The paradox of power – giving leadership away

24 11 2009

Today I have been thinking about how leaders get use power – both explicitly and also unwittingly – to get results they didn’t want.  Let me explain, one of the groups I have been working with is a pharma company talent pool. In exploring leadership with then they shared the company history and the fact that this is a family owned business where the family head is still the hands on leader of the firm. However, the Hr head says that the purpose of the workshops is to devolve leadership power into the lower levels of the organisation. So the will from the top is for others to do more leadership  and take initiative.  What also emerged in the discussion was that the family head longed to be challenged more by his team but that they rarely did so. This is not in any way  unique to this organisation, a similar issue exists in a couple  of my other clients organisations.

So how has this disconnect happened? The leadership talent are looking and shying away from the family head, who really wants to be challenged and give leadership away, but every time they discuss the idea of challenging, revert to their own  need to have strong leadership from the top. The real paradox is that real leadership comes from creating the empowering conditions that allows people to challenge, to feel comfortable in dissent, to take on responsibility and to step into the space that letting go creates.

Good intentions can get derailed by history and habits.  If this family head, a capable entrepreneurial leader, really wants to grow his leaders, he need to let them struggle with creating direction, in the absence of it from him. Jumping in too soon to solve the issues creates some level of dependency and challenging the saviour is not going to happen. Where strategies and directions have always come from the man on the mountain, there is little incentive to learn to climb – these leaders need to start to take actions themselves and discover that leadership comes with a responsibility to set agenda not just follow them and that at times that is uncomfortable.


Implementing change

9 02 2009


Implementation is not hard, its just about consistency and stamina. If you have applied the 3E approach and have clarity of vision, shared and understood in terms of a concrete challenge, and you have the right people involved and committed to action then implementation is a grind but straight forward. The role of the leaders in implementation is one of a provider of resources and a information. Monitoring of the right measures is crucial as is communication of that to the right people in the right way. Having feedback on performance is crucial to maintaining momentum, and energy. Why do you think running machines with monitors are so popular and stop watch lap times so motivating for runners? Human’s need to know how we are doing, and that is one role of the  leader in execution of change – scores on the doors for people.

All implementation will hit problems. There is not a battle plan in the world that will survive contact with the enemy. In change leadership the same applies in terms of implementation, just add people to make it obsolete. However, having a plan to start with is important. It’s the box to think outside of, it’s the route to deviate from, and it’s the budget to exceed or beat. No plan is the solution, just part of the process.

Leaders need to be tenacious, resilient and at the same time humble enough to admit when things are tough. Stick with it and tell people how they are doing,  implementing change in a nut shell.

Re Organize, Re Structure, Re Engineer – rethink please !

15 01 2009

No sector is seems is not effected by the current economic downturn, recession or crisis – you choose the term you dislike most.  However the rush to reduce, re-size and remodel is to me a symptom of panic and pressure to act rather than the product of rational thought and considered action. Big  corporate have the pressure of the shareholder to think about so need to make a profit at all costs – what is not so obvious to some is that their shareholder are in many cases their employees pension funds so meeting one criteria for success fails another.

What should we do as a alternative ? because we all know criticism is easy but generating alternatives is not.  Well I don’t know many organizations that hire dumb people out of choice – even the White House has got that one now .  Given the scale of the challenge, given the limited off the shelf options for a business in recession, why not take some risks – more risk with the people you have ‘s  ideas.

Take the scenario of a small business who employee 40- 50 people in distribution and logistics.  When there is less work and costs of employment are constant the option off the shelf is to reduce the staff. Lower staff number to match the reduction in work available and match the reduced cost base.  Clear and logical and expected from the management.  So lets say 10 people loose their jobs to meet the downturn, harsh but fair.  Or is it ! What would happen if the same 40 – 50 people where given the task of income generation, cost reduction, business remodeling, sales generation,  business marketing, asset reuse, space leasing, alternative income raising and growth rather than death by a thousand cuts.  I think they might as a collective with the right leadership generate ideas and plans and product and ways of using their existing asset that the management , because of their training, would not see in a million years.

Is this the rant of a delusional mind  – possibly but if you look for them ( and I do) there are examples of businesses doing remarkable things ( from the ideas of their workforce) when the business is under pressure.  If you want to read about some incredible employee ideas for success read Maverick, by Ricardo Semler.  You will see quite quickly that  re organizing, re structuring, re engineering are the reactions of an anorexic mind – feed it with ideas from your people and grow healthy as an organization.

Culture and Leadership – lenses of understanding

7 01 2009


I work on a programme for one of the large European telecoms groups, dealing with cross border management.  The delegates get two modules of input, one specifically dealing with the issues related to culture in a national sense, so one countries approach to life and work vs another, and the second module, the one I work on is about leading people and change in a cross border context.

What is interesting for me to see,  is how people who have to manage across borders struggle to recognize what it is that needs to be focused on. Without doubt managing people in remote offices from a central point is difficult, and demands more skill and forethought than an intact co -located team.  However, cultural differences are no more an issue than say, experience differences in two team members, or even personality differences. Culture is one lens for looking at diversity and not a separate and somehow special category of management science.  At least that’s is how I have always experienced it.  So a Japanese manager who really does not like to listen and does not value the opinion of his  staff, is not necessarily doing this because his culture says he is more senior and does not have to act on upward feedback and a senior manager should know his subject more than his juniors – it could be that he just ( as a fully paid up member of the human race) does not like to listen!!   Not all Americans are  go getting sales people who can talk the leg of a mule  – some are and others are quiet, considerate and thoughtful introverts.

So why the post? Well the way you consider a problem, the lens you view it through determines the clarity of what you see – so seeing culture, culture , culture as the problem means you will look for cultural solutions or  cultural explanations for behavior.  Now in some cases this might be right, but also the lens of personality type might be the right one, or the lens of skills and experience, or the lens of  pressure and stress, or the lens of corporate norms etc etc.  If we excuse behavior because it’s the cultural norm for a national group, then we are not helping the cause of developing better leaders.

If we can only see things from one perspective we can only apply a limited set of possible solutions.  Leadership is not something that can be compressed into a nice easily labeled box.  It is a multi faceted issue requiring some additional lenses to see it clearly.

I am all for training and workshops to expand the understanding of leadership, and the experience of those that we lead.  What I think we need to do is ensure we do not become myopic and only see what we want to see.

Thinking about a career in change?

9 12 2008

Now is a busy time for people who work in organizational change.  As the chaos of the markets settles down from shock to resigned action, there will be a need to assist organizations re energize and rebuild.  Many organizations will react to the downturn with reduced headcount,  or compressed organizational structures.  In my experience, and I am sure that of many who work in change management, a new structure does not alway work very well  however well planned on paper.  It’s into this space that organizational change specialists step to assist the re energizing of the business – the process of getting the energy flowing again,  in  a positive and productive direction.

If you are a survivor of the corporate night of the long knifes then giving your all is not always the first concern. Keeping a low profile , head down and out of sight is many’s natural and understandable  reaction.  It’s always the tallest corn that gets cut first as the old adage goes.  If this is the case how will our organizations innovate, thrive and really survive? You need peoples freely given effort to get an organization really buzzing and really competing – that will not come to be when people are anxious and afraid to contribute.

So what has this got to do with a career in change?  Well history tells us that the situation we are in now is not new, the scale may be larger than we have experienced for a while but the situation is not in itself new.  Change can be managed in a positive and engaging way – or an imposed and brutal way – there is a choice.  What many organizations are lacking is people who see change as their role , their vocation, their territory.  If we had more really committed change agents,  change managers,  change executives, change leaders then we would I am sure have more positive and  well implemented change.  We rarely accept amateur accountants or people who want to dabble in medicine, but change is an area of work we think we all know  a bit about and so can have a bash at.

So why don’t you think about a career in change and become an expert in demand – as any really good practitioner is at the  moment.  It doesn’t stop you having another role within the organization, but being an expert in positive change management is never going to go out of fashion.

Managing upwards – getting the most from your boss

30 09 2008

I have had  a number of personal experiences of being managed badly, but that’s not surprising in the long career I have survived ! What do I mean by being managed badly – well to me it’s being under used, rather than overworked.

I remember seeing a comment on my personnel file as I left a company after 20 years of varied service in a series of fantastic roles. It said ” mark has an unorthodox approach to authority and is one of the most difficult but talented people i have managed”.  I can live with that as a company epitaph.

I have had bosses who want the ideas but don’t want to share the credit when they are implemented. For a short time this can be endured, but it always leads to dissatisfaction in the long term.  I have had bosses who are not as smart as I am, and doing things that are plain wrong, but won’t or can’t hear alternatives. This is again a problem in the longer term, as you are working on things that are fundamentally wrong – and your advice has not been taken or heard.

As employees we need to be heard, not always agreed with but also not always dismissed as disloyal. What is the point in having staff and not using their collective or individual skills to get a good result.The  positive deviants we rave about in the book are not going to be easy to manage, if they were they would not be so valuable to the organization.

Why the post on managing upwards? – well it seems there are a lot of people I meet in conferences  that are in similar positions to myself in my early career. They want to do well, show initiative and challenge things in a positive way but their efforts are either hijacked or rebuffed.  In some cases this can just  be mildly annoying in others the trigger to leave the organization.  So what can you do in a situation where the boss is not getting the best from you and maybe taking more than is fair?

Perception is reality – and reality is what you can get away with.  This stolen quote is a fantastic summary of how I feel about being managed by others.  I am arrogant enough to know when I am right and when I have a skill or experience that is useful to the organization. I am also humble enough to know I cannot change other people at will to be more like a boss I would admire.  So I change the perception of the relationship – I manage them, in my mind, and they work for me.  This change in perception, if you are smart, can change the whole working relationship. I play the game by my rules – getting the pet projects I want into the agenda of the boss, whether they credit me or not.  In  this way I know who is in control, and let’s face it if they had really good ideas we would probably support them, but in the absence of their own, let them have ours free. But also let’s not forget – they need us to help implement.

Also, use the experience to build your own CV and create a valuable proposition for others to seek your employment.  People leave people – you don’t leave businesses – no one ever left MicroSoft or Nestle – they left poor bosses or people who didn’t manage the talent in front of them.

Managing the boss is a art – but one that anyone can learn.  Be clear about the commitments you are going to deliver and extract a price for delivery that is meaningful and worthwhile to you.  Search this blog or read the books section on commitments and you will realize the power of negotiation when you have all the ideas.

Remember – the person who knows how will always have a job. The person who knows why will always be his boss.

Now you know why being smart is a good thing and that not being able to manage you is the bosses problem not yours.

Evolution in business – or are we Oxen?

8 09 2008

Take a look at the evolution of thinking in business. Back in the 1920’s when management and business was becoming the subject of rigorous study the interface of man and machine was the focus. History has taught us that efficient management can reduce costs and has made operations in business lean and repeatable. We have Fredrick Winslow Taylor to thank for this in terms of ideas and Henry Ford, Arthur Sloan and McDonald’s to thank for the case studies in operational excellence. The essence of this approach to “scientific management “ is/was to take all the skill out of the operation and reduce the process to the simplest possible level of action. Result; people are treated like Oxen. At the time it was considered the epitome of business intelligence and lauded as progressive management. We now know better. The interface of man and man should be the real focus – leader and led.

The problem with repeatable processes, and anything that can be reduced to a documented process, is ultimately it’s also repeatable by someone else. Result: limited competitive advantage, short-term savings for short-term advantage – necessary but not sufficient. In business terms a good try but no

cigar for the winner.

We are now emerging into a new era where the demand on the organisation from talented knowledge workers is greater than at any other time in the history of mankind. Bright people, and let’s at least acknowledge that we are smart enough to hire bright people, ask better questions. They want to be engaged with their employer. There was a time when a job was a necessity. If you were good enough to employ people this was reason enough to gain their loyalty. Commitment was automatic. People were self-motivated. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on where you stand, this does not compute now for the majority of knowledge workers or the corporate competents, as some would label them. For this group of talented individuals they want or more accurately demand a better deal. The psychological contract, that unspoken deal we all make with our employer, is getting more complex and more demanding to fulfil. Engaging them, really differentiating the employee value proposition to a level of the individual, is the way to get talent committed to your cause. 1-2-1 leadership is the case for Engagement.

It’s a global phenomenon not just a product of the west or the affluent northern hemisphere. Intelligent people need to know why and how they deliver their input to the greater organization. Whether you are from India, Indiana or Indonesia, talented employees want more than a just a pay packet. They want to be led, inspired to give their best and not just what you pay for. Discretionary effort is a worldwide untapped energy resource – there is no energy shortage, we are just looking in the wrong places.

Compliance is not enough to keep the best and brightest in your organisation. You need a compelling employment value proposition. Talented people have freedom of choice and you need to ensure for the best players in the game, that they chose to be on your team. Oxen you could beat into compliance, or at least reward with a suitable carrot. Taylorism was built on that simple principle. Times change, people change, expectations change, and management is no longer enough. What these demanding times require is exceptional leadership. 3E Leadership captures the essence of what times now demand of us.