Answer the Call to Exceptional Leadership

Leading the Unleadable

Taking a management job is not the same as answering the call to exceptional leadership. That’s what Alan Willett’s new book is all about: how to create a culture where people are able to perform in an extraordinary way.

Often new managers think that those following them are unengaged, cynical, or otherwise difficult. And that can be true, but many of these symptoms are a result of the manager not knowing how to lead, how to challenge, how to create team-wide expectations.

Alan Willett offers practical ways for managers to take on these challenges. Alan is the president of Oxseeker, a leadership consultancy with clients ranging from Oracle to NASA. His new book is Leading the Unleadable. I recently asked him about his work on exceptional leadership.



Set the Right Expectations

There are so many aspects of your book to discuss, but I want to focus on expectations. How important is the leader’s expectations?

It is amazing how even people that seem “defiant” are working to meet the expectations of the leader. When leaders are setting the wrong expectation it will have negative impacts – and the leader can do this without even knowing it.

I have seen many leaders consistently tell their teams that they want the “most aggressive schedule possible.”  Of course the projects with the most aggressive schedule possible are invariably late. Along with being late, there are many negative aspects that can include quality problems and morale issues since team members feel they are failing. Many leaders who set these expectations later ask me, “Why are my teams always late?”

What the leader really wants in these situations is for the team to have the “smartest” plan possible and a commitment that the team can definitively meet or beat that plan. Setting those expectations correctly will get leaders who they really want.



How a Leader Sets Goals

It seems that you can set the bar too low and not challenge the team or be “so positive” that you demotivate everyone. What’s the best way to set the goal appropriately?

Set clear motivating goals for the team, but also leave out some specifics, leave them a little vague. Then challenge the team to make it more specific and meaningful to them. In doing this the team members almost always grumble about the lack of precision. They then get to work to make the goals better. The team then creates the goals that are that high bar you refer to. Since the team set those specific goals, they are committed to achieving them.



I have worked this method with leaders over 300 times, and it never fails to inspire the team ownership and commitment. Leaders are often stunned at what the teams can really accomplish.


Expect Excellence Every Day

Setting expectations is a daily practice. You talk about “expecting excellence every day.” Talk a little about this.

I have seen many managers get very good at slogans such as “quality is our number one job” but undercut that slogan on a daily basis. They ask in meetings if teams can accelerate schedules. They only talk about dates. They never ask about preventing quality problems. They sometimes talk about removing the steps in the team process that are critical for quality. Leading in this way delays projects because bad quality always delays projects because of excessive rework. It also creates cynics because the quality is Job#1 words do not match the actions.

If you really want, for example, quality to be the number one focus, your daily interactions would reflect that. You would ask for data about quality early in projects. You focus on areas that are excelling and ask people to share “how they did that.”

It is really the daily interactions that set an organizational culture far more than one-time events or posters on the wall. 



Recognize Results, Not Sweat

I particularly like this: “recognize results, not sweat.” I’ve seen this in practice. Would you share this principle?

One of the biggest ways that organizational cultures are created is by how teams and team members gain recognition. In some organizations, people get lots of recognition for putting out the fires they could have prevented and possibly actually started themselves. These firefighters get to stand up in front of senior management and report on how they put the fire out. Many people have been rewarded with parties or gift certificates for working many extra nights and weekends. The people who have the most fires get the most exposure to senior management and often get promoted. That is rewarding sweat.

Contrast this to organizations that have project teams stand up in front of senior management for running projects that finish on time with high quality and ask them, “How did you do that?” They further recognize these teams by asking them to share their learning with others. These leaders get promoted. That is recognizing results.

The behaviors that a leader puts a positive focus on beget more of those behaviors. I choose results.



How important is the “start” to creating results? How do you insure this happens consistently?

If a project starts badly, it is always going to be playing catch up. It is hard to win from a horrible start. In all the organizations I work with, everyone knows that. They often know how to start well. The trouble is they don’t. I detail why in the book.

The essence of starting projects consistently with a strong foundation comes down to a few key factors. I will highlight two of them here.  First, when you are ready to start a project, recognize the reality of what it takes to start correctly. Recognize the reality that it is going to take trade-offs of other projects that are already running. The second factor is confident courage. In other words have the confidence that starting the project correctly is the right thing for the organization. Have the courage to make the hard trade-offs that must be made.



Stand Out as Exceptional

Having witnessed firsthand so many different cultures in the organizations you’ve worked with, what makes a leader stand out as exceptional? leadingtheunleadable

When thinking about the exceptional leaders I work with, they all seem so different in the skills they bring and the way they present themselves. However this is just the surface.

Underneath they share this one common factor: the art of self-reflection that leads to positive changes. These leaders think about leadership. When things are awry such as projects being late consistently or a rise in cynicism among individuals, the self-reflective leader is working to understand how they personally contributed to the situation.  Stop here for a second. I see many leaders do this and nothing else. They just feel guilty. The exceptional leader takes action to both correct the current situation and consider how they can lead more effectively in the future.



I would encourage readers interested in this to focus on Part 1 of my book entitled “The Call to Exceptional Leadership.” Exceptional leadership is a choice.  When you read it, you will see this is the more difficult path. It is a path that is well worth the journey.






Leading the Unleadable

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