I had not heard from this client in many months since I had helped them create their most recent strategic plan. It was a good plan, but one with training wheels because so much capacity building needed to take place. If the organization worked through the plan, they would be well-positioned for a more exact and focused second strategic plan.
Therefore, I was a bit surprised when they called and said, “Can we visit in person?” So a while later the top two people and I meet in their well appointed conference room. They shared with me about the progress they had made once the plan had been “engaged.” Then CEO shared the following challenges: “First, I am getting sucked into problem solving and problem management. People are managing too much up to me. Second, we do not reference our mission and core values enough. Nice but absent from consideration when the work shows up. Third, I don’t have the right people on the right seats on the bus. In particular, I have realized that two out of the top six will not get us to the next level of performance. Furthermore, five at the next level down are not the right people either.”
As the CEO elaborated in more detail on her challenges, I remembered an article that I referenced in the fall on this blog by Robert Simons called “Stress-Test Your Strategy: The 7 Questions to Ask,” Harvard Business Review, November 2010. In this excellent article, the author had seven questions to help leaders understand where there is confusion and inefficiencies. The seven questions are as follows:
- Who is your primary customer?
- How do your core values prioritize shareholders, employees, and customers?
- What critical performance variables are you tracking?
- What strategic boundaries have you set?
- How are you generating creative tension?
- How committed are your employees to helping each other?
- What strategic uncertainties keep you awake at night?
With the CEO’s aforementioned challenges, she and her organization might never get to these important questions so I asked her a simple but direct question myself: “Which one of your senior people worries you the most?” Her response was quick. Then she paused and said to me and her COO, “once I hear myself talk about what is happening and what this person is doing and the feedback I am getting, it is pretty clear about what I need to do. Is this normal?”
“Unfortunately,” I replied, “yes.”
When we seek to position our organization for sustainable growth, we need to remember Jim Collin’s advice in his book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap. . . and Others Don't. HarperBusiness, 2001. As he notes, “First Who... Then What?” requires each of us as leaders to change how we lead. As he writes, “The key point of this chapter is not just the idea of getting the right people on the team. The key point is that "who" questions come before "what" decisions - before vision, before strategy, before organization structure, before tactics. First who, then what - as a rigorous discipline, consistently applied.”
From my years of experience I have observed that in the beginning of successful organizational change it is more about us as leaders (what we are doing) and less about the “who.” It is more about our rigorous discipline and less about others’ choices. The best executives ask themselves the following questions: Am I the right person on the right seat on the bus? We all need to aspire to level 5 leadership, a Jim Collins concept, and less to the default model of a “genius with a thousand helpers.”
To initiate this level of rigorous discipline, we need to take the following two action steps. First, eliminate people managing up their problems. As A.G. Lafley wrote in his article, “What Only the CEO Can Do,”, May 2009, Harvard Business Review. Combining his nine years of experience as a CEO and the last writings of the management scholar Peter Drucker, Lafley explores the question “What is the work of the CEO?” He explains that the CEO is responsible for linking the outside to the inside. He suggests that this work consists of four fundamental tasks:
- Defining the meaningful outside. Focus on making the consumer the focus of all that is done, and build win-win partnerships with customers and suppliers.
- Deciding what business you are in (or not in). Where to compete and where not to compete is an ongoing question that the CEO must constantly explore. As he writes, “Determining which businesses we should not be in... calls for continual pruning and weeding. Disposing of assets is not sexy as acquiring them, but it’s just as important.”
- Balancing present and future. The short, middle and long game are always in play. They key is realistic goal setting and flexible budgeting in order to capitalize on opportunity.
- Shaping values and standards. As he writes, “The CEO must interpret the organization’s values in the context of change and competition and define the standards that will guide decisions.”
People who manage their work up interfere with these vital actions and disrupt the ability of the organization to grow in a sustainable manner.
Second, differentiate between planning and doing. Too many organizations and too many leaders have a “get’er done” mentality when it comes to planning. They forget that in the analysis and development stages of a strategic plan, we are building ownership of the plan not just a document that will sit on a shelf. When leaders have the patience to let others figure out the action steps, they are strengthening the capacity of the organization for today and the future.
As Thomas A. Stewart, Editor of the Harvard Business Review wrote, “You cannot manage for the long term unless you can make room in your head, and your company's collective head, to think, plan, and execute over a multiyear time span, even while tending to inevitable (and important) distractions.”
This spring make more room in your organization for the future.
Geery Howe, M.A.Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer inLeadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational ChangeMorning Star Associates319 - 643 - 2257