The Synergist: How to Lead Your Team to Predictable Success

The Synergist: How to Lead Your Team to Predictable Success

by Les McKeown

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Why do so many teams fail to perform - achieving compromise at best and gridlock at worst? And what does it take to end this gridlock? Wall Street Journal bestselling author and speaker Les McKeown shows how to take any team from gridlock to world class success.
In his new book, McKeown argues that every successful team includes a critical player, the

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Why do so many teams fail to perform - achieving compromise at best and gridlock at worst? And what does it take to end this gridlock? Wall Street Journal bestselling author and speaker Les McKeown shows how to take any team from gridlock to world class success.
In his new book, McKeown argues that every successful team includes a critical player, the Synergist, who can take the three exisiting types - The bold dreamers (Visionaries), the pragmatic realists (Operators), and the systems designers (Processors) - and knit them together into a dynamic, well-rounded team. Most importantly, according to McKeown, the Synergist is a role that anyone can learn.
While most attempts at teamwork improvement deal only with the symptoms of group dysfunction such as distrust, poor communication, and fear of change, McKeown address the root cause: the innately unstable Visionary-Operator-Processor triangle. Because each of the three styles' motivations, views, and goals are incompatible, without a Synergist every team will eventually implode, stall, or underperform. Only the Synergist can put aside their own agenda and interpret the language of difficult personalities, capture the best from each person, and put the good of the enterprise ahead of their own ego.

McKeown- who has used techniques presented here in his consulting with Harvard University, American Express Financial Services, the US Army, Pella Corporation, Microsoft, United Technologies Corporation, and more- shows how any individual can fill this critical role, whether or not they're the formal leader of the group.
With thought-provoking self-assesments and an extensive Synergist Toolkit, he teaches how anyone can learn to be an effective Synergist by recognizing the vital signs of inneffective teamwork and making the right interventions at these pivitol moments.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
We’ve all worked on teams with smart, hard-working people who, oddly enough, were never able to coalesce and work together seamlessly. Consultant McKeown thinks he has the answer: the addition of the “Synergist,” the key role that exists in every successful group to tie the three other natural roles to which all of us default when we are in a group or team situation (visionary, processor, and operator). The Visionary-Operator-Processor triangle is unstable and requires a Synergist to help the group by transcending personal agendas and releasing the group’s cohesion and flow. Using case studies, McKeown discusses each role’s strengths and weaknesses, and provides tools for working with or for each personality type, explaining how a Synergist may help. His analysis of the choreography of group dynamics is insightful and easy to grasp, and though geared toward business teams, is equally applicable to any group of people working together to achieve any common goal. A thoughtful and incisive strategy for effective teamwork. (Jan.)
New York Times bestselling author of Book Yourself Michael Port

If you want to get unstuck and do big things, buy The Synergist. It's the best book I've read on high-quality team-based decision making; the key to accelerated growth and overall success.
David Gardner

Les McKeown's excellent first book, Predictable Success, helped many companies—including the Motley Fool - stay on the right track. Now The Synergist unlocks the secrets to becoming an effective team leader, which anyone can use to achieve personal and professional growth.
author of StrengthsFinder 2.0 and How Full is Your Tom Rath

The Synergist speaks directly to the single greatest challenge leadership teams face today: a lack of relationship and communication. If you want to know what your leadership team needs to succeed, study this book carefully.
Jonathan Fields

Simple, intuitive, and transformative. The Synergist lays out not only a road map to building highly successful teams, but a process that empowers organizations, fuels progress, and dissolves gridlock.

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The Synergist

How to Lead Your Team to Predictable Success

By Les McKeown

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2012 Les McKeown
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-137-00024-8



The Failure Gene That's Baked into the DNA of Every Group and How to Escape It


I glanced up from the multitabbed workbook I'd just been handed and looked across to the doorway. It was true — he was off again. He was Andy, the wiry, late-thirties founder-owner of the components manufacturer whose offices I was sitting in. And by "off" my co-observer meant "off to anywhere that isn't here."

We'd been working in this windowless room for just over ninety minutes, the start of what was intended to be a two-day strategic planning session, and we'd already lost Andy three times. Well, twice, in the wandering-out-of-the-room sense. The other time was when he'd simply failed to turn up at 8 A.M. when the meeting was supposed to start — a meeting he had planned, convened, and insisted everyone else clear their schedules to attend.

While his high-powered team of C-level executives cooled their heels, Andy had wandered in at 8:10 talking casually on his cell phone, finished up the call in his own good time, and eventually called the meeting to order a full twenty minutes late.

Late or not, the meeting had begun well enough. Andy delivered a superb off-the-cuff tour d'horizon, recapping the company's recent history (its precipitous 5-year growth, 3-year stagnation, and now, this year, a return to growth, if modest), summarized the business's strengths (brand awareness, perceived quality, superb management talent) and weaknesses (spotty distribution, no middle-market product), and finished with a genuinely inspiring call for openness, creativity, and full engagement during the next two days.

At that point Andy handed off to the company's CFO, Joanne, for a review of the current year's financial performance. Seven minutes into her presentation, as Joanne was explaining why inventories had risen in the first quarter, Andy stood, stretched, and quietly moved to stand by the side wall of the room. Two minutes later, he'd slipped wordlessly through the door into the corridor outside, off to do who knows what.

I watched as Joanne continued with her presentation despite Andy's absence, but it was clear that she was doing so with less energy and less enthusiasm than before. The degree of engagement by everyone else in the room had slipped as well. Ten minutes later, her presentation finished, Joanne simply ground to a halt. I was surprised that no one had any questions for her; instead, with a barely subdued sense of frustration, the rest of the executive team took restroom breaks and checked email as we all simply waited for Andy to return and for the meeting to restart.


When he did return 15 minutes later, Andy did so with no explanation or apology, just his usual firm but affable demeanor. Sitting back down at the head of the table, he simply picked up his copy of the agenda for the day and, with a "Right then, what's next?" moved on to the next item.

For the hour since then Andy had stayed (mostly) focused on the matters at hand, albeit on his own terms. High-level, 30,000-feet topics got his attention, as did anything "big" — new ideas, innovative approaches, creative thinking. But when the discussion moved into detail, it was clear that Andy had a strictly limited tolerance for minutiae, and it usually wasn't long before he shut that part of the discussion down, often to the obvious dismay of the person most responsible for the matter at hand.

Now, however, there was no avoiding detail. This part of the session involved us critiquing each department's 12-month operating plan: seven reporting departments, each with a 15- to 20-page document and supporting spreadsheets. Plans that everyone around the room had spent massive amounts of time and energy putting together. Plans they depended on for success in the year ahead. Plans that they very much wanted to discuss — in detail. This time, Andy hadn't lasted even five minutes before slipping out of the room.

I looked slowly at the other 11 people seated around the large conference table. We were supposed to be working in teams of three, each group examining a different color-coded section of the workbook we'd all been handed, but most of the participants had disengaged in frustration at Andy's latest absence. They talked desultorily about last night's game, scrolled through emails on their cell phones, some worked through paperwork they had brought with them to the session. It was as if the energy of the group, their sense of focus, even the very purpose of the session itself had departed the room with Andy.

I looked over at Joanne, who, with Andy, I'd known since they'd started the business almost a decade previously. She had a wry grimace on her face. "This isn't funny anymore," she said. "It used to be amusing, watching Andy squirm when we try to get the detailed stuff done, but now ..." — she looked around the room and dropped her voice a little — "now we have a business to run. A big business. And we have top-class folks here who just aren't going to put up with this."

"I know," I said. "I can see you're at a breaking point here." I looked around one more time. All that talent around the table, all that preparatory work. All that frustration. I could see why Joanne was deeply worried. I looked at her reassuringly. "You have a true visionary in Andy. Remember that tiny workshop where you both started out? Back there, back then, being a visionary worked ... you wouldn't, and couldn't, have made it without him. We just need to help Andy understand how a visionary works." I spread my arms, taking in the whole of the room, "here, and now."


The Visionary is one of three natural "styles" or roles that all of us default to when we are in a group or team situation (we'll meet the other two, the Processor and the Operator, shortly).

Andy may be an extreme case, but most Visionaries possess similar traits. Big-thinkers turned on by ideas, they're easily bored with minutiae and are consumed instead by the need to create and to achieve. Visionaries are often charismatic, engaging communicators, able to motivate people to bring their best to every endeavor. They inspire deep loyalty in others, and frequently a small tight team or posse will develop around them, a group of committed individuals who share the Visionary's ... well ... vision, and want to help realize it.

If you're not a Visionary yourself, you certainly know a few and meet them at work. They're the folks who are always having more bright ideas than they can implement, the glass-half-full types who believe there's always a way through every problem. You can always recognize a Visionary through a few behavioral traits:

They abhor routine. A Visionary will do anything to avoid having to clock in and out at the same time, in the same place, to do the same things every day. They find ways to make every day different, and much prefer improvising solutions to problems on the spot, rather than getting locked into lengthy diagnostic and problem-solving processes.

They adore discussion and debate. Visionaries love to talk. In fact, it's how they think. Rather than mull an issue at length and come up with a measured response, a Visionary is much more likely to find someone to debate it with, and to use that discussion to work out an opinion on the fly. And as we'll see in a later chapter, the way in which they engage in that discussion can often leave the other person confused and frustrated.

They're comfortable with ambiguity. Unique to all three of the natural styles, the Visionaries are not only comfortable with ambiguity, they relish it. Along with uncertainty, the Visionary finds ambiguity a great place to linger while working out a problem or issue. Capable of carrying at least two, if not three or four competing views on the exact same issue, Visionaries will often not settle on a final resolution, or firm up their opinion, until they absolutely have to — not because they're fearful or indecisive (they are resolutely neither of those things) — but simply because they feel no pressure to do so.

They like risk. At the extreme, Visionaries can be risk junkies, actively and persistently seeking ways to push to the very edge of the envelope whenever possible. At a minimum, a Visionary will always be inclined to take a risk rather than avoid it.

They trust their own judgment — and use it often. Most Visionaries have a high degree of self-confidence in their own intuition and judgment, and draw on both a lot when making decisions. Although they will often listen to others and seek counsel and advice, in the end, their final decisions on most matters will be highly visceral and guided by their own instincts.

They aren't wedded to past decisions. Visionaries can — and do — change direction easily and frequently. Pulled by the need to create and build for the future, a Visionary refuses to be trapped by the past. They will only rarely allow past decisions to constrain their future options, even where there's a large sunk cost in those decisions.

As we'll see, Visionaries are an essential element in any high-performing group or team, but they can be immensely disruptive if not managed correctly — and, of course, Visionaries dislike being managed. In later chapters we'll see how they are best integrated into any group or team, and how to make the most of their undoubted skills without disrupting the group as a whole.


Three weeks later, as I stepped out of a cab in midtown Manhattan, I was still pondering our problem with Andy. He was the epitome of what I had come to call a Visionary — with a big V — someone so defined by that aspect of their personality that it adversely affects their interactions with everyone else.

Coincidentally, I'd been summoned to the sleek, 37-story office block now looming high above me by another Visionary: Riya, the CMO (chief marketing officer) at a global media company. Riya possessed the same Visionary traits as Andy: love of the big picture, frustration with detail, an ability to motivate and inspire, and an almost inextinguishable need to create, to make a difference in the world.

Although Riya had chosen a career in marketing precisely because it gave her the opportunity to utilize her Visionary talents on a daily basis, because of the constraints of her job (not being a company owner, she didn't have the close-to-absolute freedom Andy had), she learned intuitively over the years how to control the less-helpful extremes of her Visionary characteristics. As a result she'd quickly risen to the CMO position, a job she adored, one where she got to come in every day and inspire her team to think big, to be creative, and to design innovative, even risk-taking ways to expand her company's already ubiquitous brand.

Now, Riya had hit a problem that neither her prodigious work ethic, intellect, or considerable charm had managed to overcome. Two years earlier, in a considerable expansion of her role, she'd been given the additional responsibility of managing the small but politically powerful investor relations (IR) department at her company. At first, this was something she had enthusiastically embraced, and the transition of the 9-person IR unit into her marketing division was accomplished pretty much seamlessly.

After just a few months, however, things had begun to sour in her relationship with the head of the IR team — a clash of personalities, Riya had explained to me, which had led, regrettably, to his leaving. Riya had personally supervised the search for a replacement, and brought in a bright, successful up-and-comer who was creating quite a stir in the industry. To her utter astonishment, after just six months the new guy, citing buyer's remorse, handed in his resignation and returned to his old job.

For Riya, this was both a personal and a professional blow. She'd never before had two people quit on her from the same position, and with the investor relations team occupying such a prominent position in her firm's internal radar, she was attracting the wrong sort of attention from her colleagues in senior management. This time, she delegated most of her other priorities for the three months it took to find a replacement, hired a prominent search firm to advise her (for a six-figure fee), and felt relieved when she landed Brianna, a topnotch player from a competing firm. Riya had known Brianna for years, liked her a lot, and knew how highly she was regarded, not just in her own company, but throughout the entire industry.


Relieved, that is, until one morning two weeks ago — eight months after Brianna's appointment — when, as she told me on the phone later the same day, she was forced to admit something about which she knew she'd been in denial: Brianna wasn't working out either. Their relationship had become frayed, even icy, and Riya confessed that she'd got to the point where she recoiled at the thought of interacting with Brianna — which, of course, their jobs required them to do.

As I traveled up in the elevator to Riya's department on the fourteenth floor, I recalled the strain in her voice when we had spoken, a combination of tiredness and apprehension: "Les, I don't have the luxury of this not working," she'd said. "Three people in the same key post in less than two years? It's barely acceptable in itself. But four? That would kill me." From the long pause that followed, I knew she wasn't just referring to her career prospects; it would be a shattering blow to her ego, her self-confidence, her self-belief. "I need a fresh pair of eyes on this. I need you to help me understand what's happening here."

And so here I was, standing at the reception area leading to Brianna's office. I'd told Riya that I wanted to meet with Brianna first, to come to my own conclusions about her without prejudice, without hearing Riya's side beforehand. Brianna and I had agreed to meet at 11A.M., and as it was now four minutes to the hour, her assistant asked me to take a seat.

Precisely at 11 Brianna appeared at her office door and beckoned me in, guiding me to a small circular table with three seats arranged neatly around it. I noticed immediately that the office was spotless — not a thing was out of place. Two massive filing cabinets, each drawer precisely labeled, stood to one side of a credenza, on the surface of which were four impeccably squared-off stacks of what I assumed were current project files awaiting their return to the filing cabinets, once completed. Brianna's own desk was similarly regimented, with precisely positioned tools of her trade laid out for maximum ergonomic effect: a keyboard, two monitors, a phone with the direct-dial numbers neatly labeled, and a universally recognizable printout — her schedule for the day, with four or five boxes indicating meetings including this one, each color-coded and annotated with neat handwriting. The boxes indicating the two meetings before mine each had a perfectly straight diagonal line drawn through them, indicating, I assumed, that they had been concluded satisfactorily.

As I asked about her role and responsibilities, Brianna responded by sliding across the table a thin three-ring binder she had obviously prepared in advance of our meeting. At the front was a photocopy of our introductory email exchange, the questions I'd posed highlighted in yellow. Behind were labeled tabs with supporting material answering each of those questions in turn: an organization chart of her team, her job specification, current operating plan, and goals for the next six months.

As we spoke, Brianna made precise, lengthy, impeccably neat notes in a lab book, numbering and dating each new page as she wrote. Over her shoulder, in the bookshelves behind her, I could see a row of identical lab books, each spine labeled with the dates they covered. I felt sure that if I looked, I'd find a stock of those self-same lab books in one of the drawers in her desk, quietly stacked, awaiting future use.

At precisely 11:40 — we'd agreed to meet for 45 minutes — Brianna reminded me that she needed to finish our meeting in the next five minutes, to give her adequate time to prepare for her next meeting at noon. Did I have anything else I wanted to ask of her? No? Then did I mind if she briefly summarized what we had discussed so that we could both ensure that nothing important had been missed? At 11:45 precisely I was on my way with a firm, courteous handshake from Brianna and a free gift: a squeaky toy version of the company's allegedly cute animal mascot.


Later, over lunch, I gave Riya the good news. "You haven't turned into an ogre, Riya. You're not scaring people away. And I don't think, insofar as I can tell, that Brianna is incompetent, or in any way wrong for the job." Riya frowned as she picked at her garden salad and took a minute to mull what I'd said. "Then explain to me what's going on," she said. "If it isn't me that's at fault, and it isn't Brianna, why isn't this working? Why has our relationship broken down? And why am I looking at the third failure in the same position in two years?"


Excerpted from The Synergist by Les McKeown. Copyright © 2012 Les McKeown. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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