Leadership, Culture and Ambiguity…….

A discussion developed during a recent Working Group review with a client leadership team that centred on the degree to which they should seek to influence the organisation’s culture as part of the proposed organisational change arising from the implementation of a new process.  As usual in these situations there were as many views on the topic as there were participants in the conversation; each being argued with a greater or lesser degree of passion seemingly irrespective of the need to evaluate whether the need to change the culture was either required, supportive of the process change or even the degree to which they felt collectively or even individually able to assert such influence.

As the conversation continued to evolve it became evident that there was a general consensus that developing and sustaining a positive culture within the organisation was ‘a good thing’. What was abundantly less clear within the group was the reason why this was so or indeed how this was to be achieved. The meeting concluded with the general assertion that the group would continue to develop a positive organisation culture although no attempt was made to evaluate how this would either be defined or evaluated in the context of the organisational change.

As with many business attributes a positive organisation culture is largely invisible, or rather taken for granted, whilst the impact of a negative culture on the organisation’s performance is altogether too obvious. In this instance what was also of concern was the team’s inability to understand its role in developing a culture that was supportive of the change process.

Several days later I met with the Chief Executive over dinner.

“Have you had any further thoughts on the cultural aspects of this change following the team’s discussion the other afternoon” I enquired. “ I thought they raised some interesting issues but seemed a little unclear about their role”

“Yes, I would have to agree and yet we have spent a lot of time as a team working on this change but we don’t seem to have nailed down how to bring the organisation with us” she responded.

“I’m actually quite positive.” I continued. “The team appreciate that developing a positive culture will determine the outcome of the change process. What we need to help them with is how to influence the organisation’s culture as the change takes place.”

“Agreed” responded the CEO. “So any thoughts on where we should begin?”

“Well, we can start by emphasising with the team how important it is that everybody’s behaviours match the process change intent. It has to be clear how this change and the organisations strategy meet which gives us the route in to driving the correct behaviours.” I suggested.

“Yes, I can see that” she continued “but how can we use this to open up the dialogue with the extended team?”

“Just now we have the perfect opportunity. As we launch the change there will inevitably be a significant level of ambiguity in the organisation as everybody tries to understand what is required and what they need to do. “ I continued. “The organisation will open up as it seeks to deal with this ambiguity and it is this openness that is the route in”

“Ok, I can see that but I’m still not clear on the first step, where to begin?”

“Well how about starting with the ambiguity in the Leadership team…..”

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Leadership Charisma…….

“Have you noticed how much of the current popular literature on Leadership focuses on the high profile charismatic leaders and their success stories?”

This comment sparked a somewhat heated debate amongst a group of my students as to the validity of such literature and what contribution these types of books made to the overall understanding of leadership.

“It seems to me that to be a good leader one has to be first and foremost charismatic” he continued as if to emphasise his point.

“And male” retorted a somewhat aggrieved female from within the group much to the amusement of her sisters “well, come on, can somebody name a popular book on leadership that is based on the story of a successful female leader?”

The impact of this question on the group was considerable. After the initial amusement subsided there was an uneasy realisation amongst both sexes within the group that a characteristic that it is cited by many as a fundamental trait of a good leader was widely perceived in popular literature to be predominantly attributable to male leaders.

“As we all know” she continued “charisma is seen by many to be at the root of Transformational Leadership. It’s a key behaviour that defines a change agent in the eyes of the team. It affirms them as a role model, brings life to their vision and provides them with the authority that serves to empower the team.”

It was a pretty powerful and well-articulated argument and one which I, for one, had not really considered hitherto. Whilst it could be argued that the bias in popular leadership literature is a reflection of the relatively low number of female senior executives compared to their male counterparts closer examination would support a proposition that this was exclusively so.

“Interestingly” she continued “it can be reasonably argued that many of the other attributes broadly associated with transformational leadership are no better suited to leaders of either sex so this bias would seem to stem directly from this one attribute.”

The debate continued long into the evening without seemingly coming to a conclusion. Each argument was met with counter argument as to whether leadership skills could be classified in terms of gender or no and indeed whether this could be considered to be a useful categorisation in taking the debate forward. My conclusion, having listened to the various arguments throughout the evening, was that it would not be but I, along with the rest of the group, continued to be troubled by her initial assertion.

“It would seem to me that there is confusion between charisma and heroism in much of the literature” she stated as she rose to leave “and if that’s the case I’m pretty much certain that the attribute that is being described can be used both constructively and destructively with equal effect……”

Leadership Development…..

A regular topic of conversation amongst the students at my local business school and indeed amongst many commentators in the field of business education is that of the value or otherwise of various types of leadership development programmes. Whilst much of the latter commentary is focussed on the cost/benefit analysis of pursuing formal programmes such as an MBA, (my students take a somewhat personal interest in this debate!), there is also a healthy dialogue amongst students and practitioners alike as to the merits or otherwise of the various types of “in-house” leadership development programmes.

“In your opinion which of these programmes yields the most immediate benefit for an aspiring leader” asked one of my recent MBA graduates.

“Well, first off, I regard Leadership as an expertise that is developed over time and therefore my perspective is that we are in it for the long-haul. Whilst some programmes can be used as a stimulus to achieve short-term objectives the more robust aspects of development are accumulated across a wide range of learning and typically over a considerable time period. A lifelong journey if you will.” I responded.

“But surely in the short-term I need to focus on the benefits that my MBA brings” responded the student. “I need to leverage the benefits of the qualification over the next three to five years to ensure that I get the most from it.”

By now other members of the group were keen to join the debate, expressing contrasting views of the best way forward.

“Yes, of course it’s important that you make your MBA work for you but you also need to think how it fits with other aspects of your development in both the short and longer term” I continued. “You might like to think of your development needs over time from three or maybe four differing perspectives.”

“Well if you’re unsure then what chance do we have?” challenged one of the group.

“Well ok let’s see if this helps” I responded taking up the challenge.

“First off, you all recognise that your MBA has a shelf life; so it’s really important that you pay attention to keeping yourself up to date. As you all know I’m an avid reader but I also regularly attend forum events and participate in Executive Education programmes across a broad range of topics. You might also like to think about a professional qualification if it’s appropriate – both breadth and depth are important to your long term career goals.”

“Ok, I don’t think anybody would argue with you there. Pretty much in line with the advice we get here at the school” continued the student.

“And so is the second” I continued. “I strongly recommend that you find yourself at least one and preferably two or three mentors. Typically the kind of individual who you can respect and have the confidence in to help you understand how you are developing as leaders and provide the support and guidance that you will inevitably need as your careers progress.”

The group members nodded their broad agreement.

“The third strand builds on what you have been doing here for the last 18 months or so; developing your network. Most of you are already reaching out way beyond your cohort into the alumni at large and throughout the School. Continue to nurture these relationships as they will stand you in good stead throughout your career.”

“Finally” I continued “there is the development that builds up over time from your previous and future job roles. This can be a challenging aspect of your development especially for those of you working in large organisations although it has to be said that there are aspects of these companies that can really work in your favour.”

“I’m not sure that I follow your logic. My view of many large organisations is that they can be very process oriented and transactional in their management style” responded the student.

“That is often so” I continued “but it’s precisely these attributes that can provide the real opportunity. Many of these organisations use the need for change as a leadership development tool. It enables them to release their aspiring leaders into cross functional teams who can embrace change across the organisation at large – way beyond the scope of their normal remit”

“Hmmm, that’s all well good but how can you establish whether the organisation you are looking to join operates in this way?”

“Well you could always ask them how they manage their change programmes at the interview……”

Developing Vision& Values…..

During a recent trip to the USA I met with a group of colleagues who were engaged with the senior executive team of a medium – sized organisation developing a change programme against a backdrop of difficult trading conditions. It seemed that the programme had been progressing well over the last six months since launch but was now showing signs of stalling as the team began to look towards developing the required values to support the future vision.

As we sat for dinner in the private dining room of the hotel’s restaurant this topic continued to dominate the conversation.

“These programmes are notoriously difficult to implement due to the long-term nature of the required commitment from the seniors and the overall expense” I commented by way of confirmation of their opinion. “As you are aware many of the Fortune 500 companies support these types of programmes with internal Leadership Institutes and the like to confirm both the commitment to and the importance of the programme to the rest of the organisation.”

“Hmmm, I’m not sure our Exec team are up for that sort of programme right now; they have a lot on their plate and I think that they would be looking for a lower key approach” responded one of the team.

“Perfectly understandable” I continued “but whichever way they address the challenge they need to ensure that they address the key issues. I’m assuming that they are proposing to lead this programme themselves with only a light touch from us”

“Yes that’s pretty much their thinking at the moment” my colleague continued. ”I think their thinking reflects both the appetite for the potential expense and I also sense some control issues too.”

“OK let’s look at how we can address some of the key issues” I started. “First off let’s make sure that we give them a clear picture of the challenges they face in taking the lead on this programme. As a team, they and most importantly the initial group that they choose to support them in rolling out the programme need to be the best ambassadors they have. If they are not perfect role models then cynicism will ensue and the programme will be undermined from day one. Also we need to ensure that they embrace in real dialogue not just dictum or they will fail to engender the necessary buy-in”

“Raises some interesting questions around how we select the initial cohort” my colleague responded. “We haven’t touched on that area with them as yet.”

“Ok, let’s think about that a little” I continued. “We need to ensure that they choose the people from the organisation who are already demonstrating the required behaviours and embody the required values. They need to be absolutely clear on their selection criteria and be able to commit to them consistently over time.”

“We also need to make sure that they are sensitive to how the organisation responds to the people selected to lead this programme” my colleague continued. “Whilst not necessarily a ‘Fast Track’ for promotion they need to ensure that successful participation in the programme is seen as a key element in career progression.”

“And finally, we need to make sure that they ring fence the funding for the programme” I continued. “Otherwise the programme will be cut at the first sign of a down-turn promoting the exact behaviours and values that they are seeking to eliminate.”

The discussion continued long into the evening as each issue was addressed and proposals considered. Tomorrow’s meeting with the Executive team was clearly going to be an interesting affair….

Do You Have A High Performing Leadership Team?

“I’m beginning to question whether we have spent sufficient time with the Leadership team preparing them for the months ahead. It’s inevitably going to be a difficult period and I don’t believe that they are well prepared to take on the changes that they need to make.”

Our discussion continued as we drove away from the plant. We had spent a considerable amount of time addressing the required restructuring of the group to improve profitability and competitiveness but precious little time addressing issues within the leadership team. Right from the beginning of our engagement the problem statement excluded any mention of the Leadership team and its role and yet clearly a lot of the existing issues had developed on their watch.

“Yes of all the groups in the organisation they are the least well defined, are under led and are certainly under resourced” my partner continued.

“It’s ironic, isn’t it, that the team that is best placed in the whole organisation to address these issues is the one that has most difficulty in doing so” I responded. “It’s as if they are too close to the issues to be able to make an objective assessment and take action.”

“You’re right” my partner continued “they lack both structure and direction probably as a result of the lack of independent input to their strategy and organisation.”

This last comment brought home to me the importance of external stimulus to the functioning of a Leadership team. It was clearly evident that this group had lost its way over the past years. Its purpose was unclear and its roles and tasks were poorly defined. And yet the irony is that, as a group, they possessed the highest level of authority in shaping their own working contexts.

“I propose that we get the group off-site somewhere to give themselves some space away from the day job to start addressing some of these issues” my partner was beginning to warm to the task ahead. “Probably needs to be over the weekend so that they won’t be missed by the rest of the management team. It will also help us to start breaking down some of the barriers and launch some team building work with them.”

His take on the situation was right on the mark. We needed to get the team to address their own shortcomings in a safe environment where they could begin to address how they as a group need to develop. The team dynamics did not support the strategy going forward and there were also some resource gaps in key areas that would seriously prejudice the successful implementation of the strategy.

The key issue now was how to broach this with the CEO in the morning. It was clearly going to be a delicate conversation…….

Does Emergent Leadership Play A Part In Your Organisation?

“This is my favourite time in any change management project. We’ve gone live and the organisation is beginning to find its feet. It’s fascinating to watch how the new relationships develop, the bonds are created and the whole thing comes to life.”

My partner and I had just left the headquarters of a medium sized group who we had been helping through a major restructuring programme.

“I agree; these are exciting times” I concurred as we drove through their security gates. “I share your fascination with this stage of the process. It’s going to be really interesting to see how the group adapts to the new structure over the next few months. They’ve brought a lot of new people in; some of them in pivotal positions“

The group’s senior management team had embarked on a major restructuring programme some nine months previously against a backdrop of reducing turnover and profitability. Whilst similar downturns had been experienced by the majority of competitors in the sector it seemed that our group had fared worse than the majority. The group had grown both organically and by acquisition over the last 20 years and served a wide range of markets competing primarily on the technical superiority of their products.

“Yes, it’s that part that worries me most” my partner continued. “Their competitive position is driven by their technology edge which is vested in key individuals within the organisation. I’m not convinced that this will be best served by the degree of centralisation that is being proposed”

As with most programmes that are executed in such circumstances the major thrusts were towards increased centralisation to improve control and stripping out several of the smaller non-core businesses to enable the group to focus on the more profitable elements of their portfolio. The group had also recruited several executives into senior leadership positions within the group to bolster what was perceived to be a structural weakness of the existing team.

“I’m still not convinced that the leadership team really understand how their teams function within each company.” my partner continued “The primary influence in the majority of the companies is the technical expert who not only understand the products but can also relate to the markets they serve. These are the people that the teams really trust and look to for guidance not the management team.”

My partner had highlighted a key issue facing the group going forward. The restructuring programme embraced a significant increase in the level of centralised control targeted primarily at increasing profitability through better allocation of resources and leveraging the group’s position to drive down cost. This would inevitably lead to a clash with the existing culture of informal technical leadership within the majority of the group. These largely self-governing groups are the cornerstone of their competitive position.

It looks like it’s going to be an interesting few months…..

Leadership…..And The Change Management Paradox

“You know it never fails to amaze me how difficult managing change can be. Even when everybody’s up for it it’s just a struggle from beginning to end.” My partner was clearly suffering after a difficult week with our client. It seemed that everything that could go wrong had done so along with a few more things that hadn’t been foreseen by either us or the management team with whom we had been working for several months.

“I can’t see why you are so surprised” I responded somewhat unsympathetically as we sat down at a table to enjoy a well-earned beer. “You know that managing major change is amongst the most difficult of challenges that any leadership team can face.”

“Yes I know but whatever approach I take I cannot get them to buy into the need for them to change along with the rest of the organisation. It seems as if they are blind to the fact that the change impacts them as much as the rest of the organisation” my colleague’s frustration was all too evident. “They just don’t seem to accept that they need to change both individually and as a group as much as the rest of the organisation.”

It was a situation that we had faced many times before. The Leadership team’s focus was on the rest of the organisation. The imperative was to help the organisation to face up to the changes that needed to be made not to face up to the challenge that confronted them as a leadership team. The impact of change on the leadership team is often under-estimated primarily on the basis that they are more change oriented. This was certainly the case here.

“So, have you any thoughts on how we might change our approach?” I asked somewhat apprehensively given his mood. “It’s pretty clear that they are blocked as a team and almost certainly on an individual basis too. We need to find a way to stimulate some creativity to enable them to engage with more options”

My colleague nodded in agreement; his eyes drifting into the distance as he pondered the dilemma before us.

“The really interesting thing” he began after a few minutes “is that they are pursuing a really aggressive timescale when what they really need to do is to take some time out and create some space. I know that the Ops Director is concerned; his team is really creaking and I suspect that the Finance guy has similar concerns.”

“Well ok let’s use their concern as the way in. We can build on it and use it as the way to create some space. It will give everybody the chance to take stock and really think about the implications that the change has for them. Hopefully they will begin to sense the emotional and behavioural changes they need to take on.” I suggested.

“You know, if this were a systems modification we’d recommend using a sand-pit environment to really evaluate the change in a set of safe and secure circumstances – no damage to anybody but a massive learning opportunity for the whole organisation” he continued.

“So why don’t we do something similar” I suggested “call it Transition Space……”