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Stop Muzzling Important Voices

Are there “muzzlers” in your company? People who stifle the flow of valuable information or use their influence to create secrecy, increase political advantage or reduce transparency?

When valuable and timely information cannot flow freely within and external to an organization, not only is the company’s innovation, collaboration and talent development dampened, but its external relationship ecosystem suffers, as well. What I call “muzzlers” are cancer cells lurking inside your enterprise. Their destructive behavior is almost certainly damaging the brand you’ve worked hard to build. And yet, like a cancer that hasn’t yet manifested symptoms, you may be completely unaware of the danger.

Information muzzlers believe information is on a “need to know” basis — and you don’t need to know. Too many initiatives become massive secrets; too few function as test beds whose results are disseminated in useful ways. I believe information muzzlers are an unintended byproduct of scarce resources. More and more, departments and functions have to compete for resources. This has created an internal competitive force, with jockeying for mindshare and internal wallet share. Scarcity creates a fear-driven culture that causes information muzzlers to multiply.

The cost of information muzzling is huge. It prevents collaboration and wastes resources. Worse yet, it inhibits leveraging the collective intelligence of the organization. Like cancer, information-muzzling spreads and begins to affect the entire culture. Just one example: I go to a conference, I learn something really cool, but because we have an information-muzzling culture, I don’t tell anybody anything about it. Now that best practice isn’t documented, shared or spread throughout the company, and the value of sending me to the conference is a tenth of what it might have been. Down this path lies higher operating costs and lost competitive advantage.

Influence muzzlers can be just as costly to an organization. Influence is about strategic relationships within a professional network. Any time we’re faced with a challenge or an opportunity, we tend to think about what we should do and how we should do it. We seldom think about who— who we need, who we know or how we might connect the dots from the relationships we have to the relationships we need.

Insurance is typically sold through brokerage firms — a vast, strategic, relationship network. Yet influence muzzlers don’t see its utility. Who in that network really understands high-net-worth individuals? Who in that network knows exactly how to value priceless artwork? Who in one of these agencies “gets” Millennials and their digital behavior? Making those connections is good for all concerned, but influence muzzlers don’t want to share. Fundamentally, they are undermining the value in the organization’s biggest asset, which is its portfolio of relationships.

So far, we’ve talked about inside the organization. But muzzling, of information, influence or both, is just as harmful outside an enterprise. External resources are a huge asset to any organization: the advisers, consultants, coaches, speakers and others who bring cross-industry knowledge and an independent lens.

As an outside adviser and a professional speaker, I run across muzzlers when I am engaged by an organization. Their passive-aggressive behavior signals that they want others to think they have more information or influence than they do. As a mentor drove into me years ago, “Real power doesn’t corrupt; powerlessness corrupts!” These people don’t have real power, so they use muzzling instead. Their behavior, whether fueled by lack of self-esteem of self-confidence, or political jockeying, or ambition, comes down to 1980s tactics of information hoarding and Rolodex hiding. They make everyone else’s job more difficult, but that’s just one small aspect of their cancerous qualities.

One of the promises I made to myself when I started consulting and speaking professionally more than a decade ago was that I wasn’t going to be a “pull-string” expert for hire — the kind who takes any stage, you pull the string, and you hear the same canned recommendation or speech over and over again. I prefer to bring a unique, contextually relevant perspective to every engagement. Above and beyond interviewing the CEO or the board who hired me, I dig around to learn more about the real challenges or opportunities within the organization. I reach out through contacts on LinkedIn. I ask for interviews with key leaders down to front-line contributors. I read industry articles or analyst reports. If the firm has physical locations, I may go visit some of them to really understand the customer experience and how the value is delivered. I’m not seeking access to confidential information that should clearly be kept as such, but for inputs that will allow me to integrate the key challenges and opportunities into my content. It’s this kind of outreach that occasionally brings me in contact with an information or influence muzzler.

As an independent outsider, I’m in a unique position to see that destructive behavior and call it out. If I encounter one muzzler, it causes me to wonder whether this is actually a cancer that is spreading within this organization. And, crucially, does the CEO or the board know of this person’s behavior? Would they consciously choose a muzzler to be an ambassador of their brand? It makes me ask what other cancerous behaviors are going around this company.

If you are a senior leader, the legacy you leave in your organization is in large part the bench you have developed, through your intentional actions. Every time a senior executive moves on, the next generation of leaders steps up. Will an information or influence muzzler get promoted even higher up? If that is the culture you built, it dilutes not only your legacy but endangers the entire organization. You have not just tolerated but encouraged cancer to grow.

Consider how we deal with cancer: Either radiation to keep it from growing, or surgery to remove it completely. That’s exactly what you have to do with information or influence muzzlers — either call them out on their behavior and take explicit steps to fix it, or cut them out. Otherwise their dangerous behavior permeates the rest of the organization.

To avoid the organizational cancer spread by information or influence muzzlers, I recommend three actions for senior leaders:

  1. Build a culture that’s unafraid of retribution, where you can highlight and celebrate “non-muzzler” behaviors.
  2. Build feedback loops so that your internal and external relationships can inform you if they encounter a muzzler on your team.
  3. Never stop improving your bench, because the legacy you leave in your organization is the team and culture created on your watch. You want knowledge curating and influence sharing to be your mark, not hoarding and hiding.


  1. Like a silent cancer, information and influence muzzlers act in destructive ways that senior leaders may not know about.
  2. The presence of a muzzler indicates a cultural norm that may be a cancer — and it’s probably spreading.
  3. Safeguard your legacy: Constantly improve your bench by cutting out any cancer — including muzzlers.

Old-School Maps May Be the Killer App!

Whenever we’re faced with a challenge or an opportunity, we tend to respond with thoughts about what should we do and how should we do it. We seldom think to ask the who questions. Who is likely to be an ally, an obstacle or an unknown? In my decades of studying strategic relationships for return on impact, it’s rare to find executives investing time in truly understanding the flow of influence in their own or target organizations they seek to work with.

The result of overlooking this strategic step can be costly. Let me give you an example.

A few years ago, I flew to Chicago for a meeting with a group of executives. We had done our preparation, in light of the importance of this multiyear, multimillion-dollar project. Reviewing the attendee list, I saw one name I didn’t recognize-who was this individual? When the meeting began, everybody introduced themselves with a briefing on their goals. One person chose not to sit at the conference table, but in one of the chairs against the wall. While everybody else talked, he quietly, very diligently, took notes. I became more and more curious. At the end of the meeting, the obligatory exchange of business cards took place. Everyone else had titles on their cards, VP and EVP and so forth. This one person’s business card was the only one without a title. By that time, I just about couldn’t contain my curiosity. I asked around and learned he was the “special adviser to the chairman of the board.”

Apparently, the project we were working on was not only a priority for the executives at the table, but of interest to the board, as well. The chairman had sent this fellow to the meeting to report back directly to him. Three months later, a number of the people who had been around that conference table were no longer with the firm.

Mr. Special Adviser could be found nowhere on that organization’s org chart, but his political clout is self-evident. The moral of this little story is that you ignore influence in an organization at your peril.

If I’m putting a $10 million project in front of a decision-maker, the last thing I want is someone I don’t know, someone I haven’t even known existed, influencing that project. I’ve learned from experience that, as bizarre as it sounds, too often the greatest political power or influence in an enterprise has nothing to do with the titles on its org chart.

Map the political influence structure

Sample social network analysis (SNA) map – Often is overkill for simply understanding who you need, who you know and how to connect the dots!


I’ve developed tools to help me avoid surprises from unacknowledged flows of influence, and I suggest you do, too. Create for yourself, for each organization or initiative in which you invest your relationship capital, a political road map.

Here is the shocker! It’s not an app, it won’t run on your smartphone or tablet, and it doesn’t use a satellite orbiting the planet. In our hyperconnected digital world, we’re losing sight of the fundamentals. Think of this recommendation as learning how to write cursive when everyone else is working with Siri! (By the way, I’ve also researched a dozen or so called “enterprise relationship management” technologies – most are myopic at best, moronic at minimum. They’re so busy trying to give you fancy graphics that their assumptions are flawed, for instance about the quality of a relationship.

Here is what you will need for this exercise: three colored markers, a straightedge, a whiteboard, some index cards and tape. Start by drawing sources of information flow. (For each individual, draw a rectangle the size of your index cards: You will add information here in the next step, using cards to keep your roadmap flexible.) Do not map the explicit power structure, but what you’ve observed about the influence structure so far.

Next, use your colored markers to color-code each relationship on your chart:

  • Green: This person is an ally who has been visibly supportive in the past and “gets” what you are trying to do;
  • Yellow: This person is neutral to your initiatives or is an unknown. Is he on the fence? Could she be swayed? Try to capture some aspect of his or her position from observable behavior;
  • Red: For whatever reason, this person opposes what you are trying to accomplish. I’m also curious here whether he can be neutralized or eliminated to minimize my risk profile with the specific initiative or project.

Use your index cards to write comments and impressions about the individuals you have just color-coded. Note your questions as well as your observations. If something they’ve said gave you these impressions, write their words as accurately as you can recall them.

When done with this step, tape the cards to the whiteboard next to individuals’ names.

At this point, your influence chart should begin to generate insights. Step back and listen to what it is telling you. Who do you need on your side? Who can you ignore? Who is already an advocate who puts wind in your sails? Add index cards with your observations.

This is the time to apply a process I referred to as strategic relationship triangulation in my book, Relationship Economics. For any piece of information critical to your political success with these relationships, you must find three independent sources to verify, validate or void the critical assumptions you are making about each person or piece of information. It’s homework time. Use your relationship network and other “biz-intel” sources to triangulate the assumptions on your influence road map. Rework the position of individuals in relation to each other as new insights emerge or old ones are voided.

Relationship triangulation can help you understand the most influential sources within a team, a department, an organization or an entire industry. Who are the real decision-makers, and who works most closely with them? Knowing this enables you to much more effectively customize how you develop relationships and add value for each individual.

Does this process take a lot of effort? Yes. Is it necessary? It would be naive to think you don’t need to build a political road map based on solid research. Could your time and effort be better spent focusing on outcomes? Only once you have a solid understanding of the relationships you need to help you achieve those outcomes. Don’t treat this task as a “one and done.” The chart need will frequent updates as the situation evolves.

This political roadmap allows you to quickly visualize your relationships and, specifically, your relationship assets and liabilities. Further, it helps you see whether you have enough support to accomplish your goals, or where you need to invest time and effort to build that support. When you can see who is an ally and who is an enemy, you can plan your next steps. “What can I negotiate? What can I exchange? Do I have something of value that they want?” It’s called “politics” for a reason—this kind of “horse-trading” is what our elected officials do.

Any kind of organizational sea change—a merger or acquisition, a large-scale restructure, any new line of business, any succession planning any geographic expansion requires a political road map at this level of detail. These are all highly disruptive events to most businesses.

Frankly, I see too many people blindsided by disruption because they simply failed to maintain an accurate road map of the political terrain they are trying to navigate.

By the way, if you’re looking for the science behind these ideas, Google “social network analysis.” You may be surprised to learn that it has nothing to do with Facebook, Twitter or YouTube!

Nour Takeaways:

  1. Because influence doesn’t show up on org charts, you need to invest the time and effort to visualize that information for yourself.
  2. You are welcome to use my system of color-coding and notes, or develop a system that works for you that shows the flow of influence we call “office politics.”
  3. Rigorous triangulation allows you to trust your insights-which are invaluable when dealing with disruption.

Our ‘FD&H’ Curse: Fat, Dumb and Happy

As an adviser on behalf of the CEO and the board, I recently found myself working with an insurance industry executive suffering from FD&H Syndrome—that’s short for “Fat, Dumb and Happy.” You know the type—the classic myopic naysayer who would rather ignore every outside message and shoot every messenger than to stay lean, smart and open to new insights, including the necessary medicine that may not go down so tastefully?

Let me be clear: This is not a personal attack on one individual, but rather a call to awareness of a broader industry leadership concern. As such, here are several symptoms of FD&H I’ve observed in interacting with this executive over the past six months:

  • Not Invented Here – If he personally, someone on his team or an industry insider didn’t think of something, it can’t possibly be viable. But isn’t it interesting how often Invented Elsewhere sparks real innovation?
  • Smartest Guy in the Room – In several situations, he exhibits a rather obvious need to convey his intellectual prowess. No question he’s an intelligent individual, but astute leaders tend to listen much more than they pontificate.
  • That Can’t Possibly Be True – Results of interviews with his staff highlighted key areas for improvement. For each, he had an excuse, a rebuttal or a personal attack against the perceived person who made the comment.
  • Entirely Too Input-Oriented – Calls, meetings, focus groups and even some research are all means to an end. But he was so consumed by the input (what and how something was done) that he often lost sight of the outcome (desired business results).
  • Paralysis by Analysis – “We need to further discuss that point at the next annual meeting,” “we’ll wait and see” and my favorite, “we need to have more people look into that point,” were all too common responses to uncomfortable findings. Great leaders are action-oriented!
  • Don’t Have the Budget – Another common excuse that surfaces often with this executive is budget objections. “Don’t have it”– the budget for this tool, that person, this event or that effort  –  seems to be the de facto response. Don’t misconstrue my point – I’m a strong believer in financial stewardship of limited resources. In my experience, however, budgets are often an issue of setting priorities and seldom strictly a financial issue. Think about it – we’ll prioritize and invest in concerns or opportunities we deem to be important.

It probably won’t surprise you that this COO doesn’t care for outside consultants or advisers. After all, it takes them way too long to get up to speed on the insurance industry nuances, they couldn’t possibly have any good ideas and they often do little more than reiterate what we already know anyway! The first time I expressed my candid view that his product was stale and offered some ideas to reinvent a portion of his business, I got the facial equivalent of the Blue Screen of Doom. “Great, not interested,” he said. When I pressed for deeper insight, he added, “That’ll never work!” Why? “Because we tried it 10 years ago!”

What this executive with FD&H doesn’t realize is that he’s quickly working himself out of a job. You see, the board has brought in a visionary CEO who deeply believes in thinking and leading differently. He is out spending time with brokers, attending and speaking at industry conferences. He’s visiting with end clients with the agents and is writing insightful pieces as executive summaries to distribute across the industry.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the COO is busy covering his behind, demonstrating to peers and subordinates alike his lack of confidence in his operational stewardship. He seems particularly threatened by entrepreneurial thinking by people around him. Whatever his reasons, unfortunately what he is neglecting to see is that he’s a danger to his company, the firm’s clients and the industry. An organization with too many FD&H sufferers will die of stagnation. Allowing “Fat, Dumb and Happy” attitudes to exist within an organization—or worse, spread—leads to increasing irrelevance to your broker community, end customers, agents, investors and other stakeholders. Markets evolve, and so must you.

The cure: independent perspective

To prevent FD&H syndrome, regularly inoculate your key leaders with independent perspective. They must attend gatherings of senior executives at industry conferences and executive education sessions at respected universities. On a regular basis, they must invite thought and practice leaders (from both within the industry and outside) to host roundtable discussions  or go off-site to work on the business and break the routine.

Unlike doctors, independent advisers make house calls. Consultants, thought and practice leaders alike can spark new ideas and unique perspectives and suggest a different lens through which to view the same challenges or opportunities. And if FD&H sufferers stand in the way, overtly or covertly sabotaging every attempt at forward motion, maybe it’s time to retire them to the irrelevant pasture they belong in. My favorite example from my COO interaction is his justification for inaction: “Look how much money I saved us!”

As professional interventionists, we come with no agenda. We’re not after anybody’s job. We often bring unique insights and, most importantly, independent perspectives. As outsiders, we can ask, say or do things others within the organization may not be able to for fear of political retribution. Mr. COO has been explicitly directed to evolve the organization, but his severe case of FD&H renders him powerless. I’m trying to give him the vaccine and guide him into alignment with his positional role to lead his organization’s evolution, but it appears my intervention is too late.

Invest in relationships that matter

Moral of the story? Time is an incredibly effective filtering mechanism. If this particular executive doesn’t change his irrational and protectionist behavior, he cannot continue to be employed by a forward-looking enterprise with a visionary CEO. (And, by the way, the CEO has recently replaced two other FD&H sufferers in the senior leadership team.) Those in the insurance industry who refuse to evolve, as their organizations must, are simply on borrowed time. Sooner or later, this myopic thinking or antagonistic posturing against outsiders will cause him to shoot himself in the foot. “Time wounds all heels,” the joke goes. In this case, the wound is to the entire organization, not just the heel.

The critical point for any of his direct reports, as well as several of us outsiders who are genuinely trying to help the organization move forward, is to continue to build productive relationships, up, down and across the organization. If I have the ear of the CEO and the mandate by the board to identify dysfunctions within the organization and recommend opportunities for innovative thinking, a more agile culture and growth strategies, I can appeal to the logical self-interest of this roadblock COO’s peers to think and lead differently.

Today’s global, always-on insurance industry is simply too competitive for sufferers of FD&H to last forever. When he’s gone, others will be there, ready to offer fresh and independent insights. For the organization, Fat will become Lean, Dumb will become Smart and Happy will be replaced with Results, as the organization leverages its greater efficiency and effectiveness.

Public health warning: If you recognize that someone in your organization is a sufferer of FD&H, don’t wait. Get help now.


1. Sufferers of FD&H Syndrome (Fat, Dumb, and Happy) are unacceptable baggage because the insurance industry is boarding maglev trains – and the FD&H folks are still searching for the horse & buggy!

2. The cure for FD&H Syndrome is frequently outsiders’ unique insights and independent perspectives.

3. Time will eventually remove FD&H sufferers, but not quickly enough to meet the demands of today’s agile insurance industry demands.

Elite Performers Don’t Warm the Bench

A batter looks at the pitch coming at him and, in milliseconds, decides—am I going to swing or not? In the insurance industry, we are increasingly having to make fast decisions, so I segmented my customer base of carriers, reinsurers, wholesalers and retailers to find a handful of traits that you can quickly identify, so you can have elite performers by your side, whether you are looking for talent for an internal team or an outside adviser to bring a different lens to your growth strategies.

Every client I’ve found to be doing really interesting work fit this profile.

Smart, tough, curious

  1. The executives who get that what has gotten them here may or may not be the answers to their evolution as an individual, a team or an organization, are smart. You cannot train, coach or elevate the performance of people who lack a certain level of intelligence. These are people who’ve been there and done it; they have credibility and grit.
  2. They’re tough. They don’t accept fluff. They don’t need pedestrian advice. They’ve been there, they’ve seen it, and they have earned the acumen, not just read it in a clever op-ed piece. They need key people around them to constantly raise the bar on what they’re doing, not set the bar and forget it!
  3. They’re naturally and insatiably curious. They want to know about the thought or practice leadership others can bring. They ask deeper questions, like, “We have a conservative business model. How do I develop a robust digital strategy that allows us to think and lead very differently?” That’s an example of thought and practice leadership.

The focus of interactions is very much on output, not input. The best executives don’t care about some CYA report. The outcome they care about is, “How am I better off because of your unique insights or independent perspective?” They care about benchmarking global best practices, about ols that help them collectively raise the bar on their human capital agility and contextual intelligence! They care about attracting and constantly developing a world-class organization – with diversity of thought. They care about finding a methodical approach to gain mindshare and wallet share, which often translates into market share. Those are all “what’s in it for them,” outcomes, not deliverables, meetings or countless conference calls to discuss a meeting that’s coming up about a meeting that we need to meet about!

Above all, action

These smart, tough, curious insurance industry executives share a fundamental trait: They are very action-oriented. That demands a high tolerance for prudent risk. They realize that a conservative business plan will seldom suffice and that the need for making bets is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity.

I was recently referred to the president of a global insurance company. During our second interaction, we had a chance to really delve into an intelligent conversation around what I call adaptive innovation – based on the ability to sense and respond to market trends. We soon got around to, “how do we introduce the team to some of your ideas?” I said, “A speaking engagement, an opportunity to share some of these insights with them, is always a good opportunity to plant a seed.” He immediately replied, “I’m getting my senior team together in Singapore in 10 days. I know it’s incredibly short notice, but could you be there?” That’s an example of an action-oriented mindset. He didn’t say, “Let me think about it, have my actuarial team analyze it, let me get 17 other proposals, discuss it with 18 layers of bureaucracy in my organization and get back to you in 2020.” I often say, perfection is the enemy of progress. And what I’ve learned in the past decade of advising truly visionary leaders is that power doesn’t corrupt; powerlessness corrupts!

The elite performers of the insurance industry, as in the world of professional sports, have a bias for decisive action. They’re not afraid to make a bet. They know that not every hit will be a home run but definitely understand, and make sure their organizations understand, that lots of singles and doubles often add up to a winning score after nine innings. That’s how the best of breed stay ahead of the competition.

How would John Madden tackle this?

When you work with advisers, you should do a John Madden on their assessments. Circle in green what you love, things you want to focus on. Circle in red what you don’t see value in.

These circles will start conversations: Why did you cross that out? What is that belief founded on?

The answers will lead to more questions: You say you have a great relationship with your customers, but you do you really know? Are you going to point to some stale survey you did five years ago?

By the way, when your metrics are at their best is the most dangerous time to become complacent. That’s when you really want and need outside counsel. You grew by 22% last year. Good for you. How do you know it shouldn’t have been 34%? How do you know the growth will continue this year?

Surround yourself with people who will push you with tough questions, and tell you what you need to hear vs. what you may want to hear.

The 21st century is an arena in which you cannot afford to stay still. That agility has to come from the top. You can’t tell me you want your workforce to be nimble and agile, if you don’t demonstrate that agility yourself. Don’t stay on the bench, or you’ll attract other benchwarmers. Are you going to swing or not?


1. If you segment the people with whom your work has had the most impact, you are likely to find the elite performers share certain characteristics. Figure out what those are, and aim to attract, retain and develop a lot more of them.

2. For me, “smart, tough, curious and ready to act” sums up the characteristics of my most amazing strategic relationships.

3. To put a scope to a strategic relationship, go at it like John Madden would—iteratively, in active conversation, with plenty of healthy pushback from both sides.