Go First – The Secret Sauce Of Gaining A Competitive Advantage

Go first. That was one of the mantras I learned from my coaches when I was a competitive martial artist.

Whatever your current position, leader, individual contributor, employed or not – you are in a constant state of competition. You compete against other organizations for business, your peers if you are trying to get promoted, or other candidates if you are currently job seeking.

When I was competing, and hearing my coaches encouraging me to “go first”, they meant strike first, make the first move, play offense, or in other words, get out ahead of my competitor. This meant taking control of the physical space we were competing in, it meant controlling the momentum between me and my opponent, namely, get them playing defense and catch up. In a competitive match, I had to figure out how to do this, even when the match was not going according to plan. In other words, based on what was happening around me, I had to maintain high awareness, in the moment, and change as needed.

How does this apply to you?

Let’s focus on decision making. It used to be that markets and competitors moved so slowly, the playing field was so stable, that having a near perfect 10-year plan was a good recipe for success. We’ve facilitated thousands of hours of strategic planning and implementation sessions with executive teams and our clients execute th­­eir strategies at almost 8x the rate of most organizations. In this market, one where the earth is constantly shaking and disruptions are always happening, we don’t even take a client if they want to write more than a 2-year plan. A 10-year plan is obsolete, as is the company that tries to write one. Simply put, whatever plan you write will have less and less of a relationship to what you actually do as more time progresses. This too shall change.

We encourage our clients to decide and execute faster than their competitors. This means there are two things we want you to take away today for a competitive advantage;

  • If you have 60-70% of the information you need to decide, make a decision and begin executing. Don’t wait for 100%, adjust as you go. McDonald’s has shrinking market share because they can take up to 30 months to introduce a new food product. Starbucks is growing because they can bring a new food product to market in as little as 16 weeks. McDonald’s tries to make it perfect before introduction. Starbucks gets it mostly right, puts it in all stores, and makes rapid adjustments based on customer feedback.
  • Focus your resources on knowing when you as a person and/or the organization needs to change and do this faster than your competitors. Once you know a change is needed, change faster than your competitors. In short, you need to recognize the signals that you need to change. These can be things like; lower NPS, profit margin, or sales, when you see them, change rapidly to reverse your negative trend. If you recognize the case for change and change faster than your competitors, you will outperform them.
  • To wrap up, there are no perfect plans and even if you had one, your environment would change forcing you to change the plan anyway. So, gather as much information as you can, we recommend 60-70% and begin executing.

    When executing and as markets or the behaviors of competitors change, you must undo some of your past decisions to remain competitive in the current conditions.

    Lastly, realize both the case for change and change faster than your competitors. For decision making (and in most business cases) speed won’t kill. In fact, it will give you a competitive advantage.

    If you want more information on how to make better decisions, read the chapter Decide Already, Chapter 3, page 65, from our Amazon top-10 business book, Step Up, Lead In Six Moments That Matter.

    The Dos and Don’ts of Receiving Feedback Like a Pro

    Recently, I received the results from a 360 leadership feedback assessment. If you’ve participated in a 360 before, you’ll know that this means I, in an anonymous way, asked for feedback. It was aggregated and shared with me to increase self-awareness and for the purpose of my development. It was easy to ask for input, but hard to receive it – hard because it contained some constructive feedback that I did not want to hear. I can’t say it was a surprise – but it was challenging. After receiving it, I had a choice – accept and learn from this feedback or throw it aside saying, “these people do not know what they’re talking about.”

    If like me, you’ve been lucky enough to receive comprehensive feedback – like in a 360 or some other way – you have received a huge gift. You asked your colleagues, friends, and family members to give input for your own learning. They invested their valuable time and took – what for many people feels like – a significant personal risk to give it to you. Upon receiving it, you had the same choice I did – to learn from their feedback or to waste it. Sounds like an easy choice, but we all know accepting feedback gracefully, is easier said than done. It’s intellectually simple and behaviorally complex; especially when you don’t agree with the feedback you’re being given.

    The first challenge is simply accepting the feedback that is being offered to you as the reality or the lens through which other people view you. People deal with you based on how they perceive you, not on the way you think they should. If you accept their constructive criticism or critical feedback with that in mind, you will be starting to deal with your actual reality and not the reality you wish you had. This will give you a realistic platform to begin developing yourself.

    An often missed component of a 360 is how you respond to the people who gave you feedback. I suggest the following do’s and don’ts:

    Do say thank you. You asked your community for feedback and they gave it to you. Say thank you.

    When you’ve taken some time to metabolize all the feedback and decided what you’re going to work on, Do follow up with the people who gave you feedback. Let them know what one or two things you’re going to be working on from all the feedback you received. It might sound something like this: “Based on all of the feedback I received, I’m going to be working on managing my own defensiveness.”

    Do invite them into your self-development. It should be totally at their discretion, but a heartfelt ask can go a long way. This might sound like, “While I’m working on managing my own defensiveness I would love if you would tell me when you think I hit or miss an opportunity to demonstrate my new behaviors.

    Don’t ever go back and try and figure out who said what. Doing so will not help you and it jeopardizes the very nature of confidential feedback for everyone. Said another way, if you harass people who give feedback, they won’t be willing to give it to you or others in the future.

    Don’t defend yourself by pointing out where the feedback you received might be wrong. If ever there were a situation to approach with complete lack of defensiveness, this is it. This feedback is purely for your learning, just accept it. You don’t have to agree with it, but accept that this is how others view you.

    Over time, you’ll have the opportunity to change how others view you. Like many things in life, only time, dedication, and hard work will help them see you differently.

    3 Steps to Succeed in the Age of Agile Leadership

    Change your mind and the best will follow you; 3 steps to demonstrate agile thinking, in a way that makes people want to follow.

    If you are in a leadership role, you have a problem. Your people want you to communicate consistently and you are also expected to be agile in your decision making to keep up with the ever-increasing speed of business. This creates a paradox. On one hand, your people want you to be consistent and always do what you said you would do in the past. The company requires you to change what you think and say, based on the current needs. You and your people, and the company want the best possible outcomes in the future.

    When you are agile in your thinking, perhaps based on new information, it is likely that some of your people will say things like “that isn’t what you said two weeks ago” or “I thought you said we were going the other way”. This can cost you credibility if you don’t manage it correctly; here is how to do that.

    The top incentive plan consultants say that when you roll out a plan, you must set (and maintain) the expectation that the plan will change. They clearly state that, and include, “as we learn and/or market conditions change, if we feel that the plan has become unfair to employees and/or the company, we will change it. Expect changes 1-2 times per year”.

    I think this is good advice.

    Leaders are asked to provide reliability and consistency in what they say. This is great from a values perspective and may also be great for making the decisions that will best serve the organizations current needs. Like in our blog entitled, “3 Steps to Making Things Right After You’ve Made a Bad Decision”, we suggest that making the right decision isn’t always easy.

    Please consider the following steps to follow when you are making and announcing decisions.

  • Stand by your decision. Tell people something like, “I’ve thought this through with you and others. We have many different opinions and a few weeks ago, mine was the opposite of where I stand today. I’m not sure this is the right decision and here is what we are going to do….”. Or, “I know that I used to argue that we should pursue option one. Based on new information, I’ve changed my mind and we are pursuing option two…Sometimes there is no decision that is “obviously right”. If you are dealing with one of these, be transparent.
  • Seek understanding, even if you don’t get agreement. Try saying, “I know you think we should have made a different decision and I respect that. I’m not asking you to wake up tomorrow and agree that this decision is the right one, I am asking you to understand that right or wrong, this is what we will be doing.”. Don’t apologize for the decision, stand in it with both feet.
  • Ask for commitment. Try saying something like, “Knowing that if you had been responsible for this decision, you would have made a different one, I’m asking if we can still have your full commitment and effort. I value the excellent work that you do and I’m asking that you bring your best effort and full capability to this work. We need your talent on this project and I’m asking if you will bring your best to it?”
  • In short, be consistent in what you say when it comes to your values. Change what you say when market conditions and/or your thinking changes around decisions. The agile leader knows that changing their mind is part of staying current and your best people know that.

    3 Steps to Make Things Right After You’ve Made a Bad Decision

    Hi, I’m Henry and I make bad decisions sometimes. I’m guessing you do too.

    Have you ever noticed that when you are collecting opinions before you make a decision, some people are giving you their opinions with disclaimers? They say things like, “I may be wrong and consider this…” or “I’m glad I’m not making this decision and if I was, I would….”. These people may seem afraid to make a decision and they may also be wise. The fact is that until you experience the outcome of your decision, you don’t know if it is right or not. As they say, time will tell.

    Other times, people have strong opinions and say things like, “you should do…” or “the only choice is to…”. These people may sound more confident and, at the time the decision is being made, they don’t know any more than the first group. They might be right and again, time will tell.

    Once some time passes and resources are spent, you find out if you were right or not. When you were, you feel like a hero and when you weren’t, you feel like a zero.

    You can leverage the situation for improved performance in the future. To do so, try these steps:

  • Be vulnerable and admit your mistake. You were wrong, trying to cover it up with excuses will lose you additional credibility. Instead, try saying something like, “I thought this was the right decision at the time and clearly, I was wrong.” Or “At the time I made this decision, I was sure it was the right thing to do and well, clearly it wasn’t”.
  • Don’t make it a bigger deal than it has to be, and move on. Put another way, sometimes, things are as big of a deal as you make of them. Try saying something like, “now that we’ve clearly established that this was the wrong decision, who will join me to help identify what we’ve learned and as a result, will do differently next time?”. It is a powerful leadership move to reverse the momentum of the discussion when everyone is focused on a problem.
  • Share the learning; You have taken the first two steps in admitting you made the mistake, the final is take a lesson from it. Identify the stakeholders who may have been affected and communicate your learning and/or new plan of action to them. Make a list of who needs to know about it and use the following framework for communication.
  • It might sound something like this:

  • Be vulnerable, admit your mistake: “Hi, you probably heard by now that I made the wrong call on how to lower our inventory levels”.
  • Don’t make it a bigger deal than it has to be, and move on: “I spoke with some advisors and we learned that the software platform we used does not do a good job of tracking inventory levels while you are operating the facility you are counting in”.
  • Share the learning: “As a result of our learning, we are instituting ½ day shutdowns of any facility we are counting inventory in, and only during the time we are counting. I thought you would want to know. Is there anyone else we should let know”?
  • Everyone makes mistakes, not everyone learns from them. As one of my martial arts coaches used to say “a loss is not a failure if you learn from it”. When you make a mistake, you have a chance to turn your loss into a lesson.

    3 Steps for Mastering Diversity at Work

    Simply put, diversity in the workplace might make you struggle with others.

    Most of us like the idea of diversity in the workplace. Our research shows that you are likely to support the idea that having diverse thinking will “help the organization”. You may feel diversity helps drive better decisions and makes each day more interesting.

    If you are like most people, you are lucky enough to work with some percentage of people that you like. At the same time, you are likely to work with some people you don’t like. This is the reality of working with others; some we like and some we don’t.

    What makes us like some people and not others? One way we decide is by listening to, and then quickly judging people by how we interpret their ideas. For example, if you meet someone who votes for the same candidate you like, you believe you must be talking to a smart person, one you feel you will “like”. If you meet someone voting for the opposing candidate, you may dislike them on some level.

    Simply put, people believe that others who think like they do, are smart. This means, a big reason why you like some of the people you work with, is that you like their ideas.

    Let’s re-think diversity. Your day to day work-life might be easier if everyone at work thought like you did. It might also be painfully boring and limit your ability to grow yourself or contribute to the growth of others. A lack of diversity will also limit the competitiveness of your organization. On the other hand, a little healthy drama when discussing ideas will help you produce better results and make life more interesting.

    Real diversity in the workplace means we rise above “tolerating” other people’s opinions. When we hear an idea we don’t like, we replace our judgment with curiosity. Instead of thinking, “that’s a bad idea” we ask, “would you tell me more about how you arrived at your opinion?”.

    Here are 3 steps for inviting and leveraging diversity in thinking;

  • Invite someone who thinks differently than you to join a brainstorming discussion. When they offer a contrarian idea, thank them, “It is exactly this type of thinking that made me want to invite you to this discussion, thank you for saying that”
  • Re-state or paraphrase the ideas of others, before inserting your own (conflicting) opinion. In short, say, “what I hear you saying is that we should reduce inventory levels in order to increase cash flow” instead of saying, “I think we need to increase inventory levels”
  • Invite someone who thinks differently to challenge a specific idea. This sounds like, “I think it makes sense for us to have people work overtime this week to finish our product launch. What do you think I might be missing and why might this not be a good idea?”
  • Think of this as a real-world test of your values around diversity. If you like to tell people you believe in Diversity, show them that you live this value by inviting and appreciating the input of others. This will harness the power of diverse thinking for your organization.

    For more on this concept, you can read chapter two of our Amazon Top-10 Business Book, “Step Up-Lead in Six Moments that Matter”. If you want to learn more about living your values, watch our blog entitled “Values, Would you go to Jail For Yours?”

    5 Things High Performers Do (and Don’t) Say in the Workplace

    Think about the most impressive people you’ve worked with. What was it that made them special? It probably was a combination of several qualities: personality, results, attitude, and, I suggest, the words they choose to use in critical discussions.

    Our company’s mission is to always leave our clients better than we found them; so today, let’s look at language you can use to make a great impression on your co-workers, while giving yourself and your organization a competitive advantage.

    Since 2003, we’ve had the benefit of working with some of the highest-performing organizations, teams, and individuals in the world. We’ve worked with governments, non-profits, and, of course, for-profit organizations. We’ve delivered our concepts in over 80 countries. Young, old, male, female, across different industries and, no matter their country of origin, the most successful people we’ve encountered always know what to say (and, of course, what not to say) in order to build the strongest relationships, while driving the best results.

    We teach dozens of high-performing behaviors; but for now, let’s focus on five behaviors and the language you might use for each of them.

    Situation One: Managing time for what is most important. High performers allocate their time according to what is most important, adjusting as necessary as they proceed. Instead of saying “We don’t have time to do this”; challenge your team by saying “Let’s manage our time so we are able to get this done”. Always be willing to drop less important things in order to deliver excellence on what is most important.

    Situation Two: Willingness to take on a tough task. High performers are constantly seeking ways to successfully accomplish their tasks and projects, especially when the situation is challenging. Rather than “We can’t do this”, ask “How can we get this done?”. Always maintain a high orientation toward solutions.

    Situation Three: Encouraging and engaging others in the cause. High performers work to inspire others to accomplish tasks as a team. Instead of speaking poorly about a co-worker by saying “He doesn’t care about this”; try asking “How can we encourage or inspire him to care about this?”.

    Situation Four: High performers invite results over effort. Instead of saying “Have you had a chance to work on that report for the CFO?”; ask “What actions have you taken to generate the report we owe the CFO?”. High-performing language is precise, direct, and results-oriented.

    Situation Five: Demonstrating humility and the desire to learn. High performers have a contagious belief in their ability to learn; so, instead of saying “I know how to do this” (when you don’t), try saying “I’m currently learning how to do this” or “Together we’re learning how to do this”.

    This is a small sample of the high-performance behaviors we teach; and, if you practice any one for the next month, you’re very likely to be perceived as a person who delivers impact, value, and inspiration for your team.

    4 Steps to Build Your Most Important Relationships

    The people you RELY on most, may not be the people you LIKE the most. Let’s look at how to create a framework for separating, measuring, and responding to this paradigm with a plan of action.

    This coaching exercise is inspired by Dr. Colm Foster (my co-author of STEP UP. Lead in Six Moments That Matter), and also by my colleague and New York Times best-selling author, Dr. Marshall Goldsmith. They both state that you must be really clear about exactly who are the 5 to 10 people most important to your career, and nurture these relationships above all others. Today, we’ll show you some ways of doing this.

    Step One: Make a list of the 5 to 10 people at work you really LIKE to interact with, showing how they relate to you. These are the people that make you smile when you see their name in your inbox, on Slack, or dialing in on your phone. Please write them down now. When you are finished, your list should look like this:

    like

    Step Two: Now, make a list of the 5 to 10 people you RELY on most to be successful in your career. Some of these people are defaults. (For example, you have no choice about listing your boss.) You should also list any direct reports. Now, think about the peers you rely on most, customers and/or vendors. You’re not listing departments or companies; you are listing individual people. Write them down. When you are done, your list should look like this:

    need

    Step Three: Assess the status of each relationship, using our traffic light system. GREEN means the relationship is great, so keep it going without any need for immediate attention or action. YELLOW means proceed with caution, or slow down. This might be due to some recent struggle or lack of attention. Perhaps this one needs some time for reflection. (You might ask this person “How do you feel about how things are going between us?) RED means the relationship is tense, unproductive, and/or clearly in need of some work. Stop what you are doing and make a plan to improve this relationship. For help on any of your relationships in RED, you might want to watch one of our blogs on Emotional Safety™

    Step Four: Decide what you will do to build and strengthen the relationships you need the most. Will it be an offer of help? Providing a resource? Checking in with them? Starting a new behavior? How about stopping a behavior? When you are finished, your list should look like this:

    Although this concept is easy to understand, with our busy schedules it’s not always easy to find the time required to invest in the relationships we rely on most for our success. Again, it is important not to confuse the people you like the most with the people you need the most. You must pay attention to the ones you need the most; and there is a clear return on investment when you follow through on this. For more on how to do this, watch our blog entitled Reversing the Polarity of Communications for Better Business Results; or our latest blog on Generating Empathy.

    4 Steps To Making Lemonade Out Of Losses

    As a former competitive martial artist, I learned at an early age that sometimes, despite all of your training and preparation, losing will happen.

    In our business, we help teams formulate and execute strategies designed to give them a competitive advantage. While on that journey, our clients sometimes make mistakes, or, as in athletic competition, they experience losses.

    How does this apply to your team?

    Though you and your team may train properly, and create a winning game plan, sometimes, even when executed properly, you will still lose. Unforeseen obstacles, unanticipated variables, or even plain bad luck will prevent you from achieving your desired outcome.

    As a martial artist, my coaches taught me a mantra that we often teach our clients. A loss is not a failure if you learn from it. In this context, a loss is a lesson. With this in mind, let’s discuss how a team failure can become part of achieving better business results.

    Plan for failure. As part of your planning process, accept the reality that not everything you try will work out the way you intended. Use a mantra like ‘fail fast and fail cheap’.

    Reward what we call ‘new and innovative mistakes’. Wow us, show us a flaw in our process that no one had anticipated. However, if a team or individual is making redundant mistakes we still want them to have a job, we just want them to have it with a competitor.

    Celebrate your ‘failures’. Each time you record a ‘failure’ you have harvested and identified something that you should stop doing or do differently. Celebrate these milestones as part of your continuous improvement process. Create an environment of Emotional Safety™ for those times when your people do make mistakes.

    Learn from the mistake. As a result of what you learned, what will you and your team begin to say, do, or think about differently? What is a process improvement that you will make? Bottom line: Make a process improvement.

    Some teams we’ve worked with go so far as to award and incentivize strategic losses. You can give awards such as ‘Most Innovative Attempt to Succeed’ or ‘New Lesson Engineering Award’.

    We teach our strategy clients that the two keys to being more competitive are 1) Be faster than your competitor to recognize the need for change; and 2) Make that change faster than your competitor. If we were to add a third, it would be to learn from mistakes faster than your competitor.

    To summarize: any person or organization that wants to drive innovation, must make the acceptance of failure an acceptable part of the culture. To put this another way: Start thinking about new and innovative failures as lessons.

    Losses and mistakes are not failures when they are generated; they are made into failures when you refuse to learn from them or make improvements as a result of them.

    Emotional Safety™: The Key to Making Smart Decisions

    Informed people make the best decisions, and, as a result, add the most value to their organizations.

    Whatever job you have and whatever your level of authority, your people are relying on you to be informed about your function, no matter whether you’re CEO or packing and shipping on the warehouse floor. No matter where you sit or what you do, other people count on you to know your stuff.

    In short: Your co-workers want you to be an expert; but what makes an ‘expert’? An expert may have earned that reputation through a combination of training, study, work experience, observation, or ongoing learning.

    We suggest that part of being and remaining an expert is linked to being fully informed about your role; meaning that your knowledge goes beyond the day-to-day responsibilities of your job. It means you know where your work comes from, why your work exists, and that you understand the needs of your stakeholders. In addition, it means knowing how others see you as an employee, boss, vendor, or co-worker.

    This is where our concept of ‘Emotional Safety™‘ becomes important. Most people find it easy to approach you to share good news about your performance or behavior. They also find it easy to tell you when you’ve done something well. But what about the times when things aren’t going so well? What if someone wants to give you constructive criticism? We suggest that the easier and more rewarding you make it to bring you ‘bad’ news, the more informed you will be.

    Simply put: Emotional Safety™ means you make others feel comfortable in bringing you bad or challenging news. If you master Emotional Safety™, you will be going beyond making them comfortable in approaching you, and actually make them feel rewarded and appreciated for doing so.

    So, when someone points out a problem with your plan, thank them. When someone suggests that you behaved badly during an interaction, thank them; and, when someone challenges your opinion, acknowledge their thoughts and thank them.

    For stronger relationships, dealing with feelings before facts will get you deeper, more rewarding and more productive relationships. It will also promote better business results.

    One of my colleagues, Dr. Tim Turner, ran the Emotional Intelligence Development program for the FBI. Early in his career as an agent, Tim noticed that the agents who solved the most cases were not the tough guys you see in the movies. Instead, they had a way of making others feel comfortable. Even when interrogating a suspect, the agents created an experience of Emotional Safety™ for that person.

    So how can you bring this about in your work? By collecting as much data as you can (even the stuff you don’t like hearing about) so you can make fully-informed decisions.

    Think about it this way, just because people aren’t telling you how you can improve, doesn’t mean you don’t need to improve, because we all do. It is more likely to mean that they’ve had an unrewarding experience with you, and, as a result, they’ve started to withhold information from you. If too many people do that, you’ll still have the same decision-making authority; but you’ll be deciding in an uninformed way, making you dangerous to your organization.

    For more on Emotional Safety™, read our Amazon top-10 business book, “Step Up–Lead in Six Moments that Matter“, co-authored by Henry Evans and Colm Foster. The last chapter is focused on creating Emotional Safety™ for everyone, which will foster better business results.

    Mastering Empathy in 3 Easy Steps: Building Better Relationships and Business Results through Managing Conflict

    Let’s see if we can sharpen your empathy skills in 4 minutes or less.

    Empathy, simply put, is expressing your understanding of how another person feels, leaving them feeling understood and heard. This is easy to do when you share their concern or care about their issue. It’s not so easy when you don’t care.

    Has someone ever told you about a problem or brought you a complaint that mattered a lot to them and didn’t matter to you at all?

    Perhaps you found yourself thinking “this isn’t a real problem” or “I can’t believe they are worried about something like this”.

    Perhaps you don’t care about their opinion because their facts are completely wrong. Let’s roll with that example.

    Suppose you and I work together and you don’t like working with me. This dislike has built up to a point where you are going to tell me about it. You say “Henry, I don’t like working with you because your hair is too long and I feel like you are always brushing it during our meetings.”

    These facts are obviously wrong and if I had to go to court to argue against them, it wouldn’t take me long to persuade the jury and win the case. But what happens to our relationship if focusing on the facts is all I do? If your frustration energy was high when our interaction started, and all I do is argue the facts, it will most likely increase your negative charge, leave you even more frustrated, and permanently damage our relationship. So, how to fix this?

    STEP ONE: Put their feelings before their facts. Try to remember a time when you didn’t want to work with someone and remember how that felt. Do that right now. You are probably naming feelings like “frustrating”, “unmotivating” or even “de-energizing”. If you can remember your feelings, you are halfway to creating a meaningful human connection with this person. Now all you have to do is express your understanding by saying something like:

    “It sounds like working with me feels frustrating and you really don’t want to do it anymore. I too have felt the same way about a co-worker, and I don’t want you to have that experience with me.”

    • Now, for STEP TWO: check in with the person to see if they now feel understood.

    If they nod, or say “Yes, that’s what I meant”, they are feeling de-energized, more objective, and relieved that you understand them. Now you’re both ready to discuss the facts.

    STEP THREE: When approaching the facts do what we call “using curiosity in lieu of judgement”. Instead of saying “You’re wrong because look, I’m bald” say “What led you to the opinion you just presented to me? I want to hear more about your perspective.” If your relationship is strong enough for some humor, you might ask “Really? Tell me, what color is my hair?”

    For stronger relationships, dealing with feelings before facts will get you deeper, more rewarding and more productive relationships. It will also promote better business results.