Sponsoring Executives…

I have long been intrigued by the concept that…‘the most important factor in success of a project is the right executive sponsor’. It’s the specific emphasis that hooks me – not the right sponsor…nor even the right executive…but the right executive sponsor.

This always left me wondering why Executive Sponsorship is so important. It’s not like any project or team sets out looking to fail, or to make bad decisions or to waste time or money. So why is there an assumption that an ‘executive sponsorship’ is necessary? Surely we should be able to seize opportunities without an Executive telling us it’s a good idea…..

This past week, I found myself being asked if I would sponsor two or three important projects… I said yes…and immediately found myself intrigued and wondering again…

The role of a successful Executive Sponsor is to advocate and champion a project…help overcome resistance and help clear a path forward. My own experience on teams also suggests an Executive Sponsor should be involved and committed. Involved but not committed, we don’t get enough support and often fail. Committed but not sufficiently involved, our projects struggle to make progress.

So what then…and why?

My starting point was to consider the sort of projects that require Executive Sponsorship. These tend to be significant efforts…projects to change or transform a business. Rightly or wrongly, successful transformation within – or of – a business is just tough to do. There are far more examples of such projects that don’t succeed than there are of those that do.

Whenever change is on the agenda for an organisation then, we all tend to look to our senior leaders to understand why we are looking to change, what we are trying to do, and above all whether our organisation is really committed to making this change happen. We look for guidance and clarity…we look for leadership.

The appointment and announcement of an Executive Sponsor is a way of showing that the company and that leader are willing to invest the time and effort necessary for the project to succeed. And presumably that we have an Executive Sponsor willing and able to explain why, what, who, how and when…and who can help clarify the benefits that will come from us embracing any changes involved.

Probably one of the biggest mistakes we make – whether as individuals, leaders or Executive Sponsors – is to underestimate how hard it can be for any of us to change what we do and how we act…and to believe that we will change simply because we are asked to.

It seems that to be successful, an Executive Sponsor has to understand their pivotal role in supporting change initiatives in their organization. They have to be visibly and actively engaged…they need to work with the team to develop the compelling vision for change…but they also have to be involved in the detail…the detailed actions and activities necessary to get anywhere close to that future state.

The good news is that it sounds that at least some of the activities necessary for successful Executive Sponsorship are fairly straightforward – communication to launch the project and introduce who will be involved; active engagement to help create momentum, maintain a sense of urgency and demonstrate commitment.

And when any proposed change spreads across multiple parts of a company, we should be able to look to our Executive Sponsor to pull together a coalition of other senior leaders necessary for the success of our project…and who we will need to support us and the changes or transformation we propose.

I am still intrigued and still wonder…but I said yes…and I believe…so here goes…

Cheers

Steve

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Activity Circles…

I was back at work this week – on the US East Coast, attending meetings, meetings, engaging with great people in person, emailing, calling, texting. Coming back to work from vacation is never easy…but the only way to avoid that ‘challenge’ would be avoid vacations…

I always find myself looking for themes…consistent topics from several days of discussion; it’s one way I identify actions or opportunities. People are often a big theme. This week it was definitely true. Helping people, growing people, learning from people, being inspired by people, recruiting people and retaining people.

That people ‘leave their bosses’ is a common belief – as opposed to people leaving their roles or their companies. There are many surveys supporting this belief. I agree. And it seems most people I have ever asked do so as well.

Assuming this is true then…I wondered this week whether the opposite also applies? Do people stay with their bosses rather than their jobs? I haven’t seen surveys on that question, but it feels intuitively correct. Our direct bosses are incredibly important to and for us – they are our window into the organization and our representative of the organization. A good boss is priceless and has an amazing impact. A good boss invokes loyalty and commitment; derives passion and belief; inspires and excites. A poor boss isn’t…and doesn’t.

I was asked recently whether a particular opportunity would give me sufficient ‘intellectual stimulation’. I hadn’t even thought about the concept of intellectual stimulation let alone whether an opportunity would offer it. As a result I found myself thinking more about the question and the person who asked the question…than I was about the role itself. My conclusion? That there are all sorts of challenges in the work we do, but it’s the people we work with who provide intellectual stimulation.

This is certainly something I have always appreciated from my boss. Whether through challenge, encouragement or inspiration. A word here. A question there. A statement or proposition. An insight or observation.

I had dinner last week with a Best Friend at Work. We ended up talking about roles, opportunities and bosses we have had over the years. I recounted a story told to me by one of my bosses about why and how he – of all the individuals who applied for a specific new role – had been selected.

My boss considered himself a deep thinker. But after much analysis, he concluded…that he was lucky!

Lucky because two independent ‘activity circles’ had aligned. He submitted his application at exactly the moment…the moment the recruiter was considering that new role and what the right candidate would look like.

If these circles of activity had not overlapped then likely someone else would have been offered the role. If his application had arrived a month or two earlier, or if the recruiter had taken a month of two longer, then the circles would not have overlapped.

Needless to say these activity circles weren’t entirely based on luck. The individual had experience and qualifications. And he was applying to a company with a significant scientific operation. So yes it is true that we make our own luck, but there is also an element of chance involved.

My boss’s conclusion was that when any of us are looking for growth or opportunity or change then alignment of ‘activity circles’ is necessary to achieve the result or outcome we are after. But we can – and should – seek to do everything we can to influence.

Intellectual stimulation. The right story at the right time. Observation and insight; encouragement and inspiration.

We all want a boss to stay with.

Cheers

Steve

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Social Advice…

I am not a big ‘social media’ person. At least I don’t think I am. Like with many of these sorts of things, my opinion is – at best – only subjective. I know how little (or much) I use social media. I see how much more others apparently use the various options. I deduce that I am at the low end of the scale. Rightly or wrongly.

That having been said, I use LinkedIn regularly and I do use WordPress at least once a week. There are though…many other forms of social media in which I don’t participate. Hence my starting assumption.

I do have one other social media habit that I have to admit to – I am an avid reader and submitter for TripAdvisor. I couldn’t say if I am ‘big’ in TripAdvisor, but I can say that I read it a great deal and I submit as often as I can on meals, hotels, sights etc.

I started on TripAdvisor years ago. We were on a family day out and we chose where to eat based on that classic tactic of reading the menu outside the restaurant. We had an unhappy time inside. The food was poor, service was off hand, price was high and enjoyment was low.

I registered on TripAdvisor there and then because I wanted to record my rating. And as soon as I did, I read the other reviews, the overall rating and immediately realised that ours was not a unique experience.

Since that day I have used TripAdvisor to help select restaurants, hotels and even sightseeing. I sometime read the specific reviews (normally the most recent) but always look at the overall rating.

And yes, I accept this is probably ‘social media’. Hotels and restaurants can’t do anything about the individual scores other than focus on offering the best service and experience they can offer, based on the best people they can recruit working in best facilities and with best capabilities….and then they need to have faith that good things will happen and good reviews will come.

Over the years my reviews have tended to be positive. Someone has to go a long way for me to rate below a score of three out of five (three is defined as ‘average’). And indeed I can remember each of the handful of occasions when I did go for a two or a one. There are not many.

An interesting aspect of TripAdvisor is that the owners of the businesses have a ‘right of reply’. More often than not, public replies are well phrased, apologetic and committed to improve. Occasionally though, they can be surprisingly negative about the customer, how they behaved, what they said…in effect how the customer was the cause of the situation.

I received a ‘personal reply’ last week in response to an ‘average’ restaurant review I had submitted. In short I am pretty sure the reply was me being told off for writing what seemed to be a generally positive review, but giving an ‘average’ assessment. I was surprised.

I was surprised partly because I thought my review was fair and balanced. But more so I was surprised by the restaurant owner’s approach which to complain to me – and to criticise me – about my review.

Customer reviews in any business are just that – customer reviews. We celebrate them when they promote us, we are disappointed when they are neutral and we are worried when they are detractors. But they are still fundamentally feedback from a customer…a customer’s opinion based on their experience.

Our only option is to accept, to learn and to improve…

Cheers

Steve

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Miss Ron…

I am on my annual summer vacation. And as ever I am working hard to not work hard. All of my family is with me now – my daughter just arrived this weekend. And we are set fair with a great weather forecast…although we certainly don’t need sunshine to enjoy ourselves…nice weather always helps.

Last week my brother, his wife and two children stayed with us…we all had so much fun together. And it was wonderful to have chance to spend time with my brother…just because we could.

We have also met up with friends…we have been coming to the same place for a number of years now…we have friends we know as well as anyone else…special friends we only ever meet each summer.

Friends and family…and not having to work every day…a powerful combination for a relaxing and recharging vacation. Relaxing is good. Recharging is essential. I always find I come back from vacation energised and ready to go…

But I also realised that someone is missing this year. My friend Ron. Ron – who has been a staple part of our summers for some ten years. Ron – who chose this summer to take a tour of major European cities. This year I realised how much I really appreciate Ron.

In truth it surprised me how much I missed Ron not being around. Not that I begrudge in any way him and his wife from what will be an amazing European summer. No I miss Ron simply because of who he is, and what he meant to me (and how much he helped my relaxation and recharging).

Ron was always on his deck. His front deck overlooking main beach…or rear deck overlooking his back yard. He always smiled when he saw you, followed by a cheerful ‘beautiful morning’ (or afternoon or evening). He was always cheerful and it was always beautiful. You couldn’t help but feel positive and respond positively. No matter how cheerful (or not) you felt and beautiful (or not) your day was.

I miss Ron and I miss that greeting. And I also miss the information…the observations…or the gifts Ron always offered.

The first time I spoke to Ron was one afternoon when he greeted me as I walked past his deck. In return I commented on the wonderful smell coming from inside his kitchen. Ten minutes later he had found me with a bowl of sauce his wife had been cooking…as a gift! Over the years Ron has given me sauces, paper, beer, coffee, books, eggs, vegetables and great advice. You can’t help but feel good.

I miss hearing from Ron what he knows and more importantly what he understands. About the sunset, politics, family, travel, space stations, people, food, friendship, work…and life. The big things in life and the little things. Things that make a difference and things that don’t.

I realise Ron is just one of those people who I look out for and who I listen to. Someone who says things and does things that make me feel good…someone who says things that make me wonder and believe…things that encourage me to think about different things and to think differently.

And yet again – even in his absence – Ron has made me think differently. I have realised that Ron is an inspiration to me. He doesn’t know that of course and – better yet – he is not even trying to be that person (for me or for anyone else). He is just being himself…for me and for anyone else he comes across or who come across him.

We all need people in our lives like Ron.

Cheers

Steve

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Week Before…

It was my last week before my vacation. Last week was hard work, good work and important work…but it was also my last week before vacation.

Most weeks are hard work. In one way shape or form. Sometimes it is more physical than mental – business travel can be fun but it also just tires you out. Other times it is more that so much happens around and about you…situations, issue and opportunities that you simply have to engage in, understand and try to help.

Good and important are – in part – judged in the eye of the beholder. Me? I am just happy to accept that most of us spend most of our time working mostly on situations that are good for us to be involved in on, and important for us to invest time on.

The week before my vacation…the week before any of us go on vacation…has an extra dimension. I always feel I have to work that bit harder because no matter how hard I try…my mind wanders. I find myself thinking about what I am going to do in a few days’ time rather than what I have to do today. I know that if I don’t work that bit harder on the ‘here and now’ then my efforts won’t be that good…and important won’t get done.

Last week had an extra dimension…I had a face-to-face meeting of my leadership team in the US Mid-West. My F2F meetings always involve hard work, good work and important work…or at least I would like to think they do. They also involve fun and laughter…or at least I hope they do. We all work better when we get enjoyment and satisfaction out of what we do, who we are doing it with…or ideally both.

I always feel an added burden with these meetings. An enlarged group of colleagues are investing their time to come and work with me. I feel an added responsibility….responsibility to make that time worthwhile for them all – individually and collectively – and to make that time valuable to us all and to our partners.

So no pressure then.

Good news is that I am always confident there will always be moments for me in these meetings. I know these moments will come but I don’t know when…or what they will be. Moments when an idea or a solution or an opportunity appears. Moments that would not have appeared any other way than because of those people at that time…

The meetings involve a group of diverse, experienced, engaged and passionate people. A collective who want to see where we are and what is happening around us; who want to be able to describe what we are doing and what we are trying to achieve; who want to be inspired by our work – by our opportunity – and who want to be able to inspire others. A team.

And sure enough those moments did appear. I recognise them every time. A comment, suggestion or idea that immediately resonates – often echoes – in the room. The person making the suggestion momentarily looks surprised and then instantaneously delighted. In their mind they just said something. It is only everyone else’s response – the energy their contribution generates – that lets the initiator see and recognise and experience their moment.

And moment that needs no action minutes. A true moment generates a life of its own. Everyone who was there wants to make it real. Make it happen. Everyone owns it.

On way to my vacation I found myself tired from the team’s hard work, inspired by their work quality and excited by the importance of our work.

Cheers

Steve

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Express Team…

I travelled by train this week up and down the UK. Not a regular occurrence…but occasional. Train journeys in the UK are much better than they used to be. I think the train lines are much the same…but the trains themselves are much better – comfier, cleaner, larger – and the train staff are also much better – more friendly, more helpful, more of them.

There is more choice for the passengers. And there is more competition than there used to be. Certainly for the franchises to run the respective routes. And regulation. Of the train companies and their performance. And more recently of course there is a multitude of social media based methods of the general public letting the train companies (and the rest of us) know about their experiences and views.

So yes. I travel by train more than I used to…and yes I also tend to enjoy it more than I used to. But yes…it also costs more than it used to!

My journey north from London last week was well planned. I am one of those travellers who likes to know where I am, where I am going, when and how. We had chosen an express train…not just faster but also many fewer stops between where I boarded and where I disembarked.

It was out of rush hour as well. So the whole train was very quiet. I had reserved seats (another relatively recent introduction) but was able to sit almost anywhere I wanted. The team on the train were happy and relaxed. They obviously knew this was a quiet train. They were well prepared and very helpful.

And we passengers were happy and comfortable. We had space, wifi, power, coffee, water, newspapers and time.

It was about ninety minutes before the train guard told everyone. He made an announcement that the earlier express train (the one that left in rush hour, the one that is always busy) had broken down up ahead…and we had to make an unscheduled stop to pick up those stranded passengers. He regretted any inconvenience this would cause.

Everything changed. As we approached the station it was apparent that our previously relaxed and happy crew had instantaneously morphed into worried and fraught. They were shouting up and down the train to and at each other. Nobody seemed quite sure about anything.

The existing passengers felt the mood change and we started to tense up. Everyone collected bags, cables, bottles. It was if we were hunkering down for an impending storm.

And the new passengers were grateful and relieved to get on board. Well no actually they weren’t. They were hot, angry and upset. They argued with each other over seats. They complained to the crew over reservations. They shouted down their cell phones to whoever was on the receiving end.

It was obvious when calm, sense and composure reappeared. It was also apparent why. It was two members of the train team working together. They were calm. They were sensitive and sensible. And they were understanding, reassuring and smiling. I could see them. And their impact. They changed everything…and changed it very quickly. Everyone else was frantic. They were unruffled. I knew they were trained…but they were natural as well…and very good!

Teamwork and focus and even philosophy are easy for us all when things are going well. The real test of us as individuals and of us as teams – the real test of the sincerity of our beliefs – these tests happen at times of pressure and challenge. How do we cope then?

Do we set the example? Do we help? Do we partner? Do we inspire? Do we lead?

Cheers

Steve

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Development Strategy….

Strategies change. Strategy changes when organisations change…when organisation leadership changes…when the environment that an organisation works in changes. Strategy changes when opportunity changes. And opportunity can change for the same organisational, leadership or environmental reasons.

This makes sense. Strategy can be driven by a powerful combination of reacting to, and getting ahead of, events. And our strategy is – or should be – what we do. By definition: our strategy should dictate what we do…as opposed to what we are doing dictating our strategy.

But what is a strategy? And why is it so important in an organisation? I found myself thinking about this last week as I was going through a round of mid-year reviews.

Whenever I have a number of similar meetings at the same time, I often find myself with a theme – ideas, questions, suggestions, observations – that come up multiple times during the week. Normally I am the only one who knows sine I am the one who has multiple conversations…everyone else just has the one…

My simplest answer then to a definition of strategy is…how we get to where we want to be.

Sounds obvious…and definitely sounds simple. I guess that’s why I like it. And of course as a definition, this one also implies what else we need as well as a strategy. We need a description of where we want to be. We need a picture of where we want to be…and we need details of how we will know we are there, and how we will measure our progress (our way forward is seldom instantaneous).

All of which helped me as I was thinking about my mid-year reviews last week. Most organisations have a compelling vision and will have an agreed strategy. Our role as leaders, teams and individuals is to ensure that what we are doing is aligned to help maximise contribution, progress and delivery to that organisational vision and strategy.

It helped me as well in thinking why strategies can change when organisations or opportunity changes. There would be little value in a company continuing to produce movie videotapes, if everyone is using DVDs or downloads. The vision and objectives could still be the same – to provide ultimate choice and quality in home entertainment – but how that company made progress would have to change.

When Microsoft bought Skype they immediately set about integrating Skype into every device and platform they could think of…whilst removing anything similar from their existing portfolio. Microsoft and Skype saw a potential emerging opportunity and changed their strategy to seize and to develop.

I have been in situations where I cannot see or understand the vision – that feels confusing and leads to questions as I seek to comprehend and to clarify. Similarly I have been in situations without an agreed and aligned strategy…which can lead to false starts as I set off on the wrong path.

And when I find myself in situations where we have a vision…appropriate measure of success…and we have a strategy…along with necessary skills, incentives and resource…it is both a powerful and empowering place to be. It does not mean progress is always easy…but it does feel engaging and exciting and creates an engaging and exciting place to be.

Vision and strategy can often sound like leadership jargon – for example I don’t tend to ask my wife about the vision and strategy for our summer vacation. But in an organisation – any organisation – clarity and alignment over vision, strategy and measures of success are essential…and it really is worth the effort.

Most of us like to feel empowered. We all want to be engaged and excited by what we do.

Cheers

Steve

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