Five Things Leaders Should Do In December To Ensure Success In The New Year

12-16-2013There’s a great tendency in the month of December to wind things down.

With the holiday season upon us, and the least amount of sunlight of the year around to energize us, we’re influenced to work in slow motion. We feel like resting, and to acting upon a conscious or unconscious mindset that tells us things will rev up soon enough – when the new-year arrives on January 1.

But it’s long been my experience that the most successful leaders have an altered state of awareness about December. They see the month as the true start of the new-year, and purposely work very hard to lay the foundation for high achievement way before Auld Lang Syne gets sung. For these highly effective people, the last month of the year is all about winding things up.

If your goal is to lead your team to spectacular performance in 2014, here are five things you’ll be very wise to accomplish in December:

1. Share Your Vision
Ideally in person, but alternatively through a well-crafted and thoughtful written communication, use December to inspire your team. The wonderful effect of sharing your dreams for the coming year – all you’d like to achieve and become – is that it gets the juices flowing in the minds of every person who works for you. Weeks before the new-year starts for real, your employees can give thought to how their efforts fit into your aspirations. And just because you planted the seed, they will begin to prepare themselves for the coming challenges. One word of guidance: make sure to acknowledge all your team did to support you this year, before you re-direct your focus to 2014.

2. Meet One-On-One With You Direct Reports
December is a wonderful month to check in with people and to personalize the new-year ahead by discovering new ambitions. Knowing the greatest reason people burn out in their jobs is a lack of task variability, ask them if there’s a special project they’d like to help out on. Is there a cross-training opportunity that they would enjoy? The road to high engagement is making people feel valued and cared for. That’s the essential goal for these meetings.

3. Assign Next Year’s Goals
The funny thing about goals is that they are almost always higher than those assigned the year before. We laugh at this, of course, but new and bigger goals very often have the effect of stressing people out and putting them into a disempowered state of fear. So, the solution to this is to introduce goals long before they go into effect. The extra time allows people to get their heads around the higher expectations. I’ve also found it extremely helpful to ask employees to prepare a high-level plan for how they will go about achieving those new goals. The exercise typically reveals to people that the mountain isn’t as high as they first imagined. By the time they submit their plan to you, they’ve already envisioned themselves planting a flag on the summit.

4. Build A Pipeline
Few things are more exciting for a leader and their team than to have a highly productive month of performance in January. Come early February, it simply feels great to know you’ve gotten off to a phenomenal start in the new-year and to have established early momentum. The best way to ensure this happens is to stack the deck in your favor. Whatever you traditionally do to drive results, do more of it in December. Challenge each employee to double down his or her efforts, and to build a pipeline of work that can come to fruition in January. Yes, your team will work harder in December, but the rewards will be worth it.

5. Get Organized And Reflect
I love the last couple of weeks of December, and have made a habit of using them to get myself organized and emotionally prepared for the coming year. I clean out files, organize my office, and update my calendar and planner. Like chopping wood and carrying water, there’s an unseen but powerful reward for doing the mundane.

While not always possible, I also love taking off the last week of the year and spending time in nature, going for walks – having thinking time. Late December is an ideal period for personal reflection and for becoming fully re-inspired about the future. Every year around this time I’m reminded of C. S. Lewis who said, “you are never too old to set another goal and to dream a new dream.”


Mark C. Crowley is a leadership consultant, speaker and author whose mission is to fundamentally change how we lead and manage people in the 21st Century workplace. It’s simply irrefutable that traditional leadership practices no longer motivate and inspire people in their jobs; researchers tell us that employee engagement and job satisfaction have reached modern-day lows. Mark C. Crowley is man on a mission. His ambition is to fundamentally change how people are managed and led in the workplace. Sound a bit daunting? Um, yes, we’d say so. But he’s up for the challenge and ready to share his belief – which just happens to be backed by scientific data – that once leaders and managers start “leading from the heart,” employees will thrive, productivity will increase, and most importantly, profits will rise.

For more information on Mark C. Crowley, please visit:

Recruiting the Right People: Nature vs. Nurture in Management and Leadership

12-09-2013It’s amazing what you can achieve when you don’t care who gets the credit.
– Anon

Nature vs. Nurture

Can leadership be taught? Some years ago, I saw an interview with an ex-Commandant General of the US Marine Corps, in which he was asked a question along the lines of “How is it that the US Marine Corps recruits men and women from such a wide demographic and intellectual cross-section, and some years later returns those people to society, with a value set and attitude which empowers many of them to go and achieve great things in diverse fields?” This insightful question might almost be expected to spawn a thesis or a book in response. The General’s answer was however very short and to the point: “We recruit the right people.”

Does this point to hierarchy of nature over nurture in leadership? I don’t think so however, that one phrase does generate some interesting issues. The military recruits men and women as officers first and functional specialists second. This is particularly highlighted in the RAF, where the honest truth is that I and many of my colleagues joined up almost solely because we wanted to be fighter pilots, a desire supported by some combination of commitment to public service, wanting to be pushed to our limits, and having watched Top Gun 14 times. However what the Air Force recruits is not pilots but General Duties (Pilot) officers. You are recruited as a General Duties officer specialising in the pilot role. This distinction was probably lost on all of us at that stage, however it is an important one, which drives the whole selection process.

Pilot selection lasts 4 days of which only half a day is devoted to specific pilot aptitude testing. The remainder comprises an in-depth medical, an interview, psychometric testing, and two days of group exercises, with all candidates leading an exercise at some point, but also including several leaderless tasks. So 50% of the initial selection process for what appears to be a very technically- or skill-based job is actually devoted to assessing behaviours and attitudes in team-based environments, and leadership potential. You have to have potential in both your functional skill set and your behavioural traits. It doesn’t matter how good you are at ‘the pilot stuff’, if you’re not made of ‘the right stuff’, the dream stops right there at the selection centre.

The key word here is potential, and that is what negates the nature over nurture argument. Probably not everybody has it is in them to be a Churchill, a Mandela, a Geldof, or a Gates. Equally, there are almost certainly people who are destined to be leaders, and will achieve greatness irrespective of formal development. Sometimes this will be through their own desire and ambition; more often it is likely to be situational, rising to a challenge or opportunity – the right person at the right time. However what of the rest of the human race; can they not be great leaders? Of course they can, however the door has to be open. With the right basic attitudes already in place, the military and many other organisations have been very successful in developing generations of leaders, taking what’s there already and making it better. My own experience absolutely aligns with this argument. When I joined the Army for a year aged 18, on a Short Service Limited Commission, I had no prior military experience of my own or in any of my near family. My first month, at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, was an eye-opener to put it mildly. However the values, professional standards, and attitudes that I learnt in that first 4 weeks have probably influenced me more than any development I subsequently did over the next 25 years; the door was open.

So if you want leaders, you need to recruit against leadership potential, not just against functional expertise. Nature may well bestow advantage on some individuals, however with the right basic attitude, nurture will empower many many more people to become highly successful leaders.

You get the behaviour you train for

Several years ago, Mission Excellence ran a whole series of team development workshops for the field sales force of a major pharmaceutical company. The challenge identified by the senior management was getting the sales reps to buy in to the fact that success within the geographical sales teams was actually ‘a team game’.
This concept of ‘a team game’ is itself worthy of comment. In ‘The Wisdom of Teams’ (McGraw-Hill, 1993), Katzenbach and Smith identify an importance difference between ‘teams’ and ‘working groups’.

To paraphrase their idea, a working group is a group of individuals for whom the output is simply the sum of the efforts of the individuals. If all the sales reps work completely independently, and the total output is simply the combination of their individual outputs, then there is no point pretending that they are a ‘team’. They may well have common ground and some shared vested interests, but there is no significant degree of interdependence between them. The advantage of this approach is that you do not have to invest time and resources in team meetings, resolving conflict, and organisation and alignment of effort. If however, the task can only be achieved through cohesive effort, with individuals and sub-elements of the team highly dependent on each other, then you need to make ‘the team work’. The lesson here is not to pretend to be teams, or try and force a team solution on a problem or environment which doesn’t require it. Team working is a lot harder than just adding up the individual inputs, so there needs to be a clear benefit in going down this route.

Back at the pharmaceutical company, as part of the preparation for the workshop programme, I spent a day with a sales rep out ‘on the road’, after which the senior training manager asked me for my perceptions of the working practices I saw. I think that she was slightly disappointed that my feedback ran to only 3 comments:

– You get the behaviour you train for
– You get the behaviour you reward
– Teams need leaders

In common with many pharmaceutical companies, this organisation ran an induction programme which was primarily based on developing professional knowledge (dominated by efficacy of branded drugs compared to the competition), and sales skills. Reps were then delivered into a relatively complex team environment, to start work. My point was that you wouldn’t dream of sending reps out to talk to doctors without equipping them with the professional knowledge and sales skills to do the job, so why would you expect them to be any good at team-working (another critical aspect of the role) without any training? However behavioural development barely figured in the functionally dominated training programme.

Variations on this theme are manifold. I don’t know how many employee feedback surveys we have seen which are coloured green all the way down from the top to first- or second-line management, and amber or red below. First-line manager is again and again the point where things break down. Why is that? It’s back to the same problem of functional competence vs behavioural attributes. That first critical promotion to manager is almost invariably based on functional performance – before you make first-line manager, there is often little or no opportunity to demonstrate management or leadership competency. However, the skills to lead the team are clearly different to the skills to be on the team. Why would the best engineer make the best team leader? The problem becomes particularly acute in professions which require high levels of specialist skill or intellectual ability, or where professional competence carries high kudos.

A client who developed specialist software approached us on this exact issue. Not only were the best software developers not great team leaders, they didn’t particularly want to be. The catch-22 of this situation was illustrated to me by the head of trading at a Scandinavian bank. Not wholly seriously, he described his best trader as a psychopathic aggressive nightmare. This combination of personality and attitude, he pointed out, did not necessarily make that individual the best manager of others. However if he promoted other ‘better rounded’ individuals to management roles, they did not carry credibility (due to being less successful) with the people they managed, so the very successful traders on the floor simply paid lip service to management (see the next section for further development of this sort of problem).

However, perhaps the best examples of the issue of competence vs behaviour are in professional services and healthcare. Spending your life as a medical student, and then doctor, always coming near top of the class, and never really failing at anything, with significant social proof and reinforcement of your superior academic status, is not always conducive to a humble participative leadership style – exactly what I might want in the surgeon operating on me (as well as very high skill levels!!). We have done quite a lot of work with law firms, which also face a similar issue, compounded by the organisational set-up of many partnerships. People become lawyers for a myriad of reasons, but almost certainly including a natural interest in the area, enjoyment of intellectual challenge, and attraction to the financial rewards. Junior lawyers want to become partners because then they get the biggest meatiest most challenging cases, the role carries a lot of kudos, and you get the highest remuneration. They don’t often want to be a partner in order to take on a wider management or leadership role, which is exactly what comes with the territory. In fact, we have seen more than one example of that wider responsibility simply being abrogated. It’s your software developer problem taken to a whole new level. Add to this a scenario where all the major shareholders come into the office every day (imagine running GE like that), the Managing Partner is often a first amongst equals, and major decisions all require committee endorsement. This environment is going to have some leadership and management challenges.

The military solution is simple: to train future leaders from day 1, and to regard high levels of functional competence simply as an essential requirement – something which goes with the territory. An individual may join because she wants to be a fighter pilot, but whether she likes it or not, she gets a thorough and career-long grounding in leadership and followership, and high performance against these criteria is essential for advancement. Officer first; pilot second.

Now I don’t pretend for a second that the military offers any perfect solutions and that there haven’t been spectacular examples of poor military leadership over the years. And I also note that the various non-military sectors have produced some exceptional leaders who could have held their own in multiple fields, including the military. However, given the challenges of the environment, and the task, and having observed many commercial organisations over the last 7 years, it is my belief that there are certain aspects of the military approach which deserve deeper consideration.

When I joined the RAF, my only ambition was to be a fighter pilot. But first I had to ‘jump through this hoop’ called Officer Training. Now at the time, Officer Training was, in my mind, basically about polishing shoes, saluting, marching and running around carrying pine poles for 4 months (it has since been extended to 8 months). It was simply something to be endured until I got to start my flying training. However, I now rationalise it rather differently in hindsight. Before I ever got my hands on an aircraft, I had to do this course on brand values, organisational history, the role of air power, leadership and teamwork. And only if I pass that course, will I get to learn any functional skill. As officers, leadership is what we do; that IS what the job is. It doesn’t matter how functionally brilliant you are, if you don’t demonstrate the right behaviours, and leadership potential, you never even get beyond first base.

And this theme of cross-functional non-role-specific training continues throughout your whole career. Junior officers must attend a 4-week course prior to further promotion. At Squadron Leader level, the first above junior officers, there is a similar 8-week course, and at Wing Commander level (the level at which one might command one’s own squadron), there is a full year of further leadership development at Staff College to prepare officers with both the functional skills and the leadership competencies for higher command. And it goes on through the more senior ranks.
Before summing up, one should note one critical aspect of this continuous leadership development: it’s experiential. The vast majority of leadership training I have seen in the non-military world involves some combination of study and improved self-awareness, for which there are a vast number of case analyses, courses, books and psychometric tools available. Although the self-awareness aspect is in some senses a form of development, I am not sure you can call any of these things leadership development in the most literal sense. Learning more about leadership is not the same as becoming a better leader.

Source: Written by, Justin Hughes from Mission Excellence

The Mission Excellence Seminar is an execution-focused interactive event, which gives delegates a completely fresh perspective on team and organisational performance, based on the behaviours and processes used by fighter pilots to deliver consistent outstanding results when working in complex crossfunctional teams. The half day exercise is facilitated by a team of fighter pilots using multimedia presentation, interactive exercises, and unique cockpit video footage. Delivery is possible worldwide.

THE AIMS are to motivate and inspire delegates via a high-impact intervention, to concentrate their minds on your major execution issues from a unique perspective, and introduce some tangible tools which can be applied the next day.

THE DIFFERENCE is that the material is not based on theory learned in a classroom alone. The methodology has been rigorously applied by the people who will deliver your event, in the most demanding and dynamic working environments.

For more information on Mission Excellence, please visit:

Why Companies are (Finally) Falling All Over Each Other to Become Best Places to Work

12-02-2013“Neither a wise man nor a brave man lies down on the tracks of history to wait for the train of the future to run over him.”
– Former U.S. General and President Dwight D. Eisenhower

According to a seemingly endless number of research studies–all arriving at the same conclusion–the American workplace has become profoundly destructive to the human spirit.

The trends have become all too familiar: Employee engagement and job satisfaction have fallen to modern-day lows, countless workers can’t wait for the job market to fully recover so they can high-tail it out of organizations they feel deeply disregard them–and a huge percentage of people enjoy their commutes to and from work more than the jobs they are heading to.

To state the blatantly obvious, all this discontent can’t be very good for business. It also begs the question: How much better can all companies perform were we collectively able to restore worker engagement and loyalty?

For the past several months, I’ve been intrigued by evidence that some astute firms are well on their way to transforming their leadership practices in response to these dour trends. Convinced we’ve reached an inflection point where traditional methods have become fully destructive to organizational success, they’ve initiated more caring and supportive methods to intentionally humanize their work environments–and gain a competitive advantage in the process.

In January, I began writing a series of articles for Fast Company, each one dedicated to better understanding the movement to create “great workplaces.” The underlying reason for all this research is to answer one question: Will this inevitably prove to be a feel-good strategy that flames out–or an approach to leadership that will derail organizations which fail to get on board?

If you hold any position in leadership today, you should know this: Companies that authentically value their employees will be (and already are) the big winners in the 21st-century economy.

Here’s my evidence:

In a visit to software analytics giant, SAS, I met CEO and cofounder Jim Goodnight, arguably the pioneer of a workplace culture that esteems employees over customers and owners. Several times ranked the “Best Company To Work For” in America, and recently named the world’s best multinational workplace, SAS has produced record profits for 37 consecutive years. A company that emphasizes trust, generosity, and work-life balance has a track record of success that irrefutably proves companies “reap what they sow.” A talent magnet because of their “Great Place To Work” status, SAS now receives 100 applications for every open position.

I met with senior executives at Google who’ve made it their prime mission to create the best workplace in the universe. They’re already #1 in the United States. Google takes it on face value that employee well-being is a profound driver of productivity and innovation, and ensures its workers have great influence on their work hours–and a significant voice in how the firm is run. Since it went public nine years ago, Google’s stock has soared 800%.

I interviewed Gallup chief scientist Jim Harter, who launched the first “State of the American Workplace” study in 1997, and recently revealed that only 3 in 10 U.S. workers are engaged in their jobs. To fix this, says Harter, companies need to find deeply caring leaders “capable of seeing, supporting, and adjusting to the differences in people. The truly differentiated manager will be someone who understands that the more they nurture and support employees, the more success they will produce.”

I went to see Jerome Dodson, founder of Parnassus Investments. Since 2005, Dodson has been the portfolio manager for the Parnassus Workplace Fund, a mutual fund that invests exclusively in companies regarded by employees as great places to work. Over the past eight years, the Workplace Fund has had an average return of 9.63%–more than 4% higher than the S&P 500 index in the same timeframe. “What these companies have proved to Wall Street,” says Dodson, “is that treating employees well, and truly respecting them, consistently leads to far better business performance.”

My Research Continues:

For the next step in my journey, I visited with Robert Levering, cofounder and CEO of the Great Place To Work Institute.

Since 1997, Levering’s firm has determined which organizations make Fortune magazine’s annual list of the “100 Best Companies To Work For” in America–and now produces a similar list in nearly 50 other countries.

Levering, along with business partner, Milton Moskowitz, got his start in evaluating workplaces nearly 30 years ago, and has, perhaps, the greatest optics into the future of business leadership. Nearing his 70th birthday, he has no interest in retiring: “I think we’re on the threshold of becoming even more significant in the corporate world,” he said proudly. Here are some of his key insights:


“When Milt and I started,” Levering told me, “being perceived as a great employer was categorized as a ‘nice to have’ in major organizations. Few sought to actively pursue it. But definitely in the last 10 years–it increases every year–more people in the C-suites have grown convinced that creating a great workplace is integral to their success as a business. Just recently, I visited Intel, and the CEO, Brian Krzanich, articulated his vision brilliantly when he told his team: ‘We want to attract the very best talent, and you can’t do that unless you acquire a reputation for having a great workplace–and people feel it when they are there. And, if you want to get the most out of them for the shareholders, we know they’re only going to excel if they think Intel is a great place to be.’”


Back in the 1990s, many companies began proclaiming that their people “were their greatest asset.” According to Levering, just the idea that workers were being described in financial terms suggested these expressions were nothing more than lip service.

But Levering believes business leaders are being forced to change their ways. “I think it’s really clear that technological change has made having very talented employees increasingly important,” he stressed. “Underlying that is how competitive business has become everywhere. At one time, there were real monopolies–companies that effectively had very secure markets. I don’t think there are such things anymore–and this means companies have to be constantly innovating and relying on people to produce it. So, what’s really shifted is the understanding that companies cannot succeed without attracting and retaining great people. CEOs, therefore, are coming to value people with much greater authenticity.”

Levering also is very clear that most organizations are changing their leadership cultures simply in recognition that doing so is expansive to the bottom line. “What we’re finding are CEOs, like at Intel, who genuinely care about people–yet they simultaneously understand their doing so has become an important aspect of running their company. It’s not altruistically motivated,” he insists. “CEOs are coming to justify creating great workplaces in business terms.”


Robert Levering not only is convinced a major shift in workplace management has begun to take hold, he’s certain that organizational existence soon will be dependent upon adopting more caring and humane leadership practices.

“I think the focus on becoming a great workplace can best be compared to what happened with the ‘Quality Movement,’” he told me. “Recall back to the 1970s, when producing products with high quality was largely seen as optional in business. That is, until Japanese manufacturers started to beat the pants off American and Western European companies in everything from automobiles to electronics. The sudden competitive disadvantage these organizations faced forced them to acknowledge that making high-quality products had become essential to their success and even to their very survival. Soon, every American company was adopting the quality processes that were pioneered in Japan.”

“I think the same thing is going to happen with workplace issues,” Levering added. “We’re just at the beginning stages where people have started to see that some of the best performing companies are ones that have terrific cultures. CEOs are all wondering, ‘Why is Google so great?’ And if you look at what makes that company so distinctive, you see that it has much to do with the kind of workplace they’re intentionally creating. Because the competitive pressures will be so great, people will come to understand that having a great workplace is not optional anymore and has instead become essential. The urgency for leaders to take action now is to get there before their competitors do. Would you want to have been the last company in your industry to embrace the quality movement?”



Mark C. Crowley is a leadership consultant, speaker and author whose mission is to fundamentally change how we lead and manage people in the 21st Century workplace.

It’s simply irrefutable that traditional leadership practices no longer motivate and inspire people in their jobs; researchers tell us that employee engagement and job satisfaction have reached modern-day lows.

But even in the context of these dire statistics, the thesis that employee loyalty and productivity easily could be restored were leaders to become more caring and supportive, flies in the face of conventional wisdom. In fact, we’ve long been taught that leading with any degree of “heart” is an inherently weak approach – one entirely antithetical to driving profit. But Mark C. Crowley has a particularly compelling voice to challenge these outdated assumptions, and to offer up a new, more informed leadership paradigm.