Leadership and Focus

It’s All About Change . . .
I rarely miss an opportunity to promote my preferred definition of leadership – that process which focuses the desire for change resident in others and which then facilitates the creation of a sustainable new reality.

The two key words are ‘focus’ and ‘facilitate’. They both happen at the same time and are continuously in operation. If leadership is to be effective you need to engage both even though they can and do exist independently. My present contention is that while both are essential to good leadership, the greater of the two is ‘focus’.

We’re all familiar with change – in both forms – transactional (or incremental) and transformative (or traumatic). The former seems to happen whether we are conscious of it or not; the latter can’t be ignored; it’s uncomfortable, provocative, stimulating and usually a royal pain, but it is also a fact of life. So, given that, how will focus help and how should we use it?

I’d suggest that the first consideration is that we can do nothing with it unless we adopt a different perspective. If we continue to think the way we’ve always thought, we’ll continue to get what we’ve always got! The point is that we usually want more than we’ve got so we need to think about things differently – i.e., change our perspectives (the way we look at things) and also our perceptions (the values that we ascribe to what we see).

When we know how to do this, we take action, sometimes successfully, other times not. When we don’t know how to change our perspectives and/or perceptions, we’ll take no action while we seek answers – on some occasions for protracted periods. When something, or some one, happens to help us shift our perspective or change our perceptions thus allowing a different focus, action will often follow.

Getting around Blocks . . .
Among the significant ‘blocks’ to these elements in most organizations are two factors – culture and structure. Culture is the way we do things around here and structure is the hierarchical and functional assumptions we make. Many culture/structure representations are pyramidal with a few people/roles possessing disproportionate power and a majority of the human component restricted in leverage and action.

Convenient as this might be it is neither useful nor is it reality. Here’s one way of getting around these common blocks – look at the organization as a functional entity rather than as a structure. When we do this we can see that a better representation could be a series of concentric circles – like a target.

In the bull’s eye we set strategic Purpose, formulate Policies and we Plan for success. Those who contribute the most to this are the executive or C-level personnel as they have the most insight and own most investment. Others can and should contribute though, especially if they have specific knowledge, skills or experience, as well as the passion or desire to do so. The work in this functional area tends to be sporadic in practice even though it would be infinitely better as a continuous process.

The inner ring represents Execution where the essential process is to translate policies and plans into effective action through the setting of priorities, allocation of resources and monitoring of standards of performance. Here again, those with experience can contribute best as they have a broad knowledge of the significance and consequence of events and can adjust and refine/fine-tune the planning intention as it rolls out.

Structural issues lead to narrowness and rigidity but a functional approach would allow all the efforts applied in this inner ring to revolve, encouraging all those engaged to respond across a wide front thus minimizing delays and facilitating communication. Specialized ‘silos’ at this senior level generally don’t help anyone and will definitely complicate matters; after all, if a President / CEO is expected to be a generalist, why would we not apply the same expectation to vice presidents and, to a lesser extent, to directors?

The outer ring is Implementation; this is where the rubber hits the road – the moment of truth! As we contemplate it let’s also note that the whole process is surrounded by customers and those who are in ongoing contact with our customers are the most important part of the organization.

The job of the front line people is to translate value-added products and services to the customer, to enhance loyalty and to gather related intelligence to pass back to the policy / planning function in the bull.  What happens if this flow is impeded? Value-added decreases, employees as well as customers are disaffected, revenues are adversely affected and only the proverbial ‘stuff’ comes out of the bull!

The front line, to remain healthy and productive, needs sensitive internal support; since their focus is on the customer (the ‘boss’), this support has to be right there at their fingertips whenever they might reach for it. This is a no-brainer, but many, if not most organizations believe that it is quite reasonable to distract front line employees from their natural tasks by insisting that their focus should be on internal issues like politics, unfair practices, conformance to unproductive standards, confusing communications and internal competitions.

The Foundational Focus . . .   
Given this functional view of the organization, it’s now clear that everyone has to be on the same page about why we’re in business; the key message emanating from the bull must be crystal clear and totally unambiguous. This requires deliberate thought and definitive action

My recommendation is to use an equilateral triangle to represent the relationship between three competing pressures that are vital to the organization’s success. The three angles will equal 60 degrees and add to 180 degrees assuming the focus is equally distributed. Now let these three angles depict Operational Effectiveness, Product / Technical Leadership and Customer Intimacy respectively.

It’s immediately clear that we would have significant difficulty maintaining a perfectly balanced emphasis as the market’s pressures change around us and we face different challenges on an hour-to-hour basis. Additionally, we may not choose to allocate our efforts and resources equally as we seek for market differentiation – our unique ‘thumbprint’ that separates us from the competition.

Perhaps we want to be exceptionally effective and efficient in the way we operate. Our focus then would be on pricing, quality and responsiveness for example and we would measure our performance accordingly together with market share and profitability. This could be the focus that WalMart has chosen and implements well.

Alternatively, we may place our emphasis on Product / Technical Leadership – the Apple approach. Now we’ll measure our success by accurate prediction of market trends, technological break-through and significant product introductions, as well as by industry leadership and competitive domination.

The third option is to concentrate on our intimate relationships with our select customers, being acutely attuned to their needs, wants, preferences and realities, and so our measurement would be focused on speciality product/service expressions, customer loyalty, and niche domination - much as Starbucks operates.

There are two perspectives needed here though – how our customers actually perceive us to be as we attempt to express ourselves in all three areas but with a designed bias in one or two, and also as we would like our customers to perceive us as we achieve the success that we consider to be important. Another way of looking at this is "where are we right now and where would we like to be in a few years down the road?”

It really doesn’t matter how accurate or fine-tuned are the numbers we might develop to express these current and future positions, but rather the size of the gaps between the current and future positions in any given angle.

Closing these gaps wherever they might exist demands that we focus on changing individual and collective behaviors – after all, if we continue to act as we have always acted, we’ll continue to achieve what we’ve always achieved! This is precisely what everyone in the organization has to know, and in a very intimate way – what is it that I should be doing to achieve success for the organization and, therefore, for myself?

Key Capabilities . . .
So far, so good – it’s all logical, rational and readily explained. Now we come to the critical but most confusing part. We may need to change certain individual behaviors and this indicates that we’ll need to change individual perspectives and the associated perceptions or value-level associations. This is harder than it looks!

The complication lies in organizational culture, the way we do things around here. Everyone talks about it but not everyone understands what it is, let alone how to influence it. Let’s begin with an analogy – if all the organizational influencers are compared to a sailboat, then Public Relations is the pinnacle flag, R&D / Strategic Planning is the chart room, Sales are the sails, Marketing is the mast, Operations is the hull, Executive direction is the rudder and organizational Culture is the keel.

Now the purpose of the keel is two-fold, to assist balance and to preserve momentum; it acts to keep the sailboat on a straight and even course – forwards! If we want to impose change, the rudder is turned, the sails are trimmed, the weight within the hull’s infrastructure is shifted - and the keel opposes it all! That’s its job after all!

The keel is under the water line and not too obvious so we may fail to take it into account. In a racing yacht on a sharp turn the keel is sometimes retracted up into the hull but this destabilizes the boat. Most organizations are simply not that sophisticated in their operation, perhaps it is just as well or there’d be many more organizational capsizing.

The culture too, can be described as formal and informal – that which is intended and that which just emerges over time. The informal culture is more powerful than the formal intended culture but it’s also easier to influence. I use four sub-factors — heroes, myths (stories), rituals and networks — and strive to influence each of these coherently and in line with the intended strategic focus. This takes time but it also builds trust and collaboration.

The way to accomplish this is by defining the changes required as five to seven Key Capabilities or specific behaviors that will take us where we want to go. Examples of these might include
  • Responsiveness – (if it’s going to be, it’s up to me)”
  • Accountability (I own the problem)
  • Diligence and Accuracy (I’ll sign my name to the work)
  • Personal Improvement (Every day a little bit better)
  • Learning Attitude (What can I/we learn from that?)
  • Collaboration (What can I do to create success for all?) etc., etc.

There are many others but the list cannot be longer than seven or no one will remember it at the moment of action – which would defeat the purpose. Note also that each component is expressed in the simplest of terms so any possible ambiguity is reduced.

This is the foundation. We can now start to prepare strategic plans that will work and workforce strategies that are coherent contributing to meaningful results. It’s not rocket science.

The Bottom Line . . .
If we fail to plan – create a coherent strategic focus – we will fail, resulting in substantial frustration and waste in the process. Developing a strategic focus for the organization isn’t difficult but it will take the best efforts of your best people. Translating that strategic focus into workable strategies that every one in the organization can and will respond to requires that we change our perspectives and then assist others to change theirs too. Until this is accomplished the job isn’t done!

Begin by changing your own perspective – the way you look at your organization in context, both now and for the future. Then define the gaps between where you are and where you would like to be, selecting the behavioral changes that will take you there. Finally, recognize the vested interest that each person has in safeguarding whatever they presently understand as well as the opportunities that arise when struggling against the pressures of informal culture to create a new reality.

In a word – focus. Matching current to future realities and clarifying the rules for success in behavioral terms for each person is mandatory. It begins with you – the leader – and it ends when everyone believes that it was their idea anyway.

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.