Leading Orgs – Only Octopi Need Apply

octopus.jpgLeading organizations is like leading a swarm of bees. You can’t directly control what’s going on, and the statistics indicate that most organizational leaders aren’t doing a very good job of it. A Harris Poll found that only 15% of people knew their orgs most important goals, over half of employees don’t know what to do to achieve company goals, and less than half of employees’ time was spent working on these goals. What’s more, another big fancy-schmancy research center found that less than 20% of employees feel strongly committed to company goals. (Somehow the math doesn’t quite add up here. Must be some kind of statistical uncertainty in the data. I can’t tell if the 19% who are committed to the goals are the same 15% who know the goals. I hope so, otherwise we could have 15% of people knowing the goals, but not committed to them, and another 19% who are strongly committed to goals that they don’t even know. Ouch, my brain hurts!) At the very least, an organizational leader’s job should be to make sure that everyone knows the goals, is committed to achieving them, knows what to do, and spends most of their time working toward them.

What makes leading organizations so difficult? For one thing, there are all kinds of functional groups that need to work together to get things done. Getting people from sales or marketing to communicate effectively with people from manufacturing or engineering can sometimes be a greater cross-cultural challenge than crossing country borders. For another, many of the people who need to collaborate to achieve results have no direct reporting relationship to each other, their hierarchy only coming together in some distant reaches of the org chart. Org charts may be useful in determining who to call when you are going to be late for work or when submitting your resignation, but they don’t give much of a clue as to who’s working together to get things done in most companies. And job responsibilities change far more rapidly than org charts, making them an even less reliable indicator of who’s doing what and with whom. People who integrate companies after an acquisition tell me that sorting out everyone’s new org chart title or position is one of the biggest bones of contention. Even though the org chart doesn’t really represent the true power structure in most organizations, or the actual working teams who are accomplishing the results so critical to business success, people are quite sensitive to where their name appears, and what title they have. (Me, I always ask for “All Powerful Master of Time, Space and Dimension”, but it’s usually too long to fit on a standard business card.)

On a day-to-day basis, people determined to get business results frequently find themselves leading teams of people who do not report to them. Project leaders are often found heroically facilitating collaboration across organization boundaries and against all odds. A directive approach in these circumstances works even less well than it does with subordinates where there is a reporting relationship. Technology and process excellence will only get you so far. Ultimately it is the people who make an organization successful, and successful organizational leaders must master the three “P”s: Product subject matter knowledge, Process excellence, and influential People skills. Leading effectively in these circumstances requires influence and persuasion skills, political savvy (Get advice from someone else on this. It’s not my strength.) and a disciplined framework for generating results predictably and repeatedly.

Communication is one of the top reasons that teams do not achieve their goals, and the communication links between important stakeholders may not even be shown on a traditional org chart, as is the case with suppliers, alliance partners, and customers. Creating a chart that shows all stakeholders, and identifying each ones’ roles and responsibilities instead of position or title, is a start. Creating a mutually beneficial purpose, compelling vision, clear mission and shared values that bring the various stakeholders together to collaborate in achieving the goals is essential. What gets measured is what gets done. Progress toward success must be monitored and measured, then shared with all relevant stakeholders. And all of this must be done in a lightweight fashion, without unnecessary bureaucracy. My approach is “Not a drop more process discipline than required, but not a drop less either!” While it might work in a team of 8 or 10 people, relying on verbal guidance and word of mouth to keep people informed of goals and working in alignment towards them just doesn’t work in an organization of dozens, hundreds or thousands. You’ve got to establish systems, processes, structures and mechanisms for assuring goal clarity and communication effectiveness, otherwise you’re just a gambler in the Vegas of the corporate world.

If you’re leading organizations you’re leading change. Although humans distinctly loath most change, and sometimes show a high resistance even to changes in their own best interest, change is accelerating in our business world. Those who can embrace and drive it will be the winners. Globalization, restructuring, and workforce diversity are changing the way business is done, and leaders often must adapt at warp speed. With constant change, we have to do more with less, faster, cheaper and better. Doing our best is no longer enough. Leaders must frequently face changes in the business environment that seem to require miracles to overcome.

The reality is that business is often a game of setting seemingly impossible challenges and then making progress on these challenges. Resistance to change is widespread, and people leading change must often do so against a tide of resistance and predictions of failure. Fear of failure and disappointment are frequently the motivation for this approach. Often these well-intentioned people call their attitudes “realistic” or “practical.” Unfortunately, people who resist new ideas, and change in general, ignore the influence of their own attitudes and beliefs on their “reality”. Successful change leaders must understand how people react to change, and be ready and able to lead and support their teams in successfully navigating required changes. These “change agents” must learn to personally deal with the pressure of constant change, and even welcome it, learning to surf the waves of change rather than being dragged under the water. The org leader must be the ultimate champion of the change process. Learn to love and lead change so that you and your people can embrace change as a doorway to new possibilities instead of a trap door to hell.

You’ll need every bit of energy, skill and concentration you can muster to successfully lead an organization where everyone knows the goals and is enthusiastically working together to achieve them. Being an octopus could come in quite handy here, but: failing that: don’t do it alone. Build a strong team of leaders to help you get the job done. This isn’t a solo gig.

– Kimberly Wiefling is the author of Scrappy Project Management: The 12 Predictable and Avoidable Pitfalls Every Project Faces, hovering among the top project management books in the USA since launch in 2007. She is the founder of Wiefling Consulting, a scrappy global business leadership consultancy committed to enabling her clients to successfully tackle seemingly impossible goals. For the past 3 years she has worked primarily with Japanese companies committed to becoming truly global through transformational leadership and execution with excellence.

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2 thoughts on “Leading Orgs – Only Octopi Need Apply”

  1. Thanks for your comments, Ben! I totally agree with the points you make in your article about command and control leadership being ineffective, and that listening is terrific way to start becoming a more effective leader. As for people enjoying change, just try wearing your watch on the opposite hand for a whole day and see how that feels. Nuf said! – Kimberly

  2. People naturally enjoy change. But after being treated like a robot by top-down command and control managers, an approach which demotivates, demoralizes and treats employees with disrespect, any employee will resist any change because they completely distrust their bosses. Many employees feel that bosses are fortunate that they show up for work much less do anything. Authority is necessary, but complete misuse of it as in top-down is a huge error.

    Bosses who use the opposite approach reap great benefits since employees will embrace change, unleash their full potential of creativity and innovation, and be far, far more productive than any boss could ever imagine. Besides, they will love to come to work.

    To better understand the right way and the wrong way to manage people, please read the article “Leadership, Good or Bad”

    Best regards, Ben Simonton
    Author “Leading People to be Highly Motivated and Committed”

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