Reflections on leadership, change, and team performance

One of the big lies about big data

I’m excited to attend the upcoming day-long New Frontiers and Opportunities in Customer Analytics workshop in Seattle (#wcaiconf), presented by the Wharton Customer Analytics Initiative (WCAI). Why? In part, because data analytics is central to the role chiefs of staff play in queuing up decisions for their principal executive and leadership teams (see my previous article on the role chiefs of staff play, here).  Also, because everyone’s talking about data. Data-driven decisions. Big data. Predictive capabilities. It’s an exciting conversation if you’re a part of it. Finally, because I attended a WCAI workshop in July on customer analytics and voting behavior, at Wharton, and I know that this panel of analytics experts will close the gap between executive leaders and geeks, help me use the data I have more effectively, and help me apply data from seemingly unrelated areas to the situations I’m wrestling with the most.

Data, as a subject, has a lot of potential that hasn’t yet been realized. Its use comes with ethical questions that haven’t been fully answered or even explored. Yet many conversations in board rooms tend to leave you with the impression that decisions and behaviors are based either on numbers and evidence (i.e., they’re “data-driven”) or they’re based on intuition, gut, and emotion. In reality, to pit these against each other is a false dichotomy, and you embrace it at your peril, because these methods of arriving at decisions and behaviors are just different forms of intelligence.

For the purposes of this article, I use a definition of intelligence that falls somewhere between Merriam Webster’s definition1 and Gareth Morgan’s concept of it in Images of Organization (see the chapter “Learning and Self-Organization: Organizations as Brains”)2: the ability to learn or understand things initially but also to apply experience and learning to new or difficult situations through processes of continuous feedback.

The following is an example from a recent consulting conversation I had with a client of mine. He was convinced that getting customer feedback was the key to knowing how to effectively bring new products and services to market. True. But only partly true. You also need to layer on some intuition to the results, I advised. How do you know you’re measuring the right things? Do you just take the customer feedback at face value? Is it all self-reported data? Is that sufficient, or do you need some verification process? What do you do with conflicting feedback? What do you do with vague or ambiguous feedback? How do you compare your customer feedback with that of your suppliers, vendors, or national trends? Are there other data sets you already have that might show you what customers do, despite what they say? If you never look at that customer feedback (data) with intuition, which I will define here as the human brain’s subconscious calculation of data and experience, you might not even know to ask questions like these to get better explicit data. Is the original explicit data as likely to yield the right set of decisions, products, and experiences that your customers want without that intuitive layer?

I recently posed this false dichotomy question to big-data expert and founder at Big Nimble, Michael Kauffman.  He says:

It’s false to say data and intuition are opposites.  The truth is actually they can’t live without each other. My experience is that as people become more data driven, they start shifting the focus of their intuition away from the results and more towards the process.  That is, if their intuition confirms the correctness of the various logical leaps they used in selecting and analyzing the data, then they learn to rely on what the data tells them regarding x or y or z result. And that’s when they can escape their own cognitive echo chamber and obtain game-changing insights: no longer are they dismissing data that refutes their preconceived notions.  Now, they are seeing new insights because of their intuition, but now it’s intuition regarding process validity, so they know they can trust the even-surprising result.  Basically, shifting intuition to process leads you to results you would have otherwise intuitively dismissed or ignored if just applying your intuition to the result.4

Big data is powerful and important, even if it’s not as much about having more kinds of data but just using the data you have more creatively. Equally powerful and important is how we apply it. How are you using it or helping others around you use it? How’s your current approach working?

I help C-suite executives and board members assess whether a corporate chief of staff can help them be more effective, find the right people, and manage the first 90–100 days with a chief of staff. I also help chiefs of staff be as effective as they can be.


1Merriam Webster, “Intelligence”

2Gareth Morgan. Images of Organization. 2006; Sage Publications. pp. 71–112.

3Robert Burton. On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not. 2008. St. Martin’s Press.

4Interview with Michael Kauffman, May 25, 2016.

As virtual assistants become all the rage, should human chiefs of staff be worried for their jobs?

I saw a question on recently about the best virtual assistant programs, such as Naturally, it made me think, as virtual assistants become more and more popular, will it be very long before the tasks that I performed as a chief of staff can be “outsourced” to a machine? Just how smart are machines becoming, and when every other (clickbait) headline on social media is about the millions of jobs people will lose to computers, how worried should I be?

The short answer is this: chiefs of staff, breathe easy. For now. It will be a while. Even HeyEdgar is a human-assisted model. For chief of staff work, Maddy Niebauer is doing some interesting (mostly human) work at VChief. Perhaps Anthony Goldbloom, in his TED talk, The jobs we’ll lose to machines – and the ones we won’t, sums up as well as anyone what I found in a cursory glance at the literature on machine learning and human jobs:

We have no chance of competing against machines on frequent, high-volume tasks. But … where machines have made very little progress is in tackling novel situations. They can’t handle things they haven’t seen many times before.

At least today. Tomorrow might bring a different picture as machines, well, learn. What I’ve begun to form a stronger opinion about, however, is that chiefs of staff should be paying more attention to how machines can help us. What are those frequent, high-volume tasks that we’re still holding on to? Reviewing departmental reports for keywords or trends? Looking at what your [insert department here] said they could deliver versus what they did deliver, over time, and comparing that against what others predicted to find out who’s most accurate? Finding keywords in contracts or patents that signal negative outcomes later? Identifying the rhythm of your business, comparing it against local school calendars, religious holidays, and industry events to indicate when people are likely to be out of the office and creating your annual calendar for leadership team meetings accordingly? The list goes on. What else could you do with that time if a machine did these tasks for you? For one thing, you might spend more time on the “novel situations.” Here are some examples of novel situations that came up in interviews with chiefs of staff for my book, Chief of Staff: The Strategic Partner Who Will Revolutionize Your Organization:

  • How to handle internal and external messaging when a wildly popular former employee is suing for wrongful termination
  • How to tell your leadership team that the entire division, including your position and the principal executive’s position, has been defunded, and how best to help people in the division after that
  • How to handle the conflict between the president and the CFO, and the allies they’ve enlisted against one another, over a seemingly trivial issue that has escalated beyond reason
  • Helping the head of HR figure out how to handle the viewing of porn on work computers, in violation of HR policies, by the company’s founder

What are the situations you’d give up to a machine in a heartbeat, and what are the things you’d do instead? Please share your thoughts in the comments or message me separately.

I help C-suite executives and board members assess whether a corporate chief of staff can help them be more effective, find the right people, and manage the first 90–100 days with a chief of staff. I also help chiefs of staff be as effective as they can be.

Have You Forgotten to Eat at The Table You Set? Why Negotiation Matters in Your Day-to-Day Work

What if your inability to persuade and influence the right people led to a crisis that resulted in thousands of sick kids and in deaths that were thought to be linked to that crisis? In our chief of staff peer group meetings this summer, I have been asking participants to read this article on how the Michigan governor’s chief of staff tried to raise the issues leading up to the Flint, MI, water crisis but was unable to resolve the problems before those problems became a big freaking deal.

While the case study of the Flint water crisis offers lots of problems to solve, negotiation strategies take front and center in our peer group discussions. For example, if you take the concept of “at the table” and “away from the table” discussions in a negotiation, the publicly available emails indicate that the governor’s chief of staff used lots of back channels and off-the-record conversations with Flint officials and community leaders; the Michigan Treasury, Emergency Management, the Department of Environmental Quality; and other stakeholders.  It’s not as clear that he ever brought all those stakeholders into one room as part of a task force, on a regular basis or even until agreement was reached on how to proceed. It’s unclear to what extent the Michigan governor was even apprised of the pending crisis before it became a crisis.  What we know is that the steps taken were ineffectual.

Not long ago, I (re)watched the 2010 remake of the classic Western film True Grit, and I was struck by what a clinic in at-the-table negotiation the film’s 14-year-old main character, Mattie Ross, gives near the beginning of that movie. Victoria Pynchon provides a helpful analysis of Mattie’s negotiation with a horse trader that eventually enables Mattie to hire a U.S. Marshal, buy horses and equipment, and start tracking the man who killed her father. While most of us don’t make decisions of life-and-death weight as Mattie Ross does, we do (hopefully) try to avert crises, whether triggered by a misinterpreted word that negatively shifts the stock markets or by simply preventing others in our organization from being blindsided by negative surprises.

How effective are you at negotiating in everyday situations at work? If you think of an area where you are stuck, is your knowledge of stakeholders as deep or broad as it could be? Have you conducted a thoughtful relationship map or analysis to find and leverage strengths or points of negotiation?

I help C-suite executives and board members assess whether a corporate chief of staff can help them be more effective, find the right people, and manage the first 90–100 days with a chief of staff. I also help chiefs of staff be as effective as they can be.

How chiefs of staff help companies do “big data” right

I recently had the privilege of hearing a terrific presentation about “big data,” by Michael Kauffman of BigNimble, in a room of Seattle-area business leaders. In addition to making many excellent points about how data get used and how more and more companies are starting to adopt sensible approaches to using data in new ways, he mentioned that for CEOs to do big data right, they need to involve three roles:

  • An internal ops person
  • An internal data person
  • An external data person

For organizations that have a chief operating officer, that person could take on the internal ops role. For others, though, this is precisely the kind of cross-departmental project that corporate chiefs of staff are known for. Let’s say you as CEO want to implement an initiative across an organization to comb the company’s “small data” and find new ways to use the data to drive sales, cut costs, or negotiate with suppliers. In doing that combing and pivoting, and in looking at new views and uses of data, Kaufmann says you are just adding a layer on top of your so-called small data, not fundamentally changing it. This is both a strategic undertaking that the CEO might initiate and broadly oversee and a tactical undertaking that does not require the CEO’s presence at all the meetings where the proverbial sausage is made. Given the CEO’s strategic direction, the chief of staff can keep the executive out of the weeds by:

  • identifying the right people to bring together, including the right external data person.
  • facilitating the discussions about areas of focus and benefits, reminding people of the strategic intent if they veer too far from it.
  • asking questions about and planning mitigation for risks.
  • following up with stakeholders affected by the data being used in new ways; educating them; hearing their concerns; assuaging their concerns, if needed; and where new usage of data presents new problems, crafting solutions that meet the needs of the organization and those stakeholders.


Part 6 – How people see a return on the investment in coaching

When I wrote the content for my coaching web site, I realized it’s a challenge to succinctly capture the value of coaching. It’s a challenge because the reasons people seek coaches are so varied, based on a combination of each client’s personality; deepest-held values and goals; and their situations at work, home, and community. Also, the value of coaching is only partly about monetary tradeoffs.

There are some studies in recent years that suggest coaching offers dramatic results – even direct, financial return on your investment (ROI). 1, 2, 3, 4 Other studies argue that ROI is one necessary, but insufficient measure of the full value of coaching.5 Still others look at the benefits of coaching that are hard to quantify in simple monetary terms.6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11

Ultimately, the value of coaching is in your perception of it. I’ve provided in this series some of the values I’ve found in coaching – good coaches have helped me with problems from tactical execution to the highest level questions about who I want to be in various aspects of my life:

  • Leading on purpose, with intentionality.
  • Examining habits that no longer served me, and replacing them with new habits.
  • Job searching more effectively.
  • Asserting myself in a way that was most valuable to others.
  • Getting fit instead of talking about getting fit.


Part 5 – How a business coach helps people establish new patterns of behavior through concepts, ongoing practice, and feedback loops

Did you ever wake up one day and realize how different your life is than it was just a couple years ago? Or that some of the patterns and behaviors that served you then are no longer appropriate for your new reality?

In 2004, I realized that my own expectations about the formal hierarchy or org chart were keeping me from being as effective as I wanted to be. I had spent a few years in the US Marine Corps reserves, where the formal hierarchy tends to carry more weight than in the corporate world and functions very differently. With the help of a good coach, I started to notice when authority or formal hierarchy was at play in my work, and I started to note my thoughts and attitudes in those situations. Only then, when I was really aware of these moments, did I begin to practice influencing without authority. Before, when my boss asked me to drive a project, I would go around to team members and say something like, “I need your help with this project because the boss wants it,” and I would assume that because the boss wanted it, everyone would jump to. That’s where I was running into problems. (more…)

Part 4 – How a business coach helps people discover new ways of doing things, or being, differently

You’ve heard the quip: insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Can you relate? Is there something in your life that you’ve tried to change but just can’t seem to? Or, a work or relational problem you keep running into that tempts you to point the finger at others but leaves you with the nagging suspicion that you’re contributing but haven’t yet put your finger on how?  Our brains are hard-wired to favor homeostasis1. We will stay in a pattern of behavior simply because it is familiar, even if it negatively affects us and even if we are aware at a cognitive level that it negatively affects us. It’s the reason some people stay in broken relationships, don’t quit smoking, and never achieve their health and fitness goals.

At one point in my career, I received some feedback from a 360-degree review that my co-workers wanted me to speak up more. Huh, I thought. I was hired into the role I held at the time, as one person noted, to bring EQ to a high-IQ organization. I thought of myself as quite open, talkative, and relational. I had never been accused of being quiet in my life. I could even remember a time early in my marriage when my wife said she thought I only listened enough to figure out what I was going to say next! I was tempted to dismiss the feedback outright. My coach didn’t let me off the hook so easily. He suggested a simple exercise, “For a couple weeks, just notice when you speak up and when you don’t, and jot down any observations that come to mind about what you see.” I’m glad he suggested it. In that noticing and reflection, I began to see a pattern. I was holding back in some of the higher-stakes meetings where a lot of the participants were more senior than me. I noticed in those moments a voice telling me that what I say would not be as smart, to the point, insightful, or poignant as they were. I identified a story I had been telling myself since grade school or junior high, through my time in the US Marines, and into my corporate career: I am smart, but not as smart as the others; strong, but not as strong; fast, but not as fast; etc. Yet, I had this feedback that the senior people in the room were the ones who wanted to hear more from me. I was connected to parts of the organization they were removed from. I had a depth and breadth of relationships, and an understanding of the various agendas in the room, that they wanted to tap into.

Part 3 – How a business coach provides accountability and outside perspective that almost nobody else can

I have always looked forward to my performance reviews, because I thought that at least once a year, I would get honest feedback about my performance. Having spent 8 years in the US Marine Corps Reserve, I have taken to heart the USMC leadership principle, “Know yourself and seek self-improvement.” I enjoy looking through the Johari window and understanding better what others see that I don’t, so that I can manage those aspects of my behavior that get in my way. I guess I’m a sucker, though, because out of 11 corporate performance reviews that I can remember, I received specific feedback that I could act on 3 times. One review went like this:

  • Supervisor: Generally, you’re doing great, and doing everything I’ve asked. I’d like to see you take the bull by the horns more. (I have received praise in previous roles as someone who takes initiative, so…)
  • Me: Okay, I love taking on challenges. Can you give me an example where I needed to take the bull by the horns more?
  • Supervisor: Well, you know, when you see something, just do it. Take the bull by the horns.
  • Me: I’m still not sure I understand. Can you describe a time when you saw a bull that I didn’t take it by the horns?
  • Supervisor: Well, I can’t think of any specific examples, but just, you know. Be a little more assertive.


Part 2 – How a business coach reflects back to people things people don’t see in themselves

In my very first session as a student coach at the Hudson Institute, it was my turn to practice coaching on a fellow student and then receive feedback from my class. This process is known as fish bowl coaching. I sat across from my “client,” asked some good questions, practiced active listening, and held a long silence while my client gathered her thoughts. I even took meticulous notes, and I felt good about the session. When the time was right, my faculty coach asked me a simple question: “Tyler, what does it do for you to take notes during this exchange?” “I guess I don’t know,” I replied. Suddenly, I felt awash in the realization that I took notes because note taking had been a part of my job for so long that it was now a habit – it was my second nature. In my project and operations management roles, people relied on my notes for follow up, clarification, and context. In coaching, however, you can miss a lot of what the client is saying because you’re catching up in your shorthand. Looking at your laptop or note pad can prevent you from paying attention to the client’s nonverbal cues. Your client might even wonder if you’re really taking notes or checking your email. In other words, it can distract you from being present with your client. I went through this entire sequence of thought and realization simply because a coach saw a pattern of behavior and asked me about it. She didn’t pass judgment or say I had done anything right or wrong. She only asked one simple, powerful question.

People who seek honest feedback in their work (or marriage, or parenting) often have a hard time finding it. The people around us might not want to rock the relational boat, or they might not like the conflict that they perceive their feedback will bring. Others might bring feedback so bluntly, or at a time that’s not right, that it raises all our defenses instead of helping us see an insight. At the same time, it’s uncomfortable for us to hear what we’re doing that gets in our own way or the way of others, and it’s even uncomfortable for some people to hear what they are doing well 1.

Part 1 – How a business coach helps you lead on purpose

“I never think. No, by God, I don’t think; I operate.” – Lt. Rinaldi, in “A Farewell to Arms” by Ernest Hemingway.

Have you ever felt stuck in a less-than-ideal place because you are so focused on a task, so busy trying to meet deadlines, or so eager to please your boss (or peers or family), that like Lt. Rinaldi, you forget to make time for reflecting on the context of your work, what is going well or not, and why? I know I have. Sometimes I don’t think; I operate!

If you want to break out of operating mode and get to a better place, a coach can help.  Making a change, and making it last, require at least four things that coaches help with:

  • Focus on what you can control
  • A way to see and manage what you currently don’t see or control
  • Multiple investments in the outcome
  • Practice, practice, practice


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