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Fierce Leadership: A Bold Alternative to the Worst ‘Best’ Practices of Business Today by Susan Scott

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A review by Integral Development Managing Director Ron Cacioppe

‘You are always practising something. The question is: What are you practising?’

The major premise of Fierce Leadership is that real, honest and authentic conversations are what good leadership is about. In her latest book, Susan Scott questions many  “best practice” programs and outlines how they are causing more harm than good. In an effort to increase productivity and profitability, companies have introduced a series of ‘best practices’ and have taken on their own corporate speak. The best practices many leaders rely on, according to Scott, can obstruct useful conversation.  In her view, these best practices need and should be replaced with direct and honest conversations.

The use of the word “fierce,” in the title raises some controversy which the author discusses in the book. She used  ‘fierce’ work in her earlier book, Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life One Conversation at a Time and also has it in the name of her company, Fierce, Inc. The word fierce means being aggressive, confrontational, perhaps even hostile to many people when in fact it can also be used when expressing affection, loyalty, appreciation, and perhaps even love. However it is used, whatever is expressed should be honest, real, genuine, frank, candid, and in all other respects authentic. The subtitle of this book refers to a “bold alternative to the worst ‘best’ practices of business today”  and refers to much of the hype and false promises that has been written about how the best practices of many companies that are meant to provide the magic formula and key steps for success. In reality there is no one set of best practices and what works is often modified, sometimes replaced entirely as changing circumstances demand as has happened at GE since Jack Welsh has left.

In Fierce Leadership, Scott offers six new “fierce” practices that turn some of the most popular best worst practices into real value for leaders.  She suggests there are three reasons why so many leadership and organisations are failing:

  • We have too many uncaring leaders. (leaders who may care for the bottom line, but not for their people).
  • We have too many unlearning leaders (leaders who do not keep learning)
  • We have too many paralysed leaders (leaders who are afraid to take risks, leaders who fail to see the changes needed).

 

So, in response to such problems, she proposes three great tasks for leaders:

  • Leaders are called to develop a good heart
  • Leaders are called to nurture a keen and active, well-fed mind
  • Leaders have to be willing to decide

 

This book provides tangible steps to solve these problems, with additional insight into the overall task of overcoming the worst “best practices” that need to be jettisoned or changed. 

The chapter titles give some idea of the style and content of the book as well as the focus of trying to take leaders from their current practice to a future, better practice:

  • From 360 Anonymous Feedback — to 365 Face-to-Face Feedback
  • From Hiring for Smarts — to Hiring for Smart+Heart
  • From Holding People Accountable — to Modeling Accountability and Holding People Able
  • From Employee Engagement Programs — to Real Engagement
  • From Client Centricity — to Client Connectivity
  • From Legislated Optimism — to Radical Transparency

 

Each chapter title tries to capture an important mistake an organisation is making in a key area of its operation (e.g. hiring people based on intelligence) and providing a clear, alternative solution (hiring for attitude and motivation). Scott helps her direct (and sometimes blunt) argument by providing useful tools in the form of questionnaires, examples and guidelines that could help a company make the shift.  A set of interview questions are provided that could help get to ‘the heart’ of a person being interviewed for a job.

Can Squid Eye Help?

So many (highly intelligent, well-intentioned leaders) pour considerable time, intelligence, and cash into significant sinkholes – practices – with no good outcomes, and in fact, costly implications. (p. 1)

Scott’s view is that these best practices are covering and hiding potential that is holding the company back, but you can’t see this because the practice has become so ingrained that its effects have become intertwined with the business and look like a useful part of it. To see if your best practices are hindering your performance, you need to use a special technique she calls “squid eye.” Squid eye is what Hawaiian fisherman use to describe the ability to see the squid while he’s blending into his natural environment. It’s the ability to see the squid even when the squid doesn’t want you to see him.

Most people have a “built-in, crap detector” but are not brave enough to use it or too uncertain that what they see is really a load of bull.  Scott suggests that fierce leaders also have this detector and describes it as a “squid eye.” That is, as Paul Lindbergh explains, “seeing squid means you are seeing many things that others cannot and do not see. It means having sight in the presence of the blind. It means that you are a selective and efficient information gatherer. This is what ‘squid eye’ really means, and when you apply it to other aspects of your life, you will have, metaphorically, more tuna in your net and fewer guppies and old rubber boots. And if you can see one ‘tell’ [i.e. an indicator that what you seek is nearby], you automatically get others. It’s almost like beginning to understand the nature of a tell or the nature of signs left behind for our eyes and senses to use.”

The book uses “squid eye” to uncover and outline Fierce practices that Scott has uncovered in her years of teaching Fierce Conversations to leaders.  For example in the chapter; “Turn 360 Degree Anonymous Feedback into 365 Face-to-Face Feedback”.  The problem with the 360 degree feedback process that she challenges is; it is anonymous and disconnected from both the good and bad feedback that a team needs to improve.  Scott says turn it into face-to-face feedback.  Because these kinds of conversations take a high degree of integrity and courage, they might be challenging at first. This is why Scott includes a good discussion guide and outline you can use to get started with these conversations right away.

Who Can Use This Book?

Scott’s clients are mostly Fortune 500 companies so this book can be useful for anyone with a leadership position in a private or public organisation that has many of the standard human resource practices (performance reviews, strategic planning, disciplinary systems, etc).  But this book can benefit those who have to get things done by communicating with people.  I know a number of cafe, restaurant and small business owners and managers who would find the steps outlined in having a difficult conversation, hiring and engaging staff very useful.

Positive Aspects of This Book

Scott’s writing is engaging, personal and to the point.  A number of her insights are spot on and laughing out funny. The author is both bold and brash so she gets your attention. And she has blown the whistle on a major truth that limits many organisations from improving the efforts of individuals and teams. She has pointed out with some force that few leaders are courageous enough to face the fact that their conversations have gotten stale, pointless and empty – and they avoid having genuine, honest and tough conversations to sort out problems.

The most positive aspect of the book is that you feel you have received a strong push in the back to go and have those difficult conversations.  Over the time I was reading this book, a situation occurred which was one of those ones I wanted to avoid since I knew it was going to lead to some quite emotional reactions and some important consequences for the other person.  It was one I could have just let roll on and the only negative consequence would have been for me rather than other people… and I could have lived with the situation…sort of.  Reading the book, however, pushed me to have the conversation.  I keep in mind various parts of Scott’s process and things I had already learned, like ask questions and find out first what the other person’s point of view is as well as their fears and needs.  After starting off the discussion about the issue and doing nothing other than asking questions, the other person did get emotional but also go on with starting to solve the issue with me having to say very little about what they needed to do or what I would like.  This type of discussion leads not only to improvement in the business and the team and lets you be free from the assumptions, confusion, and frustrations that go along with having difficult behaviours.  This helps provide the courage you need to have and a few key skills so that you feel confident in handling the conversation no matter what direction it goes in.  

Best and Practical Aspects of This Book

This book is very practical.  It is direct and sets out to challenge and even debunk a number of current management practices.  It provides some pretty powerful arguments to support thesis and replacement practices, steps and ideas to allow you to move into a new position.  Some of the practical things this book does are:

  • Recognise and counteract the worst “best” practices that many companies use today.
  • Put forward a powerful case for having honest, direct and skillful conversations to connect humans together for a common good, which primarily is customer service.
  • Develop “squid eye” and spot the “tells” that signal imminent trouble around your conference table, your organisation or team.

Fierce Leadership deals with a vital issue in leadership – difficult, important and necessary conversations.  It pushes, shows, hollers and tells you why you need to have these conversations and how to have them.  The phrase “leadership is having one conversation at a time”.

There are a number of useful questions, templates and forms to use. The questions on what is essential to success in my company, in this job on page 82 and the behavioural questions on page 83 are very good when you are hiring someone. The Beach Ball exercise on page 176 is ideal in helping to solve a recurring problem.  The book has a number of forms, steps, exercises and questions that managers can use for hiring, difficult conversations, and examining your life.  You can modify, paste and copy these and they can add some real value to your organisation and your job.

Limitations

Scott seems to feel that leadership is only about direct, honest, no holds barred conversations done skilfully. Strategic thinking, innovation, marketing, financial analysis, cost management, effective human resource management, reward and recognition strategies, succession planning and a hundred other things Peter Drucker and many other management and leadership wizards are saying have no place in Susan Scott’s mind set.  I also sense she was doing a remake of her very successful book, Fierce Conversations, but taking it up the ladder to leadership.

While I admire her single sightedness and strong focus, I find strategic planning, reward strategies and a number of other good solid management processes and systems effective if carried out right.  She has made some excellent points about best practices often being worst practices because they are done as tick the boxes or with such unauthenticity that they do more harm than good.  The problem is having managers who have poor attitudes, lack care and lack the right skills to carry out these management practices, not the practices themselves.  

I admit to a bias and a ‘conflict of interest’ when it comes to judging her comments on the 360 feedback process, since I have developed one which my company provides.  We have provided over 5000 360 leadership profiles to Australian managers and I personally have been involved with over 700 or so managers in one-to-one sessions.  A number of these sessions have not only provided very useful and tangible feedback to managers and have helped set very clear and worthwhile goals for the person, but in some cases have led to life changing moments. The specific measurements, the comparison to sample and organisational averages and specific comments that were anonymous (and therefore can be looked at without bias based on personalities) are the exact features that make a 360 process valuable if done right.  We often say a good 360 process should help you get to the place where you don’t need it anymore and you can have face to face honest conversations with each other. Unfortunately, there are few workplaces where this can happen, especially where there are power differences, personality conflicts and egos involved. 

Scott’s certainty seems a bit too certain and black and white for me.  She doesn’t accept that some of these best practices could be best practices so me and thousands of managers, leaders and organisation consultants around the world are inadvertently caste into the category of fools that have been like the king with no clothes and it is her that has seen through this stupidity.

While reading the book, I felt like the author was shouting at me and telling me that I need to go out and have a fierce conversation with everyone immediately.  I was pleased when I found a video clip of her and that she wasn’t as much an Alpha female as I expected. While she certainly helped me acknowledge that I need to have these conversations, I also remember a workshop where I was on Susan’s side of the fence when I challenged a group of lawyers to have honest and forthright conversations with their managers and colleagues.   One woman who took on board everything I said including the right way to hold a conversation with her boss who was a very toxic person. She sent me an email two weeks later saying she had the difficult conversation and wanted to let me know that her boss reacted very badly to her honesty even though she felt she conducted the conversation in the way she practiced. She said she wished she hadn’t raised these issues with her boss since now the atmosphere was worse and she was starting to look for a new job.  I have since tempered my absoluteness and give people the right to judge when the ‘difficult’ conversation might not be in the best interest of everyone and to consider alternative strategies (e.g. sometimes it is right to leave an environment with a toxic boss who will not change even if you have a sledgehammer with you during the difficult conversation).

While I do see some limitations in the book, I see a lot more overall benefit since Fierce Leadership deals with  very important difficult areas and provides a lot of useful things to help us manage these.

Conclusion

Informed by more than a decade of conversations with Fortune 500 executives,  Scott’s book is an antidote for bad practices carried out by poor mangers. With new approaches to everything from employee feedback to corporate diversity to customer relations, Scott offers fresh alternatives to six of the so-called “best” practices permeating today’s businesses. This candid book can help a manager at any level who to take a long hard look at what trouble might be lurking in their organization—and do something about it.

Great Quotes in This Book

  • (Excerpted from her “Memo to Leaders”) — Your central function is to engineer intelligent, spirited conversations…
  • Do not, under any circumstances, tell a lie of either commission or omission. Do not stretch the truth, exaggerate, or make up to get out of trouble or make yourself look good. Do not attempt to project different images depending on whom you’re with. People can spot inauthenticity… Show up as yourself consistently. Unless, of course, you are a jackass.
  • Why are “healthy” companies so sick.hat5]
  • A fierce leader doesn’t simply do the practices in this book like items on a to-do list. 
  • The conversation is the relationship. …business is fundamentally an extended conversation with colleagues, customers, and the unknown future emerging around us. 
  • A leader’s job is to engineer the types of conversations that produce epiphanies.
  • Your most valuable currency is relationship, emotional capital. Human connectivity, as opposed to strategy and tactics, is the next frontier for exponential growth and the only sustainable competitive edge, more visibly useful than ever before. 
  • A fierce leader commits to a way of life, not a business strategy. A way of life that over time becomes about we, not me. 
  • We fear being real, being ourselves, disclosing our real thoughts and feelings, being known. It’s time to change all that. (p. 31).
  • Feedback is all too often associated with the word negative. But, in fact, positive feedback – praise. am not neutral.” [p. 15]
  • “The moment of truth is when you ask, ‘Are these the people I want to be in trouble with for the next five, ten, fifteen years of my life?’ Because as you build a business, one thing’s for sure: You’ll get in trouble.” (John Doerr).
  • “It often happens that I wake up at night and begin to think about a serious problem and decide that I must tell the Pope about it. Then I wake up completely and remember that I am the Pope.” (Pope John XXIII). (p. 103).
  • “What matters anywhere, matters everywhere.” (Madeleine Albright).
  • Every conversation with someone…enriches the relationship, or takes it down.

Some Useful Exercises

“Given everything on your plate, what is the most important thing we should be talking about?” 

If someone responded with, “I don’t know,” I would ask, “What would it be if you did know?”    And wait. Silence did the heavy lifting.

“If you want to become a great leader, gain the capacity to connect with your colleagues and customers at a deep level…or lower your aim. “

Prepare your own “Conversations I Need to Have” action list:

•Name_____________________ Topic _________________________________

•Name_____________________ Topic _________________________________

•Name_____________________ Topic _________________________________

•Name_____________________ Topic _________________________________

•Name_____________________ Topic _________________________________

•Name_____________________ Topic _________________________________

Ron Cacioppe

Ron Cacioppe is the Managing Director of Integral Development and holds a BSc, an MBA and a PhD. He has taught in the Graduate School of Management at Macquarie University, Curtin University and the University of Western Australia.

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