Fierce Leadership

By: Susan Scott



You know you’ve found a fierce book when it starts off with the question “What Fresh Hell is This?”. And if you want leadership lessons that you can take to the ground level, this is the book for you.

Here’s how Scott describes Fierce Leadership:

  1. A fast-acting andivenom to the business-as-usual mode of high task/low relationship, self-serving agendas, directing and telling, anonymous feedback, holding people accountable, excessive use of jargon, and mandating initiatives that cause people to weep on too many fine days.
  2. The act of acquiring your most valuable currency – emotional capital.
  3. The acquisition of squid eye and the demise of truth telling squeamishness and ethical squishiness.

What follows are the 6 ways you, and everybody around you, can get your fierce on. By the way, in each practice Scott gives step-by-step instructions on how to have the conversations you need to have to create fierce leadership.

We don’t have time to cover them in the summary, so I suggest you buy the book and get them. My copy is staying on my desk.

Fierce Practice # 1 – From 360 Degree Anonymous Feedback to “365” Face-to-Face Feedback.

Anonymous 360 degree feedback is not a good idea, according to Scott. The danger signs are as clear as day.

Leave it to a girl not yet in college to give a heartfelt answer about what real courage looks like. After listening to some real feedback given to her by her classmates in a Fierce-run leadership session, she addressed the room as follows:

“Hey, everybody, I’m really, really glad I have this feedback, so thank you! And I guess what I want to say is: I hope you keep telling me the truth about how you view me, positive or negative. And don’t even wait to be asked!

Tell me when something happens, right when you are thinking of it. Because if you don’t, I probably won’t know, and I want to, I really do, because your feedback is the only way I’ll understand what I’m doing right and what I’m doing wrong. And that’s the only way I can learn about myself and make changes”.

Guess what: if a girl in high school can have this much maturity and self-awareness, is it really too much to ask of people who we work with every day? I don’t think so.

One very important rule about feedback: Praise is as important, if not more important, than negative feedback. Before we move on to Fierce practice #2, I know that changing the way you’ve always done it will be tough.

Here are the five steps to adopting any fierce practice: (1) prepare yourself; (2) prepare others; (3) Try the practice; (4) debrief; (5) do it again, only better. That’s all. And as Scott so rightly points out, it’s most likely that you won’t die during Fierce practices, so go ahead and dip your toe in the water. You might even like it.

Fierce Practice #2 – From Hiring for Smarts to Hiring for Smart+Heart

David Milch, the creator of the great HBO series Deadwood, has a great quote. He says “Reason is about seventeenth on the list of attributes that define us as a species, and as far as I’m concerned, they can lower it, no problem.”

If it really is #17, why do we put so much emphasis on it? I mean, the entire system is set up to bring the most intellectually gifted students to the best colleges who will then go on to the most prestigious positions in the largest companies, who will then get into the best MBA programs and...

Well, luckily we’ve had some progress in this area in the past few years. Consider that the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics went to Daniel Kahneman who proved, once and for all, that we behave emotionally first, and rationally second. And yes, this includes you. There is no person on this planet for whom emotion doesn’t trump reason.

Daniel Goleman, a leading voice in the emotional intelligence movement predicts that up to 90% of the success amongst executives lies in emotional intelligence. And what are the big icebergs on the way to that success, you ask?

(1) difficulty in handling change, (2) not being able to work well in a team, and (3) poor interpersonal relations. Notice that reading a spreadsheet or experience with merger arbitrage did not make that list.

So, how do you hire for Heart + Smart?

First, start by identifying the key emotional attributes you want in a potential hire. Then, design questions that reveal whether or not the person actually has the attributes you are looking for.

Make sure to use behavioural questions. Ask them to recall a situation where they demonstrated that attribute in the last few months. A person can fake having an attribute in an interview, but they most likely won’t be able to make up a story about when they demonstrated that on the spot.

A practice that Scott suggests, and I can attest to being very effective is the team interview. Having more than one person from your team at the interview has numerous advantages, with the most telling being how the candidate connects with people in a tense situation. True colours come out when the heat in the kitchen ratchets up.

Fierce Practice #3 – From Holding People Accountable to Modeling Accountability and Holding People Able.

There’s a big difference in holding people accountable to modeling accountability. Here’s the story that Scott shares with us to make her point. There was a pilot who landed just short of the runway in San Francisco. Nobody was hurt, but the plane ended up partially in the water. When he got called in front of the inquisition and was asked to explain what happened, he said: “I f----ed up”.

Now he could have said a whole bunch of things –like my co-pilot forgot to flick the switch on the thingamabob, or the landing gear wasn’t working properly, or a flock of seagulls killed his vision, or anything to avert blame. But he didn’t. He took it on the chin like any fierce leader would.

Now, this doesn’t mean that you should run around taking credit for every disaster that happens at your company. But what you need to do is to publicly acknowledge that everything that happens on your watch is your responsibility. If you are the CEO, you will be held to account for everything that happens at your company. If you are the CFO, you are accountable for the finances of the company. All the way down the line to the front-line employee.

It might be cheesy to bring out the famous Ghandi quote that says “be the change you want to see in the world”. But in this case I don’t use it to inspire you, I use it to say that it’s the only thing that truly works.

You’ll get accountability from your team if you model it first. You could demand it of them – motivate them with rewards and punishments – hope and pray that they’ll do it, but none of that will come anywhere close to the results you’ll get by modelling it for them.

Here’s Scott’s official definition of fierce accountability: a desire to take responsibility for results; a bias toward solution, action. An attitude; a personal, private, nonnegotiable choice about how to live one’s life. Model that, and you’ll slowly but surely transform your culture.

Fierce Practice 4 – From Employee Engagement Programs to Actually Engaging Employees

Here are the cold-hard facts from a recent Gallup Management Employee Engagement Index: 20 percent of employees are engaged in their jobs, 54 percent are not engaged, and 17 percent are actively disengaged.

Finish off that hefty dose of reality with this last fact: engaged employees outperform their unengaged counterparts by 20 to 28 percent.

Maybe instead of spending your time looking for the next 3 percent in cost savings in operational efficiencies, you should spend your time looking for your next 28 percent increased productivity in employee engagement.

Also consider this – your company is made up of a collection of people held together by the glue of conversation. Nothing worthwhile gets done in a company unless it starts with an engaging conversation.

The problem with employee engagement is that no matter how hard you try, you can’t mandate it. Here’s what Scott thinks that might sound like if you tried: “Candy, whenever you see me coming, you slam your door and jab pins into that voodoo doll you crafted from crumpled memos and rubber bands. I get the impression you don’t like me very much. So I’d like you to recognise that I am the finest boss you’ve ever worked for. That’s a directive”.

That’s just a little more crazy than mandating an employee engagement program. Here are a couple of things that might actually create employee engagement:

1.Start your week off with a “significant events” meeting. Better yet, start every meeting you have with it. It’s simple – ask people what’s going on in their lives that’s significant. This might not seem like productive work, but it shows that you actually care about your team as people. And remember that 28% boost in productivity you are giving up by treating your team as automatons.

2.Have a beach ball meeting when you need to solve a problem or devise a new strategy. If your company is a beach ball, every person in your company lives on a certain stripe and only sees the world they live in. Your job as the CEO is to see the entire beach ball, and to help others do the same. So, invite a front-line employee to the strategy session, or the EVP of another division. Listen hard to what they have to say.

Fierce Practice #5 – From Customer Centricity to Customer Connectivity.

Yes, you and everybody in business believes that they are in it for their clients. But are you really? Charles Green, the co-author of “The Trusted Advisor” tells us what our client focus is really like: we pay close attention to what our clients are up to, but only in order to figure out the right time to pounce and get them to buy something from us. Here are 3 ways you can break out of that trap.

First, focus on individuals and not companies. Remember, it’s a person at your client’s company that decides your fate, and that person is an emotional being. You do that by slowing the conversation down – way down. You can’t be in a rush to close the deal all the time. Your goal is to generate trust.

Second, think about inviting customers to planning sessions. As Scott says, most business development people will give you a hundred and one reasons why they can’t have a customer planning session with the actual customer present. Ignore those pleas and include the customer in every step of your process.

Third, acknowledge mistakes. This is the hardest one in my opinion. But no client or customer is silly enough to think that any job is going to go exactly according to plan – that’s why they pick people they like to do business with. So, take it on the chin, and have an action plan about how you’ll fix it.

It’s ironic, but quite often you can come out looking even better by fixing a problem in the right way than if you never had the problem at all. Do these things and you’ll be on your way to true customer-centricity.

Fierce Practice #6 – From Legislated Optimism to Radical Transparency.

What’s legislated optimism? Here’s Jon Stewart’s impression of how a meeting with former president George W Bush might have went: “You either agree with my position or you’re looking to have a thermonuclear reaction bake your shadow instantly on the sidewalk”.

Does that sound like the leadership in your company? Does that sound like you? Well, it’s time to let some fresh air into the room if that’s you or your company.

Wikipedia defines radical transparency as “a management method where nearly all decision making is carried out publicly. All draft documents, all arguments for and against a proposal, the decisions about the decision making process itself, and all final decisions, are made publicly and remain publicly archived.”

Scott says that the fierce practice of radical transparency requires that our conversations reveal mokitas, which is the Papua new Guinea word for “that which everyone knows and no one speaks of”. This is the real truth as opposed to the official truth.

Let’s not confuse this with consensus. This doesn’t mean that every opinion and proposal needs to be accepted and implemented. What it does mean is that every opinion and proposal needs to be considered, so that the real truth is revealed.

So there you have it. 6 ways that you can buck the trend of mediocrity and become a fierce leader. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.