Sometimes “Bad” Managers Rise to the Top

Most of my “Things I’ve Learned as a Manager” posts talk about skills or behaviors that I’ve found to be effective in the workplace, and that generally, reflect the practice of good managers or leaders. You can see a post on what makes a good boss here. Ironically, however, one of the realities of the workplace is that sometimes “bad” managers rise in organizations, sometimes all the way to the top. How is this possible?

First of all, it is less common than it used to be, but it still happens. Most managers were, at one time, highly skilled technicians, who got promoted into management because of their technical skills. Unfortunately, most managers are not promoted into entry-level management positions due to their management skills, which, by definition, haven’t been part of their job descriptions. And of course, not all employees who are great accountants or computer programmers or salespeople are also great managers. Some are and some learn to be, but some really struggle with behaviors and skills that are totally different than what they used as technicians. So, how do folks who are poor managers continue to get promoted?

Sometimes it is simply being in the right place at the right time. Organizations that are growing rapidly inevitably have more inexperienced or ineffective managers because of the need to promote very quickly from within as the operation grows. Sometimes, individuals, though poor managers, can be exceptionally productive in their own right and get results even as their teams suffer. This is more common at lower levels of management where the manager can do much of the work him or herself. Sometimes individuals have strong connections with powerful people in an organization and get promoted or stay in positions despite poor performance as managers because they have political advocates.

Regardless of the reason, it does happen. We have all had a bad manager at some point and wondered how did that guy or gal get his or her position? Fortunately, the days of truly awful managers—those who scream and yell or denigrate their employees; those who manage with conflict and political games; those who are utterly incompetent or dishonest—are mostly gone. While every organization has weak managers, the demands of the modern workplace—fewer people doing more work with fewer resources; matrixed organizations; remote workers, and more open and effective employee relations programs—make it much more difficult for really bad managers to get to senior positions or stay there. It happens, but it’s increasingly rare.

What is more common today is managers who are simply “over their heads” in terms of what is required of them vs. what they are capable of doing. As noted in another post, the complexity of today’s typical organizational environments and leadership jobs have outgrown the skillsets of many managers. As those individuals become more frustrated (or fearful) about the disconnect between their abilities and their responsibilities, they are more prone to act out or make unreasonable demands or blame subordinates, etc. Unfortunately, the default setting is often to double down on what is already not working by doing more of it (working harder rather than smarter), putting more pressure on subordinates, etc. What is different about today’s environment vs. previous generations is that the demands for short-term results are so powerful that ineffective managers and leaders are more likely to be moved out of organizations by those above them than they used to be. In effect, all levels of management feel the same pressures and are more apt to “recycle” those below them more quickly than they used to.

So yes, some bad managers still rise to the top, but the current environment makes it less likely that they will survive long term than used to be the case.

Change Takes Time

People often talk about change being “difficult.” However, change is simply part of the human condition, for individuals, families, organizations, and communities. What clearly is difficult in our “immediate gratification” society today is having the patience to wait for the results that planned change is supposed to accomplish. This applies to both individuals and organizations.

The phrase “fail quickly” has become popular in many organizations. The idea is that you can be more aggressive with risk-taking because if you determine quickly that an initiative has failed, you can end it and change course with limited exposure to the “failed” course of action. The notion of failing quickly makes sense relative to limited, tactical changes, but I believe that it has been frequently misapplied to systemic and strategic change. As a result, many organizations find themselves whipsawed back and forth from one new strategy or market initiative to the next without ever allowing enough time to determine if the strategy was effective to begin with! This is connected to an unfortunate focus in many organizations on quick wins rather than sustainable success, but that is another article!

One of the most profound mistakes of this kind I have witnessed was the decision by a career college system that presciently entered the online education world very early, in 1999. A new CEO came to the organization shortly after the online initiative was launched who thought online education was a fad that would never catch on. Rather than dedicate modest resources to the effort and show a little patience, he pulled the plug on what would have been the greatest growth and revenue generating strategy in the history of the company–and the organization would have been well ahead of the industry. Today that organization has contracted significantly and is on the verge of closing completely.

Certainly, there are “tactical changes” that can produce immediate results (or can be quickly judged). If a manager decides to increase the building thermostat for air conditioning from 68 to 72 degrees, electricity use will immediately decline and savings will result. Similarly, if he or she changes from one vendor to another there might be an immediate benefit in service or product quality or cost. However, when leaders make systemic, strategic or transformational changes, they must not only be prepared to wait, sometimes for extended periods of time, but they must actively nurture the change to see if it will produce the desired results.

Changes in leadership, culture, organizational structure, and strategy are often necessary and critical to long-term success, but, unlike tactical change, they must be managed and supported with the understanding that it not only may take a significant amount of time to achieve results, but things may actually get worse initially as the organization adjusts to the new reality. The worst thing a leader can do is to put an organization or a team through jarring change, then alter course prematurely! When that happens, not only does the organization fail to achieve the desired outcome, but people in the organization have endured the stress and complication of major change without seeing a benefit. In such a case the manager then has to deal with a “failed” strategy and people who have become cynical about change itself!

So, in the face of material change, have confidence, be patient, and persevere long enough to truly assess whether or not the change will deliver the desired results!

Transparency and Candor Are Powerful Tools…In Healthy Organizations

Almost all organizations (and leaders) claim that they want their employees to be transparent and candid—or some variation on that theme. Some even adopt stated cultural values using those words. It has been my experience, however, that despite an intuitive understanding that such values and behaviors support better communications, teamwork, and decision-making, most organizations don’t actually reward such behavior on a consistent basis. In fact, in both my organizational leadership and consulting roles, I have found that it is actually quite rare for organizations to be healthy enough and safe enough that employees (both staff and management) have the confidence to speak in truly unfiltered ways.

At worst, organizations overtly encourage transparency, but then punish people who challenge conventional wisdom or the status quo. Usually however, the dysfunction is more subtle, in which some kinds of transparency and candor are OK and even rewarded, but the “hidden” culture has taught people to steer clear of voicing opposing opinions about key topics or in contradiction of certain people.

This dynamic, though common, is terribly unfortunate because the power of transparency and candor can be truly transformational. In organizations in which senior leadership have the confidence, sense of security, and foresight to allow for healthy conflict, passionate disagreement, and open challenges to the status quo, the quality of problem solving and decision making is remarkably better than in organizations that fear and restrict such behavior.

A really good and entertaining read on this subject is Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Lencioni argues, correctly I believe, that one reason that transparency, candor and healthy conflict engender much more successful outcomes is because those behaviors are markers of teams rather than just groups of employees, managers, etc. In fact, he believes that teamwork is the single greatest competitive advantage any organization can possess.

In contrast, transparency and candor, if they exist at all in unhealthy organizations, are often levers for gaining political advantage rather than higher quality problem solving or decision making. In dysfunctional organizations, and in the absence of true teams, conflict is unhealthy and unproductive, because there is an underlying lack of trust among colleagues. That lack of trust makes healthy conflict impossible.

Although rarely the topic of leadership training, one of the greatest leadership challenges any leader can face is moving an organization (and the people in it) from self-interested and dysfunctional to team focused and healthy. In fact, it is so poorly understood and difficult, that it is rarely ever the primary focus of leaders’ efforts—either because leaders don’t realize the significance of organizational dysfunction or they do realize it, but don’t have the “chutzpa” or confidence to tackle the challenge. Leaders are usually focused on operational, financial, or strategic initiatives, which although important, will inevitably be compromised by a dysfunctional culture. The fact is that even the most difficult operational or financial problems are generally easier to deal with than deep cultural change, which is why most leaders avoid the challenge.

It takes effort to sustain any organizational value worth having, but if you really want your leadership to create transformational change, then you must nurture the kinds of values and behaviors that will result in true teamwork and the synergies that come from teamwork, such as trust, risk-taking, transparency, candor, healthy conflict, and deep collaboration. It will not be easy, but it will pay bigger dividends than just about anything else you can do as a leader.

There Really Is a Difference between Working Smarter vs. Working Harder

Earlier in my management career, I bought into the notion that the best managers (and employees) were those who worked the longest hours. It seems intuitive that someone who gets to work early and stays late and comes in on the weekend must be more valuable and productive than someone who works less “hard.” And, in fact, there may be a correlation between long hours and the dedication one has to his or her work and organization. On the other hand, not only is there not a correlation between how many hours someone works and how much value they bring to an organization, in the extreme, putting in very long hours can actually make someone less effective and less valuable.

I have worked 12 and 13 and 15-hour days in my career. Occasionally there are situations in which a particular task or issue is so time sensitive and so critical to the organization, that it is justifiable, if not necessary, to work an extremely long day or week. However, over time, week in and week out, if someone is working 12 to 15 hour days, he or she is probably lacking in efficiency and/or unable to prioritize effectively. Moreover, as most of us have experienced personally, after a certain point, our ability to do “good” work, to focus, wanes. This is supported by compelling research into the effects on cognition of extended work without breaks. After 10 or more hours in the office, the quality of our work and the clarity of our attention is simply at a lower level than it is earlier in the day. In fact, we begin to make mental errors. We also become less creative and more rote—and that is certainly not good for ourselves or our organization.

Additionally, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find the elusive “work-life balance” when we are working such long hours. By definition, if we are spending that many hours at work, we are not spending those same hours with the people who matter to us outside of work and that will eventually create stress and conflict at home that will distract us at work!

Again, while there are occasions when working a long day or week is necessary, getting more done and doing it well within a reasonable time frame generally leads to better results and a better mental state. As I noted in a previous post about the myth of long hours correlating with productivity, I cite very compelling research that suggests that people who work at very high levels, but for shorter periods of time, likely create higher quality outcomes and more value than those who work long hours, but with diminishing mental focus. In short, identifying which tasks will create the most value for ourselves and those around us, and doing those well, is working “smart” and it is preferable to accomplishing more tasks with mediocre results. Regardless, for many of us, we will never get to a point during the day in which we are “done” with our responsibilities. We simply choose the point at which we leave what isn’t done until tomorrow. If we have prioritized well and done good work, then we can choose a reasonable point to leave the rest for tomorrow—and we will be happier and healthier, both at work and at home.

One last point: shifting to working smarter requires that we give ourselves permission to violate what are long standing organizational norms and socialization. In many workplaces, particularly in the U.S., managers don’t even use all of their vacation time, let alone give themselves permission to work shorter/flexible, but more productive days. It can take a lot of courage to be the one who walks out the door at a reasonable time, but if you are in an organization that actually values quality and productivity over quantity and activity, you will ultimately be rewarded for working smart.

Online Delivery: Silver Bullet or Potential Trap? And What Questions Any Institution of Higher Education Should Be Asking

To Offer Online or Not?

Looking back to the mid 1990s, it is fair to say that the quality and sophistication of learning management systems are much improved from the early days of online education. And, in some ways, it is much easier for colleges to be in the “online business” today than it used to be. To be clear, however, the underlying architecture and the pedagogical models are mostly the same as they were 20 years ago. Learning Management Systems (LMSs) do not yet effectively leverage what other applications typically do such as captivating social interaction, user-friendly transactional tools, gaming principles, or even high end adaptive learning capabilities. What LMSs are good at is providing stable frameworks for holding and disseminating content, basic interactions, highly consistent pedagogical models (far superior to traditional classrooms), and flexibility for learners. Even though online education has a long way to go in terms of its potential, it can still be a compelling option for IHEs and students.

Whether you have been delivering content online for some time or still debating whether or not to take the leap, it is important to periodically review why your institution should or shouldn’t be in the online business to begin with. In most cases, schools are motivated by the opportunity to increase enrollments. However, that is only one possible reason and enrollment growth is not at all guaranteed, particularly if the goal is to reach students outside of an institution’s local geography.

Because online delivery is resource (both money and people) intensive, it really has to be clear that a school or its students or both, are better off having online access to content than not. The truth is that in some cases, there is no objective added value for having online delivery, and if that’s the case, schools should steer clear!

There are three basic ways to use online learning technology:

  • Web Enhanced (online content and tools added to an otherwise traditional brick and mortar classroom)
  • Hybrid or Blended (online content and tools replace some of what would be delivered in the classroom)
  • Fully Online (all content and services are provided via an LMS to students who do not access any content in a traditional classroom)

Note that any of these three modalities can be delivered “at a distance,” in the sense that internet based content and applications can be accessed by students and instructors outside of the physical classroom. However, online education is not necessarily “distance” education since even campus-based students may access educational offerings online while in a classroom or other campus location.

Of significance, after over 20 years of online education via the web, the vendor market has matured substantially and it is now possible to outsource virtually all of the required components of online education for any of the three definitions offered above. Such service is typically called “OPM” (Online Program Management) and there are many established providers serving higher education today. Relatedly, almost all online education is now delivered through commercially available learning management systems such as Blackboard or eCollege and an open source application called Moodle. Although some higher education institutions have developed proprietary LMSs, that is fairly rare due to the costs involved in development and maintenance.

Why Do Online?

Regardless of how online content is delivered, the decision to launch or continue online education has to be more than “everyone else is doing it.” Some reasons to pursue online education are:

  • Enrollment growth (new markets, geographies, programs)
  • Financial outcomes (revenue and margins)
  • Instructional quality (consistent pedagogical model)
  • New partnerships (opportunities that require online delivery)
  • Facilities efficiencies (new programs/courses without additional space)
  • New educational models (competency based education, short courses)
  • Public image (online as a marker of “modern” higher education)
  • Student outcomes (learning, retention)

It is very important that an institution be able to identify clear benefits based on at least high-level empirical data to support reasons for starting or continuing online delivery. For example, “we want to enroll students at a distance and online will do that” is not sufficient. You need to know where those students are, how you will reach them, and why, in a very crowded market, they would choose your institution over many other options. In fact, what many institutions have learned is that marketing to reach online students is more expensive and has more competition for inquiries and students than campus based programs in local markets. This also often applies to course development, support, and other cost areas. So, at the least, any institution thinking about starting online or continuing online delivery should engage in a robust discussion with a good cross section of organizational leaders to rate the likely outcomes at least on the list of the eight items above. That can be a facilitated activity with a skilled consultant or it can be led “in house,” but online education is too complicated, expensive, and potentially distracting to engage such an initiative without compelling rationales to do so.

In short, because online education burdens any school with additional staffing, technology, support, regulatory, marketing, and other requirements, there must be a clear ROI argument for online decisions or the institution must have access to incremental resources to support online education.

At the very least, online delivery must provide added value in one or more of three categories:

  • Incremental revenues
  • Better margins through efficiencies, or
  • Improved student outcomes such as learning or retention, that help students and benefit the P&L.

Some additional helpful questions to ask are:

  • Can we reach a student market with online content that we cannot reach without it?
  • Will online delivery free up brick and mortar classroom space?
  • Can we scale online content more efficiently than traditional campus delivered content?
  • Will online delivery allow us to save expense with instructional materials or instructional cost?
  • Will online delivery improve instructional quality?
  • Who will own content?
  • Do we envision any accreditation barriers?
  • Will we create content, design courses, train instructors, host an LMS, do marketing and other activities in house or use an out sourced solution?

Fortunately, online education is no longer a mystery to accreditors and virtually every accrediting body now has straightforward standards for approving online delivery. However, most also require additional criteria, tracking, and reporting for content delivered online and/or at a distance, so that has to be a competency of the accreditation and regulatory folks within the institution.

Lastly, if you determine that you want to serve students outside your local market and/or you already do that and wish to evaluate new program opportunities, in addition to your normal new program process, schools typically benefit from rating the following criteria:

Mass Market Appeal

Fully online distance education almost always requires operating at scale with fairly large enrollments. Can you effectively sell a program to many students?

Identifiable Lead Sources

Are you confident you can reach potential students at a distance via affordable marketing options?

Effective Online Platform

Will your current (or future) LMS work to effectively deliver the program you want to launch fully at a distance? This is very different than for web enhanced or hybrid.


Will the program design facilitate acceleration of program completion? This is a critical selling point for many online students.

Short/Flexible Courses

Will your course design process and administrative policies facilitate short and/or non-traditional course schedules? This is usually an important differentiator for fully online programs.

Course Sequencing

Will your intended program(s) allow flexible course sequencing? In other words, you want to avoid restrictions such as extensive pre-requisites and required course sequencing that limit class size and increase completion times.

Open Admissions

Will your intended program(s) invite applications from a broad pool of potential students? For mass market programs, you want to avoid high barriers to entry such as GPA, entrance exam scores, and limited transfer credit among others.

Support Infrastructure

Will you be able to provide equal or better academic support and student services to students at a distance?


Although we’ve come a long way in the twenty plus years of delivering educational content via the web, many of the underlying questions and challenges are similar. You must have good reasons to “do” online and you must be prepared to adequately resource such initiatives. While online technologies can provide a range of benefits, those benefits are not “magic” and not guaranteed.

Two important things that have changed are broad acceptance of online delivery and the option of outsourcing almost any aspect of online education from marketing to course design. Outsourcing can be a great option when internal capital is limited, but as with any vendor relationship there are compromises.

Interestingly, as online education has achieved critical mass, it is starting to affect traditional, campus based education in positive ways as well—one of the most compelling of which is simply improving the pedagogical models in brick and mortar settings. The reason for that is that learning management systems require that course designers (and instructors) make a series of pedagogical decisions that historically were never part of the traditional classroom. As such, the discipline involved in online education is bleeding over into the campus classroom.

While there are many good reasons to pursue or not pursue investment in online delivery, schools can only arrive at logical, defensible decisions by engaging in formal dialog and analysis—which should be the case with any important strategic decision!

The Deeper Message Behind the Effort to Repeal the Affordable Care Act

Political Disclaimer: I have never been a registered member of either major political party, but my preferred candidate in the 2016 presidential election was John Kasich, Republican governor of Ohio. The Republican party in Washington today is beyond recognition to me. While my essay probably appears to be an attack on Republicans, that is simply a result of the fact that Republicans are exclusively behind the current, wholly partisan effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. There is no way for me to criticize what I see as horrifically bad legislation and related outcomes without criticizing those who are exclusively responsible.

The House bill (H.R. 1628), the “American Health Care Act of 2017,” which passed the House in May, and the Senate reconciliation bill, the preposterously named “Better Care Reconciliation Act,” recently brought out of secret negotiations in the Senate, are about much more than access to health insurance and health care in the United States. These bills are talismans of what could be a very bleak future, as privileged Republicans in congress and the Whitehouse are sending the unambiguous message that, as a matter of principle, they believe that reducing taxes for the very wealthiest Americans is more important than it is for tens of millions of Americans to have access to health care at all. Let’s be clear: policy debates about the “free market” or mandates aside, the reconciliation bill, in it’s current form, would be an unmitigated disaster for the delivery of health care in the U.S. The current legislation is a moral failure, which, if enacted, would do more damage to the well being of tens of millions of Americans than any other legislation in memory. What is shocking is not the fact that some members of congress support legislation that would devastate millions of American families. What is shocking is that nearly all Republicans in both the House and Senate have either already voted in favor of the legislation or said they would. This is not some theoretical dinner table conversation about the relative pros and cons of government involvement in American health care. The bill, in its current form would completely deny health insurance to tens of millions of Americans who have it now and eviscerate coverage for many millions more. That is not political opinion. It is a hard fact of the proposed repeal legislation.

What could a back room conversation about the effort to repeal Obamacare inside the Republican caucus possibly sound like?

“Well, this bill will increase the number of uninsured to almost fifty million Americans and it’ll be hardest on the lower income and disabled, and a lot of folks will probably lose coverage for pre-existing conditions, and rural hospitals will close, and people struggling with opioid addiction will be out of luck, and bankruptcies will spike, and somewhere over 35,000 people will actually die due to loss of health insurance, but we’ll be able to transfer nearly four hundred billion dollars in tax breaks to our very wealthiest friends (goosebumps) and…this is the best part… we’ll really stick it to Obama out of pure spite! Heck, that’s worth several thousand deaths by itself!!”

It has not always been this way. Over the last 70 years or so, Republican legislators and presidents have supported the common good with everything from the interstate highway system (Eisenhower) to a progressive tax system to preserve social security (Reagan) to the Americans with Disabilities Act (G.H.W. Bush) to global AIDs funding and prescription drug benefits for the elderly (G.W. Bush). There was a time when “conservative” did not mean reactionary and certainly didn’t mean coldly trading the health care of tens of millions of citizens for hundreds of billions in tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans. To be clear, the ACA would eventually face critical funding challenges without modifications, but the current Republican plan is based on a tax mechanism that would make the funding situation much worse! The only way hundreds of billions of dollars can be shifted to wealthy companies and individuals, while cutting taxes earmarked for health care, is to eliminate coverage for upwards of 30,000,000 people and reduce coverage for many tens of millions more through 2026—and that is the core source of opposition and dissonance for so many Americans. It is also a frightening precedent as it demonstrates that the current Republican calculus has no moral “red lines” when it comes to human cost.

What we see in the current health care bills is not only a cavalier attitude by well-off, medically insured (Republican) congressmen, senators, and president toward the least empowered and most at-risk citizens (those who rely on Medicaid for access to health care), but both bills also redirect hundreds of billions of dollars in taxes from that same Medicaid program (which the Senate bill cuts by nearly $1,000,000,000,000—yes, trillion) to the nation’s most wealthy companies and individuals. Moreover, by removing subsidies and tax credits, the House bill and the Senate reconciliation, would also eliminate access to insurance, or usable insurance, to many millions more who do not qualify for Medicaid, but do qualify for financial support to purchase insurance on the ACA exchanges. In fact, based on existing non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) assessments, the only likely beneficiaries of the current legislation would be young, healthy individuals whose premiums would likely decrease (but who may also lose benefits). The worst off would be low income Americans in their 50s and 60s, and, distressingly, the CBO estimates that in excess of 15,000,000 people would lose health insurance in the first year alone under the Senate reconciliation! The very basic reality is that the proposed repeal of the ACA would have the greatest negative effect on the poor, the near-elderly and elderly, the disabled, and specific groups such as those suffering from opioid addiction and pre-existing conditions. If that were not bad enough, recent research by Harvard University found that roughly one in every 830 people without health insurance dies as a result. In other words, the predicted loss of insurance for approximately 28,000,000 Americans by 2026 would result in nearly 37,000 preventable deaths. It is no small irony that Republicans refer to themselves as the “pro-life” party.

Of equal importance, the CBO report also states that the current instability in some ACA markets is not a product of the law itself or of some structural problem in those markets, but rather of President Trump’s threats to end enforcement of requirements to procure insurance as well as threats to de-fund subsidies that support the cost of premiums. In other words, the president has found a way to cynically fulfill his prophecy about problems with Obamacare by creating those problems himself.

And to be clear, there aren’t even good political reasons for Republicans in congress to pursue the current path. The proposed repeal of Obamacare is wildly unpopular. A significant majority of Americans from both parties are opposed to the current legislation and only 17% in recent polls support it. Even among Republicans, well less than half of voters support the current legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act. While the polls do not explain in depth why so many Americans are against the current efforts in congress, it is not difficult to surmise that there is broad based fear about a future in which Republicans sacrifice the well being of millions of American families for a set of principles that benefits the most well off Americans at the expense of the most vulnerable. That is viscerally frightening to a substantial majority of Americans, including those who voted for Trump and Republican legislators in Congress.

In fact, the negative impact of the repeal of the ACA would be so severe to actual health outcomes, that the American Medical Association has claimed in a letter to Senate leadership, that passage of the bill in its current form would be a violation of the Hippocratic “do no harm” oath. They add in their letter that, “We believe that Congress should be working to increase the number of Americans with access to quality, affordable health insurance instead of pursuing policies that have the opposite effect.” Similarly, in response to the same CBO report, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement in which they said, “…the loss of affordable access for millions of people is simply unacceptable… These are real families who need and deserve health care,” followed by, “We pray that the Senate will work in an open and unified way to keep the good aspects of current health care proposals, to add missing elements where needed, and to not place our sisters and brothers who struggle every day into so great a peril on so basic a right (emphasis added).” While fiscal restraint, freedom from mandates, and free markets are all defensible principles, the Republican disregard for the well being of many millions of Americans highlighted by the USCCB is a frankly jarring spectacle to witness.

Of course, providing anything close to universal health insurance coverage is dauntingly expensive and complicated, but the notion of denying basic access, while shifting resources from those most in need to those who are already the most well off, is simply immoral, and that has not been lost on most Americans. In fact, it would seem that the disagreement within the Republican party is between conservatives, and those who are more conservative, about how much pain to inflict on the American public.

Unless you believe that roughly 275 legislators in Washington are that cold hearted (or have that little political self-interest), the only other viable explanation is that the motivation to kill the Affordable Care Act is not about any principle at all, but rather about a deep, nearly pathological need by many Republicans to avenge eight years of the Obama presidency regardless of the human cost. Either way, it is disturbing to contemplate that a majority of members of Congress (and the president) would casually devastate many millions of American families for either reason. It makes them seem frankly unhinged, particularly since there is no critical need to change anything with the Affordable Care act right now. A bipartisan effort to improve the ACA could happen at any time.

To better understand historical context of government involvement in health care, the reason we have Medicare and Medicaid at all is because in the mid 1960s both parties of congress and the president at the time, Lyndon Johnson, recognized that the free market would not and could not support access to health care for those in poverty or near-poverty, by reason of disability, age, and unemployment. While there was certainly opposition to both programs, there was bipartisan support for the principle that even in capitalist systems, there is broad social value, if not moral compulsion, in creating a floor of services, medical and otherwise, funded by society as a whole. The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) was an attempt, unwieldy but broadly successful, to bring access to medical care for about half of the nearly 50,000,000 Americans who did not have such access prior to 2010.

Of course, there are elements of the Affordable Care Act that are unsustainable in their current form and that would have to be modified at some point regardless. A compelling example is the notion of Medicaid as an “open-ended” (the government simply pays what it costs for each new enrollee) benefit whose cost continues to increase at rates in excess of inflation. While all health care costs have been increasing for decades at rates in excess of inflation, Medicaid (and Medicare) are almost wholly funded by taxpayer dollars. Without a change, those costs alone would eventually eat up virtually all discretionary federal tax receipts, which, of course, is not viable. However, there is a rational, compassionate place between adjusting Medicaid and Medicare expenditures and taxes on the one hand and wiping out access to health care for tens of millions of Americans on the other hand, while redistributing hundreds of billions of dollars from poor Americans back to wealthy ones!

As for mandates, no one likes to be told what to do. But to suggest, as Republicans in congress have, that the mandate to purchase health insurance, which is central to the ACA and any other sustainable insurance market, is somehow unique to Obamacare, is at best disingenuous, and at worst, out right dishonest. Our government issues mandates in every sector of our lives, including other forms of insurance! When was the last time you tried to get license plates for a car without having “mandated” liability insurance? Health care providers are mandated to have malpractice insurance. Every 18 year-old male in the U.S. is mandated to sign up for the selective service. Tens of millions of children are mandated to attend school and every day nearly 3,000,000 airline passengers are mandated to show a government ID, sacrifice their privacy, and pay “security fees” to get on a plane. Our daily lives are infused with mandates and the underlying rationale for all of them is that the common good in those cases outweighs individual choice. You cannot legally drive without purchasing auto insurance because of the undue burden that puts on others in society if you cause a wreck. The same argument applies to health insurance. If an individual does not have insurance, but ends up in the emergency room and intensive care after an accident, those who do have insurance will ultimately pay the bill through higher premiums and higher costs for their own health care.

Republican histrionics aside—no, the Affordable Care Act, is not a “disaster;” Hurricane Katrina was a disaster—the fundamental problem with the Affordable Care Act, despite its flaws, is not the law itself, and the problem certainly wasn’t the noble goal of creating access to healthcare for tens of millions of uninsured Americans. The problem is that it was bolted onto an underlying health care system with deep structural flaws, many of which the ACA attempts to address symptomatically rather than causally. If the Republicans in congress and our president were acting in anything approaching good faith, they would be engaged in a bipartisan effort to create lasting, structural solutions to our health care system, even if that means material compromises for both political parties. In comparison, although the ACA was ultimately passed along partisan lines, the initial discussions on the bill were largely bipartisan, including a presidential address to Congress and Whitehouse strategy sessions involving members of both parties. The reason that is not happening now is because the current Republican repeal legislation has absolutely nothing to do with improving the healthcare system. Their motivation is either to create a healthcare system based on free market principles and privilege, regardless of human cost, or their neurotic obsession with poking Obama in the eye, or both. The very name of the Senate reconciliation bill itself, the “Better Care Reconciliation Act,” is laughable on its face. It may be cheaper for some and it may allow others to avoid buying health insurance at all, but in no way does it improve care for anyone.

Let’s be clear that as a society, we either believe that access to some meaningful level of health care is a guaranteed right (as we have done with primary and secondary education), and make collective sacrifices to achieve that goal, or we believe that access to health care is a privilege enjoyed only by those with the financial means to afford it. It’s that simple. Most Americans have said they believe health care is a right. Republicans in Washington, through their repeal legislation, have declared the opposite, and will likely lose the moral and political battle over time.

Let’s also be clear that no broadly effective health care solution, ACA or otherwise, will work long term, in any way approaching “affordable,” without acknowledging a combination of undeniable truths.

Some of those truths are:

  • Almost all Americans will have to contribute some level of their own personal financial resources to their own health care.
  • Not every American can have access to every medical service, test, treatment, etc., or have such access precisely when they want it. There must be some management of care.
  • Covering nearly all Americans will require that some form of government sponsored insurance be part of the solution (Medicaid, Medicare, VA, etc.)
  • Covering nearly all Americans will require substantial tax receipts, most of which will come from wealthy Americans and businesses, because they pay most of the taxes collected in the U.S.
  • Covering nearly all Americans will require healthy people to pay into insurance pools, which will subsidize less healthy people.
  • Some individuals will have to pay for some benefits they never use.
  • Some form of centralized negotiation of cost will be necessary for public programs the same way it exists now for privately insured programs (the federal government already does this with the VA health system)

In short, the current Republican effort to repeal the ACA has absolutely nothing to do with improving health care outcomes or the health care system. As confirmed by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, it would objectively wipe out access to health care for over fifteen million people in the first year of implementation alone! The Republican effort is about legislating the principle that health care is a privilege only for those who can afford it, while decreasing tax obligations on the wealthiest Americans. Heaven help us if that becomes the driving moral principle for all Republican policy while they have a congressional majority and hold the presidency.

Organizational Culture vs. Macro Culture: How to Lead in Multi-Cultural or Even “Foreign” Environments

Many of my posts and articles address the critical nature of culture within organizations, and for good reason. Many of the biggest leadership challenges today are actually more about culture (beliefs, values and behavior) than about operations or strategy.

But what role does macro culture (the culture outside the organization) have on the micro-culture inside the organization and on related leadership challenges? It turns out it’s a really big deal.

In my case, I have been very fortunate to have travelled to 37 different nations and lived in six different countries around the world. Although I carry an American passport, my world-view is the product of life and work in dozens of different macro cultures, with particularly extensive experience in those of Latin America, Europe, and the Middle East. As part of my experience, I have served as a Chief Executive Officer of large, complex organizations outside the United States and have learned powerful lessons as a result.

So, back to the original question: What role does macro culture play on the internal cultures of organizations within those macro cultures and, importantly, what are the implications for leadership in those contexts?

It would be impossible to fully answer such questions in a single article, but there are some high level takeaways I can address here.

Let me start with what was nearly the biggest mistake of my professional life. I was the new CEO of a parent company in Latin America that had four subsidiaries within the overall structure, three in Latin America and one in Florida, on the U.S. mainland. I had the advantage of speaking Spanish and of extensive experience living in other Hispanic countries, but I had never run an organization outside the U.S. at that point.

The holding company had American ownership and I was hired in the U.S., with the implicit assumption that I would impart American business practices in the Latin American operations. In fact, early on in my tenure, I determined that my objective was to make my new company the “best American operation possible.” Huge mistake.

Macro cultures have evolved over centuries (or millennia) and many generations. They dramatically impact values around things like time, incentives, respect, relationships, gender roles, hierarchies, and even religion among others. These values are reflected in behavior and language, among other manifestations, and while people may learn to say what they think a boss wants to hear, if they are being asked to do things that conflict with their cultural values, there will be no sustained commitment at all and lots of down stream dissonance and confusion.

Not surprisingly, I initially found myself frustrated with some things that didn’t match my expectations. One example was what I felt was a lack of urgency around time commitments. Another example (funny now) was what I thought to be “inappropriate” use of organizational email systems for personal, all-staff emails. However, I also discovered deep value for human relationships, for loyalty, for family, for enthusiastic social life, and an almost limitless patience in the face of frustrating bureaucratic challenges. And as for time, yes, it really was perceived differently, but it turns out that the relationship with time was, at its core, far more healthy than what I had been socialized to believe in typical American organizations.

Thankfully, before I had a chance to seriously damage my professional relationships or to create unsustainable stress in the organization, I came to the realization that my objective had to be to create the “best Puerto Rican operation possible,” which still provided opportunities to inculcate best practices in the organization (which we did with things like shared services, customer service, planning, financial controls, and accountability among others), but those efforts had to exist in concert with the overriding external cultural values that so thoroughly permeated the organization—and I absolutely had to choose my battles. There were a few cases in which I challenged organizational norms because I just didn’t believe they were justifiable, culturally or otherwise. But I only did so if I was really confident (and had confirmed with others from the local culture) that I was probably right. One example was the notion that we just couldn’t provide great customer service because that didn’t exist in the external culture. I didn’t buy it and launched a comprehensive effort to change the reality, which we did.

Another example comes from the Arabian Gulf area of the Middle East. Compared to American norms, professional interactions are incredibly formal in the Arab world and there is a long, historical tradition of being deferential to those at the top of hierarchies. Even long time lateral colleagues often address each other as “Mr.” or “Dr.” so and so, particularly in the presence of others. Being from the West, but also being someone who believes that formal hierarchy can get in the way of open communications, dissemination of ideas, teamwork, etc., this was a challenge for me. At first I created occasional dissonance by simply being too informal. While still more informal than most of my colleagues, I have learned to be more protocol driven, particularly in the presence of others. My motivation for that, in addition to simply being respectful of the local norms, is to avoid the appearance that I do not honor the professional status of my colleagues. It is a work in progress, but a critical key to success when navigating new cultural environments is to earn the benefit of the doubt by listening, learning, and being as gracious as possible.

Having said that, sometimes there are cultural “non-negotiables” that must be understood and respected. The Middle East, for example, is broadly Islamic and unlike the West, there is often little or no distinction between Islamic values in the workplace, private life, government, etc. While most Muslim majority countries are very respectful of other religions, there is an expectation that Muslims and non-Muslims alike honor certain Islamic values. A very good workplace example is that some female Muslim employees choose to limit their interactions with male colleagues. For example, some have made the choice not to shake hands with male colleagues or to share an elevator alone with a male colleague, etc. While this may sound extreme from some Western perspectives, in practice, it is very workable. It is also an example of something that should not be questioned or challenged. Sometimes the macro culture imposes norms on organizational culture that are “sacred” and simply to be respected. An example in Western contexts is the recognition that managers absolutely should not use their positional authority to pressure subordinates into compromising relationships. Unfortunately it still happens, but the cultural norm does not support such behavior and, in most cases, such behavior is actually illegal.

The fact is that is all organizations exist within the context of some set of macro-cultural values and assumptions, which permeate organizations through the people in them. This is true whether a leader finds him or herself in a “foreign” land or in the community where he or she grew up. The point is that leaders must be cognizant of those cultural influences and must be prepared to honor them even when they are not held by the leader him or herself.

Fortunately, there are certain values and behaviors that tend to transcend most macro cultural contexts that leaders can rely on when engaging the people in organizations they are leading.

In my experience the most important aptitude for a leader in such situations is inter and intra-personal intelligence and the most important behaviors are to listen and observe more than talk and act. For better or worse, leaders who are imperceptive and lacking in self-awareness are simply ill-prepared to be effective in culturally complex environments. It’s not that such environments are unforgiving to mistakes in protocol; they’re actually quite tolerant with “beginners.” They are, however, unforgiving to “outsiders” who insist on ignoring or disrespecting norms that are important to people in the organization. As an example, I have a very productive and respectful relationship with a female employee in my HR department, whom I initially embarrassed in front of others by trying to shake her hand. I later apologized to her personally, but more importantly, I learned from the experience and changed my behavior so that I do not extend my hand first to any female, Muslim employee or colleague. If they extend their hand to me, then I know it is appropriate to shake their hand. Simple.

A related, very important personal trait for leaders in such situations is to be unpretentious about their own cultural norms. People instinctively know that anyone who is new in a given cultural context will need some time to climb a learning curve. It has been my experience that, regardless of macro culture, there is an appreciation for leaders who are authentic and unpretentious. People don’t expect perfection, but they genuinely appreciate a leader who knows that he or she doesn’t know everything—and understands that some local values and customs may not only be of great social importance, but are highly functional and valuable as well.

In short, it has been my experience that when navigating new cultural environments, leaders are much better served by “soft skills” than by technical skills, regardless of how valuable those technical skills may be to an organization. MBA programs almost never talk about “kindness” or “patience” or “sensitivity” as leadership traits at all, let alone highly valuable leadership traits. That is unfortunate, because the “on the ground” reality is that those traits have high transactional value in essentially any organizational context, but they are effectively required in culturally complex environments in which a leader has little experience or understanding.

Success Is as Much about Managing Expectations as It Is about Results

Interestingly, we humans have a very strong psychology connected to our expectations. We are remarkably willing to see most outcomes as positive if they exceed our expectations—even if the outcomes are frankly not very good. This is an important realization for senior managers and leaders.

In this vein, the comic strip character Calvin, from Calvin and Hobbes, employed a very effective modus operandi with his parents. He purposely strove to be mediocre, average, even below average at times. Even as a little kid, he knew that by doing so he could impress his parents any time he wanted simply by being better than mediocre.

The same psychology exists in professional organizations. There is an art and a science to creating expectations that you are usually able to exceed. As an example, Southwest Airlines has brilliantly mastered something that the legacy carriers (American, Delta, etc.) are truly miserable at doing: managing flight delays. Any delay is bad, right? The airline has failed to deliver on the contract. However, at Southwest, when there is a delay, the gate agents will announce a delay time that is almost always longer than the actual delay! I don’t know what formula they use, but if they say the flight will be delayed for 35 minutes, it is usually delayed for less time, say 25 minutes. The customer suddenly thinks their flying experience has greatly improved and the airline has delivered, even when the flight is late!

As managers and leaders, to a great extent, our own success is similarly tied to our ability to manage expectations as much as it is connected to our performance. Let’s be clear that this is not about being “Calvin” from the comic strip. There are big downsides to consistently managing expectations downward. However, whether we are managing expectations to those above, beside, or below us in the organization, there is significant value in carefully finding a balance between what might be optimistically achieved vs. what is likely to be achieved. Relatedly, have a look at this post to see the big downsides of telling your boss or bosses what you think they want to hear vs. what you believe is true.

If five things all have to go right to achieve a goal, a budget, or any other outcome, and you lead people to believe you will succeed, then you are putting an exceptional amount of risk into the expectation. Likewise, if you commit to an extraordinarily high target of some kind, even if you experience excellent performance and come close, you will have “failed” to deliver. Using the airline example, people hate legacy carriers because they say a delay will be 35 minutes and it almost always turns out to be much more than that. It’s less about the number than it is about the fact that the expectation wasn’t achieved.

On the other hand, if you say that you are confident that you or your team will achieve something in the future because you are already at the target, then you are being disingenuous. Moreover, you cannot “lowball” expectations forever. The expectations you set have to be credible.

In short, there is no “upside” in building overly optimistic expectations. You may get some brief kudos for making people think you will deliver huge results, but if you don’t deliver, then you have two problems—you didn’t succeed and you lose credibility. You are better off generating expectations that show meaningful performance, but that are more likely to be achieved than not. At least as importantly, you want to have some un-committed “operational levers” in your back pocket, which is discussed in another post.

You Rarely Communicate as Well as You Think You Do

Good communication is much harder than we often think it is. Because our days are filled with dialog (meetings, email, phone, texts, etc.) we sometimes mistake the quantity of our communication with the quality of our communication. Within the constraints of time, it would probably be harder to communicate more than we do, but it certainly wouldn’t be difficult to communicate more effectively than we do. We also confuse one-way dissemination of information with communication, which is why it is so common for people in organizations to complain that they have no voice, even though they are being inundated with information.

Where do we start? Not surprisingly the most likely cause of poor communication is a failure to listen. We are often motivated to “get our message out,” so we carefully craft an email or call a meeting and hit people with the message, but we don’t dedicate an equal amount of time and effort to evaluate to how the message is received, understood, etc. and to then listen to what people think about it.

I’m also convinced that another cause of ineffective communication is the failure to use the correct medium for the message. We have so many ways to communicate today: email, webinars, phones, texting, instant messaging apps, and face-to-face opportunities. Each of these methods is a very different medium with their own pros and cons in a given situation. The fact is, for a variety of reasons, we often simply choose the wrong medium for the situation. The most common mistake is usually based on either a desire to save time or, ironically, to avoid actually communicating with someone else. Writing a quick email, or worse, sending an instant message of some kind about a subject that is complex or controversial is asking for trouble, yet it happens regularly. And worse, sometimes people use email, not to actually communicate, but to document that a message was sent. There are times when that may be necessary, but if one avoids a difficult face to face conversation or phone call which is more likely to result in actual communication, and instead, sends an email as a “CYA” action, the person is not only contributing to a communication problem, but is also often acting in an unprofessional manner. One of the markers of leadership is doing things that are right or effective even when they are hard and that certainly applies to communication.

In short, if we listen more than we talk and choose the right medium for the message, we’ll communicate better without having to communicate more!

Less is More: Leading with Fewer Executive Competencies in an Ever More Complex Operating Environment

I have addressed the challenges of leadership in complex and volatile operating environments in previous posts and I have pointed to the kinds of skills and traits that are more likely to serve leaders in contemporary environments, including a model of strategic leadership. The reality, however, is that there is no way that any one leader can possess, let alone have expertise in, the multitude of competencies that are often described in the literature today. As an example, a recent report from the Aspen Institute identified no less than 18 competencies required of the contemporary university president!

In fact, as organizations and the environments they operate in become more complicated and the pace of change more accelerated, it may be that executives are better served by narrowing the things they have to be really good at and get right, rather than trying to do it all.

In an ideal world, a senior leader would have great finance chops, be a world-class communicator (internal and external), have deep operational and planning skills, be an excellent people manager with great empathy, intuition, and interpersonal intelligence, and be a visionary as well. On the other hand, if such leaders do exist, there are certainly far fewer of them than there are leadership positions.

What to do? As I approach 30 years of work in a broad variety of organizations and 20 plus years in fairly senior management and leadership roles, it is becoming clear that it is better for a leader to have fewer of the most critical skills and traits, but to excel in those areas, rather than to try to be expert in an impossible number of competencies.

From my experience, as it relates to contemporary organizations and environments, the three most critical skills for executive level leaders today are strategic planning/implementation (and a strategic focus), change management, and people management. The most important knowledge requirements are organizational dynamics and human behavior. And the most important traits are intuition, self-awareness, tolerance for ambiguity, and interpersonal intelligence.

Of course most leaders will possess some technical expertise based on previous experience, and that expertise can bring value, but what makes a really good COO or CEO is not their knowledge of accounting or marketing or technology, etc. What makes them truly valuable is their ability to make many other people successful by driving to a shared vision, maximizing teamwork, providing strategic insight, managing change, marshaling resources, engendering confidence, taking risks, etc. None of that comes from technical expertise. In fact, although helpful, even operational expertise is less important than strategy and change management in today’s environment for senior leaders.

Of course, a related key to success for senior managers and leaders is that they ensure that other people in the organization have the expertise that they might be lacking and that the organization itself is configured for success. The executive may not be a finance expert, for example, but someone on his team better be. Likewise, the organization must be staffed and configured in ways that are amenable to change, innovation, risk-taking, etc. The same applies to any other technical area of importance in the organization.

In short, the ever-increasing complexity of leadership challenges combined with the increasing rate of change, is outpacing the capacity of even the most capable leaders to effectively address all of the competencies that are now being ascribed to contemporary leaders. As such, this may truly be a case where less is more. Being really effective in a few key areas will likely bring much more value than being mediocre in an impossibly large number of areas. Strategy, vision, and change and people management can be the basis of highly effective leadership in even the most complex, ambiguous, and uncertain environments.