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Lee J. Colan, Ph.D. is a leadership advisor to America’s companies, an engaging presenter of ideas, and best-selling author of 13 popular leadership books that have been translated into 10 languages. We recently sat down with Lee to his hear thoughts on improving leadership, culture, and organizational knowledge within a company.

Tell us a bit About Your Background

Why did you Decide to Create a Consulting Company Called “The L Group?”

Educationally, I earned a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Florida State University and a doctorate in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from George Washington University. Professionally, I got a head start since my doctoral program was very applied, so I worked for the U.S. Army Research Institute and for a premier management consulting firm while I was pursuing my doctorate. Later, I worked for several large corporations like American Airlines in the organizational development area. I eventually took a post as Vice President, Human Resource and Org. Development for a healthcare management company. After that job, I started my own consulting company in 1999 called The L Group, Inc. (the L is for Leadership, not Lee). Our logo is a group of stacked L’s signifying the three levels of leadership: Personal, Team, and Organizational. We believe that leadership is an inside job, so you must be an effective leader of yourself before you can lead teams or organizations.

Since Your Firm Emphasizes Consulting Programs That “cut Through the Clutter,” Could you Tell us What Types of Clutter That You’re Referring to?

I am a pretty simple-minded guy, so I focus on concepts leaders struggle with like execution, accountability, culture, engagement, and even attitude. Any leader would quickly agree that these are good things to do, but nearly every one of them gets stuck in the “how-to.” I like to convert complex concepts and “clutter” into simple actions and clarity to help leaders elevate their game.

Since The L Group Offers a Workshop With the Counterintuitive Title of “Winners Always Quit,” Could you Elaborate on What That Means?

I remembered the classic quote from way back when I was a kid. “Winners never quit and quitters never win.” We’ve all heard that one and may have even tried to live by it – and even pass it on to our kids like our parents did to us. Well, the truth is that winners always quit! Today’s winners even quit what we typically consider to be some pretty good habits, like getting comfortable, analyzing problems, managing time, or striving for success. Particularly in today’s economy, instead of asking yourself “What should I start doing?” the better question is to ask “What should I quit?”

We keep hearing that little voice in our heads telling us “winners never quit.” Unfortunately, that little voice does not always tell us what we really need to hear. Quitting a strategy is different than quitting your goal. We should be slow to quit our goal, but quick to quick our strategy. Quitting is not negative and it’s not for sissies. It’s often the best thing we can do. My confession: My first book was entitled Sticking to It. It took me ten books and six years to finally get comfortable enough to talk about quitting. I had to overcome my own assumptions about what quitting meant. We can swap pretty good habits to get really great results!

Finish this Sentence: “When Trying to Build or Nurture a High-Performing Team, the Biggest Mistake That Managers and Leaders Make the Most Often is…”

Trying to generate great results before building strong relationships built on trust. Trust is the foundation for any work or personal relationship. With it, your team is golden; but without it, your team is rotten.

In Today’s Companies and Organizations, What are Some of the Trickiest Aspects of Initiating a Change in Corporate Culture?

Every organization has a culture by default. Few organizations have a culture by design. Even when an organization has intentionally integrated its culture as part of its strategy, business growth naturally forces culture disintegration. The more a growing organization wants to keep its culture the same, the more it must change what it does. Culture can be a very complex topic, with consultants drawing wall-sized models to explain cultural dynamics. Warren Buffett said, “There seems to be some perverse human characteristic that likes to make easy things difficult.” The best leaders understand complex concepts like culture and boil them down into simple terms. For example, creating culture can be expressed with a simple, two-word formula:

Culture = Behavior

It’s that simple. Organizations are comprised of human beings, and humans are predictable and virtually always do what they are reinforced to do. So, if you reinforce behavior A, that is what you will get. It is not uncommon for leaders to express frustration with the behaviors of their teams when the same behavior is exactly what they are reinforcing. For example, they might be frustrated by selfish, non-collaborative behavior even though that is what their compensation system is rewarding. So, as you create your winning culture, the only question is, “Which behaviors do I want to see more of to help meet our business objectives?”

It’s important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater as you initiate a culture change. Rarely is a culture completely misaligned with business objectives, so be sure to honor the past by preserving what is working and shift to the future by reinforcing selected behavior changes. Start by designing (or redesigning) your organizational systems to reinforce behaviors that support your business strategy. Cultures are created and reinforced by:

  1. Values
  2. Rules and policies
  3. Goals and measures
  4. Rewards and recognition
  5. Staffing and selection
  6. Training and development
  7. Ceremonies and events
  8. Leadership practices and decisions
  9. Communications
  10. Physical environment
  11. Organizational structure

These cultural systems must be aligned vertically and horizontally with your business strategy (vertical alignment) and other culture systems so they are not contradicting (horizontal alignment). For example, a company that values innovation wants to vertically align their employee selection system by designing it to hire innovative thinkers, and then reinforce innovative behavior once they arrive with appropriate reward systems. This same organization must create horizontal alignment by ensuring that all the above systems are reinforcing innovative behaviors and not inadvertently squelching it with bureaucratic decision-making or communication systems. So, throw out the complex models of culture change and keep it simple: Culture = Behavior.

What are Some Strategies for Building and Passing on Organizational Knowledge?

Mentoring is an effective way to pass on experience and knowledge within an organization. Companies in all industries have formal and informal programs designed to hone their talent and sharpen their competitive edge. However, the technology revolution has created an ironic twist to traditional mentoring. Today, it’s common for a young, entry-level worker to have a better understanding of technology or some aspect of the operation than his manager. As a result, many organizations are shifting into reverse. They’re asking front line, shop floor, or young tech-savvy employees to teach the “old dogs” (that would be me!) new tricks. This approach is typically employed when senior leaders need to better understand operations, customer preferences, or new technologies.

Remember what Picasso said, “It takes a very long time to become young.” So, even if you don’t have a formal program, try hanging out with your younger team members – even those who might be younger than your own children, which is a guaranteed eye-opener. You might discover that you are so far out of the loop that you can’t even see the loop. Create your own form of reverse mentoring. It could be as simple as asking your children for feedback on your product/service/idea. Be ready for brutal honesty. If you don’t have accessible children, then borrow your friends’. In either case, the children will feel valued and you will get valuable feedback.

Also, the next time you hire interns, make a concerted effort to listen to and learn from them. Yep, learning can be a two-way street even with interns. No doubt, younger, fresher eyes will see things differently than we will. Their insights might even be shocking, and if we can keep our egos in check, they could lead to powerful breakthroughs. Before you jump in feet first (or head first, in this case), consider these success factors to reverse mentoring as well as traditional mentoring relationships:

  1. Create and maintain an attitude of openness to the experience.
  2. Dissolve the barriers of status, power, and position.
  3. Commit the necessary time.
  4. Have a game plan and goal.
  5. Define rules of engagement.
  6. Actively listen.
  7. Be patient.

If you are trying to move ahead of your competition, try shifting into reverse with your mentoring.

What can Companies or Leaders Start Doing Immediately to Help Improve Accountability in Their Organizations?

Accountability is like rain. Everyone knows it’s good for you, but no one wants to get wet. The one thing you can do to boost accountability it to be specific! Ambiguity is the Achilles heel of accountability. As specificity increases, rework, frustration, and miscommunication decrease. Be specific with your expectations, your coaching, and your language. In fact, be more specific than you think you need to be. For example, before you leave a meeting or any interaction, state the 3 Ws: what, who and when. Ensure all parties are clear on what will be done by whom by when.

Which Leadership Skills will Best Equip Executives, Managers, and Corporate Leaders to Succeed in the Business Climate of the Future?

First, building culture with remote teams is no easy task, but it is a key success factor for the leader of tomorrow. Second. mastering the tone of the written word (beyond emoticons) will also be key, since such a large majority of all communication will be written vs. spoken. Third, the ability to manage through influence vs. authority will be essential as more and more organizations are matrixed and/or have outsourced worker relationships that require collaboration vs. mandates.

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