Why Fear As A Tactic in Business Is Overrated

Fear photoHave you ever been “dressed down” by your supervisor in front of your peers? I have on more than one occasion in my business career. It’s a tactic of intimidation and a sure sign of a supervisor that considers fear to be an important ingredient in getting things done. After all, you can’t be soft and effectively lead, correct?

Don’t believe that for a minute.

There are many ingredients that allow leaders to get their team to accomplish – and even exceed – agreed goals. Honesty and trust are good starting points. But fear remains a very popular tactic, actually weapon is probably a better term given the carnage that is the likely long-run result. The damage, I believe, is that like many things in life, something given (or received) in excess often achieves the opposite of the desired result. Science tells us that a bit of fear can stimulate our brains and provide positive benefits. Too much fear, however, leads to stress that suppresses clear thinking and creativity. And that, in short, is why bosses who feel they must constantly invoke fear will do more harm than good in the long run.

Management via fear is one obvious and common case, but obviously fear enters into other phases of business as well.

We want our competitors to fear us, don’t we? Conversely, we should be in fear of our competitors, right? Doesn’t that set the table for organizational motivation and action? Not really. Study, analyze, know your competitors inside out, but fear doesn’t really have a place.

And if you are looking to provide an answer for your team to the all-important motivational question of “Why do I get up every morning and do my job?”, I can assure you fear doesn’t play well.

A little adrenalin certainly can be useful when a critical bit of competitive intelligence comes in. However, the sooner that passes the better. Early in my career, I had a supervisor summon me for a 1:1 meeting where I was informed of a major threatening competitive product launch. The coda of that session was essentially: Get on this or you’ll be out of a job.

There is no process that requires calm and clarity more than strategizing to counteract a competitive threat, especially when a significant strategic pivot is required. It’s a time to reassess, gather information, rally the team, keep an open mind, and sometimes think way out of the box. I might suggest those are preferred topics of dialogue as opposed to not so a not so subtle threat.

As to the other side of the competition equation, I frankly never cared if a competitor feared my company. I actually think this opposite is preferred. I would rather competition think of my organization as weak and unprepared. Such underestimation creates vulnerability.

The use of the fear factor in getting ahead (i.e. getting that next promotion) within an organization is another all too common occurrence. It can be a naïve and shortsighted substitute for competence and performance. It’s also often one of the hallmarks of an organization that is steeped in office politics and needs to evaluate its values and culture. Stated differently, the practitioner’s issue may well be the sign of a larger organizational issue.

If you are feeling a loss in with my minimizing the use of fear in the recipe of business leadership and success, here are just a handful of many potential substitute ingredients:


It may be telling that the word fear is so often used in the same sentence as ignorance.

Photo: “Shouting Man” by chrisroll


Are You A Leader Or A Manager?

winston_churchillThe terms leader and manager are often used interchangeably. C-Level executives are often referred to as company managers or senior management. In a typical corporate structure, there is generally a manager position and title, often indicating the first opportunity for one to oversee people or other resources. At the same time, there isn’t ordinarily a leader title in the corporate title mix, although C-Level positions utilize officer – somewhat of an offshoot of the typical “command and control” management philosophy that has driven businesses seemingly for centuries.

All that said, the intent here is not to mince words or play word games. The main premise of this piece is that there is an important difference between a manager and leader. Whatever the title or position in an organization – and that includes CEO – it is possible to be a good (or even great) manager, but not necessarily a good leader. As one works their way up the ladder in an organization, true leadership chops are critical. Despite that, there are organizations that get into trouble, or even fail, due to a failure of leadership, particularly from senior managers. In this context, as one who likes gadgets, companies like Blackberry and Palm come to mind. More recently, look at what is currently happening at Twitter. On the other end, Tim Cook, now CEO at Apple, was characterized early on as simply a great manager who had to take over for the loss of leader Steve Jobs. Time has shown that while his style and approach are obviously different from Jobs, he deserves to be called a leader.

The skills required to lead as one takes on positions of more responsibility and complexity can change. Changing conditions such as explosive growth, competitive issues, and so forth, can require different aspects of leadership. This often explains why promoting someone too quickly into a next level of management can be bad for all involved. There may be people born with ability to learn more readily how to lead, but I hold the belief that leaders can be made with the appropriate mentorship and experience.

I’ve been fortunate to have worked for, with, and/or mentored by true leaders. I reflected on that experience and how one might distinguish between being simply an effective manager versus a true leader. The result was a basic list of questions for managers to contemplate in a moment of self-reflection in respect to how they might be faring as leaders. Given the nature of the topic, I have probably missed a few, but here’s a start, not necessarily in order of importance, and I welcome readers’ feedback:

Do you listen more than you speak?

All the great leaders I’ve encountered or with whom I’ve worked, had a curiosity and thirst for information that required them to be great listeners.

When you speak, do you communicate?

Great leaders have or acquire great ideas and information and, most importantly, have to inform, direct, and collaborate with their team to achieve goals. Talking is easy while truly communicating is not. This is usually one of those “less is more” things.

Are you honest?

Dishonesty is a slippery slope to an ultimate downfall, which unfortunately usually involves more casualties than the original perpetrator. Withholding important information is also a form of dishonesty. Honesty builds trust and trust is the foundation of leadership.

Can you make difficult decisions?

Decision-making is a core leadership quality and the ability to make any decisions is what starts to separate analysts from managers and managers from leaders. As your responsibilities increase, the complexity and difficulty of your decisions increase proportionally. Examples include personnel changes, growth/scaling challenges, reallocation of resources, strategy changes in light of competitive threats, etc. And it’s not about gaining popularity.

In the early days of WWII, after Hitler overtook France, Winston Churchill made the difficult defensive decision to attack the French Navy – incurring the attendant loss of lives from the former ally. He was said to have cried when informing Parliament. It’s hard to imagine a tougher decision for a leader. It remains controversial, although recognized by some historians as an important symbol of British resolve that ultimately helped gain President Roosevelt’s support.

Can you make decisions that transcend data and/or group consensus?

I love data and the critical role it plays in decision-making, but great leaders have the ability to see beyond the numbers sometimes and go against the current. And if your decision-making style is to always gain a consensus among your team, you’re not leading. Collaboration is best not confused with consensus.

Can you look beyond the daily, weekly, or even monthly challenges?

Leaders have a sense of vision that is able to transcend the challenges that comprise short-term management. Leaders are always looking beyond the horizon, even in the midst of immediate crises or criticism. Think Jeff Bezos of Amazon or Bob Iger of Disney here.

Can you think out of the box?

Great leaders have a way of “zigging” while everyone is “zagging,” so to speak. And while creativity and fresh ideas are elements of this, leaders need not always depend on themselves, as they also know how to unearth the creativity and ideas great teams possess. I think it’s safe to say Elon Musk has this quality in spades.

Can you deal with adversity?

It’s inevitable – and either makes or breaks leaders. Also, experience plays a key role in giving leaders the tools and wherewithal to deal with adversity. Unfortunately, we live in a world that too often undervalues experience and its role in developing leaders. Failure is allowed, if you recover and gain from the experience.

Can you blend confidence with humility?

CEO’s in particular are often characterized by their egos. Undoubtedly, the confidence that is connected with ego is a necessary ingredient in effective leadership. That said, I believe great leaders possess – and don’t fear exhibiting – that sense of humility that gives them humanity and engenders trust.

Do you KBO?

The aforementioned Winston Churchill ended his wartime phone calls, including a famously critical trans-Atlantic call with President Roosevelt, with the expression “KBO.” Leaders have that quality of persistence and resolve. When challenged, they “Keep Buggering On.”


Las Vegas Locals Dining Discounts

One of the perks of being a Las Vegas Local is discounts, discounts almost everywhere. Here are some deals for on-Strip dining which have caught my eye recently.

db_brasserieDaniel Boulud’s db Brasserie, located in the Venetian’s Restaurant Row, is offering locals 30% off through Labor Day (September 7). Not valid during Happy Hours or for parties of more than 12. Some restrictions may apply, so call ahead to confirm availability.

bardotbrasserieMicheal Mina’s Bardot Brasserie (Aria) offers a $49 prix-fixe menu for locals. It’s available from 6pm-7:30pm daily, upon request. Reserve online; use promo code BARDOTLV in the special request field. Diners can choose among four starters, four main courses, and two desserts.

Border-Grill-Logo-FAT-2007Border Grill offers locals a 15% discount off the entire check at both of its Las Vegas locations (Mandalay Bay and the Caesar’s Forum Shops). Show your ID when you request the bill. Free membership in Border Grill’s “VIP Club” will also get you special emailed offers throughout the year.

aureole-logo-1-1Aureole (Mandalay Bay) also offers locals a 15% discount off food and beverage and a complimentary dessert cocktail with a purchase of an entrée. Locals can also get priority reservations by calling 702-632-7200 and mentioning you’re a Las Vegas Local.

mirageAt The Mirage, locals can get 20% off the entire check at FIN, Japonais, Portofino, Samba Brazilian Steakhouse, California Pizza Kitchen, and the Carnegie Deli by showing a Nevada ID. Note: discount doesn’t apply at Heritage Steak, STACK and BLT Burger.

brandMonte Carlo’s BRAND Steakhouse offers locals 20% off the entire bill with a local ID.


Why You Should Skip That Next Meeting

ID-10046983Why? Because it is likely that it will be an unproductive, wasteful use of your time. Now, meetings do have a value if held for the right reason and managed properly, but one doesn’t have to survey too many studies to conclude that the odds are against you.

Late last year, I read with interest as now former Mattel CEO Bryan Cranston got business news coverage for his efforts to overhaul Mattel’s meeting culture. It was his view it was stifling creativity as Mattel continued to struggle in its financial performance. Guidelines issued included limits on the number of meeting attendees, how many meetings could take place before a decision was reached, and, of course, the dictate that every meeting should have a purpose.

What really struck me about this is that I recall the same “meeting culture” issue coming to the fore decades ago when I was a Mattel exec. What goes around comes around, I guess. Mattel certainly has a roller coaster history relative to its financial performance – sometimes due to the faddish nature of the industry and sometimes simply because of management issues. It was a bit of both during one of the down periods that occurred during my time there. And while no corporate meeting dictates were issued during that period, meetings were definitely an issue. I recall sending a brief memo to my team to offer a few simple guidelines that we could use to be more productive, despite a culture that often worked against that. I didn’t save that memo, but I’ve written it in different variations a few times in my career after Mattel.

If meetings are often problematic, why do they proliferate to the extent that they can directly create a drag on a firm’s productivity and performance? Simply stated, they are sort of the corporate version of junk food. They are accessible, seemingly less costly, and often provide a measure of comfort. It’s that feeling of satisfaction and progress we have all felt after leaving that large gathering, only to realize later that nothing really happened – much like the momentary good feeling one might have after consuming fast food only to feel a bit sick later.

Of course, the ease at which meetings can proliferate also belies the cost and impact on both your time and that of the enterprise with which you’re engaged. It may be why you are leaving the office later than you would like or why critical new product development cycles are slowing down and hurting business.

Having worked in companies that range from Fortune 500 companies to start-ups, my observation is that the potential risk of meetings becoming a cultural problem seems to correlate with company size. They can become safe haven for under-performing employees in their attempt to appear productive. Well-managed performance measurement and accountability processes will eventually catch up with those individuals, but the cost to the enterprise is usually irrecoverable.

Now, despite all that I’ve stated above, I do believe that meetings are important and can be important in the process of effectively managing and leading. They may be the best example of the “necessary evil.” For example, as I wrote this, critical global issues regarding Greece and the European Union and nuclear proliferation in Iran were in search of resolutions – with large high profile meetings at the core of the process.

There is an unavoidable and, to be fair, appropriate time when multiple people need to gather and collaborate to move things forward. The collaboration that meetings can provide for things like group brainstorming can yield amazing ideas. So, I’m not suggesting here tossing out the baby with the bathwater. In truth, I’ve found successful meetings cannot only be productive, but exhilarating. It’s everything from the relief of solving a major problem to the buzz of the unexpected creative game-changing idea or getting unearthed.

So, having explored the Yin and Yang of meetings a bit, here is what I believe to be the dirty little secret of this whole meetings discussion: The fundamental principles of when to have meetings and how to have a good result are rather basic and known to most people. However, it takes real discipline and effort to consistently adhere to those guidelines, so we too often opt out. It also involves getting other team members to align and, frequently, to battle an entrenched culture that creates barriers. But, it’s worth the effort on many levels.

In the event that the aforementioned “basics” aren’t that obvious or top of mind, here’s a quick overview that originated and evolved from that Mattel memo of years ago:

Explore all meeting alternatives before going the meeting route 

You’d be surprised how many meetings can be prevented with a well-constructed email or timely phone call.

Allocate only the time necessary to achieve your goal(s) and manage the meeting to that timeframe

This is one that takes effort and skill, but you have to be uncompromising. A timing device can be useful here.

Only invite the absolute minimum number of people necessary to achieve your goal

There is no magic number as it will vary with circumstance. But, I do know that when you get beyond 6-10 people, managing a meeting, avoiding “group think,” and getting the desired result becomes more challenging.

Set an agenda and, if feasible, distribute it advance

Yes, this is basic, but if you are a skeptic, count the number of meetings you attend this week that lack a clear agenda. This is also where any expectations and/or assignments for attendees should be specified and communicated.

Be sure to define and state the goal(s) of the meeting

If you can’t, then don’t have the meeting! If you don’t, how can you expect to have a successful meeting? If you do, this is the mantra that should relentlessly drive the meeting. Again, count the meetings this week where someone clearly states at the outset what you’re trying to accomplish.

Stick to the Agenda!

That’s why you put one together…

Conclude the meeting with a review of key discussion points and decisions. If follow-up assignments are required, review and confirm buy-in from those involved.

Otherwise, you risk diluting or wasting all of the diligence and effort you’ve put in up to this point.

Don’t schedule a follow-up meeting unless you absolutely have to.

Often, the least productive meetings are those regular standing meetings – like weekly staff meetings – that over time make up a large portion of your calendar and become ritual time wasters. Be careful before adding another meeting “annuity” to your schedule.

I’ll conclude with one final point about meetings. Early on, as a junior attendee at meetings that often seemed endless and unproductive, I learned the value of decision-making. Too often, meetings generated no meaningful decisions – the apparent rationale being that making a decision equals too much potential risk. For some, even speaking was too risky.

It stood out that being able to step-up and simply make decisions, directly, or indirectly through the influence of stating your ideas, connected very closely with advancement. I offer that as a closing thought, particularly for those of you that decide to not skip that next meeting.


Image courtesy of Ambro at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

5 Simple Rules for Negotiating Successfully

Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.netWhen I was a young Product Manager at Mattel, I was tasked with negotiating an important promotional deal. It was really my first meaningful negotiation assignment and involved confronting an eclectic artist/designer whose external eccentricities actually belied his business savvy. I recall vividly sitting in my boss’s office with my “adversary” and stumbling my way to a deal that, in retrospect, wasn’t great. I was inexperienced, awkward, and paid the price in real dollars. I figure I paid a premium of at least 25% for making that deal.

No regrets here. We all live and learn. And that experience – once I was able to process and reflect on what had happened – provided some valuable lessons to build on. I don’t claim to be the expert on negotiation. There are plenty of them and their respective books, but I’ve had many successful negotiations since my aforementioned initiation and (fortunately) none that painfully stand out like that first one.

Over time, I realized that my own negotiation checklist of simple rules had evolved and became somewhat engrained. They became my discipline as I entered into any negotiation, small or big. I should also say upfront that I am a supporter of the philosophy that the best negotiations are fair, ethical, and aren’t a zero sum game of gladiator winners and losers. (Yes, one obvious implication is to be selective with whom one does business in the first place.)

Every negotiation is a somewhat unique challenge and I can’t guarantee success – nor can the many books and other articles that may claim to do so. Nor can I claim that you may not have heard these rules before in one form or another. But I do believe that if you follow this simple list, your odds of a less stressful and successful result will increase significantly:

1. Know what you want and stick to it

When I walked into that first negotiation at Mattel, I didn’t take the time to think about what I really wanted and what my best and worst cases would be. This may seem like pretty basic stuff, but I’ve been surprised on many occasions to find that party with whom I’m negotiating hasn’t really thought about what they really want and what their parameters are. When you do and they don’t, it’s like a race where you are allowed a substantial lead at the start.

But, here’s the thing. You’ve got to stick to the parameters you’ve set. For example, If the “ask” is more than you decided in advance to give, and you agree, then you are either going to do an sub-par deal, or, you didn’t really go through the upfront diligence required to enter the negotiation. Sure, negotiations are fluid, and it is appropriate, given the time to adjourn and give proper reconsideration, to update your parameters in light of new or unexpected information that may emerge – particularly in complex negotiations. I’m suggesting one not do that on the fly. “On the fly” thinking is better suited to deciding whether to ask for a bit more – chase the upside, if you will – once you’ve been offered a deal within your pre-determined parameters.

2. Rehearse and expect the unexpected

I’ve made money (not much) in my past life as a musician. It is good to know the music and lyrics before going on stage. Negotiations are no different, but this simple rule can often get lost in the shuffle. For the most part, the real issue here, as in the case of musicians or other performers, is under-rehearsing. This process can be time consuming and therein lies the rub and the temptation to ignore or under-rehearse.

This is especially critical in team negotiations, where all concerned need to be on the same page and sing from the same hymnal. Take the time to understand the issues at hand in detail, anticipate as many of the other party’s responses as possible and how you will react. Do a bit of role-playing. If you want to play the “good cop/bad copy” tactic, then this is the time to agree roles. Again, this is not something that should emerge on the fly when negotiations begin. And take the time to brainstorm as many of the unexpected scenarios that could occur.

If you are the solo negotiator, this is when it is easiest to short sell this process. I found it often helps to engage someone familiar with the issues at hand with whom to practice. Or, if you are going to do this yourself, do it in writing. Doing the exercise in writing enforces a certain level of diligence to the process and gives you a guide to study close to the start of the meeting.

Whether acting as solo player or in leading a team, the litmus test of this basic process will ultimately be the absence of surprises once negotiations begin and, of course, the final result. I have found that the absence of surprises correlates highly with success.

3. Speak last and less

There is likely a psychological basis to this that is beyond my expertise, but I began to observe over time that negotiations usually went better when the other party spoke first – and when I let them do more of the talking. On a practical level, speaking first (which may be a inevitability or requirement in some cases) does put you in a place where you have to show your hand first, allowing the other party to process and react. So, as opposed to tennis, I found that I fared better when I wasn’t serving.

Whether you have to serve first or not, try to talk less. On a practical level, talking more simply provides additional opportunities to say the wrong thing and go off track, while allowing the other party to think and react. I believe there is also a correlation to the lack of upfront prep (see #1 above) and one’s inclination of falling into the trap of talking too much.

Just as you don’t want to fall into the quicksand of getting too chatty, the discipline of not doing so can often encourage the other party to go down that path. In the seemingly endless moments of silence that can occur in an intense negotiation, skip a beat, wait, and listen. It’s generally to your advantage.

4. Find and exploit the level of reasonableness

This rule applies when you have to make the proposal or counter-proposal. You want to have a shot at the optimal result while also giving yourself as much operating room as possible, given the inevitability that there will be additional back and forth negotiating.

In discussing this rule with others, I’ve actually used the word ridiculousness as opposed to reasonableness to make the point. In short, when needing to propose or counter-propose, don’t be afraid to look the other party in the eye and ask for something that is on the border of being unreasonable. You know, the “ask” where if you went any further or higher, they would likely walk out.

This generally works because many negotiators (particularly those newer to the process) tend to ask for too little for fear of blowing up the negotiating process completely. If you’ve done the diligence to find this place on the edge of “reasonableness”, you will either end up with an optimal deal or leave yourself ample room to get a deal well within your parameters. Metaphorically, you expand your playing field.

I had the occasion much later in my career of having to negotiate a new deal with a third-party technology provider. A team member did great work in analyzing the financial costs and potential savings of various options. I suggested we go in at a particular level that, on the surface, seemed a bit risky if not unreasonable. My colleague smiled and asked: “Are you sure?” I said “yes” because I knew the vendor had high margins and valued the steady cash flow our relationship provided. Also, our long tenure as business partners provided us with a level of flexibility. In other words, the worst case would simply be a “no” and a counter proposal. There would be no breakdown of the relationship or negotiation. And we would get some leverage to get a decent deal. The result: The vendor took the deal as proposed.

The lesson of the above story is, quite often in my experience, after analyzing and debating what the desired proposal is that touches the boundary of unreasonableness, you actually find a level of level of reasonableness and end up with a great result.

I know what you’re thinking: “Doesn’t this mean that you could have been more aggressive and gotten even a better deal?” Maybe, but I suppose that might be another rule: If you’ve diligently done #1 and got the deal you wanted, especially if you hit the upper end of your deal parameters, be happy and move on. Life is too short. And you don’t want to find the edge of reasonableness by going beyond it.

5. When you get the desired outcome, close and move on

Maybe you’ve experienced this. You and your team are in an intense lengthy negotiation. You’ve done your diligence, you’re hitting on all cylinders, and then agreement is reached. But someone (hopefully not you) gets talkative, or decides to revisit one of the points in search of something a bit better, further clarification or whatever. Then, more talk ensues. Things unravel. The deal changes (for the worse) or falls apart.

This is a very unpleasant thing, especially if you are under pressure to get the deal done and/or your business is literally depending on it. So, the rule is simple. When you get what you want, close, shake hands, express the appropriate level of professional gratitude, and move on. If you got what you wanted and reached an agreement, extending the meeting and discussion has little upside – but a fair amount of downside.

There are, of course, many nuances and potential complexities to negotiating this piece doesn’t aspire to address. But like competitive sports, my pitch is many games are won and lost on the basic fundamentals and their execution.

By the way, if we should ever meet and engage in a negotiation, you now know my not so secret sauce. No worries. I only ask that you start the discussion…


Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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