Monday, March 16, 2009

Who do you want to lead?

I recently spent some time with a group of managers who were challenged with changing their business direction. Their new leader had realised that what they had inherited was in a little worse shape than they thought, so some key players were gathered to strategise. It was interesting to see how that went and how they behaved.

Teamwork is always fascinating, especially at the senior level. In their own environment, leaders who are powerful and capable are often suddenly different when they are in a room with their boss. You might recognise the situation yourself e.g. where the boss has a particular way of thinking and therefore we must all follow that process, or when the boss says something we all know is “inaccurate” and no-one tells them or how about the situation where the boss is telling you all what to do in your areas even if that view is dated or counter-strategic. I’m sure you have more examples of your own.

I wonder if most leaders understand that this happens, and if so whether they are happy with this or whether they struggle to find ways of making sure that their team “shares their views” and is “open to discussion” and” empowered” in reality.

A long time ago I noticed an interesting phenomenon. The further up an organisation you get the more likely it is that people will do what you say just because of the position you hold. This amazed me as (at that time) we were in the 20th century and I thought that we had actually thrown of the concept of serfdom centuries before. But, out there in the corporate world we can sometime still adhere to concepts redolent of baronial structure.

I began to see this as very dangerous, because no-one can know everything and therefore the risks to the business were greater if a leader thinks they do, even when they are far from the coal-face. I also think thought that there was little point in having a team if you do it all yourself! What’s the point of hiring someone to spend day after day analysing the marketplace if you know you can assess it in twenty seconds and make a major decision!!

Sometimes a leader will say to me “ how do I empower my team to take ownership of their division while.......” and I listen for what comes after the word while.

Those words are my clue.

Not a clue to how the team can improve their performance, but to the behaviour of the leader I am talking to. The “while” is often behavioural. It is sometimes something like “while ensuring urgency” or “making sure that they don’t take too many risks”. There in from of me will be a fast pace, driven individual who has a high sense of urgency or a deeply analytical and reflective person who needs to know all the facts before they decide.

If the time and situation is right and the leader is reasonably self aware we will have a conversation about “empowerment” and whether it means “be like me” or “do it the way I would”, because that’s what those words really mean. “How can I empower my team to do things the way I would?”

At that recent meeting with the new team, the leader was obviously very process driven and struggled with the approach that some of his team were taking when thinking about the strategy we were creating. This caused some tense discussions as the leader started to impose their structure on the session. Eventually the leader began to see that their desire to manage the “way” that we were strategising was impacting on how well the team were able to think. When the leader realised this they had the guts to stop managing the “how” of the process and not impose their way of being on the team. They chose to manage their needs for themself by asking questions to gain the understanding that they needed to suit their way of thinking.

In recognising that not everyone thinks the way they do, they chose to let their team do what they are good at. The leader chose to step back and see if all the different ideas that were coming up satisfied the strategic “what” that they had set them. They chose leadership, not boss-dom.

The start point for leaders to empower their managers is to focus on the “what” and not the “how”. Let your behavioural style choice be that (just yours) and to accept that the power of your team is that they don’t think the same way you do, so the process needs to be flexible and not just your way.

So when you find yourself looking at your direct reports and thinking that you would like them to be “more” something or “less” something else, take a step back and check-in as to whether those things are attributes of your behaviour that you value (and if you are not clear on your own
behavioural style, you need to be; self awareness is key to leadership )

If you find that what you are asking for is part of your own style then take a look at what the individual is or isn’t doing and consider it from a different perspective. Try asking yourself “what do I need from them that I am not getting?” followed by “if that is the case, what am I not giving them that they need?”.

Is their lack of urgency really because you did not agree delivery timelines with them? Is their risk taking a result of lack of data that you have? You might find, like the leader I mentioned, that what you really need is to ask questions to satisfy your thinking needs and that in the process you may value the difference in theirs.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Whose values are creating your culture?

It often occurs to me that one of the most challenging roles of a leader is creating a values based culture. A culture where the company values are readily adopted by everyone within the organisation and used as a guide for their decisions and actions. It often appears that people can accept the values at an intellectual level but using them as their guidebook is another challenge entirely.

Having watched the development of values based culture’s in action I find that it takes a number of key voices to actively accept the values, using them visibly and vocally in what they do, for a culture to spread and take hold.
Its like the 100th monkey theory. If you’ve not heard of it, here it is.

The basis for this idea was derived from a story in the 1979 book Lifetide: A Biology of the Unconscious by Lyall Watson. He reported on research conducted by several anthropologists on the macaques in the islands off Japan. According to the story, in 1953 one of the anthropologists observed an aged macaque female wash a potato to get the sand off of it before eating. She, in turn, taught another to do the same thing. The pair taught others, and soon a number of the adult macaques were washing their potatoes. In the fall of 1958, almost every macaque was doing it. Then macaques who had had no contact with the potato-washing monkeys began to wash their food. It appeared, concluded Watson, that as the practice spread through the monkey communities, a critical mass was approached when 98 and then 99 monkeys washed their food. Then, when the hundredth monkey adopted the practice, critical mass was reached, and the practice exploded through the monkey population.

Its not actually a true event, but the story was repeated in the media and passed around and reported as true until just about everyone had heard about it and believed it. This story became a meme that demonstrates a meme!
Meme’s work like that (and for those who have not heard of memes, the meaning is “an element of culture or system of behaviour that is passed from one individual to another by non-genetic means).
The thing about memes is that you only get them from someone you trust. Trust opens the door into your belief system. Its like your unconscious says to itself “ If they believe that this is the way we do things around here, then I should too“.

That’s why a values culture starts at the top; with one or two leaders who stand out because their actions match the values they espouse and those values are the ones you see on the wall every day when you walk in through the door.
The more that leaders quote the values, live the values and expect others to live the values the more likely it is that others in the organisation will adopt them too. Gradually those values become “the way we do things around here” and not just a set of words on a wall collecting dust. If people of influence, who sit outside the recognised leadership hierarchy, are seen and heard to espouse the values then even more people will join them.
Once the belief is embeded its hard to move. It takes a lot of energy to develop and a lot of courageous conversations by courageous people. You know this is true if you've ever inherited an organisation where people believe something counter-productive to your organisation. You may even see it in your engagement scores!

In the world we live in, business needs every advantage and point of difference that it can get. Is your culture giving you that advantage? Are your company values creating that culture? Are your leaders consistently walking the same talk, and is that talk matching your company values? Are your key players spreading the right meme? 

Or are you losing the one advantage you cant buy off the shelf; a unique company culture.