Rose Fass: An interview by Bob Morris

Fass, RoseRose Fass is the founder and CEO of fassforward Consulting Group – a firm that helps big companies evolve their culture to achieve business transformation. Rose works with executive teams from Fortune 500 companies to turn visions into realities by driving significant growth through Leadership & Change, Customer Experience and Messaging & Communications strategies.

Her work delivers thought leadership along with methodologies and tools that enable clients to address tough challenges, solve complex business problems and execute on their strategies.

She has over 35 years of corporate experience in technology and consumer-based industries. As the Chief Transformation Officer at Xerox Corporation, Rose led the transition to the global industry and solutions business. She integrated acquisitions, diverse cultures and worked with operating units to execute the new enterprise strategy. Prior to that, as SVP at Gartner, Rose worked with the senior team to create a new business model and with business units on strategy execution.

A dynamic speaker, Rose is quoted in several bestselling business books and is the author of the newly released book, The Chocolate Conversation: Lead Bittersweet Change, Transform your Business. She is listed in Forbes‘ 2012 Top 10 Women Business Leaders of New York. Her firm has been awarded the Inc.500/5000.

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Morris: Before discussing The Chocolate Conversation, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your professional growth? How so?

Fass: Early in my career, in an executive training program at Saks Fifth Avenue, I worked with two very different female executives. There was Nan — very flamboyant and creative…and Janet — totally structured and disciplined. One forced me to imagine the impossible. The other taught me not to take short cuts. Both approaches combined had a profound and influential effect on my development as a business professional.

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

Fass: Delegating work isn’t really their problem. Disappointment in the outcome is where the difficulty arises for them. The breakdown occurs when what they envisioned — and what they directed people to do — is not understood or executed as intended. That’s the result of classic Chocolate Conversations where miscommunication turns into misunderstanding, which turns into missed or lost opportunities. Many C-level executives just shake their heads in disbelief and say they just don’t get it. But the reality is: Maybe they just didn’t know how to give it.

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

Fass: Stories put people at ease. They make people feel part of the conversation. They entertain, engage and educate in extraordinary ways. Most importantly, stories connect with people on an emotional level. Once you tap into emotions, you can win anyone over. Leaders who tell stories speak from experience and their heart. They share experiences while making others feel part of it. People follow what they believe in, relate to and want to be part of.

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?

Fass: A change initiative has to flow with the culture. But what is culture? It’s “the way we do things around here.” That’s why it’s crucial to play into what is familiar in order to move to the unfamiliar. Otherwise, you generate resistance instead of growth. Successful change initiatives bring people — and the culture they have created — to a new place. So avoiding or overcoming resistance comes down to evolving your culture, not obliterating it.

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

Fass: Assembling a workforce that is completely flexible, fluid and mobile. Advances in technology have forever changed the status and significance of traditional brick and mortar operations. That will continue. People will become increasingly more virtual. Work time will be any time. CEOs will need to find innovative ways to lead remotely, build loyalty, create community and capitalize on opportunities to have conversations. My advice: Start yesterday.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to The Chocolate Conversation. When and why did you decide to write it?

Fass: Chocolate Conversations have consumed my attention for the past 15 years. Executives and clients started asking me if I could send anything that captured the work we were doing together. It became very clear that what seemed obvious to me wasn’t so obvious to some very smart leaders. So that inspired my book, which asserts that leadership happens in the conversation. That’s a concept a lot of people weren’t able to get their heads around right away. One senior leader loved the Chocolate Conversation exercise. When I told him I was thinking about writing a book on it, his reaction was, “You mean you can write a whole book about this?” That intrigued me. The book gave me an opportunity to prove the point.

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

Fass: The head-snapping moments came after the book was published. Hearing and seeing how leaders, executives and managers embraced the book was like living an A-HA moment with each and every one of them over and over. That was incredibly rewarding…and humbling.

Morris: What are the early-warning signs that a chocolate conversation could be developing?

Fass: Have you ever asked someone to do something and they came back with something completely different? That’s an early warning sign of Chocolate Conversations at work. When people respond in a way that does not build off of what you’ve actually said, you’re heading for an execution meltdown. These kinds of misinterpretations can then be traced to your hall conversations, emails, public forums and internal communications, no matter how formal or informal.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of a chocolate conversation?

Fass: Conversations consist of three key elements: Worldviews, Standards and Concerns. Worldviews are ideas and beliefs you hold about yourself and the world. Since Worldviews are based on experiences, yours are shaped differently than everyone else’s. So when you try to impose your worldviews on others, the view can get quite muddled.

Standards are the way you see the Worldview playing out. They’re your rules, codes and guidelines that dictate how you handle certain situations. Concerns arise when your set of standards are in conflict with someone else’s. Concerns are unmet needs. They filter down from Worldviews and Standards.

Most conversations are built on Worldviews, from the top down. But they should actually be built bottom up, starting with Concerns. Take Apple for example. No one ever knew they needed 1,000 songs in their pocket, but Jobs saw the need to bring music to the device. By addressing this Concern, he set a new Standard and reshaped the Worldview.

Morris: Why the “chocolate” adjective to describe it rather than, for example, a “Babel-speak,” “going nowhere,” or “dead-end” conversation?

Fass: Chocolate is a delicious metaphor that came from a college “Death by Chocolate Party” I attended. Partygoers had all brought their version of what they believed was great chocolate. There were huge differences in what everyone interpreted as chocolate to die for. In later years, while sitting in business meetings, I began to recognize how everyone would agree at the Chocolate Level, but then interpret the “how” very differently during the conversation. I coined these experiences as, “We’re having a Chocolate Conversation.”

Morris: I’d like to have $10 or even one dollar for every worthless meeting in which I have participated over the years. In your opinion, what is the single most common cause and how to avoid or overcome it?

Fass: For starters, there are way too many meetings. Leaders need to question the purpose of a meeting. Is the meeting really necessary? What will people walk out with? Can they take action? Will they think differently or do something differently? If you can answer, “Yes,” to these questions, you have the makings of a productive meeting. Then, develop clear objectives, keep things simple, respect people’s time and make sure everyone attending has a role and reason for being there.

Morris: Based on your own experience and what you have observed, what is the single most serious mistake made when planning to achieve organizational change? What in fact should be done…and not done?

Fass: Most leaders are focused on planning for growth, scale and productivity. But there’s the 4th Consideration of Business they forget: Relevance, which drives the other three. How do they keep their brand, leaders and offerings relevant? Kodak and Blockbuster didn’t. Amazon does. Organizational change should be driven by a business model that is relevant to customers and the market. If a brand isn’t relevant, no amount of organizational change will fix it. In fact, organizational change for the sake of moving boxes on org charts just causes chaos.

Morris: As I indicate in my review 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 several passages…

Morris: Successful Mergers [Like Successful Marriages] Merge Standards

Fass: When two people enter a relationship they each have individual identities and personalities. It’s the same for two brands. The goal is to establish and integrate a Third Identity that combines the best of both without diminishing or destroying one or the other. When it goes wrong, that’s when mergers, like many marriages, go bad.

Morris: Leadership Happens in the Conversation…

Fass: Where do leaders have the most impact as leaders every day? It’s in the conversation — with their people, customers, shareholders, stakeholders, board of directors and more. Conversations are ongoing. When they become Chocolate Conversations, it becomes an ongoing mess. Leaders need to communicate clearly, master message discipline and learn how to listen before conversations lead to chaos.

Morris: The Conversation on the Inside Out to Mirror the Conversation on the Outside…

Fass: Are you saying what you mean and meaning what you say? Leaders need to have seven different types of conversations to convey their messages. These conversations need to (1) Drive Performance (2) Sell Ideas (3) Change Minds (4) Share Information (5) Resolve Problems (6) Recognize Performance and (7) Correct Performance. All of these conversations start on the inside of your company. When you faithfully deliver on your promises every day and live up to a genuine identity, the conversation on the outside begins to mirror the conversation on the inside. Then, and only then, will what you’re trying to achieve reflect on your company in profoundly positive ways.

Morris: If You Don’t Go There, Your Customers Will

Fass: Understanding what your customers want is hard enough. But when you assume you know and you’re wrong, you’ll pay a hefty price. You need to constantly stay in the conversation with customers. Talk to them. Listen to them. Ask them what they think. Netflix capitalized on where Blockbuster didn’t go. Coke changed their signature taste and their customers made it very clear that they shouldn’t have gone there. Don’t forget what your brand means to your customer. You have to be willing to “go there” or your customers will go someplace else. Having authentic, tough conversations with your customers is the only way to get there.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read The Chocolate Conversation and is now determined to improve communication between and among those at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise. Where to begin?

Fass: Leaders and executives hopefully can gain several eye-opening insights from the book. Putting it into practice takes time. I wrote the book and I’m still a student. My advice would be to pick a few important messages that you as a leader want to get across, and practice preparing for the conversations you’re going to have. Message discipline drives operational discipline. Be clear, keep it simple, and remember that ever conversation matters. There are no casual conversations when you become a leader. People read into everything you say.

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 Chocolate Conversation, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Fass: Most small to midsize companies are growing and growth can cover a multitude of sins. Chapter 8, Extending Your Reach, is critical to sustaining that growth. I have met a number of entrepreneurs and senior executives of small to mid-size companies and they have superb technical knowledge. Their social/ political skills can be lacking. Understanding nuance is a critical skill for any leader who wants to get to the next level. Putting what you know in a context that is important to others and positioning to their needs, can be vital to a successful outcome.

Morris: You tell many stories in your book about how other leaders lead change. Which big business leaders do you admire most…and why?

Fass: That’s an interesting question because I’ll give you some examples of great leaders who were not only legendary Change Agents, but all accomplished transformation of their companies in very different ways.

Jack Welch at GE is definitely one at the top of my list. Do you remember the slogan GE put into play, “We bring good things to life”? Well, I like to say that Jack Welch brought GE back to life. He was a master communicator who not only understood culture, but that message discipline drives operational excellence. GE’s stock value skyrocketed an astounding 4,000 percent under his leadership reign. You can’t achieve that kind of growth unless you know how to communicate what has to happen and get everyone to understand what role they play in the big picture.

Another leader that stands out is Steve Jobs. He was a master of consumer relevance. It was his uncanny ability to know what consumers wanted even before they knew they needed it that blows me away the most. Under Jobs’ leadership, it was his addiction to relevance that connected Apple’s core Worldview to their Standards, which carried over from their people to their consumers. It was relevance that made Apple a leader in “what’s next?”

Finally, there was Lou Gerstner at IBM. When Gerstner came on board as CEO, Bill Gates had predicted that within seven years, IBM would be closed and forgotten. Well, not so fast, Bill. Instead of focusing on selling PCs, Gerstner transformed IBM into a solutions company. Within a year, he turned the company around — and back into the black to the tune of a $3 Billion profit. He not only had the vision, he knew how to sell it and execute it.

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

Fass: Actually there are three I’m always asked that come to mind, so since you offered…

First, “What makes a great leader?” Leadership is about who you are, not what you do…and how well you do you will determine the type of leader you’ll be or become.

Next, “What words of inspiration do you have for struggling leaders?” I think Winston Churchill had it right when he said, “If you are going through Hell, keep going.” Change is bittersweet. Leading change involves a certain amount of pain and suffering, but surrender can’t be an option. You’ll never capture the rewards unless you stay the course, make difficult decisions, be willing to lead your troops into battle by standing with them on the frontlines, accept that it’s lonely at the top, and believe that it can be done.

Also “What is the leadership secret to winning over — and keeping — followers?” The secret is connecting with people. You may be the most intelligent person in the room, but if you can’t connect with your people on an emotional level, you’re never going to win their full support. You can’t just read documents and reports. You need to be able to read people and situations. You can’t just say what you think. You need to know how and when to say it based on whom your message is being directed toward. You need to know how to be an enforcer, yet also be capable of offering a sympathetic shoulder to lean on during the not-so-good moments.

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

Her firm’s link

Leading Bittersweet Change link

Rose’s Amazon page link

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