Key Strategic Skills Managers Must Master to Become Executives


Why do managers sometimes flounder when they become executives? One reason: their new role requires them to create a corporate strategy. It’s a task for which they have never been trained.

I have often told the tale of the just-promoted manager who, everyone soon discovers, was elevated based only on his technical skills.  As the rubber hits the road, it becomes clear that he is ill-prepared.

Another similar problem occurs when a manager is appointed to the executive ranks. All of a sudden, she finds herself sitting in a strategic planning retreat, failing to contribute. In the moment, she realizes that her well-honed ability to produce short-term results are of little value.

Now, she’s on her own as she struggles to uncover what’s lacking. If your firm recently promoted you to the highest level of leadership, here are three areas you must develop to be effective in creating strategy.

  1. Understanding the current environment

Whereas managers are encouraged to stay in their lane, put their heads down and ignore parts of the company that don’t apply to them, that advice won’t work for you. In this new position, you need to comprehend the entire company’s operations all at once.

This means far more than being able to fill out the names in an organization chart. Now, you must see the enterprise as a complex system in which only some of the cause-and-effect relationships are

explicitly defined. To gain this level of knowledge, you should study the functions you know little or nothing about, mastering jargon that’s unfamiliar along the way. Also, you should be able to explain how the company works in layman’s language to anyone who cares to listen.

At the start of a planning retreat, you’ll use this skill to bring your team to a joint understanding of the current state of the business. This includes all external trends which may impact the organization, ranging from disruptive technology, competitive threats, to changes in the economy. Your far-reaching, expert contribution is required to complete the exercise.

  1. Creating a Long-Term Target Year

Most companies promote managers based on their ability to produce short-term results through teams of direct reports. However, when they are faced with the challenge to create a corporate plan that’s 20-30 years out, they flounder.


As a manager, you knew how to set and accomplish goals you could control. By contrast, executives marshal forces they don’t control in order to hit long-term objectives. The longer the timeframe, the more skill required.

The benefits of such plans are well-established in management practice and theory. It’s not hard to realize that such efforts are the only way to safeguard your firm’s future.

But that’s of little help when you must complete such a task for the first time. Some newcomers to this process even rebel, complaining: “I can’t think that far ahead!”

Don’t be like them. Long before your promotion is finalized, look for (and create) practical learning opportunities to develop long-term plans. This will prepare you for the moment when your role as an executive requires you to craft visionary strategies.

  1. Envisioning Details

Most lower-level employees are satisfied by overarching vision statements which use vague language. They assume that leaders are effectively managing the next steps.

In your new position, you should go much further.

Now, you must describe a detailed, numbers-based vision of what will happen in the long-term target year. In other words, your team develops a picture of the future painted in concrete metrics such as revenue, EBITDA, headcount and market share.

Furthermore, to ensure that these figures are not just being made up, they need to be “back-casted” to connect with today’s results. While many are familiar with the idea from their days studying for an MBA, doing the task in a real group setting is quite a challenge. Once again, it’s best to practice this ability in advance.

Developing these three skills in concert prevents leaders from running off in different directions, investing time and effort in solo plans. The fact is, your organization is at risk if it doesn’t create a collective strategy which includes all the relevant points of view. If your team is poorly trained, expect it to conduct planning which is weak, leaving your company vulnerable.

Another trap is to dress up “More of the Same Stuff, But Just a Little Different” as a strategic plan. This is a cop-out—a way to avoid making hard choices based on the most recent information.

Don’t make this mistake. These skills are trainable even though they may be rare. Invest in them early in a manager’s career so they can be practiced long before their promotion occurs. It will save your company from producing weak strategies that ultimately endanger its future.


The High Cost of Low Turnover


Note – in this column, I have also prepared some audio notes to expand on some of the ideas that would not fit within the limits of text. Click here to listen in.

In most Jamaican companies, there’s an unquestioned assumption that long staff tenure is an indicator of strong company loyalty. Maybe it’s not. I suggest that as the economy grows it may reveal a deeper truth: these benefits occur with a high price tag.

As you sit at your company’s long service awards function, are you right to wonder if you will ever earn such recognition? Is it disloyal to reconsider the idea of sticking around the same company for decades? After all, your parents advised you to find a good job in a decent organization and cling to it for as long as possible. This was their metric of success.

Were they right? Or could company loyalty and its alter-ego, low turnover, actually be signs that something is wrong? Here are three underlying causes which confound the popular assumption.

  1. A Tight Job Market

The general perception has always been that a steady job is a ticket to a car, mortgage, family and stability. Without it, these accomplishments are said to be impossible.

However, the Help Wanted section of the Gleaner’s Classifieds has been anemic for decades. This sad fact has led employees to develop the skills of a barnacle – they have learned how to cling to their current employment for dear life. Their practices? Building alliances among colleagues while playing internal political games so that they can move around the company, finding one safe haven after another.

For most, this represents a standard operating procedure. When the odd individual acts differently, striking out for a better opportunity in the form of a different job or (God forbid) some kind of risky startup, they are seen as crazy. Once gone, they are forgotten – dismissed as aberrations. Managers simply search for new barnacles to replace the few who exit.

However, this may be about to change. As the economy improves, workers may begin to act on the fresh opportunities it affords.

I once stood in line at Trinidad’s Piarco Airport and watched as a customer service agent, announcing that “I can’t take any more of this,” simply picked up her handbag and walked off the job. At that point, Trinidad was at full employment. Her behavior was typical of a new attitude: anyone could leave a position, rely on the social safety net to handle their basic needs, and re-enter the workforce later.

Local companies should expect the same practice to emerge. It will reveal “loyalty” as a reflection of lack of opportunity, not true affinity.

  1. What Lef’ Mediocrity

But there’s a deeper problem. Today, a firm which is able to attract a Millenial hotshot can fool itself into thinking that a job offer is enough. Managers unconsciously believe that, once hired, she’ll behave just like her barnacled colleagues. In other words, she will cling around “waiting for her time to come”.

In reality, it eventually dawns on her that those who lead the organization, and seal her fate, are clueless. They have failed to keep abreast of developments in technology, their industry, and profession. As a result, they make a series of poor decisions which no-one in their immediate bubble is brave enough to challenge.

That is, until the young talent shows up and, like an Old Testament prophet, starts calling a spade, a spade…to no avail. As she’s ignored and excluded, she becomes frustrated and eventually quits. But it’s not her departure that’s the most dangerous act. After all, a replacement can be found.

Instead, look at what she leaves behind: an organization which systematically repels people like her, while simultaneously encouraging the barnacles to remain. It’s a recipe for perpetual mediocrity.

Survey your company to see if the talents who leave are the ones who challenge the status quo the most. If so, are they leaving behind a stale core of mediocre performers? Under these circumstances, rewarding the “What Lef’” for their “loyalty” is a terrible mistake.

  1. No External Value

Finally, if the new, growing economy doesn’t put your company under fresh pressure to retain employees, consider that it’s not because they are loyal. They just might not be valuable.

Most companies have too many insular people. They don’t keep their Linkedin profiles up to date…if they even have one. They have never crafted a resume. Their only email address was given by the company.

They may be the only ones who can run the firm’s obsolete XYZ machine in the entire world, but these skills are of no external value. Once again, this isn’t true loyalty.

Instead of being lulled into false accomplishments, push your people hard to become the best, while allowing them to pursue whatever career path makes sense. Putting performance over loyalty may probably increase turnover, but it’s a strategy which will pay off in better results.

P.S. Here’s that link to the audio once again.


The Missing Ingredient that Makes Meetings Drag


What can be done in your company to conduct fewer meetings of shorter length but higher quality? The fact is, bad ones take up precious collective time, diverting attention away from other activities.  Most complain that they represent a significant source of corporate waste.

A few years ago, I assisted in conducting an assessment centre for a client. This activity involved stress-testing the skills of a group of managers-in-training. We, the judges, observed them closely as they undertook difficult simulations, ranking their development needs in order to provide precise, individual feedback.

One of the exercises was intended to rate their ability to take charge, and structure a meeting. We seated the cohort of about twenty around a table and provided a written description of an issue. Their brief deliberately excluded even a hint of an intention.

For half an hour, they talked, unsure what the panel of observers expected. Perhaps they imagined we were looking at their interpersonal skills. No problem there – they quickly established a friendly, open tone.

However, never once did anyone question or suggest a purpose, intent or meaning for the discussion. Instead, they were happy to talk in circles, sharing a meaningless chat on company time.

Perhaps this never happens in your organization, but I suspect that you can relate. Have you ever walked out of a marathon meeting wondering what just happened? You saw a lot of words passing back and forth, but felt like something was missing: No new tasks? No accountability? No real promises? No due dates?

Somewhere, we have come to settle for a mediocre result: it’s enough to feel good at the end of an expensive gathering of busy people without having anything tangible to show for it. The cost in managerial and professional time? An abomination.

While some may say it all reflects a lack of discipline, I prefer Occam’s Razor: the most likely answer to a hard question is the most obvious. The simplest explanation is that when essential steps are skipped at the very start of a meeting, there’s no quick way to recover.

Is your company on a campaign to cut this ubiquitous form of waste? One basic approach is to implement the three steps of P.A.L.

  1. P – “Purpose”

The clearer the definition of success, the shorter the meeting. Skip it all together, and watch the time investment bloat, then slip down the drain.

In the stress-test I mentioned earlier, many participants shared that they wondered about the purpose but decided not to say anything. This left each person free to pursue his/her individual agenda, which was a guaranteed way to add more time and effort.

I advocate writing the objective on a wall for medium to large groups so that every conversant can point to it whenever needed. But often, that’s not enough. If you end up pointing to it frequently, consider it a sign that you may have skipped a step.

For example, you could be tempted to skimp on this activity because “everyone knows what the purpose is.” Instead of being impatient, take a deep breath. This is not a solo effort. Don’t dare move on to the next point before being satisfied that attendees are on the same page.

Tip: If the purpose is “the exact same as last time” then call a complete stop; either cancel or redesign the activity.

  1. A – “Agenda”

If the first step addresses the “Why” the second (and third) address the “How”.

What are the topics of discussion that will enable the meeting to accomplish the objective? Given the fact that every well-designed meeting has a time constraint, a decision must be made about what will, and will not, be discussed. Allow a consensus to form around the duration required for each topic.

  1. L – “Logistics”

Beyond the agenda there are often other requirements. There should be ground rules of engagement, as well as other practical matters such as ensuring the smallest attendance possible.

This is also a good moment to announce what’s being done differently in this meeting to improve quality. Keeping participants on the edge is important so that no-one is allowed to cruise to an unremarkable, mediocre finish.

Consider the cumulative cost of all meetings which end in this way. Unfortunately, most companies would rather cut payroll than address these issues. Why? Executives find it easier to cut heads than lead a collective behavior change which requires them to act differently.

In summary, PAL is by no means a complete list of all the points needed for a meeting’s success. However, I suggest these are core, mandatory elements which are most likely to destroy quality if excluded. Attend to them on a wide scale and your company can boost every single employee’s productivity.



Why Boards Need Their Own HR


Recent headlines are rife with reports of board members in trouble. Via poor actions or inaction, they have made deadly mistakes with awful consequences to themselves, sponsors and stakeholders. With their reputations in tatters, they resign, hoping to survive a scandal they helped to create. But are they always guilty of wrongdoing?

In fact, most organizations put board members in a precarious position. While the average staff member benefits from the nearby presence of human resource expertise, the same can’t be said of boards. Unfortunately, most people believe HR is only needed at lower levels. The implicit premise? “You shouldn’t be on a board if you don’t have the requisite skills.”

Perhaps, at some point in the past this was a safe assumption. Today, boards which are made up of (mostly) men in their 50’s, 60’s and 70’s who have known each other for years are anachronisms. The fact is, research shows that they are more likely to make bad decisions.

Recently, California passed a law requiring all public corporate boards to include women. This is no idle requirement as numerous studies show that diversity at this level improves performance.

In like manner, boards picked from the Old Boys Network will probably bring obsolete knowledge and stale skills. They just haven’t kept up with the times, exemplified by the 2018 guidelines for selecting boards issued by the Ministry of Finance and the Public Service. The document enumerates best practices that would, if ever implemented, produce an unforeseen high quality of governance.

This solves one problem but leaves another begging. What should Jamaican private sector companies do about dysfunctional boards?  The odds are high that the kind of trouble they face isn‘t technical, but human. What can be done?

  1. Get a critical mass to agree an issue exists

The initial challenge may be the hardest. Many board members have had little or no recent soft-skills training and it shows in the way they go about tackling issues. For example, most prefer to jump immediately into problem-solving activities, even when that approach has failed them in the past.

If a single member points out this fact and suggests that a new process be used, she is often ignored in the heat of the moment. “Navel-gazing – we don’t have time for that!” Yet, with the right perspective, it’s easy to see such an intervention for what it is: an appeal to enter a “meta-conversation”.

Aware individuals use this tactic to step outside the “What” (or content) of a discussion to examine the “How”: the way the conversation is being undertaken. As a tool for improvement, this soft skill is a critical one for boards to learn. It should be triggered whenever there‘s an impasse.

Unfortunately, being able to see the value of this particular suggestion is just a tiny step. In real-life meetings, people who try to intervene in this manner are rarely successful because they are acting alone. Furthermore, board members often use the same words to mean different things. When the discrepancy isn‘t clarified with a timely meta-conversation, conversations go in circles. Participants get tired and frustrated, eventually believing that the board’s failure is enduring.

It‘s not. A day of sound training would give them the keys to shorter meetings and quicker problem-solving.

  1. Getting help

Even after clarifying the problem at this level, some boards resist the idea of recruiting a trained, neutral party. They are embarrassed, thinking that a group of “Big Men” should be able to solve its own problems.

Once they get over their egos, an invited outsider can perform a transparent diagnosis that raises everyone’s understanding. This helps boards define additional skill and knowledge gaps the future is guaranteed to exacerbate. With gaps identified, board members can consciously place themselves in states of discomfort to learn these missing skills.

For example, most boards rely on voting. They see the technique as a time-saving way to make decisions, compared to trying for total agreement.

However, there is another alternative which can be used: “alignment”. It’s defined as a willingness to support a proposal even with doubts and misgivings. Some characterize it as a decision to move forward with an option which generates the fewest objections.

Picking up this practice isn‘t easy, although it’s shown to produce better outcomes. Expect an immediate struggle to ensue if your board decides to invest in this technique for its own good.

These simple examples point to a state of continuous and aggressive learning board members must assume if they hope to stay relevant. Unfortunately, when they lapse into prolonged periods of comfort around soft skills they invite the worst: the failure of companies and a major loss to stakeholders.





How Your Company Should Address Staff Engagement Questions


With regards to employee engagement, what do you do if your executive team can‘t agree?  Some see symptoms of deep disengagement, while others don’t. Suggestions for how to intervene go nowhere, stuff that used to work in the past no longer succeeds and other companies’ case studies seem not to apply.

As Tolstoy said in Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

My experience supports the notion that each company experiencing disengaged, disempowered employees is different from its counterparts. Here’s a way to find a unique approach for your firm.

  1. A Custom Definition

Unfortunately, most people explain disengagement using soft, psychological objects such as “motivation,” “mindset” or “vibes”. While these constructs are better than nothing, they aren’t quantifiable by the average business.

Instead, it’s much easier to focus on behavior which passes the Video Tape Test. That is, it can be captured by a movie camera.

With this new definition, bring your executives together to agree that a core set of behaviors (such as arriving late or being absent) should be taken as components of disengagement. This helps separate agreed-upon-fact from interpretation.

However, even after this definition has been created for your company, pause to explore an extra question: “Has a critical mass of employees always been disengaged?”

  1. Custom Interventions

If you can find the precise moment when engagement fell, immediately search for broken promises. As I have shared in prior columns, they pollute your company’s culture, causing even new employees to become disengaged in a matter of weeks.

While this task may be painful to undertake, the only remedy is to take responsibility for all violations of trust. Owning them publicly on behalf of executive teams past and present is the best way to make amends.

But it’s just the beginning. Construct a cause-and-effect diagram to list all the possible causes of disengagement. Once they are enumerated, conduct tests to see which ones are at play.

Use anecdotal, non-quantifiable data if you must. While your analysis may not reach an academic standard, it will work for business purposes.

Based on these analytic results, custom-design interventions to change behavior. But don’t be surprised if most of them fail. That’s just your way of weeding out false causes in your hunt for the few that yield the best results.

Don‘t stop there. Now, look for ways to embed new habits and practices in employees’ lives at scale.

  1. Custom Communities

Back in the 1970’s, Tea Parties and Fashion Shows were accepted ways of building communities around specific interests. Today, these anachronisms are stale.

By the same token, there are new channels and technologies being used to connect staff today, but many companies see these changes as one-time shifts, rather than permanent trends.

For example, the technologies most of us use every day to message others (i.e. email, Facebook and Whatsapp) didn’t exist in 1995, 2005 and 2010 respectively. They have changed the way we join with each other at scale, allowing us to reach far more people than we ever imagined possible.

However, most companies struggle and never catch up. Why? First, there’s an age gap. Most executives are in their fifties and sixties while their employees are in their twenties. They only have a superficial experience of the latest technologies, because the communities to which they belong don’t use them.

As a result, they don’t know how to build the kind of communities required to engage employees. Their ignorance is costly.

A few years ago, I worked in Trinidad and noticed every professional using Whatsapp. When I returned to Jamaica two years later, our professionals had caught up.

During that time, my year-group at Wolmers started a Whatsapp group. Prior to its existence, there was little individual contact and no communal activity.

Momentum built quickly and today the Class of 82 group includes over 50% of our colleagues from around the world. More importantly, this month we had our first reunion and donated a million dollars to the school. In summary, a community which was recently formed is now making a tangible contribution where none was expected.

Without the appropriate channels none of this would have happened. Does the same apply to your company? Unfortunately, if you aren’t using technology to bring together employee communities in just the right way, it’s unlikely that your custom interventions will amount to much.

Furthermore, building communities in the modern age is a moving target. You must be prepared to keep adapting the latest tools, thereby empowering people to maintain behavior changes. It’s the only way to get ahead of a disengagement problem which isn’t likely to fade away. If you use the right approach, you may be able to stay ahead, applying fresh custom solutions that produce sustainable results. 

Easy First Steps to Become an Enlightened Leader


Do the skills required to be a great leader spring from an inborn set of traits? Or can they be developed over time? Here’s a surprising answer – not only can they be grown, but they all come down to a single, rarely talked about ability that isn’t taught but certainly can be learned.

There are lots of articles with “Top-Ten-Skills-for-Leaders” floating around. They promise to answer a simple question – “How are leaders made?” – with a simple answer.

You may already reject the notion that there are one-size-fits-all solutions. No leader is complete, or perfect. They are all works-in-progress, even if they appear to already know everything and have the ability to accomplish anything.

Yet, few of us are deceived by such shows of bravado. Instead, most understand that professionals who manage, lead, captain or champion others can always improve their skills. If leadership is defined as “the production of desired results through the efforts of groups of people”, then it’s easy to see gaps. Everyone who steps up to this higher level of accountability is imperfect.

However, there is a way to be almost perfect.

In my book Perfect Time-Based Productivity, I quote Winston Churchill who said: “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.” If he is to be believed, then we could say that the best leaders see themselves in an ongoing process of growth. They consciously put themselves in situations where they must “change often” using the following three techniques.

  1. Repeated Discomfort

The few professionals who decide to lead and grow at the same time eventually realize that their next stretch goal is more than an obligation – it’s an opportunity to expand their skills. Consequently, they willingly sign up for the next plateau to conquer.

You may find them picking up optional challenges like marathons or part-time graduate degrees. While the rest of us struggle to keep up with everyday life, they invite added complications by committing to new, harder, more demanding goals.

They are restless: unable to sit on their laurels.

For example, a colleague of mine left his local degree program in mid-stream to go abroad to study. He switched majors, losing a year in the process. Why? He yearned for a new challenge, one that he found at MIT, where he was surrounded by others who were even more hungry. His switch worked, as they tend to, even when there were significant setbacks along the way.

  1. Finding a Coach

However, setting bigger goals isn’t the only method.

Few professionals see the value in paying someone else (a coach) to point out their weaknesses and push them out of their comfort zone. They have no problem seeing the benefit of sports coaching. But few have colleagues in the professional world who would do the same. Most are caught up in old thinking: “Anyone who needs such help is weak.”

I often answer by sharing that for over a decade, I benefited from the services of paid, trained coaches. On a weekly basis, they pointed out my flaws as a business-person.

As you may imagine, I gained the most when I set aside my ego, ignored defensive feelings and followed the expert advice. Being “coachable” was a proficiency in its own right I was pushed to improve in each conversation.

  1. The Best Skill of All

While setting challenging goals and having a coach are powerful methods, they are limited in their value if a third, overarching skill is missing.

If you can’t assess your performance ruthlessly, using insights into your blind spots gained from the initial two steps, you won’t get very far.

When I was lucky to do my first, structured self-assessment as a teenager, the tools were crude and paper-based. Today, they are better designed and available free online, but only the rare local professional does them on their own.

The one I did as a teen (the DiSC) gave me great initial insight into my preferred personality selected from four archetypes. Later on, in my early twenties, I did the more elaborate Myers Briggs Type Indicator. This assessment consists of 16 styles and offers more depth.

Consider both of these tests to be a first step in becoming a student of yourself. But not in the narcissistic sense. Instead, it’s possible to systematically look for faults, gaps in skill and flaws in character that get in the way of accomplishing what you want in life.

There’s even a second step; ask everyone you know to do these assessments also.  As you share and compare your preferences, your insights will deepen dramatically.

Together, these skills enhance your ability to drive your own growth via self-learning. It’s a powerful combination that can’t fail to improve your performance, no matter what your aspirations might be.

How Examining Core Assumptions Can Save Your Company


Why do disruptions drive companies out of business? While it’s easy to blame “innovative technology” or “tough competitors”, most firms hurt themselves by not following early warning signs which challenge core assumptions. Jamaican firms are particularly vulnerable.

Why? As mentioned in prior articles, our companies are overly leader-centric. While this is sometimes a benefit, it’s more often a weakness, especially when the big boss is the sole strategic planner. In such firms there are no real, bottom-up planning retreats – just ad-hoc announcements of the leader’s intent.

While the downsides of this approach are easy to imagine, specific blind spots are hard to detect.

For example, when I lived abroad I used to be a customer of Kodak, Blockbuster, and Blackberry. These were all dominant players, but today, it’s hard to find a trace of these firms or their products. When their industries were disrupted, they just disappeared.

While some point fingers at their aggressive competitors, that’s only a part of the story. In retrospect, they could have anticipated the changes that eventually wiped them out. Their blind spots prevented them from noticing what was happening.

This may be taking place in your industry, to your company.

Fortunately, research shows that in each firm there are usually a few mavericks who see such disruptions coming quite clearly. However, their insights often make little difference. They aren’t invited to retreats, sit-downs with the CEO or board meetings. Without their input, companies fail to see their blind-spots, and don’t tackle underlying business assumptions which are slow-moving, but inexorable. If your company is vulnerable to this mistake, here is an approach which will reduce the risk.

  1. Uncover Core Assumptions

Conduct an exercise in your next retreat to make a list of assumptions that are tightly held, but are not being discussed. They should be pre-requisites for your current strategy to succeed.

Unfortunately, there is no static set of assumptions sitting in an MBA textbook waiting to be copied. You will get better results if you allow your team to flounder as it struggles to uncover them.

I often suggest that teams find companies in their industry worldwide which are using the latest disruptive technology or business model. Look for the ones showing some early success.

Then, conduct a quick poll of your middle managers. Ask “Until what year is our company safe from this particular disruption?” Use the responses to see whether or not there is a wide range of opinions.

Now, perform the same survey, but restrict it to attendees at the last strategic planning retreat. If you don’t find consensus, question the validity of all your firm’s current plans. Furthermore, if your company is leader-centric, and has never conducted a real, participatory retreat, you should be even more concerned. You may be facing a battle for the future.

Use the answers to these questions to come up with a timeline, carrying forward either the average or the median year for planning purposes.

  1. Agree Upon the Timing

Conduct an open discussion with the help of a neutral facilitator, asking: “How will the events leading up to this disruption, according to this timeline, play out?” Allow the sparks to fly as different assumptions arise.

It may be a contentious affair, but it’s better to have this conversation now, when the stakes are low. Even if you fail to achieve perfect agreement due to a lack of data, the disparity in viewpoints will point to the need for a further step.

  1. Name Someone to Monitor or Track Assumptions

If your firm faces a complex set of data, don’t rely on “buck up” methods. Appoint someone with the right background to scan the horizon for breaking information. Better yet, give him/her a budget to do proper research. Empower the individual to sound an alarm as soon as a shift is detected in the data they are collecting.

In other words, look for the early indicators that your intended strategy or business model is in danger of failing. And do whatever it takes to bring this data to the planning team so they can do a rethink. After all, they are the ones who developed the original hypotheses and are in the best position to determine the size of the correction that’s needed.

Following these steps should give you the kind of early warning signs that your strategy and/or business model are likely to fail. It’s not necessarily bad news – just an indication that swift action is required.

This is especially true in leader-centric firms which have relied on the instincts of a single, stubborn individual. Help these strong bosses recognize that their original brilliance needs a dramatic, team-based upgrade if the company is to survive a potentially disruptive future.




On Making Workers Matter


In my line of work, I meet lots of employees who aren’t sure they matter. Logically, they say they should be valuable due to their role, background, responsibilities, pay, etc. Yet, in terms of their emotional experience, they draw a disturbing blank.

It’s no surprise.

For the most part, our society reserves overt acknowledgement for funerals. However, before then, we try to be careful not to “spoil” people with too much praise. “After all”, we argue, “we don’t want it to go their heads.”

While we are busy protecting them from this imaginary affliction, we rob staff of essential facts. They never know whether or not they matter: their presence, performance, attitude, body language, dress, etc. And in the void, they assume the absolute worst.

The Default – “I Don’t Matter”

Slavery relied on the forced acceptance of a lie.  Workers were sub-human, and owners acted to “de-matter” them daily.

Arguably, Jamaica’s history is driven by challenges to this rank, outrageous falsehood. Consider the labor strikes led by protagonists ranging from Sam Sharpe in 1831 to Alexander Bustamante a century later. These protests to overturn the de-mattering of people’s work were powerful enough to catalyse self-rule and independence.

Today, de-mattering continues, according to Dr. Kenneth Carter, author of “Why Workers Won’t Work – A Case Study of Jamaica”. Some 65% of employees consider their jobs to be unimportant in relation to the objectives of their organization. Also, 80% of workers report that they are rarely consulted about changes that affect their work.

Most leaders severely underestimate the depth of this sentiment. As a result, they treat subordinates just as they would their management colleagues, arguing “Those people know they matter.” Why does this mistake happen, based on Carter’s research?

The Challenge – New Supervisory Amnesia

Studies show that employees and managers alike give the same high priority to human morale factors: recognition, appreciation, feeling involved, promotion and growth. However, a switch occurs when someone is promoted to become a first-time supervisor.

Now, suddenly, the individual reports a change: workers (i.e. their former colleagues) only want tangible wages, fringe benefits and job security.

How and why this shift happens may be debated, but this new mindset is a definite downgrade. As it occurs, workers are de-humanized and de-mattered. Instead of friendly peers, comrades-in-arms or fellow strugglers, they become the opposition, merely assets or resources.

Furthermore, if you are a new manager, there is a benefit: de-mattering lets you off the hook, relieving you of the obligation to motivate employees.  After all, if there’s no money to give “dem people” what they really want, then you are powerless to make a difference.

Unfortunately, as pervasive as this mindset appears to be, I’m unaware of any training that makes use of this finding. De-mattering is never distinguished as the blight it is on the mindsets of new managers, so it continues to shape behavior, albeit in the background.

The Answer – New Skills

However, there are the exceptions.

The most effective leaders in all spheres of life go out of their way to interact with their people in ways that produce a feeling of “mattering”.

Some hug and kiss their employees or followers. They spend quality time with them, sharing personal details while asking about their families. A handful excels at remembering faces, names, and personal anecdotes. This rare skill gives others the impression of being connected, even after only a brief introduction. (Some use social media to cement this technique.)

Others apply honorifics: “Mr. Plumber”, “Boss-Lady”, “Run Tings”, “Super” or “Captain.” This Jamaican habit is a way of letting ordinary people know they matter. It broadcasts their importance publicly.

Finally, a few give “Brawta” –  inexpensive, thoughtful extras which build relationships beyond transactions. For example, I make a point to encourage clients to be bold in making additional requests of me. I explain that we don’t charge them by the half-hour like lawyers, so added time (within reason) doesn’t create a fresh bill.

Although these are individual tactics which don’t work for everyone, they all have the same effect: they leave other people with a feeling of mattering. The answer for you, a manager, isn’t to copy them blindly but to ask the following questions.

What can I do to grant the experience of mattering to others in my company? What experiments could I try to produce this effect? What personal habits do I need to eliminate which frequently de-matter others?

Don’t be like the majority who under-estimate their power. Compared to other cultures I have worked in, Jamaica is a highly leader-centric society. (It’s a feature expatriates notice quickly.)

The fact that you are being scrutinized grants you an opportunity to alter the way people see themselves. Use it wisely to empower and engage staff by using your daily actions to show people they matter.


Why IT Needs to Produce Chief Transformation Officers


Why is the average Jamaican company stuck in a rut, 5-20 years behind the best global firms? It’s partly because their IT professionals are locked into junior levels in their companies, unable (and incapable) of adding the value needed at the Executive Level.

Product development. Employee engagement. Customer service. Business process improvement. New prospect acquisition.

This is just a short list of the activities which are changing faster than managers of these areas can track. As a result, there’s a growing gap between their departments and those found in best-in-class companies.

Arguably, this is one reason why Cable and Wireless lost control of the mobile market, dropping from a 100% share to less than 50% in just a few years. My podcast interview with Steve Toomey (a former leader in their cellular unit who tried to warn others) reveals that key managers were overly focused on their day-to-day jobs. The busier they became in routine concerns, the further the firm slipped behind, and into trouble.

Individually, they lost the script. Collectively, the company incurred a disaster it still hasn’t recovered from almost two decades later.

What should your firm do to make sure it stays abreast of disruptive technologies in all areas? In most companies, people immediately think of the role of the IT unit. They are the most tech savvy, after all, and Chief Information/Technology Officers should be taking care of these matters. Presumably, they can fit these high-level concerns between hours spent fixing laptops, adjusting printers and resetting passwords.

They can’t. For any number of reasons, most IT Professionals aren’t providing the leadership companies need. Here are some ways to solve the problem.

Fix #1 – Appoint a Chief Transformation Officer (CTO) Armed with Emotional Intelligence

These technologists a rare breed. They have spent hours developing their interpersonal and change management skills, possessing an ability to take projects from concept to completion in agile sprints.

However, their role is more than that of a highly skilled executioner. As strategists, they must help create a culture which tracks every single technology the company can use to transform itself. As such, they can sit down with the board, HR, Operations or Marketing and lay out the future unfolding in industries, organizations, and pertinent functions.

They should help colleagues see the big, global forces which are independent of any company or country. Strong CTO’s go past mere technology and study demographic trends, among others.

This isn’t altogether new. Historically, board members have played a similar role. However, the pace of change combined with their high average age puts them at a significant disadvantage. They need a CTO to translate the emerging world for them.

Fix #2 – Create a Strategic Road-Map

Many successful companies in Jamaica were launched according to a simple formula. A new way of doing business perfected in a developed country was introduced to the island by a foreign company or a returning citizen. The entrepreneur gave birth to a fresh method or technology, successfully implementing the idea within Jamaican culture.

This formula allowed them to leapfrog over older, more established competitors who were unable to react. For example, imagine the first company to bring automobiles to Jamaica. The providers of transportation at the time (i.e. horse and buggies, tram-cars) were inevitably displaced.

Fortunately, your company can take a shortcut. Instead of waiting for a sharp competitor to reveal itself,  empower a CTO. This professional can seek out these changes and help each functional area develop its own 10-20 year road-map. Truth be told, the path to follow already exists in other countries.

For example, a VP of Human Resources must be able to predict what employee engagement will look like in the future. He/she should also understand what happens if a competitor solves this problem first.

Fix #3 – Carve Out Time

Foolishly, many CEO’s simply throw the role of CTO to someone who is already busy. Furthermore, they’ll expect their managers to develop these futuristic skills on their own time, in the “spare moments” between their daily responsibilities.

This approach never works.

Instead, they should use techniques like time-blocking on an individual and group level to dedicate the hours needed. This is just one powerful method executives need to raise the priority of this activity to its game-changing, company-protecting status.

After all, it’s only a matter of time before an entrant armed with new technology enters your industry and disrupts everything. Don’t sit back and watch. Prepare your company now by putting in place the right technologist, at the right level, with the right skills.

How to Forge a Breakthrough Using Cockpit-Quality Communication


After you spend precious time fixing a basic issue of miscommunication, how do you prevent it from recurring? Try borrowing the high standard of dialog used in the aviation industry.

Mistakes take place between executives, managers and staff every day. For example, after a chat with a colleague, you think she understands what you are asking for, only to discover (after the fact) that you were on different pages. The miscue retards progress, dashes expectations, and ruins deadlines.

You can prevent these problems by employing the high-performance communication used by pilots to keep airplanes from crashing.

Cockpit-Quality Communication

Experts have known for some time that most air accidents result from human error. Among the causes are poor-quality conversations between members of the cockpit. For example, flight data recorders show that junior officers frequently defer to their seniors, tempting them into withholding critical requests. To overcome the same kind of “humble” deference we Jamaicans value and practice every day, these aviators must be specially trained. They learn techniques for speaking and listening that overrides their cultural programming. These lessons ultimately translate into better safety.

While, as a manager, you may not be in the business of saving lives, the quality of communication in your firm is enough to separate profits from losses. How can you be proactive to overcome the deference, withholding and confusion that ruins your organization’s culture? One approach is to implement “Razor-Sharp Requests” and “Solid Promises.”

This kind of interaction was first introduced by John Searle, author of “Speech Acts”. He linked conversations with action, talking with doing, in an easy-to-learn way. When firms enact his principles in daily discussions via meetings and email, breakthroughs occur.

Razor-Sharp Requests

In essence, Searle discovered that successful conversations which lead to effective action follow a set process. They start with a spoken or written request, the kind that’s intended to elicit the completion of a task by another. You probably initiate many each day.

Unfortunately, for historical reasons, we Jamaicans frequently make obtuse requests. Whether you blame British colonialism or our history of slavery, the result is the same: we feel as if we’re being rude, brash and “out of order” when we ask for what we want in a manner that’s blunt, clear and direct. To overcome our internal unease, we introduce a lot of noise – unnecessary embellishments and vague hints. While we may think we’re being polite, we actually obscure matters.

However, there’s good news. When stripped to its essentials, all requests are alike.  They are 1) made to another individual, 2) always describe a task, 3) include a deadline, and 4) imply a “condition of satisfaction”, a clear definition of success.

For example: “As a reader of this newspaper column, I ask that you download a copy of my past articles by following the instructions below… within an hour of reading these words.” It’s brash, but transparent.

Now imagine training staff to make such requests in every direction, especially up the chain of command. It could reduce time spent wasted in meetings and on email.

Solid Promises

While you may think you are good at asking for what you want, the proof of the pudding is revealed by your recipient’s response, which should occur in the following three ways.

– Reply #1 is a clear “Yes”, matched by non-verbal behavior.

– Reply #2 is a “No”, or a half-hearted/reluctant response.

– Reply #3 is a counter-offer by the respondent, asking you (the initiator) to accept a variation of your original request. Examples include a change in the task, due date or condition of satisfaction which leads to a new agreement.

Everything else apart from these solid promises is just more noise. Indulging them obscures understanding and fosters errors.

Unfortunately, some Jamaican managers mistakenly believe that once they make a clear request of a subordinate, it must be accepted. They neither listen for one of the above three replies nor notice non-verbal signals.

This habit gets them in trouble, especially when coupled with wishful, optimistic thinking. Their lack of skill leads to the recipient either executing the wrong task or failing to respond altogether.

Multiply these errors across the company’s ranks and the result is a culture of talk, but little action.

Competency Development

The good news is your company can easily attain Cockpit-Quality Communication. When I joined an organization steeped in these methods, I felt clumsy at first. However, I soon learned to look for it in every meeting, coaching discussion or feedback session I attended.

In high-stakes occupations such as aviation and surgery, such “conversations for action” are a must. The cost of not using the technique is simply catastrophic. In like manner, if you are serious about achieving top results, adopt a blend of quality requests and promises to realize your company’s goals.

Francis Wade is the author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity, a keynote speaker and a management consultant. Missed a column? To receive a free download with articles from 2010-2017, send email to