Monday, May 16, 2011

Book Review: Leading Change by John Kotter

Enterprises deploy major technologies to address a pressing need.  But studies show that a majority of change efforts fail, expensively.  Salespeople lose long-term credibility when their proposed improvements do not take hold.  As a technology seller, it's helpful to understand how leaders implement change.  Additionally, sales account leaders will often be forced to change how their teams operate.  Many of the principles behind change an enterprise processes and a small team's operations are the same.

John Kotter's "Leading Change" is one of the foundation books in the field of change management.  First published in 1996, the book's eight stage process for leading change still forms the backbone of many change efforts.  Kotter, a Forbes top 50 business guru, is one of the world's well-known experts in writing about leadership and driving change. 

This book is about leading change, not managing it. There is a critical difference.  Almost by the definition, IT managers are responsible for managing change. C-level executives, the people in an organization to whom top sales people want to become a trusted confident, lead change.  The material in this book is directed at executives charged with leading change, especially executives in highly structured companies. Understanding Kotter's eight step change process with help salespeople understand the changes their c-level executives are facing as they attempt to deploy HP solutions.

In a well-structure book, Kotter lists the eight steps in the change process in the first chapter:

  1. Establish a sense of urgency
  2. Create a guiding coalition
  3. Develop a vision and strategy
  4. Communicate the change vision
  5. Empower employees for broad-based action
  6. Generate short term wins
  7. Consolidate gains and producing more change
  8. Anchor new approaches in the culture


Where Kotter shines is in the simplicity of how he lays out the process.  Anyone leading change can easily understand what course of action needs to be followed and in what order.    His book is meant to be a read as a field guide for leading change.

Throughout the book, Kotter lays out the steps need to make each stage of the process successful.  The book is with filled with practical examples of how to complete each stage, and what not to do.   Also, early in the book, he lists cautionary tales of what happens when a company does not successfully complete each stage. For example, when Kotter writes about communication the change vision, he mentions a rule of thumb, "Whenever you cannot describe the vision driving a change initiative in five minutes or less and get a reaction that signifies both understanding and interest, you are in for trouble."  It's time to go back to the drawing board and get things right.

A testament to the processes outlined in this book is how well the concepts have held up over time.  The book pre-dates the rise of the Internet, but is still a foundation book for leading change.  In part, this is because Kotter anticipated that in the 21st century the business climate would change dramatically, moving from a period of calm and stability into our current era of rapid and volatile change.  He understood that large enterprises have difficulty responding quickly to change and, accordingly, he wrote a future guidebook.  "Leading Change" helps organizations adapt by giving them a means to go from identifying change targets to making the completed solution a permanent fixture in organization's corporate culture. 

Others have amplified Kotter's positions.  Specifically, Michael Beitler's excellent "Strategic Organizational Change" has a chapter that reviews Kotter's principles, but "Leading Change" is probably more relevant today than it was when was first written.

Although the book is meant to be read by executives leading change, the eight step process can be adapted by anyone leading change, including sales managers.  In that way, the book has two benefits for sales managers:

  1. It helps sales managers understand the pressures c-level executives face in moving from announcing a change to institutionalizing it as part of a company's culture. 
  2. It sets up a process the can be followed for managers leading change on their own teams.



Thursday, May 5, 2011

Book Review: The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership

If you ask 10 people to recommend five books on leadership, one of John Maxwell's books will be on every list.  Of those books, most people cite "The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership" as his best work.  It's certainly his most well known.  Concise, Maxwell dictates the 21 laws a leader must follow to get others to follow the leader. Using numerous examples drawn from a variety of people from Mother Teresa to the founders of McDonalds, Maxwell show how people have either used the laws successfully or ignored the laws and failed. 

Most of the laws are obvious, for example number 14, The Law of Buy In, states that people buy into the leader and only then do they buy into the vision.  That makes intuitive sense and has a practical application in the real world. Early stage technology investors often bet on the jockey, not the horse. 

Some readers have dismissed the book because the laws are easy to understand.  These critics miss two significant points about the power of the book:

  1. "The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership" codifies and reinforces our thinking.  For example, Law Number 17, The Law of Priorities, cautions against equating activity with achievement.  Maxwell points out that we must constantly review our priorities to make sure that we are steering the ship in the right direction ( Law 4, The Law of Navigation).  Far beyond leaving it there and stating only the obvious, Maxwell adds that we must always evaluate our priorities with the 80/20 rule in mind.  Focus 80 percent of your time on the 20 percent of your priorities that will provide the largest return.  He notes that the rule is applies equally to developing strategic sales accounts as does it in developing people.
  2.  "The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership" is a reminder that leadership is a daily commitment.  As Maxwell notes in Law Number 3, leadership is a process that "develops daily, not in a day." Reading Maxwell's book reinforces what many of us already know about leadership and reminds us to put those theories into practice every day. 


Many books on leadership are long on theory but don't help the reader understand how to put the theory into practice.  Maxwell does not fall into that trap.  At the end of every chapter, he lists three activities you can do to apply the law to your life.  For example, after Law 13, The Law of the Picture (people do what people see), Maxwell asks his readers to:

  1. Make a list of their own core values and compare them to their actions over that past month, noting which activities clash with their core values.
  2. Ask a colleague to watch you over a period of time and evaluate where your actions have clashed with your words.
  3. Make a list of what you wish you people did better and grade yourself on those skills.  With that self evaluation in hand, commit to improving your skills where your people are weakest and be a more visible role model in the areas where you are strongest.


Not every leader will have a proficiency in all 21 Laws. Maxwell admits that a few laws where he does not grade out perfectly.

In Appendix A, Maxwell presents a quick leadership test to help you understand your strengths and weakness as they relate to the laws.   Completing the evaluation will help you understand:

  • Skills that you can use to mentor of others,
  • Areas you need to target for growth and
  • Areas where you need to form strategic partnerships to achieve your goals. 


Even you don't read the entire book, filling out the evaluation and understanding your strengths and weaknesses will help you reach your potential as a leader and manager.

Because "The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership" is well written and well organized, it can be read in three ways:

  • Cover to cover over a period of days.  Like most well-written business books, it's short, and to the point. 
  • As the book is well organized and each chapter contains a complete thought, the book can be read over a long period of time with no loss of comprehension. 
  • Finally, if you just want to know the laws, you can skip to Appendix B to read each law and its one sentence explanation. 


Books on leaderships are plentiful, often with competing visions because leadership is more of an art than a science.  But Maxwell notes that as with any art, leadership skills can and should be improved through practice.  Its evaluation guide in the appendix and chapter endings on applying the laws in your life will help you understand the state of your current skill set and help you plan for growth. 

Monday, May 2, 2011

Justified: Appointment Television

Justified, FX's brilliant show based on an Elmore Leonard short story, has only two rivals for best show of all time, The Sopranos and The Wire. Very good company tied together by a the common link—violence. Which, it's that surprising given that a recently, Harper's noted that eight of the ten most popular televisions shows feature corpses. Nothing fixates the human mind more than matters of life and death.

But while show violence in the three great shows, violence is ever present. Not only do the main characters live comfortably amongst the litter of spent shells, but they purposefully usher in the fear that accompanies violence. The shows' producers know that except for sex nothing engages a television audience more than fear and unlike their European counterparts Americans standards bodies are happy with bullets than breasts.

Tom Boswell, the great Washington Post sportswriter, once said there are two kinds of people, those who watch batting practice and those who don't. And the latter will never amount to anything, because if you don't pay attention to the little things in baseball, the game becomes a series of reactions to batted ball. Most people happily hours spend at baseball games, waiting for the reward of brief violence when bat strikes ball setting players in motion. They are missing the inner game.

Television is different than baseball. Its inner meaning sets the guidelines for the violence. Viewers, lured into a television show by the violence will not stay if the violence does not have a purpose, a greater meaning. Usually this gets played out in the cop procedure or detective shows, cops and robbers. In the days since the sets were in black and white, the good guy always won by the final credit. The hero cannot take the fall and gun fights only matter if you care who is left standing when the smoke clears.

But for good to exist, we need villains. Except for the flying nun, they don't set television shows in convents. Without the devil, God, or god, is a lonely and unnecessary creation. These days, sometimes it's the villains who are more interesting, more worthy of our attention.

Yes, Virginia we can love a villain, especially if we understand the why. In No Country for Old Men, Woody Harrelson says about the villain portrayed by Javier Bardem that he operates under his own code, one where lives are decided on a coin flip. Good bad guys are endlessly more fascinating than good good guys.

We loved Tony Soprano because we understood his fictional mobster code, and know that Tony understood it. The Sopranos worked as a show because it was always about the entire family's struggle to stay true to the duties that mobster code forced on them.

The Wire stopped being interesting to mass audiences when the villains became the nameless and faceless culture that gave rise to the drug lords, not the drug lords themselves. Woman openly wept when Idris Alba died. Evil needs a face we find.

On the face of it, Justified is driven by its lead character Marshall Raylan Givens, a good cop, fast on the draw and good with words. He once talked a convict into giving up a hostage in exchange for fried chicken and a shot of bourbon. Jim Beam is a big sponsor. But in truth, the show gets its direction from the supporting characters, who like Tony Soprano are family man and women, born into their lives, playing roles have been handed down through generations. There is very little room for improvising.

Families and cultures have their own gravity. In Justified, the pull of family is almost inescapable. Except for Raylan, the characters are defined by their birth rights.

Having gone to college and seen some of the world, or at least the U.S.A. before returning home to Harlan County, Kentucky, Raylan is at once an outsider and insider. He betrays a part of his heritage and disowns his father. That father is scheming and lawless scoundrel, aligned with Bo Crowder, the head of Harlan's biggest enterprise, manufacturing and distributing crystal meth. If that weren't enough for family entanglements, a young Raylan worked the coal mine with Bo's son Boyd, an explosives expert.

Towards the end, Rayland was willing to put a bullet in his father to prove to the world where he stood, though is father pulled first so Raylan was justified.

Boyd, on the other hand, returned to the house and eventually the bed of his dead brother's wife. The wife killed the brother by the way, and Boyd had always coveted his brother's wife. Yes, it's complicated, in that small town kind of way. It's actually complicated in a family way, but this isn't time to talk about the Givens generations old feud with the Bennetts, criminal rivals of the Crowders.

The show may be about Raylan, but Boyd drives the action. Boyd, a former white supremacist, tries the straight life, but no one quite believes his conversion to God or the pure life. In Season Two, Boyd does try to make an honest life, going back to the mines to work an honest day for honest pay, but nobody believes him, again. No matter how hard he tries, there is no path for redemption for Boyd. Resurrection perhaps.

Raylan shot and killed Bo in the original pilot episode. But fortunately, the reports of Boyd death were premature. Bo tested well with television audiences and the bullet to the heart didn't find any vital organs.

In a commentary on the same pilot episode, the producers claim that they show is driven by Raylan's anger, but I don't buy. It's driven by Raylan's sense of justice or duty to uphold the law, Boyd's attempt to escape from the bonds of the Crowder family and interplay between the two men. Boyd's scenes with Raylan during his redemption period are magical as both man verbally thrust and parry, like poker players skillfully slowplaying very good hands.

Philosophers and psychologist may debate if people can change over time. In the eyes of the writers of Justified, the answer is no. No matter how far we travel, when we come home we shed our clothes and play our roles. Raylan is an exception, but few of us can escape the pull of family.

What does it say about Leonard's writing that the network could create a whole series from one short story? It says that if you create compelling characters and put them in interesting situations, you have appointment television.

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