Noah Barsky PhD

Growth should be exciting, but, if not properly governed, can generate much apprehension, tension, and noticeable reluctance. The antidote to organizational inertia, unmet goals, and related career plateaus hides in plain view – business acumen. While most employees are adept at tasks and responsibilities, many often cannot articulate why their work is important.

Enhancing business acumen about how the organization competes, performs, and utilizes key resources holds the key to maximizing employees’ talents and functional expertise. Knowing more about the business sparks curiosity, illuminates job relevance, builds a success culture, and can motivate commitment to previously unimaginable levels of achievement. For those who expand, hone, and renew business acumen, results follow and career trajectory soars.

What are business acumen essentials? Senior leaders and executive program participants most often identify and agree on these four fundamentals:

START WITH A CLEAR AND UNIFIED UNDERSTANDING OF STRATEGY

Business strategy can simply and clearly be defined in terms of how a company creates customer value and differentiates itself from the competition. Frequently lost in a buzzword morass, strategic insight starts with clearly identifying the existing and emerging competitors, not only by name, but size, strength, and intentions. Coupling competitive intelligence with insights about existing and prospective customers provides the key elements of credible market presence. Most importantly, strategic clarity reinforces why employees’ work matters and provides an unambiguous reference for business planning, review, and evaluation.

RECOGNIZE THAT RISK IS EVERYONE’S RESPONSIBILITY

Risk is often considered to be solely the domain of compliance, legal, and human resource professionals. While, as a minimum, companies should certainly abide by laws, meet regulations, and honor policies, risk avoidance, and mitigation are insufficient for a lasting, thriving enterprise. Business, at its essence, is a risk-seeking and risk-taking endeavor. Employees must understand the external and internal risks that their organization faces and the necessary actions to manage each (and those that emerge) as the entity navigates its competitive market. The foundation for understanding business risks resides in understanding a firm’s value chain and its purpose in strategy execution. Regardless of the method, good governance stabilizes growth.

REALIZE THAT MONEY IS THE REWARD NOT THE REASON

Employees must, in some way, have a concept of their company’s financial condition and the consequences of (in)actions. Without necessarily becoming a CPA or financial analyst, those with a basic awareness of their employer’s financials relative to prior years, competitors, and budget, have the perspective required for sound economic choices.  The company’s sales growth, profitability, cash flow flexibility, debt service, and overall financial viability either enable or restrict activities and initiatives. Profitability is imperative to reinvest in the business, increase wages, sustain operations, and maintain access to capital.  In top organizations, the finance function stewards scarce resources and works cross-organizationally with informed leaders who must spend and invest wisely for short-term needs and future well-being. Business choices require due financial consideration – from all.

MANAGE THE BUSINESS, NOT THE METRICS

Well-run businesses, exceptional employees, quality offerings, and leading technology score well on any scale. In an era of data abundance, companies need professionals who can focus the workforce on metrics that truly matter – those that drive meaningful outcomes, not simply tabulating quantifiable outputs. Performance measurement is essential to calibrate business decisions,  but should never be an isolated obsession. Those who advocate to make numbers “look good” can descend down a dangerous path of “form over substance” with incentives to manipulate, misreport, or worse. Performance measures, chosen with care and courage, offer candid insight into a company’s progress on strategic priorities, as fulfilled by operational excellence helmed by trusted leaders.

On scales of 1-10, ask yourself and others how well your workplace fares in terms of insight about strategy, risk, finances, and performance measurement. The answers reveal the areas of greatest strength and opportunity. Take action to improve ratings by just one point on each scale and marvel at how employees find more purpose in their jobs, energize the workplace, and perform better. Business acumen is the oft-overlooked differentiator that can enable you and your colleagues to deliver growth that your organization expects and deserves, and, even more importantly, because its future and your career depend on it.

ABOUT NOAH BARSKY PhD

Noah P. Barsky, PhD, is a professor at the Villanova University School of Business. He has also been a faculty member with the Institute for Management Studies since 2001. Dr. Barsky serves on business advisory boards and delivers executive education programs for Fortune 100 companies, global professional services firms, and industry associations. He has authored five books and published over seventy articles in various academic and professional journals. To learn more about Dr. Barsky and view his upcoming IMS programs CLICK HERE.

CONSIDER THIS SCENARIO

ACME Corporation is implementing a new technology. 

  • Executive Eric exclaims, “We need this new technology to remain competitive!  Why is it taking so long?  Why aren’t my managers getting their people on board?”
  • Middle Manager Mary laments, “I’ve been directed to implement this new technology when we haven’t even finished our last major roll-out.  My staff just rolled their eyes at me when I announced the change, complaining about how they don’t have time to learn the new process with everything else on their plates.” 
  • Employee Eddie complains, “Here we go again. Another program of the year. We’ll outlive this change, just like the last one corporate tried to shove down our throats!'”

DOES THAT SOUND FAMILIAR?

Change challenges vary by organizational level. Those at the top, like Executive Eric, usually set the direction of the change and are most convinced of the need for it, but they tend to be isolated from many of the change’s direct impacts. Staff on the front lines, like Employee Eddie, are most removed from the rationale behind the change, but are often most directly impacted by it; an alteration in their behavior is usually a significant part of the change initiative, and they can thus appear most resistant to it. That means that managers like Mary – and perhaps you too – typically find themselves stuck in the middle, squeezed between these two levels, sandwiched between the edicts of their bosses and pushback from their staff.

WHAT CAN A MIDDLE MANAGER DO?

Managers can play a mission-critical role in leading change by helping their organizations overcome these all-too-common disconnects across organizational levels, which result in over 70% of major organizational changes failing to achieve their objectives. Here are ways to exert your influence and emerge as a powerful voice in leading change, which is a pivotal capability for a leader at any level across all industries today:

INFLUENCE UP

What you see depends on where you sit.  It can be easy to vilify senior leaders above you in the hierarchy, but they don’t know what they don’t know – and it’s your job to tell them. Why is the TV show Undercover Boss so popular? Because in every episode a CEO masquerades as a frontline employee and experiences how hard it is for good people to comply with the changes they must wrestle with. How can you step up to help your executives see that sometimes the emperor has no clothes, and that they may benefit from a new way to engage people in and equip people for new directions?

ALSO, INFLUENCE DOWN

At times managers can be as in the dark about the changes they are supposed to drive as their staff! Take control by proactively obtaining the information you need about the ‘they, why, what, who, and how of the change,’ so you are armed to deliver the message to your people. It can be tempting to join the naysayers, especially when you have so many legitimate concerns and such limited information. Remember that behind every complaint is a request, and strive to tease out the wants and needs, communicate what you unearth in a business language that can be acted upon, and challenge your team to step-up and be part of the solution versus the problem.

HERE’S THE BOTTOM LINE

The most important change leadership competency is courage – the courage to say what needs to be said in an authentic, transparent, professional and respectful way to help others up and down the organization appreciate the need for change, understand the barriers in the current state, and collaborate to invent a new path forward.

ABOUT BARBARA TRAUTLEIN, PHD

Barbara is the principal and founder of Change Catalysts, the author of the best-selling book Change Intelligence: Use the Power of CQ to Lead Change that Sticks, and the originator of the CQ® System for Developing Change Intelligence®. For over 25 years, she has coached executives, trained leaders at all levels, certified change agents, and facilitated mission-critical transformations – achieving bottom-line business and powerful leadership results for clients. She is gifted at sharing strategies and tactics that are accessible, actionable, and immediately applicable.

Dr. Trautein will be delivering 11 IMS programs on Developing Your Change Intelligence to Lead Critical Initiatives in 2020. To learn more about Barbara and her IMS programs CLICK HERE.

Futurist Bob Treadway

No single set of skills and techniques will help you sustain and improve your team, organization, or even career more than anticipation. Most leaders have never taken a course or seminar on the subject. It wasn’t in the required curriculum for your university major, was it?

Effective anticipation sees not just the obvious that’s ahead but also the hidden, the hinted-at, the possible. The process need not be complicated. But it must be persistent. I urge you to adopt the approaches I list here. Habits of anticipation will stand you in good stead for your entire career, for your entire life.

Here is a “starter kit” for anticipation. Things to do, ways to think, and habits to adopt that allow you to see developments before they arrive, avoid nasty surprises, and take advantage of opportunity.

Widen and Lengthen Your View

The most successful business leaders keep themselves informed. They see media, listen to viewpoints, mine promising sources, and collect forward-looking contacts that see ahead. They leverage time saving summaries, look at sources with a future focus, and employ technology to push information their way. They team with peers and associates to compare notes, discover unusual insights, and gain novel perspective. They change up their sources and network to cast a wider net for signals of what’s ahead. Nothing goes over their head. They allow their curiosity to drive a continuous alertness to signals of the future. I list two excellent free daily resources at the end of this posting.

See the Significant

I’m often asked, “What should I pay attention to? There’s so much reading and information I’ve got to see already.” Recognize information that will have the strongest impact on your future from three simple categories:

  1. Be surprised. A surprise is new information, a departure from your current understanding, and probably a signal of something to come you should be monitoring.
  2. Determine “game-changers.” Keep an open mind but be honest with yourself about factors, forces, and innovations that could change everything. Robotics, artificial intelligence, generational change, and social adoptions are appropriate current examples. Don’t hunker down in denial. Here is an opportunity to adapt, ally, or move in a new direction.
  3. Notice what has strong implications. An implication is a consequence, result, impact, upshot, or ripple effect. A development with high-impact implications is a blip on your radar. Your mind should jump to the question, “Since that’s happened (or will happen) then what?” Your brain will think like a futurist to create a range, a cascade of after-effects.

Analyze Impacts

Many of my clients organize implications into systems and patterns. One quick technique you can try is to write a trigger event, situation, or scenario in the middle of a blank sheet. Then ask the “then what?” question and write 3-5 impacts down in a circle around the trigger. Then go to each of the those implications you recorded and ask “then what?” of each of those, generating 2-3 more implications. By the time you reach the third level you’ll see entries and patterns that are actions and strategies for how to move into the future.

Of course this process is even better when done in a small group as we do in IMS learning experiences. The addition of other viewpoints and experiences causes you to include a wider range of possibilities. You’ll find your teammates bring perspectives you would not have developed on your own. This also allows you some time to contemplate what’s coming. The “implication wheels” you generate are insightful, full of specifics, and prompt you to use the next portion of the took-kit below.

Pull the Trigger

Anticipation leads to a forecast. Forecasts are valuable insights and knowledge of future events. But scanning, thinking, and analysis is useless unless it leads to action. Doing something that protects, leverages an advantage, opens a new avenue, or puts a proactive plan in place is what seeing around the corner should accomplish.

Those are four components of an anticipation system. Widen-broaden your view. Recognize the signals both obvious and less so. Analyze potential impacts. Take action.

Scanning Resources

Two free, well-curated, morning-delivered summaries I suggest you give 5 to 10 minutes daily:

Morning Brew – business-oriented with useful dashboard graphics, a forward-look, and good writing – morningbrew.com/daily/r/?kid=ee9dc2

Quartz – the news e-mail that took things up a notch. International in scope. qz.com

About Bob Treadway

Bob Treadway is the President of Treadway & Associates, a consulting and training organization that focuses on future business environments, strategy and planning methodologies. He has consulted and designed programs for major organizations as such Gillette, Berkshire Hathaway, SBC, American Express, Pfizer, and the Federal Reserve. You can learn more about Bob on his website at: https://www.trendtalk.com.

Author and Consultant Michael Lee Stallard

Is there a “best” team and organizational culture? Countless books, podcasts, webinars and workshops offer do’s and don’ts on leading people and how to win at work. The sheer volume of opinions and approaches available reinforces that over the last hundred years of scientific inquiry there has not been a consensus on the definitions of, or a general theoretical model for, leadership or organizational culture.

In recent years, however, two trends have emerged. The first is that scholars are finding organizations are comprised of a complex web of intricate relationships best captured by theories of complexity. The second trend is that effective leaders foster positive relationships and care about people. “Connection” is cited as an emerging general theory of leadership and organizational culture that integrates these trends, according to The Connection Value Chain: Impact of Connection Culture and Employee Motivation on Perceived Team Performance, a recently published doctoral dissertation by Jon Rugg, PhD.

Applying a “one size fits all” culture isn’t realistic in today’s increasingly diverse and global working world. That said, I believe organizations that have sustainable high performance will have a common foundation to their culture – elements that enable them to be their best.

Connection Is the X-factor

Team and organizational cultures can be viewed as either emotionally connecting people or emotionally isolating them. Why do leaders need to care whether or not an employee feels connected? Research has found that social connection is a primal human need that appears to improve the cardiovascular, endocrine and immune systems’ performance. Viewed from the opposite side, research has shown that lacking sufficient connection is associated with poorer cognitive performance, impaired executive control and self-regulation, lower levels of self-rated physical health, substance abuse, depressive symptoms and suicidal ideation. Given these findings, it should be no surprise that greater loneliness in the workplace has been found to result in poorer task, team role and relational performance. Employees who feel regularly left out, lonely or out of the loop are not going to be able to do their best work and may not wish to.

In the research my colleagues and I conducted we found that isolation typically results from excessive control behaviors, or by excessive busyness and indifference to the human need for connection. Cultures that connect people (which we have termed “connection cultures”) are best for individual well-being and for helping organizations thrive. Specifically, cultures that intentionally connect people to their work, their colleagues and the organization as a whole convey several performance advantages upon organizations including higher employee engagement, tighter strategic alignment, better decisions, higher rate of innovation and greater agility to cope with faster changes taking place today. These benefits combine to provide a significant performance and competitive advantage.

Today’s Connection Deficit

Media have reported on the current loneliness epidemic, including in the workplace. And what about the many people don’t think of themselves as lonely and yet the demands of work and task-oriented activities such as time in front of screens have crowded out time for meaningful relationships? That was my experience, earlier in my career. Today’s connection deficit is a risk to individuals and organizations, especially those with cultures of control or indifference. Leaders would be wise not to ignore it. 

Over the coming decade the workforce may become even more disconnected. Consider that research on adolescents, the next wave of incoming employees, has found they spend more time interacting with electronic devices and less time interacting with each other. Furthermore, artificial intelligence may diminish people’s ability to connect as an unintended consequence of spending more time interacting with machines.

What Leaders Can Do

To boost connection, leaders first need to develop a connection mindset throughout their organization. This means that people at all levels recognize and appreciate that human connection is a necessity and a lack of connection is unhealthy and can sabotage success. Second, people need to learn the attitudes, uses of language, and behaviors that are connecting. Some of these are universal and others will be shaped by local customs and the organization’s vision, mission and values. Training, mentoring and coaching are valuable in moving from an aspirational to an actual culture of connection.

Our memorable formula to help leaders create a connection culture is Vision + Value + Voice. Simply stated, leaders connect people when they communicate a Vision that inspires and unites people, Value people as human beings and not just means to an end, and give people a Voice to express their opinions and ideas.

Alan Mulally at Ford

A leader who created a connection culture is Alan Mulally. When he arrived at Ford Motor Company in 2006 to be CEO, sales, market share and profits were declining as its culture of infighting drove Ford to the verge of bankruptcy. Here are a few of the ways that he put the power of connection to work as he led the turnaround.

He reminded employees of the inspiring Vision put forth by founder Henry Ford of “opening the highways for all mankind.” Mulally described Ford’s contribution to society as giving people “freedom of mobility [to] access opportunities for growth.”

Mulally boosted Value in the Ford culture when he said leaders need to care about and value people in order to connect with them. He often used the phrases “One Ford” and “working together always works.” In meetings, he prohibited people from using humor at the expense of others.

Mulally increased the element of Voice by seeking people’s ideas and opinions, considering them and acting on the best ideas. A primary vehicle for this was the weekly Business Plan Review (BPR) meeting that was attended in person or by teleconference by the global leadership team as well as all business and functional leaders. 

When Mulally announced his retirement in May 2014, he had led Ford to 19 consecutive profitable quarters and rising market share in North America. Connection was not only good for the individual employees of Ford, it was good for the bottom line. Senior leaders who want their organizations to reach their potential are intentional about developing and sustaining cultures of connection that promote superior organizational outcomes. The net benefit amounts to better employee and organizational performance.

About Michael Lee Stallard

Michael Lee Stallard, president and cofounder of E Pluribus Partners and Connection Culture Group, is a thought leader and speaker on how effective leaders boost human connection in team and organizational cultures to improve the health and performance of individuals and organizations. He is the author of “Connection Culture” and “Fired Up or Burned Out.”