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Forbes - John Kotter's Change Leadership

Kotter International
August 21, 2014

Fostering more and better leadership is a challenge for executives across all industries.  Target’s former interim CEO John Mulligan recently commented in a letter to the company, “All across Target, we need more ‘leadership’ and less ‘committee.’” Target took steps to act on Mulligan’s words by renaming its executive committee the “leadership team” in order to reduce feelings of bureaucracy, as well as restructuring its offices to encourage greater collaboration among executives and employees.  As Target’s new externally-hired CEO Brian Cornell now takes the reins on Mulligan’s leadership-building initiative, he faces pressures not only to successfully lead, himself, but also to promote greater leadership throughout the company.

But what are the fastest ways to cultivate leadership within a company?  What lessons can leaders apply as they strategize new ways to encourage employees to step up and drive efforts toward achieving the organization’s major goals? How can leaders effectively communicate the company’s vision?

Illinois Target Store

Here are the most-read blogs detailing leadership advice from the Kotter International team.  The authors of these pieces are experts in guiding global organizations to make large leadership changes.  Read on for their words of wisdom:

The Fastest Way to Build Leadership In Your Company — Insource” – Randy Ottinger

The Executive’s Famous Last Words” – Jimmy Leppert

Leadership Lessons from Scrooge” – Pat Cormier

Saving Gotham: 5 Leadership Lessons We Can Learn From Batkid” – Justin Wasserman

Jedi Leadership: The Value of Lessons Learned vs. Lessons Taught” – Ken Perlman

Leadership Lessons from LEGO” – Ken Perlman

Leadership Tips for Cross-Silo Success” – Nancy Dearman

The Biggest Leadership Mistake of Failing Companies” – Holger Rathgeber

Leadership Tips, New York Style: Lessons from the NYC MTA“ – Jimmy Leppert

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Kotter International
August 13, 2014

Of the most used and least understood terms in business (and life) today, “strategy” sits atop the heap. I’m a self-confessed news junkie, hitting up numerous sites throughout the day for my latest fix. Today I have already read about BuzzFeed’s business strategy, Wal-Mart’s growth strategy, and an interesting point of view on the United States’ Middle East strategy.

All of that may make sense, but the “strategy” overload doesn’t stop there. I am scheduled to participate in no less than two “strategic planning” meetings in the next week or so, have been asked to help build a “strategic plan” to deal with a business-related issue, and I need to find some time for some “strategic thinking” about a company’s specific business challenge.

It would seem that you’re not a cool, sophisticated professional until you have a “strategy” or a “strategic” approach for everything. But are they all really “strategic?” Does everything need a “strategy?”

Recently Roger Martin wrote a piece on the Harvard Business Review blog titled “Why Smart People Struggle with Strategy.” He made a number of really good points, including the fact that, “Great strategy is aided by diversity of thought and attitude. A point that we’ve also explored in depth in a previous Forbes blog.

But I think there is another reason why most people (not just the cool, sophisticated professionals) struggle with strategy. And it’s pretty simple. It comes down to clarity. There just isn’t a clear understanding of what it (strategy) is.

Take the infamous “strategic plan”: I contend that most of the time this phrase is used, we aren’t clear on whether we want a plan with tactics and outcomes versus an actual strategy which might consider where we want to play, the markets we want to be in, our approach, our limited resources, and a raft of other factors. Put simply, is the word “strategy” misleading, simply slapped on to make “plan” sound more sophisticated?

That’s right. I’m saying that right now in your company, in your building, there are meetings, conversations, offsite workshops, and teams that are working on developing plans, all of which are being termed strategy and strategic to dress them up. Stop it! Next we’ll have to have the “overall strategic plan” just to differentiate it from the rather common strategic plan. Oh that’s right – we already have that.

Here’s something even more troubling that I see. Not only are the people in these meetings who are developing these “strategies” not clear on what they are doing, the rest of the organization (typically the hundreds or thousands of people who will have to carry out these “strategies”) definitely isn’t clear on what it will mean to them. Consequently, pretty much everyone has a hard time helping the company accomplish and reach their “strategy.”

Consider the waste of time and effort, leading to organizations full of misguided but nodding heads. the only result is flurry of busy action – in different directions and with no progress.

We’re all too busy to be creating confusion for each other. We should stop this by starting to do these three things:

1. Have a shared definition of “strategy.” Be specific. Use the words “strategy” and “strategic” only very deliberately – when it fits the meaning you and others agree upon. Be conscious whether you are asking a group of sales people to create an account plan or an account strategy? Are you creating an innovation plan or an innovation strategy? Are you developing your talent acquisition plan or a talent acquisition strategy? Don’t dress it up – this only confuses people. When you call a plan a strategy, most people churn around just trying to understand what you mean.

2. Call a “plan” a “plan.” When you have a strategy, make clear how it is different from a plan! You see, people can get behind a plan – they can understand the clearly defined actions and outcomes. The plan tells them what you’re hoping to do, and they can measure what they’re doing to help you get there. Accordingly, people can buy into a strategy: the strategy to be the best at X in the industry or the fastest at Y. When they’re clear on the strategy (not ten “strategic imperatives”) then they can get behind that too. Go on a walkabout and ask people how clear they are about your company strategy. Let me know what you find out.

3. Red flag: Is it really strategic? Sometimes (always) a bit of clarity helps. If you’re invited to a meeting that is “strategic” you should raise your internal red flag, empowering yourself to ask how is this strategic. How are the expectations different? How will the planning meeting be different now that we are calling it a “strategic” planning meeting? Same for a “strategic business review” vs a “business review.” Or a conversation vs a “strategic conversation.” The list goes on…

So let’s be more strategic (ha!) about our use of “strategy.” Overusing and abusing the term only ends up creating massive confusion – confusion that no one will mention because that wouldn’t be a “strategic” career move.

Kotter International
July 31, 2014

12,000. That’s the number of emails one of my client’s dummy account received last year. That dummy account had no real boss, no real work responsibilities, no projects, and no direct reports. Still it received roughly 50 emails per day – and that’s before adding emails a real person doing real work would receive.

This is something I am seeing across many of my clients. Work days start early, cutting through the sea of FYI emails, then on to ill-conceived, poorly designed, and feebly facilitated meetings; meetings that often result in nothing more than more meetings.

Many clients launched initiatives on improving the quality of communications. One had an even better idea – they launched an initiative to “Reduce the Noise” to cut down on the quantity of emails and meetings that don’t matter, allowing people to focus on the ones that do. By actively working on this issues, they’re seeing real successes and reclaiming hours/days/weeks back to get real work done. The biggest gains in person-hours were found in implementing a few simple rules around meetings.


So, inspired by my clients’ efforts to Reduce the Noise, here is a Meeting Invitee’s Bill of Rights.


We the people invited to this meeting, any meeting, in order to make the best use of our time – our most scarce and limited resource – and to make good decisions quickly and collaboratively, discuss issues and alternatives, provide guidance to our people, celebrate the contributions of our teams, and advance our organization in the marketplace and the world, do establish these basic Meeting Invitee’s Bill of Rights.

Should these rights, which are enumerated below, not be adhered to, respected, and accomplished, all invitees retain their inalienable right to decline the meeting. Contrarily, the Facilitator(s), having recognized and fulfilled their role in accordance to these rights, shall exercise their right to expect that the invitee will attend and contribute constructively to the meeting and its defined objectives.

I, the invited, do have the right to:

  1. Clearly articulated objectives sent in advance. The Facilitator(s) will clearly articulate the desired outcomes and objectives of the meeting. In determining the clear objectives, the Facilitator(s) recognizes the difficulty in getting certain individuals or groups together at the same time and same location, and therefore recognizes that a meeting is not a first resort for conversation, but a last resort for collaborations, decision making, and direction setting.
  2. A focused invitee list. The Facilitator(s) has limited the invitee list to those individuals or representatives of groups who have vital input to a discussion and/or are affected by the outcomes of the meeting. The Facilitator(s) will not fill the room with just-in-case, for-your-information, or cover-your-tracks invitees.
  3. A well-considered agenda. The Facilitator(s) will craft a thoughtful agenda that outlines a reasonable sequence and flow of topics, appropriately timed and limited to the amount of time needed. Facilitator(s) will not start with a default timing (e.g., an hour) and flex the content to fill the allotted time.
  4. A thoughtfully designed experience. Equally as important as the agenda (aka: what and when we will talk) is the design of the session (how we will accomplish it). Facilitator(s) will focus time and thought to the techniques they will use to accomplish the outcomes, recognizing unstructured/open conversation is rarely effective and efficient. If the agenda item is ‘update’ or ‘inform’ the thoughtful design is to send the information as pre-read in advance. Good meeting design recognizes the tendencies and personalities of the participants, leveraging their strengths and compensating for their bad habits. Good design also outlines meeting roles for time-keeping and note-taking, so that the attendees and Facilitator(s) can focus on the content.
  5. Reasonable preparation sent with sufficient time to complete. Facilitator(s) recognizes the expediting effect of invitees coming to a meeting prepared and updated. Sending agendas, objectives, and update information in advance helps prepare invitees and facilitate progress. Invitees also have the right to not have meetings-before-the-meetings or preview meetings where the sole objective is to meet and discuss the slide content of the upcoming meeting; these are redundant, unnecessary, and ultimately set the actual meeting up for failure. If the Facilitator(s) requires a meeting-before-the-meeting to bolster their own efforts, then that conversation should focus on objectives and design.
  6. Starting on-time and ending early. Facilitator(s) will start the meeting on-time with the invitees who are respectful enough to be on-time. Those who are on-time to meetings achieve this through thoughtful planning and discipline, it is to be recognized and acknowledged. Facilitator(s) can use the early minutes as stragglers arrive to allow on-time attendees to review or ask questions from the preparation
  7. Everyone paying attention in the meeting. The Facilitator(s) will work with the group to establish – early on or in advance – a set of practices to help the meeting be as effective and efficient as possible, and eliminate those factors distract from that mission. Atop that list is the right to expect everyone is paying attention to one another – laptops closed, smartphones down.
  8. Key decisions and questions placed upfront. The Facilitator(s) will ensure that the key questions and decisions are clearly articulated atop the agenda and/or in the first slide. Facilitator(s) will not bury the real question in the back of a 40-slide, text-heavy, data-intensive slide presentation.
  9. Alert facilitation. Facilitator(s) will ensure that the group moves forward together, not allowing the group to be dominated by individuals with their own agendas or styles. If that is not possible given the roles/titles/culture of the group in the meeting, the Facilitator will defer their meeting leadership responsibility to someone that can.
  10. Thoughtful, brief, and timely notes of discussions, decisions, and actions. Once the meeting is complete, the note-taker (see Thoughtful Design) will send a summary of the key content discussed, the decisions made, and the action items outlined.

The Facilitator(s), having respected the rights of the invitees, and their obligations as Facilitator(s) by dutifully executing their meeting(s) in compliance with the rights and liberties outlined above, will thereby have the right to expect regular attendance and thoughtful contributions from their attendees. In addition, the Facilitator(s) can expect better and faster meetings, stronger perceptions of their leadership skills, and greater respect from their supervisors, direct reports, and teams.


Here is the biggest challenge – exercise your rights. Take a look at your calendar. Find one meeting and say to yourself, “There is an hour of my life I will never get back and will have nothing to show for it.” Go talk with the facilitator of that meeting. Ask them if you can help them make that meeting a more effective, efficient use of everyone’s time.

  • If they accept, start by asking them what frustrates them about the meetings. Chances are it’s the same things others complain about. Then show them the Bill of Rights and see where you can help.
  • If they decline, just know you have the right to decline.
  • If you do decline, send someone from your group you are grooming in your succession planning. Tell them that you trust them and will support them in any decisions they make in the room. They will be elated by the trust you have in them, and you will have an hour back to do something more important.

Look, we all have way too much to do, and we spend way too much time on emails and in meetings. We should not have to sit through any more really bad meetings. We have rights and we are willing to stand up for them. Emails, now that’s a topic for a whole other post.