Archive for November, 2011
Following on from yesterday’s post about leadership failure and the continued reliance on past experience as an indicator of leadership potential (here). The ever thought provoking Bill Taylor posted a blog (here) on HBR questioning the value or relevance of industry knowledge when it comes to innovation. Taylor argues that in many cases, deep knowledge or expertise of an industry can be an impediment to clear thinking and innovation.
the most effective leaders demonstrate a capacity for vuja dé. We’ve all experienced déjà vu — looking at an unfamiliar situation and feeling like you’ve seen it before. Vuja dé is the flip side of that — looking at a familiar situation (a field you’ve worked in for decades, products you’ve worked on for years) as if you’ve never seen it before, and, with that fresh line of sight, developing a distinctive point of view on the future. If you believe, as I do, that what you see shapes how you change, then the question for change-minded leaders becomes: How do you look at your organization and your field as if you are seeing them for the first time?
You can’t let what you know limit what you can imagine. As you try to do something special, exciting, important in your work, as you work hard to devise creative solutions to stubborn problems, don’t just look to other organizations in your field (or to your past successes) for ideas and practices. Look to great organizations in all sorts of unrelated fields to see what works for them — and how you can apply their ideas to your problems.
This makes a lot of sense, for example on a personal level when we go to someone for some specific advice, it is often with a view to understand the dangers or risks involved in a particular course of action i.e. a reason not to do something. For organisations this calls into question many innovation programs that are driven from the top down. Innovation is not something that can be conjoured up from thin air within the constraint of existing beliefs and assumptions. The harsh reality for many organisations is that to be truly innovative you need to reject or turn your back on a comfortable and easily referenceable view of the world.
Above all, this approach requires a different mindset, one that is willing to challenge and question underlying assumptions and beliefs. To compound this difficulty, the higher up the corporate ladder you go the harder this becomes. Studies have shown that the more successful and senior we become, the more deeply embedded are our underlying beliefs and behaviours and that these are based on approaches that are successful. In other words thinking and behaviours that have delivered success in the past are the hardest ones to abandon or question. Furthermore, it is a natural trait to look to reference what is familiar and can be directly compared to our current circumstances. However, as the examples cited by Taylor attest, forcing oneself to challenge, question and confront basic assumptions and look beyond most obvious can help unlock the possibilities of true innovation.
HRVendornews (here), highlights a new survey from Right Management and Chally Group that reports some interesting findings about the causes of corporate leadership failure. Among the more eye-catching figures are:
“Failure to build a team or relationships was singled out by the most (40%) survey respondents,” said Bram Lowsky, Executive Vice President of Right Management. “Second was mismatch for the corporate culture cited by 26%. Remarkably, not delivering acceptable results was named by just 11% of respondents as among the main three causes for failure”
This is all very interesting, not least because key drivers of leadership performance seem to be intangible factors rather than more quantifiable indicators of performance such as prior experience, education or aptitude and ability. Unfortunately for the majority of organisations, these seeming less valuable metrics are the ones that are most obvious or easiest to gather and have historically been given undue weight when making leadership decisions.
Maybe organisations could avoid the most damaging leadership mistakes by adopting a different approach? Moreover, perhaps the key to successful leadership development is not the identification of aptitude for certain tasks or responsibilities but a more open-ended and abstract idea about the role of “fit”? This would help explain one of the most perplexing problems of leadership, namely why some people are naturally able to achieve great things in one situation, whereas they cannot replicate that success in a different role or organisation. This brings to mind the fierce debate started by Bill Taylor over at HBR (here) about the value of corporate superstars. Maybe what these numbers are telling us is that it is better to have a leader that fits the organisation than it is to go out and hire an industry superstar?
Effective leadership, invariably involves situations where the leader is a good if not great fit with the underlying organisational culture. It is hard to argue that someone like Richard Branson would be as effective a corporate leader in an organisation that was inherently bureaucratic or risk averse. In other words great leadership is about the serendipitous confluence of personal characteristics and organisational context. In other words, the right person in the right place at the right time.
However, the report indicates that organisations still place significant emphasis on industry experience and track record. This is borne out by the numbers, with 73% of HR respondents citing track record as an indicator of leadership ability. However, I’d question this assumption. Is industry experience or track record a reliable indicator of performance in an unrelated or different role? Personally, I am sceptical. Of course leaders need to have credibility and ability, however beyond that I would argue that being able to develop strong and robust relationships with immediate colleagues and understand the culture that enables strategy to work with the culture is more important than in-depth industry knowledge or success in previous roles.
The fact that culture and relationships are intangible and highly complex inevitably leads to organisations focusing on more concrete or tangible. Why try to get to grips with the complex when there are easily available figures in black and white that everyone can understand? The good news for organisations is that with new tools and greater understanding of the intricacies of culture and relationships, it is now possible to place these key intangibles in a more systematic framework. Culture and relationships do not need to be implied but instead can be openly discussed and compared. There are now methods that can be used to take some of the guesswork or gut feel out of these big decisions. In fact organisations that want to get ahead should be looking at this issue in far greater breadth, the question of fit should not be confined to the upper echelons or the C-Suite, instead it should cascade down to all levels and inform the identification and selection of talent throughout. When making any decision about recruitment, promotion or team composition the question of “fit” should be uppermost in everyone’s mind.
Succession is one of those topics that gets very little coverage given it’s significance. An interesting blog post in the New York Times (here) by Quentin Hardy draws attention to some of the pitfalls in not having a plan in place as it discusses high profile tech founders who outstay their welcome and ultimately damage their organisations.
Above all, this article raises some interesting questions about leadership and culture in the organisation. The article features former Dell CEO Kevin Rollins who was ousted and replaced by the computer giant’s eponymous founder makes some valid arguments about some of the unintentional damage founder/CEOs can do by hanging on in the top job for too long. These include stifling the next generation of leaders within the organisation and the unique power and influence that visionary tech founders are able to exercise on their organisations.
Visionaries are fantastic, but their companies are often notoriously hard to run. Sometimes, these leaders cling to dated visions and stifle innovation. And sometimes, they simply won’t get out of the way. Promising executives with new ideas get fed up and leave.
The unfortunate dichotomy facing the boards of tech companies is that to achieve great success in the first place you need someone with the vision and single-minded determination to impose their will on the organisation. Over time this results in the founder personifying the organisation’s culture and values. However, this approach is rarely compatible more a more mature business or shifts in the competitive landscape. The result is that over time the behaviours that make a founder and organisation successful in the first place get ingrained in the organisational culture so much that change or an awareness of what new circumstances require is very hard to achieve. When things start to go wrong it becomes very difficult to know what to do if the tools that have served you so well in the past no longer seem to work.
Arguably, succession is not given the attention it requires because it is intangible and complex. This is because it is not just about having a plan in place. Succession is much more than a process that can be mapped out in the boardroom. Particularly for tech companies who often experience astonishing growth in a short period of time where the founders wield undue influence, the harsh truth is that in many cases succession is inextricably tied in with a necessary cultural shift in the organisation. A rejection of those values that make you successful is never an easy option.