Samuel Bacharach on “The Agenda Mover”: Part 2 of an interview by Bob Morris

Posted on: March 3rd, 2017 by bobmorris

Samuel B. Bacharach is the co-founder of the New York City based Bacharach Leadership Group (BLG) and is also the McKelvey-Grant professor in the department of organizational behavior at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR). Working with BLG he has developed programs specifically focusing on the behavioral skills leaders need to move agendas through the maze of organizational resistance and inertia. Believing that leadership is not about charisma, personality, or simply vision he has created leadership programs for multi-nationals, academic institutions, and non-profits empowering individuals at all levels with the political and managerial skills necessary for executing innovation and change. He is a columnist at Inc.com and a frequent keynote speaker at conferences and corporate events.

His latest book, The Agenda Mover: When Your Good Idea Is Not Enough, was published by BLG Books, in association with Cornell University Press (August 2016).

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Now please shift your attention to The Agenda Mover. For those who have not as yet read it, hopefully your responses to these questions will stimulate their interest and, better yet, encourage them to purchase a copy and read the book ASAP.

First, when and why did you decided to write it?

A graduate student came to my office one day having read an academic manuscript that I wrote and said, “Why don’t you write a book that is written the way you speak?” I was a little astonished, but lo and behold, it opened up a path. For a long time I appreciated most leadership books were about everything but execution, and that execution is about two simple things: mobilizing support for ideas and not dropping the ball—that is, seeing those ideas to fruition. It is about moving agendas, and looking around that is what lack. In our organizations, in our political system we keep talking about leadership with a big “L”. I write about leadership with a small “L”—those small skills that anyone with a decent idea can use to move that idea forward.

Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Yes, that we need to democratize leadership. As long as leadership is in the realm of charismatic and heroic personalities, we exclude most of the world. Leadership, as I define it, are having the political skills to move an agenda—to execute—and giving people the capacity to lead in spite of who they are not because of who they are. I’m talking about the skills that can level the field and giving all the chance to prove their capacity.

To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Not significantly different, but it is incomplete, and I am about to finish writing two other books. I hope that what people understand is that this book is relevant not only to individuals moving their careers but also to organizations trying to develop a cadre of leaders that can bring the corporations to the cutting edge. In my next books I will drill down to why organizations need this type of leaders and how others skills such as negotiation and coaching can be used to enhance agenda moving capacity.

A C-level executive at IBM once told me that the greatest challenge he encounters upon arrival at the office each day is [begin italics] defending [end italics] his agenda, not moving it. Is that a common occurrence? Please explain.

Whoever the executive you spoke to is has a real problem, i.e. defending versus moving his agenda. Moving an agenda is winning support for your idea. The C-level executive should be concerned with justifying his agenda, establishing the credibility of his ideas, and getting the buy in. What he has to do is fight for the legitimacy of his agenda. Anyone who sees this as “defending” his agenda shouldn’t be a C-level executive.

What are the defining characteristics of an effective agenda mover?

In the book, I specify a lot of particular skills an agenda mover needs. That said, there are three elements that are necessary before the skills can be implemented. First, an agenda mover must really not get into the ego game. It is one thing to have confidence. It’s quite another to become ego involved. Second, an agenda mover has to be politically empathic. That is, deeply understand the agendas of others. Third, an agenda mover needs to be disciplined and focused, and not assume that there are shortcuts to getting things done. In the book I give the specific skills they need, but without these prerequisites I don’t think anyone can be an agenda mover.

To what extent (if any) does someone’s location within an organization’s chain of authority determine the limits to their moving an agenda? Please explain.

For too long we thought that organizations are run by authority. I’ve been in numerous organizations over the last 20 years, and the authority structure and the ability to wield authority plays only a small part in the organizational game. I’ve seen engineers in remote locations receive the essential backing they need to move an innovation. I’ve seen corporate CEOs, with all the authority you can ask for, who completely blow it. Organizations are arenas of influence and persuasion. With the appropriate skills, one’s location in the authority structure should not be an obstacle or a handicap. It may present a challenge, but with the agenda mover skills, it can be overcome.

To what extent can an individual change agent move an agenda?

Let me ask this differently. To what extent does a person who thinks they have no power move an agenda? The future of organizations to a certain degree depends on the answer to the question. Think of this scenario: you’re a young engineer working for a multinational. You are working on a particular project and you begin to understand that there is a possibility of a new product in a new market, but there you are, sitting in rural Kansas knowing that your corporate headquarters is not going to listen to you. The support you need can only be provided by a team located in the Research Triangle in North Carolina. Meanwhile, your boss does not want you to take any time off to focus on this new idea. What do you do? You begin to become politically competent. You begin to understand the microskills we’ve been talking about and you begin to win people over and slug your way through as you move your agenda. The future of great corporations is this democratization of leadership.

In which situations is a team of change agents more effective than is an individual?

Change and innovation are brought about by individuals working in teams. We make this false dichotomy about individuals and teams, as if individuals will be usurped by team participation. The trick is to make sure that leaders work with their teams in such a way that individual contribution is not subjugated by groupthink or team domination. Leaders who assure psychological safety of each team member, that is, feeling that no idea is too crazy, that no one will be put down and all are welcome is a way to assure that there is room for individual creativity in a collective setting. That said, there is a point at which the team can process things to death ad infinitum. In this case the leader needs to take charge and make sure the agenda moves ahead and isn’t drowned in a pool of endless debate and reexamination.

To what extent is an agenda a “work in progress”?

You don’t want anyone leading with only one agenda. Most leaders have multiple agendas at any point in time. Juggling and prioritizing agendas is the essence of leadership.

How to know when to modify or replace an agenda? What are the early-warning signs?

At a certain point, when you’re a leader and everyone is pointing at you, maybe you should think of the story of the emperor with no clothes. I believe in focused, determined leadership, but when everyone says the emperor is naked, it’s time to get a new set of clothing. Agendas are moved with the collective.

How best to build a consensus? What are the most important dos and don’ts to keep in mind when doing so?

First of all, it depends on what you mean by “consensus.” The best way to reach consensus is to know you don’t need everyone in your corner. You just need most of the best people on your side and you can roll it out. Consensus is often built by minorities gaining traction, and is built in incremental and continuous fashion. As your ideas continuously gain legitimacy and evolve, the consensus will build.

You suggest a four-stage process to move an agenda: Anticipation, Mobilization, Negotiation, and Sustainability. Which stage seems to be the most difficult to complete? Why?

I think it’s not what is most difficult, but what is most important, and I think it’s mobilization. You may have a great idea, but if you can’t mobilize support and overcome resistance you won’t be able to establish traction. Leaders who don’t understand that the key to leadership is about mobilizing support and have the implicit political support cannot lead and certainly cannot create change.

You identify and discuss “four agenda stereotypes.” What are the defining characteristics of each? First, Tinkerer

The organizational dialogue about bringing about change and innovation occurs with four mindsets. Tinkerers are those individuals who believe in change, but in a small, incremental, step at a time fashion. Those folks are the ones who will be accused of shifting deck chairs on the Titanic.

Overhauler

Overhaulers believe that unless we revolutionize and do it quickly the world will collapse. They are the Chicken Littles who say the sky is falling.

Planner

The planners are those who will take on challenges, but will never muddle through and always construct a frame for their action.

Improviser

And then the improvisers who figure they’ll get on top of the problem when it’s in their face. These four styles are essential to understand if you’re going to come to grips with resistance to your agenda. If you understand of how people approach change, you have to figure out what box, or combination of boxes they fit in.

You also have much of substantial value to say about the importance of gaining support for an especially important initiative. For those who have not as yet read your book, how to manage support when it is active?

A critical aspect of moving agendas is to gain support. You have to master the skills of credibility? How to you manage your credibility and the credibility of your ideas? How do you justify your ideas? Do you do cost-benefit analysis? Do you look at best practice? What else can you do? And, how do you get the buy in? How do you make it clear what they have to gain or lose by joining your effort.

Gaining support is a very mindful exercise in the implementation of these skills. That doesn’t mean you need complete support. Sometimes it’s enough to have passive support, so they won’t resist or sabotage your idea. All too often the politically incompetent try to win everyone over and get full-throated support. Sometimes polite indifference (passive support) is enough.

If there were a Rushmorean monument to honor the greatest entrepreneurs throughout U. S. history, who would be your four nominees? Please explain the reasons for each selection.

You don’t have a big enough mountain! Most are invisible and we rarely hear of them and almost never celebrate them.

Why is scoring small victories (i.e. seizing low-hanging fruit) so important within a competitive marketplace?

Leaders sometimes get obsessed with winning it all. Putting it in place and claiming a big victory. But, as in life, it’s the small victories that are essential. The small steps, the incremental moves that will gain support for your agenda, legitimize your ideas, and make sure that consensus is established over time. Great change leaders understand that small victories that create traction are the most important.

For more than 30 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in The Agenda Mover, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

That their company will only grow if everyone in the company is an agenda mover.

Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

This is the longest interview I ever had. The only question is, ” How’s the weather in Dallas?” It’s miserable in New York.

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Sam invites you to check out the resources at the Bacharach Leadership Group website. Here’s a link.

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