by anne lueneburger

Difficult conversations

This shot isn’t from an art gallery. This photo was taken in Shanghai where I was on a coaching mandate this spring. I’m looking at graffiti on a wall just outside the ‘slum’ area at Xiaonanmen station. A minute ago I had been immersed in a world of dense housing with people cooking on gas stoves on the street and scrawny chickens darting across old rubble and waste. A turn around a corner and I was in a rich urban development populated by lofts and artificial beaches, and other hallmarks of a modern metropolis. The contrast of poverty and privilege was stark. The angry expression on this man’s face seemed to represent the tension that often exists between worlds that are so close and so yet so far apart.

Growing up, conflict in my family was characterized by what the French call “soup au lait” (if you have ever heated up milk on a stove, you will know that it can boil over quickly, but then recede just as rapidly the moment you remove the pot from its heat source). Arguments quickly got hot and loud, only to cool off the next moment and certainly be forgotten the following day. Without exception, I found these exchanges stressful. The power imbalance between parent and child often translated into positions of being in the “right” and “wrong” and gave me a sense of helplessness when it came to the final decision. Most frustrating was that there were rarely any takeaways that would result from these arguments. Life would go on and it was “business as usual” – it all seemed to be a waste of time. No surprise then that I entered adulthood with a less than positive attitude when it came to conflict, and a rather unrefined tool kit that was little use in helping me to navigate tension effectively.

Over two decades have passed since then and today I want to share some hard won lessons, be it through formal training or the classroom we call “life”, on how we can create win-win outcomes in conflict situations.

Lesson 1: Stop thinking in positions.

I found myself smiling as I looked at the angry man. Our perception of conflict influences how we take our first step forward. I am no longer captive to my childhood paradigm when it comes to conflict. While some of us are born gifted mediators, navigating conflict can be learned. From what I know today, conflict is neither good nor bad. It is also not about winners and losers.

con·flict  \kän-flikt\ : competitive or opposing action of incompatibles

ne·go·ti·a·tion  \ni-ˌgō-shē-ˈā-shən : to confer with another or others in order to come to terms or reach an agreement

To shift beyond a “fixed pie” mentality we need to explore how we can expand the pie and negotiate. While it may not be feasible to completely obtain our position, it is often possible to satisfy our interests.

In this light, consider what would be acceptable outcomes for you? (And suspend your judgment for a moment and rank them in order of preference…) Also, have a BATNA (Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement) in place. What is your best course of action, should you and the other party not come to an agreement?

Lesson 2: Make it a choice.

 “Knowing when to fight is just as important as knowing how.”

– Terry Goodkind

While some may argue that avoiding any conflict is a lost opportunity, a good starting point is to gauge whether we really care or need to engage with the other party. Unless you thrive on the adrenaline rush that comes with conflict, the time and energy involved in negotiation and the effects of this, also needs to be weighed against the benefits. Here are the two questions to answer:

  • How important is this project to me?
  • How much do I value this relationship?

Sometimes it is simply better to walk away.

Lesson 3: Keep your shades clear.


Negotiations are often full of the unexpected and the complex. If you are not being clear about your own values, beliefs, and emotional triggers, then the chances are your shades are dirty. If we are not checking whether our assumptions are true then we risk stumbling in the dark when it comes to influencing others.

As you are getting ready to enter a specific negotiation, here are three questions to clarify:

>What outcome am I looking to achieve?

>What are some of my main concerns, going in?

>What needs am I ultimately trying to meet?

Also take a moment to consider a time when you handled conflict well. Which of your strengths were particularly useful? Now think of a time when you did not manage conflict constructively. What were key emotional triggers that tend to trip you up in general? (Keep a list!) What needs are associated with these?

I often ask my coaching clients to sit the Intercultural Conflict Style Inventory to clarify their default negotiation style and to explore the characteristics of alternative styles they might find useful, depending on the context.

Lesson 4: Rehearse.


You may remember the Hans Christian Andersen parable, The Emperor’s New Clothes, where the emperor’s weavers claimed a new fabric was invisible to all who were “hopelessly stupid.” No one, not even his advisors, dared tell the Emperor that he was naked. One day, as the Emperor strolled through the village, one boy in the crowd shouted that the Emperor wore nothing.

Who in your crowd is willing to shout out and hold you accountableFor tough negotiations, get an objective perspective from someone you trust and who gives candid feedback. Consider roleplaying to gauge how good your influencing skills really are.

Lesson 5: Lead with warmth.

Many of my clients, in particular female execs, are reluctant to accommodate during negotiations: “I don’t want to be the doormat” is a frequent pushback I receive as a coach. However, research confirms: leading with warmth as we aspire to influence others facilitates trust as it communicates that we are attentive to their needs. According to Gallup we are five times more likely to follow the lead of someone we trust.

Warmth expresses itself not only in what we say but also in how we say it. Vision is – hands down – our leading sense, taking up half of our brain’s resources. It is not surprising then, that body language steers how other people think and feel about us, and also how we feel about ourselves as there is a feedback loop: try smiling for a couple of minutes and your brain will increase its serotonin production, which is responsible for feelings of happiness.

Suggest a time for your discussion that accommodates the other party’s schedule. Consider using a more welcoming space in or outside the office. A 2010 study by MIT and Yale brain researchers confirms: offer the other party a comfortable chair and a coffee and they will be more flexible in their demands.

Add competence and a projection of strength to the mix and you become a “happy warrior.”

Lesson 6: Listen. Carefully.

Start any negotiation by inquiring about the other party’s perspective first. Rather than delivering your version of the story and risking a defensive reaction, you are getting a general sense as to where they are coming from.  Also, they are more likely to listen to you when it’s your turn. Questions you may ask are:


>What is their goal or desired outcome?

>How important is this goal to them?

>What relationships play key roles here?

>What are they most concerned about?

>What are some of the influencing factors we might not be aware of?

>What are their specific needs and what outcomes would address those?

Some of this will be hard to listen to and not react. Remember that listening and looking for a place of mutual understanding does not mean you are in agreement with the other person. This is a tough test for your listening skills. Powerful listening means you don’t go into your own head. You fully concentrate on what the other person is saying – as well as to what they are not saying… Observing their body language, facial expression, and tone of voice can give good clues as to what they may care most about.

Bonus Tip1: As you are listening, in addition to an open body language (Lesson 5), send verbal signals of acknowledgment such as “Ok, go on”, “uh huh” or “tell me more”.

Bonus Tip 2: Make sure you get all the broken pieces on the table at once before you begin trying to “glue it back together”.

Lesson 7: Meet them where they are.


Ever heard the saying “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”? As you are listening, show empathy where appropriate. “I can imagine that this must have been hard/difficult/frustrating…” Dance in the moment, step to their side and let go of trying to control their reaction: you can’t. If you hear common ground, be sure to mention it, “It is clear that this is frustrating for both of us. So, moving forward, what is important to you now?”

Paraphrasing involves restating what was just said using other words. It lets the other party know they have been heard. You validate their concerns. As you summarize milestones, do NOT say “What you are trying to say is…” but rather start with “So if I understand you correctly…”, “In other words, what you are saying is…”, “Let me make sure I got this right…”, or “Do you mean that…?”

Paraphrasing can also serve as an opener to probe for more information: “Can I ask a couple of questions?” Once you have listened to the other person, you have won yourself a hearing to assert your own needs.

Lesson 8: Stay calm…and carry on.

keep calm

It is particularly tough to manage emotional triggers when time constraints are factored into the equation.  In response to requests such as “I need it now!” consider asking “What is important about having it now?” (And if it’s you who puts on the pressure, ask yourself the same question). This might allow you to address an underlying need differently.

Also, if you are someone who needs time to reflect before making a decision, buy additional time. Play back the conversation until now: “To make sure I get what you are saying…” or, “Hold on, let me make sure I get this right, can we back up for a minute and review how we got here….” You may also ask “to enlist third party counsel or check in with the other parties who are involved” prior to making a decision.

If you’re tempted to blow up in the face of antagonism, pause for a moment before you respond: count to three, take a couple of deep breaths. Or take a break, step out into the corridor, go for a walk and remove yourself from the psychological pressure in the room. Imagine it’s five years from now: what do you think you will have learned from this conflict? How will you feel about how you handled it? What advice will the ‘older you’ tell the ‘younger you’ that is experiencing the challenge?

At all times, what helps you control your initial reaction is to keep your eyes on the prize: what is it that you really want as an outcome?

Tip: Ask yourself, before saying something:  “Is it kind, is it relevant, is it true?” If the answer is “no” for any of these, bite your lip and choose words that meet all of these criteria.

Lesson 9: State your case. Tactfully.

Now it is time to share your perspective. Your goal is for people to understand your view without making them defensive. The more you can bring their filters down, the more likely are they willing and able to hear you.

Own what is yours. Apologize for any wrongdoing on your part first. And where there is room for doubt, consider stating it in a more ambiguous fashion, such as “The information I got was that our client proposal came out as scheduled. I’ll have to take a closer look into this.”

Be specific about what you need. Rather than playing the risky game of having others guess as to what we want, be direct and as succinct as you can. For example, “I need for you to say what the priorities for this project are.”

Attack the problem. Not the person. If the goal is to fix the problem, pointing fingers will cause the other party to check out and become defense. One way to overcome this temptation is to focus on the future.

Lesson 10: Brainstorm & Agree on “what’s next”.

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein

You understand what the other party’s needs are (in addition to your own). You have identified common ground. Now you are ready to develop acceptable solutions. Select those options that will work for both of you. “Reality-test” them, using criteria of fairness and reciprocity, to ensure that needs are met on both sides. Mention their needs first, use the “we” as well as the “and” perspective as you are asserting your own needs:

>“If we move forward with this option, how can we make sure it addresses your need for abc and my need for xyz?”

>“I know this is important to the two of us. You do need abc and I need xyz. What are options that get us there?”

>“What I heard you say is…and from my point of view what I need is…, how can this option meet these criteria?”

If you are in a genuine deadlock, explore openly the costs of no agreement with the other party, holding up the mirror on what is at stake for the two of you. As a last resort you may choose to let the other party know that you have a BATNA: “I have other ideas on how to resolve this, however, my hope is that we resolve this together.” This tactic works best if all alternatives were not accepted. Never to be used as a threat but used as another piece of information.

Lesson +1: Celebrate agreement. Write it up.

Summarizing the main points of an agreement helps avoid future misunderstandings and sets standards of accountability. Sometimes a simple email to all participants can do the job. Be sure to mention how and by when the solution will be implemented as well as any milestones and metrics.

Now go, and have fun “arguing!”

P. S. Some reads you may want to check out:

  • Cuddy, A., Kohut, M., and Nelfinger, J. (July-August 2013).“Is it better to be loved or feared?” Harvard Business Review.
  • Stone, D., Patton, B., Heen, S. and Fisher, R. (2010). “Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most.” New York, NY: Penguin.
  • Kolb, D.M., Williams, J. (2003). “Everyday Negotiation: Navigating the Hidden Agendas in Bargaining.” San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Medina, J.(2008). “Brain rules”
  • Ury, W.(1993). “Getting Past No.” New York, NY: Bantam Dell.

by anne lueneburger


A few days ago it was a beautiful summer eve in New York. The city was at its best, with blue skies, temperatures in the mid 70s, no humidity, and just a gentle breeze. As a result, it was with some hesitation that I walked up the stairs of Columbia University’s Grace Dodge Hall, a somewhat somber, old red brick building that would fit perfectly onto Hogwarts campus (apologies: my 10-year-old has been sharing all of her Harry Potter stories lately, and some of her preoccupation seems to have rubbed off on her mother).

Fast forward 90 minutes, and I walk back out into the fresh air, feeling inspired. I had just attended a speech by Professor Warner Burke, a guru on organizational change and leadership effectiveness. The message that he delivered with an entertaining Texan twang: Learning agility is the sine qua non when we want to effect change.

Change is hard, even if it involves desired change (for more, see our article “no pain, no gain” here.) No surprise, without the appropriate outlook, approach and support, about two thirds of organizational change efforts fail, and leaders of change are effective only about half of the time.

What then differentiates high performing leaders of change from those that fail? According to extensive research by Burke and his team (and backed up by other high profile studies) it is not what is frequently used in the process of identifying high potentials, factors such as “past performance” and “competence” as well as “other stuff”. The process of changing dynamics can render past experience irrelevant, and it may require few of the skills and competencies that an individual currently possesses. It reminded me of what leadership coach Marshall Goldsmith summarized so well: What got you here won’t get you there.

Now, what about the “other stuff?” Burke went on to explain that “other stuff” is often a selection bias, based on the similarity between individuals. In other words, if your boss feels like you are in many ways similar to her, you are significantly more likely to be considered a high potential. A longitudinal study within AT&T, for example, found that more low potentials were promoted than high potential ones, as long as they worked for the “right bosses”. Not surprisingly, leaders often use the same selection bias of similarity when it comes to building their teams. This helps explain why there are a good number of underperforming teams, as innovation and change is driven by healthy debate and an openness to see the world in a variety of ways.

Successful change agents such as Brian Walker of Hermann Miller, Bill Gates of Microsoft, and Steve Jobs of Apple are role models when it comes to learning agility. According to Burke’s research, in addition to learning agility, the two other key drivers of successful change leadership are emotional intelligence and optimism (which did not come as a surprise to the psychologists and coaches in the room!).

So, what makes for learning agility?

We know that effective learning has both a cognitive and behavioral component. As we struggle to look into what goes on in other people’s heads, the focus of being able to assess learning agility is to look for the following behavioral components:

  • Feedback seeking.
  • Information gathering.
  • Exposing and learning from failure.
  • Risk taking.
  • Collaborating.
  • Experimenting.
  • Reflecting.
  • Quick study.
  • Swift but not hasty decision-making.

If you are like most of us in the audience that day, then you are probably curious to find out what your particular agility score is… While the full research results and an accompanying assessment will not be available until September, here is a questionnaire Burke shared with those of us who are looking for instant knowledge gratification:

Rate yourself on a scale of “1” [to a very small extent] to “5” [to a very great extent] on what extent do you…
1…seek feedback from others about your work performance?
2…update your knowledge by collecting information from outside sources?
3…discuss with others errors or mistakes you may have made and seek help in understanding what happened?
4…put yourself into situations that involve a high degree of ambiguity about the process and/or outcome?
5…facilitate learning from and among others?
6…collect data to test and try out a new idea about and/or approach to work?
7…take time after an event to consider what happened, why it happened that way, and how things should be done moving forward?
8…move easily between different ideas and perspectives?
9…pick up quickly new information, ideas, and behavior?
10…rely on using what has worked for you in the past?

After you have rated yourself on each question, add up your total score for questions 1 through 9. For question 10, revert your number (i.e. if you rated yourself a “5”, give yourself a “1”, if you rated yourself a “4”, give yourself a “2”, “3” stays the same) and then add this to your total score. Why? Question 10 tests our rigidity factor, aka “we have always done things this way”, which is known to get in the way of agility.

If you score 40 or higher then you may well be on your way to mastery. It’s always good to practice some humility though, as we know that for any self-rating assessment a remarkable 80 percent of us tend to overrate ourselves.

And if you are inspired to grow your change agent muscles (as you know now, seeking feedback is a key component of learning agility!), here is an experiment you may wish to try: Why not have your team score you on the same questionnaire, and compare those results with yours? Now take a closer look at where you think you are compared to your team’s perceptions, and you may find where you could stretch yourself a bit more…

by anne lueneburger

I was recently on a panel for the Association des Amis des Grandes Ecoles de France (similar to the Ivy League schools for the US) here in New York and, together with my fellow panelists, we tried to address some key questions people had about coaching. One question was, of course: “What can coaching can do for me?” And a great response offers this recent article ‘Personal Best’ by Atul Gawande in the New York Times.

Now, once you’re convinced of the merits of coaching, the next important question is: “How do I find a great coach?” In a bit of an exaggerated sense, this isn’t dissimilar to choosing a spouse: if you pick the right one, you will both enjoy the journey (for the most part!), and see some great outcomes. But if you pick the wrong one…

The coaching industry as it stands today is incredibly fast growing, and is gaining legitimacy. People (and organizations) are ever more willing to invest top dollar into their personal and professional growth and potential. However, coaching as a discipline is also still fairly ‘young’, and the fundamentals of the industry continue to be in flux. The profession as a whole is not regulated at this point and, while you will find some excellent coaches with fantastic credentials and experiences, the term coach is not protected, and anyone who wishes can hang out their shingle with no further qualifications and call themselves a ‘Coach’. This makes it hard from the outside to know who to seek out (or sometimes even where to begin looking).

The Search

Some strategies which have worked for people are to reach out to recognized coaching training programs from brand name schools – like INSEAD, Columbia or Georgetown University – who all list their training credentialing process, and who will provide a list of their graduates. Other people seeking the right kind of coach have approached their HR departments to see if they have a list of coaches who they have on retainers or can recommend. There are also certification institutions, such as the International Coach Federation, or associations such as the World Wide Association of Business Coaches which can serve as a starting point. Finally, given that coaching is becoming ever more mainstream, and is often seen as a ‘badge of honor’ for successful people, many clients have simply asked their peers who have been coached about their experiences with a particular coach.

Once you have a short list of reputable coaches, the next step is to make sure that coaches have experience in a setting relevant to you, that they have some clear methodology, and, very importantly, that they have a high quality client list. You may wish to check out the testimonials on their website. (Make sure there are names or companies associated with a quote and be wary of anonymous quotes!) You could also consider asking to speak to former clients for a reference.

Now, assuming that you have found a coach who has the credentials, and who has the right experience in the area that you wish to be coached on, the next step is the most important: make sure you and your coach have chemistry! From both research and experience we know that the success of the coaching relationship comes, in essence, down to two things:

1) The willingness of the client to be coached

2) The relationship between coach and client

It is vital that you have the right chemistry with your coach and that their personality and coaching style resonates with who you are. This will have a huge impact on how much return you can get from your investment. Coaches are aware that this is a key component and most offer a complimentary session to help you (and them) decide whether this partnership has the potential to become a trusting and fruitful partnership, or whether it could end in a messy divorce…!

Read more on how to pick a coach also in a previous posting.

by anne lueneburger

change is not linear

In my late teens, I remember being on a class trip to Italy, and one of our stops was, not surprisingly, the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Climbing 290 some stairs to the top seemed conceivable. Remarkable was that, due its ~ 4 degree angle, we would, at every floor, find ourselves descending some before we would head back up to reach the top (not to mention the queasy feelings in some people’s stomachs…).

Why do I bring this up in the context of change? Most of us have aspects of our life that we seek to change, be it health habits, our work-home balance, our ability to say ‘no’ or the focus of our career. Similar to the climb of the Tower of Pisa, change is often not linear, not as straightforward as climbing up a ladder[1]. The process of change commonly involves making progress and experiencing relapse. Just sample statistics: 62 percent of New Year’s resolutions experience a setback a week after[2].

Change is tough. As long as we are aware that relapse is frequently part of the change process, that most successful change involves several setbacks, we can perceive these as a juncture for further soul search and personal growth. This is the opportunity to renew our commitment to stay the course.  Characteristics of successful change are:

O Recognize where I am with respect to change

Am I aware a problem exists, do I ponder making adjustments, am I getting ready to change within the next month, have I taken action and started to modify behavior, or have I reached my goal but the change in behavior is not yet an integral, natural part of my life?

O Know how to match coping mechanisms with my change stage

Here is the good news: there is a vast number of strategies to support my efforts to change. Some examples include: listing pros and cons, visualizing the outcome of change, trying out new behavior in a safe space, going public, getting a ‘buddy’, substituting healthy behavior for problem behavior, offering yourself a reward, savoring your success or renewing your commitment. Important to know is when and how frequently to apply these strategies. Some coping mechanisms are more powerful in the early stages of change, while others support later change phases more effectively.

O Take it step-by-step

It is crucial to envision the ‘big picture’, my goal and where I want to be at the end of this journey. But to get there, I will need to empower myself to take this one step at a time. Using this approach is particularly helpful in the case of relapse. ‘Not all is lost’: I simply need to add a few extra steps to materialize my desired outcome. Further, integrating attainable interim goals on my path will result in tasting the sensation of success, motivating me along the way.

O Get support

Studies have shown: while successful, sustainable change can only originate from within, self-change does not imply going it alone. Successful self-changers have solicited the help of others: they use supportive relationships, be it family, friends, self-help support groups or an alliance with a professional coach. These relationships, if helpful, are characterized by being open about my problem and by being caring and empathetic, encouraging me to move forward. My ‘helpers’ offer constructive feedback , hold me accountable for my actions and continue their support as long as I need it, pledging sustainable change.

[1]Read more in James O. Prochaska, John C. Norcross, Carlo DiClemente, ‘Changing for Good’, HarperCollins, 2006

[2] Source: Loyola University, Chicago, Illinois, 1995

by pamela welling

So thinking again about those lifers at GE from my original blog back in July, I’ve come to notice in my coaching conversations that once they leave the firm and move into new corporate cultures, former GE employees immediately feel the differences in style, technique, training and management culture. It’s not unusual for me to hear that their new landscape feels more opaque, less comprehensible creating a feeling of disconnection to their new employers, colleagues and tasks. As a coach I find myself helping them devise ways to take the intentional management techniques they developed at GE and turn them inward to manage their way through the transitional dip that occurs when we make a change in any aspect of our lives. Here are the three approaches that have been most instructive in helping my GE and other clients make a successful transition:

  1. Big change means big change: John Fisher’s Transitional curve has developed into a much referenced model for organizations supporting employees through organizational and professional change. High potentials I’ve coached who’ve on-ramped quickly into their new role accept that they will experience an emotional reaction to the professional move they are about to undertake. Moreover, they understand that shifting into a new role or company is likely to impact many if not all aspects of their existing routine. They counter the impacts of this change by adapting their routine, identifying where to delegate and dropping or postponing non-essential personal or professional tasks for the first 6-8 months in any new role.
  2. Change takes time: Research shows that it takes a new employee 6- 12 months to feel fully integrated into their new work environment. For high potentials it can be difficult to manage down expectations of impact in a new role as they benchmark against their high performance and productivity in a previous role. In my experience, clients who’ve been able manage their own expectations have been less anxious and better able to be productive quickly in their new environment.
  3. Build champions, and remember your allies: Network is key when it comes to a transition, and in his 2008 HBR article Boris Groysberg found that women are particularly adept at remaining stars performers in their new context due in part to their ability to build networks internally and externally to their organizations. A good way to think about your network is to divide it into those people who will be champions, and those who will be allies. Champions are people within your organization with whom you will evidence your skills, expert knowledge and successes. Expect that it will take some time to identify just who those internal champions will be for you. Your allies are people either inside, or more ideally, outside of your organization that understand your context and can provide unbiased advice about problems you are facing. Identifying allies and tapping them early seems to be a hallmark of success for the GE lifers I have coached, and it is a tactic I would recommend to anyone making a career or role transition.

The system really can be the star if it equips employees with the tools and tactics they need to manage change most effectively. I look forward to hearing your comments and stories on this topic, and let me know if these steps work for you next time you make a change, whether it is personal or professional.

by pamela welling

My last blog inspired a number of people to reach out and ask about managing their career in a more effective way, so here are a few tips on creating an effective, self directed development plan:

  • Assess the market: Reach to colleagues, contacts, experts in your field and attend industry specific conferences and events. Figure out what is valued now in your area and what kinds of skills and experiences will be valued going forward.
  • Gauge your personal experience: Review your career to date and figure out where you have touched experiences that are desirable- this could be in your current role or previous positions. Think about your extra-circulars’ and academic career to inform this assessment. This is a good time to reach to former colleagues and managers to get a 360 analysis of why they valued having you in their team.
  • Identify opportunities within: Look within your company for projects you can be staffed on to get partial or full exposure to the areas you’ve identified as value adds.
  • Create political allies: Indentify people within your organization who will use their political capital to help you develop in the way you want to.
  • Build champions: Both within your organization and outside of it. It is helpful to have mentors you can reach to who understand your context and can provide guidance on what you have done and the things you are thinking about doing next.
  • Be realistic: Career development is an iterative and sometime frustrating process, trying to build new experience will be difficult as you face internal and external barriers. Keep a record of your success to keep you on track as you move forward.

The millennial running buddy who inspired me to write the originally HIPO piece in the first place has now moved into action. I am currently coaching him in implementing some of these strategies in his new role. I’m interested to hear of your experiences as you go forward and hope that some of you will share your learning here at North of Neutral.

quitting to succeed?

March 23, 2011

by carolyn mathews

I have a friend who has owned a retail shop for over a decade. She brought years of high-level management, purchasing, and customer service experience to opening her shop. My friend loves the shop! She enjoys the customers, her employees, and the purchasing of stock. Initially, she enjoyed great success. But she is in a competitive business, the buying habits of people have changed the past few years and the shop has not done well for a number of years. She has adjusted the type and amount of stock. She has changed advertising plans. She has held special events. All of this is in hope of regaining the former success of the shop. Her personal work ethic prevents her from quitting. I suspect, however, that quitting is just what she should do.

I was reminded of my friend when a few weeks ago, I read The Dip, by Seth Godin. The message of this easy-to-read book is that we must learn when to quit and when to “stay the course.” Sounds simple, right? Yet, how many of you have stayed with something in your life because you don’t consider yourself a quitter? This something could be investments, a personal relationship, your work, or a project within your work. I suspect this is something we have all done, because the notion of quitting is often viewed as failure. However, before anyone quits anything, it is important to assess your current situation. Godin’s book can help.

In his book, Godin uses three charted curves to illustrate that “I’m getting nowhere…” feeling. The first is the Dip. Starting full of enthusiasm, and fueled by the learning curve, the Dip chart starts relatively high along the vertical axis. Soon though, you may experience that sinking feeling as you seemingly crawl along the horizontal axis while trying to move forward. You experience the Dip when it feels like there is a solid wall of in front of you, yet you feel the urge to move towards success. Godin describes the Dip as, “the long slog between starting and mastery.” The next curve to assess your current situation is the Cul-de Sac, which is French for dead-end. You know a Cul-de-Sac when you drive into one and that imagery explains the premise. According to Godin, “It’s a situation where you work and you work and you work and nothing much changes.” The third curve is the cliff, “a situation where you can’t quit until you fall off, explains Godin.

The trick is to understand which curve best represents your current situation. While persevering though the Dip can lead to success, staying in the Cul-de-Sac or moving ahead until you find yourself at the edge of the Cliff can lead to failure. The idea is to quit strategically before you fail. “Strategic quitting is a conscious decision you make based on the choices that are available to you. If you realize you’re at a dead end compared with what you could be investing in, quitting is not only a reasonable choice, it’s a smart one,” explains Godin. And, he adds, coping is a lousy alternative to quitting.

My friend with the shop copes. And coping uses all her resources, (financial, temporal, and emotional) to keep the shop open. At my urging, she read Godin’s book and recognizes this is no Dip for the shop. If I were her coach, I would ask what she would do with all of those resources if she quit. We would identify her personal strengths, talents and skills. I would ask her more questions about plans and passions. I’d ask her to really listen to her answers as these would guide her decisions. I have no doubt my friend would use her extensive experience to start something new – and it would likely be a success.

by anne lueneburger

We recently came across a client who was facing substantial leadership issues in a recently acquired business.  These leadership issues were reflected in the post-acquisition business performance, and we were briefed that the problem was one of the divisional leadership feeling stretched too thinly and thus lacking motivation.  As it turned out, the key reason the leadership team was “stretched” was that as a result of the integration process they found themselves forced to spend most of their time “managing the matrix”, meaning navigating the complex organization of their multinational parent.  Their motivation suffered as they had to take ownership of a range of tasks that did not play to the strengths they had cultivated.

As it turns out, McKinsey just published an article on a congruous topic, identifying three crucial priorities for constructing and managing effective top teams. Getting these priorities right can help drive better business outcomes in areas ranging from customer satisfaction to worker productivity and many more as well.

1.       Get the right people on the team (and the wrong ones off): Determining the membership of a top team is the CEO’s responsibility— and frequently the most powerful lever to shape a team’s performance.

2.       Make sure the top team does just the work only it can do: Too often, top teams fail to set or enforce priorities and instead try to cover the waterfront. In other cases, they fail to distinguish between topics they must act on collectively and those they should merely monitor. These shortcomings create jam-packed agendas that no top team can manage properly.

3.       Address team dynamics and processes: A final area demanding unrelenting attention from CEOs is effective team dynamics, whose absence is a frequent problem.

Our client had no issues on the first point above, some challenges on the third, and a substantial problem on the second.  Getting it right, in this case, means being mindful of how to integrate the business without compromising the very culture that made it commercially successful in the first place.  On a more granular level, it implies unleashing the leadership team to continue to play to its strength and allow the parent to be a platform that adds muscle rather than a boundary that adds constraints.

Not an easy task, but one that can be solved now that there is alignment on the nature of the challenge ahead!

reaching out from afar…

March 17, 2011

by the north of neutral team

Our hearts go out to those who are suffering from the catastrophic events in Japan and to everyone who has loved ones in this part of the world. However, we are not helpless and can make a difference, even if we live far away from the event. One way to make a difference is to answer the call from Japan for monetary donations. You can find a list of charities such as Convoy of Hope, Red Cross, or other reputable organizations that maximize your dollar by being used for the purpose you intended. Please be careful to avoid charity scams.

the importance of being wrong

December 20, 2010

by pamela welling

‘If you are not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original’. Sir Ken Robinson

Recently I was re- watching Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talks on learning and creativity- I’ll click onto these funny, insightful clips when I need a break from my desktop. I’d recommend the clips if you have not seen them; just as you get comfortable with Sir Ken’s laid back humorous tone he’ll change tack and make a point that will challenge your thought process and leave you feeling provoked. He discusses family, education and creativity.

The talks resonate deeply with me as I think about an idea integral to Positive Psychology and the North of Neutral philosophy; the concept of authentic self. It’s a topic that’s been central to many of the conversations I’ve had and the reading I’ve been doing recently around professional satisfaction and effective leadership.

Sir Ken focuses mainly on the education sector in his research; he champions the importance of arts, music and dance programs in schools as a way to help young people explore the passions that could lead to future career success and happiness. He suggests that a more comprehensive educational experience could help us get clearer understanding of our authentic selves not just at home, but in the workplace too.

It’s a fascinating idea to me and as I look at the work of management theorists like John Kotter and Daniel Goleman, I see that the research exists to encourage us to bring our authentic selves to work: We’re aware of the benefits of this in our management style and understand it as a concept. We’ve got tests that help us identify our biases, articles by experts with case studies that help us create a map to implementation, so why don’t we do it? As I think about this question I reflect back on the quote from Sir Ken about the importance of failure. If we truly bring everything we have to the workplace, then we are at risk of showing our flaws to colleagues, reports and clients. It means we need to be prepared to be wrong, to make mistakes and allow others to call us out.

And that seems to be the hardest thing to do at work. Harvard researchers Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey have identified that deeply held and sometimes unconscious fears about exposing self perceived flaws can impede our ability to perform and lead. As a coach, I’ve worked with many clients who’ve held the same set of concerns and have questioned if managers will truly tolerate imperfection. In my experience, I’ve found that employers at every level are willing to discuss mistakes, in fact, we’ve all been to job interviews armed with responses to the “Tell me about a time you’ve failed” style question. I’ve found that the candidates who’ve been honest about the times they’ve been wrong and who’ve been able to articulate the reasons for their perceived lack of success have been the most compelling; they’ve demonstrated the ability to learn, grow and drive change. It seems that if you are willing to embrace the fear, identify the mistake and reflect on the actions, assumptions and emotional responses that led you to it, you will be able to bring your authentic self to work. You’ll likely be happier and as Sir Ken suggests you’ll to bring the thing to your workplace that employers want most: Originality and innovation.