Leadership and Strengths

SuperLeader . . .

There’s something of the child that remains in us all; we know it in our dreams of becoming a super hero. It’s so heroic to imagine that one could summon up unexpected and exceptional personal qualities and characteristics to resolve confounding and precarious situations – and all in a single bound!

What is this fantasy, and from where does it come?

Certainly, it’s stimulated and reinforced by graphic stories of great courage and skill, by those stirring tales of ordinary people who do extra-ordinary things and, by so doing they change the world for the better. But surely, there has to be something there, deep inside to be stimulated or reinforced in the first place.

Could it be simply mythical – a fable based on some tiny grain of reality which is then stretched beyond all recognition? Is it really just an unfounded interpretation of events fed by wishful thinking which is unattainable to ordinary folks? The frequent occurrences of such exceptional behaviors though would argue that there has to be something lurking within us all which will appear just when it’s needed.

May I suggest that even the most mortal among us have the seeds of the super hero within. It was Napoleon who said that every soldier in his army carried a Field Marshall’s baton in his knapsack. If this is so, under what circumstances would we, as individuals, seek to access these latent abilities and can this actually be done?

I think it can - let me tell you of a real life case where it actually happened.

SpeciTech’s Aspiration . . .

"Perhaps there’s a touch of spring in the air but it definitely feels like time for a new growth initiative!” SpeciTech’s CEO was putting the finishing touches to an ambitious program of activities that would, without any doubt, shake up the organization. It would definitely ‘knock the socks off’ his management team, who he was convinced, had become a tad too complacent and comfortable over the past year. "Let’s see how they all respond to this" was his final thought as he gathered his notes and set off for the Quarterly Meeting in the Conference Room.

As he described the program the shock was evident on the faces of his key managers. They were not expecting this even though they had known something was coming down. Questions and comments were few; clearly they needed time and space to absorb the demands; they most definitely had little or no idea of what the implementation strategies would look like in their respective areas.

"I’m going to suggest ten days,” was his closing shot, "then I’d like each of you to present your basic plan for execution. Let’s get back together on the fifteenth and shoot for initiation on the first of next month!”  It didn’t sound like a suggestion; it was a definite expectation!

Michael’s Dilemma . . .

Michael’s area of responsibility was logistics; he was nobody’s hero, neither in his own reckoning nor anyone else’s, for sure. He was a consistent manager, a steady worker and always managed to get the job done with little or no fuss. They all relied on him, usually without realizing the time and effort that he had to put in, and he tried very hard not to disappoint anyone.

This was different though; he recognized the enormity of the challenge even before the CEO had finished rolling out the new strategy. Now he fully understood the queries and comments that had been coming from the corner office over past weeks; now it all made sense but it was, in a word, scary!

That night he found it hard to sleep; his mind was racing. The new program would mean change, radical changes, in so many areas – Inventory, Purchasing, Planning and Scheduling, Shipping and Receiving, Warehousing and Transportation – every aspect was deeply affected. How on earth was he going to stay on top of everything? There would only need to be one small glitch in one area for everything to come crashing down around his ears.

He knew full well what that would mean; the CEO had mentioned alternate strategies like outsourcing and sub-contracting on a couple of occasions in the lead up – the writing was on the wall! How could he manage to keep things running smoothly over the next few weeks while he attempted to introduce so many changes and realign the efforts of his sixty three people? It was a challenge like he’d never anticipated. Was he up to the task?

Susan, Provoked . . .

Her feeling of shock at the ramifications of the proposed changes was brief, followed quickly by the horrible sinking conclusion that it just couldn’t be done. She headed up Sales for the main product lines, the bread-and-butter business that carried the essential revenue stream. Her business was generally predictable and stable and, in her estimation, close to market saturation point. The company had always looked to the glitzy peripheral products and services to secure the profit margins that stockholders expected.

The new program turned all that on its ear! She now needed a plan that would generate an additional fifteen percent in new business sales, while improving her existing margins by a minimum of eight percent. But the market was mature, for Pete’s sake! Where was it going to come from?

When the CEO had spoken to her ahead of the meeting she hadn’t heard the serious intent in his queries and she’d definitely under-estimated his resolve. He’d now made it extremely plain that he was counting on the increases to carry the costs of the new program and he’d challenged her right there in the meeting, "Can you do it?” She recalled her feeling of numbness as she’d responded, in front of everyone, "Sure, I can do it! Just watch out for my dust.”  Brave words – but what else could she say?

This could be a career breaker! She’d never turned down a challenge before but she’d also always seen some light at the end of the tunnel; at this point she could see none!

Situational Analysis. . .

The name of the game is ‘pulling rabbits out of the hat!’. How many times have we been invited to ‘do more with less’? We’re all worthy of the challenge but often at a loss when it comes to designing an executable plan of action. We’re strong on the ‘will-power’ but perhaps less so on the ‘way-power’!

Michael’s dilemma is simply that; he’s willing to do anything but he’s not so sure about what that would look like or whether he has the capacity. Susan has little doubt about her level of commitment and she’s much more confident that she can and will make a difference but where will she find the needed resources?

Let’s be practical. The CEO knows his business, has a realistic awareness of the market, recognizes and values the potential in his people and hopefully he has identified a bona-fide desire for improvement throughout the entire organization. If this is not the reality, in any aspect, he will be going back to the drawing board with a bitter taste in his mouth – and soon!

Let’s assume that he is on the ball and has read the signals correctly in every important dimension. He now needs to stretch his people beyond their comfort levels but not to the point of breaking. The primary challenge is to get them to look at familiar situations in innovative ways.

His assessment is that they have been too comfortable, perhaps becoming habit-bound between the ears. He needs them to change the way they are framing realities and to adopt ‘outside the box’ thinking. The new perspectives will probably affect the values that each person has been attaching to current situations and thereby stimulate fresh awareness levels and different strategies.

Pathways Forward . . .

Michael has perhaps the most obvious challenge as well as most of the resources needed to meet it. There’s a very high probability that he is sitting on a pool of both passion and talent; also there are many accessible options for him to manage his logistical operations with increased effectiveness and efficiencies.

As he speculated on the issues, he became increasingly aware that it is he, himself, that needed to change – he could no longer afford to be just a manager – getting results through other people. He must become more of a leader – harnessing the desire for change that’s resident in others and then by facilitating the creation of a sustainable new reality. He could also extend his management impact into the future by investing in his key people - by making them successful!

The challenge was already broken down and its application would be different in each of the functional areas he supervised; he would need them all to work together, to collaborate seamlessly for break-through results though. He was less than secure about the latent abilities of his departmental managers; for sure there are some who will rise to the challenges and a few who may need to be ‘reconfigured’!

He immediately saw himself as the orchestra conductor he’d been keenly observing at a concert his friends Peter and Anne had taken him and Tricia to last month. He’d been impressed but also confused about the ‘value add’ so he’d queried Peter during the intermission. Peter had invited him to view the conductor as the orchestra’s first audience and the audience’s visual of the orchestra. It made perfect sense.

That’s exactly the role he must play – liberate and blend the contributions of his virtuoso performers and channel their artistic performance so that the audience heard a symphony, not just a bunch of talented players. Participation based on a central score and immediate, focused feedback so that every orchestra member knew that they were part of something well beyond the summation of their individual efforts. Michael was ‘way-to-go’!

Susan’s challenge was deeper. She had to identify and harness contributions that her people were not yet aware of within themselves! Her task was to find the hidden talents of every individual on her team and then get them to express it in a way that contributed both to the organization and to themselves. Where to start?

Intuitively she knew that her journey into such uncharted dimensions had to begin with her. While Michael could find a great deal of additional resource in the form of cognitively oriented or acquired strengths, she would need to plumb the depths of her people’s inner passions or inherent strengths. She reviewed her own passions and will-power and was gratified to find attributes there which she hadn’t been using too much.

Pulling these into clear view immediately generated a range of different approaches; now, if she could just raise awareness of every one on her team, they’d have more than enough material to work with. Using her own inherent strengths in Team Building, Legacy Builder, Self Reliance and Social Adaptability, she set about configuring strategies that would have her people working smarter rather than harder, collaboratively rather than individually and with broader scope and greatly increased commitment.

Engaging the personal strengths and passions of her team members was like switching in the after-burner. There was a sudden, shocking burst of raw energy and effort that was hard to manage but wisely, Susan let it run on its own for a few days before imposing controls and governing systems. By this time there was enhanced ‘buy-in’ and levels of commitment such as she’d rarely seen before.

The Bottom Line . . .

The answers to the challenges the CEO had issued weren’t to be found in additional resources but in using the existing resources differently and more fully. There are few knowledge/skill/experience-based strategies that have not already been thoroughly applied and exhausted, if not by us, then by the competition. Our ace-in-the-hole is our people and the potential each of them has for after-burner level performance. Whether or not we benefit from such increased contributions depends largely on how we lead and manage them.

Both Michael and Susan are super heroes; each sitting on a goldmine of talent in this real-life story. Michael was coasting comfortably but suppressing the contributions of his subordinate managers in the process; surely, life was comfortable but it definitely wasn’t fulfilling and satisfying – but they didn’t realize this until they’d been goosed.

Susan’s revelation regarding the tremendous impact of her own strengths and passions served to liberate those of each of her people; what had been a good place to work became a GREAT place to contribute in every dimension. The answers in this case lay not in the systems and processes but in the raw passions of each sales person.

Michael played the part of an ‘’external facilitator’ while Susan was an ‘internal engineer’. Their strategies drew on different aspects of the people in the Company – how people worked together and how individuals powered their efforts – and both approaches worked remarkably well.

The insights and experiences gained from this intervention have led the Company to new heights; they have also raised the satisfaction and productivity levels astronomically. All that was required - two managers needed to decide to lead and manage differently!

Think about it!

I’d welcome your questions, comments and suggestions. We can all learn through dialogue and your viewpoints will undoubtedly gain more value when shared. Please contact me at david@andros.org