Abhay  Padgaonkar

Article Summary:

Finding the right balance is the key to effective team leadership.

Team Leadership: Looking In the Mirror Keeps Leadership Teams Strong

"My main job was developing talent. I was a gardener providing water and other nourishment to our top 750 people. Of course, I had to pull out some weeds, too." - Jack Welch

If you are the top dog in your organization, what is your main job? In his seminal Harvard Business Review article on "What Leaders Really Do," John P. Kotter says that "leaders prepare organizations for change and help them cope as they struggle through it." That is their main job. But how do they go about doing it?

Clearly, setting a direction for the future is an important aspect of leadership. Describing what the organization should become in the long term and how it should get there becomes the foremost duty of the leader. Soon after taking the helm of IBM, Lou Gerstner announced that "the last thing IBM needs right now is a vision." In his own words, the doom industry had a grand time nailing his hide to the wall for that lack-of-vision statement. He goes on to explain that a lot of reporters dropped the words "right now" from his statement, and that changed his message in a big way. Gerstner felt that IBM was long on vision statements, but short on getting the job done. Fixing the company was all about execution.

Execution is nothing but aligning people, motivating them, and creating a culture of leadership. Kotter contrasts this with equally important but managerial duties such as planning, budgeting, organizing, staffing, controlling, and problem solving. It is clear then that the value of a wonderful business strategy is only achieved when it is actually carried out. And it is the people who make the grand vision a reality. That's why as Jack Welch points out, leaders need to make it a priority to plant and nourish talented people at every level of the organization.

No Excuses

If you're leading a huge organization, such as General Electric (GE), you might have resources at your disposal like GE's John F. Welch Leadership Center at Crotonville, the world's first major corporate business school. Here everyone from important customers and partners to present and future GE leaders-thousands of people each year-come together to identify opportunities and debate the issues facing business around the world. But, of course, very few organizations have the resources to invest like GE. They can't operate a dedicated leadership center or spend $1 billion annually on training and education.

The constraint of a smaller budget is hardly an excuse to not be aware of, understand, and operate key levers that drive superior performance in people. Going back to Jack Welch's garden analogy, some aspects of cultivation are free, such as sunshine. But how you choose to orient your garden in relationship to the sun makes all the difference. If you place your garden under a large shade tree, you're cutting it off from necessary nourishment.

While a leader needs to have a strong sense of the direction, cultivating new culture by changing people's mindset and behaviors is the hardest part. In doing so, they can follow the Al "Chainsaw" Dunlap model of profit-at-any-price by relying on fear, intimidation, and greed, or they can follow a more sensible leadership model based on inspiration, motivation, and enthusiasm.

The Flip Side

Even leaders who articulate a compelling vision, inspire followers, and display passion and courage to take on great challenges can have unproductive traits that limit their effectiveness. These traits can manifest themselves in the following ways:

  • Know-it-all: They start believing that they know and do this better than anybody, and believe that they don't need others as much as others need them. So they become prone to treat others as dispensable and tune them out.
  • Micromanager: They get mired in minutiae and sometimes miss the forest for the trees. By measuring too much, they measure nothing.
  • Perfectionists: They spend an inordinate amount of time on doing things right rather than doing the right things, thereby losing focus. They take any constructive feedback as a direct hit and return what they see as not-so-friendly fire.
  • Detached: They become emotionally distant and lose the intimacy and connection to other people. Their response to any push-back becomes: "Tough! If I can do it, so can you."
If some or all of these behaviors start occurring, the results follow quickly: Any constructive confrontation within the executive team ends almost immediately. Honest exchange of ideas on various options and their pros and cons ceases. What is happening on the ground, especially to the foot soldiers, becomes irrelevant. The level of pressure people feel becomes unbearable. The "guilt trip" that nobody else is pulling their weight becomes harder and harder to take. Any semblance of work/life balance goes out the window. Conversations quickly become one-way streets and people start feeling like glorified order-takers. It seems like they have ceded all authority to the boss.

The leader is quickly surrounded by loyal sycophants in the inner circle who simply want to ride the coattails. Everyone else is in the outer circle-albeit with more self-esteem, but nevertheless fearful to say that the emperor has no clothes. Pretty soon people start telling the leader what the leader wants to hear lest their heads are chopped off in public. Collaboration comes to a grinding halt and providing lip service becomes the politically correct thing to do. Everyone looks out for themselves and any mutually shared goals, even if they exist, take a back seat. Any sense of intimacy, camaraderie, and belonging on the team becomes non-existent.

Any concept of a team breaks down. Any sense of empowerment evaporates. The compelling vision that the leader may have laid out simply becomes a pipe dream. The strategic plan to get there suddenly has strong disbelievers. The short-term results, obtained through draconian measures, become harder and harder to sustain. As Michael Maccoby has described in his article "Narcissistic Leaders," these leaders can self-destruct and lead their organizations terribly astray. So the bottom line is that there is plenty of leadership to go around, but very little followership.

A Look in the Mirror

A key challenge for leaders competing for the future is to foster the competencies that provide access to tomorrow's opportunities. Further, as discussed by Gary Hamel and C. K. Prahalad in their book Competing for the Future, leaders have to find innovative applications of the current competencies. Without getting caught up in buzzwords like "talent" and "human assets," leaders must objectively assess and proactively improve the caliber of the executive team and the organization as a whole.

However, charity must begin at home. Before a leader can assess the caliber of the executive team, he must take stock of his own. Surveys -- whether leadership or 360 degree -- are quite popular and clearly necessary, but rarely tell the leader the whole story. On the other hand, objective, confidential, and focused interviews by an objective outsider with each individual on the executive team can deliver unvarnished truth. They can divulge a great deal of rich information about what's really happening behind closed doors. Is there a true strategic alignment? How is the leadership style perceived? How much constructive confrontation occurs? Do people really collaborate or simply provide lip service? Is everyone pulling in the same direction?

There are some prerequisites to getting the most from these soul-searching interviews:
  • Right Reason: First and foremost, the interviews have to be undertaken for the right reason: improving leadership caliber by eliminating unproductive behaviors. If the hidden agenda is to vilify non-performers or to find scapegoats, the approach simply backfires.
  • Objectivity: You need an objective outsider to hold the mirror. This person must not be afraid to find out the truth and tell it like it is.
  • Confidentiality: The interviews have to be treated as confidential and the interviewer has to be careful not to make any direct attribution to a specific individual. Despite all the talk about openness, blackballing is still a common practice in organizations.
  • Specificity: While recognizing that everyone's reality is different, the interviews have to focus on direct observations, experiences, and involvement rather than hearsay or supposition.
  • Commitment: Most importantly, there must be a commitment to develop an action plan at the individual and team level. An accurate reflection of reality means squat if there isn't a commitment to change it.
If these criteria are followed, the insights gained from these confidential interviews can have tremendous implications for every aspect of creating a high performance culture-whether it is the people, structure, processes, technology, or rewards. The honest feedback and recommendations based on the interviews can go a long way in raising the level of candor and constructive dialog within the team.

Tommy Lasorda, the famous baseball manager, described leadership the best when he said that "it is like holding a dove in your hand. If you hold it too tightly you kill it, but if you hold it too loosely, you lose it." Finding that delicate balance between providing nourishment and pulling weeds is the key to effective leadership. But it begins with a willingness to look in the mirror.

Abhay Padgaonkar, a management consultant, author, and speaker, is the founder and president of Innovative Solutions Consulting, LLC, which provides advice on formulating strategy and turning it into meaningful actions and measurable results for major clients such as American Express. For more information, visit Innovative Solutions.org.

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