Common Mistake – There’s Something Wrong with the World
It’s important to realize that all of these are big, important strategy themes. At the beginning, I said I wanted to talk about how you need to use the insights and the training. At FIRMSconsulting, we always say we train leaders who have the fortitude, willpower and determination to move markets. I’m going to give you an example of how you need to apply these things by talking about an executive coaching client. He runs the strategy team at a division of a very large bank. It’s a big multibillion-dollar division. He runs a strategy team of about 15 people, and his job is to figure out whatever the company wants him to figure out.
Like any client I have in the executive coaching program, they always do the same thing when they start with me. They say, “Michael, give me a few weeks. I need to put together an entire pack to explain to you what I’m doing, how I’m doing it, where my priorities are and what the opportunities are. I need to write out summaries of each person I’m working with, and these are the problems I have.” If I let my clients do that, they will take six months to put together a briefing pack like I’m the president of the United States, and I need to know what’s happening somewhere in the world. They’re very surprised when I say that I actually don’t need that. They say, “What do you mean, you don’t need that? Of course you need to know what’s happening in my life if you’re going to help me.” I tell them that, no, I actually don’t.
The reason for this is simple. Every executive coaching client I deal with always thinks that the reason they’re not successful is because there’s something wrong with the world in which they operate. They think, “There’s something not right with this executive, so I’m going to tell Michael what’s wrong with him, and Michael’s going to tell me how to fix it.” Or, “There’s something wrong with this strategy I’m putting together, so I’m going to tell Michael what the strategy is. I’m going to give him all the data, and he’s going to tell me what’s missing in the strategy.” Or, “There’s just something that’s not working with my team. I have to tell Michael what each of my team members is doing, and Michael is going to fix it.”
The first insight of this story is that every executive coaching client I deal with has the same fundamental problem. That is, they don’t accept reality for what it is. For them, the problem is always something else, someone else, some product, some analysis. They look at the world and say, “There’s something wrong with the world, and because there’s something wrong in the world, I have to give Michael all of the information, so he can tell me what’s wrong with the world, and then we can fix it.”
The problem with that is that you make the mistake of not understanding that the world is what it is. You can’t fix the world. You have to adjust to work with the world. In layman’s terms, that means the problem is the client. The reason I don’t need to know about your executive and your product strategy and so on is because I’m not there to fix those things because, really, those things don’t need to be fixed. It’s almost always the executive that’s the problem. I mean, the problem lies in the way they view the world, but even deeper, the fact that they are unwilling to accept the world the way It is. They’ve been brought up to believe that if they do certain things, whether they’re in MBA schools or training programs, the world changes for them. The world doesn’t change for anyone. You have to change yourself to adjust to the world. The biggest, most important thing you can do, and the biggest, most important gift I give to coaching clients is to see the world for what it is. If you can do that, you will realize that the problem really lies with you.
I’m going to flesh out this problem even deeper. This client is head of strategy, and I asked him, “Why do you think you’re not successful?” He said, “I’m not successful because I’m told in performance reviews that I’m not ready to be promoted. I’m not fulfilling my end of the agenda. I’m not doing well. People aren’t excited to work with me. I’m not doing what I was meant to do. I should have rotated out of the strategy group about a year and a half ago, but I haven’t found a home to go to.” If you know anything about internal strategy groups, you never make that your home. You must rotate out of it—in any level. Even the CEO of Citibank today, Jane Fraser, was in the strategy group. She led it, but it was not her permanent home.
I said to this client, “So, what do you do? Tell me what your week is like.” If you want to know who someone is, look at their diary. It doesn’t matter what they tell you or what they say their priorities are. So, he talked me through his week. He spends about a day and a half working on the big agenda item that the strategy team is now pursuing. This is an insight here, the internal strategy unit of any company in the world is not doing strategy. They’re doing whatever the CEO wants them to do. For example, if the CEO’s biggest pain point is getting rid of bad debt on their balance sheet, he’s going to ask the strategy team to do that. If the pain point shifts to, “How do I increase efficiency in the branch networks,” he’s going to ask the strategy team to do that. But the strategy team never just does strategy—they do the CEO’s agenda.
This client is spending all his time working on multiple things. He’s been asked to find a way for this bank to win in a major Asian market. It’s a very competitive, important market for the future of banking and wealth management. It’s maybe the final battle in wealth management for the next 50 years—it’s going to be fought in this market. But not only is this client spending one and a half days on this, he’s also helping out executives on other initiatives that he thinks are important. He thinks digitization in one of the Asian markets—not the main market—is a major agenda, and he’s spending a lot of time working on that.
Can you see the problem? It should be self-evident. This executive has been tasked with a major pain point for the CEO: find me a way to win in wealth management in this incredibly important market. And what is this executive doing? He’s spending one and a half days working on this, and he’s spending three and a half days working on other things that he thinks are important.
Can you imagine how his performance review is going to go? If I’m doing his performance review, I’m looking at it and saying, “I brought you in, I told you this is your agenda, I told you how important it is. But you’re only spending some of your time on it. And you’re doing other things that I don’t think you should be working on because I have other executives doing it. And it’s okay if you fundamentally believe that these other things are critical to the company, but you haven’t even convinced me of it.”
Imagine it from the coaching client’s perspective. He goes into his performance reviews, and his entire strategy is to say, “I’m not doing so well in what you asked me to do, but to make up for my lack of performance there, I’m doing all these other things. So promote me, give me some business to run. Please look at how good I am. I neglected your most important questions, and I’m doing what I think is important, so clearly you should trust me to run an entire profit-making part of your business.”
I asked this client, “You’re only spending one and a half days on this. Why?” He said,
“Michael, I’ve tried everything. I just don’t know how to grow the bank’s services in this market.” I asked him, “So, you quit?” He said no. But I told him, “Of course you quit. When you look at your diary and have to make a decision about whether to focus on what the CEO asked you to do or do something else, you are quitting and giving up. You gave up and you are trying to do other things.” And he said, “No, that’s not true. I tried everything. I just don’t know how to do it.”
I said to this client: “That’s different if you don’t know how to do it. But let me give you a piece of advice. You have to make a decision. Right now, you’re a hybrid. You weren’t meant to be a hybrid. Right now, you’re spending one and a half days a week on what is a strategically critical imperative for the bank and the CEO. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime change that is taking place, and if you’re not there when it takes place, you’re never going to be there. You’re going to be spending years and billions of dollars trying to buy your way into this market if you don’t start building today. You’re making this decision for the entire company. You may not know this, but you have decided that you’re not going to do this, and this company is going to have to suffer for a very long time to figure this out. Do you know you’ve made that decision? Are you aware of the magnitude of the decision you’ve made?”
He said he hadn’t thought about it that way. I said, “This is what you have to do. You have to stop doing everything else. Firstly, you have to focus on this one thing. This is what you are paid to do, and this is your job. In life, you can’t do what you want to do, but you have to look at who your client is. In this situation, the executive committee and the CEO is your client. Do you think you have raving clients? Do you think they are delighted by what you’re doing? Do you think they go home and say, ‘Wow, honey, today I got an email from the head of strategy. This guy does the most amazing work. I cannot believe we hired him, and we’re paying him so little money. I have my hands full dealing with regulators and the mortgage market, but with this guy, I don’t even have to even ask him what he’s doing. I can just see the progress in the most fundamentally important market in the world where we have to win if we’re going to pay for everything else we want to do.’”
Do you think the CEO or any executive committee member is doing that? No. That’s really the problem with this client. He wants to do what he wants to do—not what needs to be done. Another way of saying it is that he doesn’t know who his clients are, and he’s not serving his clients. If you don’t serve your clients, how are you ever going to be successful?
Let’s flip the switch here. Remember what I said at the beginning. Every executive coaching client I work with thinks the problem is the fact that the world doesn’t work the way they want the world to work. The reality is that the problem is almost always with the coaching client. I’ve never had to look at the strategy of an executive coaching client and fix it for them. Because it’s not about the details. It’s about why you’re doing this. What are you doing? How are you doing it? These are very smart people. I always ask coaching clients, “You’re smart. You went to Wharton, Harvard, and so on. If you didn’t go there, you went to some very good school. You’ve been in the industry for 20 years. You can buy a book on the internet that solves this problem. So why haven’t you done it?” That’s what I always ask clients.
As you listen to Monday Morning 8 a.m., if was a gambler I would be willing to bet some money that every single executive coaching client I’m going to have for the rest of my life is going to fit the same model. They’re going to tell me that the problem is someone else, something else, some product, some team. They’re going to give me a lot of data, and I’ll have to stop them and tell them that it’s actually not the world. It’s the fact that they’re unwilling to accept the world for what it is. It’s some fundamental issue of understanding why you were brought in, who your clients are, and why you’re not creating stark raving mad, lunatic fans from them.
When I was manager, I remember that the senior partners would actually send emails about me saying that they couldn’t believe the work I was doing. That’s what you want to do. If you follow Rebuilding a Consulting Practice and Partnership. Memoir, you know that I left the strategy practice and went to the operations practice for about a year and a half, which no one understood. I did that because I wanted to help a partner, and he was my biggest fan. Of course, my career went through the roof, not because I did what was good for me and stayed in the strategy practice and built out the risk capability, which is what many partners wanted me to do. No, I gave that up, and I went to the operations practice and figured out new ways of doing operations, which I’ll talk about in subsequent episodes of Monday Morning 8 a.m.
If you’re reading this newsletter, you’re obviously a very smart person. You have access to some of the best thinking in the world. I want you to ask yourself this: Why is it that despite your intellect and despite the fact you know that you have to adjust to the world and the world doesn’t adjust for you, why haven’t you been successful despite doing everything you can to be successful?
I would like you to write to [email protected] answering that question. We are not going to respond because we’re going to get too many emails. But we want to use those responses to seed other episodes of Monday Morning 8 a.m. and maybe talk to some of the issues you raise. Don’t tell me why you’re not successful. Don’t tell me what’s wrong with the industry and so on. Tell me why—despite your intellect, despite everything you know, despite the fact you can pick up any book on any subject in the world to solve any problem in the world—why is it that someone who is so amazing and has gone so far in the world is not able to make that final big move to move markets? Send me your responses. I want to read them, and I’m going to touch on them in future episodes.
This is an excerpt from Monday Morning 8 a.m. newsletter, issue #21. Many of you have found Monday Morning 8 a.m. so useful that you’ve asked us to release a book version of these newsletters. We’ve obliged and released a Kindle version, which you can find on Amazon under “Strategy Insights.” It contains the insights from previous Monday Morning 8 a.m. issues, edited into a bite-sized format that’s very easy to use. And you can learn about other FIRMSconsulting books here.
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