By Abhay Padgaonkar
“My main job was developing talent. I was a gardener providing water and other nourishment to our top 750 people. Of course, I had to pull out some weeds, too.” - Jack Welch
If you are the top dog in your organization, what is your main job? In his seminal Harvard Business Review article on “What Leaders Really Do,” John P. Kotter says that “leaders prepare organizations for change and help them cope as they struggle through it.” That is their main job. But how do they go about doing it?
Clearly, setting a direction for the future is an important aspect of leadership. Describing what the organization should become in the long term and how it should get there becomes the foremost duty of the leader. Soon after taking the helm of IBM, Lou Gerstner announced that “the last thing IBM needs right now is a vision.” In his own words, the doom industry had a grand time nailing his hide to the wall for that lack-of-vision statement. He goes on to explain that a lot of reporters dropped the words “right now” from his statement, and that changed his message in a big way. Gerstner felt that IBM was long on vision statements, but short on getting the job done. Fixing the company was all about execution.
Execution is nothing but aligning people, motivating them, and creating a culture of leadership. Kotter contrasts this with equally important but managerial duties such as planning, budgeting, organizing, staffing, controlling, and problem solving. It is clear then that the value of a wonderful business strategy is only achieved when it is actually carried out. And it is the people who make the grand vision a reality. That’s why as Jack Welch points out, leaders need to make it a priority to plant and nourish talented people at every level of the organization.
The constraint of a smaller budget is hardly an excuse to not be aware of, understand, and operate key levers that drive superior performance in people. Going back to Jack Welch’s garden analogy, some aspects of cultivation are free, such as sunshine. But how you choose to orient your garden in relationship to the sun makes all the difference. If you place your garden under a large shade tree, you’re cutting it off from necessary nourishment.
While a leader needs to have a strong sense of the direction, cultivating new culture by changing people’s mindset and behaviors is the hardest part. In doing so, they can follow the Al “Chainsaw” Dunlap model of profit-at-any-price by relying on fear, intimidation, and greed, or they can follow a more sensible leadership model based on inspiration, motivation, and enthusiasm.
The Flip Side
Know-it-all: They start believing that they know and do this better
than anybody, and believe that they don’t need others as much as others
need them. So they become prone to treat others as dispensable and tune
If some or all of these behaviors start occurring, the results follow quickly: Any constructive confrontation within the executive team ends almost immediately. Honest exchange of ideas on various options and their pros and cons ceases. What is happening on the ground, especially to the foot soldiers, becomes irrelevant. The level of pressure people feel becomes unbearable. The “guilt trip” that nobody else is pulling their weight becomes harder and harder to take. Any semblance of work/life balance goes out the window. Conversations quickly become one-way streets and people start feeling like glorified order-takers. It seems like they have ceded all authority to the boss.
The leader is quickly surrounded by loyal sycophants in the inner circle who simply want to ride the coattails. Everyone else is in the outer circle—albeit with more self-esteem, but nevertheless fearful to say that the emperor has no clothes. Pretty soon people start telling the leader what the leader wants to hear lest their heads are chopped off in public. Collaboration comes to a grinding halt and providing lip service becomes the politically correct thing to do. Everyone looks out for themselves and any mutually shared goals, even if they exist, take a back seat. Any sense of intimacy, camaraderie, and belonging on the team becomes non-existent.
Any concept of a team breaks down. Any sense of empowerment evaporates. The compelling vision that the leader may have laid out simply becomes a pipe dream. The strategic plan to get there suddenly has strong disbelievers. The short-term results, obtained through draconian measures, become harder and harder to sustain. As Michael Maccoby has described in his article “Narcissistic Leaders,” these leaders can self-destruct and lead their organizations terribly astray. So the bottom line is that there is plenty of leadership to go around, but very little followership.
A Look in the Mirror
However, charity must begin at home. Before a leader can assess the caliber of the executive team, he must take stock of his own. Surveys—whether leadership or 360 degree—are quite popular and clearly necessary, but rarely tell the leader the whole story. On the other hand, objective, confidential, and focused interviews by an objective outsider with each individual on the executive team can deliver unvarnished truth. They can divulge a great deal of rich information about what’s really happening behind closed doors. Is there a true strategic alignment? How is the leadership style perceived? How much constructive confrontation occurs? Do people really collaborate or simply provide lip service? Is everyone pulling in the same direction?
There are some prerequisites to getting the most from these soul-searching interviews:
• Right Reason: First and foremost, the
interviews have to be undertaken for the right reason: improving
leadership caliber by eliminating unproductive behaviors. If the hidden
agenda is to vilify non-performers or to find scapegoats, the approach
If these criteria are followed, the insights gained from these confidential interviews can have tremendous implications for every aspect of creating a high performance culture—whether it is the people, structure, processes, technology, or rewards. The honest feedback and recommendations based on the interviews can go a long way in raising the level of candor and constructive dialog within the team.
Tommy Lasorda, the famous baseball manager, described leadership the best when he said that “it is like holding a dove in your hand. If you hold it too tightly you kill it, but if you hold it too loosely, you lose it.” Finding that delicate balance between providing nourishment and pulling weeds is the key to effective leadership. But it begins with a willingness to look in the mirror.
About the Author
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Status: 18. Januar 2008