors to critique and objectivity. It also takes an equally courageous consultant to relay information that could be poorly received by their employer.

I have a lot of respect for those leaders and consultants willing to engage in open and honest conversation. It takes integrity, self awareness and professionalism to pull it off.

Plan to communicate

So many issues in the world are caused by miscommunication. In one of my previous articles I wrote that misinformation is worse than no information at all. At least with no information you can actively source data, but with misinformation it will corrupt your decision making and cause nightmares in your deliveries.

Many of the issues associated with the teams we work with are based around a distortion of information from the top to the bottom and back up again. There was a great scene in a Simpsons episode where Bart starts a rumor about another individual and by the time it gets to the end of a long line of people it has evolved into ‘purple monkey dishwasher’. Unfortunately this demonstration of information distortion is uncomfortably close to the truth for many organisations.

Here are some rules which I hope will serve some people in their attempt to tighten their communication:

  • More touch points or crossover points always equates to more errors. Ask yourself how many gates are required in order to get this information where it needs to go. Can we cut it down, or streamline it?
  • Translating information between systems and people dramatically increases the chances of errors.
  • Ensure your communication clearly answers an organisational question or need. Don’t create or collect content for the sake of it.
  • Too much information and no one will read it.
  • Less is more. Brevity is key in communication and stands out like a sore thumb in todays saturated environment.

Leadership will make or break teams

No brainer right? Wrong. I have been very fortunate to be mentored throughout my whole life by very capable and influential leaders. What I thought was intuitive and obvious is not. Leadership is learnt by seeing others and adapting it into a methodology that suits the individual and the circumstance.

People need to be trained and mentored if they are to become better at leading and managing teams. Worse yet, some people will have to be trained to drop bad or toxic habits. Unfortunately for people like myself, we cannot change someone else’s mind. All we can do is provide additional information and context that might lead them to another conclusion.

If your organisation genuinely wants leaders it needs to invest in them. This means (as a minimum):

  • Time
  • Resources
  • Executive and senior management buy-in
  • A strategy that they can understand and align to

One key mistake I see routinely is that people are promoted, or worse yet forced into leadership roles due to their tenure in an organisation. This is dangerous, particularly in technical or specialist streams. Someone might not want to be in a leadership role, or might not be suited to it. This opens a can of worms that can be very difficult to put a lid back on.

Luckily for me and my team, we love helping other organisations with leadership and management training. There is nothing more satisfying than supporting someone else to a point where they can support others.

Strategy reinforced by systems and processes allows you to scale

There is significant pressure placed on organisations who have scaled too quickly and are now forced into becoming reactionary and responsive to their operating environments. Their staff regularly feel like they are behind the eight ball (no pun intended). Over time this develops animosity against their teams and their profession. Scaling properly takes planning and preparation if it is to be done right. It also takes a concerted and deliberate effort in order to decentralise certain roles and responsibilities to other staff or capabilities. One person cannot do it all effectively.

Scaling a business should be leveraged off a unified strategy which can act as a compass during the confusion. When things get crazy and the operating environment becomes more complex, our staff need an agreed direction to head, as well as sanity check their decisions.

Companies that ignore the importance of a well communicated strategy do so at their own peril. Consultants are often well positioned to assist companies in developing a strategy as they are able to cross reference against market trends and other companies.

Resilience is not a buzzword 

Resilience is a serious issue in today’s society. With ever increasing psychological issues influencing our workspaces, it is becoming more relevant than ever to have teams that are robust, focused and unified. Without going in to my personal beliefs as to why this is occurring, I think we can all agree that a resilient team is often a key determiner in improving our chances of success.

Companies that invest in formal resilience training perform better overall, as they see benefits in their staff retention, leadership and their ability to respond to change. Companies that don’t take this seriously experience highly transient workforces, poor reputation, and numerous incomplete projects.

Change takes courage and commitment

The world is going to change whether you like it or not. The difference is whether you are leading it, or being led by it. Companies considering large-scale changes (structural, technological, product delivery, etc) need to seriously assess the implications on their staff, clients, profile and operational delivery. Being quick moving and agile is great providing you have a framework and team built to support such actions. Move too quickly and you will leave a wake of destruction in your path.

Good change management relies on strategic alignment, development of a ‘need’ (combined with an agreed sense of urgency), clear methods of communication, and responsible/accountable people who play a strong stakeholder game. Too light in some of these areas and the implications can be terrible.

Don’t wait until it’s too late

Many organisations wait until the damage is done in order to bring in consultants to support their work. This can be a tough gig for consultants as they are asked to achieve seemingly impossible results and are then chastised when it is not delivered. I believe this reflects poorly on the consultant in many instances, as they have not fully expectation managed their client and have then subsequently under-delivered. But in any case, we can probably agree that if issues are addressed early than we have an infinitely better chance of fixing it before it becomes a true detriment.

The key capability a consultant brings is objectivity, providing they are courageous enough to tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear – refer to my first point about ‘yes’ cultures. Having someone approach the problem without the same biases and internal politics can be the difference between bad, good and expert.

Conclusion

I love being a consultant! I love being held accountable for my work, and my team’s work. Our consultants at The Eighth Mile Consulting are focused, professional and experienced and it makes my job of managing the brand a breeze.

There is no more satisfying feeling that supporting a positive project or initiative and seeing it through to delivery. Our measure of success is when we get called in to the next positive project, based on the success of the previous one.

I hope these observations serve others well. Remember, it is just one man’s opinions…

If you are ever think you might need an objective and friendly hand on something. Give us a call. We are always here to help.

Safe travels.

Dave

When I joined the Australian Army as an Officer Cadet in 2006, my goals were to:

  • Lead soldiers into battle,
  • Positively influence their lives, and
  • Make a positive difference in the world.

Throughout my time in the military my understanding of successful leadership techniques has dramatically evolved from a rigid, authoritative and top-down approach to a more inclusive, group-influenced and adaptive approach. But more importantly my approach to problem solving and decision making is what has potentially evolved the most, and that is what I would like to discuss in this paper.

I once read a book by a late Chinese militarist and philosopher named Sun Tzu, his most famous work being ‘The Art of War’, written to provide context to war and conflict. Originally written to consolidate some of the constants that define war, a large number of its themes can be applied to modern environments, organisations and situations. I found that one particular selection of his quotes stood apart from the rest:

“Military tactics are like unto water; for water in its natural course runs away from high places and hastens downwards. Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing. Therefore, just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions.”

Sun Tzu

This collection of references has colloquially been referred to, or summarised, as Sun Tzu’s ‘flow like water’ and is often loosely referred to in conversations everywhere. What is of particular relevance from this quote is its application to problem solving.

Throughout my life, I have observed leaders, managers and decision makers preach and assess others against throw away terms such as: flexibility, adaptability, initiative and effectiveness, however I personally do not believe that many individuals fully reach their potential in these areas, not through a lack of trying, but through a lack of awareness.

BYPASS OBSTRUCTIONISM

To apply Sun Tzu’s concept of ‘flow like water’ to problem solving we must first apply its relevance to our modern context by drawing a number of constants. Suppose, that an obstacle, hurdle or obstruction (or worse yet an obstructionist!) is likened to a rock within a flowing stream. Suppose further, that water (under Sun Tzu’s concept) is ever moving, constantly changing and reshaping, and is heading in one direction.

Every one of us has encountered a number of obstructionists throughout our own experiences. Characterised as that one irritable individual who has an inability to think laterally, who begins group conversations with ‘that can’t be done’, and lives happily in a world self-defined by boundaries and corporate governance. In the past I have likened such individuals to the’ Vogon Constructor Fleet’ from Douglas Adam’s ‘Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy;’ an officious group of aliens responsible for maintaining the bureaucratic processes of the universe, with no regard for innovation. Please note, when I refer to obstructionists, I do not refer to bureaucratic styled professions, in fact, adaptive thinkers within such job categories have the ability to transform whole organisations by streamlining processes and cutting red tape. I refer primarily to individuals who have turned to the dark side. A team of obstructionists can often lead to toxic relationships, and without fail will hamper an organisation or team’s competitive edge, particularly when delivering projects.

Leaders must be able to identify obstructionists, acknowledge their concerns, and then bypass them in order to ensure that momentum is maintained on overall task/project success. Many a leader has become unstuck by becoming bogged down in obstructionist detail, whilst losing oversight of the original task and purpose. In the Army a term known as ‘marking and bypassing’ is used to explain a procedure by which a team identifies an issue on the battlefield which is outside their scope and capability. This team will then promptly mark it and pass the responsibility to other more specialist teams in depth as opposed to dwelling on the problem. This term can also be applied to explain the process of identifying an obstacle in the workplace, marking its existence and then bypassing it in order to complete the task in time, on budget, and within specifications.

DEVELOP A POSITIVE CULTURE WHICH REJECTS OBSTRUCTIONISM

It is one thing to be able to apply Sun Tzu’s, ‘flow like water’ to your own practices, but how does one influence a team to apply the same forward-leaning, positive approach to problem solving?

Employ the right type of people

If organisations intend to recruit individuals long-term then employ those people that are right for ‘a task’, not necessarily ‘the task’. This meaning, that organisations need to ensure the longevity of their investment (their people), and ensure that when Project A is finalised, the same person might be able to easily transition onto Project B which might have an entirely different scope, stakeholder contribution and design. This is the true meaning of ‘flexibility’ when referring to planning. In practical terms, this might mean that organisations make an assessment on an individual’s potential as opposed to their qualifications. This might also mean that individuals are assessed on whether they are likely to fit the culture of the organisation based on personality, approach to problem solving, and their work ethic. If you have obstructionists in your team, find a way to negate their effects, re-train them, re-assign them (to a better suited role), or worse case remove them completely.

Publicly encourage adaptive and ‘out of the box’ thinking

Leaders must always encourage adaptive thinking by individuals who demonstrate initiative. Ideas and concepts from staff are simply that, nothing more, nothing less – it’s not personal! Furthermore, leaders must be able to identify those contributions that are obstructionist versus those that are complimentary or constructive to the planning process. Positive contributions must be acknowledged publicly to the entire team, and similarly, obstructionism must be identified and as such bypassed or negated. Just remember, you do not need to use everyone’s contributions, but you do need to acknowledge its existence and intent.

Leaders must take risks and accept responsibility

Leaders must apply the principle of ‘risk versus return’. A team which consistently adapts, evolves and adjusts to changing conditions needs to take risks in order to maintain pace with competitors. This ultimately results in higher risk for mistakes. Good leaders must accept the full responsibility for their team’s mistakes, and in return they will receive greater followership and continued involvement from their team. Remember, never blame your team! Also, a successful leader does not blame other areas or departments in order to shift blame and make a common enemy. The most successful leaders I have seen have demonstrated humility and have gone to extensive efforts to provide context as to why other teams within their organisation have made their decisions. Word travels quickly, and this positive gesture may be returned to your team at a later date.

Train your team to be able to plan in the absence of information

Successful and adaptive teams are those that get ahead of the game. They demonstrate the ability to plan in the absence of all the information. They make experience based assumptions that allow them to get to further stages of planning. These assumptions are then either confirmed or denied concurrently, or in subsequent stages of planning. In any case, the team maintains its momentum in the correct general direction. Obstructionists by their nature, feel extremely uncomfortable planning without all the information, and can be seen using it as a means to hamper/halt the planning process – do not let this happen!

In summary, do not be a Vogon! If people provide you with constructive ideas, first think how that information may practicably be utilised to better your cause, or your organisation. If you identify obstructionists, mark and bypass them, to find another way to win, and do not get caught in their detail. Remember, there is always a way to reach an end-state, it might just take a zig-zag path around multiple obstacles to reach it.

Flow like water – Avoiding obstructionism

We have taken many of these lessons and incorporated them into The Eighth Mile Consulting.