Dave Ulrich: A third interview by Bob Morris

Ulrich, DaveDave Ulrich is a Professor at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan and a partner at the RBL Group, a consulting firm focused on helping organizations and leaders deliver value. He studies how organizations build capabilities of leadership, speed, learning, accountability, and talent through leveraging human resources. He has helped generate award winning data bases that assess alignment between strategies, organization capabilities, HR practices, HR competencies, and customer and investor results.

He has published over 200 articles and book chapters and over 25 books on topics of HR, leadership, talent, and organizations. He edited Human Resource Management 1990-1999, served on editorial board of 4 Journals, on the Board of Directors for Herman Miller, and Board of Trustees at Southern Virginia University, and is a Fellow in the National Academy of Human Resources. He has numerous lifetime achievement awards for human resources and leadership. He has consulted with half of the Fortune 200. He is married with three children and six grandchildren.

His latest book is Leadership Sustainability: Seven Disciplines to Achieve the Changes Great Leaders Know They Must Make, a fourth collaboration with Norm Smallwood, published by McGraw-Hill (March 2013).

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Morris: When and why did you and Norm Smallwood decide to write Leadership Sustainability?

Ulrich: We (Norm Smallwood and our colleagues at the RBL Group) have been on a 20-year journey to establish a leadership intellectual footprint. We started with the question “why”: Why is leadership important? We discovered the obvious, that leaders make a difference to employees, and the less obvious, that leaders drive customer and shareholder value. We then moved on to the “what” question: What makes an effective leader? Synthesizing 10,000’s of studies, we wrote the Leadership Code about 5 key rules leaders must follow and complemented this with the Leadership Brand about how customer expectations should drive leadership actions. But, even after refining these ideas, we found a lot of leaders who wanted to be better (why) and who knew what to do to be better (what), not making becoming better. Leadership Sustainability focuses on “how”: How can leaders do what they know they should?

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

Ulrich: Many authors have addressed the “making it last” themes in studies of personal, organizational, and society change; but few have pulled together these diverse ideas into specific disciplines accessible to leaders who want to implement what they know they should do. We like doing taxonomic research which means finding simple patterns in complex processes from multiple fields of inquiry. We believe the 7 disciplines we propose drawn from diverse literatures can be applied at a very personal level. We realize that what is simple is not easy to do. As I leader, I may know that I should listen more and I have known this for many years, but it is not easy to do. Our work helps turn what leaders know they should do into what they actually do.

When we run leadership workshops, we often ask three questions: [1] how much do you believe that leadership matters for the success of your company (or how committed are you to becoming a better leader)? Most score 8, 9, or 10. [2] what do leaders in your company need to do to improve (or what do you need to do to improve)? After a short pause, most identify a couple of things they know they should improve. [3] how long have you needed to make these improvements … 3 days, 3 weeks, 3 months, 3 years, or 3 decades? After a longer pause, most admit that the improvements they need to make are not new, but lingering for a long time. We then turn to the disciplines in Leadership Sustainability to help these aspiring leaders actually accomplish what they know they should do.

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

Ulrich: We struggled with the book to NOT make it a generic change book. Our early chapter drafts were about “build a need for change”. Then, we realized that good leaders already realize that they want to become better. While they want to improve, they may lack the discipline to do it. At the end of most leadership improvement initiatives (training, coaching, performance review, 360, etc.), leaders have “to do” lists that do not get done. We find that the ideas in our work can be appended to any of these improvement initiatives to make sure they have full impact. We have prepared a leadership app (STARTME) that can be applied to any leadership improvement effort to help make things actually happen.

Morris: You suggest that leaders matter but that leadership matters [begin italics] more [end italics]. Please explain

Ulrich: Leaders are individuals who set direction, execute goals, manage talent, build future talent, and demonstrate great personal proficiency. We can almost always identify individual leaders who impacted our personal lives or the direction of organizations where we work. Leadership is about the collective or shared leadership within an organization, not tied to any single individual. While an individual leader may set a direction, the shared leadership often takes primary ownership for enacting that direction. Leaders matter, but leadership matters more. When a leader becomes the focus of attention of an organization (e.g., a celebrity leader), the organization often becomes depending on this single individual. But, when a leader surrounds him (or her) self with individuals who each lead in their own sphere, the organization is stronger. As organizations become more complex and global, individual leaders cannot do the work alone; they require leadership throughout the organization who collectively makes things happen.

Morris: Both individual change and organization change are very, very difficult. Why?

Ulrich: Psychologists have suggested that 75 to 80% of what we do as individuals is out of habit. As individuals we cocoon our lives into a personal lifestyle that reinforces those behaviors. Changing personal habits is very difficult because the habits often have long history and serve a personal purpose. Some of the habits have negative consequences (e.g., addictions) and some have positive consequences (relationship building). Replacing old habits with new ones requires enormous personal commitment. Likewise, organizations have patterns that shape the identity of the organization and how organizations operate (e.g., make decisions, share information, manage people, handle conflict, and so forth). Studies show that organization transformation efforts have a 25 to 33% success ratio as organization routines become entrenched. These organization patterns can be changed, but they are often ingrained and reinforced. As people, we have limited tolerance for change and high need for order where we can predict the future from the present.

Morris: To what extent does organizational change depend on the willingness and ability of those involved to change? Please explain.

Ulrich: Without a need for change, change will not happen. The need can come from danger (we are in trouble) or opportunity (we could do better) in the short or long term. Most leaders who want to improve see opportunities ahead of them if they can upgrade their leadership skills. Leaders who have primarily worked in domestic operations realize that in a global world, the capacity to consider global conditions and country subtleties will enable them to lead better. Well-designed leadership assessment and development processes help leaders recognize areas they can improve to be more effective. However, even wanting to change and knowing that we should change do not guarantee change. I have struggled much of my adult life with weight. I know that I should eat healthier and I even know what healthy eating looks like, but it is very difficult to do what we know we should.

Morris: What are the most significant differences and similarities between environmental sustainability and individual sustainability?

Ulrich: The concept of environmental sustainability began by considering the context of the organization. The concept of leadership sustainability begins with recognition that what matters is the impact of the leader’s actions on others—not just what the leader does or means to do. This addresses the natural human tendency to judge ourselves by our intentions while others judge us (and we judge others) by behavior. Environmental sustainability is about caring for the earth’s resources by reducing our demand for things that cannot be replaced and our output of harmful things that will not go away.

Leadership sustainability is about caring for the organization’s resources by adapting and changing leadership patterns so that they are consistent with shifting requirements. Environmental sustainability has shifted to a social agenda through giving back to the community through corporate social responsibility initiatives. Leadership sustainability occurs when leaders take personal responsibility for ensuring that they do what they say they will do, with beneficial results. Environmental sustainability has further evolved to become a long-term commitment to changing the world in which we live and work and to creating a new culture inside the company. Leadership sustainability is a lasting and durable commitment to personal change and creating a culture of leadership improvement that affects all leaders in a company

Morris: To what extent are the challenges that leaders face today significantly different from those leaders faced when you faced when you published Results-Based Leadership in 1999? Please explain.

Ulrich: When we wrote Results Based Leadership, we were responding to the challenge of leaders improvements focused on changing behaviors, without delivering employee, organization, customer, or investor results. We found lots of leaders who worked to build their personal attributes (e.g., emotional intelligence, authenticity, communication, etc.), but did not tie these attributes to business goals. In the last 15 years, most leaders have come to realize that without results, attributes are false hopes. In our leadership sustainability work, we realize that both attributes and results must endure. Effective leadership is not an event (e.g., a town hall meeting), and not even a pattern (of communication protocols), but an identity that lasts over time.

Morris: You identify and examine seven disciplines that leaders need to achieve and then sustain leadership development. Which of the seven seems to be most difficult to master? Why?

Ulrich: We culled the seven disciplines of sustainability from personal change, positive psychology, organization change, and leadership derailment literatures. We like to think of these seven disciplines as a menu of ideas that can be helpful. Almost all leaders do some of the seven disciplines well; but most leaders overlook a couple of the disciplines and thus fail to realize their full potential as leaders. One of the most common mistakes leaders make is the first discipline: simplicity. The often-held assumption is that as the organization gets more complex, the leadership response has to be divergent and multifaceted to respond; when in fact, more complex demands often require more convergent and simple responses.

Morris: Long ago, Oliver Wendell Holmes observed that he “would not give a fig for simplicity on this side of complexity but would give his life for simplicity on the other side of complexity.” You and Norm seem to agree.

Here’s my question: By what specific process can one get to “the other side of complexity”?

Ulrich: We totally agree. Organizations go through dynamic process of divergence, where they encourage diversity of thinking and seeking new solutions, but then they need to experience convergence where they focus on the few critical actions to make progress. Staying at the divergent level overwhelms people with choices and dilutes attention.

We like to think about this process in the form of a diamond. At the top of the diamond is the initial problem, which has no preconceived solutions. To solve the problem, it’s necessary to collect data about possible ways to resolve the problem. This requires divergent thinking to seek alternative ideas. However, the bottom of the diamond creates convergence where shared solutions are defined. To focus and drive sustainable action, a leader must frame the information. This allows complex data to be understood as part of a pattern.

One key to effective framing is to find common patterns to organize diverse ideas. For example, a leader attends a training program and learns lots of concepts, frameworks, ideas, and tools. These options can be transferred from ideas to practice by finding the patterns in the complex ideas. We like to look for underlying concepts that simplify complex ideas. To create a typology, ask, What do these concepts have in common? How do they differ? What are some common underlying dimensions that can be used to organize the ideas?

Morris: Here’s another of my favorite quotations, this time provided by Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.” Your response?

Ulrich: We love to create a four cell grid. The two columns simply say are we doing things right or wrong? The two rows suggest are we doing them well or poorly? We then ask people to identify the best cell to be in (Cell #1, right things well) and the most dangerous cell to be in. Many pick cell #4 (wrong things poorly), but we disagree. We think cell #2 is the most dangerous. When we do the wrong thing well, we often keep doing what we know how to do, even if it is the wrong thing to do. And, in a rapidly changing world, inevitably the right thing to do becomes the wrong thing. Staying in Cell 1 requires continuous reflection to unlearn and undo what is done so well. Cell 1 requires continuous reflection to unlearn and undo what is done so well.


Morris: Why should change initiatives be framed into clusters? Are there any especially important do’s and don’ts to keep in mind when attempting to do that?

Ulrich: While details matter and often determine success over time, it is impossible to recall all the details required to sustain change. Clustering means finding patterns among the details. I was trained decades ago as a numerical taxonomist, which means doing large statistical studies to find common patterns. It is easy to get lost in the minutia of data, but to make sense of it and to turn data to insights and to actions requires finding stories or patterns in the data. In analytics today, leaders have access to unlimited and unprecedented reams of data. To find patterns, they should start by being very clear about the question: What decision do I (we) need to make to help myself (our company) succeed? What information will help me make this decision? Or, when looking at lots of data points, ask: What is the meta-message or story that can be drawn from this information? What are the few themes that make turn this data into insights?

Morris: What are the “Four 3s” and how can they help to achieve time consistency?

Ulrich: Time is the best test of leadership commitment. Where we spent our time signals what we are committed to doing. The four 3’s are a simple way to organize our time. If a leader wants to improve in a particular skill, start small:

o What can I do in three hours? This means getting started

o What can I do in three days? Persist, keep at it, even when the new behavior feels awkward

o How can I make sure I do it for three weeks? We are told that in three weeks, we being to rewire our brain and our self-image begins to shift?

o How can I dedicate myself to three months? After three months, others begin to change their expectations of us and our desired behavior is reinforced by their expectations.

This simple discipline of 4 3’s helps leaders turn events into patterns and then into identities.

Morris: I also realized long ago that, although many (most?) people claim to be in favor of personal accountability, they are unwilling and/or unable to accept it. Why?

Ulrich: We all like performance management when things are going well and the performance management leads to positive consequences. But, when things are not going well, performance management creates a personal mirror which reflects how we are doing. Too often, there is a tendency, when things go wrong, to find excuses (the market collapsed, bad weather, new technology) or to blame others (I did my part). While both statements may be true, they absolve leaders of personal accountability. Wise, and sustainable leaders, run into mistakes with simple yet profound insights:

o I made a mistake. I did what I thought was best under the circumstances, but it did not work
o I am sorry. Sincere personal apologies may be seen as weaknesses, but in fact show leadership courage
o Here is what I learned: Insights from successes and failures show an ability to learn and to grow.
o Here is what I will do differently: As leaders learn, they reinforce the learning by what they do.

We have coached many leaders to run into their mistakes so that they can move beyond them (and probably make new mistakes in the future).

Morris: How best to establish and then sustain a “flow” of performance measurement?

Ulrich: The basic steps for performance management are straightforward:

1. What is expected? Leaders need clear standards about what they are expected to deliver (outcomes) and how they are expected to deliver them (behaviors).

2. How will I (we) know? Standards must have metrics. Without measures that track meeting or missing standards, leaders never know for sure how they are doing.

3. What happens if I meet or miss the standard? Consequences matter. Some consequences can be positive and some can be negative, both financial and non financial. Some companies claim to have a differentiated workforce and to pay for performance, but their average salary increase is 3% with a range of 2 to 4%. These are not significant consequences

4. How do I receive feedback (and feed forward) on how I am doing? Some of the loudest feedback leaders give employees is none. If an employee behaves poorly or well, and the leader does not confront or acknowledge it, the employee does not know how they are doing. Leaders also give feedback, especially when they say nothing.

If leaders can follow these four basic steps, performance management becomes less of a bureaucratic paperwork annual process, and more of a leadership style that enables leaders to help their employees work better.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of a “leader tracker”?

Ulrich: When we were on a safari on South Africa, our guide would look into the dirt, grass, and leaves and predict where we could find animals we wanted to see. Leader trackers don’t literally look into dirt, but they collect predictive data about what might happen in the future and use that data to drive new behaviors. There are any number of lead indicators leaders should define and test. If I know that customers who fill out customer satisfaction surveys are more likely to buy more products or services, then I work very hard to get a high response rate on these surveys. If I know that employees who refer a friend for a position at my company are much more likely to stay at the company themselves, then I work to get referrals from my most talented employees who I want to keep. Leaders should also be asking about the lead indicators that cause outcomes they care about and focus on tracking those results.

Morris: What is the significance of “real-world melioration”?

Ulrich: We could not find one work that captured learning and resilience, then we stumbled upon the word, “meliorate” which means to constantly improve by overcoming the past. Good leaders learn by experimenting, continuously improving, seeking new ideas, and gaining new competencies; but they also learn by being resilient and having the emotional capacity to try again. In recent psychology studies, people are successful with “grit” which is resilient and the ability to keep at something even when it does not go well at first. So, some companies do not hide from failures, but publicly share them so that others can learn and be encouraged to take risks (not the same failure over and over, obviously).

Morris: In your opinion, what would be the major drivers in an [begin italics] ideal [end italics] workplace?

Ulrich: In our book Why of Work, we identified drivers that created an abundant work environment. They included:

1. Act with humility not arrogance.
2. Create value and make your values explicit.
3. Focus on service not self-interest.
4. Encourage and be open to ideas.
5. Build personal relationships.
6. Be a hands-on leader.
7. Empower others (vs. enfeebling them).
8. Communicate more, not less.
9. Run into conflict.
10. Manage the workspace.

Morris: Within Table 9.1 (Pages 239-241), you identify the “Sustainability Factors of Top Companies for Leadership.” Are these factors relevant to [begin italics] all [end italics], whatever their size and nature may be? Please explain.

Ulrich: We were privileged to participate in the study for Top Companies for Leadership with Aon/Hewitt and Fortune magazine. We found that the best companies for leadership invested heavily in human resource practices like recruiting, moving high potentials, succession planning, employee development, differentiating performance, and investing in leadership. These investments signaled to employees inside and customers and investors outside that the company is committed to building sustainable leadership.

Morris: If those who read your book get nothing else out of the material in the final chapter, what do you and Norm hope it will be? Please explain.

Ulrich: Simple: Do it.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read Leadership Sustainability and is now determined to establish or improve the development of leadership sustainability at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise. Where to begin?

Ulrich: Some CEO hints might be:

o Invest as much time thinking about how to sustain the desired leadership as creating it (e.g., more time is spent creating competency models than implementing them)

o Make sure that the leadership training that is done turns into measureable, accountable, and observable outcomes. This might mean fewer leadership training programs but more impact per program.

o Publicly acknowledge your personal improvement goals as a leader and share how well you are doing in making them happen. Ask leaders to do the same with their groups.

o Spend 20 to 25% of your personal time on encouraging and building future leaders: visit with high potentials; actively engage in leadership training, be involved in career plans and succession planning, do performance reviews for your employees, spend time listening to employees.

o Continually follow up to see if what you expect is happening. The follow up need not be harsh or bureaucratic, but make sure that you create an expectation that people will do what they say promise.

Morris: For more than 25 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 Leadership Sustainability, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Ulrich: Leaders of SME’s (small, medium enterprises) should be even more concerned about leadership sustainability. They do not have the luxury or resources to squander on anything that is not immediately tied to results. So these SME leaders should be constantly anticipating customers and working to serve them well, cajoling and motivating employees to do their best, and positioning their companies for the future. But, the key is to develop a leadership reputation that you will do what you say you will do. Your word is your bond; your rhetoric is your resolve; your aspirations will be your actions.

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

Ulrich: Great and very thorough interview. We believe leaders make a difference for good (or bad) in the world. When leaders can sustain what they intend, they are more likely to create abundant organizations where employees thrive and customers and investors get great returns. Leaders matter. Leadership matters more. Leadership sustainability matters most.

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Dave cordially invites you to check out the resources at the RBL Group’s website. Here’s a link.

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