Effective leadership is not about the title, the corner office and being locked away in meetings with the great and the good. Effective leaders are not self-important, indeed the best are often self-effacing, but they have something about them.
Some will call it charisma but it is more about caring about people, especially people on their team. The best leaders give their time to their teams; they share the ups and the downs. In being there for their staff they will probably have to fit their own work in outside normal working hours. It is hard work being a leader but you need to expect, and deliver, more of yourself than you expect of your people. Do that quietly, without fuss and people will respond.
Having high, but achievable, expectations of individuals is important; I have been described as using “management by expectation”. I make no apology for that as it works; many people do not fully appreciate their own capability. The effective leader will work with each individual to set personal expectations to help them achieve their potential. Such leaders will be firm but fair; they will raise issues quietly and discreetly and in return expect the individual to take the lessons on board and deliver their own self-improvement. I get huge pleasure from seeing people blossom and grow professionally and personally as a result.
I am particularly reminded of my relationship with a senior IT specialist; he was good, had great vision and was personable. Everyone liked him but his colleagues were enormously frustrated because they could never get him to properly document the technical requirements. It got in the way of their ability to deliver; I got many reluctant complaints about him. I took him on one side on several occasions, pushing him to improve, but he was one of those people who seems to have an inability to produce the paperwork. It was getting to the point that it was going to stop him progressing further in his career or indeed on the project. He made slow progress but I had to give him a really hard time in one to one meetings and really get on his case. Fortunately, he was good or I would have replaced him. I had to tell him some very hard truths more than once; he frequently left my room visibly shaken. Yet later, after I had moved on I discovered he was describing me as “the best boss he had ever had”.
In the current difficult financial times, many organisations in both the public and private sector need to reduce costs. Even saving money requires business change that needs specialist skills; in better times consultants, interim managers or contract staff would often have provided those skills.
When budgets are constrained, the challenge is to run business change projects and undertake other specialist work without the use of outside resources. Indeed, in good times the organisation would often have outsourced the delivery of such projects to third parties that has left the organisation without the in-house skills to do such work.
Now, organisations have to run business change, and other, projects with only in-house resource. This puts pressure on staff at all levels to deliver specialist programmes of work without the necessary experience or skills. Everybody feels exposed and fearful. However difficult as it is, it is also an opportunity for the organisation to redevelop the missing skills. It will be difficult as it takes time to gain experience and it may be difficult to fund traditional training; as many organisations have downsized it may also be difficult to release staff for training.
Managers can often take on some of the burden of training their staff. Staff will have to take more responsibility for their own development, which in itself will provide valuable skills. The biggest problem is that after years of outsourcing there is often no organisational memory or capability that understands projects and the associated technical skills. As a result, managers also need to gain skills to allow them to direct specialist projects.
Friends and colleagues continue to cause dilemmas for David Cameron, the British Prime Minster. Without wanting to pass judgement on those matters, they do raise questions which any leader or manager will face repeatedly.
Loyalty to one’s friends is a commendable trait. However, as a leader with wider responsibilities one has to balance that loyalty with other judgements. As a director or senior manager, I have always made two entirely separate judgements about friends and colleagues.
There is the personal judgement, about friendship if you will, that says; I like this person, I enjoy their company and I trust them. I am, happy to seek them out socially, call them a friend and generally be supportive in wider society.
I need to take a professional view when the relationship overlaps with the workplace or into my broader responsibilities. Then I make a separate judgement about their competence in the role in which I wish to use them, their ethics and whether I, and other colleagues, can work with them. There are a whole host of other issues covered by the competence assessment; do they have a proper relationship with other stakeholders, are they trusted by others and is their behaviour appropriate to their role? In this respect I probably have higher expectation of friends than of other colleagues.
I regard many people as friends with whom I would not want to work; some I have even removed from projects. However, I would be more than happy to meet them for dinner or a drink. They are entertaining social companions but are not people I would choose as part of my team. It is usually because they are need too much management; rarely is it because they are not technically competent.
The role of project directors and other senior executive is to create an environment in which their teams can deliver. Management in knowledge based organisations should be more about liberating the capability of highly qualified staff than controlling the way in which they work.
Executives should look at lessons from history and other fields. In World War 1 after the trench warfare of the Somme, Passchendaele and the resulting slaughter a new approach was needed. For the Second Battle of Arras in April 1917 the allies spent considerable time training the troops so they understood both the objectives and their role. Rather than simply treating the troops as cannon fodder, all ranks were trained to respond to changing circumstances. They were not dependent on centralised management and communications that broke down in battle. As a result gains were made after years of stalemate and it was the beginning of the end of the war.
It is not humanly possible to micromanage complex systems; the control inputs will always be too late. Markets and organisations are complex systems. It is rather like athletes. They cannot think their way through a golf swing, tennis serve or basketball jump shot. It has to be instinctive; sportsmen rely on hours of practice and “muscle memory” to produce the right result. The athlete prepares their mind by visualising what they want to achieve and then relaxes into the “zone” to let their body and subconscious mind produce the best result. So the executive should set the scene, then step aside and let the “organisational memory” get on with producing the desired outcome.
Recently I was repairing our tumble dryer and I got thinking about the number of redundant features on modern domestic appliances and other everyday equipment. Everything from mobile (cell) phones to washing machines seems to have programme options and facilities that no one uses; in many cases users are not even aware of them.
This was brought into sharper focus by this week’s death of Steve Jobs, founder and CEO of Apple. Apple has built its brand around a philosophy of simplicity and good design. Ever since the original Mac, Apple has steadily removed features of marginal utility. At times this seems to have gone too far for many users but with time it has often seemed prescient as others have followed suit. Unlike so many manufacturers who use technology and add complexity Apple uses technology to simplify the usability of its products.
If one looks at a modern domestic washing machine it has programmes for everything. The temperature can be set from little more than room temperature practically to boiling; there are programmes with and without spin, variable spin speeds and even degrees of agitation. Talking to most people they use one or two, usually low-temperature, programmes for all their washing. Many people just separate light and dark washing into delicate and the rest.
A government department undergoing considerable change brought Martin Wilson in as interim head of the service development. He defined the team’s role and established a strong working relationship with another section head were previously there had been considerable tensions. He then worked with that director, a permanent civil servant, to merge their two teams under her management. He made himself redundant because it was the right thing for the client.
Solidus has more than thirty years’ experience of high-level information management and technology strategy. Martin Wilson wrote the book, The Information Edge, for the Institute of Management/ Financial Times Millennium Manager series. He is currently revising it for a new edition reflecting current technology changes.
Solidus works with leading technologists to stay up to date with technology change so that IT can be aligned with client’s business strategy and operating models.