Linda D. Henman: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris

imagesLinda D. Henman is one of those rare experts who can say she’s a coach, consultant, speaker, and author. For more than 30 years, she has worked with Fortune 500 Companies and small businesses that want to think strategically, grow dramatically, promote intelligently, and compete successfully today and tomorrow. Her clients include Emerson Electric, Boeing, Avon and Tyson Foods. She was one of eight experts who worked directly with John Tyson after his company’s acquisition of International Beef Products, one of the most successful acquisitions of the twentieth century.

Linda holds a Ph.D. in organizational systems and two Master of Arts degrees in both interpersonal communication and organization development, and a Bachelor of Science degree in communication. Whether coaching executives or members of the board, Linda offers clients coaching and consulting solutions that are pragmatic in their approach and sound in their foundation—all designed to create exceptional organizations. She is the author of Landing in the Executive Chair: How to Excel in the Hot Seat, The Magnetic Boss: How to Become the Leader No One Wants to Leave, and contributing editor and author to Small Group Communication. Her latest book is Challenge the Ordinary: Why Revolutionary Companies Abandon Conventional Mindsets, Question Long-Held Assumptions, and Kill Their Sacred Cows, published by Career Press (May 2014).

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

Henman: My father was the most influential person in my life. A rare person who flew in three wars, Dad was medically retired from the Air Force in 1965 because doctors had determined he had only six months to live. He didn’t like that conclusion, so he returned to school, studied finance, and bought a company. He died in 2001, only thirty-six years after his fatal diagnosis. Friday Henman taught me how to challenge the ordinary from the cradle to adulthood.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Henman: My mentor, Alan Weiss, the largest selling author of books on consulting.

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.

Henman: I started working with Alan Weiss in 2005. I immediately quadrupled my income, reduced my labor intensity, and created the kind of work / life balance I had always wanted.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Henman: I couldn’t do the kind of consulting I do without a Ph.D. and all the requisite education leading up to it. Most successful consultants don’t need a great deal of formal education, but my succession planning work requires an in-depth understanding of psychology and psychometrics.

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

Henman: I wish I had realized what I knew. In my areas of expertise, I was always the most qualified person in the room to make an assessment but didn’t position myself as an expert. This served neither the client nor me. I should have been more confident about my knowledge and forceful in expressing opinions.

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

Henman: Actually, I like Office Space because it satirizes nearly all the possible bad management practices possible. I used to refer to it and show clips of it when I taught graduate business classes.

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

I still think Peter Drucker is the quintessential business writer but also consider Gardner on Leadership a classic. More recently, Jim Collins has made a name for himself with the continued success of Good to Great. He laid the foundation of my thinking for Challenge the Ordinary.

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.”

Henman: I have used the last lines of this quote often to express the desirability of shared leadership. However, I caution people about the first part. The formulation of a company’s strategy, especially one that involves significant change, can stall if senior leaders rely too much on what current people know and their willingness to accept change.

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.”

Henman: I don’t worry at all about people stealing my ideas and make most of them available on my website or in my books. If business leaders can learn something from my written work and not hire me, they derive some value. But a few realize they have received so much value from the written work that they call me for more value. That’s how I’ve built a successful business.

If other consultants use my intellectual property, they will be able to offer my ideas but not my intellectual capital. In other words, the best value I offer my clients involves my using my intellectual horsepower to address their unique situations. People who don’t have the capacity to create intellectual property often lack the horsepower that will help them show up with more and better ideas when the client needs them.

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

Henman: This has become one of my new favorite quotes because it’s the genius behind Challenge the Ordinary. The world is changing at a speed we’ve never seen before. The quote also implies the importance of hiring great thinkers who will anticipate proactively rather than reacting. No matter how much data we can amass, business leaders will still need exceptional thinkers who will be able to make sense of it.

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….’”

Henman: In Challenge the Ordinary I explain how stars distinguish themselves through the E5 Star Performer Model: Ethics, Expertise, Excellence, Enterprise, and Experience. These exceptional performers start with a foundation of ethics and raw talent. They then create a disciplined approach to turning their talent into expertise.

Once they have acquired enough experience, they can quickly see patterns, anticipate consequences, and formulate solutions to never-before-seen problems. These stars don’t “discover” what is there; they synthesize the complex, thinking on a multi-dimensional level, and reasoning abstractly to innovate. They move beyond solving problems to painting credible pictures of possibilities. They see the future as open and malleable since they have the talent and expertise to create what hasn’t existed.

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

Henman: Average performers know how to run fast but often can’t determine which race to run. Those who possess superior analytical reasoning do better. They zero in on the critical few options or priorities and put aside the trivial many. In the short run, the trivial many (day-to-day tactics of running a business) won’t kill a company, but over time, they will. Only decision-makers who insist on addressing priorities that support the strategy are able to win in the long run.

Average performers often work long hours, longing for perfection. Few tasks demand perfection, however, and the time spent attempting to achieve it is a non-renewable resourced the company can’t every recover. As Drucker pointed out, the goal should be success, not perfection, especially perfection of that which should not be done at all.

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”: [begin italics] organizational judgment [end italics]. 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?

Henman: We still need great men and women, but no company will benefit over time by relying on one of them or a handful of them. The most successful companies commit to hiring exceptional thinkers who want to play on a team of other exceptional thinkers. Then, they create an environment where synergistic thinking can happen. Only then can exceptional organizational judgment occur.

When decision-makers settle for average thinkers, they compromise the synergy that could have existed and frustrate the individual great men and women who could have done better independently.

Apple, for instance, relied heavily on the great man of Steve Jobs. But through hiring, promoting, and developing, they ended up with a pool of exceptional thinkers who learned from the great man and then carried on his legacy.

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?

If you never lose a game, you’re not in a big enough league. The trick is to determine which league your people can play in and still win the championship. So, for each company, the given “game” could differ. Maybe it’s a new product launch, new territory, or new customers. In other words, you can’t gamble with the mortgage, but you can bet the cost of a meal.

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

Henman: The first reason, fear. Fear of loss of control. Fear of criticism. Fear that things won’t be done right. Secondly, those in the C-suite didn’t start there. They did the kind of work they now supervise, and usually they miss doing it. When I coach c-level executives failure to delegate is the number one behavior that has to change for them to move forward.

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

People who know how to frame information draw attention. Great leaders have to make their positions relevant to their audiences: employees, board members, investors, and customers. People who tell stories are usually interesting people, and interesting people that others want to know.

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?

Henman: First, stop blaming culture. It’s bad decision making that stalls change. People often resist change, but when they trust the decision-making capacity of their leaders, usually because of a proven track record of success, they either comply with or commit to the change they know will eventually help the success of the company.

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?

Henman: Schools who want to improve their reputations have to start producing a better product and quit worrying about enrollment. First, tighten up admission. People who couldn’t get in to the undergraduate programs of a given university often get accepted into an MBA program at the same school. Second, start hiring the best instructors, not just the ones who get the highest scores on the feedback sheets. Third, stop pressuring instructors to give at least a “B” to students who can’t do the work. Fourth, return to the days of papers. Most MBA students can’t research the literature, let alone conduct original research. And they completely lack the skills to write their conclusions in an academic format. Finally, require most classes to be in person, as opposed to online.

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

Henman: Hiring talent. Not enough American students are majoring in finance and engineering, the two majors that form the backbone of most business positions. A person who majors in women’s literature does not position herself well for a job in the first place; her chances of running a company fall to almost zero. We currently rely too heavily on foreign students who choose to stay here. We have to do a better job of growing our own, starting with improving our public schools.

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To check out my review of Challenge the Ordinary, please click here.

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

The Henman Performance Group link

Her Amazon link

LinkedIn link

Articles link

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