The Milkshake Moment

by ianmckenzie on February 4, 2013

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The following is an excerpt from the book The Milkshake Moment: Overcoming Stupid Systems, Pointless Policies and Muddled Management to Realize Real Growth by Steven S. Little
Published by Wiley & Sons, Inc.;  April 2008;$19.95US/$21.99CAN; 978-0-470-25746-3

Copyright © 2008 Steven S. Little

What I’ve come to learn is that growth leaders are distinctive not only in their actions, but also in their attributes. These specific attributes are more like personality traits than true management skills, and they ultimately build trust:

Timely
Realistic
Unscripted
Sensitive
Transparent

Timely — Every day I deal with people who say they want to grow their company, community, or association. And I know they truly mean it. Often one of the key factors that impede their progress, however, is how they choose to allocate their time and that of others. When I look at how they actually spend their time, I find that they revert back to their default setting — what they know best. They fill their days working on the tasks they are most comfortable completing.

In contrast, successful leaders devote the majority of their time to those areas that truly need it. They make timely decisions as often as decisions are needed — no more and no less.

Time is not something to be filled with activity for activity’s sake. Leaders understand the nature of timeand are skilled at prioritizing it to make an impact. They understand that being timely does not come from Day-Timers, longer hours, or an increasing workload. For some, this prowess is innate. For others it is a skill that must be honed through experience. Yet make no mistake about it; it is impossible to lead a growth charge without mastering the importance of time.

(Most managers simply get up and do what they want to do. Growth leaders get up and do what needs to be done.)

Realistic — Many joke that reality is overrated. It certainly is easier to don our rose-colored glasses and see only what we want to see. What distinguishes growth leaders is their unrelenting focus on what really is and what truly can be. While positive thinking has its place, delusions are dangerous.

“Our product is the best.” “Our team is superior.” “Our customers love us.” “Our cause is more important than any other.” Really? Let’s can the empty slogans, take down the banners, and throwaway the T-shirts. Today, it takes a pragmatic realist to separate the true picture from the conventional groupthink.

Facing reality isn’t merely a good idea; it’s an imperative. Your organization is depending on someone to challenge the organization’s most closely held beliefs today. Why couldn’t that be a leader like you? Too often, closely held beliefs are kept on our shelves long past their expiration dates. Growth leaders seek only the truth and welcome any and all reality checks.

Unscripted — Today our world is filled with skeptics. People are simply jaded, and why shouldn’t they be? Over the past 50 years we’ve lived through disgraced presidents, dubious armed conflicts, pilfered pensions, and “new and improved” products that are clearly neither new nor improved. We live in a world where much of what comes at us from organizations is spin, propaganda, and distorted half-truths. It should be obvious to any twenty-first-century leader that many people are reluctant to believe anything. Everyone’s bullshit detector has become finely calibrated.

What we long for is authenticity. We want leaders who speak plainly and from the heart, not from talking points. We want bosses who reject corporate mumbo jumbo. We want professionals who don’t cloak themselves in a blanket of CYA-speak.

In order to lead, it is critical to master the authenticity. Reject the tired clichés, lose the latest buzzwords, and say what you mean and mean what you say.

Sensitive — This is a loaded term. While it has many definitions, here I mean perceptive. Sensitive leaders are acutely aware of their surroundings and are keenly observant. They have an intuitive knack for understanding the motivations of others. They are able to feel the barely perceptible winds of change long before the actual storm. They have the uncanny ability to gain insight from seemingly disparate data.

How well do you read others in complex social situations? How much do you trust your gut feelings? How well do you handle displays of emotion in yourself and others? How easily do you move from perception to action?

Most growth leaders are naturals at these types of skills. Others need to regularly extricate themselves from day-to-day activities to work on them. Either way, being sensitive is an attribute that gives leaders another arrow in their organizational growth quiver.

Transparent — It’s human nature not to trust those who attempt to hide things from us. For instance, when an organization gets into trouble and spirals downward because of a public relations crisis, it nearly always has something to do with not being transparent. Most of the great corporate and political scandals of the modern age have had more to do with cover-ups than with the original act of wrongdoing itself.

In contrast, people and organizations that are transparent in their actions are the ones that consistently grow and come out ahead in the long run. Those who are forthcoming with information — good and bad — can more effectively lead a team to accomplish great things.

An organization itself can and should be transparent, but to be so it needs leaders who are transparent in their actions. An active beehive hanging in a tree looks to me as ominous as the Death Star in a Star Wars movie. I definitely don’t trust it. But have you ever seen a cross section of a beehive? By placing it behind glass we can see the fascinating inner workings of an efficient organization. Somehow, knowing what each of those busy bees is up to puts my mind at ease.

Employees, customers, vendors, and shareholders know what to expect from transparent leaders. Fostering transparency takes commitment and confidence. It can be tempting to hide problems, but the transparent leader knows that the truth eventually slips out anyway — and often looks worse than it did originally. As an ancient Eastern adage says, “Three things cannot be hidden forever: the sun, the moon, and the truth.”

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