Ray Attiyah: An interview by Bob Morris

AttiyahRay Attiyah is an entrepreneur, innovator, and author as well as founder & CIO of Definity Partners (a training, process and leadership improvement firm who works primarily with mid-sized manufacturing companies). As the son of a math teacher Ray was raised to be a life-long learner, taught to think and not take everything at face value. As exemplified by his parent’s upbringing and careers he learned that anything is possible and one can maintain simplicity in all things done. Ray’s innovative entrepreneurial spirit combined with his passion to share his knowledge and experience with others gave him the boldness to start a company more than 17 years ago, at the young age of 26, and over a dozen additional businesses since then; the ability to create and develop the tools, processes and systems needed to implement his approach known as Run Improve Grow™; the expertise to then adapt his approach to meet the needs of any business; and the creativity to now put into words in his first book, The Fearless Front Line: The Key to Liberating Leaders to Improve and Grow Their Business, the essence of what it will take for any organization to achieve a lifetime of sustainable growth!

Here is my interview of him.

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

Attiyah: My dad and my kids. My father was a phenomenal teacher. He never treated me like a child, rather a small person. He taught to how to think, not memorize. My dad’s passion for teaching was evident, he genuinely enjoyed his job, and it had a positive influence on my life. His optimistic outlook, the ability to see the good in everyone, desire to help people impacted me guides my actions daily. As I watch my kids grow I see their curiosity, their unique talents emerge, I have gained a new outlook. They help me grow in ways they will never realize, not just as a father but as a person. Their curiosity, ability to be fearless at such a young age shows me that we all had this capability in us at one point in our life and it is possible to recapture it.

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

Attiyah: Working for Johnson & Johnson, Endo-Ethicon Surgery division. I had the ability to experience, first hand, an organization grow from a mid-sized family owned business to a global leader by questioning everything. They had a “what will it take” attitude, which allowed them to explore opportunities with a bold and professional approach. This taught me that anything can be done if you can harness the power of people and create an environment to succeed.


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.

Attiyah: My epiphany came when I was a third-shift supervisor/engineer at Ethicon. By spending more time developing my top-performers, it increased their performance and enjoyment at work; briging the organization up to an entirely new level of excellence. Top-performers have much more potential, more than they even realized, if you can remove their obstacles and roadblocks.

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

Attiyah: My education provided me the foundation for what I do every day. My undergraduate degree is in Industrial Engineering, which is the science that connects people and systems together. I connect management systems; the way we works, the processes, the equipment, and the technology with human talent & their behaviors. As business engineers, we set up the systems that allow people to behave and succeed. When people fail to do this, we must look back at the systems we developed and make adjustments.

Morris: 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?

Attiyah: Too many decisions are made in silos. I have learned that everything we do happens in a system, nothing happens independently. It is important that everyone sees the whole system and is educated on their role and it affects the system. Someone in engineering needs to see how they impact marketing; front line employees see how they impact strategy and so on. It is important to do this in a simple and memorable way that shows them the connection to the work they do and how it affects the customer. I also learned that operational objectives should not be the ultimate objective. The focus should be on making proactive improvements that allow your workforce to be focused on bold and innovative growth.

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

Attiyah: The movie that stands out for me is Hoosiers. The movie is about a new coach that comes in to try to get the current team to work together. The movie focuses on the critical need for team work. The coach is criticized by many but sticks to his principals and does what is right, not popular. He teaches his team to focus on specific behaviors, not the end result. If they execute their specific playbook then the results are just an outcome. He cared about his how his players acted and their character and refused to allow individuals to undermine the team’s success.

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

Attiyah: Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective. It taught me that you have to be curious. Nothing is as obvious as it appears, you have to dig deeper and get past the surface. When I look at business and am told by someone that they have a problem with something like quality or morale; you have to dig deeper to the root of the problem to discover what is really going on. When you dig deeper on an issue like poor morale you can get to the root cause; like lacking of system for selecting front line supervisors, and you can truly address that issue.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-Tzu’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.”

Attiyah: People take ownership of what they create. When a person takes ownership to something they will work hard to make it work. It may not be perfect in at first but they will take pride in it and perfect it. We all have natural talents. I believe we need to understand what people’s strengths are and build on. I believe the best leaders are those that can tap into peoples individual strengths, bring them together to create something they couldn’t create on their own.

Morris: Next, from Voltaire: “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.”

Attiyah: A number of years ago I interviewed a candidate for one of my clients. I asked him, “what were the things he had learned in the past two years that he hadn’t known before?” His response was, “nothing, I already know everything.” My response to my client was that this person’s sponge was full (his brain won’t absorb anything else). This was a concern because I worried that he would not be a successful leader and he would undermine his team and keep them from discovering new things and new capabilities.

Morris: And then, from Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

Attiyah: My tagline is “Be You, Be Fearless!” When people are themselves, they are authentic, instinctive, and they act.

Morris: From Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Attiyah: Innovation is solving problems people never realized were problems. Solving problems often requires us to create something new, using new technology and there will be unexpected consequences to this. We need to use a higher set of standards as we begin to work on the problems.

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

Attiyah: Before we make things more efficient we have to simplify and eliminate. We must challenge why something is needed. Often time’s managers spend their day doing certain tasks because there is a lack of a good organizational system. By determining the need and value of a task we can then either eliminate that wasteful activity or create a more efficient system to support it.

Morris: In Tom Davenport’s latest book, 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?

Attiyah: Decisions require you to look at the entire system; internally and externally including suppliers and customers. No one person can independently see the entire system. The approach to developing an encompassing strategy is to get the input from a team with other vantage points; a team that can understand individual elements allowing for deeper connectivity to be made.

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?

Attiyah: The absence of mistakes typically means you either aren’t moving fast enough or simply not doing anything. You need to make a set of assumptions and quickly test your hypothesis so you can fail fast. The greatest lesson I learned turning my time at Johnson & Johnson was how to kill projects very quickly so we could move onto the next. Many organizations are not willing to accept that by doing this they are learning. To me, failure is when you make a mistake and don’t learn from it. Making mistakes is a critical part of the learning process because it teaches us how to adapt. Mistakes are positive when we take the lessons learned and apply them to our future intelligence to make better decisions.

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

Attiyah: Time is not a constraint. The top two reasons: they lack confidence in their people and they lack confidence in their process. When they lack confidence in their people it is because they don’t believe they have people who understand the standards, have the capabilities, the passion, drive or training. There is often a lack of expectation that these tasks should be owned by the front line. The lack of confidence in processes keeps leaders from delegating which ultimately inhibits the ability to succeed. Some c-level managers don’t delegate due to a lack of confidence in process but instead lack the confidence in their own skill. They shield themselves with daily tasks to keep them from having to work on new areas where they may lack the skills to be successful.

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

Attiyah: Stories evoke emotion and make an experience memorable. Stories share with us how actions impacted people. People want to be connected. In a person’s professional life they want to know how their actions impacted others and society. Stories do an exceptional job at conveying a sense of purpose.

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?

Attiyah: “People don’t resist change, they resist being changed.” Culture is about rituals and habits. To overcome resistance, you must change the culture. Changing the culture requires us to change the way an organization is lead and managed, change the questions we ask on a daily basis, change what we consider success. People aren’t looking for incremental change; they are looking for bold change. When an improvement is too small or marginal it is easy to revert back to the old system. Bolder change requires leader’s habits to change which directly impact the habits of others within the organization allowing for a greater success of the change sticking.

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 great need for immediate improvement? Any suggestions?

Attiyah: Personally, I got very little out of my MBA. I think the people who received the most value from their MBA are the ones who were involved with case studies and team projects where they actually accomplished something purposeful. I recommend that MBA programs charter specific projects that require students to participate in projects that provided them hands-on, real life experience. Ones that taught them problem solving skills, put them in situations that allowed them to create new business opportunities, and had them manage through a major change. MBA programs should not just consist of education but should include an element of practical work that hones one’s skills as well as your knowledge.

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

Attiyah: In my opinion, the greatest challenge CEOs face is relevance. Organization relevance is one we should all be focused on. CEOs need to l know their customer and focus on maintaining relevance to them. We should focus our attention on areas of changing distribution channels, emerging markets, client’s needs, alternative competition to spark innovation that allows us to remain relevant to our clients and markets.
Morris: Now please shift your attention to The Fearless Front Line. When and why did you decide to write it?

Attiyah: the main answer is in the introductions. We spend the bulk of our life at work, shouldn’t it be meaningful, purposeful, enjoyable. Work life and home life are one and the same. The more successful one feels at work has a ripple effect with their family. I want to share my experience and what I have learned from other leaders to help create organizations and fearless cultures that allow for all of the above.

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

Attiyah: It is easier to fix problems that everyone sees but it takes real courage to make proactive improvements that set up the business for the future. I saw while writing the chapter about proactive improvements, how so few industries work on this or do this right. To me, this is the critical switch in an organization that supports their ability to maintain relevance.

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

Attiyah: It took a little over 5 years to complete this book. It has been through 4 revisions, one of which was a fable. The second to last version was 100 longer and heavier on examples. As a person who is passionate about teaching I want to provide readers with everything I know and have learned. The final version you see now was shaped into what we hope is a resource guide for any leader at any level of the organization (the how to the what of a Blue Ocean Strategy, Good to Great…)that spurs them into action to make positive changes in behaviors, shifting what they spend time on and leading them to sustainable organizational growth.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics and unique benefits of the Run-Improve-Grown (RIG) business model?

Attiyah: Run-Improve-Grow is a simple model that is easy for all to understand. The model focuses on behaviors, not outcomes. For a true snapshot of organizational health, one can look at the behaviors within an organization to determine where they are spending the bulk of their time. This often illuminates the deficiencies in an organization. It is a model that requires one to upgrade management systems to support new levels of growth as the business model is redefined. When organizations don’t transform the management system they tend to slow down and become more fearful, limiting their ability to grow.

Morris: Who specifically are an organization’s “Front Line” workers?

Attiyah: The chef, the nurse, the welder, the salesperson, the buyer, the policeman. They are the 80% of your workforce that is actually doing the work. They are the worker that ensures every day that the business we have continuously runs and improves.

Morris: By what process are they best developed and who’s directly involved in that process?

Attiyah: The front line supervisor, the person that directly manages the front line worker is the best person to develop their team. One great way to do this is to have them lead a daily huddle. In a daily huddle projects are reviewed by the supervisor asking the questions, “what went well” followed by “what needs improvement”; creating a positive environment that allows people to share and collaborate on ideas and make improvements. It reinforces positive behaviors, helps you maintain the problem solving focus and allows for everyone to see how the whole organization works. Another way to develop people is to create an individual development plan that allows people to work on their strengths and passions which helps the organization.

Morris: What are the unique leadership challenges for those who supervise front liners? Any especially important do’s and don’ts to keep in mind? Please explain

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Attiyah: Front Line employees are often not used to being treated as leaders themselves. They are seen by many as a work at the bottom of the organizational structure. To me, there is not top or bottom. There is a front line that does the work and our job is to give them the environment that allows them to succeed, not the other way around.

Morris: Please explain the reference to “liberating leaders” in the book’s subtitle.

Attiyah: When a leader truly has confidence in their front line, the people and process, they can let go. They can liberate themselves from the daily operations. They not only free up their time but by removing worry and questions, they free up their brain. In turn this allows them to be bold in their vision and direction.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of a “Marathon Manager”?

Attiyah: They are always running and they enjoy running. They are afraid of not having and answer, they play to lose, and think nothing can get done without them. Typically there are two types of Marathon Managers, the Authoritarian or traffic cop and the stretched beyond capacity or lonely wedge.

A traffic cop is often  bossy, a know-it-all, control freak, explosive, micromanager who is close-minded. The lonely wedge is often distracted, exhausted, discouraged, time constrained and unfocused.

Morris: How do front liners tend to perceive marathoners? Why? Attiyah: They tend to view them as aimless, anxious, stressed, and not a pleasure to be around. Morris: What are the defining characteristics of a “fearless culture”?

Attiyah: People who are action oriented every day. When an idea is brought up the response is, “what will it take”, not “we can’t”.

Morris: How best to establish and then sustain one?

Attiyah: You model it. You recognize those who model the behaviors of being action oriented and willing to try new things. You celebrate large mistakes because they are a result of trying something new. You remove people from the organization that undermine this culture. You set up a management system that supports this culture, focuses on collaboration and removes obstacles.

Morris: In a book with an eponymous title, Andy Grove insists that “only the paranoid survive.” Your own thoughts about that?

Attiyah: I think one must have that internal paranoia that gives you the sense that at any time someone else is working on developing something that will make you irrelevant. If you are paranoid about being relevant you will not only survive, you will succeed.

Morris: What are the specific impediments to a fearless culture?

Attiyah: Management policies that drive consistency and stifle curiosity. Managers who are afraid of being undermined or who seek control verses progress, reward systems that reward risk aversion version bold bets. Silos that set people up for failure because they focus on what is important to “me” and do not align with other functions. Promotion methods that reward doers instead of leaders. A narrow focus on the internal business and not the customer and external business.

Morris: What are the most common roadblocks to organizational and individual momentum? How best to avoid or overcome them?

Attiyah: There are seven negative behaviors; I like to call the seven organizational sins that will trip up any organizations momentum. Cynicism, negativity, unreliability, mediocrity, apathy, flawed metrics, and misaligned rewards. These negative behaviors create serious resistance and resistance creates a block for cross-functional innovation. This resistance is often caused by a difficult and confusing organizational system and decision making process. One way to overcome these negative behaviors is to achieve a never ending series of quick wins resulting from quick action.

Morris: What impact do misaligned management systems have on collective behaviors? How so?

Attiyah: Management systems drive daily behaviors. By having a misalignment management system it makes it hard to adjust behaviors.

Morris: By what process is a new organizational leadership style best developed? How best to institutionalize it?

Attiyah: Chose and initiative that is bold and important, that goes deep and wide into the organization and achieves a level of success that the organization has never seen before. Get people to work on things they have never done before, doing it in a way that inspires them. Share this success with the whole organization and educate everyone one what it took to succeed. Based on this success you then update your management system expectations and policies to align with success.

Morris: What are the most significant differences between proactive and reactive improvements? For example?

Attiyah: Both types of improvements are important. Anyone can make reactive improvements they are the improvements that keep daily work simple, making it more reliable and predictable. Often these are implemented by front line workers used to solve an urgent problems brought on by a lack of reliability. Proactive Improvements are the foundation for innovation. They foster growth initiatives allowing your organization to offer higher standards and bolder promises to past and current clients.

Morris: How best to calculate degree of risk for initiatives?

Attiyah: The degree of risk is based on talent and skill we have, the unknowns, and the organizational commitment to break through the barriers.

Morris: By what process is a grow team best assembled? Any especially important do’s and don’ts to keep in mind? Please explain.

Attiyah: Grow teams consist of top performers who have innovative minds and have shown they can initiate without being asked. Members should represent every function of the organization. Their function is to not only conceptualize bold ideas but also to then convert them and develop the organizational roadmap that makes them happen.

Morris: What is a “talent fleet”? How best to assemble one? Then what?

Attiyah:: A talent fleet is a group of capable individuals working as a single unit to create an incredible force of innovation and relevance. To assemble a talent fleet you have to raise the bar of excellence within your organization, identify what talent you need and scout for specific skills and complementary talents. Building a talent fleet catapults an organization in its next phase and provides the foundation for sustainable growth.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read your book, how best to maximize retention 0f valued employees?

Attiyah: Provide them meaningful and challenging work. Allow them the ability to collaborate and innovate. Create an environment that allows them to be successful, feel good about their work and know that their work helps others. Put them in a position that aligns with their talents and enhances their skills

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read The Fearless Front Line and is now determined to increase fearless performance at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise. Where to begin?

Attiyah: Establish the behaviors you want. Ask your top-performers for help and remove obstacles to allow them to begin working on a purposeful initiative. Then simplify the work itself so they can run the business and have confidence in themselves.

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 The Fearless Front Line, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Attiyah: The Run Improve Grow model. It is a perpetual model that focuses first on behaviors and approaches improvement as a continuously moving system that stimulates a culture of consistent relevancy, new growth, and constant innovation. It’s a holistic, well-proven system that integrates technical improvement tools, humanistic leadership practices, professional business standards, and a visionary entrepreneurial orientation. It allows organizations to (re)create themselves over and over.

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

Attiyah: “How could this book benefit the next generation?” This book should be given to students, high school and college. It should be used as a resource to help them discover their talents and provide direction. It should be a book read by college graduates who are starting off in their first job and want to be successful.

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

www.beyoubefearless.com

www.definitypartners.com

@rayattiyah on twitter

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