How to lead a team when you don’t understand their work



compass map

As a manger, particularly as a CEO or general manger, sometimes you are going to be in the position of leading a group whose function you have no experience in, and frankly, don’t have a clue about!

Before I get to the specifics here, I want to say: This is OK.

The road to become a CEO or General Manager is not to spend years — as I call it — “collecting all the cards” to get your own personal experience in every single function that you will ultimately manage. The goal is to make sure you have the ability to manage those functions effectively, not to DO all those functions personally.

In fact, one of the things that distinguishes the people who attain CEO and general manager roles is that they are willing to step into a job without having ALL the experience.

Remember, everyone who has been a CEO, has been a CEO for the first time.

But at the same time, you do need a way to credibly lead those functions even if you don’t know how to do the work yourself.

Lessons learned…

I learned this lesson at a point in my career where I did not know how to do the work my engineering team did.

Although I have degrees in electronic engineering and computer science, I had not been an engineer personally for many years when I found myself in the role of managing a team of engineering managers whose jobs I did not fully understand.

The good news: from a micromanagement standpoint I was totally safe because I had no idea how to do any of the work they were doing! Because technology moves so fast, whatever technical stuff I did know or do in the past was out of date.

But then I needed to figure out what else to do! If I wasn’t going to be adding value to the work my team was doing — then what should I be doing?

This is such an important question, and many leaders miss this when they have a role to manage a function that they themselves are personally expert in.

I was lucky…

It was wonderful bit of luck in my career because this situation forced me to figure out how to add value as a manger in ways other than adding value to the work itself. If I been an expert, I think it would have been too tempting to jump in, show my expertise and try to add value to the work, (which was not my job) instead of developing my team, and making sure we executed (which was my job).

Working ON the business vs. IN the business

I talk about this dynamic of working at the right level as working ON the business vs. working IN the business.
As managers we need to realize that our work is not to add value in the detailed content, but to focus your work on the excellent, and always improving functioning of the team.

Working IN the business is competing with your team. Working ON the business is making your team more capable and creating an environment where they can thrive.

One of the things that was scary and fascinating to me at this point in my career was that after a year of managing this team whose work I didn’t understand, I was really nervous about my own performance review. I was concerned that my team would not think I was a credible leader, because I did not understand their work at a sufficient depth.

But to the contrary, my boss received feedback from all of my direct reports who said, “Patty is the best manager I’ve ever had”.

So what did I do to warrant this feedback?

I found the right course between the two ends of the spectrum which as a manager you always want to avoid: Micromanaging, and Abdicating..

The temptation to abdicate

Managers (including me) are tempted to abdicate (run away happily!) when either they know nothing about the work, or the work is so boring and distasteful that they wish they didn’t have to deal with it at all!

If you’ve got someone on your team who actually understands and wants to do this unpleasant work, it’s so very tempting to say, “Thank god! YOU take it, I trust you… Please don’t even talk to me about it!”

That’s abdicating! But here is where you have to find the right point between micromanaging and abdicating. There is no danger in micromanaging because you don’t have the knowledge and skills to engage.

The real danger is in abdicating. So if you don’t abdicate, and you don’t jump in and try to add value to the work, how do you add value as a leader?

Keep ownership of the outcome

They way that I have learned to deal with this situation is to focus on outcomes.

When you are not an expert in the work, you can still be a strong leader by keeping ownership of outcomes. Sit down with the manager and have a discussion about concrete, desired outcomes.

Here are some useful outcome-oriented questions:

1. Over the next year, what do you think are the most important outcomes your team needs to deliver each quarter?
2. Can you walk me through the rationale for you selected those outcomes? Are these internally or externally driven?
3. Who other than our team cares about these outcomes? Have they agreed?
4. Are there any other outcomes that you think we might have missed?
5. How do you propose that I should measure you and your team on those outcomes?
6. What do you see as the risks you will face in delivering those outcomes? Can I help?

I have found that my direct reports (who were expert in the work that I knew nothing about) could bring to the table excellent ideas and specific measures, and we could have a really concrete discussion about necessary outcomes.

Solid Leadership

Through this conversation you show that you care about the work, that you are interested in maximizing outcomes, and that are ready to help mitigate risks. And you will end up with a solid performance and tracking plan. This is so much better than abdicating!

Use your network

Another useful technique I have discovered is to find people who have a lot more experience than you managing this same function, and to ask them:

• What is your definition of high performance in this area?
• What is your definition of a failure?
• What are the biggest risks you need to manage?
• What opportunities do you think the best organizations of this type need to be focused on now and moving forward?
• What do you think the biggest problems on the horizon are for this type or organization?
• How do you measure your people?
• What signs should I be looking for to know if things are going in the right or work direction?

Remember your goal is to educate your self on how to manage the function – not how to DO the function.

One caveat: I’ll write about this in a future post: All aspiring executives can benefit from personally spending some time in a sales role. But you can stop worrying about needing to “collect all the cards” to get experience in everything – it takes too long and you are getting the wrong experience. You need to learn how to manage all the functions, not do all the functions.

What do you think?

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About Patty
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Patty Azzarello is an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/Business Advisor. She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35 and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk)

You can find Patty at www.AzzarelloGroup.com, follow her on twitter or facebook, or read her book RISE…3 Practical Steps for Advancing Your Career, Standing Out as a Leader, AND Liking Your Life.

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Simple Test: Are you a good manager?


good manager

Is every manager in your company a good manager?

If you want to positively impact the bottom line in your business, insist that all your managers are good managers.

Bad managers wreak havoc. Bad managers cost growth and profit. And I can tell you — there a lot of bad managers out there.

I know this first hand because I regularly interact with leaders from companies in many industries, from all over the world, who are asking for help in how to deal with the ugly, soul-crushing problems that arise from having a bad manager.

Here’s a sampling of bad manager behaviors I’ve been seeing lately:

  • Poor communicators
  • Sometimes backstabbing or undermining employees
  • Lack of decision making (will or ability)
  • Lack of accountability
  • Lack of support
  • Poor planning and resource management
  • Unwilling, unable to give constructive feedback or deal with performance issues
  • Prevention of opportunities for development and visibility (either active or clueless)
  • Lack of ability to understand and make tradeoffs
  • Can’t stick to a long term plan, crisis driven
  • Solely politically motivated
  • A bully…

…this list goes on and on.

It will serve your business well to make sure that you select, support, train and set expectations about what is required of a good manager in your organization.

On my Coaching Hour calls for my FORWARD program for leadership and professional development — I hear so many stories of truly bad managers from the leaders who attend. It’s easy to see the negative impact on the person who would otherwise be committed and productive. They are looking for help so that they can still be committed and productive, despite being tortured in some way by their bad manager.

With bad managers lurking about in your organization, people who should be doing work are instead getting confused, discouraged, frustrated, scared, and are simply not doing the right things for the business.

You need your managers to be engaging, motivating, supporting and facilitating the right work, not preventing it.

This is one of my favorite types of work to do with corporations — to train their managers to be good managers — because it makes such a huge difference not only to the business, but to the health and sanity of everyone involved!

Here’a a quick, “Are you a good manager?” Checklist:

Every manager should be able to get a YES answer from each of their employees on the following questions:

  • Do you understand the strategy of our business?
  • Do you understand the mission of your team and why it is important?
  • Do you understand how your job fits into that mission?
  • Are you strengths acknowledged? Do you get to use your strengths in your work?
  • Do you know what is expected of you? Do you know how you will be measured? Did you have input into this process?
  • Do you feel acknowledged and recognized by your manager?
  • Do you feel informed and in the loop about information that is relevant to you and your work?
  • Do you feel like you can work without fear?
  • Are you excited about something you are working on?
  • Does your manager help you network?
  • Does your manager encourage you to meet his/her boss and peers?
  • Do you feel like you can deliver agreed outcomes without being micromanaged?
  • Do you feel like you can give your manager feedback without fear?

If you’d like to learn more about my FORWARD program for leadership and professional development or my training workshops for mid-level managers, contact me I’d be happy to talk with you about your business and your managers.

Also I offer a webinar on this topic which offers lots of practical advice.
Check out the webinar: Are you a good manager?

What do you think?

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ABOUT PATTY:

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Patty Azzarello is an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/Business Advisor.
She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35 and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk)

You can find Patty at www.AzzarelloGroup.com, follow her on twitter or Facebook, or read her book RISE…3 Practical Steps for Advancing Your Career, Standing Out as a Leader, AND Liking Your Life.

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Execution is not beneath you


execution

The problem

For years I have been trying to figure out why so many leaders tolerate poor execution and do nothing about it.

One unfortunate issue I see quite regularly is simply that some “big” executives seem to believe that execution is beneath them.

They view execution as a low level job for other, less important, less strategic people to deal with.

Above it all

This “above it all” approach is dangerous.

When your involvement stops with the vision and the talking part, your organization can not possibly automatically self optimize to make your strategy happen.

Strategy must have action.
Strategy without Action is just nice, big-sounding words about things you hope will come true.
And action does not happen without executive involvement. Period.

Yet I see so many executives who keep their involvement in strategy at the big, exciting goal level.

It’s as though they believe that people throughout the organization will suddenly understand what new work they have to do, that resources will be automatically re-assigned without any pain, and individuals will understand how to prioritize new tasks over current work, so it will just get done.

Managing execution is not micromanaging

Here are 4 key areas executives need to engage in to make sure their organizations are executing.

None of these are micro-managing, but they are required management work for an executive who needs their organization to move forward on a new strategy.

1. Help the team disengage from current work and current thinking

All organizations are fully busy and under-resourced doing stuff today.

The focus and effort it takes to get people to do different stuff is enormous. This will never happen automatically, or in the background, or with a suggestion.

People will never start doing new things unless there is a clear strategy AND action plan to implement that strategy.

It doesn’t matter how inspiring your big sounding goals are, people will never start doing new things unless the leader actively engages about what to STOP doing (and/or gives them permission to stop doing it). And if required, the executive must be directive about what to START doing, and why.

2. Work through productive conflict

Action causes conflict. The only thing that makes strategy ultimately clear is actually doing it. Strategy is where you put your resources.

You can say your strategy is anything you want, but if you really want to see what your strategy actually is, just look at your budget. Your budget describes what you are doing.

If you want to change your strategy, you need to change your budget.

A good strategy that drives action will require that some things will get more money and some things will get less money. Some people win and some people lose. This causes conflict.

As a leader you will never drive strategy into action if you are unwilling to engage in this level of clarity and conflict. Your team will never sort it out amongst themselves. (This is hard, but necessary.)

3. Execution requires steady communication from the top

As a leader you need to let people know you are serious.

Because you need people to be doing different things and because this causes conflict, people will race back to doing things the old way as soon as there is a bump in the road. So as an executive you need to be very committed to provide an even more powerful, consistent message to stay the course.

You need to over-communicate the strategy by talking about the action: specifically what needs to be different and why.

If your people don’t hear a consistent message about execution from you regularly, over time, they will think “I guess we’re not doing this any more”, forward action will stall, and your team will revert back to the old way.

4. Execution requires measures and consequences

So many companies set strategic goals, then don’t achieve them, and then nothing happens. Without measures and consequences for not meeting goals, no strategic initiative will ever happen.

If the leader does not engage in the discussion about what happened, how will we fix it, and what the consequences are, there is no motivation whatsoever for anyone to do anything different than what they are doing today.

Stay on top of the hard and boring stuff

Being clear and consistent about milestones, measures, accountability, and communicating and following up is hard and boring. But necessary! This is how you you turn strategy and hoped-for outcomes into actually results.

Visionary Executives

Let’s face it. Some executives are not good at this part of execution and will never be.

In this case it is critical for the executive who is an externally focused, industry visionary, deal maker to recognize that they need to choose the right person to manage execution on their behalf.

But take some care to realize that while you can delegate execution to some extent, you can not abdicate it entirely.

Even if you are not personally good at managing execution, you can’t simply remain above it because you find it dis-tasteful, boring, or unbecoming of an executive of your stature.

em>You need to lead the communications, decisions and enforcement of consequences even if you are not doing all the leg-work personally. Otherwise you will be disconnected from the actual strategy of the company as you relish in the big, goal-oriented words that describe your wishes, not your reality.

Moving forward

If you are not happy with how fast and predictably your organization can execute on your goals and commitments, check yourself on this list of 4 things and give yourself an honest grade. Improving your consistency and communications in these 4 areas will allow you to drive more consistent execution in your team.

Want some help with this?

If you’d like to do a kick-off meeting to get your team aligned and focused for the new year, or ensure that you make material progress on a new strategy or initiative, contact me about my Strategy into Action program. I’d love to help!

What do you think?

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About Patty
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Patty Azzarello is an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/Business Advisor. She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35 and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk)

You can find Patty at www.AzzarelloGroup.com, follow her on twitter or facebook, or read her book RISE…3 Practical Steps for Advancing Your Career, Standing Out as a Leader, AND Liking Your Life.

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Imagined power vs. Real power and respect


real or imagined power

People often ask me if it was hard for me to go from running really large organizations to having my own (implied — “much smaller”) company.

This was never an issue for me because I always maintained a psychological distance between the power of my role, (managing a $1B+ global business, multi-hundred-milion dollar budget, and thousands of people) and my own personal power.

I took responsibility for the power of the large role very seriously, but I never pretended that I personally owned that power.
So when I stepped out of a huge business into a small business, it was not difficult for me, because I was still the same me.

But I often see executives who claim this big role power for their own — I refer to this as Imagined Power.

Imagined-Power People

I am thinking of one woman in particular who exemplified this behavior. She was a C-Level direct report to the CEO a fortune 50 company.

She was meeting me and my peers who were at the time C-Level direct reports to the CEO of a fortune 5000 company. Her dismissive demeanor made it immediately clear that she saw us as way below her on the food chain.

I remember thinking when I met her: Wow you are trying so very hard to make sure you come across as a big, scary executive. That must be exhausting!

I wondered…Is this because:

1. You are insecure and have a need to make people feel like you are more powerful than they are?
2. You were taught, or simply believe, that this is the way a big executive is supposed to treat others?
3. You are so self-involved that you don’t even realize that you are so thoroughly dismissing people?
4. You actually believe that you are a superior life form?

I never know which of these is at play when I meet one of these executives. But I always feel that they are confusing the power of their role, with their own power.

Real-power people and respect

The leaders that most inspired me the most were the ones that did not get caught up in personal power. They were the ones who built true business power by engaging and respecting employees at all levels.

They were the ones who even though they far above me organizationally, would sit across the table and talk to me as an equal. They’d say things like, “This is a tough business we are in! What are you seeing out there? What do you think I should do?” They were interested. They were open. They were always learning.

Wasted energy

The problem with treating role power as personal power, is that since that grand-scale personal power is not actually real, you need to spend an awful lot of time and energy manufacturing the facade, and then protecting it.

That is time taken away from effectively leading and doing stuff. Not to mention it does nothing to build any trust and loyalty — Quite the contrary it builds fear and resentment.

Real Business Power

If you take the other road of acknowledging you have a big responsibility — because you are in a powerful role — but you share power and respect with others, you will build a loyal and powerful team to support you. So you actually gain real power in your business. Much bigger power than you can create if you try to own the power yourself.

You end up with an army of people who will do great things to make the business succeed. They have your back because you are sharing the power. People like that.

I’d rather have 1000 peoples’ worth of positive power, genuine support, and forward momentum in my business, than to try to build my own power by keeping 1000 people down. It is exhausting to even think about! I choose the road of helping people thrive.

Here are some practical ways that I have seen the difference play out.

1. Human vs. Boss

If the thinking starts with we are both humans vs. I am the boss and you are the worker, you create an environment where everyone feels acknowledged.

If you flaunt special privileges that only the boss gets, everyone else feels resentful and will not bring their best to the business.

If you bother to spend personal time with people in the trenches, on the assembly line, on the help desk, or literally in the trenches (if your business digs trenches), you show that you understand and value all the jobs in your organization and you are not “above it all”.

It builds tremendous loyalty because when you ask someone to do work for you, they know you appreciate what you are asking them to do. It is hard to over-estimate the value of this as a leader.

2. Curious vs. Right

People protecting their power need to be right and to stay right. So it’s not just that they are not good listeners, they actually need to not listen — because what they hear might threaten their power facade.

Leaders who are genuinely curious invite new ideas and are always learning. They learn what is really going on in their organization and therefore know what is causing inefficiency, frustration and suffering — so they can fix it.

The Always-Right executive doesn’t want to hear it. They are right often enough that they can succeed to a certain extent, but they miss the opportunity to recognize breakthroughs that others might contribute. And they never have a truly loyal team to help them when things get tough.

3. Promote others vs. Inflate yourself

Leaders who take personal credit for their organizations’ work are again, trying to hold on to false personal power. Leaders who promote and elevate their stars build a much higher value organization.

This is well said in the book Five Frogs on a Log by Mark Feldman and Michael Spratt: “A players hire A+ players, B players hire C players, and C players hire idiots.” Insecure leaders who hire weak players so no one threatens them, make the whole organization weaker.

A players (leaders who share power) hire people better than themselves and give them support to excel. Then they give them recognition and help them move up. The whole organization gets stronger.

4. Open vs. Secret

People protecting false personal power are very secretive. They believe that if they know more than everyone else, they will remain very important.

Real leaders communicate a lot. They make it a point to share as much information as possible with everybody.

They see additional power in having a well-informed team that can contribute more because they know more, a team who is motivated to contribute more because they feel respected.

5. Respect vs. Money

Another trait I have seen with leaders protecting their personal power is that they need buy people off.

They pay people more money than they could make elsewhere, with a key requirement of the job a being:

Don’t question me, stay in your place, and make me look good. Build up my ego by being at my beckon call. I pay you a lot, I deserve your un-wavering and constant adoration.

Effective leaders win people over by building an environment of trust and respect. They create meaning for people so they can feel proud of their work. They offer personal recognition. They go out of their way to make the work matter to people the people doing it.

Your choice…

I was very fortunate early in my career to meet a mentor who showed me that you could be a very successful business leader by respecting people, and sharing power.

There are many examples of executives that go the other way… They hoard power and treat people like crap. I might have believed that was necessary without a good role model.

You can certainly succeed as a power hungry asshole, but it’s not a requirement. I also believe that building a strong team is a much more reliable approach to achieving success, and it gives you more real power in the end.

What do you think?

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Azzarello Group Facebook page.

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About Patty
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Patty Azzarello is an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/Business Advisor. She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35 and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk)

You can find Patty at www.AzzarelloGroup.com, follow her on twitter or facebook, or read her book RISE…3 Practical Steps for Advancing Your Career, Standing Out as a Leader, AND Liking Your Life.

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The hidden cost of asking a question


cost of a question

A simple question…

One time when I was running a large organization at HP, I asked my financial analyst partner, “What is the current headcount in my organization?”

He said “How accurate an answer do you need?”

I said, “What do you mean?”. At this point I honestly thought he would have said, “1134”.

But then he said, if you want a number within 10 percent, I could let you know by the end of the day, but if you want a more accurate number, it will probably take me a couple of weeks to check all the systems, and get inputs from my counterparts around the world, and then check with HR about exits and pending offers…”

That was a big eye opener for me.

#1. Thank god he asked! I never would have intended to have him work on this for two weeks and involve loads of other people. I was mostly just curious.

#2. I realized that when an executive asks a question, the multiplier effect on the work done throughout the organization can be a very expensive thing.

So I have two points to make in this blog — One for the executives asking the question, and one for the recipient of those questions.

1. If you are the recipient of executive requests…

Really know that not all executive requests are created equal. Sometimes it’s a big deal with the world watching, and sometimes it’s just a casual request or curiosity.

Organizations have a tendency to accept all executive requests as urgent and vitally important. They are not!

Never just start working on something.

The first thing you should do when given a task is to start thinking, not start working. Pause. Think: how much does this matter, really?

You need to clarify.

The more you clarify, the less work you will need to do. And the less re-work you will need to do later.

Here are some straightforward clarifying questions you can ask an executive to find out how much work you should really be doing on the request.

So I can do the best job possible for you…

1. Can you help me understand what will this be used for? Is this just for you? or do you need this because someone else is asking? Do you know why they are asking and what they need it for? What do you need to make happen with this after you get this from me? Is the way we did this last time very useful for you? Or should we think about a better way to accomplish the outcome?

2. How much time and cost do you want this effort to take? Is this worth a big investment? Is this worth moving resources from something else? or should I be looking for a way to do this as minimally and efficiently as possible?

2. If you are the executive making requests…

Whenever you are making a request, you should always be thinking of the cost of getting your outcome.

Know that even asking what seems to you a simple question can send dozens of people running around for weeks.

So each time you make a request, also share the relative importance of the request to other work, and give it a budget. “Get me whatever you can accomplish in 2 hours”, or “Drop everything for the next week until this is done.”

Don’t make the person guess. And don’t inadvertently encourage them to stop doing something that is actually more important unless it is really worth it.

The Business Review

The worst version of this is the infamous “business review”.

When you ask an organization to do a business review, you might put 2 hours or half a day on your calendar a few weeks out. That’s what it’s worth to you on your calendar.

But you need to be aware that this one request can completely paralyze your whole organization. The internal review (to impress you), becomes the urgent business priority, and virtually all work on the business itself stops for weeks to prepare.

Too much time spent on internal reviewing!

In the last two weeks alone, I have had 3 different organizations at 3 different companies tell me that they are preparing for an executive business review and therefore can’t do anything else for the next 2 – 3 weeks.

Regularly, when I talk with mid-level managers about time management challenges, one of their biggest challenges is the fact that they are required to spend so much time preparing for business reviews for executives, that they can’t get their work done.

Of course, business reviews have their place.

As an executive, especially if you are on the board, you need to satisfy yourself that the business is running properly, and that the work you have committed is getting done.

Getting (only) what you need from a business review

But you need to find a way to ask the questions, get the answers, and feel like you are in the loop of how the business is doing, without creating risk by how you ask.

Because it’s important to realize that way you review the business may be one of the biggest risks to actually succeeding in your business.

Here is how I have dealt with this as an executive.

Don’t just ask for a review.

1. Sit down with your business team to discuss what you truly need to learn from the review.
2. Budget the amount of time that preparing the review is worth.
3. Make the amount of time spent on preparing the review part of the review. Shine a spotlight on this and decide with your team what is reasonable.
4. Articulate the key control points in the business, and what the desired outcomes and measures are for those, before the review prep starts.
5. Identify key risk areas you want to see the plans for.
6. Create a 1 page dashboard that the team needs to report on.

The key thought here, is that the materials you use to review the business should be ones that the business is using to run the business, not some special 100 slide presentation that was only prepared for your review.

My guideline when I was running a $1B business software business, was that I never wanted a team to spend more than 1 week elapsed time, and no one person should spend more than 2 hours preparing for an internal review. I want to see what you are actually doing, using the same artifacts you are using to run your part of the business. Don’t create new stuff. Let’s talk about what’s really happening, not some artificial presentation designed to impress me with it’s polish.

Get over your addiction to detail

The other thing that I see becoming a huge time sink in organizations is when the executives are so addicted to detail that they insist that even the lowest level of detail be dragged up and vetted through every level of management and reviewed and inspected over and over again.

Moving detail up kills organizational effectiveness, is hugely expensive, and introduces more risk than it averts.

As an executive, if you think that your personally examining lots of detail is helping your organization, it isn’t.

I’ll write about this next week…

What do you think?

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About Patty
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Patty Azzarello is an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/Business Advisor. She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35 and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk)

You can find Patty at www.AzzarelloGroup.com, follow her on twitter or facebook, or read her book RISE…3 Practical Steps for Advancing Your Career, Standing Out as a Leader, AND Liking Your Life.

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