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Stop Giving Answers to the Test – Guiding Metaphors in Leadership

We would like to share an excerpt and case study from our best-selling book “How Leaders Improve” that illustrates the concept we at #AvionConsulting refer to as a “guiding metaphor” that leaders can constantly refer to in order to help them improve.

A specific conversation with one of our most improved leaders heavily influenced the decision to write this book.  This leader was going through one of the high-potential leadership development programs offered by our firm, and the conversation was the last between this leader and his leadership coach (who is also one of the co-authors of this book), at the very end of the nine-month program.

During this conversation, the coach asked some questions about what the leader thought accounted for his significant improvement.  At some point the leader said, “I just needed to learn to stop giving people the answers to the test.”  Of course, this was a metaphor. The leader was not literally giving people answers to some test.  There were no answers to a test!  There was no test!

After the leader had used the “test” metaphor two or three times during the conversation, the coach asked him to elaborate on what he meant by “not giving people answers to the test.”  His reply was essentially that his original 360-degree feedback indicated that his natural leadership style was simply to tell people what he thought they should do when confronted with some sort of problem or challenge.  This made him come across, to some at least, as an overly directive leader.

This approach actually seemed to be working quite well for this leader, at least on one level.  The leader was widely respected, as evidenced by his extremely good feedback.  And, in fact, as of this writing he has been identified as the leading internal candidate to move into the most senior position in his function when his manager retires.   But he knew that his approach was less than optimal.  On one hand, he was smart and experienced and had strong integrity, so his answers to challenges faced within his organization tended to be very sound and well received answers.

On the other hand, his natural approach – giving people the answers to the test – tended not to foster the sort of critical thinking, problem-solving, and independence that he needed from those who reported to him (who themselves were in leadership roles).  So, he made this his central issue.

But, beyond that, he came up with a metaphor that represented what he needed to work on.  And then, when he was interacting with a direct report (or anyone else, for that matter) regarding some business challenge, the metaphor would come back to him and help him remember what he was working on.  We suspect that there were many times when he had the thought, “Wait, I need to be careful not to just give him/her the answers to the test.”  When this happened, he would then change his approach.  For example, he would ask a good question (such as, “What do you think our options are?”) instead of just providing whatever guidance came to mind.

In other words, by keeping this metaphor in mind day-to-day he avoided always just “giving people the answers to the test.”  And after several months of working on this central issue, keeping this metaphor constantly in mind, his already excellent 360-degree feedback was even better – dramatically better.

We found that many of our most improved leaders had some sort of key metaphor that represented one’s central issue, and which was an easy and memorable point of reference.  Such metaphors provided these leaders with a high degree of guidance about how to act in a more effective manner, and they did so in a way that was condensed and personally meaningful.  Hence, we have chosen the term ‘guiding metaphor’ to get at this insight.”

Do you have a “guiding metaphor” that you use to check in with your leadership style and its effectiveness? We look forward to your feedback and invite you to join our newsletter for further discussion at

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Self-Leadership Makes a Great Leader

What does self-leadership have to do with being a great leader? It is where great leadership starts. In this TEDx Talk

Lars Sudmann gives an entertaining look into why self-leadership is so important, and how we can improve our self leadership. These tools are rooted in history, reaching back at least to Marcus Aurelius who said “The happiness of your life depends on the quality of your thoughts.”

The three-step process described by Sudmann is Self-Awareness, Self-Reflection, and Self-Regulation. With Self-Awareness it is important to do a “character traits check” in which you think of the worst leader you ever had, determine which trait made them the worst, and then ask yourself how you would rank your own performance as a leader in regards to that trait. Once you have come to terms with this, in order to stay focused on improvement, you must then incorporate Self-Reflection daily, where you take a few minutes and reflect on the challenges you are going to face that day, and think about how the leader you want to be would take on those challenges. Moving on from here it is important to work on Self-Regulation and Reframing, so that you can be in control of your reactions to difficult situations and lead others how you would want to be led. When faced with a difficult situation, reframing is used to pause and determine how important that issue is. Usually our initial reaction is much more intense than the final reaction if we incorporate reframing first.

Sudmann argues that if we as leaders embrace these methods for self-leadership, over time we will be able to achieve a leadership Utopia. Which elements of self-leadership can you use more work with? Can you describe the worst leader you ever experienced, and are their undesirable traits present in your leadership style? If so, how do you plan to use these tools to improve your own self-leadership and your effectiveness as a leader? Your response may benefit other business leaders and we encourage you to share your comments. We also invite you to join our newsletter for further discussion at

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How to be a Trillion Dollar Coach

Bill Campbell was a legendary coach on so many levels beginning as a college football coach, and then coaching corporate giants including Apple, Intuit, Google, and Facebook, to name a few. Although he left us in 2016, his impact is deeply seeded within the corporations who were fortunate enough to learn from him. In fact, Google never looked for a replacement for him, instead incorporating Campbell’s coaching wisdom into the framework of their organization. Furthermore, three executives at Google who were mentored by Campbell have written a book about him and the influence he had on Silicon Valley called “Trillion Dollar Coach.”

This #Economist article illustrates just how profound Campbell’s impact was and gives insight into his philosophies that the best managers need to be coaches. Here are some tips that you as a leader and coach can incorporate into your leadership style:

  1. Follow Campbell’s motto: “your title makes you a manager, your people make you a leader” and focus on ensuring that your teams co-operate properly.
  2. Lead and coach by example. Give your undivided attention when coaching, and insist that managers be honest, humble, and willing to learn.
  3. Involve employees in setting their own work goals to increase their engagement.
  4. Give employees regular feedback (daily if possible) to help them be more effective at their job and, as a result, increase the likelihood that they will stay and grow with the company.
  5. Allow employees to find their own way by making their own mistakes and learning from them.
  6. Most importantly, these philosophies need to be embraced from the top down so that each level can effectively coach their teams and follow the example set by their superiors.

Campbell’s philosophies about coaching are deeply engrained in how we at #AvionConsulting coach our #LeadershipDevelopment clients to be leaders and coaches as well. Whether you already knew about Campbell or are just learning about him, how have you instinctively embodied his philosophies as a leader and coach? Do you have additional insight to add that might help others improve? We look forward to your feedback and invite you to join our newsletter for further discussion at

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Secrets to Being a Great Leader

What are the secrets to being a great leader? Are there attributes of great leaders that anyone can learn and apply to their daily life? #BrentGleeson has narrowed down 6 key things that great leaders do every day that get results in this #Forbes article

  1. Communicate: Effective communication is crucial and requires a leader to adapt their communication style based on the situation and the audience. The ultimate goal is to achieve three critical outcomes from the team; buy-in, engagement and participation.
  2. Make Thoughtful (and Tough) Decisions: In decision making, there is an important timing balance a leader must find. They need to avoid falling victim to “analysis paralysis” and at the same time should not make decisions too hastily.
  3. Inspire Others: Great leaders know how and when to motivate and inspire their team. They also lead by example with poise and etiquette, so that everyone around them knows what is expected in all interactions.
  4. Empower Others: For leaders to empower others they must be willing to relinquish control and have confidence in their team to execute tasks effectively. Great leaders have built great teams so that each member can take ownership and complete their tasks well, and as a result the entire team wins.
  5. Exemplify Accountability: Gleeson states that “Accountability has a direct and measurable impact on productivity, efficiency, growth and profitability,” which is why it is imperative that leaders are always accountable and take ownership for the team’s failures while projecting success and gratitude to their team.
  6. Develop Leadership at All Levels: Regardless of rank or title, leaders can be found at every level of an organization. “A leader is someone who takes on more than what’s asked and helps others to achieve a common goal.”

Which of these qualities do you possess in your leadership style and which leave room for improvement? We appreciate your input and also invite you to join our newsletter for further discussion at

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Channel Your Inner Jim Thorpe and Accomplish Anything

“You can have your reasons, or your results, but not both.” As coaches, we sometimes observe that our coachees make excuses when their performance is less than desired, but if they knew how to channel their inner Jim Thorpe, they could accomplish whatever they wanted.

Jim Thorpe is one of the greatest examples in history of the character and perseverance it takes to accomplish any goal no matter what hurdles are ahead. Thorpe learned how to overcome adversity at a very young age, having lost his twin brother at age 9 and both of his parents shortly after. When Thorpe was competing in the 1912 Olympics, his shoes were stolen just before his first race, but this didn’t stop him. He found two mismatched shoes in the trash and one of the shoes was too big so he wore extra socks. With his borrowed shoes, he went on to win two Gold medals. In 1999 Jim Thorpe was named the Greatest Athlete of the 20th Century, beating out Mohammed Ali, Babe Ruth, and countless others. This is a perfect reminder that you don’t have to resign yourself to the excuses that have held you back. Rather, in the face of adversity, demonstrate a tenacious orientation to accomplishing your desired outcomes.

At #AvionConsulting our customized #LeadershipDevelopment programs promote a strong “can do” mentality in leaders no matter what is going on around them. When delivering feedback and coaching we notice that our coachees differ in the ownership mindset they exhibit. Some coachees approach development with a Jim Thorpe-like dogged determination, and others’ development efforts are derailed by the slightest adversity.

Have you faced hurdles as a leader that seemed impossible to overcome but you found a way to persevere anyway? Your story may inspire others just as Jim Thorpe’s does and we appreciate you sharing your experience. We also invite you to join our newsletter for further discussion at

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Amazon’s announcement to spend $700 Million to re-train over 100,000 employees by 2025 to do more high-tech tasks is truly a sign of the times as this #NewYorkTimes article explains Many companies are feeling the same need because of low unemployment rates and the logical step to train and promote from within rather than looking outside of the company to fill new positions arising because of rapid advances in technology.


This approach of educating and subsequently promoting from within is not new, and it certainly isn’t only beneficial for large corporations like Amazon. At #AvionConsulting our customized #Team Development, #OrganizationalDevelopment and #LeadershipDevelopment programs have made it possible for our clients to successfully navigate this process. In some cases, all 3 types of development are necessary in order for the transition to result in optimized team performance and overall success of the company. For example, if a team member is being educated and promoted not only to a higher skill level but also a managerial position, they will require development to function well within their team as a leader. This also results in a shift in the organizational landscape, which is where a company will need training in organizational development and specifically #organizationalchange.


Would your company benefit from this educate and promote from within approach? We value your input and invite you to join our newsletter for further discussion at

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Why Leadership Development is Important During Organizational Change

Organizational change can be a daunting process, with many opportunities for leaders to make costly decisions that don’t actually benefit the growth of the company. We have found investing in leadership development programs during times of significant change actually enables organizations to not only survive the organizational change, but to actually thrive as a result. This concept, however, sometimes gets negative push-back from organization members who fear that embarking on such a program during the chaos of change is overwhelming and impossible. This insightful and inspiring #Forbes article by #BrentGleeson explains from his first-hand experience why leadership development is so crucial during this volatile time.


At #AvionConsulting we have designed leadership development programs specifically for organizations going through change and our clients who have trusted us during this process have had incredible results. For example, we rolled out an extensive leadership development program (including 360 feedback, coaching and 8 days of classroom-based leadership development spread out over a 9-month period) to senior leaders within a mid-sized healthcare company that was recently acquired by a new controlling entity. Rather than serving as a distraction, the development experience provided an excellent opportunity for participants to discuss and align against how to effectively lead through the change.


Have you undergone leadership development during organizational change, and if so, how did it benefit you and your company in the long run? Your response may benefit other business leaders and we encourage you to share your comments. We also invite you to join our newsletter for further discussion at

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Strategies for Cultivating Strong Teams


In order for teams in organizations to be high performing, they must be treated like any other living organism and be provided with the right conditions to grow and thrive. In this #EntrepreneurMagazine article, #AytekinTank, founder of #JotForm shares his five-part strategy for cultivating strong teams.


  1. Feed Them Challenging Problems

When challenged, most people rise to the occasion and put their best work forward. A challenging problem provides stimulation and requires an individual to call upon their creativity and intelligence to solve it. There is sense of accomplishment that arises as a result. As shown in an Information Week survey, the majority of IT workers stated that “challenge of job/responsibility” mattered most to them about their job. We encourage you to identify some challenging problems that you can give to your teams?


  1. Offer Real Independence

Autonomy is a core human need. Tank states that “team members working in autonomous groups also feel less ‘emotional exhaustion’ and engage in more active learning. Providing autonomy to teams shows that they are trusted by their leaders to produce great work while driving out fear of failure.


  1. Respect Their Time

Teams thrive under conditions where they are able to focus on a single project at a time, and solve the challenge that has been given to them. Recently we posted a blog about the importance of focusing on a central issue to help leaders improve. This concept is also relevant for teams, and helps to increase their momentum. Tank also mentions the importance of respecting your team’s time outside of the office to avoid overworking and burnout. Openly expressing this respect to your team will create a stronger bond between you and your team.


  1. Give Them Some Breathing Room

While the “open office” format has been popular amongst startups and modern businesses, studies have shown that providing designated offices or more private spaces for teams to work removes the distractions that often come along with an open format, allowing teams to stay more focused. Mental and emotional space is also important. Ask your team what they need to perform their best and provide for them. They will feel respected and will want to do their best work possible.


  1. Foster a Culture of Warmth and Energy

It is important for groups to have a friendly, collaborative nature. As we discussed in our recent blog post about the importance of psychological safety in high performing teams, Tank emphasizes that warmth and safety within teams helps them to perform at their peak. When team members feel free to fully express themselves, they are able to tap into their deep creativity in order to solve the challenging problems they have been given.


Leading a team inevitably brings challenges. At #AvionConsulting we provide a range of solutions in order to insure that teams develop effectively and perform at the highest possible levels. For further discussion we invite you to contact us directly at and/or join our newsletter at

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How Memorable Feedback is an Effective Catalyst for Leaders to Improve


William S. Burroughs said “When you stop growing you start dying.” It is so easy to let ourselves get complacent and simply go through the motions in the absence of a catalyst for change. Great leaders know that continuous growth is important, it just may take a “jolt” to propel them out of their current status quo so that they can improve.

We all have traits about ourselves that we know could use some improvement, but sometimes it takes hearing it from someone else to motivate us to truly make a change and improve. In fact, from our extensive leadership coaching and research at #AvionConsulting, the leaders we have worked with who improved the most have been motivated to change because they received a penetrating comment or phrase. In this article we will explore the elements of penetrating messages that are most effective.

For example, one individual we coached received the tough feedback that “although not often observed, when others see the scintilla of humanity within you, they react favorably.”  A total of 26 feedback interviews were conducted on this leader’s behalf and were synthesized into a 15-page summary document, and the one message the leader routinely came back to in our coaching was “scintilla of humanity.”  As you can imagine, this message was simultaneously shocking, troubling and offensive to the individual who received it.  However, upon deeper reflection, the recipient acknowledged that there was some truth to it (although he highlighted the very valid reasons why he felt he needed to be so tough and results oriented).  This penetrating message provided the leader with a memorable area to focus on (“show my softer side to others”), and it motivated consistent, long-term action (“I value both people and results, and I need to display my warmth and care for others more regularly”). This leader tended to be a tough, decisive, and results-oriented leader who valued a “zero defect work environment.” He was proud to set high standards for himself and the large department that reported to him.  In fact, multiple feedback providers noted that he was likely the best at his particular functional area in the entire industry.  However, the perception that he was not regularly behaving in a warm or humane manner caused cognitive dissonance for him that resulted in both clarity about what he wanted to change, as well as sufficient internal motivation for him to take meaningful and ongoing action.  In fact, six months after receiving his initial feedback, he received a follow up feedback assessment, and he was very gratified to see that the perceptions that others held of him had changed significantly.  In summary, penetrating messages are predictive of improvement among leaders because they create and reflect both the focus and motivation necessary to sustain meaningful behavior change over an extended period of time.

As we saw this pattern of particular feedback spurring leaders to make a change, we wanted to know what types of feedback are typically the most penetrating. We found that feedback that came as a surprise to the leader is particularly effective. Another factor is the source of the feedback, whether it is from a peer, direct report, manager, or their coach.  These factors, however were not what we found to be what actually characterized a penetrating message.

As we searched for the answer to this missing link, we found four characteristics of penetrating messages that stood out amongst a sea of responses received in a 360 feedback.

Short Phrase or Colloquialism: Often times short phrases pack a big punch and light a fire in a leader to make a change. They are short and are generally well-known phrases, likely thereby enabling them to be memorable and applicable to a broad range of behavior.

For example, one of our most improved leaders said that a penetrating message from his feedback was that he needed to better understand the “nuts and bolts” of what his people did.  The message this leader took from this feedback was that he needed to have a better grasp of the implications of what he might ask a direct report to do in a given situation, and he said that feedback really “rang true.”  In response to this feedback, the leader said, “Now I stop and think:  what are all steps this person is going to have to take to do this?”

Yet another leader said the message that really struck a chord with him involved use of the term “status quo.”  As he put it, “I recall a comment about my department remaining status quo,” and the insight this created for him was that, while he felt he and his team were making improvements in their area, these improvements were not shared more broadly outside the team.  As a result, he said, “The phrase ‘status quo’ led to my action plan regarding showcasing the team and its successes.”  That message apparently really stuck with him and helped him to actually change his approach to ensuring that not only was his team improving the status quo, but that he was making sure that his team was getting the credit they deserved.

Emotional Reaction: A penetrating message, quite simply, creates some sort of emotional reaction.  From our experience and research we have found that emotional appeals are much more effective in promoting change than rational persuasion. One of our most improved leaders offered a perfect example of this, saying, “Some comments about me not being attentive to people and not being in stores as much as I should be hurt my feelings; that message hit home.”  It should be noted that this comment came from a male leader in a company that has possibly the least warm and fuzzy culture any of us has ever worked in.  So, our guess is that this leader is probably not especially prone to talking about having his feelings hurt.  Further, the feedback was not framed in an unusually critical or disrespectful manner.  But it seems like the core message – pay more attention to your people – resonated with this leader on an emotional level, not just a rational level, and likely triggered some cognitive dissonance.

Conflicting Feedback: During our research we found that sometimes a message was particularly penetrating because the leader was getting two seeming conflicting bits of feedback at the same time, each from a different type of co-worker.

Sometimes, the two bits of seemingly contradictory feedback came from one’s manager versus others.  For example, one of our most improved leaders said, “Ronald (name changed) said I needed to be more strategic, which stuck out because others in my feedback said I WAS strategic.”  What this leader said next in the interview was enormously important.  He declared, “That makes you want to go figure out – what is that person not seeing?”  He then added that he and his manager then had a number of conversations about that over course of the (leadership development) program.” The important part here that illustrates one difference between the mindset of leaders who improve significantly and those who don’t is the fact that his initial feedback was not defensive. Rather, his response was to say, “how do I need to think or act differently in order to close the gap here?” As he noted, this penetrating message from his manager caused the leader to wonder why his manager did not see him as strategic when others did.  And it resulted in some great conversations with his manager and, ultimately, significant improvement on the part of the leader getting the feedback. That sort of constructive focus and motivation was a common theme we found across the leaders who got conflicting feedback and who improved.

Genuine Introspection: A fourth factor that we found to be characteristic of a penetrating message was that it created some sort of genuine introspection.  In fact, we believe this factor arguably is most important in distinguishing between messages that are merely noteworthy and those that are truly penetrating.

For example, a human resources leader we worked with has a good sense of humor.  We know he is funny, because one of us served as this leader’s coach, and his intelligent and somewhat dry sense of humor often surfaced in our one-on-one conversations.  When he got his feedback report, though, he found one message to be especially penetrating.  In his words, that message was, “Not everything is a joke.”  That got his attention and it caused him to become reflective, and he concluded that, “I tend to use humor when we are in stressful situations, which works for a lot of people, but not everyone.”  After some introspection, he made a decision that this was a part of his basic style in the workplace that needed at least an adjustment.  And, nearly a year after receiving the feedback, he explained that, “Now, instead of jumping in with humor in a stressful situation in order to lighten the mood, I pause and try to take the temperature a bit more.”  He concluded that the feedback “got me to reflect on how I am perceived more generally across situations.”

From all of this, we conclude at least two things.  First, one of the keys to significant improvement among leaders is often the communication of a penetrating message – a short phrase that is emotionally-laden, which sometimes helps a leader work through conflicting feedback, but which almost invariably causes some introspection on the part of the leader.  Second, the leaders themselves are the ones who ultimately decide what is penetrating. If you would like to explore further, we expand upon this concept in our best-selling book “How Leaders Improve”

Have you received feedback that had one or more penetrating messages that motivated you to improve as a leader? Has a message you’ve communicated to a fellow colleague prompted them to significantly improve? We look forward to your comments and invite you to join the #AvionConsulting newsletter for further discussion at

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Importance of Psychological Safety in Building High Performance Teams

If you were to assess your team at this very moment, would you describe it as “high functioning”? We all strive to lead high functioning teams, however building such teams is easier said than done.  In order to understand this better, in 2012 Google launched #ProjectAristotle, an initiative that studied hundreds of Google’s teams to figure out why some stumbled while others soared. #CharlesDuhigg cites the findings of this research in a way we all can benefit from as leaders in this #NewYorkTimes article In this article, Duhigg describes how important it is to find out the norms or unspoken truths individual teams hold onto, and which of those norms are associated with the most effective teams.

Through further exploration of previous studies, as well as their own research, the team at Google found the following factors to be THE critical predictors of high performing teams.

  • Team members who treat each other well, elevating the collective I.Q., which is the overall intelligence of a group rather than that of a single member.
  • Psychological Safety: A shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking
    • Equality in distribution of conversational turn-talking where team members speak in roughly the same proportions.
    • High average social sensitivity where team members were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions, and other nonverbal cues.
  • Ensuring teams have clear goals
  • Demonstrating a culture of dependability

Of all of these factors, the Project Aristotle Team at Google found that psychological safety is the most important to insure that a team is functioning at a high level. This combination of norms is most interesting considering that companies like Google are largely made up of teams of engineers and statistical analysts, who are often more introverted individuals. Nevertheless, these guidelines have proven time and again to be the key to building and nurturing high functioning teams.

So how can you enhance the psychological safety on your teams? Several examples that arose from Project Aristotle of ways to build psychological safety within teams are:

  • Being direct and straight forward
  • Creating a safe space to take risks.
  • Having enthusiasm for other team members’ ideas
  • Having fun and joking with one another allowing everyone to feel relaxed and energized.
  • Having the team take an assessment survey to determine whether or not team members are fulfilled by their work.
    • Encourage open and safe discussions about factors that may contribute to a feeling of not being fulfilled.
    • Adopt new norms collectively based on the feedback from the team to insure that team members feel fulfilled in their jobs.

These actions reflect conversational turn-taking and empathy which are key behaviors in creating psychological safety and are effective in creating psychological safety because they allow team members to stop separating their personal life from their work life. As a result, they can feel comfortable being as expressive and open in the workplace as they are at home. This in turn creates deeper bonds between team members, resulting in high performing teams.

How have you observed psychological safety being present in your highest functioning teams, and conversely not being present in low functioning teams? How might you help those low functioning teams to cultivate psychological safety as their most important group norm? Have you seen examples of high functioning teams in other organizations whose cultural norms embody the combination of psychological safety, clear goals, and a culture of dependability? Your response may benefit other business leaders and we encourage you to share your comments. We also invite you to join the #AvionConsulting newsletter for further discussion at