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Forbes - John Kotter's Change Leadership

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.

Kotter International
July 9, 2014

It’s been a tough 2014 for Target. They started the year on the heels of a substantial customer data breach, which significantly damaged their brand reputation and consumer trust and led to declining sales figures and lower than expected 2013 results. Then CEO Gregg Steinhafel was abruptly let go by the board. Target has begun searching for a replacement, someone who can recapture the attitude of Target’s past; an attitude that helped fuel their prior transformation and subsequent meteoric rise.

Getting back to the “fast, fun and friendly” culture that characterized Target for more than two decades under former CEO Robert Ulrich will be no small feat – and may or may not be what’s necessary to drive the business forward. Culture is inevitably a product of great leaders, which Ulrich was widely viewed to be. But there is an inertia to culture – as long as things are done a particular way, and this seems to generate positive results, things will continue to be done that way. And, while there are undoubtedly positive elements of the old Target culture that could stand to be recaptured, the culture under the company’s next CEO will need to be adapted for success in the future as well.


Step 1: Start With Direction

In an organization plagued by general malaise and recent lack of vision, nothing is more important than refocusing the team around a clear picture of the future that will inspire, motivate, and drive employees to make that vision reality. This is especially true when bringing many new team members on board, as Target has been recently. It won’t be enough for senior executives to want to recapture Target’s past attitude. They will also need to 1) paint a compelling picture of the big opportunities coming down the road and 2) describe how recapturing some of the lost characteristics of a nimble, more innovative Target will help the company seize those opportunities.

Step 2: Make Sure the Team is On Board

In Target’s case, the process of getting buy-in for a new vision will depend heavily on the leadership of the yet-to-be-hired CEO. The company is in need of a truly transformational and inspiring leader who can balance the short- and long-term needs of the company. Current senior management and the board will need to consider not only the skillset of the next CEO, but also whether they believe in a similar vision to transform the organization. Target will need a leader with vision and passion to work quickly with existing management to halt the brand’s decline and move to secure the company’s future leading role in an industry that is shifting rapidly all around it.

Step 3: Leadership and Vision, Not Management and Control

Truly transforming Target, however, relies on more than just top management. A vision alone will not be enough to turn the tide for the company. Senior leadership, including the next CEO, will need to lead the way by living up to the vision they lay forth. It must be authentic and touch both the hearts and minds of the organization. Additionally, these leaders will need to give employees permission and space to allow for leadership to surface throughout the organization. Target’s early market buzz was attributed in large part to its selection of innovative, trendy, and quirky products, many brought to store shelves by virtue of the freedom with which individual store managers and merchandisers could operate, without too much corporate bureaucracy. But in recent years that freedom had been curtailed in order to gain global efficiencies and cut costs. Rebuilding some of that independent spirit may be key to infusing the energy and drive Target needs back into the organization.

Step 4: Share the Vision

For a company like Target whose reputation has taken some knocks, they may want to consider sharing the vision more broadly, not only to staff, but also to customers. Many long-time customers are disappointed in the company and want to both hear about the future and see proof of the change in action. In recent years, Target’s product selection was determined more by margins and pricing than by consumer trends and demands, leaving many to feel the creative spark had gone out of the brand. Trust was broken with the data breach and relationship with the brand will take time to repair.

To reconnect with their key audience of affluent-but-price-conscious consumers, Target will need to convince shoppers the company understands where they have slipped and has a clear and ambitious plan in mind to do better. Communicating with integrity a powerful future vision for Target can help re-engage consumers.

Step 5: Embrace Change Instead of Resisting

Over the past few years, Target’s philosophy increasingly looked to be one of tightening control, creating more bureaucracy and a larger hierarchy. After the data breach, false urgency abounded and many people were running scared within the organization. The things that made them a success in the past decade, where employees had more permission to act and operate with a feeling of ownership, seemed to disappear. These latter traits tend to be characteristics of companies that embrace and work within the context of change rather than resisting changing environments, and they are the characteristics Target should strive to embody.

Already, Target looks to be heading in the right direction. The interim management, under acting-CEO Tom Mulligan, isn’t waiting for a new CEO to be selected in order to begin to move ahead. Instead, they reshuffled some management positions immediately following Steinhafel’s departure, creating greater autonomy and allowing new ideas to surface more quickly. For their customers and shareholders, I hope that this trajectory continues.


Kotter International
July 8, 2014

By Ken Perlman

There are certain words we use at work that we simply don’t (or shouldn’t) use at home. I have never said synergy to my children. I have never (ever) referred to a request I’ve made of my wife as a deliverable.

And then there are contronyms – words that mean totally different things in different contexts. Generic examples of this are dust (the noun means dirt, the verb means to clean), fast (which can either mean speedy or to not eat). Some contronyms mean something different at work than they do at home. At work, offline means a 1:1 meeting, in my home it means turn off all the internet-connected devices before coming down to dinner or my wife will go ballistic.

Trust and respect are unfortunately becoming examples of work-based contronyms. At home, trust (verb) is something we demonstrate for our children as we watch and check-in on them to verify and assist. They feel ownership over their actions and we release some control so they can take the lead. We stand at the ready to help them any way we can should they ask for it. At work, trust is coming to mean you’re on your own. Respect (verb) is evolving into a term that distances the utterer from someone else’s decisions, i.e. “I respect your authority… ”

The problem with using trust and respect in these new ways is that it exacerbates the silos already slowing us down in the new, hyper-speed marketplace. As executive teams work to resolve critical issues on the ground, they find themselves struggling to implement improvements, while still demonstrating trust and respect for their peers (across silos) and their management teams (across levels).

Abdicate and Hope
Often, leaders in hierarchical organizations are choosing the non-confrontational but also non-supportive way to solve problems. More often than not, the executives respect their subordinates and peers by not getting in their space. They show respect by saying they trust them, then hoping their counterparts make good choices. This supposed trust and respect is, in reality, “abdicate and hope” – all delivered when cooperation and collaboration is what’s really required.

The Solution: Interoperability
A more powerful and effective way to show trust is to enable interoperability (noun). It takes more trust to invite others in, knocking down silos and helping teams across the lines. The more problems we face that are cross-functional, the more solutions will require the involvement of multiple teams. Executives cannot remain polite by staying out of each other’s space, choosing to deal with problems only up to the edge of their domain. The ability for executives to work directly with teams that report to other executives – and have that be okay with their counterparts – that’s a demonstration of true trust.

We know we have a problem when leadership teams don’t step in each other’s space or when they decline to talk to team members multiple layers below them. If it’s a crisis situation and the leadership team is still being really polite to one another and not stepping on anyone’s toes, that is a sure sign of a bigger problem.

How to Get It
Like almost all things in organizations, it is not that complicated to start creating true trust and respect. We make it more complex than it really has to be. Here is a decent recipe for encouraging interoperability:

  1. Set some guidelines. Describe the behavior you want to see. Have the leadership team outline ideal ways of working together.
  2. Get clear on priorities. Establish what matters most to the business. Again, this is a short list (e.g. service wins, customer first, etc.)
  3. Ask for support. Ask your colleagues to actively help one another. Have them go to each others’ staff meetings to discuss how the multiple groups can help each other move faster, make things easier, remove obstacles, and identify the forces and factors that cause cross-silo turbulence.
  4. Model the behavior. Constantly check-in with your colleagues and teams. Work across silos and across levels when things are going well, so when a crisis occurs, this is now muscle memory and not a learning opportunity.

Words like trust and respect don’t belong in the contronym category. How do your teams and colleagues use these terms? Is interoperability already in place or are you crouching behind the silo walls waiting for the crash on the other side?

Ken Perlman is an engagement leader at Kotter International, a firm that helps leaders accelerate strategy implementation in their organizations.