Sugar Donut Leadership Advice

Sugar Donut
Most leadership advice is as devoid of sustenance as this.

Leadership advice that satisfies

A national executive forum that I contribute to recently shared advice from members of a local chapter about how to be an effective second-in-command (which usually describes either the COO, CFO, or President, though the advice also applies to CIOs). The gist of the article was that, to be an effective XO, you must [sic] “communicate up… manage perceptions… and work to create unity in vision and values,” namely by handing out books such as Ken Blanchard’s One Minute Manager.


Where’s the beef?

COOs need to bring value to the CEO/COO relationship, period. After that, you have to help others recognize the value you bring.

How we bring value depends very much on the particular relationship between the CEO and COO, both the structure of the role, and the specific duties the COO carries (for more on this, join the discussion on my blog article here). Smart CEOs or Boards hire a COO to complement a CEO and other execs. In many cases, a CEO may be a wonderful publicist or evangelist for the company, but terrible at operations. In cases like Google (and many tech startups), CEO/Founders are fantastic technologists, but lousy managers.

While the question of “how to build confidence and trust” is valid, I felt the article headings were a bit like a sugar donut: tasty on the surface, but not much substance. We should be focused primarily on how we bring value, not “communication matrices” and “one-minute manager-isms.” (Don’t assume that because a book was a business best-seller that it delivers good advice.)

I advise my exec coaching clients to look for the ways in which they complement their CEO’s strengths and set clear expectations and measures with the CEO (and Board, partners, etc), as well as with your peers and direct reports. Simple, but not easy. Achieving these expectations and reporting progress regularly will build unity and deliver your promised value, which will cement your relationship with the CEO much more than the latest business book fad.

Healthy habits

For leaders looking for substantive advice to grow themselves and their teams, here are a few places to start that go beyond the empty calories of most leadership articles and books:

Decision making

Making difficult decisions is presumably the raison d’être of managers at all levels. Peter Drucker, the grandfather of modern management, was succinct:

  • Do the right thing versus obsessing over doing things right.
  • Ask yourself, “What must be done now?”

Trouble is, humans are not inherently rational (even engineers!). Nobel Prize-winning behavioral psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky originated Prospect Theory in the 1970s, and it’s underlying principle- loss aversion– permeates all of our personal and professional choices, and is a key tenet of modern psychology.

Knowing our predilection for loss aversion, it’s important to have a personal model for decision making, to counterbalance our emotions. I often help my clients frame corporate strategy decisions using the Kepner-Tregoe model. The KPM helps me break decisions down into their component parts: objectives, alternatives, musts, wants, relative weights, and risks. It shares some traits with the MoSCoW prioritization model familiar to many IT folks, but KPM is far more extensive.

In addition to such a rubric, managers should know their leadership style. It’s not as simple as Machiavelli’s question, “Is it better to be feared than loved?” Good leaders are usually both loved and feared at different times. When they flex their muscle appropriately (versus always), the result is not so much love, but respect.

Most leadership writing is simply terrible, and not very helpful in practice. It’s tough to be a servant or transformational leader, a Theory X or Theory Y manager 100% of the time. Appropriate leadership actions depend on the circumstance. If a building is on fire, I don’t want to convene a “quality circle” to discuss options. I want someone to say “Follow me out!” If they don’t, then I will!

Dr. Victor Vroom and Phil Yetton describe a situational leadership model that depends heavily on the objectives of the leader, the amount of knowledge held by the leader versus held by the team, time constraints, and more. It’s a very adaptive model, similar to the adaptive software development methods used by high-performing IT teams.


You don’t need an MBA, but an ability to read financials will help you understand the CFO’s objectives, and understand how your projects are reflected on the company’s cash flow statements, P&L, and balance sheet. For a wonderful primer on this, read Joe Knight’s book Financial Intelligence. Knight is a Harvard MBA and former CFO for Setpoint Systems, an engineering services firm for 20 years.

For example, typical IT accounting practices routinely underestimate a project’s earned value (EV), causing the CFO’s office to mistake earnings and assets in the annual report. Take the case of a $4M (million) consulting services sale with $1M margin and a $3M cost to deliver over 2 years. If the project consumed $1M in licenses, hardware, and vendor services, plus another $500K in W2 labor, then GAAP accounting assumes the project is 50% complete ($1.5M of the $3M COGS). They will then recognize 50% of the profits ($500k), and report that in the current fiscal year. But that may be very wrong. Anyone who’s built software knows that a company can easily blow through half the funding, yet be only 10-25% done.

Knight built an alternate, non-GAAP metric for Setpoint called “profit per hour” (PPH). He starts with gross profit ($1M in the above example), multiplied by actual percentage complete, divided by expected project duration, to derive PPH. To the extent this is discoverable, this is a much more accurate reflection of reality, and could be a real boon to your CFO, helping him or her understand the true value of current projects.


Engineers at Bell Research Labs in New Jersey, one of the smartest workplaces on Earth, were asked, “What makes for a ‘star’ employee?” The answer was surprising for a team of uber-geeks: communication.

If anyone ever doubted the need for managers and executives to be skilled communicators, look no further than beleaguered former ex-CEO of British Petroleum Tony Hayward. When a BP offshore rig exploded, killing 11 workers and causing the second-worst oil spill in U.S. history, Hayward told reporters “I want my life back.” Tony and BP parted ways within months of that comment.

When a brain surgeon calls for a Tyndallers, she has no time to explain to a nurse what that instrument is, or why it’s being used. To save a patient’s life, everyone in the room must speak the same language, literally and figuratively.

The more technical the job, the more vital communication skill becomes. And the need to communicate highly specialized concepts efficiently and effectively grows geometrically as the size of the team increases, with the complexity of the project, and with the geographic distribution (and language proficiency) of the team members.

But the need goes beyond mere technical communication. Leaders need to understand not only what to communicate, but when, how, and to whom to communicate.This includes one-on-one, small group, public speaking, and written communications (even email). Each of these could merit a lengthy book of it’s own, and many good ones exist. Five communication books that should be on every leader’s shelf include: Robert Cialdini’s Influence, Patterson’s Crucial Conversations, Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand, Robert E. Kelley’s How to be a Star at Work, and Aristotle’s On Rhetoric.

Value chain / Operations

This is essentially domain knowledge about your particular business or industry, and how it creates value. Understand the inputs, transformations, and outputs of your business process, which is called the value chain. Knowing how your decisions fit into the big picture may not influence small daily decisions, but they can influence large decisions, including which projects and people you’re willing to go to the mat for. There are many books to choose from, most of which make it out to be much more complex than it truly is.


There are different views of strategy (and none of them have to do with your corporate Strategic Planning department). They include:

  • Strategy as marketing focus (Ries & Trout)
  • Strategy as organizational structure (Porter)
  • Strategy as “general vision” (Christensen)
  • Strategy as a core competence or ‘driving force’ (Drucker)
  • Strategy as limits you can operationalize against (Guilbot)
  • Strategy as a synonym for tactics or projects (most companies).

Pick your own definition, but understand how the term is used in your company, and how it affects your managerial decisions. Regardless of lip service, strategy-in-practice is shown by which projects get funded.

Steady diet

The above skills are the meat-and-potatoes of executive competence, far more important than the pop-management cliches you’ll read in the business press and blogs. You can apply these abilities immediately, regardless of industry, to increase your value to the organization, and improve your relationship to fellow leaders.

When you understand how you complement your boss and see why you’ve been hired, then your true value to the CEO will come into sharp relief. CEOs face the same relationship-building challenge with the Board, to whom they ultimately report. Management clients that work with me, whether at line-level or in the C-suite, have seen the benefits of improving skills like the ones described above.

All good execs in my experience worry less about managerial elocution, and more about quality performance and healthy relationships with their superiors. Now that’s a recipe for long-term health. To learn more about leadership improvement, visit my website at If you are an IT leaderenjoy a free preview of 3 chapters of my book “Delivery Smart: How Fortune 500 companies get 10x gains from their enterprise IT.”

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