Linda Henman: Part 2 of an interview by Bob Morris

HenmanLinda 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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When and why did you decide to write Challenge the Ordinary?

Henman: I have been consulting for more than thirty years. Each year, I ask myself, “What has changed and what is likely to change?” When I saw the economy slipping in 2008 I realized the way we’ve always done things won’t take us into the future. Leaders have to do better, and companies can’t do what they’ve always done if they hope to remain competitive in the new global economy. So, as soon as I finished Landing in the Executive Chair, which is a “how to” book for those who want to run a company, I decided I’d better offer some guidance about what they needed to do with the reality that had surfaced since that book came out.

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

Henman: People have started batting around the word “culture” as though it were a conversational shuttlecock. When an individual, merger, or organization fails, culture takes the blame. We use the word fairly arbitrarily, citing it to explain why things don’t change, won’t change, or can’t change. It’s that subtle yet powerful driver that leaders strive—often futilely—to influence.

We have to recognize the fact that some abstract thing like “culture” doesn’t cause our problems: it’s bad decision-making and bad decision-makers. If we don’t get that, nothing will change.

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

Henman: Originally I focused only on talent but then realized I needed a broader approach to what needs to happen in an organization in order for the most talented people to do their best work.

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, The Paradoxical Organization: Transient and Timeless (Pages 14-16): How best to resolve this paradox?

Leaders have to understand what must change and what must never change. Good judgment, for example, must never take a holiday.

Head in Exceptional Directions (38-42): What do you mean by “exceptional” and how best to identify such a direction?

Henman: “Exceptional,” by definition, means rare, and it means future-oriented. Only those leaders who have crystal ball thinking will see into the future to anticipate both challenges and opportunities to their strategic decisions.

Morris: The Feud Between Strategy and Decision-Making (50-55): How best to end it [begin italics] permanently [end italics]?

Henman: Tactical decisions are easy, so people prefer them. Deciding how to use your time today doesn’t seem very scary or threatening. However, when you string too many days together and don’t tie your activities to strategy and fail to innovate, the competition gains a foothold.

Indecision: The Culture Killer (71-73): How so?

Henman: We blame culture for problems, but once again, success and failure come back to decision-making or indecision. When senior leaders consistently make good decisions, little else matters; when they make bad decisions, nothing else matters. Any student of organizational development will tell you that a pivotal decision—or, more likely, a series of pivotal decisions—literally separated the businesses that flourished from those that floundered. Every success, mistake, opportunity seized, or threat mitigated started with a decision. When people realize the following, they can overcome indecision:

o All decisions are not created equal.
o Action trumps theory.
o Few decisions require 100% accuracy and precision, so move when you’re 80% ready.
o Consensus is overrated.
o Accountability saves the day.

Ultimately, one person has to own the decision. One and only one person needs to serve as the single point of accountability.

Quality: The Advantage for Outgunning the Competition (82-88): What about “outgunning” what the given organization has been until now? Please explain.

Henman: Too many leaders see the competition outside their four walls when they should be equally concerned about competing with their own former track record. A company that doesn’t commit to constant improvement dooms itself to eventual extinction.

Morris: Agility: The Guns, Germs, and Steel of the Organization (95-98): Why specifically is agility so important?

Henman: Speed alone won’t define success. Many companies have rushed to make bad decisions while others have taken their time in making bad decisions. A race horse can run fast in a given direction, but it can’t leap out of the way, climb a tree, or turn on a dime. Contrast the horse to a cougar who will ultimately find a way to do what it takes to outperform anyone except another cougar.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of an agile organization?

Henman: The most important defining characteristic of an agile organization is an ability to respond to change, even when it’s unwanted, unwelcome, and unexpected. Leaders who can immediately re-prioritize when internal and external conditions change will succeed. Like the agile cougar, these leaders have cognitive skills that they can couple with their experiences to inform their decisions and new priorities.

Morris: Ethics: Doing Well by Doing Right (103-106): I agree but would appreciate any thoughts you have about obtaining buy-in from those who comprise a workforce.

Henman: Buy-in from the workforce is not necessary initially; compliance is. When senior leaders set the tone at the top, they let others know that ethical behavior will guide all decisions. That means no one can lie on a resume, pad an expense account, or cheat a client. When unethical behavior occurs, there’s no warning or second chance, no matter how valuable that person is to the organization. Unethical people will either feel uncomfortable living in this environment and leave of their own accord, or someone else will fire them. Buy-in will occur when unethical people have left or have chosen to change their behavior. Leaders who follow my advice and hire stars in the first place don’t have to worry about eventual buy-in because they have it before it’s asked for.

Morris: Expertise: The Raw Data of Talent (106-109): Please explain.

Henman: In business, the raw data of talent has four critical constructs: intelligence, talent, knowledge, and consistency of performance. I subdivide leadership intelligence into three other areas: critical thinking, learning ability, and quantitative ability. Of these, critical thinking is the most important and least understood, yet lack of it almost always explains bad judgment.

Looking at the four critical constructs, with general intelligence at its foundation, a star offers expertise in a certain arena of talent. For example, Walt Disney had unusual abilities to create fantasy and entertainment. He gained knowledge in this area and then proved through is expansive body of work that he could deliver consistently. Similarly, star performers in the organization bring general intelligence to their employers and then distinguish themselves with a certain kind of business talent like sales, finance, operations, etc.

Morris: Excellence: Consistency of Performance (110-114): Fair enough but isn’t today’s extraordinary tomorrow’s ordinary and next weeks mediocre?

Henman: Consistency of performance addresses the individual’s ability to deliver excellence nearly every time. So as technology, demographics, and economics change, the performance changes to meet the demands. Like a world renowned musician who can play dozens of pieces of music expertly, the enterprising business virtuoso consistently improves.

Morris: Traits of Virtuosos (120-126): What are they and which (if any) is most important? Please explain.

Henman: I distinguish between the requirement to be considered a business virtuoso (ethics, expertise, excellence, enterprise, and experience) and the various traits that not all virtuosos share. Some virtuosos like Benjamin Franklin had charisma, others did not. Most have passion about their work. Sometimes we just don’t know why a person like Elivis is considered “The King,” while other more talented singers are not.

Morris: A New Model of Leadership (173-182): What differentiates it most significantly from other models?

Henman: The model is prescriptive, not descriptive. Many leadership models describe the different kinds of leadership but fail to give the user direction about what should happen. The F2 Leadership Model advocates a balance between fairness and firmness, sacrificing neither.

The Eight Virtues of Virtuoso Teams (194-209): What are they and which (if any) is most important? Please explain.

Henman: They excel at eight functions: Trust, accountability, decision-making, conflict resolution, communication, clear goals, collaboration, and leadership. Of the eight, trust is the most important. If members don’t trust the skills, consistency of performance, and ethics of others, they simply won’t pass the ball. When that happens, the other six functions quickly fail.

Morris: Formulate a Solid Business Strategy (214-221): Who should be involved? Why?

Henman: All strategy starts at the top. The decisions to grow, acquire, merge or stagnate originate at the top. Senior leaders should decide what will happen and then leave the tactics to those who will implement them. The problem most companies encounter is senior leaders involve too many others in setting the direction, so they lead with tactics, not strategy. First what, then how.

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

When I’ve asked graduate students to do this, I always take Jesus out of the running because He’s an easy choice. So, using those same standards, I’d say George Washington, Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, and Ben Franklin.

Morris: If you were asked to speak at an elementary school graduation ceremony and explain why innovative thinking is important to personal growth as well as one’s career (no matter what it turns out to be), that would be your key points?

Don’t let fear stop you. Self-imposed fear puts up more roadblocks to personal and professional success than any other factor. This same fear, which is a two-sided coin of fear of failure and fear of success, keeps people from trying new things that could help them create an amazing life.

In your opinion, what specifically can new parents do to encourage and nourish a child’s imagination during the pre-K years?

Henman: Turn off the TV and video games! Kids need to be outside the house exploring and learning. They need to be with other kids in unstructured play. We “play” with ideas only when we understand how to play in the first place. Back in the days of yore, when I was a child, we didn’t have air conditioning or much TV. We had to create our fun. Our parents had no idea where we were or what we were doing. And yet, no one got hurt. But Baby Boomers did produce a lot of creative people.

Morris: Long ago, Thomas Edison observed, “Vision without execution is hallucination.” Your response?

Henman: I would add that vision alone isn’t much. People in mental institutions have visions all the time.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read Challenge the Ordinary 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?

Henman: Commit to hiring only star performers in key positions. Stupid is highly contagious in organizational settings. You let just one stupid person fill a key role, and you will soon have one bad hire after another. Stupid isn’t just about intelligence, although that’s primary. It can also be about bad judgment, unethical behavior, or low self-esteem. You want to hire only those people who will want to play for an A team and insist on high caliber team members.

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 Challenge the Ordinary, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Henman: Small companies cannot afford bad hires. Every single person in a small organization has to play a key role in the current environment but also adjust quickly to changes the future will bring. Compromise just one time in a key role, and you’ve created a giant crack in the company’s foundation.

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

Henman: I think you covered a lot of ground. Nothing springs to mind.

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

To read Part 1, 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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