Will It Make the Boat Go Faster?

Bruce lee

“The successful warrior is the average man, with laser-like focus.”  ~Bruce Lee

Sir Peter Blake was a New Zealand yachtsman who won the Whitbread Round the World Race, the Jules Verne Trophy – setting the fastest time around the world of 74 days 22 hours 17 minutes 22 seconds – and led Team New Zealand to successive victories in the America’s Cup in 1995 and 2000. While the American teams had more money, New Zealand had a singularly effective strategy, the brain-child of Peter Blake.

blackmagicWhen Blake was asked to take over as skipper for Team New Zealand, they weren’t considered much of a real contender, especially with the better financed American “Stars and Stripes”.  As you can imagine, there are a myriad of things that go into preparing a racing yacht for competition, from types of sails, ropes, winches and cranks, electronics, rigging, crew composition and training, and hundreds more.

So with all these enablers and influencers for success, what should the team focus on?  If you say all of them, then you have lost in both time, money and prioritization.  Some are obviously more important than others,  yet all are critical for success.  Like any complicated endeavor, finding and keeping focus on the right things is crucial.

Peter Blake was a practical New Zealander and a veteran of ocean sailing and racing so instead of fancy spread sheets and performance metrics, he focused the team on one single strategic question:  Will it make the boat go faster?

Every decision was evaluated against that one simple, yet holistic and powerful question.

The New Zealand team began to rethink everything they knew about sailing and racing with this one strategy in mind.  Training and team composition changed, equipment size and weight changed, sails changed.  Even the crew comforts were looked at through the lens of “will it make the boat go faster?”

The results, real team spirit, alignment and focus, and back to back America’s Cup wins in 1995 and 2000.

Are You Focused?

Over the years I have worked with many organisations and senior teams as they struggle to implement business strategies. One of my key observations is the fact that most organisations have too many “critical” objectives.  Not only do all these objectives compete for limited funding, but some even compete with each other.  As a result it is easy to evolve a culture of strong silos, each of which believe their objectives are more important than any others.

One popular, but often ill-fated approach to trimming down the number strategic objectives is to engage the senior team in a prioritization process and to separate the requirements from the “desirements”.  This is often attempted by assigning numerical values, say 1 to 5, to each objective.  For example the scale can go from Must Have (= 5) down to Not Now (= 1).

There is a practical flaw in this approach however, and that is without a single point of focus and alignment among the senior team, the exercise quickly turns into a mine against yours argument and the scores are all over the place, necessitating the need for the CEO to play King Solomon.  When this happens, alignment and collective commitment suffers.

Will it make the boat go faster?

It’s not about which department wins, it’s about the whole company winning!

By having a single strategic focus, like “will it make the boat go faster”, all potential wants and desires can be measured against this single, overriding metric.  Thus the discussion moves from mine versus yours into we agree that these few objectives, if properly executed, will deliver on our overriding strategic focus.

As I review some of the most successful turnarounds in corporate history there always seems to be one overarching strategic focus that all initiatives aligned around.  For the turnaround of Continental Airlines in 1993-1994 it was “will it win back the business traveller”?  For the recovery of Three Mile Island Nuclear it was “will it make us safer”?

What is your organisation’s single point of strategic focus? Or do you suffer from “initiative overload”?

John R. ChildressN2Growth: President, Europe and Chair, Culture Transformation Practice

Author of LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture, and FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution, available from Amazon in paperback and eBook formats.

See the review of LEVERAGE in The Economist (January 9, 2014).

John also writes thriller novels:  novels.johnrchildress.com

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Life Lessons from a Classical Music Festival . . .

YV 14

The greatest gifts you can give your children are the roots of responsibility and the wings of independence.  ~Denis Waitley

While the audience has the opportunity to enjoy a spirited evening of classical music in small medieval churches for six days, the Young Virtuosi Classical Music Festival we sponsor each July in the south of France is much more than just evening performances.  The logistics rival the military invasion of a small country and the coordination of volunteers is a daunting task.

Yet somehow, it all comes together and everyone seems to enjoy themselves; the audience, volunteers, sponsors, festival leaders, and of course the musicians. But every massive project of this size and calibre presents numerous learning opportunities, especially for young musicians.  They have the opportunity to not only play some of the world’s best-loved classical music (Mozart, Schubert, Strauss, Paganini, Ravel, Debussy), but to also learn about the art of performance (how to engage the audience, where to stand for solos, the use of facial expressions, and most importantly bringing the notes on a page to life).

Here’s an example of excellent music and great audience engagement in a violin and viola duo of Johan Halvorsen’s Passacaglia.

This year we all agreed that tour goal of each concert would be for the audience to feel better going out than they did coming in! In other words, it’s not about the musicians, it’s all about the audience.

Lessons in Responsibility

The greatest day in your life and mine is when we take total responsibility for our attitudes. That’s the day we truly grow up.  ~John C. Maxwell

This year we have two different age groups at our festival, 23-28 year old semi-professional musicians desperately seeking full-time employment opportunities, and 15-17 year olds dealing with music lessons and practice, high school studies, and “teenage social disorientation”.

What is fascinating to watch (and difficult to deal with) is the different levels of responsibility displayed by the different groups. The semi-professional musicians are disciplined and dedicated to their craft.  They eat quickly in order to get back to practicing before the concerts.  They only drink after the concert, never before, unless it’s a day off! The seem to enjoy the entire process, practice, being in each other’s company, performing on stage, mingling with the audience after the performances.  And they are extremely open to feedback and suggestions for improvement, especially tips and tricks on “stage presence” and performing.

It’s amazing how sharp your focus and commitment to succeed when your stomach is empty and you don’t know where your next meal is coming from!

The younger group, on the other hand, is not quite certain how to behave.  Is this a holiday, social time, a festival, a time to show off my stuff? Their personal “responsibility meter” is set on low; they show up late for rehearsals, oversleep in the morning, leave music and clothes scattered about, are last on the bus to leave for the concerts, and seem to have a very valid excuse for everything that goes wrong.

One of our strategies is to get the older musicians to share some life lessons so we encourage lots of stories around the lunch and dinner table.  It seems that young people tend to listen and accept suggestions and input from these older musicians.  Certainly more than they do from parents or adults. Having such a mixed group is good for peer-to-peer learning and having role models to learn from.

And when they get on stage, the younger ones put their learning to good use and perform brilliantly.  Here’s a trio performance of a piece by Luigi Boccherini:


I just wish I had this level of training, performance opportunities and coaching when I was a teenager.

John R. ChildressN2Growth: President, Europe and Chair, Culture Transformation Practice

Author of LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture, and FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution, available from Amazon in paperback and eBook formats.

See the review of LEVERAGE in The Economist (January 9, 2014).

John also writes thriller novels:  novels.johnrchildress.com


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Classical Music in the South of France

If music be the food of love, play on!  ~William Shakespeare

No more “business” posts from me for a while (I can hear the cheering!).

YV in the field

For the next two weeks I will be helping my wife run and manage the 7th Annual Festival de Musique de la Vallée du Cougain in the South of France.

The Festival is her brain child and as Executive Director she has almost single-handedly built it from a couple of evening recitals in one small village to this year’s festival with 6 concerts in six different villages and towns over an eight-day period.

And through persuasion combined with infectious passion, she now has the six local village mayors doing most of the work, gathering sponsors, organising meals and transportation, and converting small Medieval stone churches into concert venues. My job is “chief gofer” (go for this, go for that), taxi, barbecue chef, and I do all this without trying to get in the way of her whirlwind activities.

Young Virtuosi

This year her UK registered music charity, Young Virtuosi, is bringing ten young up-and-coming musicians (aged 14-26) from England, Portugal, New Zealand, Japan, Canada and a few other places to the tiny village of Castelreng, just 20 km south of the famous Medieval Cité of Carcassonne.


The festival starts at 9pm in the small village of La Digne d’Amont on July 16th with music from Mozart, Schubert and Brahms. The next day, July, 17th they will be playing in the Èglise de l’Assomption in the town of Limoux, then on the 18th in the small Medieval church of Saint-Couat du Razes.  After a day’s rest, the festival resumes on July 20th in the village church of La Digne d’Aval. Then it is on to the village of Ajac on the 21th July, culminating in the final Gala Concert in the church of Castelreng on 22nd July.

And there is no repeat music! Six different venues, six different concerts of trios, quartets, solos and sonatas. The musicians will be playing pieces from Prokofiev, Debussy, Berstein, Shostakovich, Kodaly, Salonen, Tchaikovsy, Ravel,Lovreglio, Biber, Teleman, Hayden, Boccherini, Janacek, Dvorak, and a special piece composed by Ikuyo Kobayashi, one of the young musicians from Young Virtuosi.

If you have never been to the south of France or heard classical music played with passionProvence-Ansouis-The-altar-of-the-medieval-church-of-Ansouis-in-South-France in small, candlelit Medieval churches, then hop on a plan or train and come the festival.  You will be delighted and moved. And if you have been to France, then come again for this special musical feast. And there is a sparking wine party after every concert!

If you are curious, you can download the 2014 Festival Program here.

And if you can’t attend, but would like a professional recording of the festival, and also if you have the urge to help with a donation to sponsor these fine young musicians for this week, please let us know at info@youngvirtuosi.com. You can also donate easily through the Young Virtuosi website.

So, I will be running hard, enjoying the music, and having my share of the famous sparking wine,  Blanquette du Limoux.

Here’s a small taster of last year’s concert.

Come to France and celebrate with us!

John R. ChildressN2Growth: President, Europe and Chair, Culture Transformation Practice

Author of LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture, and FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution, available from Amazon in paperback and eBook formats.

See the review of LEVERAGE in The Economist (January 9, 2014).

John also writes thriller novels:  novels.johnrchildress.com




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Why Culture Change is Like Cooking . . .


“I was 32 when I started cooking; up until then, I just ate.”  ~Julia Child

I must confess, I enjoy watching cooking programs on the lifestyle channels on TV.  It really doesn’t matter if its Italian, French, British, or Cowboy cooking (recently Jamie Oliver went to the US and did a segment on outdoor cowboy cooking).  My favourite shows, however, are the ones that mix cooking and travel to exotic countries.  Makes me want to pack a bag, hop a plane and go eat strange food and drink beer.

And every once in a while after watching one of the shows and taking notes, I try to recreate the dishes at home.  I’ve got the written recipe, I buy the same ingredients, I’ve got the right pots and pans, I’ve set aside the time. But somehow, it just never comes out the same as it looks on the TV programme and the taste is always lacking something.  Certainly not like my mind envisioned the dish. Usually a big letdown for my taste buds!

Knowing what vs why!

My problem with cooking like the pros is that I have “rented” knowledge and not “experiential or operational” knowledge.  I am not skilled at the real operational activities of cooking, like understanding when to turn off the flame when par-boiling or how long to beat egg whites to just the right consistency, or how adding a liquid when poaching fish changes the cooking dynamics.  These and a thousand other of the finer points of cooking can only be learned by experience, by doing, not by watching TV or reading a recipe.

Those who only know what will alway lose out to those who know why!  ~Thomas D. Willhite

 Culture Change and “Rented” Knowledge

A lot of companies embark on culture change believing that they need to change, but only have “rented” knowledge when it comes to the what, how and why of sustainable culture change.

Culture change is radically different from the type of change management practiced inside of many companies for IT transformation, process engineering change, supply chain changes, etc.  These are processes based on logic, data, analysis and changing from one set of systems and metrics to another.

Culture change, on the other hand, deals more with behaviours and human issues of trust and respect than with business processes and logic.  Corporate culture has multiple moving parts, not the least of which is the fact that there is no one single corporate culture.  What many of those with rented knowledge think of as the overall corporate culture is actually a collection of strong, and sometimes very distinct, subcultures.

subculturesAnd in many cases, these strong subcultures are very different from each other and not always aligned with the overall company direction or strategy.

Which then begs the question, how do you change multiple subcultures, each one being very different, and bring them into alignment?  

Ask those with rented culture change knowledge and they will revert to the standard organisation change methodology: top-down, leader-led communications and employee training around a new set of “corporate values”.

Does it produce lots of activity and initial interest? Yes.  Does it produce any lasting, sustainable shift in the culture? No.

Leadership influenceThose who understand that culture is really about behaviours and are experienced at culture change, use a very different approach.  Because they understand that subcultures are collections of people who believe and behave in similar ways, and that at the center of most strong subcultures there is usually an “informal leader” who is respected and trusted by those within the subculture.  And recent studies have shown that informal leaders have 4-8 times the social impact (eg., respect and trust) than senior management.

Want to reshape your culture?

Identify, recruit and deploy the informal leaders inside your organisation.  We call this, Viral Change. And by the way, they usually aren’t the people on HR’s “High Potential” lists.  The sad fact is, most senior executives have no idea who these informal leaders are nor can they identify the subcultures within their own company!

So, next time you want to make a fabulous Coq au Vin like Julia Child, remember the difference between operational knowledge and rented knowledge.  You might want to bring in a real chef, or take the family out to a good French restaurant.

And if you are thinking about culture and culture change in your organisation, seek out those who have just more than “rented knowledge”.

Better yet, give me a call and let’s discuss your situation in detail.

John R. ChildressN2Growth: President, Europe and Chair, Culture Transformation Practice

Author of LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture, and FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution, available from Amazon in paperback and eBook formats.

See the review of LEVERAGE in The Economist (January 9, 2014).

John also writes thriller novels:  novels.johnrchildress.com





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Championship Tennis and Strategy Execution


Many of us here in the UK are infected with Wimbledon fever!  That magical time of year when the reigning champions face not only each other, but the rising stars of the future. Dynasties can fall and new kings and queens of Centre Court crowned. But also the old Masters can use their experience and confidence to win again.

McenroeSo with Wimbledon very much on my mind, I am reminded of many decades ago when the wooden Dunlop Maxply racket was the only racket to have.  A famous squash player said in an advertisement:  “Without my Dunlop Maxply, I might as well use a fly swat”.

In tennis as well, the Maxply ruled. The wooden Dunlop Maxply accompanied Bjorn Borg (5 time winner: 1976-1980) and John McEnroe (3 time winner)  to Finals Day at Wimbledon many times.

But times have changed. Today’s graphite and composite rackets have taken racket sports to unprecedented levels. Like never before, pinpoint control, flaming power and gentle finesse are possible with these new technology fed-vapor-07rackets. And the players are different as well.  They are much fitter, follow rigorous scientific training regimes and adhere to nutrition plans formulated by sports physicians. Their shoes and clothes have been developed by leading scientists and engineers.

Strategic Planning and Strategy Execution

In the world of business, things have also changed, especially the pace of technology and the rapid increase in global competition, all demanding the very best from the company and the leadership team.  And strategic planning, once just an exercise of gathering last year’s numbers and adding 10%, is now highly rigorous with SWOT analysisPorter’s Five-forces, scenario planning, emerging market analytics, pricing theories, Emergent and Disruptive strategies, and numerous other analytical and systematic approaches to developing the best strategy.

The important thing is not having a strategy, it’s getting it implemented!  ~Jack Welch

But in terms of strategy execution, most organisations are still “playing with the wooden Dunlop Maxply”.  The statistics are alarming; most strategies fail, not because of poor strategy, but because of poor execution.  When a CEO is fired, 70% of the time it is for failing to deliver on the strategic objectives they promised the board and the market.  And most execution failures are the result of executives and managers spending more time focusing on their functional objectives than the overall strategic objectives.  What is commonly called “heavy silo focus”.

FASTBREAK diagramFor the past several years we have been introducing our clients to a new, integrated “Fastbreak Strategy Execution Process”, along with a management platform that breaks down the silo-based culture by organising and focusing the entire company on the successful delivery of strategic objectives. This robust process, detailed in the book, FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution, helps build a culture of execution and accountability and represents the best chance  organisations have of executing at pace against their strategy.

Those of us of a certain age probably have a soft spot for the original Dunlop Maxply. Maybe one day we’ll have a sentimental attachment to the old silo-based ways of business planning and execution. But in today’s changing and competitive global marketplace, unless you have a robust strategy execution process in place and an aligned leadership team, you really might as well play with a fly swatter!


John R. ChildressN2Growth: President, Europe and Chair, Culture Transformation Practice

Author of LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture, and FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution, available from Amazon in paperback and eBook formats.

See the review of LEVERAGE in The Economist (January 9, 2014).

John also writes thriller novels:  novels.johnrchildress.com



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Just What is a Patriot?

soccer fans

USA soccer





Like much of the world population, I am caught up in watching the 2014 FIFA World Cup on television. Definitely a beautiful game when played with such passion and skill for the glory of their country.

And since this is the 4th of July weekend, my thoughts as an American living in London quite naturally turn to the topic of “Patriotism”.

Just what is a Patriot?

There is a lot of activity on in the world today that may look like patriotism, sound like patriotism (especially in the social media and news channels) and pretend to be patriotism, but is it?  It is quite easy to get Patriotism mixed up with Nationalism and Fanaticism, so this is my attempt to put things in order, at least in my own mind.

So here is how I see it:

A Nationalist focuses on their country, a Fanatic focuses on a cause, a Patriot focuses on principles!

A Nationalist is someone who blindly follows whatever his/her country’s government does and often lacks the ability to think and reason for himself. It’s not principles they follow, but people in power and loyalty to their country.

The Fanatic is driven by a cause that they believe in and is not loyal to any particular worjrwcountry, just a belief in the “righteousness” of their cause. The modern radical Jihadists that are currently tearing up the Middle East and trying to destroy the Western world are definitely fanatics. Their cause supersedes the rights and boarders of others. In their mind they have a mandate from “god” to destroy others. Tolerance and respect for others is definitely not in their vocabulary.

Flags-In at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, VirginiaA Patriot is someone who loves their country and supports it, but won’t blindly follow whatever their country’s government does. I find it interesting that many of the early patriots during the US war of independence became statesmen for their new country. The same is true for the remarkable Patriot of modern Spain, Adolfo Suarez.

Some of my thoughts on Patriots and Patriotism:

  • Politicians are self-serving, statesmen are patriots
  • A Patriot is not an aggressor, but a committed defender of others
  • They don’t exclude, they include
  • They don’t hurt, they help
  • The don’t watch, they protect
  • They don’t take, they give
  • They don’t blindly believe, they thoughtfully decide
  • They don’t look the other way, they stand up
  • They don’t preach, they teach by example
  • They don’t hide, they stand tall and proud
  • They don’t compromise, they commit
  • They don’t sit in, they stand out
  • They don’t put themselves first, they put others first
  • They don’t put others down, they pull others up.

On this 4th of July, it’s great to be patriotic, just make certain it’s based on your county’s founding principles and not just flag waving at a parade. If you have forgotten what those founding principles are, it’s time to dig out the Declaration of Independence and reread it. Principles to live by, every day, not just on the 4th.

“Those who stand for nothing fall for anything.” – Alexander Hamilton


John R. ChildressN2Growth: President, Europe and Chair, Culture Transformation Practice

Author of LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture, and FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution, available from Amazon in paperback and eBook formats.

See the review of LEVERAGE in The Economist (January 9, 2014).

John also writes thriller novels:  novels.johnrchildress.com


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Seeing Beyond the Horizon and Strategic Leadership


The choice between right and wrong is easy;
it’s the choice between two rights that takes real courage!

I left my Ph.D. degree in marine biology in the mid-70′s to pursue a career in business but to this day I am still fascinated by the ocean and its life.  A particular interest is Ocean Currents and their impact on weather and the economy of the globe.  A while ago wrote a blog article about the relationship between ocean currents and business strategy.

One of the more recent and very useful developments in oceanography is High Frequency Surface Wave Radar (HFSWR) and its application for mapping ocean currents.  HFSWR has the ability to look over the horizon and detect surface vessels as well as ocean waves and is used not only in oceanography but in Homeland defense as well.

Pretty cool.  To be able to look over the horizon and see what others on land can’t see.  In some sense this is the role of strategic leadership, to look over the horizon and sense what is coming next for their business.  In thinking about strategic foresight (over-the-horizon thinking) I am reminded of the famous Bill Gates “Internet Memo”.

Microsoft and Strategic Leadership

At the time, 1995, Microsoft was booming, as shown in this chart of their revenue growth.  They had 28% net rev. growth, no long-term debt, $6.5B in cash and a Market Cap of $90B.  They were winning, big time.

So, let’s talk about you as the CEO.  Would you change the strategy?  Would you risk this type of performance?  Most leaders wouldn’t. They would keep on with a proven winning formula.

But Bill Gates somehow was able to see beyond the horizon and saw that the internet was about to destroy Microsoft, or at the very least make it irrelevant. And so on May 26, 1995 Gates issued an internal memo called: “The Internet Tidal Wave”. The basic message was this:

“We were wrong about the internet and we are going to do a 90° turn and go full steam to dominate the internet.”

And change strategies they did.  As a result they crushed NetScape and Sun and completely took over the web browser market.  And check out at the results!

It’s the job of the CEO to search beyond the horizon for his company.  To grab onto insights and snippets of information and work on them until they either yield great value or are deemed to be trash.  Then do it again.  To think strategically, to constantly keep asking, “What if . . . ” and exploring ways to build greater longevity and sustainability into the organisation.

But you can’t do it if you are constantly running from meeting to meeting with no time for creative thinking.

Different Leadership . . . Different Results

Are you leading your company beyond the horizon, or running from “pillar to post”?

Browser warsFast forward in the life cycle of once dominant Microsoft and there is another story to be told, one of a different leadership focus and different results.  Today, just 10 years after crushing NetScape and Sun and completely dominating the web browser market, Microsoft is a distant second place to Google Chrome.

Didn’t Microsoft see the rise of other browsers like Chrome, Firefox, Opera or Safari coming? Or the rise of Apps instead of software?

Steve Ballmer, former CEO of Microsoft for the years during the “browser wars” and up until just recently, had a very different leadership style than Bill Gates.  Ballmer was a perpetual motion machine of doing, talking, motivating, haranguing, browbeating, running from meeting to meeting. Energetic and forceful? Absolutely! A get things done “NOW” kind of guy? Certainly! Managing by the numbers and keeping multiple projects going simultaneously was his specialty.

A deep and thoughtful strategic thinker? Probably not. He ran Microsoft from quarterly results to quarterly results, not for the long-term.  It’s amazing how difficult it is to think about the future and see the “over the horizon” stuff when your day is full with “busyness”.

To go slow is to go far! ~American Indian proverb

John R. ChildressN2Growth: President, Europe and Chair, Culture Transformation Practice

Author of LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture, and FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution, available from Amazon in paperback and eBook formats.

See the review of LEVERAGE in The Economist (January 9, 2014).

John also writes thriller novels:  novels.johnrchildress.com


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