The Leader's Choice

Once upon a time there were three leaders. Each made choices, day in and day out, that affected their organizations . . . in every way.

The first, let’s call him F, was afraid of everything, including new ideas. "Don't kick the hornet's nest," he would say. He didn't want trouble. He did not want to upset things. "Don't rock the boat," was another favorite maxim of his.

He hated bad news. So, when he realized that his company was losing money and falling apart, his chief concern was protection, especially his own. He said to his head of HR, "Your job is to keep me out of jail."

Eventually, the company went under and many lost their jobs. Soon thereafter, F the Fearful Leader, landed like a cat in another choice executive job.

The second leader, we'll call him S, loved new ideas, especially if they came from himself. No one on his staff worked as hard as he did. No one had as many creative ideas as he did. In fact, his staff was just a bunch of slackers who were trying to get by on as little effort as possible. At least, that was his perception.

When he went away on a six month sabbatical, his staff kept the organization running like a top. They loved the feeling of running things without S around, tossing his latest untested (and undiscussed) ideas at them, stressing them out, and making them feel like losers. They secretly wished he would never come back.

S was the Scornful Leader. He would often say that "Change is good," but he really meant that nothing was good enough for him. He looked with contempt at his people and treated them with disdain. As a result, his people felt unworthy. Anxiety grew, while collaboration and innovation withered.

The third leader, R, expected everyone in his company to be completely focused on delivering the best to their customers. To do that each and every day, he expected that everyone would identify and solve problems, generate new ideas, work collaboratively with one another, learn continuously, and take the initiative to do "whatever it takes" to be the best.

R, the Respectful Leader, put his employees first. He cared about his people and did everything he could think of to empower and bring out the best in each one. He knew deep down that if his people were well supported, they would take very good care of the customer. And they did! As a result, the company grew and grew, expanding from coast to coast, and internationally. It was recognized in its industry sector as one of the most competitive, most innovative, and best places to work.

Let's take a closer look at what R did differently as a leader.

As one of the founders of his company, R had designed, implemented, and sustained a strong and positive culture. One based on trust in people to do the right thing for the customer, for the company, and for the team. R respected his people and enabled them to do what needed to be done. He frequently praised people for their efforts and accomplishments and supported a robust reward and recognition structure.

R was a big supporter of training and development. A centerpiece of his concept of a winning culture was continuous learning and development. For him, support for training was a "no brainer." It was strategic, one of the keys to the success trajectory of the organization.

The Training & Organization Development team reported directly to the Sr VP of HR who was part of R’s inner circle of advisers. In one way or another, everybody was involved in training, pretty much all the time. Training was never seen as a business interruption. Rather, people looked forward to the next training opportunity.

At the time the company went public, R had many meetings with Wall St. analysts. They wanted to know what the success factors were. He would say that his company's "secret weapon" was its people, customer-focused, entrepreneurial, innovative, driven to be the best.

India-based CEO Vineet Nayar has built a highly successful software company by embarking upon a management philosophy he calls "Employees First." In a blog post, he wrote:

“All too often, companies take employees — the lifeblood of every organization — for granted, and the hype surrounding their leaders overshadows the work that employees do. Together, employees have the power to find innovative solutions to the many problems we face. Yet, we prefer to wait for a superhero to change the world with the wave of a magic wand. Let's not fool ourselves; employees are at the core of every game-changing idea. They have built yesterday and today, and undoubtedly, they are going to fashion tomorrow. ”

Washington D.C.-based creativity consultant Kristen Barney, at her blog Insight & Interaction, writes "when an organization has a culture and practices that support everyone in stepping into their highest potential, leaders can expect members to take initiative and excel beyond what is possible when controlled from the top."

Nayar and Barney are right on the money. If you are a leader in your organization and you want innovation, your job is to build the culture and practices that will support your people stepping up to their potential.

Regarding the role of the leader, Nayar has said "Get out of the way!"

"The role of the CEO is to enable people to excel, help them discover their own wisdom, engage themselves entirely in their work, and accept responsibility for making change.”

When a leader does this, the people will say “We did it ourselves.”

Leadership, as Stephen Covey once said, is a choice. As a leader, do you know what choices you are making? Not sure how to answer? Start by taking a look at the man or woman in the mirror.

Posted by Terrence Seamon on Tuesday June 26, 2012


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