How Do You Know When to Go With the Flow?

Option 1 _ Sometimes, the best thing to do is to go with the flow and let things play out.

Option 2 _ Sometimes, the best thing to do is to choose a desired outcome and lead others toward that outcome.

How do you decide?

In my experience, business owners have the tendency to choose Option 2. Owners get to decide the outcome they want and when passionate about that outcome, they choose to lead others toward it.

Similarly, professional CEOs, especially those leading PE owned companies, generally choose Option 2. They have a clear mission from the PE board, have incentives that are aligned with the board, and therefore choose to lead others toward their desired outcome, leaving as little to chance as possible.

On the other hand, my experience with executives is, it varies. And, since executives have both their careers to think about and their business to think about, they have two situations for which this choice must be made.

Some executives are willing, and actually prefer, to go with the flow, letting their owners or their boards, or their CEO decide the direction. This works best when the decision makers are in fact choosing Option 2, i.e. they are clear about the desired outcome.

  • But, what happens when the decision maker and those charged with implementing the decision are simply going with the flow? Is there even a direction, or simply a flow?
  • And, what happens when going with the flow provides financial rewards, but not psychic rewards. What then?

Everyone needs a purpose, a “why”. Some of us are comfortable deriving that purpose from others. Some of us need to set our own course.

The challenge for each of us is becoming clear which choice works for us and then putting ourselves into situations where we can be aligned with our choice.

Why Vistage Works

Elisa K. Spain


Not Asking Has a Price Tag

We Vistage chairs often talk about the importance of staying curious, of asking questions. Often as leaders we tell ourselves that the only “cost” of being directive vs. asking questions are soft costs. For example, we make assumptions that are wrong and have to start over when we learn we are headed in the wrong direction.

What about the hard costs of heading in the wrong direction?

What about when we as leaders, march into a new area, or start a new initiative, everyone follows, and we are headed in the wrong direction? Money is invested and then we have to start over. If only we had asked a few questions up front, we tell ourselves afterwards, the price tag associated with the failure might have been avoided.

This TED talk, titled simply, “If you want to help someone, shut up and listen!”, by Ernesto Sirolli, brings this point home in a global way. Ernesto Sirolli is a noted authority in the field of sustainable economic development and is the Founder of the Sirolli Institute, an international non-profit organization that teaches community leaders how to establish and maintain Enterprise Facilitation projects in their community.

What does this talk have to do with leadership? A lot.

What does it have to do with business? I’ll let you decide that.

Why Vistage Works

Elisa K. Spain

What If That’s Not How I See it?

How often are we in situations where what we want and what others want are not aligned? We make assumptions daily, mostly about other people. These assumptions enable us to take shortcuts and at the same time, they cause disagreement that perhaps wasn’t there to begin with.

  • We assume a person attended or didn’t attend an event because…
  • We assume a person responded to us a certain way, because…
  • We assume a person took an action or didn’t take an action because…

What if instead of assuming, we paused and asked:

  • What is the reason you made this choice or took this action?
  • When your customer complains about “service”, do you probe to understand what is really going on?
  • When we see something, as the TSA reminds us, do we say something?
  • When an employee behaves a certain way, do we ask what is going on?

And when what we want seems far from what “they” want, what if we asked and explored the possibilities..

Why Vistage Works

Elisa K. Spain

As We Search For What Matters, Must We Choose?

The Choice

The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
When all that story’s finished, what’s the news?
In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
That old perplexity an empty purse,
Or the day’s vanity, the night’s remorse. 

William Butler Yeats, 13 June 1865 – 28 January 1939

I came across this poem some time ago and was reminded of it in a recent discussion in my Vistage groups about “what matters”. Today we constantly talk about achieving balance; we perceive that it is the stress of modern times that creates this challenge. Yet this poem was written in the early 20th century. A reminder that this quest is the human condition, a daily challenge of choice. Here are the questions that come to mind:
  • Must we choose between success in life and work?
  • Or is it the search for perfection of one or the other that forces the choice? e.g. Albert Einstein was portrayed by his biographers as a poor husband and father. Was he, or was this the judgement of the biographers?
  • As we search for meaning in our lives, must we distinguish between what defines “life” and what defines “work” or is it possible to simply pursue what matters to us?
  • On this day devoted to mothers, what are you telling or demonstrating to your children about this question?


Why Vistage Works

Elisa K. Spain

Care, Attention, Competency

Care, Attention and Competency (CAC), these are the watchwords of the client service model for one of my Vistage member’s business. This business is in the construction industry and as he explains, bottom line of what they deliver is service, not construction.

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about the progression (regression) from Better, Faster, Cheaper to simply faster and cheaper. So where does CAC come in? Perhaps as several of my readers responded, the bifurcation is already happening, certainly in the consumer world (think airlines premium seats/status vs. economy/discount seats), and beginning in the B2B world. If this is so, then in order to deliver better, CAC must become the standard.

What exactly does this mean? For me it means, we meet the customer where they are, we provide care, in the manner they want us to show it. We give them our attention when they ask, and not wait until they demand it. And, we remind ourselves that competency, while the baseline, isn’t enough. In fact, studies show that customers who receive care and attention are more tolerant of errors, because they trust we will resolve them.

In short, CAC begins with the Golden Rule, and reaches it’s full value with the Platinum Rule. The Golden Rule implies the basic assumption that other people would like to be treated the way that you would like to be treated. The alternative to the Golden Rule is the Platinum Rule: “Treat others the way they want to be treated.”

Here are the questions I leave you with:

  1. Assuming the bifurcation is happening, where is your business on the continuum?
  2. Are you focused on Faster/Cheaper or are you seeking to differentiate by offering Better?
  3. How might CAC apply, or not, to your service delivery? And are you delivering by the Golden Rule or the Platinum Rule?


Why Vistage Works

Elisa K. Spain

Better, Faster, Cheaper

For many years, the adage was “do you want it right, on-time or cheap, pick two”. And then somewhere in the 80’s and 90’s, perhaps associated with the era, marginal costs moved close to zero in some industries. Because of this, we began to expect all three. In fact the new adage became “better, faster, cheaper”. And, some believed we had moved to an era where all three were in fact possible.

Or did we?

I wonder if instead, more and more businesses, driven by customer unwillingness to pay for quality, have simply picked two on our behalf, with the two being cheap and fast. We see this happening in B2B, B2C and B2Self (i.e. w/internal corporate customers) three examples:

  • Amazon delivers using their own drivers because they are cheap. Amazon made this choice because they believe what we consumers want from them is fast and free delivery and when quality of logistics suffers (packages left in strange places, in the rain, etc.), we are willing to accept that cost.
  • Airlines overbook and sometimes have to deny boarding to passengers or in a recent highly profiled United airlines case, remove passengers to accommodate crew. This recent scandal with United brought attention to the consequences of this (and while this particular situation captured on video was awful, we all know it isn’t just United Airlines that overbooks and removes passengers).
  • HR support and IT support is outsourced in many, perhaps most?, large corporations. Ask any employee or user of IT which 2 of the three choices they are getting?

In an article entitled “Why Flying in America Keeps Getting More Miserable” Matthew Yglesias of Vox news sums this up well when he says, decades’ worth of evidence suggests we prefer cheap and safe to pleasant. Pleasant, defined as available seats all the time combined with higher prices to cover the costs, is a price we pretty clearly could bear as a society if we chose to, but as consumers we have collectively and repeatedly chosen not to. Instead, wherever competition has reared its head in the industry, the mass market has aimed for low prices above all else, followed by a vigorous culture of collective complaining when something goes wrong.

Where will this take us in the future…

  • Will this trend toward faster and cheaper continue to drive most products and services?
  • If it does, will there be exceptions where quality is the driver? The obvious exception is medical products and medical care, or is it?
  • Will some markets bifurcate such that parallel services will develop where consumers are willing to pay for quality?

What are the implications for your business?

Why Vistage Works

Elisa K. Spain


And What About Our Own Resistance?

Whether leader or follower, we are all in the position of having change thrust upon us. Vistage Speaker, Mike Scott, responded to my March 19th blog (Is Resistance The Problem?), with the questions I asked, turned inward. Thank you Mike for this wonderful reminder of the responsibility we each have to notice our own resistance.

I justify my resistance when:
1) I resist when I don’t “get it.”
2) I think I know more than I do therefore I don’t actively listen. Then I resist. 
3) I think I heard all you said when I didn’t. Then I resist. 
4) I think I know what you’re going to say so I stop listening. Then I resist. 
5) I mentally criticize what you’re saying and how you’re saying it. Then I resist.
6) I really don’t know what you mean when I think I do. Then I resist.

I blame others when I should be asking, “What was my part in this problem that was created?”

In my workshops one of the principles is to have people repeat or paraphrase all verbal requests. I’m going to use this as the logical justification for repeating and paraphrasing. A new context.


Why Vistage Works

Elisa K. Spain

Is Resistance The Problem?

Leading change in an organization is full of challenges. Most of these challenges are associated with creating a vision, inspiring action, achieving buy-in, and sustaining the change.

And sometimes, we don’t take the simple steps to achieve buy-in. Put simply, everyone hears through their own filter. Therefore the actions we see may not be the actions we expected. Obvious perhaps, and yet when leading change, we sometimes think that things are not happening the way we want because people are resisting.

  • Sometimes, they simply didn’t hear
  • Sometimes, they heard, but we haven’t made the effort to help them see the value from their perspective, i.e. the WHY
  • Or what they heard is different from what I thought I said
  • Or they need to hear it more than once; 7 times I have been told is the magic number
  • Or they need to do it more than once, or even twice, to “get it”
  • Or we simply need to allow time for the change to settle in

So, next time, before calling out a “resister”, first pause and ask them what they heard.


Why Vistage Works

Elisa K. Spain

Continuous Improvement

Last week I talked about ratings and how we seem to have lost the purpose. So if ratings have taken on a life of their own, what do we do instead to foster continuous improvement?

In the manufacturing world there is the concept of Kaizen, brought to the U.S. by Edward Deming. It’s a simple concept that goes like this. Intentionally and continuously look for ways to innovate and improve your business processes. Employees, customers and other stakeholders can be a source of those ideas.

So, rather than give up on surveys, what if we turned them into something useful?

  • Instead of focusing on the ratings, what if we focused on the comments?
  • Instead of looking for what is wrong, what if we looked for what is right?
  • Instead of focusing on big initiatives, what if we encouraged our stakeholders to share ideas for continuous improvement?

Once we start collecting these ideas and small innovations, what metrics can we put in place to measure the results of our continuous improvement efforts?

Why Vistage Works

Elisa K. Spain

Vertical Silos vs. Multitasking

Lots has been written about the downside of multitasking. And research shows that when it comes to tasks, at least amongst pre-millennial generations, it doesn’t work. Working on more than one thing at a time, e.g. talking on the phone and filling out a form or writing a paper, doesn’t work. It actually takes longer to get both tasks done when we multitask because our attention is divided.

And yet as leaders, we must pay attention to both the content, and the context of each situation. Isn’t this a form of multitasking?

I was discussing this with a friend recently and he had the following commentary, “My view is that we don’t really multitask but hold vertical subject or action silos in our heads, and each time we get an update for that silo we mentally log it in, decide if it’s critical or not and then process the next data segment for another silo.”

For me this was an ‘ah-ha’. As leaders, we must do this type of multitasking. Information flows in throughout the day. Vertical silos help us determine how to separate the urgent from the non-urgent and the important from the unimportant. And, if we hold both content and context in a silo, we can remind ourselves when we must pause and address the context before we can make further progress on the content.

An example that comes to mind for me is leading a meeting, something we leaders do frequently and sometimes without thinking. In meetings, there are at least 3 vertical silos we must monitor throughout the session:

  • Most of us focus primarily on the content silo. We prepare agendas, prepare materials, ask for participation, assign tasks, etc. etc.
  • But what about the context silo? Is everyone present, fully present? What else may be going on in the lives of the people present that distracts their attention? How are people feeling about the subject matter and the time given for discussion? Are they feeling that they are being heard? I recently led a session where we gave an assignment and when we stopped the work at the end of the allotted time, the participants were visibly angry. Clearly we had not given them enough time. I wish context was so easy to read all the time. Most of the time it is subtle and if we don’t have that silo in mind, we miss the cues.
  • And what about the environment? Have you created an environment that makes the participants feel comfortable? Are the chairs comfortable; what about the temperature and ventilation? If an all-day meeting, or even a half-day, is there nutritious food so people stay focused? Or are you serving all sugar (e.g. fruit and bread products only) creating highs and lows and inadvertently impacting attention?

So, as you go through each day, I encourage you to think about your silos and ask yourself, are you logging into each of them appropriately?


Why Vistage Works

Elisa K. Spain