Thursday, January 23, 2014

Great Leadership Comes with a Counterintuitive Approach

Guest post from Shaun Spearmon:

People often say that great leaders are born that way (i.e Lady GaGa), with the implication that leadership is an intuitive skill. I wholeheartedly disagree. Great leadership is certainly associated with strong instincts and intuition, but intuition and instincts are shaped by training and more importantly, greatly augmented through experience.  Experience enables great leaders to determine when the best course of action is counterintuitive. Moreover, experience provides leaders with the confidence to employ counterintuitive decisions and tune out the chorus of people thinking and/or saying, “what the hell is s/he thinking?”

Speed – Not Always the Answer

In a global environment of rapid change, “better and faster” dominates the agenda in the boardroom. Faced with new business challenges, senior leaders are often quick to assemble steering committees or task forces at a moment’s notice to put plans into action. For the sake of speed, they assemble the “usual suspects” or the department’s “high potentials”. These individuals probably have some history of working together but they also operate with the same obstructed viewpoint.

A homogenous team can get moving quickly but huge benefits are frequently sacrificed as a consequence. Therefore, organizations are increasingly looking to cross-functional teams to address seemingly intractable problems within the organization. These teams, bringing together diverse opinions and the institutional knowledge of multiple departments, are the ones that solve the big problems and seize the Big Opportunities. However, there is a significant cost associated with the impact these teams can provide – time.

Coming to a consensus around vision and direction can be time intensive simply because people who don’t interact are likely speaking to each other for the very first time, and frankly don’t trust each other. Recently, one of our clients began their corporate change initiative with a simple but very profound statement: “Trust is the foundation of speed and innovation.” I could not agree more. Trust not only serves as the foundation for the speed organizations require to outperform the competition, but it is also the foundation of any prosperous relationship.

Trust isn’t a switch that you can just turn on. Building a strong cross-functional team is an exercise in patience – to go fast you may have to first go slow. Moreover, to truly maximize the benefits of a cross-functional team, you may have to address another counterintuitive concept first: failure.

Failure – The Foundation of Success

When is the last time you celebrated a success at work? Maybe it was the conclusion of a big project, or a close to the fourth quarter of 2013. Now how about the last time you celebrated a failure? For most of us, the answer to this question is probably never. Yet our failures are a very important part of our eventual successes, so why shouldn’t we celebrate these as well?

In business, there is usually a zero tolerance policy for failure (remember John D. Rockefeller’s attitude toward failure?). And institutions of higher education, specifically MBA programs, often play a role by emphasizing thought and strategy over action. Whether intentional or not, this reinforces a mentality of fear around failure.

In an environment requiring companies to demonstrate ever-greater agility and to innovate incessantly to remain competitive, an organization full of employees well-conditioned to avoid failure can be a liability. Conversely, leaders who create cultures where failure is embraced establish the foundation for game-changing innovation – think Q’s laboratory at the James Bond series headquarters.

Failure is an essential part of the innovation process.  It helps companies learn what doesn’t work and provides opportunities for teaching, and also venues for new inspiration. Here’s a battle-tested tip: the next time you empower a team to find a solution to a complex business issue, encourage them to fail and fail fast. As a reward for your counter-intuitive leadership, you will enable them to act quickly, tap their creativity, better engage their desire to contribute, and unlock the possibility of new revenue streams for your organization – all in one go.

Put it into Practice

It’s not easy to employ the unconventional but I’d encourage you to try it this once. Yes the stakes are high, but for you leaders who are willing to ignore your conditioned leadership instincts, your teams and your culture will be stronger for it. Your organization will have the opportunity to benefit from the best of the diverse opinions within it and your employees will feel empowered to explore creative ways to get the job done better, faster. Who knows? Your next great business success may arise from the ashes of a slow-forming cross-functional team’s creative failure.

About the author:
Shaun Spearmon is an engagement leader at Kotter International, a firm that helps leaders accelerate strategy implementation in their organizations. He works with clients on leadership competency strategy and has extensive experience leading teams in strategic planning, process improvement, and business development in both the public and private sectors.

1 comment:

Doug Reed said...

Very insightful. 1. Theories that leaders are born that way have been proven false through research over the last twenty years. 2.Yes Trust is huge. Read Speed of Trust by Covey. 3. Yes, let people fail and tell them how proud you are they tried. But, one does need to monitor what is going on to manage risk. tweet #fostergrowth