Communication skills turning managers into leaders

Innovation as a Strategy and Not a “One-Off” Event

I just read an article advocating for innovation as an integral part of a company’s strategy and not as a one-off “science project” undertaken by a few eager beavers.

The premise is that sustainable, strategic innovation is driven by changing customer needs and preferences.  In other words, customers keep companies on their toes by not allowing them to be too inwardly focused on operations rather than paying attention to the customer.

I’ve seen this happen more than a few times.  Some companies are driven more by inertia than market forces.  In the best case, a person in the company will start paying attention to customers – maybe after some really bad customer complaints – and decides to do something about it.  If this isn’t embraced by management, it can come off as weird or disruptive to the status quo and will likely be underfunded and half-hearted.

Any half-hearted approach to quelling customer complaints is not a sustainable solution.  It is not a strategy aimed at continuous learning and improvement.

Innovation needs to built in, not built on!  It should be a pervasive and rewarded expectation rather than something that happens on top of an employee’s business-as-usual job.

I work with a company that has gone through several ownership changes in recent years.  These changes really shake things up and turn everyone’s focus inward as they try to survive the sea change.

I heard one senior manager complain, “Customers, what customers?  I’m just trying to figure out where my office is and who my boss is!!”

Finally, the new boss did emerge and started asking tough questions about customer expectations, industry trends, and lots of outward-looking technologies the company knew nothing about.  This company brought us in to audit their culture around innovation driven by customer expectations.

Our audit results and recommendations focused on building and rewarding a culture of innovation.  It became an expectation that customer and supplier feedback be integrated into conversations in every unit of the company.

In Card Talk terms, our recommendations made it OK – even expected – for people to play an “Innovator Card.”  It allowed them to drive meetings about specific customer comments related to product performance.  They would review industry trends and get more educated about new technologies that might work to meet customer expectations.  Not as a one-off, but as the new normal in business analysis.

Such Innovation Games were missing before.  They were even frowned upon.  So, what’s required to play the Innovation Game?  Here is a list:

  1. Let customers play their Customer Cards. Listen to them about all aspects of their customer experience.  Dig into their thoughts and make sure everyone is paying attention as a routine part of work.
  2. Make it OK to play the Innovator Card. Most people don’t know how to, or even want to learn how to play this card.  Training is may be required to present staff with customer problems and create teams to imagine a better future for the customer experience.  The process moves forward until concrete proposals are presented and evaluated.
  3. Get up to speed about what’s happening out there. What new technologies are bubbling up that might be relevant?  Ask people to read something or watch some videos.  Make learning a part of the culture.
  4. Make playing Innovation Games a routine part of life. Sure, people have plenty of work to do.  But the Innovation Game is exciting!  It’s fun to peek over the horizon and imagine a better future.  It gives purpose to work.

So, if your organization is slogging around looking for a breakthrough, be intentional and make it happen.  The first step is changing the way people communicate around innovation!

The Cards: They Are A’Changin’

I just read an article by Adam Bryant in Strategy+Business in which he makes the provocative argument that the “manager” title needs to be retired.

Bryant makes a compelling case that the traditional role of managers has changed from directing people’s time to leading a team of self-motivated individuals anxious to charge ahead with new ideas.

In the article Bryant quotes a company president who revealed that her philosophy of working with direct reports is: “Either you manage me or I manage you. Which would you prefer?”

This idea of asking employees to manage their boss presents some interesting Card Talk challenges.

If we swap out the Manager Card for the Team Leader Card, then we are also swapping out the Employee Card for the Team Member Card.  Remember, talk cards are reciprocal.  When I play my Boss Card, I am expecting you to play your Employee Card.  With that in mind, what does that mean for the organization?

First, it means that companies may need to re-think hiring people who want to rely heavily on their Manager Card.  Some people want to play the Manager Card by controlling their subordinates’ time by not giving them the freedom to explore new ideas.

Instead, perhaps we should look for people who like to play the Team Leader Card.  Are potential leadership hires comfortable having and nurturing direct reports that have their own ideas?  Do they know how to help individuals refine their ideas and present them to the team?  Do they have a history of working in a high-energy team culture that supports creative, big-picture thinking?

Second, companies not only need to re-think how to look for team leaders, they must also hire individuals who want to be team members and not simply employees, and train them accordingly.

Right from the start, potential hires should be told what a Team Member Card looks like in your corporate culture, to make sure they are comfortable playing this card.

Not everyone likes to stick his or her neck out and present new ideas to their team.  Employees must understand that they are expected to manage their boss in the contemporary workplace, not the other way around.

Creative thinking and energized interaction are not optional.  Of course, training should develop and reinforce these values continuously.

Third, playing a Team Leader Card goes nowhere if the leader does not constantly reinforce a team culture as opposed to a manager-employee culture.

So, what does a team culture look like?  Teams have a vision of the future and a clear understanding of what needs to get done and why.  An employee culture does not.  Employees do what they’re told with little understanding of the big picture that challenges their creativity.

Teams help each other and respond to one another’s ideas.  They have fun.  They fool around and learn together.  On the other hand, employees sit in their cubicles and crank out what they’re told to crank out and lament the drudgery of their jobs.

Finally, the Team Leader Card manages up and not down.  The team leader pushes his or her leaders with ideas and resource requests that support the team.

I have played the Team Leader Card on many occasions with many teams.  My goal was to push my boss for more resources to create academic courses and research programs that disrupt old thinking.

I teach my courses not by playing the Professor Card, but playing the Team Leader Card.  We work together in teams to generate great ideas and exciting deliverables that address real-world problems.

When you ask and equip people to play the Team Member Card, learning and growth are wonderfully accelerated.  And isn’t that your job as the leader?

Card Talk and the Customer-centric Culture

One of the hottest topics leaders want to discuss is corporate culture.  Usually, this topic is focused on internal culture and how to develop a team to be more collaborative and less contentious.

While this is an important conversation, perhaps the more important discussion is how your corporate culture impacts your customers.  In other words, an outward-focused discussion leading to a customer-centric culture.  As opposed to a company-centric culture.

Let’s talk about culture first.  Culture is all about values.  What does the company stand for?  Are its values more about the company (profits, efficiency, output) or more about the customers (problem solving, satisfaction, support)?

In a recent article in Strategy and Business, the authors talk about building a customer-centric culture in healthcare and the benefits that accrue from this perspective.  corporate needs by not focusing on internal financial metrics, but instead focusing on patient metrics.

The article tells the story of how some healthcare systems place patient needs over corporate needs by not focusing on internal financial metrics, but instead focusing on patient metrics.

Financial metrics talk about how many patients can be seen in a day and whether profitability targets can be met.  Customer metrics focus on engaging customers more thoughtfully to achieve greater member satisfaction.  Gathering these metrics embraces a willingness to improvise, problem solve and be agile in difficult situations.

One healthcare company estimated that it would save between $560 and $800 million by improving its customer engagement.  As the customer journey improves, the brand improves and team performance improves.

The point is that when a customer-centric culture takes precedence over a company-centric culture the bottom line still benefits!

What’s the relationship between the two?  Can you have a company’s culture is messed up?

The answer is that one of the big reasons the company’s culture might be messed up is that its values are out of order.  When a company re-focuses on customers, then its internal values follow suit.

In other words, the external focus gives employees an important purpose at work: They’re helping people – doing the right thing.  When employees are trained and rewarded to do that, it gives them an important purpose and mission beyond turning in good financials.

Where does Card Talk enter the conversation?  When the customer service rep is on the phone to a customer and he or she plays the Company Card, customers can tell that the rep is only interested in meeting company metrics.

But when the rep plays the Helper Card and becomes a customer advocate, then the relationship immediately improves.  What cards are your first-contact people playing when they interact with customers?

How can companies get started down this customer-centric path?  Find a few critical behaviors that aid customer-centricity, such as those recommended in the Strategy and Business article.

Then translate these behaviors into specific actions that first-contact people can implement to improve customer relations.  Is it having the phone answered by a live person right away?  Is it asking good questions to the customer that improve problem solving?

These are two good ways to get started.  Find the best path toward customer-centricity and your brand will improve dramatically!

Playing games: Finite or infinite?

The whole idea of Card Talk is focused on communication as a game.  As we communicate, we must select at least one card to play. Hopefully, it’s a card that advances our agenda.

But what about the “game” nature of Card Talk? When applying Card Talk concepts, we label a communication exchange with a “game” title such as Decision Making or Negotiating or Joking Around.

If we can’t label the game we’re playing during a communication exchange, we’re often stuck. We have no idea what topics are appropriate and which talk cards are needed to achieve our goals.

Recently a friend recommended that I watch a video by Simon Sinek focusing on games:

In the video Sinek makes a distinction between finite and infinite games. Finite games have a known number of players, a specific set of rules, and a known objective that determines a winner or loser.

Baseball is a finite game. It has nine players who take the field and play; it has a specific set of rules that both define the game and regulate what’s fair or unfair.

Infinite games have an unknown number players, no specific rules and no identifiable objective.  The goal of infinite games is simply continuing the game.  These games only end when people get tired of playing them and walk away.

Casual Conversation is an infinite game. People gather to chat about anything of interest. There is no winner or loser, and the game can go on for as long as people like.

But Decision Making is more of a finite game. When we call a meeting to decide between specific proposals, a known number of players participates, there are rules about what comments are appropriate and which are out-of-bounds, and there is a specific objective.  When that decision is made, the game is over.

I was the Faculty Grievance Officer for Michigan State University for four years.  The office was set up to help resolve faculty complaints against administrators. The focus was on dispute resolution, or problem solving.

This mission is more of a finite game in that there is a specific objective in mind (resolving the problem) and a set of rules for how to do that. So, I was biased to assume that when someone came to visit me, they were also playing the finite Problem Solving Game rather than something else.

In most cases, that was true. But many folks who came to the Grievance Office wanted to play an infinite game like Stirring up Drama or Making People Respect Me. These games have no specific players, rules or objectives.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to tell that people are playing infinite games when they actually tell you they’re interested in solving “the problem” even though they have a lot of trouble articulating “the problem.”

On many occasions, I was sucked into these infinite games thinking that at some point a finite problem solving game would emerge. In these instances I was less effective in my job because I didn’t recognize what game people wanted to play, and I was unable to convert them to a finite game.

The point is: Don’t get sucked in!  Understand what game you’re playing and whether it’s a finite or an infinite game.  If it’s finite, then structure the game to be effective at it, and win (e.g., make a good decision).

If it’s really infinite, then know that you’re in for a long ride unless you make a deliberate exit.  Good luck!


Calling All Leaders: Be Learners or You’ll Miss It!


I recently toured a high-tech Michigan company specializing in RFID (radio-frequency identification) technology for tracking products as they move through the supply chain.  The company produces chip-enabled labels that go on individual products as well as the tracking technology to account for them from manufacturer to end-user.

This technology is becoming very important for agriculture, pharmaceuticals, auto parts and many other industries looking to reduce counterfeiting and product diversion, while also improving quality.

While I was blown away by the capabilities and value of these RFID systems, one question kept filling my brain:  How are leaders supposed to keep up with these new technologies?

It’s not like this is optional.  Just a few years ago, not many people knew about cloud computing, and now most companies use cloud services for convenience, collaboration and security purposes.

The answer is playing both the Student Card and the Expert Card in the course of your showing your Leader Card.  Playing the Student Card means learning about all these disruptive technologies.

A great article I read recently from ARK Invest identifies five disruptive innovations that have tremendous potential to quickly reshape business.

These five technologies are:  DNA sequencing, blockchain, energy storage, robotics and artificial intelligence.  Among them, the article says, blockchain will exert the most disruptive influence on the economy in the coming decade as it facilitates frictionless value transfer.

According to Don and Alex Tapscott, authors of Blockchain Revolution (2016), “The blockchain is an incorruptible digital ledger of economic transactions that can be programmed to record not just financial transactions but virtually everything of value.”

It is a time-stamped series of data records, or blocks, that are secured and bound together in a chain using cryptographic principles.  What’s disruptive about this technology is that it has no central authority!  It is an open, shared, an immutable ledger that carries no transaction cost.

This means cutting out the middleman, like a bank or an insurance company whose main function is to be a financial central authority.  Click here to read more about blockchain technology.

Think about a world where each person creates his or her own blockchain to be their own bank or insurance carrier.  This is possible today!  Basically, blockchain is the next Internet.  Mind-bending innovation this is, and many companies are moving quickly to participate.

Leaders cannot stop playing their Student Card.  These technologies are running at us at too fast a pace to ignore.  Are you paying attention?

Yes, Even Your Corporate Identity Needs a Strategy

I had just completed two workshops a few days apart for two of the largest global construction firms.  While they build very different things, one theme dominated the corporate mandate guiding the training: Innovation.  How can we drive innovative thinking to bring more value to stakeholders?

It’s a common question for most of the organizations I train, regardless of whether they are in the public or private sector.  The long-abandoned, traditional answer to the question is:  We’ll wait for someone in the C-Suite to tell us what new thing we should do.

Of course, we all know business is moving too quickly to wait for top-down directives to gain forward momentum.  In fact, the most effective change moves in the opposite direction:  From the bottom-up, as those closest to customers understand what brings value to them.

One company I worked with recently described how their division implemented a new ordering protocol for customers that dramatically shortened delivery times.  Their division crafted a plan and got it quickly approved by upper management.

What was the key to this change?  The director of that unit pulled out her Innovator Card and started having conversations with team members about customer challenges and the feedback she was hearing on delivery promptness.

Rather than sit on it, she acted.

After the change was successfully implemented, she continued to play her Innovator Card by telling others in the company about it.  She told a straightforward success story about how the innovation increased orders, improved customer satisfaction and reduced costs internally.

When I heard this story, I recalled an article about the four building blocks of transformation.

The first building block is:  Create a Strategic Identity.  Articulate a single desirable future for your enterprise and focus all your efforts on achieving it.

The article talks about how successful companies, like Apple, IDEA, Starbucks, and Honda create a fully coherent, differentiated, strategic identity.  They commit to a single, overarching way of doing business that reflects a grand vision of the company they need to be.  The article highlights the transition Conagra Brands made around a more focused strategic identity.

The second building block is:  Design for Trust.  To get buy-in from employees, customers, investors and other stakeholders, it’s vital to build trust by making a clear and compelling case for the value of creating a new strategic identity.

The third and fourth building blocks are:  Master the Pivot from Sprint to Scale and Treat your Legacy as an Asset.  Both of these building blocks address the issue of how to both create value and take advantage of the newly-created value derived from the new strategic identity.

The point is that building a strong, focused strategic identity requires playing the Innovator Card.  This card is a vital partner with the Leader Card.

Leaders are expected to be innovators and press their organizations to progress along strategically focused paths.  This Innovator Card should be used in at least 10-20% of a leader’s messages.  Are you reaching this bar?

Leader Separation: Do You See What I See?

At one of my recent corporate training sessions, I was on break and one of the VP’s attending this session on corporate culture came up and introduced himself.  I asked him how he might assess the culture of his corporation.

Without hesitation, he claimed that the culture was very strong.  He cited evidence of great team spirit, high morale and excellent productivity numbers.

A few breaks later I was talking with one of the regular attendees – who is one of those team members.  I asked for her confidential assessment of the corporate culture.

She commented that the culture was OK, but pretty top-down.  Not much listening – more telling.  Generally, she felt a bit disengaged and unable to communicate upward very often.

This gap didn’t particularly hit me until I read a recent corporate culture study by the Katzenbach Center, a division of Price Waterhouse Cooper (PwC).  What they discovered is first, a real decline in the worker confidence about their corporate culture.  Workers are evaluating their corporate culture more negatively over time.

And second, the study revealed a huge gap between leadership and employees about the quality of their corporate culture:  Leadership tends to think that culture is strong while employees think the culture is weak and really needs to improve.  Here are some of the key results of the PwC research:

  • In 2013, 51 percent of respondents felt workplace culture needs to change. In 2018 that number grew to 80 percent.  Clearly, people are aware of culture and want some action about it.
  • 65 percent say culture is more important to performance than an organization’s strategy or operating model.
  • 63 percent of leaders think their company’s culture is strong, yet only 41 percent of their employees believe this is the case. Employees want company culture to be collaborative, innovative, agile and customer-centered.
  • Similarly, 71 percent of C-Suite and board members believe culture is an important leadership priority.  Meanwhile, only 48 percent of their employees perceived that leadership cared about culture.
  • Finally, 87 percent of C-Suite and board members were proud to be part of their organization while 57 percent of employees were proud to belong.

These are some important gaps!  They explain the diverse perceptions expressed in side conversations during my training session – and they are hurting a company’s ability to retain employees and secure their commitment to the company’s mission.

Why do these gaps exist?  Has management lost touch with its staff?  Are staff member justifiably disenchanted and disgruntled with the C-Suite and board?

Because they’re in the trenches, employees see all the warts of the organization:  The petty politics, the drama, the lack of collaboration and innovation.  They see the bureaucracy and the lack of agility.

Most importantly, employees don’t think that management is listening.  Do leaders care how employees feel – how engaged they are in the corporate vision?  Do leaders want to understand what prevents companies from being bolder and more innovative?

Employees have to believe that leaders care about corporate culture, and more importantly, want to do something about it.  When a culture is strong because management and employees work in a collaborative manner, companies perform better.  When culture is weak, trust suffers and the ability to take risks and innovate declines.

As a leader, don’t fall into the trap of wearing rose-colored glasses and thinking everyone understands your vision.  Everything isn’t that transparent to staff in the trenches.

The best leaders take ownership of the culture and dig in, and most importantly, they listen!  Listening and conveying vision across the enterprise is hard work, and may be the most important contribution a leader can make to his or her own company!

The Leader Mentality vs. ‘Leadership Fear’

I just completed a workshop for a class of middle managers who were committed (I thought) to becoming leaders in their organization.  The focus was on motivation.

We talked about the factors that typically motivate employees like making their work meaningful, helping them understand the big picture, and having consistent work policies that energize people.

Then a couple of these managers began harping about their bosses and how they won’t let the managers experiment with flex-time and work-from-home policies for their specific units.

I asked if they’d ever discussed these policies with their bosses and proposed some workable strategies to shift them a bit.  Most shook their heads no, and claimed such conversations probably wouldn’t be successful.

At that point I stopped the conversation and asked, “Do you hear yourselves?  Are you telling me you’re afraid to step up and have a conversation with your boss about policies impacting productivity in your unit?”

They all sort of just looked at each other.  The answer was yes, they were afraid.  These managers were waiting to be told what to do!


“ ‘Leadership Fear’… is an unwillingness to raise an important issue… Such a fearful manager sees a problem and hides behind the untested assumption that the boss won’t be open to change.”



This is a classic symptom of ‘Leadership Fear.’  The first sign is an unwillingness to raise an important issue with upper management.  Such a fearful manager (not a leader) sees a problem and then hides behind the untested assumption that the boss won’t be open to change.

“I just know she won’t get it or care,” said one manager.

Psychologists tell us that creating excuses to avoid leadership conversations is called the ‘Fundamental Attribution Error.’

When deciding whether to confront a potentially difficult conversation we often look for good excuses to justify avoiding it.  The excuse is typically that the other person has some personal flaw that prevents him or her from understanding.

In other words, we are attributing blame to the other person and not to ourselves.  That’s the Fundamental Attribution Error.  We take the easy way out and fail to challenge ourselves to take on tough conversations.

Leadership always lives outside of our comfort zones.  Managers are excellent an insulating themselves from challenges.

How many times have you heard a manager say things like, “That’s above my pay grade” or “Take that upstairs.”  In some cases, managers feel untrained to take on difficult conversations.  They feel the issues before them are outside of their technical expertise and definitely beyond their comfort zones!

The faulty part of that logic is that everything is outside of our expertise when we first start learning our jobs.  Then gradually, we seek out and get some training and learn on the job.

But leadership takes training too!

For example, in having a conversation with the boss about experimenting with a work-from-home policy, it would be important to do some background research to prepare for the conversation.  What do other companies do—what makes these policies successful?  When you feel prepared, critical conversations are much less stressful.

The moral of the story is:  Put aside the fear, take a risk, but be prepared.  That’s leadership!

The Big Reveal!

Have you ever heard the phrase: “No good deed goes unpunished?” The same concept applies to assuming a position of leadership.

We might rephrase this old adage for leaders in the following way: “No leader with good intentions goes unpunished.”

The last blog introducing this series referenced a 2016 article by Cynthia Carver in the Journal of Research on Leadership Education, which made the case that leadership begins by embracing a leader identity.  People must be willing to shed the manager identity and move forward with a leader identity before others will invest in the individual making the transition.


“People must be willing to shed the manager identity and move forward with a leader identity before others will invest in the individual making the transition.”


The article explains clearly why many individuals are unwilling, on the face of the idea, to embrace a leadership role.  Dr. Carver points out that individuals assuming leadership roles encounter resistance and isolation from their peers, even though they used to be “good friends.”  So, when leaders try to make even subtle changes, all with good intentions, they are punished by their former friends.  Leaders often report a rise in internal conflict as their role expands in the job.

What then is the transformation process; how do individuals persist through these challenges?  The process outlined in the article starts with the individual coming face-to-face with a critical incident or persistent, hard-to-ignore dilemma.

I’ve worked with many attendees in my seminars who assumed leadership positions because a relative died and they had to take over the company.  Or the family expanded and the leadership job paid better than the manager job.  Or the organization was failing and someone had to do something—a real dilemma presented itself.

In my book Critical Conversations as Leadership I reference a story about a small business owner’s son who suddenly had to take over the business after his father died.  His dad had never given him the mentoring or leadership opportunities he needed to make a smooth transition into the head slot.

As dad’s son, he was around the staff playing more of a Friend Card never having to play a Leader Card.  Predictably, the son reported that when he had to take over he was scared—afraid of the rejection and isolation, which certainly happened.

He needed to earn his way into the role and develop the self-confidence needed to succeed.

This son made the smart move of connecting with other young leaders in his community who faced the same challenges.  Together they strategized about how to win over the troops and build both competence and the self-confidence needed to overcome fear of rejection.

This can be a steep learning curve, or it can be more gradual and thoughtful.  But, at some point, your leadership will experience the “big reveal” in the sense that you will be revealing your role transformation.  Your nonverbals, your confidence, your knowledge, and your refined communication skills will reveal your leadership.

Yes, it will be tough, but the transformation is truly life changing.

Beginning the Trek

For more than 30 years, I’ve been teaching managers to become leaders.

The one lesson I’ve learned over these many decades is that this is a tough sell for most people.  Sure, the participants in my workshops go through the motions by completing the exercises and attending to the concepts.

But, in their heart of hearts, the transition from manager to leader is just too much of a stretch for some reason.

I’m beginning this blog because I’m looking for another medium to help individuals like you make this important transition.  Where are you now professionally, and how do you take the next step to be a leader who makes an impact?

Most of my workshops focus on how to communicate like a leader.  First, I always ask participants via structured exercises to reflect on their communication style and explore whether it enables them to make the transition.

My most recent business book, Critical Conversations as Leadership probes the far reaches of the reader’s communication skills.

Don’t get me wrong.  I firmly believe that a person must communicate like a leader to convince colleagues that he or she can do the job.  But the ability to go from theory to practice—to actually jump into the leader role and play the Leader Card – rests on one simple assumption: The person wants to be a leader and has embraced the leader identity.

“The ability to go from theory to practice … rests on one simple assumption:  The person wants to be a leader and has embraced the leader identity.”

While I have long known that becoming a leader rests first and foremost on embracing the leader identity, it became even clearer when I read a recent study on the subject.

In a 2016 article in the Journal of Research in Leadership Education, Cynthia Carver found that teachers won’t make the move to become leaders unless they learn to transform their entire professional identity and see themselves as leaders.  Her research found that the transformation required a two-year period of intensive study and reflection.

The point of this important research is that personal and professional growth in becoming a leader requires first seeing one’s self as a leader.  It means embracing the identity.

People can take all the courses they want and learn the important skills.  But unless we WANT to see ourselves as leaders, and accept all the risks and potential rewards of that huge transformation, it just won’t happen.

Over the next several months I’ll explore the full range of issues related to making this transition from manager to leader.  We’ll focus on such topics as the Leadership Identity, Leadership Thinking Styles, and Developing the Leader Card.

I hope you’ll enjoy reading these posts as much as I will enjoy writing them.

Bill Donohue, September, 2018