Sunday, July 27, 2014

Who Do You Serve as a Leader?

Asking the question whom do you serve? is a powerful vector on which to build a useful typology of leadership where answers will range from the macro answer of ‘stakeholders’, to the micro response of the organisation, the shareholders, the board, and where some may unfortunately even say themselves.
In an interesting 2011 article Mitch Maidique identifies and describes six different types of leaders in respect of who they believe they serve. Where these six different types of leaders are;
At the base of the model is the person who literally serves no one: the Sociopath. Someone who genuinely has the antisocial personality disorder, exhibiting abnormally low empathy and who instinctively destroys value, himself, and, ultimately, those who surround him as well.
The second level is the leader who serves only himself or herself, often at the expense of others: the Opportunist. These are the people who always ask, ‘what's in it for me?’ Their moral compass is guided primarily by the accumulation of wealth and power, all else be damned. Bernie Madoff, now in prison, is a poster boy for the Opportunists. Lesser known, is Jeffrey Skilling, the Enron CEO who sold off tens of millions of dollars of stock just before Enron filed for bankruptcy, claiming he had no knowledge of the scandal that would engulf his company. He was sentenced to 24 years and four months in prison.
At the next level sits Chameleons. These are the ‘leaders’ who bend with the wind and strive to please as many people as possible at all times. In some cases this could be the group they work with; in other cases, the regional or national electorate. It is difficult to find renowned corporate leaders who fit this category because in business, typically, the Chameleons are weeded out before they reach the top.
The level-four leader, the Achiever, fills the senior executive ranks. These leaders rarely fail to achieve their goals and often exceed sales quotas, create generous profits, and are frequent stars at merit-award dinners. The Achiever, to use Peter Drucker's felicitous phrase, is often a "monomaniac with a mission" and is focused, energetic, results-oriented, and highly prized by top management. Achievers pursue goals established by their bosses or by themselves, in a single-minded manner. Therein lies the Achilles' heel of Achievers: They drive toward a goal without giving much consideration to the broader mission.
The level-five leader, the Builder, strives not to reach a goal but to build an institution. Builders are legendary leaders such as IBM's Tom Watson Jr., GM's Alfred P. Sloan, and Harpo's Oprah Winfrey. These people serve their institutions by managing for the long term and not allowing themselves to be seduced by the twin mirages of short-term profit or stock market valuations. They have a grand vision for the future of their organizations, and they infect others with their energy, enthusiasm, and integrity. These are the leaders we write books about, examine and try to learn from and emulate.
Builders are few and far between, but there is an even rarer type of leader who transcends the Builder: the Transcendent. These level-six leaders transcend their organisations or political parties, as well as their ethnic or racial group. These leaders focus beyond their organisation and fully embrace the concept of corporate social responsibility and look at how to benefit all of society.
Though Maidique doesn’t identify any business leaders in this category he mentions that there is no better example of what it really takes to be a Transcendent than by looking at the first black president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela.
Often with these kind of lists students and business experts alike often challenge the ‘titles’ given to the different types of leaders rather than looking beyond titles to actions. If the leaders of today and tomorrow could find the time in their hectic schedules to seek to understand that who leaders serve goes way beyond their organisations and their shareholders, and should in a 21st global economy include serving their communities as well.
Beyond the above todays leaders should inspire others to follow in their footsteps and their leadership styles. Leading isn’t easy – but we can make it much more effective if we can learn from what great leaders really focus on and who they really serve.
Maidique, M. (2011). Are You a Six-Level Leader. Harvard Business School. [On-line:]

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Armstrong: What Lessons Can We Learn?

In a 2013 article by Michael Blanding he reminds us that “when Armstrong confessed to Oprah Winfrey in January 2013 that he had "doped" - taken performance-enhancing drugs - to win his record seven consecutive Tour de France victories from 1999 to 2005, few might have been surprised. Rumours and allegations had been swirling around the cyclist for years. And yet, there was still something shocking about the admission. At the peak of his career, Armstrong was one of the most celebrated athletes in the world, earning $28 million a year from team salaries and sponsorship deals. More than that, Armstrong had transcended himself to become an icon, having overcome testicular cancer and then raising nearly $400 million to fight the disease through his Lance Armstrong Foundation (now the Livestrong Foundation).”
So out of the horror story of power, greed, delusion and denial what can the ‘common’ man learn from this saga?
When Armstrong chose to break the rules of professional cycling by taking illegal substances, he did more than put his own career in jeopardy—he betrayed millions of people who believed in him, and risked the reputations and careers of teammates in order to win personal glory. "Once he decides to cheat, it is not just about him, he needs to create this whole infrastructure around him with this incredible organization to facilitate it," says Professor of Management Practice Clayton S. Rose, who sees in Armstrong's story an ideal vessel for teaching lessons about business ethics and leadership.
Michael Blanding explains that “despite its emphasis on individual heroes, cycling is very much a team sport, one where the team supports the leader and works for his success. Riders help shield their leader from other cyclists in tight packs, draft in front of him to reduce wind resistance during climbs, and chase down rivals who break from the group. So when Armstrong decided to dope, he required other riders to dope as well to match his escalating performance level, and the rest of the support team to facilitate the doping and manage the cover-up to achieve victory.”
In fact the jury is probably out on whether cheating in sports is on the increase or whether authorities are just getting better at catching the cheats. But teams don’t just exist in the sports sector, teams exist virtually everywhere in the business sector and somewhere around the world, while you are reading this article, some innocent employee will be asked directly or coerced indirectly to help their department or organisation ‘cheat’.
Like Armstrong the excuse for many will be that everyone else is doing it and therefore ‘we’ have to do this to survive – whether it’s accepting money or a gift, normally called a bribe; or it’s crossing the palm of a government official with ‘silver’, somewhere this is going on right now – and to many, just like with Armstrong, it’s fair play as long as you don’t get caught.
The plain fact is that Armstrong probably would have remained an unknown had he not cheated – and probably would never have raised the nearly $400 million he did to fight cancer. Some organisations lose out on lucrative contracts because they won’t get involved in bribery and corruption – and yet again, beyond their circle of influence, probably no one else will ever know of their moral stand. 
So shouldn’t we be doing more to acknowledge ‘ethics in business’ (and sport for that matter) or will we continue to allow corrupt business and sports people to be turned into celebrities, even if only for a short time, for cheating the system – and then, worse still, writing books and making films about their blatant abuse of the system. What about the good guys and gals – who’s celebrating their successes?
As Michael Blanding concludes “the lessons from Armstrong's story go beyond the classroom to apply to a range of business situations both on both Wall Street and Main Street; where well-meaning people might be asked by a leader to break the rules for personal or corporate gain.”
Blanding, M. (2013). Lessons from the Lance Armstrong Cheating Scandal. Harvard Business School. [On-line:]

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Can an Organisation be Too Big?

In a 2009 article by Julian Birkinshaw and Suzanne Heywood they highlighted how “too big to fail, became the mantra during the recent economic crisis. As markets and public confidence plunged, political and financial leaders agreed to pump billions of taxpayer dollars into major financial institutions, insurance and auto companies, keeping them on life support until someone could figure out how to save them for the long term. But does it make sense to bring these giants back to life if the underlying illness isn't cured? What if, in addition to being ‘too big to fail,’ some of these companies were also too big to manage?”
The problem with large organisations is that the vision and standards of the CEO, however strong they may be, can be diluted and changed as you progress down the organisation structure into politically managed silos that have created their own ‘environment’ to work in – where some of these environments can be highly functional and others highly dysfunctional.
In fact one of the most common phrases that you’ll hear in many large corporates is the word ‘dysfunctional’ where as Birkinshaw and Heywood highlight the name gives it away. “This type of complexity is simply bad. It makes work more difficult and doesn't create value, nor does it mitigate risks. Our research suggests that dysfunctional complexity creeps into a company over years through the perpetuation of practices that are no longer relevant, through the duplication of activities due to mergers or reorganizations, and through ambiguous or conflicting responsibilities.”
As organisations expand above the 1 billion pound or dollar mark there seems to be some tacit agreement amongst researchers that performance actually declines at the employee level and forms of dysfunction are easily spotted within parts of the organization as managers, especially over-promoted managers, create their own power silos through clever posturing within their reporting ranks.
These silos create the dysfunctional environments that breeds demotivation, lack of innovative thought and under performance. And these large corporates can be compared to large government structures, where individual managers create their own ‘nests’ to look after their own self-interest, often at the expense of the organisation’s overall strategy and vision. 
As Birkinshaw and Heywood suggest, “getting rid of complexity can be difficult. Executives can disagree, for example, about the root causes of dysfunction. For some companies, consensus-based decision-making may be seen as a defining strength, and so worth the extra time and effort. Other companies may just find the process slow and unwieldy and prefer having fewer people involved. The time and effort involved in figuring out what is dysfunctional and what is designed complexity also may simply outweigh the benefits. The size of the prize has to be substantial before you put your employees through a major restructuring.”
Another classic behavioural trait in a large corporate (as well as other sized organisations) is that the best people want to share their ideas and have them listened to. However, a lot of companies have a vision/strategy which they are trying to execute against and often find opposing voices to this strategy as an annoyance and a sign that someone’s not a ‘team player.’ If all the best people are leaving and disagreeing with the strategy, you’re left with a bunch of ‘yes’ people saying the same things to each other. Leaders have got to be able to listen to others’ points of view, always incorporating the best parts of these new suggestions.
It’s within these weird, large corporate environments that really good potential future leaders can be found, but they turn out to be people who never get the chance to raise their head above the parapet, as the current leadership is all too well aware of the danger a good, passionate leader could have on their cozy environment.
So be wary of the super large corporate structure and be prepared to learn new behavioural skills to survive in this often toxic political environment where ‘who you know and who you suck up too’ can be more important than your skills, experience and day to day performance.
Birkinshaw, J. and Heywood, S. (2009). The Wall Street Journal. 26th October.