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Time to Tip the Sacred Cows

Jake Breeden is the founder of Breeden Ideas. He is also a member of the global faculty for Duke Corporate Education, the world’s top-ranked provider of custom corporate education, where he’s worked with leaders at Microsoft, Cisco, Google, IBM, Oppenheimer Funds, and Bloomberg. His new book is Tipping Sacred Cows: Kick the Bad Work Habits that Masquerade as Virtues (Jossey-Bass, 2013). Breeden spoke to AMA recently as part of AMA’s Edgewise podcast series. The following has been excerpted and adapted from that interview.

AMA: Tipping cows? What is that all about?
Jake Breeden: Well, first you should know that the idea of tipping a cow is actually a myth. It can’t be done (and no cows were harmed in the making of this book). 

Inside every workplace I’ve had a chance to work with and every place where I’ve worked myself, there’s a set of questions that can’t be asked, along with a set of values and virtues. There are things that we must do and that we must be. It’s who we are—and it’s dangerous to question those things. Those are the sacred cows: ideas, concepts, and virtues that are considered to be beyond question.

AMA: It’s kind of weird that even now, in the early 21st century, in the era of social media, reality TV, and in-your-face poking and pointing, that we are still be facing this idea of things that we don’t talk about.
Breeden: Social media and its connectedness leads to a lot of collaboration, and collaboration is one of the sacred cows. Collaboration is an idea that is assumed to be good. What could be wrong with collaboration? Well, there is a lot of fear around it. I think if somebody is super protective of their ideas, that’s probably most connected to the sacred cow that I call “preparation,” the idea that I’m going to prepare something, and it will be perfect, and I will hold it, and I will love it, and I will protect it, and I’m going to be loath to share it with someone. So it’s what I call in particular, backstage preparation.

You see, each of these sacred cows has a bright side and a dark side. So in the case of preparation, I argue that backstage preparation is the danger. It means, I’m going to perfect this thing I’m working on, and then dramatically reveal it to the world. I’ll stay in the lab. Sometimes it’s a literal lab, but often it’s a figurative one. It’s “I’m going to work on the presentation for the client for a couple of weeks, and man, I’m going to blow them away when I finally get into that client presentation meeting.” Instead, I advocate stage preparation, which is that you should be prepared and get ready in real time. Have the before-meeting calls during the actual meeting. Be open.

AMA: Do you find that the care and feeding of sacred cows is controlled, guided by, and overseen by leadership, or by the culture of a company—or both?
Breeden: Well, it’s both. I want to focus on the role of the leader, in particular, as this book is written for leaders. My message is clear to leaders within organizations: I want them to bring the kind of intensity to their reflection that they normally reserve for their action. By being more intense about their reflection, they might realize that there are unintended consequences of these things that I, as a leader, am advocating.

Let’s talk about the sacred cow of excellence. Excellence is a good thing. What could be wrong with excellence? A leader may say, “We need to be excellent. Good enough is not enough. We’re better than the competition.” I have heard these words leave the lips of leaders of companies with whom I’ve worked. And the leaders mean well; they’ve got good intentions in their hearts. What they want to do is encourage the troops to not make excuses, to hold themselves to a high standard. But there are unintended consequences: you can choke back progress, you stifle innovation. You create this kind of perfectionism.

AMA: What are some of the other sacred cows?
Breeden: There are seven in all: balance, collaboration, creativity, excellence, fairness, passion, and preparation. Let me be clear: my goal is not to slaughter the sacred cows; it’s to save them. It’s to save them from the unintended consequences. As I mentioned, each one has a bright side and a dark side. In the case of creativity, here’s the big problem: it is often an excuse for narcissism. It excuses narcissistic behavior. So, in the name of creativity, a leader redesigns an organization that might be performing perfectly well just as it is. But he needs to put his fingerprints on the organization, or he needs to make this house his home, so he’s going to rip up the foundation and reorganize the structure to make it his.

And it’s creative. He or she has, as a leader, off-sites and workshops and brainstorms, and comes up with new ideas for how to redesign the organization. It’s very creative; it feels good. It literally feels good because of a dopamine hit we get. We’re hardwired to revere many of these sacred cows. So it’s tough to think about them critically, which is ultimately what I advocate.

AMA: Which of the sacred cows has been the greatest struggle for you?
Breeden: It’s changed over time for me, and with many of the leaders whom I interviewed for the book. We grapple with different sacred cows at different stages in our life. I’d say today, the one that I grapple with most is preparation. For example, when I’m talking with my publisher about getting galleys of the book out to journalists to review, and these are not the final drafts that are being reviewed, this kind of drives me crazy. I say, “But it’s not perfect yet. It needs to be perfect before we share this thing.” I don’t want to let my baby out into the world. I want to keep perfecting it.

If I were to let the backstage preparation win out, I wouldn’t make progress. I wouldn’t get it out there. I’ve had some really good mentors in my life coach me, and sort of coax me to just put your work out there, and let the world make it better. Let the world shape it with you.

AMA: American Management Association prides itself, or has the noble cause, of making life better for new managers and middle managers, people who aspire to higher leadership. What insights or advice can you give to new managers and middle managers, knowing that eventually they might occupy the C-suite?

Breeden: I think balance is a tricky one. It’s the sacred cow that I would most want a new manager or a middle manager to take a look at. When it’s working for you, it’s bold balance. You’re saying “Yes, and...” to two seemingly disparate choices. But when balance works against you, you end up saying yes to neither. That’s what I call bland balance.

Ultimately it’s an act of courage for a new or middle manager to say, “I’m going to have a distinctive brand.” I might leave behind some of my technical expertise, what used to be part of my brand as a leader. If I’m in an accounting firm, I have a deep expertise within accounting as I move up towards the partnership ranks. This is an old problem, and I think with some new research and new frames, I’ve got some new tools to help managers think about that. Essentially it’s the shift from bland balance to bold balance.

So what I would urge a middle manager to say is, “I’m going to avoid the trap of being neither technical nor a strong people leader. I’m going to maintain strong technical leadership and also I’m going to own what it means to be a people leader.” This means knowing that it’s okay to be the boss, to use Bruce Tulgan’s book title. Another book title that’s relevant here is Marshall Goldsmith’s What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. I think both of those ideas are relevant. It’s the notion of grappling with and struggling with what does it mean to truly be a boldly balanced leader—instead of falling into the trap of a kind of compromise, of nothing, just sort of a mediocre milquetoast.

To further explore some of the issues discussed by Jake Breeden, consider these AMA seminars:
What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

Developing Executive Leadership