Daniels, Aubrey

Aubrey DanielsDr. Aubrey Daniels is the founder and Chairman of Aubrey Daniels International (ADI) and the world’s leading authority on behavioral science in the workplace. He is the author of the award-winning bestseller, Bringing Out the Best in People, and two other management classics. He is an internationally recognized expert on management, leadership, and workplace issues, and he has received numerous awards for his work in the field of behavior analysis.

[Bio is from the dust jacket.]

Measure of a Leader Book Cover

tompeters.com asks …

We’re speaking about your book Measure of a Leader: An Actionable Formula for Legendary Leadership, which you coauthored with James Daniels. Aubrey, what problem are you addressing in this book?

AD: The basic problem we’re addressing is the fact that leadership has been written about for, what, the last two thousand years or so? The failure rate among leaders hasn’t seemed to have changed very much. As we mention in the book, there are a number of authors who have suggested that as many as 50 to 60 percent of leaders fail, meaning they’re either fired, demoted, or moved out of a leadership position.

What do you think is the cause of this high rate of failure?

AD: I think the problem stems from the fact that almost every author writing on leadership says that you can’t define leadership. As such, there’s no way to measure it.

I’ve talked over the years to any number of people who have told me that the day they were fired was the first time they knew there was a problem. There needs to be some way to give leaders some data as to how well they’re doing before these things happen.

But aren’t they measured by, let’s say if they’re a publicly-traded company, their stock price or their profits?

AD: That is a lagging measure and it is difficult to correlate with actions or behaviors that may have occurred a year ago. The other side of it is that results often don’t define effective leadership. It is quite possible to get results in spite of what you do rather than because of what you do.

Like chainsaw Al Dunlap [former CEO of Scott, then Sunbeam], right?

AD: Exactly. He came in and turned the company around. But, you know the ultimate result of that. Everybody who talks about leadership says that a leader is anyone who has followers. So in our book, we’re not unique in that. But nobody talks about the followers. Other authors talk about the traits of the leader, not the effect of the leader’s behavior on the follower.

The most effective leaders create a certain kind of follower, one who is characterized by discretionary effort. How able is a leader to get people to go above and beyond what’s required?

I wasn’t clear about that when I was reading your book. So you’re laying out two different levels of effort?

AD: There are many people who exist in a job by doing only what they’re asked to do. There are many studies that show that when people are surveyed about whether they could do more in their job, surprisingly, most everybody says, “I could do a lot more if I were properly motivated.”

Even in today’s environment, where people talk about being stressed out and overloaded at work, when asked how much more could they do if they were properly motivated, people will often say, “Well, 30 to 50 percent more, I guess.” It’s amazing really.

The most effective leaders are the ones that capture this discretionary effort. By discretionary effort I simply mean doing as much as you could do, even when there is no demand to do it. Is there a traffic jam at the door at the end of the day because it’s 5:00? Or do people stay?

Now there are dangers in looking just at that because, in fact, there are many hard driving bosses who demand that people give long hours. We worked in a plant where nobody would leave until the plant manager left. Even on the weekends, if they saw his car at the plant, they would come in because they would be afraid he would evaluate them as not being committed to the company.

But even if they’re there into the evening, they’re probably just sitting around doing busy work.

AD: Absolutely. This is why, in order to understand the motivation, you really have to look at the behavior from a number of perspectives. We ended up with 12 measures of follower behavior that we think are important in terms of helping somebody who wants to be an effective leader.

Can you talk about some of those? It seems a lot of people would be perplexed about how you measure these leadership qualities.

AD: There are four basic areas. We’ve named them momentum, commitment, initiative, and reciprocity. Each one of those has three measures or counts. For example, the first area is momentum. A leader has to create action on the part of the followers. Examine what happens when you ask people to do something. How many of them do it? How quickly do they take action? Do they take action on the right things?

I know one senior manager who has a meeting in the morning where he lays out priorities for the day. By the end of the day, he’s out among people seeing who’s doing it. While you look at who’s taking action you ask, “Are they taking action on things that are important? Or are they doing other things?” He doesn’t do this to check up on people, but to check up on himself. Has he done those things that would cause everyone to act quickly and focused on things that are important.

In the area of commitment, the three measures are vision, values, and persistence. This addresses the fact that leaders in lots of organizations have many, many initiatives. But when you begin to look at what’s going on relative to those initiatives, many of them have sort of died out but have not been killed. The problem is, if you don’t kill an initiative that’s not working, there’s always residual effort. In other words, somebody still has some responsibilities for it and many will continue to give it lip service. That’s very inefficient when you have had many initiatives that come and go.

How many people are working on the leader’s vision with energy and enthusiasm for an extended period of time? Or until such time as we say, “Okay, this is done. Now let’s move on.” How many people can relate what they’re doing to the vision of the leader?

When I hear “vision” I get nervous. I’ve never worked in a large company, so I’m not personally familiar with it, but they seem too abstract. It’s the “We’re going to be the best tire wholesaler in the world,” kind of thing. You can’t do much with that.

AD: Well, you can though. If we say, “We want to be number one,” then we can look at where we are relative to that goal. In other words, we can compare ourselves to other organizations doing the same thing. We can define behavior or actions that would cause us to move from number 20 to number 19.

We worked with Eastman Chemical Company. They were very good at that sort of measurement. They would have meetings where they would post where they were, and then they would talk about specific actions that people had to take to move that number.

When they were talking about where they were, was it in monthly sales? Or was it customer satisfaction or another measurement?

AD: It’s different for different organizations. It could be sales. It could be customer service. It could be any number of different things. But when we talk about vision, we’re talking about something that is more concrete. I agree with you that a lot of people don’t do much with vision. It becomes a waste of time really, because they don’t have any way of tracking it. It is just something nice to say but doesn’t do anything to excite people to action.

Eastman, I remember, wanted to be the preferred vendor for X percent of their customers. Once they defined “preferred vendor,” they had a way to measure how they were doing. So this is not the soft and squishy vision that many people are exposed to.

You take the vision and then you turn it into something that is measurable and that you can track against?

AD: Right, exactly. Then we add values. Everybody talks about values these days. Of course, it’s important. Our approach is to determine how many people could cite a decision or some current example of conduct by people in their organization that really exemplified a value of the organization? In other words, rather than just talking about the need for honesty, we look for concrete things that people can point to so that we can track them. Can employees give specific examples of people, who when faced with a difficult situation, do the honest thing in terms of answering a customer’s question about the downside of a product or service, when in fact it might not be in the best short-term interest of the sale to do that? But long-term, I’m sure it would be.

Right. Somebody, if their goal is to increase sales, might be disinclined to be totally honest since they want the higher sales. So how do you track both performance and values at the same time?

AD: One of the values most organizations have is to be honest in all things. What if in one of these companies, an assistant tells the boss, “George is on line one.” The boss responds, “Tell him I’m not in.” Is that dishonest? I won’t answer that, but I think in order to get people to behave ethically or consistent with the company’s values, we need to put them through a wide range of examples and for each ask the question, “Is that something we want to do? Would we be okay with that? Are there conditions under which it would be okay for us to say ‘I’m not in’ when in fact I am in? Is that honest?” This kind of discussion gives substance to the concept of honesty.

I think until you begin to make values that concrete, people are constantly doing things that they think are honest when they’re not.

Right, well, they interpret through their own lens.

AD: Exactly. When employees are left on their own to define behavior that is consistent with organizational values, the variance from employee to employee is huge. The organization has to define the lens. I’ve got an example in the book of Citibank. They had a scandal over in Asia a year or so back. The Citibank CEO, I can’t remember his name, said, “I didn’t think that you had to say, ‘Look, I want you to be aggressive in the marketplace, and by the way, don’t do anything illegal or unethical.’ I didn’t think I had to tell people that.” I say, “Well, you do.”

You’re talking about Chuck Prince.

AD: Chuck Prince, yes.

Does this mean that a tremendous amount of communication or having meetings and saying, “Is this an ethical thing? Is this an honest thing?” is required? Is that what it takes?

AD: I don’t know that it takes tremendous effort. But it does take some effort directed specifically at the issue. I think leaders should make the opportunity to sit down with people and go through what I’ve talked about. I think there’s certainly nothing wrong with discussing some of these things periodically in management meetings. Such as, “Give me some examples. Let’s talk about how we’re doing on our values.”

Even if you don’t cover everything, you’ve at least opened the conversation so that somebody in a quandary could then approach you or discuss it with other people. It probably doesn’t happen enough.

AD: No, it doesn’t. I think that’s why it should be on the agenda in meetings, where leaders have maybe no more than a five-minute discussion about them. All they need to say is, “Can anybody give me an example of how we’ve lived our values this past week?” Have a five-minute discussion about it. I think it begins to give people boundaries. Of course Enron has been beat up probably too much, but did you happen to read the book The Smartest Guys in the Room?

I saw the film.

AD: I haven’t seen the film.

It wasn’t fabulous, but the author of the book was interviewed a great deal. So I feel like I got a recitation of the book via the film.

AD: I’m sure there were many people at Enron who at some point in their work life there looked around and said, “My God, what have I done?” Because if you don’t have well-defined boundaries in terms of specific behaviors, over time behavior drifts and not always in the right direction. This is a bad example I guess, but you’ve heard murderers talk about, “Well, the first one is the hardest.” If you tell one lie, it may be very difficult for you to come to the decision to tell it. But the second one is a little easier.

There’s a scene in the film where these guys are buying the electricity from one state, sending it over to another state, and charging twice the amount. I don’t know how they got this on film, but they’re just sitting there laughing about this. It seems like a kind of nervous laughter. You have the sense that they know that what they’re doing is wrong, yet it’s all part of that culture.

AD: Exactly. This is the whole point. The culture is made up of thousands or maybe millions of behaviors. If the leader is not sensitive to this, then things can happen that cause the organization to spiral out of control. We’re saying that if you’re mindful of this on a day-to-day basis, the probability of that happening is much, much lower.

You have 12 measures that you mention in the book, three in each of the four areas, and you may or may not be able to measure all of them. So you’re saying that a CEO, who is trying to run a company and doing whatever a CEO has to do, also has to go around and start getting feedback from all of his or her direct reports on the behaviors that he or she’s exhibiting? Is it possible to do all this?

AD: It certainly is possible. We feel that measuring the follower’s response is a part of an effective leader’s routine. Understand that you can do as little or as much as is necessary. In other words, if the data is at a high rate, you can just sample them from time to time to make sure you’re staying on track.

One of the categories is called reciprocity. It is how people relate to the leader. If people don’t have a good relationship with the leader, he/she can never capture discretionary effort.

Trust is one of the measures of reciprocity. How often do the followers take responsibility for their mistakes? Many leaders say they want them to do that. But we have worked with organizations that punish people when they admit mistakes. Yet in the face of such actions, they continue to tell people that they want them to step up and say they made mistakes.

I think what a leader needs to be sensitive to in this regard is, “How do I respond to people’s failures?” If you have a pattern of responding to people in a way that causes them to tell you about things that are problems as they occur, then you don’t have to worry that people are hiding things from you or are afraid to admit mistakes.

Right. But there’s the old adage that once someone’s a CEO, they’ll never hear the truth again, right?

AD: That’s a problem—a serious problem for a leader. The best leaders don’t have “yes” men or women sitting around the table at a meeting. People should not be afraid to speak up, not afraid to say, “Hey look, I goofed. Here’s what I did. Here’s what I did to correct it.” That’s what most leaders would love. But you’re right that many people, as executives, feel like they get better reactions to their ideas and decisions on the golf course than they do in the executive meeting.

It reminds me of a story from Steve Farber. We spoke with him about his book called The Radical Leap. The story is about a manager in a company who gathered his direct reports in a room and said, “Listen, I’m going to leave for 20 minutes. I want you to write down everything that I should improve upon in my leadership or my managing style.” He leaves the room and when he comes back all the whiteboards are covered, just covered. Or, he may have even come back at one point and they said they’re not ready yet, they’re still writing stuff.

It’s a great story. This guy at least had the awareness to understand that how he responded during the moment that he stepped back into that room was of huge significance. He didn’t get defensive. He just started looking at the things they wrote. I don’t think he responded, but just sort of took it all in. Apparently that opened this floodgate of trust. Those managers then went to their reports and did the same thing. All of a sudden this organization was operating at a much higher level.

AD: I guess what we’re saying is, that if you attend to these 12 things, if you look at some concrete measure of them, then you don’t get a room filled with whiteboards. Certainly I think that was a great thing for him to do, realizing that there was a problem. But what we’re saying is, if we can attend to things on an ongoing basis, if we can look at not just lagging measures and we can instead get indicators of how we are doing day by day, then we don’t get surprised by a room full of whiteboard material.

It takes discipline to set up a system where you are getting regular and reliable feedback.

AD: That’s right. A self-improvement project from Benjamin Franklin got me on this path a long time ago. In his autobiography, he talks about how he was very good at winning arguments. He loved to engage people in argumentative kinds of behavior, debates and so on. But he began to notice that even if you win the battle, you can lose the war. So he set out to improve himself. He had a list of things. I don’t remember how many there were now, maybe ten or eleven.

Yes, it was 13! Is that the story that finishes up your book?

AD: Okay, I do have it in the book. Well, what he did was carry a little pad around in his pocket. Whenever he engaged in one of these 13 behaviors, he would make a little mark. He would review it from time to time to see how he was doing. You know, we’re not suggesting anything more complex than that. Certainly an organization that is trying to grow leaders would have to be more systematic, maybe a little more formal.

In the final analysis, what you want is something that people actually do, not just something that makes them say, “Oh, that’s interesting.” You want something that would make a difference in the way they act.

This all relies on observing and modifying behaviors, which starts sounding, to a lot of people, kind of clinical. Is that a criticism that you run into with this work?

AD: I think it could be. But frankly, we don’t hear it in practice. I believe I’ve got a quote in the book about a friend being somebody’s best mirror. If I want to know how well I’m doing, I have to look at the behavior of my followers. That’s my mirror. So it’s not like I’m accusing them. You see, blame is out of place in this context. I say, “Wait a minute. If they’re not doing the right thing, then I’ve got to look at my behavior.” See, I’m the one who has to change. In my changing, I see a reflection in the follower. It gives me feedback that I’m doing the right things.

One of the problems that you see when you look at leadership behavior is that the behavior of the leader may not have the desired effect on the followers. For example, many books tell leaders to use positive reinforcement, recognition and reward. It is not as uncommon as you might expect to have a leader who is profuse in giving credit, pats on the back and even monetary rewards and still not capture discretionary effort. If a leader is not respected telling people that they’re doing a good job will probably act as a punisher, rather than a reinforcer. They would do less of what I praise them for, because they don’t like me, and they’re not interested in my success.

Leaders must assume responsibility for the behavior of the follower. You can’t pass the buck on that. In this case, everybody wins when leaders are effective.

Can you talk a little bit more about positive reinforcement? You have a lot to say about that in the book. Some of it seems, at least to someone as unschooled as I am in the behavioral science behind this, kind of counterintuitive.

AD: Unfortunately, it is. You’re not the only one who responds that way.

I didn’t think I was alone.

AD: Not at all. As we work with our clients, we try to get them to understand that positive reinforcement is a fact of life. In other words, every time you do something that works for you, you tend to repeat it. Most of the reinforcement that people get comes out of dealing with the environment. You push a button and the doorbell rings, or you push a button on a vending machine, and you get a Coke. That is positive reinforcement. Some things work for us and we continue to do them. Some things don’t work for us, and we abandon them.

The problem in the workplace is that the way work is typically designed, it does not produce those kinds of positive reinforcers. Doing a job where you do the same thing hundreds of times a day has few natural reinforcers to support it. Working on a long-term project where results may not be known for months, produces little positive reinforcement for the average person.

Since work has been designed, by and large, without taking positive reinforcement into account, leaders have to create consequences that are not natural. Nature doesn’t pat you on the back. If we have a behavior that’s necessary to the work and it doesn’t produce a reinforcer, then it will naturally disappear over time or drop to a level just above the threshold for punishment. The way managers typically deal with that is to find some way to yell and scream or threaten people with a loss of job, or loss of status in order to get them to do what they want them to do.

Right. “If you don’t do this regularly and correctly, you’re not ever going to get promoted.”

AD: That’s right. So what we’re saying is that a part of a leader’s job is to create an environment where reinforcement is frequent, but it’s also valued by the worker. The leader must provide value in the conduct of the work that the worker would not naturally get that from the work. Repetition is not the enemy of the working person. It’s the lack of reinforcement for the repetition that’s the enemy.

If we can’t build it in, then we have to create it. By creating it, I’m talking about, “Hey, I love that paper you wrote. That was terrific.” Or, “How did you do that in such a short period of time? This is really going to help us.” Many people never think of how important simple things like that are, except in the breach—when they don’t get it.

What we try to get an organization to understand is, “Look, people live here. This is a big part of our lives.” It’s everybody’s responsibility to do this, it’s not like this is the province of management. When somebody complains to me about their boss, I say, “Well now, wait a minute. When your boss does something that you like or something to help you, what is your response?” They say, “Well, I can’t positively reinforce my boss.” “Who says? Of course you can.” If you want your boss to change, your boss needs positive reinforcement just like anybody else.

We want everybody to understand the importance of positive reinforcement in all our interpersonal relationships. It’s just as important at work as it is at home. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t realize how important it is with their spouses and their children.

You have a consulting company, Aubrey Daniels International. What does an engagement look like for you?

AD: It’s all over the map. We may be called in because there’s a safety problem, a production problem, or a sales problem. You know, these days, people are concerned about “the culture,” too.

We have a process where we get customers to pinpoint very precisely what it is they’re after, we define what the problem is. Then we begin to say, “All right. Now, what behaviors do we need in order to change those results? And how are we going to get them?” That’s where we teach them about the proper use of graphic feedback, tracking, and positive reinforcement. We want to make the work or the change positively reinforcing.

Take a merger, for example. How many times do you read in the paper about the acquired company being upset because they’re being acquired? We try to get the acquiring company to understand that it’s going to cost big dollars if they don’t demonstrate on day one that this is going to be better than it was before. People have to experience the benefits of the new organization, not a year from now or five years from now, but during the first hour that they work together as a new organization.

That’s a lot of pressure.

AD: We get them to sit down and plan that out. How are they going to make the initial experience one where people say “Whoa, this is going to be good?” It’s not really that hard. I mean, it really isn’t. But it does take some knowledge, number one, and some planning, number two. The execution is where it’s make or break, not just the planning.

If we acquire an organization that has 5,000 people, how are those 5,000 people going to experience the benefits of this organization? We try to create a transparent culture in the sense that there are no management secrets. There’s a constant joke that you hear all the time: “Are we having fun yet?” The manager says, “Hey, this is going to be great!” but it’s pie in the sky—people don’t experience it. So what we try to do with every organization is to not give them things they’re not likely to do. Let’s not talk about what we can’t do. Let’s talk about what we can do.

In Measure of a Leader, we talk about commitments. Part of the problem is that management makes commitments that it doesn’t follow through on. What we’re saying is that somebody has to be recording the commitments that are made, so that you can track yourselves against that. How many of these things did you do? If you don’t do them, people are not going to trust you.

Measure of a Leader is basically saying, “How can I back up what I say? How do I know that this is really working? Do I stand up and talk about vision and this kind of stuff?” Well, it’s just words to most people and most companies. They think, “Look, I don’t need this. I’ve got work to do,” because they can’t see the relationship of that to, “How does that benefit me?”

This is the same with values. If somebody makes a difficult decision, who knows about it? How can you positively reinforce somebody for making the hard decision? We have to give those things visibility. There has to be some way to track it, at least casually if not formally.

So casual could work as well?

AD: Absolutely. It’s certainly better than not tracking it at all. Even if it’s like Ben Franklin, carrying a little pad in your pocket and making tic marks so you can sit down at a later time and evaluate how you’re doing, God bless you.

You point out that things like employee of the month aren’t good motivators.

AD: Well, it’s probably the most common form of employee recognition in the country. The question I ask to my audience is, “How many people in an employee of the month program do you think get positively reinforced?” And of course, they say, “One.” My response to that is, at most, one. In many cases, the person getting the award doesn’t like it because of the negative consequences they get from their peers.

But the telling question I ask about it is, “Alright, let’s assume that the person who got it, liked it. How many people do you think got punished? Why would you have any system or process in your organization that potentially punishes more people than it reinforces?” It makes no sense.

Yes. When I see these employee of the month parking spots, I always think, “God, at the end of the month, all of a sudden they don’t have that parking place.” So they get punished at the end of the month; they don’t have the ideal parking place anymore.

AD: I know. It’s such a bad practice. I’ve had so many managers tell me, “Look, I knew there was something wrong with this, but I didn’t know what it was.”

Where did that come from? Who thought of that?

AD: Well, I think it’s because we stand up in the executive suite and say, “We need to have more recognition.” It’s cheap, it’s easy, and it’s ineffective. Here again, there’s no data. The CEO doesn’t get data to tell him that this is a waste of time and money and nobody likes it.

All they know is that somebody’s got their picture on a wall, so they figure that they’ve achieved “recognition.”

AD: Right. Just an aside, I was at Hertz at San Francisco Airport a number of years ago. I walked in to pick up my car. They had a display on a wall. The wall must have been 15 feet. They had a huge, very nice portrait of the employee of the year. They had four employees of the quarter, and they had the employees of the month for that year.

I pointed to the wall and said to the woman who was helping me, “How do you get that?” She said, “Well, I don’t really know, but I think you get it if you’re nice to your manager.” Fun and games at work, huh?

Yes, really. People accuse me of being cynical, and yet in these work places, so much is based on cynicism. And they pretend it isn’t.

AD: I know. That’s exactly right.

The mere fact that a comic strip like Dilbert exists and is extremely popular should be evidence enough.

AD: That’s right. You know, a lot of the Dilbert strips go over my head, but I use my all-time favorite in one of my seminars. The boss is giving a performance appraisal. He says, “I’ll raise your appraisal from four to five if you eat a bug.” The employee says, “What?” The boss says, “Eat a bug. How much clearer can I be?” Then the boss says, “I didn’t have much luck with the other management techniques, so I’m kind of winging it now.”

I think this is a big problem with management today and leadership in general, that a lot of people are winging it. What we’re trying to say is, “Look, let’s use what we know from the science of human behavior. Let’s track it so we can see if this is going to work.” In Measure of a Leader, we’re talking about introducing an empirical science to leadership. We’re saying, “Let’s quit wasting our time and get some data and see what works.”

With something like employee of the month, when the person is announced, think about the amount of time that people talk to other people about that person: “That was a dumb move. I hate this system.” That is energy that could be put into something that would be valuable to the organization. When you multiply that misdirected energy times the number of times that type of thing occurs every day, you can understand why we have so many problems.

We’re trying to take a fresh look at it. You know, we don’t think for a minute that we’ve come up with the final answer, that these 12 are the only 12, or even the most important 12. But our point was, let’s start. Let’s get a start with harder data. Let’s not just look at results, because results often don’t tell you the truth.

Look at Enron. For years it was in publications all over the place about how great it was, how great [Ken] Lay and [Jeff] Skilling were. But the whole time, it was rotting beneath them. That’s why you really can’t trust results, although results define leadership. If they don’t have results, then who cares? But you’ve got to look at behavior against results to really know if you’ve got an effective leader.

I think that’s a great place to wrap this up. Thank you, Aubrey.