Leadership Follow-Through

Cementing Outcomes . . .

In the past two issues, we’ve been looking at the practical aspects of effective leadership. I’ve been sharing some exchanges I’ve been having with my colleague Robert on the strategy of story-telling as a way of focusing other people’s intentions as well as some thoughts on subsequent roles in facilitating needed change.

Well, the story telling really worked for Robert; in fact it worked a little too well! He has become quite adept at influencing the perspectives and perceptions of his staff, to the point that he experienced a strong desire to share ownership of the changes rather than allowing them to do their own thing. This is ‘thin ice’ territory.

So, we’ve been concentrating on reducing this intrusiveness because it really doesn’t work well with today’s more independently-minded young people. Generations ‘X’, ‘Y’ or ‘Millennials' don’t respond well to control-centered styles no matter how well intentioned they are. Robert is learning to facilitate change and to be a catalyst, rather than a change agent, and this is tough for him; it’s not the way he’s been developed through his career to-date.

By shifting his focus ahead to the outcomes required — that is to solutions desired or results, as opposed to those processes needed to accomplish them — it’s been possible to minimize some less-than-desirable interventions that reflect his more traditional leadership and managerial styles. This creates room for his people to manoeuvre and to engage their unique knowledge, skills and experiences as well as their personal strengths as they contribute.

Now it sounds paradoxical but to change Robert’s focus to outcomes we’ve needed to reconfigure the beginning.

The Right Foot . . .

We can see at this point that there are three distinct stages in any successful leadership intervention – focusing, facilitation and follow-through. Although these are separate initiatives, and can be discussed as such, there are few clear distinctions in the elements that bind them together to get the desired results. There are seeds of each one deeply embedded within the other two.

In short, we should think about how we can best facilitate and also how we are going to follow-through even as we begin the focusing stage. We will likely have to link back to the focusing as we facilitate and also as we follow-through. So there will be themes that run through all three stages which need to be inserted into the process, often long before we will actually use them.

In focusing, which is the first step, our attention is properly on the desire for change that’s resident in other people. It is this motivating desire that we’re trying to focus at a conscious level of awareness. As we do this, however, we must not ignore the more fundamental question of why the change is needed, why it’s now timely, do-able, acceptable and beneficial. We can’t just take this for granted because we’re bound to need it later as we follow-through!

In addition, what we are focusing on is not always simple and crystal clear; it can be somewhat vague (like a feeling or state-of-mind response) and/or it may have multiple stages or potential expressions, all of which have to be managed in a complex market. The ‘trick’ is to keep it straight-forward and manageable while keeping everyone’s eyes on the ball in play.

Trust established between the leader and others will go a long way to resolving any discrepancies as we proceed. However, the legacies of uncertainty, doubt and confusion in people’s minds are inefficiencies in action and losses in interpersonal confidence; and both of these can erode trust!

One effective way to reduce the chances of future inefficiencies and unmet expectations is to ask questions, right up-front, such as "What would this look like when we achieve it?” and "How are we going to know that we’ve been successful in creating a sustainable change?” Early discussions that lead to consensus on these topics will create shared visions and make it so much easier for us to affirm that we’re on the right track even while we’re heavily engaged in implementation.

Other good techniques include splitting the total initiative into stages – bite-sized chunks – that are easier to manage, building in frequent review points, and creating a visible scoreboard. The objective is to ensure that everyone involved can know and feel the progress being made whenever the need arises.

Making It Work . . .

Robert’s emerging challenge is in securing sure and sustainable results from his team. He’s learned how to grab their attention and he’s mastering the art of harnessing their passions by allowing them to express themselves fully as independent contributors.

These actions, as good as they are, will not guarantee the results needed for the organization. He needs to monitor outcomes, as well as trends, to ensure that the sum of individual contributions is creating value as defined by the organization’s strategic thrust. A useful analogy here is the orchestra — as conductor he has to blend the unique, even virtuosi, contributions of each part of the orchestra to create a symphony in the ears of the audience that’s true to the composer’s score.

As this analogy infers, the leadership process isn’t, and cannot ever be, static; in fact, it’s totally dynamic, changing all the time and in all ways. This offers the insight that it has to be a collaborative exercise and the more people that are engaged in it, the better the chances of success.

Right from the very start, the leader who is offering focus needs to emphasize inclusivity and the big picture. It’s just like ‘nosing’ a single malt scotch or wine; you don’t stick your nose deep into the glass and inhale deeply, sucking the very essence out of the spirit. You approach gently and with short exposures, savouring each one as you build discovery and appreciation.

The focusing act thereby is a series of short, discrete interventions that gain a little ground, then retreat to allow others to catch up and contribute. For certain, going hard at it, making a short, single and overwhelming impact is probably going to miss the mark – building insights is more delicate than this.

Between these short, exploratory interventions the leader can insert the seeds for future facilitation and follow-through. People need time and space to hear and assimilate fresh perspectives and to figure out what this might mean to them – where it could make a difference to their current realities.

So, as the intervention unfolds, make time for consolidation and the airing of concerns. If potential followers have doubts, real or speculative, they’ll be seriously distracted from the outcomes being designed. It’s better to surface these and to deal with them as you proceed versus waiting until later when they’ve solidified as active or passive resistance to the cause.

The world is changing as we speak and this means that the future is shifting too. It won’t remain where we placed it originally. When an organization attempts to impose a strategic thrust to guide the actions of its people, it’s actually attempting to accommodate these shifts, not to eliminate them. The leader’s job in this respect is to guide current initiatives within the broad confines of a strategic pathway. This calls for frequent follow-through interventions with ongoing, minor course adjustments.

Long journeys will usually profit from periodic breaks; the pauses that refresh in many ways. Thus it is with the changes that emerge from leadership interventions. An unrelenting race to meet demanding deadlines, real or imposed, will only result in exhaustion and burn-out. The pace of the journey isn’t constant; there’ll be times when accelerated progress is necessary but denying the opportunity for discrete rest breaks is short-sighted.

So plan for periodic breaks and for changes in the pace of change and also allow for spontaneous breaks when the situation demands and permits. There are many battles in history where the outcome could have been quite different if an army had been allowed to rest and replenish before engaging the enemy.

The Ultimate Goal . . .

 Creating successful change is seductive; it’s also dangerous!

People do not always want what they think they want. The old adage is, "Be careful of what you want, lest you get it!”  The light of hindsight will often reveal consequences of past changes that we had not anticipated and which we do not desire. Having committed to the change though we are now incapable of winding back the clock, and guess who we are likely to blame for the error.

Since few of us are able to foresee all possible consequences going into the change, what could we do to mitigate the impacts that were not intended?

We cannot predict the future with certainty but we can affirm our values and longer-term aspirations. As we focus and plan for the change, and as we proceed through its implementation, we need to raise our heads and check that we’re still aligned with those deeper-seated values that have made us what we are. It’s very easy to lose sight of these values in the heat and dust of creating change.

The most obvious of all these are the relationships that are meaningful in our lives. It is here that we have invested so much of ourselves and at a foundational level. These relationships cannot be placed in danger by the potential benefits of a short-term change, no matter how intensely attractive and immediate it might be.

Similarly, each of us has ethical / moral principles that are profoundly meaningful to us and these should never be compromised. On the other hand, we cannot be closed to innovation and opportunities for healthy expansions so the risks associated with balancing possible gains against likely losses or shortfalls has to be carefully considered.

This is the domain of the subconscious mind which operates beyond our rational control – some call it intuition or ‘gut feel’. It will work for us if we give it time and opportunity and when it does, we should be listening and we should take it seriously. The pitfall is haste; if we do not set aside sufficient time and occasionally suspend action for a reasonable period, we’ll suffer consequences.

One thing is sure; the regrets associated with premature action are deep and long lasting; it’s better to make space for deep consequence evaluation while we still can.

The Bottom Line . . .

Focusing, facilitating and following-through – all are critically important aspects of the leadership process. They’re not separate and distinct steps that we can employ as a formula – a ritualistic approach; they’re integrated and component parts that work together to make the healthy body of change work as it should.

We must not get lost in the process though. It is vital that we make the right changes, not only in the short-term but also in the strategic arena. It’s also vital that we make such changes in the right way – protecting and preserving our values and principles as we go.

Front-end loading our considerations to keep the big picture clearly in mind for everyone who is involved in and affected by the proposed change is a central responsibility. Guiding our people into the change sensitively and gently, protecting them, sometimes from themselves, will ensure that our relationships and our principles are not violated or compromised.

It’s an awesome responsibility for sure but I believe that it’s one of the most rewarding that we shall ever know.

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.