The Strategic Leader’s (Part 2)

In my last two posts, I defined strategic leadership and began to identify one way to look at the strategic leader’s work by breaking it down into ten steps:

  1. Manage and lead yourself (Part 1)
  2. Create your team, generate their commitment, and get clear on who’s responsible for what.
  3. Set the vision
  4. Intentionally set time aside for thinking
  5. Establish the organizational framework and continuously connect the dots to fulfill the vision
  6. Determine what needs attention in a VUCA environment
  7. Frame the strategic questions we need to answer
  8. From those questions, establish a Leadership Agenda
  9. From the Agenda, determine our current priority
  10. Commission teams to run experiments to begin to answer the question to fulfill the vision

We examined some of what it takes to manage and lead yourself in my last post.  In this one, we’ll continue to explore some of what I’ve seen successful strategic leaders do to navigate the VUCA environment.

2. Create your team, generate their commitment, and get clear on who’s responsible for what.

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A business can’t outgrow the effectiveness of its leadership… If you’re trying to scale or grow the business through your own capability alone and not through the capability of other leaders and teams, then you won’t scale successfully.” – Anderson and Adams, “Scaling Leadership

Organizations that cultivate and sustain high-performing senior leadership teams are more likely to outpace the competition and realize breakout success… Good teams bring out the best in people…” – Koh, Noah, and Shamosh, “Building High-Performing C-suite Teams

Create Your Team

I’ve had the opportunity to help many people make the transition into the senior leadership seat in schools, businesses, and non-profits.  In every case, they inherit the team from the last leader.  In some situations, this can be very beneficial, but in many, it’s the biggest cause of distress and a tremendous devourer of time as the new leader tries to navigate the intricacies of relationship while building the team that can support pursuit of his or her vision.

One client (I’ll call him Joe – not his real name) in particular always comes to mind.   Joe assumed leadership of a large, complex organization with many influential and sometimes demanding stakeholders.  Joe was an energetic, visionary leader who was appointed to the job because of his energy, passion, vision, and the clearly articulated culture he wanted to create in the organization.

The team he inherited consisted of four senior leaders – two vice presidents, a director of finance and a director of human resources.  Within the first few weeks of Joe’s tenure, he realized that the only leader who really seemed to align with his vision and the culture he wanted to create was the HR director.  The finance director had been on the job for nearly 30 years and was certain “his way” of doing things was the “right way.”  The one VP seemed perfectly satisfied doing the minimal amount of work – and even less if he could get away with it (which he had for years).  The second VP was a nice enough person but didn’t really grasp the job of leadership and wasn’t interested in learning about it.

I asked Joe, “What are you going to do?”  His response was typical.  “What can I do?  These people have been in their jobs for a long time and have received good evaluations.  I can’t simply go and replace them.  I don’t feel good about that.”

Over the next several months, it became apparent that things had to change.  The VP who was using his position to support his “country club” lifestyle made some big (and not so big) mistakes that put the organization in the news and threatened their reputation.  Joe put him on an improvement plan and began counseling him to begin seeking another job.  The second VP saw that she wasn’t going to be able to meet Joe’s expectations and had a candid conversation with Joe, asking to help her find another position in the organization.  “I never liked doing this work and only did it because others encouraged me to apply.”  The Finance Director saw that things were changing, that his way was no longer the only, right way and announced his retirement at the end of the year.

By the end of the second year, Joe was looking at three new team members, but one of the new hires in the VP position was not as advertised.  While he had interviewed well and had a great reputation, he was more talk than leader and proved he was unable to meet Joe’s expectations.  The second VP was a highly capable woman of character who brought the competence, energy, and commitment that Joe needed in this position.  He was getting closer, but still didn’t have the team he needed.

This began another cycle of putting the first VP into an improvement plan, but there wasn’t any improvement.  Within two years, he left, and Joe hired another VP who brought equal character, competence, and commitment to the job and, with a young CFO who brought in fresh thinking and energy, formed the dream team that Joe had always imagined.  Joe’s ability to fully focus on his job of senior leader now filled his time and the organization began to generate momentum in their quest towards Joe’s vision.  But it had taken five years to get there.

When I’m working with new senior executives, I always recommend they begin by taking care of themselves, followed closely by making sure they have the right team in place – and don’t wait too long to make choices.

Generate Commitment

But it’s not enough to have people who are competent and have the right kind of character.  How do we generate commitment on this team?  How do we make sure that this journey we’re on together has the collective and individual discretionary energy necessary to face the VUCA environment and move towards achieving the vision?

People want to work for a leader who cares about them.  The old saying is true: “People don’t leave bad jobs; they leave bad leaders.”  A Gallup poll of more than one million U.S. workers showed that 75% of people who leave jobs voluntarily do so because of their bosses and not the position itself.

People also want to be working in jobs that take care of what they care about.  If they don’t care about their work, they’ll be compliant at best. There’s a reason why Gallup consistently shows 70% of the workforce not engaged.  These people don’t deeply care about what they’re doing.

If you want to generate commitment to the organization you lead, there has to be a compelling “why?”  Why does what we do matter?  Where are we headed?  We’ll cover this in Part 3 of this series, setting the vision. In their ongoing exploration of leadership, Anderson and Adams write,” Without vision, purpose cannot be realized.  Purpose provides the direction – north – and vision provides the destination – a specific destination.  Any compelling vision is infused with purpose.” (“Scaling Leadership,” p. 175).  The senior leader’s job includes setting the vision and generating commitment to that vision from leaders who generate commitment from others so that, ideally, the entire organization is aligned in its commitment and has a collective sense that they’re on a vital quest.  What they do matters.

Genuinely care about the people you lead – starting with your senior team, create the compelling “why?” for your organization, and help your team members see that their work is helping them take care of what they care about and you’ll begin to see the level of commitment necessary to fuel high performing organizations.

Get Clear on Who’s Responsible for What

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I loved playing baseball.  It’s a game where everyone must play his or her position in order for the team to have a chance to win.  I was a catcher for most of my baseball career and knew that on every play, I had to think about the situation and where I was supposed to be.

Watch a professional baseball game some time and watch the dance that each player makes as he or she anticipates each play.  Who’s backing up whom?  Who has the cutoff?  As a catcher, with no one on base and a ground ball hit to the infield, my play was to back up the throw to first base.  If I did that consistently for 1,000 times, I might never have to make a play.  But the one time I “dogged” it and didn’t run down to first and get the angle just right, that’s when the ball would sail over the first baseman’s head or a low throw would bounce through his legs and now the base-runner was on second or third with me bearing the wrath of my coach and fellow players.  But there were other players I never backed up, like the outfielders.  If I had done that, my position and responsibilities would have been at risk.

Senior teams need to know all about their positions, too.  They need to understand the structure of the organization, which is the way that strategy gets deployed.  They need to know where they have to be and what they have to do on every play.  And as enterprise leaders, they need to know who they have to back-up in a pinch.  Without this clarity, we can see leadership teams that are more of a federation of states than a high performing team.  The senior leader needs to make sure that the structure and deployment of his or her senior team is optimally positioned to win the game.

In Part 3 of this series, we’ll take a look at two of the most important jobs of a strategic leader: setting the vision and intentionally setting aside time for thinking.

© Geoff Davis 2/21/19

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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