Jeff Wolf: An interview by Bob Morris

Wolf 1Jeff Wolf is one of America’s foremost executive business coaches, speakers and management consultants.

Prestigious Leadership Excellence magazine named him one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders for his accomplishments in leadership development, managerial effectiveness and organizational productivity. His strategic focus on solving corporate and human issues has garnered continuing raves from myriad global organizations. Jeff’s first book, Roadmap to Success, with management gurus Ken Blanchard and Stephen Covey, is now in its second printing.

His latest book, Seven Disciplines of a Leader: How to Help Your People, Team, and Organization Achieve Maximum Effectiveness, was published in November 2014 and has been named one of the 11 most thought-provoking leadership books of 2014, was cited as one of the three books small business owners should read by the Small Business Forum and will be translated and published in China in late 2015. According to Wiley publisher, Richard Narramore, “this book has the potential to become a standard text on leadership for organizations around the world.”

Featured on NBC, CNBC, CBS and Fox, Jeff understands what today’s leaders demand: business acumen, leadership skills and common sense, all of which produce extraordinary growth. Whether he’s working with world-class organizations or small businesses, Jeff’s clients — including Sony, AT&T, Samsung, GE, Abbott Labs, CVS/Caremark, URS, Citibank, Qualcomm, Ace Hardware, Hyatt, Baxter International, Cummins, Pfizer, Tupperware International, Thomson Reuters, Monsanto, General Mills and hundreds of others – know where to come when they want to retain the best advisory talent. As founder and president of Wolf Management Consultants, LLC, Jeff has built a valued practice that addresses the critical problems confronting businesses today.

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Morris: Before discussing Seven Disciplines of a Leader, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Wolf: My parents. They provided me with guiding principles and moral values as a child that have stayed with me throughout my life. They taught me that anything you put your mind to may be achieved with hard work. My father was not an educated man, but he had people skills that were second to none. I never realized how important that attribute was until I was much older and in the business world. He was a great listener who made people feel good about themselves.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Wolf: Fifteen years ago I was a CEO and working 14-16 hours a day which obviously affected my personal and family life. I made a decision to spend more time with my family and left the corporate world to become an executive coach, consultant and speaker which allowed me to have more time with my family. Now, in my coaching of high-level executives, one of the problems that usually arises is work-life balance which is easy for me coach them through.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Wolf: Have fun and don’t take everything so seriously!

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

Wolf: I can think of two. The first is The Company Men, where a large conglomerate closes its shipbuilding subsidiary and releases some its top executives, who then start their own shipbuilding company from scratch. The movie demonstrates how poor leadership principles damage organizations and how effective leadership principles can be applied in both the largest and smallest organizations to achieve successful results.

The second is Too Big To Fail, a movie about the market crash of 2008 and how the country’s top bankers team with the Secretary of the Treasury to prevent an economic disaster. Their leadership truly averted a financial catastrophe.

Any leader or potential leader can learn a lot by watching both films.

Morris: From which business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Wolf: Here, as with film, I would say two: One of the great classic books on leadership and management is The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People written by Stephen Covey. As describes it, Covey’s book “has transformed the lives of Presidents and CEOs, educators and parents— in short, millions of people of all ages and occupations.” Stephen’s book encouraged me, for one.

The other book, Up The Organization, by Robert Townsend, retired CEO of Avis, is a wonderful insight into how executives should guide their companies, written in plain down-to-earth language that is refreshing to read. The subtitle says it all: How To Stop The Organization From Stifling People And Strangling Profits. It’s been on the market for 45 years and it’s still as valid today as it was then.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Wolf: This quote expresses the core principle of my book. Involve your people, train them, provide them with the necessary tools to accomplish their mission, and encourage their active participation in the direction of their work groups. This is the essence of great leadership: the ability to inspire your people so they consider their personal involvement essential to company success. Miracles result.

Morris: From Howard Aiken: “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”

Wolf: I think what Aiken was implying is that a lot of people, top executives included, are often stuck in the rut of doing things today and tomorrow the way they were done yesterday. The truly innovative thinkers in the executive suite understand that fresh thinking is necessary to cope with the ever-changing conditions of the marketplace, and that change itself is a required constant of company success.

Morris: From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

Wolf: Dawkins was quoting somebody else. He claimed that statement was a seductive generalization that has led many people astray. As Dawkins expressed in Edge “Although it is true that hindsight can recognize accepted norms that were once dangerous ideas, it is also true that most dangerous ideas from the past neither deserved nor received eventual acceptance. It is not enough for an idea to be dangerous. It must also be good.” I can second that. It’s been my experience that all new ideas must be evaluated on their merit, not on their cachet.

Morris: From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”

Wolf: Asimov was in a better position to evaluate that statement than me. I can say that whatever the insights sparked or words spoken at a breakthrough moment in leadership and management, the hard work that follows is the criterion for acceptance and success.

Morris: From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Wolf: Good point. I might not call it hallucination, but vision without execution is certainly meaningless. And nowhere is it more meaningless than in business where achievement trumps insight without accompanying actions.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Wolf: What Drucker was pointing out is the difference between effectiveness and efficiency. Effectiveness is doing the right things, while efficiency is doing them well. There’s a world of difference between the two. The leader’s job is doing the right things for his or her organization, while employees in operations have the responsibility of executing plans as efficiently as possible to meet operating budgets.

Morris: In one of Tom Davenport’s recent books, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

Wolf: That comes back to my response to the Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching quote. In my opinion it is both foolish and self-defeating to consider that any single person is responsible for the success of an organization. The most successful organizations are those whose leaders understand that to get full commitment from their people they must ask, encourage, and welcome their active involvement in decision-making for their individual work groups and the company as a whole.

Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

Wolf: I agree that it is crucial to question our deeply held assumptions by testing them constantly, because penetrating questions may reveal unpleasant surprises. For example, a salesperson for a company in the leather goods industry worked the same territory for thirty years and produced what the company considered to be top-drawer results consistently, quarter after quarter. When he retired, the new salesperson, a rookie straight out of college, took over the territory and doubled sales in the first year and tripled sales the year after that. When the company looked into the matter it soon discovered that the retiring salesperson had been coasting for years.

Morris: In your opinion, why do so many C-level executives seem to have such a difficult time delegating work to others?

Wolf: Look, when you’re fully invested emotionally in your company and dedicated to your job, the natural tendency is to try to control everything. That’s just natural. But the careful leader will divest themselves of those feelings and learn to share responsibility. It’s a learning process, and to arrive at that point where the leader balances control with delegation takes some time and a lot of effort.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Wolf: I couldn’t agree more. It’s been my experience that people accept change and learn more through examples (stories) because they listen more attentively. I think the lesson to be learned here is that when training people and helping them learn new concepts, it’s much better to use examples (stories) every step of the way.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Wolf: Probably the most important step in the process of acceptance of the new order—and it is a process—is to involve everybody affected by the change from the very beginning not through discussions of the mechanics of the process—that comes later– but instead through explanation of why changes are necessary. The further the process advances the more that explanations are needed to assure employee’s comfort and cooperation.

Morris: In recent years, there has been criticism, sometimes severe criticism of M.B.A. programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools. In your opinion, in which area is there the greatest need for immediate improvement? Any suggestions?

Wolf: The biggest argument I have with B-school graduates is their unwillingness to get their hands dirty. This obviously isn’t universal, but it happens with enough graduates to cause concern. This perception of moving directly from grad school into high-level executive positions dealing with policy isn’t going to happen (at least not often), and it actually hampers the chances of these young people to mature into outstanding leaders. I would advise organizations to start them at the bottom of the pyramid where they can get an understanding of what it takes to get the job done.

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

Wolf: We’re living in different times. To paraphrase that old commercial (“this is not your father’s Oldsmobile), “this is not as simple as your father’s job,” That probably expresses it best. The new workforce now comes from a very diverse background. They’re motivated differently than previous generations. I think the biggest challenge will be to cohesively meld the new generation with the older generations to produce successful corporate performance.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Seven Disciplines of a Leader. When and why did you decide to write it?

Wolf: I started writing the book three years ago since there’s an unprecedented demand for highly effective leaders. As organizations strive to stay competitive in the tough global marketplace, the ability to develop effective leaders has become increasingly difficult. Yet, the reality is that effective leaders, at every level, can make or break them.

Through my coaching practice, I’ve come to realize that while some people seem to be natural leaders, most great leaders aren’t born highly effective with extraordinary skills; rather, they develop skills and become highly effective through instruction, experience and practice of core disciplines.

I wanted to write a book which provides simple, pragmatic principles, as well as stories and exercises that can help people become more effective leaders as they read and apply the book’s lessons. A book which makes it easy to become a better leader regardless of your level – supervisor, manager, general manager, president, or CEO. I wanted a book to address and answer a critical question: What can you do to improve your leadership?

Lastly, I wanted a book that won’t go on the shelf, but on your desk as a daily resource.

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

Wolf: Originally, the title was The Essence of Effective Leadership but felt that title didn’t have as much impact as the chosen title. Otherwise, it is exactly what I envisioned: create a book that puts words into action through takeaways and thought provoking exercises at the end of every chapter to help readers actualize what they learned. Many people have said, “It’s like having your own personal coach”.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read the book, you focus on what you consider to be the seven essential disciplines of a leader. In your opinion, which of them seems to be the most difficult to master…and then [begin italics] sustain [end italics]? Why?

Wolf: I don’t believe it’s fair to select any one of the seven disciplines as being most difficult to master. They all have their own level of complexity and they all take time to learn and absorb. Obviously, some will find it difficult to master principles that others find clear and easy to apply. It all comes down to the person.

Morris: You also focus on what you consider to be the eleven essential practices of highly effective leaders. In your opinion, which of them seems to be the most difficult to master…and then [begin italics] sustain [end italics]? Why?

Wolf: I have to answer this exactly as I answered your last question. It all depends on the individual. His or her preferences, background, and abilities.

Morris: Aristotle once observed, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” Do you agree?

Wolf: There’s a lot to be said for that, although excellence first begins with perfecting the task at hand, then at that stage, habit takes over and delivers the consistency of performance demanded by the job.

Morris: In your opinion, why are bad habits so difficult to end whereas good habits are so difficult to continue?

Wolf: I don’t agree with all you just said. I do agree that bad habits are difficult to change—we’ve already discussed why—but effective leaders reinforce good habits through encouraging and rewarding employees for applying their skills and efforts that result in consistently superior performance. One of the key responsibilities of great leaders is to identify those skills and efforts. They’re not always readily apparent.

Morris: As I indicate in my review of the book for various Amazon websites, there are dozens of passages throughout your narrative that caught my eye.

For those who have not as yet read the book, please suggest what you view as the most important point or key take-away in each of these passages.

First, Leading in Uncertain Times (Pages 10-12) What is the single worst mistake that leaders make during such times?

Wolf: The worst mistake is devaluing the contributions of employees. The role of leaders in uncertain times transcends managing the bottom line. It means always remembering that their first priority is employees. Great leaders never forget that their employees are the keys to success!

Morris: Five Fundamental Goals of Highly Effective Leaders (14-16) Which seems to be the most difficult to achieve? Why?

Wolf: As in the business world, there is no one single panacea to a problem, nor is there and one goal that is more important than others. Together they hold the key to success. When one of those is missing, the entire structure of performance takes a hit.

Morris: Highly Effective Leaders Build on a Foundation of Honesty and Integrity (28-31)

Wolf: Those who practice sustainability avoid common mistakes and sins that often derail other leaders. They maintain credibility and avoid pitfalls by being honest, forthright, and open; their values, allegiances and priorities are beyond reproach. Their strong character and integrity are manifest by their walking the walk and talking the talk. They create a climate of positivity, punctuated with frequent praise and recognition.

Morris: Five Useful Skills (62-64) Which seems to be most useful to C-level executives? Why?

Wolf: I think all five are of great use to top executives. I might add that they go beyond useful: they are an absolute requirement for outstanding performance.

Morris: Which of the five seems to be most useful to line managers? Why?

Wolf: Same answer. These skills are an absolute necessity for any leader at any level of the organization.

Morris: Positively Negative (70-72) Please explain.

Wolf: Tim Tebow, award-winning NFL quarterback, said “I’ll always use the negativity as more motivation to work even harder and become even stronger.” What he meant was that despite criticism—either justified or unjustified—he will apply himself to correct and perfect his performance. There are great words that can help every leader in the organization.

Morris: Can anything be “Negatively Negative”?

Wolf: That’s a double negative. Negative is negative. And a negative needs to be turned into a positive. Every high performance leader has thick skin and can handle negative comments.

Morris: Priorities, Planning, and Execution (78-82)

Wolf: In their most basic form, planning and execution can be summarized by answering six key questions:

o Exactly where is our team, department or organization right now?
o What do we want to accomplish (goals and objectives)?
o What must we do to achieve these priorities (action steps)?
o Who will participate in planning and execution?
o How will we budget and manage costs?
o How will we know when we’ve successfully executed our plans (endpoint)?

In a nutshell, “where,” “what” and “who” must lead to definitive “how’s.”

Morris: The 10 Ways to Sabotage Yourself and Your Company (89-90) Which of the ten seems to be most destructive? Why?

Wolf: All of these are self-destructive behavior and have a corrosive effect on the organization.

Morris: Take Three Key Steps (137-138) Which seems to be most difficult to take? Why?

Wolf: By following these three steps, you approach hiring in a new way. Creating awareness about your PFE and then interviewing people attracted to the company will become the norm. Once you start taking these three steps, if you have to work hard to recruit someone, you are likely trying to get the wrong person. Make your life easier, and make your company more successful. Don’t recruit the best people . . . attract them.

Morris: Six Essential Leadership Responsibilities That Build Effective Teams (202-207) Is any one of them more effective than any of the others? Please explain.

Wolf: To create a fully functional team, the leader needs to exhibit six leadership traits and all of them are equally essential.

Morris: Six Learning Disabilities (210-211) Which is most disabling? Please explain.

Wolf: Though we may see and think in straight lines, reality is made up of circles. Linear thinkers are always looking for a thing or person who is responsible. Systems thinkers take on greater responsibility for events, because their perspective suggests that everyone shares responsibility for problems generated by a system. All of these disabilities can be crippling.

Morris: Retaining High Potential Employees (241-243) What is most important to keep in mind when attempting to do so?

Wolf: I would put it this way: Great organizations view employee retention as a competitive advantage and work hard to retain their most talented people, knowing that talented people are their most important asset.

Morris: Four Phases of Change (250-251) Which is the most difficult to complete? Why?

Wolf: They’re all difficult. Always respect the past. It served you well over the years. But you don’t want to continually look in the rearview mirror. Focus on moving forward.

Morris: Of all the great leaders throughout history, with which one would you most want to share an evening of conversation if it were possible? Why?

Wolf: From a business point-of-view I would enjoy speaking with Peter Drucker. He is without question one of the great business minds and, according to BusinessWeek, the “inventor of the principles of management.” His consulting activities and writing (39 books including the highly influential The Practice of Management) were the foundation that many of the chief executives of the country’s largest corporations used to guide their organizations. Drucker predicted privatization, decentralization, the rise and influence of innovation, and the emergence of the information society and its attendant knowledge worker, as he termed it.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read Seven Disciplines of a Leader and is now determined to establish or strengthen a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive. Where to begin?

Wolf: One of the great values of this book, and what differentiates it from competitive books on leadership, is its reliance on a comprehensive and integrated set of guiding principles called The Seven Disciplines of Highly Effective Leaders. Each of the principles standing alone has its own value, but taken together they represent a synergistic approach to heightening the effectiveness of leaders, and a great tool for training high profile employees (comers in the organization) who have leadership potential.

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

Wolf: “I understand you are donating the proceeds of the book to our wounded service men and women. Why did you decide to do that?”

Living in San Diego, a large military town, I often drive near the VA hospital and see many of our nations’ wounded heroes standing on street corners with signs asking for help. Seeing these once proud able-bodied men and women asking for a handout makes me very sad and it’s unwarranted. These warriors are the country’s real heroes who put their lives on the line every day so you and I can live in a free country. They deserve all the help and support they can get for sacrifices they made.

I wanted to give back to those warriors who have been severely injured while selflessly and courageously serving our country. Leadership comes from a strong sense of service to others, something our military men and women exemplify every day through their sacrifice. They are the real life, every day examples of leadership in my estimation.

Morris: How can those who read this interview obtain more information?

Wolf: I suggest they visit these websites:

Warrior Foundation Freedom Station (San Diego) link

Building Homes for Heroes (New Jersey) link

Blue Star Families (Virginia) link

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Jeff cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Wolf Management Consultants link

Seven Disciplines of a Leader link

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