Monday, September 3, 2012

Executive Presence: The Leadership X-Factor

You can’t seem to get through a succession planning discussion without the topic of “executive presence” coming up – usually in the context of someone who doesn’t have it and really needs it to move up.  It’s always a fuzzy discussion – no one can really articulate what EP is.  In hopes of describing this seemingly indescribable “je ne sais quoi” of leadership, people point to everything from confidence and emotional orchestra-conductorintelligence to presentation skills or simply being articulate.  The problem is that we can all point to people who have some or all of the above, but that still don’t possess that ever elusive Leadership X-Factor of EP. 

The more I’ve researched the topic of EP, the more convinced I am that we’re looking at EP in the wrong way – like we’re trying to solve a calculus problem using basic algebra.  Here’s the issue. Most of the leadership thinking out there today is very much focused on developing the behaviors and attitudes of the individual.  We posit that when we stick the new-and-improved individual back in the workplace, everything gets better.  The reason this mindset doesn’t work for EP is that EP is not a set of skills, it’s an effect – the impact that the individual has on the room, the team, the organization.  EP is a dynamic of an organizational system. The leader and the followers together create the effect that we end up tagging as Executive Presence.

So to unpack the concept of EP to find something actionable, we need to turn away from the traditional leadership development approaches and look to systems theory.  OK, so this might seem a bit daunting. In the last few decades, psychologists, mathematicians, anthropologists and behavioral scientists have all drilled into how to make organizations work better by viewing the world of work as a system.  White papers on everything from chaos theory to the organizing behaviors of chimpanzees abound. 

In sifting through it all,  the most relevant source of insight on leadership in a system comes from an unexpected place - a family therapist by the name of Murray Bowen, who went on to develop Bowen Family System Theory.  He later founded the Bowen Center for the Study of Family at Georgetown University. Bowen’s clinical research and experience in counseling families led him to a controversial conclusion – that, in humans, the “emotional unit” is not the individual, it’s the family.  Groups of people, starting with the family, act as a system emotionally.  This means that the emotional climate and basic functioning of any group of people who live or work together is the result of the interrelated roles played by the members of the group – always reacting and adapting to each other.

So hang in there with me while I connect this back to executive presence.  Bowen’s work on family systems has become the basis for some groundbreaking work in the area of leadership and organizational performance.  The basic premise is that every workgroup is managing a certain level of chronic anxiety – a level that appears to be increasing as the world of work becomes less stable and predictable.  And each individual brings a different level of “functioning” to the group – the ability to stay engaged with people in a positive way, while not getting sucked into the emotional mess that results from the anxiety.  Bowen refers to this level of functioning as “differentiation,” and it’s at the heart of executive presence. 

In short, the higher the level of differentiation a leader possesses, the more able he or she is to reduce the anxiety of a group while guiding clear-headed decisions.  People feel less anxious and are drawn to follow highly differentiated people, which is why those people tend to gravitate to leadership roles.  These people have Executive Presence.  Highly differentiated leaders can also handle higher levels of stress and unpredictability, which makes them more resilient roberta_m_gilbert_extraordinary_leadership_thinking_systems_making_a_differenceand able to cope with (and lead through) crises and setbacks. 

For a leader, improving differentiation, understanding people system dynamics, and even learning to read the shifting level of anxiety in an organization is hard work.  And much of it requires throwing out many of our long-held assumptions about organizations and leadership.  There are some great books out there for those willing to learn about it and do the work.  Roberta Gilbert has written several, including The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory, Extraordinary Leadership and The Cornerstone Concept – a trilogy written to support training of clergy leaders of all faiths, but extremely useful in the broader leadership context.  Other notable books are Resilient Leadership, an engaging, parable-style book by Duggan and Myer, and Leading a Business in Anxious Times by Fox and Baker.  Each has done a reasonably good job of steering away from clinical psychology terms to make the topic more practical and accessible.

This work based on Bowen Theory also demystifies other leadership dilemmas – like why a successful leader of one team can hit a wall when given a new team, or even why workgroups can have cultural or attitudinal issues that persist for years after the leader and key team members have moved on.  So an exploration of Bowen Theory for leaders may force us to re-examine not only what executive presence is, but how leadership and organizations actually work. 

Yes, it appears that we could be on our way to defining the X-Factor in leadership and executive presence, and I think we’ll all be hearing a lot more about this in the next few years.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

A Tale of Two Transitions: IBM, HP, and why a leadership culture actually matters

IBM and HP logos

The tech industry gives us so many great business lessons; I guess because the fickle nature of high tech’s whitewater business environment accelerates and amplifies the impact of every move tech companies make.  One such business lesson came recently from two tech giants – IBM (#18 on the Fortune 500 last year) and Hewlett Packard (#11).  Same industry, similar markets, but very different companies. 

What’s the lesson?  That a culture of leadership matters – not in some vague, it-feels-good-to-work-here kind of way, but in results so tangible that you can see, taste and (especially) count them.

And now for our story. 

In recent months, both IBM and HP changed CEO’s.  On September 22nd, Meg Whitman became CEO of HP, and on January 1st, Virginia Rometty took the reins at IBM.  Besides the timing, the only notable similarity is that both companies gave the top spot to women with long and credible track records of success. But what the two inherited was very, very different.

The companies’ paths to these transitions tells the story.  Let’s begin with IBM.  Back in 1993, when Lou Gerstner was brought into Big Blue, he not only began executing one of the most heralded corporate turnarounds in history, he also began to restore the IBM leadership culture and create his personal leadership legacy.  Over the next nine years, he groomed senior leaders on his team, finally moving Sam Palmisano into the lead role in 2002.  No disruption in strategy, operations or culture.  Following Gerstner’s lead, Palmisano did the same.  Ten years later, when Palmisano hit 60 (IBM’s mandatory retirement age for CEO’s), his carefully groomed replacement, Ginni Rometty, took over his position.  Again, no disruption in strategy, execution or culture. 

Contrast this with HP. In the last six years, HP has had three major leadership transitions, with six different people holding the top spot during that period.  The only two who were internal to HP were interim CEO’s, minding the store while the board conducted external searches.  Whitman’s predecessor, Leo Apotheker (who came from SAP), made it only eleven months, at which time the board forced him out because of questionable strategy decisions and a plummeting stock price.  When Whitman stepped in as CEO, her first major move was to reverse the decision by Apotheker to sell off HP’s $40B PC business, calming the nerves of HP’s corporate customers, sales channel and investors around the world.

Now let’s look at the impact on the two tech firms. 

One way to compare the results that came from the two companies’ respective leadership cultures is to just look at the news stories coming out during that period.  From IBM, it’s been about growth, a steady shift in revenue mix to more services, and a deluge of inventions and new patents each year.  But for HP, it’s been a corporate soap opera – open conflict in the board, an internal spying scandal, sexual harassment charges, and strategic whiplash as a parade of new leaders tried to put their individual stamp on the company. 

Of course, the real, rubber-meets-the-road comparison comes in the value of the companies themselves.  On the chart below (courtesy of MSN Money), you can see that, over the last five years, IBM has effectively doubled its stock price, while HP has lost about a third of its market value in the same period.

IBM vs HP stock price 5 years

Now before you try to write off this whole comparison as unfair and just bad succession management and board politics at HP, let’s open the aperture on the situation just a bit.  IBM has about 426,000 employees, and HP has about 350,000.  Each of these firms, then, has literally tens of thousands of managers.  Every one of those managers creates his or her own little organizational culture, and that leadership culture tends to cascade down and out. So poor leadership from any manager not only creates a toxic culture for that immediate group, but every group below it, and at times even the groups around it.  It’s like poison in a water supply -  incredibly difficult to contain, and damaging to all those who come in contact with it.  And when the top level of the organization is unhealthy, like with HP, the entire firm is at risk, along with its customers and supply chain.  Fortunately, IBM shows us that the opposite is also true – a healthy leadership culture contributes to a healthy organization.

Good management and leadership, at its heart, is about long-term sustainability of the enterprise, whether that enterprise is ten people or ten thousand.  There is nothing soft about a leadership culture’s impact.  Fortunes, jobs and communities are created - or destroyed - based on the health of the leadership cultures in our organizations.  

The very good news is that you as a leader choose what kind of culture you create and how you want to approach developing the future leaders for the groups you lead.  The legacy of these two companies is rooted in their leadership cultures, and the same is true for your legacy.  So pick – IBM or HP?

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Job Stress and the Lost Art of Keeping Your Word

In a recent multi-week road trip, I talked to a lot of people – a lot of people – who complained about being overworked.  The demands of their lives are crashing over them like a wave, and they can’t figure out how to come up to the surface for air.  But the issue at work here is not that they are overworked.  That’s just the symptom.  The issue is they are overcommitted.

Here’s the difference.  We’ve all had days or weeks where we’ve felt we’ve given it all.  Left it all on the field, as the saying goes.  And we feel satisfied, productive and content.  Think back to one of those days – you probably worked harder on one of those days than you even thought was possible, but it was truly a great experience.  You were in the zone. 

Now contrast that with the feeling that your life is a series of looming deadlines that you think you’re going to miss.  You won’t be working any harder, but the experience will be a pressure-cooker that may be more than you can bear.  Because it’s the potential of a broken promise – not the workload – that creates the stress that burns people out.

Death by Promisesimage

Much of the workload you and I carry is based on agreements with others to provide them with some kind of result that they requested.  We made a promise.  And that chronic feeling of being overworked is really, at its core, the hopeless feeling that we’ve promised to do more things than we could possibly deliver.  We can’t keep all our promises, and we know that this will create conflict, disappointment and could even damage important relationships or our careers.

Of course, the tough part to digest about this difficult truth is our role in creating our own burden.  We’ve either done it to ourselves or allowed it to happen. “But wait a second!,” you say, “I have people breathing down my neck every day – whether I agree to it or not!”  Probably true – the people who are demanding so much of you may have made promises they can’t keep, and they are passing their problem along.  But for the chronically overcommitted, there is usually some percent of their soon-to-be-unkept-promises – and I’d posit that it’s a significant percent - that they never questioned or pushed back on for one reason or another.

A question of integrity

Why do these unkept promises create so much stress?  Because they compromise our integrity, and that goes against our basic wiring. By compromised integrity, I don’t mean cheating on your taxes or stealing copy paper from the office supply room (although those are both integrity issues).  Integrity is your ability to keep your word – so what you say and what you do line up.  Even in these somewhat graceless times, we each have a deep desire to keep our word.  When what we say and what we do are out of sync, we carry that disconnect as a burden. 

Each person tolerates this disconnect a little differently.  For some of us, holding one small or insignificant area where we can’t keep our word (e.g., promising myself I’ll pick up my dry cleaning on a certain day even though I’m booked solid) isn’t such a big deal.  Others have trouble carrying even the smallest unkept promises.  But what stresses everyone is carrying around a large number of disconnects or a really big disconnect.  Or carrying disconnects that aren’t even defined well enough to know how bad things are.

Blaming others for our lack of integrity

The human mind has a clever way of keeping us sane while carrying the burden of broken promises.  Unfortunately, it’s a relationship killer.  Sadly, our primary coping mechanism for our compromised integrity is to blame the person to whom we’ve given our word.  They’re unreasonable, they’re too demanding, they don’t understand the pressure I’m under, etc., etc.  Our mind will force the conflict outside of ourselves so it makes rational sense without making us feel terrible about ourselves.  The result is a victim mindset, where everyone around us is unreasonable and we are not in control of our world anymore.  leadership-and-self-deception

In their parable-style book, Leadership and Self-Deception, the authors from the Arbinger Institute refer to this blame-shifting approach as “self-betrayal,” which they define as “an act contrary to what I feel I should do for another.”  They describe the dynamic this way – “When I betray myself, I begin to see the world in a way that justifies my self-betrayal.  When I see a self-justifying world, my view of reality becomes distorted.”  One illustration from the book that hit home with me was a baby crying in the middle of the night. The two parents are lying in bed, each knowing they should get up to take care of the baby, but each pretends to be asleep in the hope that the other will do it. As the baby continues to cry, and nobody moves, the mother and father don’t begin to feel guilty for being a lousy parent – instead, they begin to feel angry that their spouse is lazy and selfish for not taking care of the problem while letting them sleep.  And deceptive, too, for pretending to be asleep (just like they are…). 

As our broken promises pile up, so does the anger and stress of self-betrayal, just like the two tired and angry parents above.  As we move into victim mode, it’s not our workload that upsets us, it’s our distorted view of our situation and the people around us – a self-created burden that can immobilize us.

Five steps to get you unburied from the promises you can’t keep

If you find yourself carrying this burden on a regular basis, here are five ways to begin the process of digging out from over-commitment, and to prevent yourself from agreeing to things you don’t believe you can actually accomplish:

  • Get clear on what you’ve committed to already: Whether it’s your objectives at work, your kid’s birthday party, or serving on a board of a local comedy club, write down exactly what you’ve promised to others.  Everything, and be specific (exact outcome, date you’ve committed to, etc.).  If you don’t have the details, get them.  Every new commitment needs to be added to your list. Just getting it out on the table makes the problem tangible so you can begin to work on it.
  • Identify role integrity situations you need to resolve.  Some commitments, like visiting family, owning broad areas of responsibility at work, or even responding to emails in a timely way, are role expectations that can be assumed by others or poorly defined.  Many of these expectations create a unique kind of chronic stress – that gnawing sense of unease - because they are subjective and can change or grow based on emotion or circumstances.  While you probably don’t need to nail down every single one of these, it’s a great idea to identify the key role expectations that are weighing on you so you can get them out on the table and get real about what you can and cannot do. 
  • Renegotiate the impossible.  Go back to those whose expectations will not be met, and negotiate an arrangement that reflects reality.  While this step is a tough one, remember that you already know you’re going to be having a tough discussion with this person when you eventually don’t deliver on your promise.  By having the talk now, you create options to address the situation before the deadline hits.
  • Start using the words “I promise..” when making a commitment.  It’s one thing to say, “I can get that to you by Monday.”  It’s an entirely different thing to tell someone, “I promise to have this to you by Monday at noon.”  Try this for just one week.  Every time you agree to do something for someone, really give them your word that it will be done when you say it will.  If you can’t bring yourself to say those words, then that’s a healthy beginning to negotiate a more realistic commitment.
  • Keep your word.  Remember that the whole point is to lower your stress level by keeping your promises.  So place a value on delivering against your promises – every time. 

Yes, you’ll work hard, but you’re doing that already, right?  The difference is that by keeping your promises, your stress level will drop, your reputation will get a boost, and people who have to rely on you will really be able to rely on you.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Great leaders make great leaders

In the world of leadership development, The Big Question has always been, “Are leaders born or made?”  Personally, I think this question gets far too much weight.  Even the most “natural” leaders spend a lifetime learning their craft.  You’d be crazy to move someone from individual contributor to running a division. Too much goes into getting ready for that level of responsibility, or, for that matter, for any level of management responsibility. 

Why? Because management isn’t just more scope, it’s an entirely different job. The heavy lifting in leadership roles demands market intuition, deep competence in managing resources, highly developed emotional intelligence, cross-boundary collaboration, a sense for how long or hard a team can be pushed before coming apartcoach at the seams – in short, a host of complex skills and knowledge that comes only through learning and experience. And with each successive level of leadership, it gets tougher and more ambiguous.

So the real Big Question is, “How do we get leaders ready for the next level of responsibility?  There’s a small industry out there just dying to answer that question for you.  There are competency frameworks that lay out differing skills and knowledge for each level of management, leadership development program models that involve everything from structured learning to coaching and action learning projects, assessments to gauge strengths and weaknesses for moving to the next level – plenty of tools in the leadership development toolkit.  But for all that structure, the real answer comes down to this: Great leaders are developed by great leaders.

Throughout history, the greats in every field were the protégés of someone.  Lance Armstrong had Eddy Merckx to mentor him.  Anthony Hopkins had Laurence Olivier.  Alexander the Great had Aristotle.  Oliver Stone had Martin Scorcese, and Martin Scorcese had Roger Corman (as did Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard, James Cameron and Jonathan Demme, among others).

As organizations have grown in size and complexity, we in the world of leadership development have attempted to systematize these professionally intimate  “master/apprentice” relationships.  We create websites where mentor and mentee candidates can assign themselves to partnerships, we write instructions on what a good mentoring call might look like, and we track the volume of connections as a success metric.

But the proof is in the results.  Do the people in these partnerships get promoted more often?  Are they more effective?  Are they “great” in their roles?  Is the program changing the trajectory of the individuals or the success of the business?

If the answer is no, then the issue may be that there is no real mentoring going on. At least not the kind I’m talking about.   Mentoring should include far more than just a monthly coaching call.  It requires teaching, stretching, exposure and sponsorship – in short, investment and accountability on the part of the mentor to change the trajectory of the protégé’s career and success. 

Last year, I had the opportunity to hear Betsy Myers speak at Elliott Masie’s Learning 2010 conference on the issue of mentoring for women in organizations.  She noted that women are engaged in mentoring relationships much more often than men in the workforce, and yet women as a group are not getting the career traction they should based on merit.  The shift required in these mentoring relationships, she said, was moving from mentorship to sponsorship – where the mentor is both teacher and advocate for the protégé. 

Yes, that’s right.  Mentors should do everything to create a relatively unfair advantage for their proteges to get ahead.  Think about it.  If you as a mentor don’t think your protégé is worth pushing hard and moving up, then why are you investing your time with them?  Go find the raw talent elsewhere, and invest deeply to shape that talent.

In the end, it all comes down to the legacy you plan to leave as a leader.  With the churn in the business environment, most leaders won’t even recognize the businesses they built within a couple of years of their departure.  Which means that, as much as you hate to hear it, your stamp on the organization will be all but gone before you can shave 3 strokes off your handicap.  The real legacy you will leave, then, is the next generation of leaders you create, and the leaders those leaders will create.  Great leaders make great leaders.

So ask yourself – who is my protégé?   And who would call me their protégé? If you can’t answer those questions, you’re holding your organization back, and you’re holding yourself back.  More importantly, you’re compromising your legacy.  It’s not about your success today, it’s about the leaders you leave behind to carry on your vision.  I’d rather be a Roger Corman or an Eddy Merckx any day, knowing that I changed the direction and the lives of the people in my profession.

Friday, July 15, 2011

A manager’s lens on the Federal budget crisis

There has been so much partisan noise about the budget crisis that it’s hard to figure out what really happened and what needs to be done.  But the whole situation gets much simpler when you look at the problem the way a manager would in the private sector.  So let’s cut through the spin and use this as a case for how a manager is supposed to think about a budget.  No politics, I promise.  (But you can always go back to your favorite flavor of spin afterwards if you feel a close an attachment to it…)

The story of our budget problem reads like a fable about what happens when a core business virtue – accountability – gets replaced by other agendas.  I won’t try to support or vilify those agendas (won’t even mention them, in fact), because it’s not necessary.  It’s the lost accountability that any private sector leader would go after first in understanding and addressing the crisis.

So imagine with me for a second.  A Senior VP somewhere learns that one of her business units has a budget that is, well, completely upside down.  The first statement out of the VP’s mouth would be “Get [insert name of accountable manager here] on my calendar.” Possibly stated using far more colorful language.

Next would come The Meeting.  The Meeting has many names – The Woodshed, Math Camp, The Cuisinart – all depending on your company culture and the disposition of the VP in your particular case. In preparation for The Meeting, all-nighters would be pulled, takeout food consumed, and important family functions missed or canceled.  Jobs are on the line.

During The Meeting, the appropriately nervous manager would explain the top-level story of the budget crisis, quickly and succinctly, but with several back-up slides in the appendix covering specific details that answer a myriad of questions the VP may or may not ask.  The explanation would cover top-line revenue vs. spending, highlighting where and why one or both went sideways, and what has been done to date to course-correct.  After much uncomfortable discussion, a decision would be made on the go-forward strategy and deadlines.  The focus of the meeting for the VP would be three-fold – first, to determine the most important facts about the situation; second to approve or revise the manager’s action plan to address the problem; and third, to assess the manager’s ability to fix the problem and continue running the business longer term.

It’s a series of steps that occur daily around the globe in the private sector.  So let’s go down this same road with the Federal Budget.

Who’s the “accountable manager” in this case?  The quantity and quality of spin here is impressive, but the answer is simple – Congress created and owns this problem.  This isn’t an opinion.  Per the Constitution, only the legislative branch can change the income and spending of the Federal Government, or create any laws whatsoever.  So when you hear about “Bush Tax Cuts” or “Obamacare,” don’t be confused about who really owns these.  The President simply doesn’t have the power to create laws that alter tax rates or restructure the healthcare system.  No matter who asks Congress to do something -  whether it be a lobbyist, a Senator’s second cousin, or even the mighty POTUS - making laws, approving budgets and taxing the public are the exclusive purview of the folks in the Capitol Building.  So the accountability to fix it also sits squarely on the shoulders of your elected officials in Congress.

Now let’s move to the core of The Meeting – what on earth happened with our budget?  Was it those nasty tax cuts in the early 2000’s, or that evil stimulus bill?  Is someone not “paying their fair share?” Was it the misguided ideals of [insert your opposing political party here]?  Nope.  Each might be a factor in the larger picture, but the savvy VP would cut through all that in a heartbeat.  “Show me the trending on revenue against spend,” she would say before her notepad was even out of her computer bag. 

And it’s usually a very telling picture.  The chart shows what it looks like for the Federal government since 2000.

govt rev vs spend 2000s

You can see that annual revenue has cycled up and down, reaching its highest level ever in 2007, and is up by 7% ($138 billion) over the decade.  But spending has skyrocketed over the last several years – up 93% ($1.67 trillion) over the decade.  Twice the growth of GDP and 3x cumulative inflation.  The gap is being covered by borrowing money – which is now over 40 cents of every dollar the government spends.

But what would be equally notable to our Senior VP is that the two lines are moving independently of each other.  In the private sector, if the two lines moved apart in one year, they would typically correct to each other the following year (i.e., spending would by adjusted to align with revenue). So the lines tend to follow each other over time. But with the Federal budget there isn’t a connection.  For example, Congress issued two tax reductions early in the decade that reduced revenue, but they increased spending both years.  And when revenue fell due to economic conditions in 2008-2009, Congress increased spending more than any year in history.

You don’t need to be Keynesian or Austrian in your economics to sort out what the problem is here.  For a private sector manager, this one’s a softball.  No connection between spending and revenue.  Which means no accountability taken by the managers of the budget (especially when, unlike the free market, Congress has a lot of control over both revenue and spending).  It’s been going on for 10 years and gotten significantly worse in the last two.  And don’t blame election cycles and party shifts in Congress for disconnecting accountability from the problem.  Since the average tenure of a US Senator is about 13 years, many of the same folks have presided over the mess for the entire decade.

Here’s the moral of the story.  At the heart of management is the concept of stewardship – that you’re given authority over resources that belong to your organization, not you.  And your job as a steward is to leave things better than when they were given to you. You have to make tough, unpopular choices to ensure the success and stability of your organization, especially when people’s desires and the situational realities don’t match.  And even when your own desires or agendas don’t match reality. 

Peter Drucker once said, “Successful leaders don’t start out asking, ‘What do I want to do?’  They ask, ‘What needs to be done?’”  The fix for government will be painful because the problem has been allowed to erode for a decade.  But what we need now is clarity, accountability and real leadership that is willing to put aside agendas, ideologies, blaming and personal interests, and make hard choices. Whether it’s popular or not, spending and income need to line up, or you inevitably run out of money.  Leaders, cowboy up and make the hard choices.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Leading the Free-Agent Workforce, Part II

In my last post, I talked about a new dimension to the workforce – the “free agency” mindset of knowledge workers – that’s forcing a shift in leadership approach for managers. Now let’s dig into how managers will adapt to this new dimension. You’ll be surprised - the “new” way of leading free agents is actually pretty old school.

In their recent book, The 2020 Workplace, Meister and Willyerd explain what our emerging workplace demands. To engage employees, they say, an organization will have “five principles resonating throughout its organizational practices” - collaboration, authenticity, personalization, innovation and social connection. Nope, no mention of job security increasing engagement. What free agents want is to connect with each other, work in teams on innovative projects, and learn and grow at an accelerated rate under authentic, transparent leaders.

Wait a second - isn’t that what everybody wants? Absolutely – the difference now is free agents expect it. Fortunately, some managers have led this way for years, because the core concepts/skills have been kicking around longer than many free agents have walked the planet, let alone the workplace. It didn’t start with Covey’s Principle-Centered Leadership, or Buckingham’s strengths-based management, or Lencioni’s “first team” concept. It goes all the way back to Peter Drucker, who said a manager's job is to prepare and free people to perform. Tailor-made for free agents, and that was 1954 - five years before the term “knowledge worker” even existed.

Later, in the '70s, Hersey and Blanchard introduced us to Situational Leadership Theory, showing managers how to tailor their approach to the needs of the person or team in a specific context. Again, dead-on for free agent teams who want managers to adapt their approach to their developmental needs.

The list goes on – this is not new stuff, just not common practice (yet). So I’ve distilled down all I’ve seen, read, practiced and taught that resonates with free agents – new and old - to four key mandates for the Free Agent Leader. An oversimplification, for sure, but here are the essentials for managers of the free agent nation. What you’ll see is timeless fundamentals:

  • Lead: Be clear on the vision, purpose, goals and priorities – in short, the outcomes you need, with a heavy dose of why you need them. And lead by example through your own authentic behaviors. Be open and don’t fake it.
  • Listen: Give individuals and teams air time to clue you in on what’s happening and what they need. Assume you don’t know until you’ve asked and they’ve answered.
  • Learn: Take time to understand what’s unique about each of your people, and what’s common across them. Develop individuals based on what’s unique to them, and lead collectively based on what resonates across the group.
  • Let Go: Hardest of all. Let teams participate in decisions that affect them. Give them the room to collaborate and innovate by removing barriers. Challenge them to take on more of your job – that’s everything you’re doing today that doesn’t absolutely require your level of authority or influence. Allow yourself to get out of their way whenever you can.

Timeless, yes – easy, no. But managers who consistently deliver on these four mandates are usually described as “the best manager I ever worked for,” not because they’re “nice,” but because people do their best, most creative work under them. And your team will be highly productive because they’ll feel a huge sense of ownership for the work they do.  Which drives success for the teams and their managers. Master the Four L’s, and watch what happens.

Article first published as Leading the Free-Agent Workforce, Part II on Technorati.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Free-Agent Workforce: Leading in 3D

Article first published as The Free-Agent Workforce: Leading in 3D on Technorati.

I was talking to a group of leaders recently about a change initiative that was clearly falling apart before their eyes.  One of the more senior managers in the group was lamenting about how much harder this change was from another similar change he presided over several years ago.  The group felt like they were pulling all the right levers, but none of them worked anymore.  Something big had happened inside their workforce. fighter jet

This leadership team was facing a phenomenon I’m seeing more and more – managers trying to “steer the ship” to get results, only to realize they are flying a plane instead. And if you ask any Navy pilot, the big difference between sailing and flying is that a plane moves in three dimensions, where a ship only travels in two.  Up and down isn’t an option on the water, but it’s everything in the air.

In the same way, there’s a new dimension to the workforce that fundamentally changes the levers you use to manage and lead - the free-agent perspective of knowledge workers.  Increased access to information and a stronger sense of purpose and self-determination, coupled with a lack of trust in the traditional organization, all add up to a mindset in the workplace that “we’re all just here for a little while.”  blue jean manifesto

Authors like Seth Godin and Daniel Pink have been writing about the Free Agent Nation phenomenon and its implications since the late 90’s, but the main focus has been on “going 1099,” not free agency inside the organization.  In an excellent new Kindle book called The Blue Jean Manifesto, Julie Maloney does a great job of describing the new knowledge worker mindset and the strategies these workers are beginning use to manage their careers as a series of projects inside the big house.  I was struck not just by the implications for workers, but the huge impact it has on how those workers are managed and led.

There’s a lot of data to back up Maloney’s claims about the new workplace.  For example, a recent study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that between the ages of 18-44, people change jobs/companies an average of 11 times. I personally know a lot of folks that average more than 1 manager per year, even while staying in the same job. 

So with employees changing managers faster than they can wear out a pair of sneakers, what’s the impact on how they regard you as a leader?  Put on your 3D glasses, and you’ll see a new set of questions your people are asking themselves:

  • You may not be the one writing my review next year.  How much does your opinion matter?
  • Your Big Bet Change Initiative may take longer to implement than either of us will be in our jobs.  Is it easier just to keep nodding but passively resist?
  • New positions resulting from organizational churn are like cool shiny objects floating around the organization every day. How long should I tolerate this heavy-handed manager who keeps trying to control me?
  • Cutbacks in the company healthcare plan and the increased use of long-term vendors make it seem like taking a contractor role could be more lucrative – and even more stable.  Why should I stay with the company at all?

The good news is that leading this free-agent workforce can be a lot more fun than traditional management.  And the skills you need for this new era have been proven out over many years, because they work with just as well with “lifers” as they do with free agents.  In my next post, I’ll cover the core elements of this approach.  But for now, take a look at yourself and the team you lead as a collection of people who may just be passing through on their way to the next assignment.  Seeing that third dimension is the first step to navigating this new world of work as a leader.