Leadership Tricks

Last night we tried to sit outside for dinner in LA, and the smoke in the air was so uncomfortable that we had to move inside. (We are here working with a large family business as they understand how their culture is helping or hindering them in their growth and transition from one generation to the next.)

There are fires that are springing up daily in California, and reporters keep repeating a few causation statements; that this is about climate change, and the utility company is evil or at least to blame. This is one of the tricks played on leaders; accept the initial and repeated causes of your issues without deeper exploration. This results in far too many symptoms getting a band-aid instead of real problems being solved.

Another example is the collapse of the newspaper industry. We’ve frequently heard the laments that no one cares about real journalism, that all news is online, and that “kids these days…” But then we read The Content Trap, which made us aware of the deeper reason behind the demise of printed newspapers.

While it may be true that people are getting news online, the financial impact for newspapers came when the classified ads moved online – NOT the news stories. A primary revenue source for newspapers was the people placing ads and then the people buying newspapers to look at the ads (remember when we looked for jobs in the Sunday paper?) From Craigslist to Monster.com, the need for printed classified ads diminished and this major revenue source dried up.

Another example of accepting information at face value comes from culture work that we did with a Fortune 500 insurance company. Their survey results indicated that company values were being violated. The seemingly easy fix for this issue would be to do some values education and hold people accountable. Unfortunately, that would have been solving a symptom but not the real problem.

Leadership did not accept the initial diagnosis, and we dug in deeper with focus groups to get to the “why” behind the data. We realized that the values were well known but not well understood. The employees had morphed the definitions of the values to suit themselves. “We do the right thing” became, “I have a job for life and will never be terminated.” When someone was let go that meant the value was violated. Rather than general values education, they focused on helping employees understand the real meaning and behaviors that supported the values.

When it comes to the cause of the fires, we aren’t arguing about climate change or the utility company’s responsibility. However, there is a deeper reality to recognize. In California, lawmakers prevented PG&E from raising rates on electricity. Without enough revenue to do maintenance, the power lines, transformers and other equipment got old and are now malfunctioning or not performing as they should. 

Whether it’s the fires, newspapers or values, instead of accepting the initial diagnosis, ask questions. Do a root cause analysis to better understand what’s going on. Another way to get below the surface is the 5 why’s. This simply means you ask why, listen to the answer and then follow it up with another why four more times.  

Be a leader who takes the time to thoroughly understand what is going on. Don’t get tricked by easy answers and solutions that treat symptoms but don’t solve problems.

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