Leadership plus good management?

I’ve recently been working with two groups from the same organisation, and there was a huge contrast between them. One group was outspoken, enjoyed active learning and working in groups, the other group was almost silent, expected to sit and listen, and resented the “wasted time” of working on exercises in groups.

This was a surprise to me – I had expected to work with both groups in the same way, but it simply didn’t play out that way.

This led to a lot of soul searching – what was the critical difference between the groups, and why did the difference result in such different responses?

The conclusion I arrived at was that the first group was primarily composed of leaders, in a wide range from very junior to very senior; they were prepared to voice their concerns and make the most of the situation when it wasn’t what they expected. The second group, though in management roles, were more operational, mature and, apparently, less willing to make the most of things. Expecting a dull workshop, that is what they wanted; they were unwilling to engage in something more interesting and productive.

This highlighted a lesson I have learned throughout my career – leadership is a characteristic that is not strongly correlated to seniority.  There are many middle and even senior managers that lack leadership drivers and motivations. Conversely, there are many young, energetic people that are active leaders.

Management is a skill that usually improves with experience, but the same is not necessarily true of leadership, which demand energy and stamina. The best business leaders are also good managers, because they need to deliver results through others, but they have the energy and stamina to create the vision and inspire their team through the rough patches.

When an organisation engages in major change, it faces many challenges, both foreseen and unforeseen, and dealing with these requires skilled management, but it needs more. Leadership, with clear vision and the energy and discipline to address the issues that arise and “keep the wheels on the wagon”, is essential through the project/programme.

Leadership is more than pointing at the map and sending off the wagon train – it’s scouting, riding shot-gun and fighting off the bandits to make sure it gets there.

A lot of change initiatives fail because the executive “leadership” start it off then lose interest, moving onto the next idea, leaving managers to deal with the problems without the leadership that is essential for success. Fewer ideas, fewer initiatives and sustained leadership  transform the success rate of business projects.

The role of consultancy in strategic planning

For many years I’ve found strategic planning to be a rare skill; most people struggle with it.

When discussing my approach (which is pretty standard) with a client recently, I split the problem down into 3 parts:

  1. Knowing where you are
  2. Knowing where you want to get to
  3. Constructing the road map to get from one to the other

Looking at these, I would argue that most business people, with a bit of teaching, are quite able to do part 3 – it’s a core human skill, quite logical, analytical and not demanding much creativity (though detailed planning of large projects is highly skilful).

This leaves parts 1 and 2 where the problem lies, and they are problematic for quite distinct reasons.

1. Knowing where you are is a problem for many people as they are too close to things and prejudiced by assumptions. It may even be that they are a part of the problem, so self-justification will distort and cloud their analysis.

It requires cold, dispassionate assessment.

The other key factor is that an accurate situational analysis requires integrating the perspectives of all stakeholders, something difficult to achieve for someone inside most organizations, as structure and hierarchy stand in the way of honesty and completeness.

An external person can provide clear insights that no internal person is able to offer, through confidentiality and mobility.

2. Knowing where you want to get to is a real challenge when your nose is to the grindstone – it requires quality thinking time, plus releasing the imagination. Most of us have to work very hard, frequently 50 – 70 hours a week, making mundane decisions – lots of analysis, but little creative thinking. This means our creative muscles get flabby and wasted.

The hardest aspect of this is that when we are facing gritty reality hour by hour, envisioning an ideal world where everything is great is not a simple event but a journey – we need support when trying to be creative.

Human beings are rather good at learning by analogy (abductive reasoning) but getting first-hand that wider view of what others are doing is often a luxury.

An external expert can provide insights from your competitors, and best practice from other industries to stimulate the imagination, and help form that “ideal world”  vision.

As a business owner, do I practise what I preach? Well, I haven’t always done so effectively, but I’m getting better; I don’t want to be “penny-wise, pound-foolish”.

The vision – key to success

Many years ago, I learned that building a shared vision and working towards it was vital in married life. I’ve also found the same to be true of business change.

Reading this article on documenting a clear vision reminded me of two discussions with prospective clients; both had decided what they wanted to do without having a clear vision of where they wanted to get to. When I started to investigate their vision, I ended up with the reaction “you’re too strategic”.

I speak from bitter personal experience that it is very easy to get busy doing tactical things that take you in the wrong direction if you don’t have a clear vision of where you’re trying to get to. Losing stakeholder support is even easier if you can’t share a clear definition of what you’re trying to achieve.

I’ve found you can’t be too strategic when it comes to being clear about where you want to get to, and it really helps to take stakeholders with you if they can see what it will be like when you get there.

Be very careful when selecting the information you act on!

Just read this interesting article on how selecting the wrong sample of people to listen to can skew your choice. This prompted recollections of the business intelligence strategy work I did at Willis and Centrica, and a warning story about data mining, where the “training data” wasn’t randomly selected, leading to astonishing performance that was too good to be true, sadly.

I’m currently engaged in helping a client move from having no data at all to a (hopefully) detailed and balanced view of the problems their customers face in using their products. At the moment they’re planning product development through a mixture of informed opinion and guess-work. It’s good that they are unhappy with this situation, but the solution is a challenging leap for many of them – become a customer-focused organization speaking to the customers frequently and in detail.

As scientists and engineers, they are comfortable working with numbers and precision – they just don’t have the data required, and that can only come from from the customers themselves. We’re working on how to collect and analyse as much data as possible, prior to developing a phased development and deployment plan.

This has just reminded me that we need to build in data quality detection and management to detect skew before they make the wrong choices!

Organizational alignment: coalescing culture, organization and leadership

Torben Rick’s piece on organizational alignment made me think – it’s a simple concept but never-the-less overlooked: strategy can only be implemented if the organization is aligned with it. A strategy that isn’t implemented is worthless.

So align your organization with its strategy:

  • individual goals and remuneration
  • KPIs
  • structure
  • IT
  • culture

It’s all or nothing.

Where does the vision stop?

One of the key ingredients of successful projects is effective leadership, and one of the primary tools of a good leader is the vision, that definition of where we want to get to and how we will know when we get there.The problem is that the vision can be too limited in its scope, too “broad brush” in its analysis and quite simply  not viable because people haven’t thought through the consequences.

One of the most valuable skills in the armoury of the successful project leaders is the impact assessment – “what will happen if we do this?” This is used heavily in change management and risk management, so should be finely honed in most project teams (!)

Impact assessing the vision can be very tough, but failure to do so can snatch failure from the jaws of victory.

When the Government decided in the 80s to force brewers to sell tied houses, so increasing the number of free houses and the demand for real ales, they were rather startled to find that the legislation had a completely contrary effect – half the brewers stopped brewing to run much larger chains of tied houses (bought from the other brewers) and bought all their beer from the few remaining big breweries. It has taken 30 years to recover from that piece of woolly thinking.

Barnes Wallis, a kind and gentle engineering genius, is reported to have been inconsolable when he found that 56 aircrew were missing in action having dropped his bouncing bombs in the famous Dambusters raid in 1943. His reaction to the 2000+ civilian deaths, including nearly 800 Ukrainian women workers in a labour camp near the Moehne dam, isn’t recorded.

When the modern state of Israel was born, no one seems to have thought through what would happen to the people already living there, and as a long-term consequence there seems no end to the slaughter of the innocents. The UK government has often had a policy of not negotiating with “Terrorists”, but one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. In Ireland, there has twice been a cessation of hostilities between the UK and terrorists/freedom fighters – both times it has meant the UK government having the courage to set aside its policy of demonising “the other side” and doing what must be done – talk to the people most passionate about the wrongs they feel have been done to them. The first time led to a peace with what is now the Republic of Ireland, the second (“Good Friday agreement”) seems to have brought a degree of peace back to the North.

When setting out on a great project, it really helps to think through the vision, because if you don’t, you have to be utterly pragmatic in dealing with the consequences, to achieve a lasting solution.