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The ABCs of decision-making

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on September 8, 2014

Have you ever worked for a “leader” who would not listen to your ideas, or who wouldn’t ask for your opinion? I have. I would verbally share an idea with them and before I could finish, they would tell me that it wouldn’t work. This type of boss saps the energy out of their organization. Employees turn off any desire to work more effectively, don’t go the extra mile for their customers and don’t put any energy into growing the business. This creates an undesirable working environment, and the best and brightest employees won’t stick around for long.

Learning from this experience, as a young leader I adopted an open culture with my direct reports that encouraged them to share their opinion and input on any issue, and I expected that they in turn would do the same with their direct reports. I utilized the ABCs of decision making in order to come up with the best solution to an issue, relying on input from those employees with experience and expertise.

In my subsequent leadership roles including that of CEO, I would normally ask for opinions on an issue before I shared my own proposals. However, on occasion, I might first propose that we go with solution A on a certain issue. Within our culture, an employee may then share their view that solution B might be the better option. The manner in which I communicated my response would convey how welcome their opinion was, and this would affect their desire to share their opinion on this issue and on future issues.

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To improve your leadership effectiveness, relate to your employees

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on September 2, 2014

Much has been written about the characteristics of effective leaders. One of these characteristics is a leader’s ability to relate to their employees, as well as act in a way so that their employees can relate to them.

When situations arise that permit your employees to relate to you, take advantage of the moment. I recall the day I held a town hall meeting at one of our plants two days after we shut down one of the plant’s production units, resulting in the layoff of 17 hourly production and maintenance employees. As then COO of PQ Corporation, I wanted to explain that the shutdown was a result of a large customer exiting their business, and therefore they no longer required the product produced by that production unit.

To say the attendees at the town meeting were not very happy would be an understatement. At a tense moment, one of the hourly workers said to me, “What do you know about working in a chemical plant? All you do is sit behind a desk all day, push paper, and make decisions that affect the lives of others.” My immediate response was, “When I was a co-op student at Drexel University, I worked as an hourly worker in a plant like this one and learned much from the production and maintenance staff, so I do know what it’s like to work in a chemical plant.”

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Breaking paradigms to achieve breakthrough results

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on August 25, 2014

How many times have you approached a task or problem the same way that you always have? Did you ever challenge yourself to think that an alternate, breakthrough approach may exist? If not, these are missed opportunities to break paradigms, which are traditional ways of thinking about things. When you break paradigms you can make step-change improvements, advance the state of the art, and create competitive advantage. Effective leaders are always encouraging their teams to break their paradigms, and they lead the way.

Breaking paradigms and thinking “out of the box” is crucial for achieving breakthrough results. As a business unit general manager, I was taught this lesson by the CEO of our company, who challenged the design of a micro-plant my business unit was trying to economically justify. The return on investment was below the hurdle rate for this type of project. Strategically, we wanted to build the plant because it would open up a new geography in a growing market for the company, but we needed a higher return on investment to get the board’s approval. We didn’t want to justify the plant only on a strategic basis, but on an economic basis as well.

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A culture of continuous improvement is no management fad … In fact, it could be the Holy Grail

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on August 28, 2014

How many of you have experienced initiatives launched by your company’s leadership that promise to lead to strong revenue and bottom-line growth, delighted customers, grateful shareholders and long-term sustainable competitive advantage — the “Holy Grail?” How many of these initiatives have delivered the expected results, and how many have been sustainable long-term?

Over the years, many initiatives have been proposed by consultants to deliver the Holy Grail. The business press dub these as “management fads.” As I moved up the ranks of PQ Corp., I sat through countless hours of presentations listening to management gurus expound on why his or her initiative is the “next best thing.” Like many companies, we were searching for the Holy Grail.

A Google search of the term “management fad” includes the following: management by objectives; matrix management; if it’s not broke, fix it anyway; total quality management; business process re-engineering; delayering; six sigma; Baldrige Quality Award and Kaizen. Today, you hardly hear about any of these. Others are recognized as best practices, and some have become common practices. Why is this the case?

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How a high-performance team builds competitive advantage

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on August 11, 2014.

What are the characteristics of a high-performance team? How is it led? What is the mindset of members of the team, and how does it create a competitive advantage?

As a director, I recently attended the quarterly board meeting of FEMCO Holdings, LLC. FEMCO is a provider of scheduled and emergency repair services for drilling rigs and other heavy-duty machinery in a variety of industries, the largest being oil and gas. As a national provider of repair services with five locations, FEMCO has a significant geographic competitive advantage. However, it takes more than a national geographic footprint to succeed. It takes a high performance-team doing the right things for its customers.

What FEMCO sells to its customers is “uptime.” A drilling company loses money each hour a rig is out of service because of opportunity cost. This is truly a 24/7 business.FEMCO can receive a phone call anytime – day or night, on weekdays or weekends, and learn that a repair needs to be undertaken and completed, sometimes within 48 hours. A company that can provide this repair service most effectively and consistently on a sustained basis has a very significant competitive advantage and captures market share.

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Bob McDonald – the right person to lead Veterans Affairs

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on August 4, 2014.

Last Tuesday, Bob McDonald, the former chairman and CEO of Proctor and Gamble, was confirmed by the Senate as the next Secretary of Veterans Affairs. He starts his job at an organization whose reputation has been seriously damaged. His appointment comes none too soon.

Wait times at VA hospitals have been unacceptably long and records have been falsified to hide delays in treatment. Veterans have died due to these delays. A whistleblower has charged that at one VA hospital, veterans who have died were reported as still living in order to hide the number of deaths at the facility. The list of poor and deceptive management practices could go on and on. One can imagine the low morale of VA’s doctors, nurses and other staff members who come to work each day to properly serve their patients.

The goal of VA should be to provide prompt and responsive medical care. Even though the VA is a government agency, it should still be held to the same high standards as are hospitals in the private sector. VA leadership tolerated poor delivery of care. They were tone-deaf. Clearly, something was very wrong with the tone at the top and institutional culture at Veterans Affairs. A new leader was needed at VA.

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Why are some leaders tone-deaf?

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on July 28, 2014

When interviewing candidates for senior leadership positions, I always ask about their views on tone at the top and institutional culture, and what role these play in the success of the enterprise. Tone and culture are also important factors to assess during a leader’s performance review. In my experience as a CEO and as a board member assessing the performance of other CEOs, both factors are critical in the long term success of any enterprise.

Tone at the top encompasses the ethical standards to which the CEO holds himself or herself accountable, as well as his or her co-workers in the organization. Institutional culture encompasses the values by which employees conduct business, as well as interact with each other and the organization’s stakeholders.

A policy that states “we are going to obey the laws of the countries in which we operate” seems so obvious. If it were so obvious, why is the policy sometimes ignored, and why do some employees and their companies get criminally charged with breaking anti-trust laws, environmental laws, or the foreign corrupt practice act, which prohibits bribing foreign officials? Why do internal auditors find misconduct by some employees?

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What makes an effective leader?

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on July 22, 2014

Much has been written about what makes an effective leader, and the difference between leaders and managers. Most leaders are also managers, but not all managers are leaders. “Manager” is a job title. You earn the title “leader” from the people you lead.

I have worked for some very effective leaders who have inspired me and my colleagues to achieve beyond expectations. I have also worked for so-called leaders who were not very effective. I have learned much from both. Thinking about my experiences, effective leaders have the following characteristics.

Effective leaders have a vision of what they want their company, their institution or their organization to become, and have a strategic sense of how to get there. They communicate with everyone within their organization about the vision, and the role of each individual in achieving that vision.

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