Bill Zeeb | Strengthening Your Leadership Muscles

Before you can lead others, you have to lead yourself effectively, says Six Sigma expert Bill Zeeb.

20+ years as a six sigma trainer and master blackbelt led Bill to analyze specific areas where leaders fall short. He uses a structured approach for incremental improvement that takes the emotion out of the process and sets down actionable – and measurable – steps.

It is unusual for Six Sigma methods to be used in leadership training. We talk about why and how that methodology creates new behaviors that drive business results.

It works 95% of the time.

Listen in to find out…

  • Strategies for ensuring that failures point the way to your next step
  • The single hardest change every leader must make to improve
  • Why it can be difficult for leaders to get honest feedback – and the best source to get it from
  • A daily ritual that takes minutes but leads to measurable improvement
  • And more

Listen now…

Mentioned in This Episode:

Episode Transcript:

Michael Webb: Hello, this is Michael Webb. Some people focus on data and applying statistics to uncover causes and effects, systems thinking, in order to create improvement in business. Other people focus on, “What does a customer value? How do we reach decision makers? How do we make value propositions that are so compelling they can’t resist?” In this podcast, we focus on both in order to create wealth for everyone. My name is Michael Webb. This is The Sales Process Excellence Podcast, and I’m just thrilled today to introduce you to a longtime friend of mine and co-consultant Bill Zeeb. Bill, welcome.

Bill Zeeb: Thank you, Michael. It’s great to hear your voice again, and yeah, it’s been a long time since my first pilgrimage to see you in Atlanta.

Michael Webb: So would you please go through for a minute or so and describe your background and what you’re doing now?

Bill Zeeb: Gladly. I started out my career in sales, and I was a down the street, straight commission salesperson, learning with Tom Hopkins and Kevin Davis and a lot of the greats. Then I got my MBA and I ended up working after my MBA in finance for seven years. I tell people those were some of the greatest years of my life, even though I was lying to myself, because I am not a CFO and I never will be, but I learned the importance of keeping score in business.

Following my time in finance, I moved into Lean Six Sigma. That was my real passion, helping successful leaders measurably improve business performance, business processes. I fundamentally believe that every business is a collection of processes and that every process is 80% waste and using Lean and Six Sigma tools, whether we’re talking about accounts payable or fermenting things to make pharmaceutical products, or whether we’re talking about producing metals or electrical materials or automotive, Lean Six Sigma delivers outstanding process value.

What I noticed after having trained and coached 2,000 people in Lean Six Sigma was that leadership behavior is always the most difficult part of Lean Six Sigma. About three or four years ago, I encountered Dr. Marshall Goldsmith, a global leader in leadership coaching, and was blessed to work with him in The Marshall Goldsmith 100 coaches project and my focus now is on helping successful leaders and their teams to measurably improve their leadership performance, which for me is kind of the culmination. It’s the biggest lever of driving value in business.

Michael Webb: Interesting. You left out a couple things. So you moved from the US to Europe. How many years ago and why did that happen?

Bill Zeeb: Okay. That’s a great question. Yeah. I spent the first decade of my career in the US as an American and then I moved to Germany in 1990. So I’ve been blessed to have work experience both inside the US and outside. I deliver work in German and French and enjoy that very much, and I very much view myself as a global citizen.

Michael Webb: So now you live in … Where do you live now?

Bill Zeeb: I, right now, live in France, just outside of Geneva, Switzerland, where my business is located.

Michael Webb: Okay. Then you also, this Lean Six Sigma journey, you were with one of the notable firms for a number of years, right?

Bill Zeeb: Yeah. Thanks for reminding me. Yes. Of course, and I’ve been blessed throughout my Lean Six Sigma career to work really with some of the best and brightest. It all started in … Even before … the George Group was where I really went deep on Lean Six Sigma. Michael George and the whole team there really took Lean Six Sigma to new levels and I was blessed to be part of that in Europe. But even before that, I was blessed to work with Kazumi Nakada who’s a Lean sensei from Toyota. He was only two levels removed from Taiichi Ohno.

I did that while I was at Delphi automotive. So I got quite some insights into Lean from him. And, my Lean Six Sigma background goes all the way back to 1990 when I … when Mikel Harry, from the Six Sigma Academy or at the time he was at Motorola, came to speak at my MBA program. In fact, if any of the listeners would be interested, I have the original definition document of what is Lean Six Sigma quality from Mikel Harry. He passed away a sadly last year, but I have that article. If any of your readers would be interested, they could reach out on my LinkedIn site and send me an email. I’d be happy to share that.

Michael Webb: All right. All right, so in like full disclosure you and I have done some projects together. We have clients in Europe and I really enjoyed working with you because you … you’re not limited by the manufacturing background, right?

You grew up as a sales guy in the very beginning and so had some insights into the crossovers that I was trying to accomplish.

Bill Zeeb: Absolutely and I’ve really enjoyed working with you, Michael. You’ve done a great job. Your two books, Sales and Marketing the Six Sigma Way certainly caught my attention early on. And then you’re Shingo prize-winning book Sales Process Excellence, again are both rich sources of insights for top-line growth. And I really appreciate it and I have enjoyed also our time working together and who knows, maybe we’ll be doing that again sooner than we think.

Michael Webb: So you’re so unusual because you’ve not only switched continents and switched languages and switched functions, right? From sales to finance to Lean Six Sigma, that has to qualify as a different function certainly in different kind of a business as a management consultant and now you’re doing it again here in … these switches, they’re more like building I think rather than switching.

But you’re the Lean Six … I mean the leadership work that you’re doing now has to build on all that experience in the past. What are some experiences that you had that led you down this path to be so zeroed in on leadership? Do some prominent ones come to mind?

Bill Zeeb: Absolutely. And Lean Six Sigma works. And I’ve known that through being able to work and coach and train many, many successful leaders on projects as diverse as improving the efficiency and accounts payable, you know, reducing the workload 43% and paying bills on 2.2 million receipts a year or helping a factory who suddenly got a surge of 30% more orders and they couldn’t make them. And, and using Lean Six Sigma and value stream mapping tools, we were able to help the factory make 35% more product without any insignificant investment.

Or our team was really blessed to work with a leading global pharmaceutical company, and they had a cost of goods sold of 25% and McKinsey came in and helped them to understand that to be a successful pharmaceutical company they needed to get their costs of goods sold down to 20 and as … It’s the same whether we’re doing leadership development or Lean Six Sigma. The beginning phases are always the most difficult. They require the most courage and the most tolerance for the ambiguity and the early learnings that in some people’s thinkings are failures, but really they’re the steps that go forward. So with this global pharmaceutical company, they had done one wave of black belt training and it wasn’t going as well as they wanted. They were a year into the program and they had had 20 black belts and I was blessed to be called in and do an audit.

And when I spoke with their head of production, about 8,000 people at the time. They’re much larger now. And he looked at me and he said, “Bill, why does it cost more money when your company trains a black belt for our company than when I send someone to the Danish University and they get their PhD? I don’t understand that.” And I look back at this executive and replied, “That’s a great question. It concerns me as well because our company wants to help develop a lot of these Lean Six Sigma problem solvers. So I replied … based on what I’ve seen and I was blessed to interview. I like to go deep on a company before I engage with them to make sure we’re a good fit. So our team had spent a week or two analyzing the situation and I said, “You’re doing 95% of the things you need for Lean Six Sigma success perfectly. You’re missing 5% and that 5% it’s costing you 80% of the results.”

And he asked me, “Well, what are the things that we need to change?” And I said, “They’re simple things. I’m confident we can work together to do them.” The first one is when we select projects for Lean Six Sigma, they need to be the right size, not too big, not too small. We need to have a lot of data. So we need data daily or weekly or hourly, not once a year. And we need them not to be a solution someone’s looking to implement. And I said, “Your leaders, we’ve talked to them and they’re all reasonable. They all accepted these guidelines. So we just need to give our master black belts a veto right and we’ll get the projects defined right. I don’t see any issue there.” Said, “Okay, what else?” I said, “Well, the managers of these black belts are extremely important in leadership of the projects and when the leaders don’t follow their responsibilities, the project .. the black belts have a huge challenge.

So when I asked your leaders if they had been through the leadership training, they could all tell me the day. In fact, they remembered the food and the venue and everything. But when I asked the leaders what are the three things that are most important that they do to ensure project success, they couldn’t give me the answers I needed. I said, “This is completely normal. It’s just the situation where we need to have some ongoing leadership training and coaching to help these leaders understand their roles. And we can usually do that.” He said, “Okay. And what about the third thing?” I said, “Well, the third thing is Lean Six Sigma projects often focus on getting the best and brightest people in as black belts. And these people you have certainly recruited. The challenge is the whole organization sees them as so valuable and therefore they’re pulling on them like crazy. So they’re not finding enough time to do their projects. They’re not dedicated.” I said, “We need to have black belts 100% dedicated from the first day of training.”

We made the three changes, Michael, and over the course of six or seven years with a few handfuls of consultants, we were able to train over 700 leaders and the cost of goods sold for this pharmaceutical company dropped not only from 25 to 20 it went all the way down to 17%. So I know Lean Six Sigma works, but the hardest thing with Lean Six Sigma has always been leadership. And when I learned that Dr. Marshall Goldsmith had been working with leaders for over 35 years and he had done a study, the showed that a process he’s developed over these 35 or 40 years is so powerful that … so robust that he had collected data from 11,480 leaders globally and these leaders picked a leadership growth goal and then let themselves be measured on it by their colleagues.

Fully 95% of these leaders who followed a simple process measurably improved. When I heard that, I thought that’s where I need to focus the next decades of my career. That’s where I am today.

Michael Webb: So two questions. Why do you think that leadership is the most … I mean what’s so difficult about it? What is it that that trips people up?

Bill Zeeb: Leadership, the higher you go on a company, the more your comments become commands and the harder it is to get honest, genuine feedback. And every leader, every successful leader always has multiple areas where they can measurably improve as a leader with a significant return on investment for their … themselves and their team in their company. What I find so sad is we can do a value stream map on a process in a business and we can determine which three levers will dramatically improve it and many companies are doing this. But what I don’t see today is from the highly successful leaders that are aware of what their growth areas are. And it starts with awareness. And secondly that they’re not aware that there’s a very simple process, highly time efficient that takes only minutes a month that they can apply by themselves or working with a coach that can help them to measurably improve.

And these 20 … Dr. Marshall Goldsmith’s written about 20 unacceptable leadership behaviors. And this is also a list I was make sure it’s available on my LinkedIn page and if anyone has any questions about it, I’d be delighted to continue to learn about them

Michael Webb: Sure. That’s a great idea. So, there’s a lot of leadership consultants and there’s a lot of people writing about leadership. Why Marshall Goldsmith?

Bill Zeeb: This is a great question. It comes down … what fascinated me about Marshall were several things. His focus on leadership being measurable, leadership growth being measurable, means that we’re giving successful leaders a chance to continually improve themselves and the performance of their teams. So the measurable aspect is one that’s highly attractive for me and, when we work with clients using Marshall’s process, it’s a very simple and straightforward process and it’s not optional.

Either you do this and you accept it or you’re better off with another coach and, if you want to work with us, this is the process that we follow and the process begins with a 360 assessment. This can be a combination of behavioral interviews that are anonymous and confidential or it can be an online or a combination of the two but usually, I recommend to always do the behavioral interviews. They don’t take a lot of time, half an hour per stakeholder for eight to 10. The leader then receives this confidential report which goes to no one that’s not shared with the boss or HR. It’s normally the coach and the leader and the leader gets the report which is filled with their strengths and they recognize themselves and then it’s filled with their development areas. And the leader themselves in collaboration with their boss … so, if it’s a CEO, they talked to the board about it.

If it’s a director they talked to in the vice president about it. They pick one or two leadership growth areas they use could be a better coach or hold others accountable or speak up better or become a better listener or be about better delegator. There’s a whole host of areas that the leaders can pick to work on. They pick one or two and then each month leaders go to their stakeholders, which can be six or eight people they work with closely, and they say, “My name is Bill and I’m working on getting even better at listening. Do you have a suggestion for me please?”

And then they stop and listen. No judging, no comments, write it down and collect these feed-forward suggestions each month and sit together with a coach and make up an action plan and implement. After five months, we do a little mini survey and we see if they’ve improved. We continue the process monthly with the feed forwards and after eight months and 11 months we do another mini survey and 95% of the leaders are improved.

Michael Webb: So what are the crossovers between what you see in Lean Six Sigma and what you see in this leadership approach?

Bill Zeeb: Great question. The challenges in Lean Six Sigma are often the ones where we have behaviors getting in the way where we’re trying to engage more people, where we’re trying to make Lean Six Sigma results more sustainable, where we’re trying to engage more of the workforce and leadership plays a very, very big role in keeping the workforce engaged in developing employees. And the crossover here is it has so many different facets depending on the leader and the context of the situation, which makes combining Lean Six Sigma and leadership coaching so exciting because, when I have the benefit of understanding the business challenges and the benefits of a leadership change, it can be really rich. I can give you a few examples.

Michael Webb: Sure.

Bill Zeeb: I’m working with a very strong young leader who’s recently taken on a new team and this leader is very, very strong and directive, means it completely in a nice way, but it doesn’t always come across that way. This has significant impact on the performance of his peers and his direct reports. And through this coaching process, we’re able to help that leader become aware and work with his peers and direct reports to also help them get better at the same time, which results in people being much more engaged, which delivers much better business process performance. That make sense?

Michael Webb: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Bill Zeeb: That’s one example. I’m happy to share a few others. Another leader is highly talented in maintenance, long career there and moves … and is ready to step up to an operational role. And in that new operational role, the ability to hold others accountable becomes much more important. And this is common in all leadership progressions and this leader has picked that goal. How can I help develop my direct reports and how can I hold others more accountable? And by going to the direct reports, he gets suggestions each month and … I have to be really frank. Changing your own behavior is probably one of the hardest things you can do as a leader.

And it’s gut-wrenching because you, when you try to change your behavior the first few times you change it, there’s no guarantees for success. And we know things are always popping up. So there’s going to be a lot of failures along the way. So it requires a lot of discipline to follow the process. But when we’re able to ensure that we’ve got the discipline in place to follow the process, it’s one of the most rewarding pieces of work that I’ve been privileged to do in my career, to see how these leaders grow and thrive.

Michael Webb: So, I mean, leadership has to begin with how you lead yourself, right?

Bill Zeeb: Absolutely.

Michael Webb: And so it sounds like what you’re providing from what you’ve learned from Marshall Goldsmith is a pattern or a method for leading yourself more effectively. That fair?

Bill Zeeb: I think that’s really fair and I liked the fact that you, you, you say a pattern or a method because we have a number of tools that we use to help leaders make these changes in a structured way. One of the tools we use our daily questions where we ask people did I do my best today to be a good listener? And I give myself a grade from one to 10 and, Michael, you’ve known me for many years and I was not always as good a listener as I am today. At least people tell me that many times.

Michael Webb: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Bill Zeeb: Changing my ability to listen over the years has been humbling to say the least. But at the same time, this is a process that really works. So one way is, is doing these daily questions. Another way is using feedforward.

Feedforward is a structured way for two people that want to help each other to have a quick conversation that’s highly time efficient. So if I was asking you for feedforward on becoming a better listener, I’d say, “Michael, I’m working on becoming a better listener. Do you have an idea in our work together in the coming months of something I could do to be a better listener? How would you notice that?” And then I stopped talking and get a suggestion from you and I do this with six or eight people and I do this over several months and getting feedforward is a little bit like playing a slot machine. It’s quite fascinating. Sometimes you get a jackpot and you get a suggestion that’s worth a lot. Other times you get a blank stare and getting a blank stare also causes you to reflect about yourself.

But this feedforward is a technique that that can also work in a two-way street where we have the direct reports also asking their boss for suggestions and this is when the change in an organization really, really picks up momentum.

Michael Webb: That’s fascinating. So these methods are … they sound like ways of making all this invisible, emotional flow or turmoil in some cases that’s going on between the leaders ears and turn it into something that is more visible and more concrete, actionable and so … I mean all that is very consistent with the spirit of the Lean Six Sigma kinds of tools. I think it’s great and I think that anything that can help people be more clear in their own mind and therefore more clear in how they’re communicating with others at influencing others is going to be a big help.

It’s such a … I don’t know. Complex, amorphous, there’s so many different opinions out there about it. It sounds like this is worth investigating because it’s a clear structured methodology. What else would you say about it? And then any other observations you might have about, you know, the impact of this kind of thing on people.

Bill Zeeb: Sure. In fact, you can look at leadership coaching as a kind of DMAIC on yourself. This is how I like to look at it.

Michael Webb: DMAIC. Spell that out.

Bill Zeeb: Well, DMAIC is defining, defining the leader you want to be and then measuring how good you are as a leader and then analyzing some of the alternatives to improve your leadership and actually implementing those in the improve phase. So testing, having the courage to test out new ways to be a leader and then putting in place a control so that you’re measuring and making sure. So this leadership coaching has been applied to processes with great success. It’s high time we started to apply it to individual leaders so they have the same benefits to themselves. When you ask what’s the impact? I was blessed in one of my jobs that at General Motors for Adam Opal to actually receive some leadership coaching and 360-degree feedback and that had a major impact on me, but it was a point impact and leadership is a muscle that requires continuous training.

I like this analogy a lot because I’m a, I’m a passionate triathlete, as you know. Next year I’ll be 60 years old and I’ve declared that I’m going to do an Ironman distance triathlon when I’m 60, 70, and 80 years old, except I picked one in Switzerland. So it’s got about 17,000 vertical feet of climbing in the bike and run. But it’s … I believe that with training an entirely new level of leadership performance is possible today and today, if you talk to athletes and all, if you look at Roger Federer, how many years did he go without a coach or if you talk to a lot of top CEOs. All of these CEOs today, a very large number, are working with coaches. Why are they doing that? Well, they’ve realized the benefits of having some structure and having an accountability partner and a coach to help them strengthen their leadership muscles.

Michael Webb: That’s fascinating. I think it’s so amazing that we’re taking this area that is always thought to be sort of like magic and we’re turning it into something that is much more scientific and measurable and repeatable by defining what goes on between our own ears and how other people, by observing you and working with you, the coach, right? Can make it even more visible and more understandable and I just think that’s fascinating. So, Bill, this has been really amazing. You’re an amazing guy with the journeys that you’ve been on and you’re starting to inspire me here with the triathlon. I couldn’t believe it when you first told me you were going to do that a number of years ago. So congratulations to you on that. I mean there’s a lot of leadership of yourself in getting ready to do such a strenuous thing. So if our listeners, if someone wants to learn more about you and get in touch with you, how would they do that?

Bill Zeeb: The best way … It would be just to reach out on LinkedIn. I’ve got my email address there and you can find various resources from Marshall there as well that you can download. And just send me an email and I’d be delighted to have a conversation or a discussion or ask any questions. As part of Marshall Goldsmith’s 100 coaches, I have a passion to share what I know and pay it forward. So if you’re a like-minded thinker interested in and how we can even better develop leadership muscle in the future, I’d welcome the chance to have an exchange.

Michael Webb: Super. I really appreciate that, Bill. And let’s stay in touch. Let’s do another podcast here maybe in a year or so and see what you’ve learned since then. That would be great, if you’re open to that.

Bill Zeeb: Completely be open to that, Michael. And it’s always a huge pleasure to get the chance to speak with you. My goodness, we’re living on different continents and … but we still managed to learn and grow with each other. I want to thank you for making this possible.

Michael Webb: My pleasure.



Michael Webb

Michael Webb founded Sales Performance Consultants to create a data-driven alternative to the slogans and shallow impact offered by typical sales training, sales consulting, and CRM companies. Michael helped organize and delivered the keynote speeches for the first conferences ever held on applying Six Sigma to marketing and sales. Connect with me on LinkedIn.

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