Leadership Facilitation

The Challenge . . .

Back to my friend Robert, you recall – the one who had his challenges in getting the attention of his ‘fast tracking, hot-rodding staff.  I’d encouraged him to use simple stories rather than logical expositions whenever he wanted them to refocus their energies. In short, it really worked and he tells me that there’s hardly a day that passes when one or more of his team are too busy to solicit fresh stories from him. He’s become the wise old man.

One of the less desirable outcomes of this is predictable. Robert loves the increased attention from his staff and wants more. So when they take his direction and begin to change their perspectives and perceptions – the way they look at the world and how they are responding to it – he wants to be right in there!

This degree of intervention is not comfortable nor is it welcomed and resentments have started to accumulate. At first it was subtle; they would smile and nod their heads when he inserted his thinking on change strategies but then they’d fail to follow through. Robert’s response to this, of course, has been to intensify his contributions and their responses have diminished further and now some even avoid contact with him. He’s beginning to feel estranged.

"They shouldn’t expect me to just back away because they have their own action plans,” he complained, "after all it was my idea that got them moving in the first place!”  He is having a lot of trouble letting go.

This is a common problem with many managers who are ‘control-centered’. It’s based in fear – fear of failure and, to a lesser extent, fear of loss of relative status. It has a direct parallel in the parent-child relationship where parents rationalize their intrusive behaviors as purely protective. We often transfer perspectives and perceptions from one theater of our lives to another without realizing we’ve done so.

So, this raises a significant issue – what is the proper and most beneficial role for the leader once focusing has taken place and a new course has been set and accepted?

Moving Beyond Focus . . .

In a word, once direction has been set, the role of any leader is ‘facilitation’. This means the leader supports, encourages and influences action without becoming directly involved.

The leader becomes mentor, resource, mediator, arbitrator, counselor, commentator, catalyst and/or coach. S/he clarifies and reinforces focus when needed, influences, runs interference, removes obstacles, offers both feedback and feed-forward on demand and ensures that both direct and indirect benefits are optimized for all involved.

Sun Tzu, the author of "The Art of War” has long been recognized as a commendable source of applied wisdom for military and business strategy. I will not ‘reinvent the wheel’ but rather comment on the vital lessons for leaders in his time-proven writings.

These ten summary points that I’ve selected from his admirable treatise competently describe how such facilitation can be best achieved:

  • Firstly, invest substantial time and energy in planning and preparation so you know what you are to achieve, why you want to achieve it and that the effort, cost and consequences are fully justified
  • Plan for quick, decisive engagements that limit unnecessary competition and conflict and which use all available resources wisely
  • Remember that the best source of strength is in unity, not might, speed, technology or artful ruses;  so employ a specific strategy and take the time that will concentrate your impact
  • Seek opportunities for your strengths and deny the opposition the chance to engage their strengths at the same time – it’s all in finding and maintaining the balance
  • Creativity and timing are the main factors that will energize and sustain your impetus / momentum so build them into your plan of action and test for them frequently
  • Identify and exploit the weaknesses in your opposition, a practical lesson that recent Gulf War Generals Schwarzkopf and Powell both used to great advantage
  • Whenever you’re in transition, manoeuvre frequently to retain and optimize your options – failure to do this has been the ‘Achilles Heel’ of so many business organizations over recent decades
  • Similarly, the seeds for survival in today’s volatile markets has been adaptation / flexibility together with a speed and intensity in response that makes it instantaneous / spontaneous
  • Design and aggressively implement contextual intelligence which enables you to be looking directly into the eyes of the opposition at all times; this way you can forecast intentions
  • Use the current context or circumstances to maximal advantage, making full use of every resource available to you, yet denying the opposition access to theirs.

This is sage advice for any entrepreneur and business leader, perhaps not Sun Tzu’s intended audience, but relevant nonetheless. I use this as a checklist on every strategy I design and implement and always to advantage.

In today’s business we could profit further by taking a closer look at three particular practicalities.

Making It Work . . .

Let’s begin by recognizing that the leader’s dual roles of focusing and facilitating change are a seamless and progressive process. It’s rare that we have the luxury to simply address one or other of the two activity-sets in isolation even though this is a highly useful tactic in itself – just make them separate discussions on the agenda.

Clearly, there’s an ‘upstream / downstream’ relationship in a relative sense so one important element is to ensure that we are checking contiguous activities at all times. Have we created a solid link between the two types of action by asking ‘why are we doing this?’ and ‘what should we be doing about this?’ as we move forward.

It’s all too easy to lose sight of the upstream connection because of the intense concentration on current activities and the net result is that we’ll run out of motivating energies among those concerned. We need to be reminded and frequently of the reasons why this is a focal activity. We can become lost in good intentions and wishful thinking, expecting others outside our direct influence to take the necessary change actions should we remain fixated on needed change but yet neglect the required actions. Have you ever used the expression, "I meant to . . .”?

Next, consider the critical issue of ownership. Whose responsibility is it? Who is accountable for its realization?  There’s a lot to be said for appointing a change champion for each initiative, for assigning project leaders and change agents and for employing shared goals / standards and responsibility. The most compelling option however is ‘natural ownership’ where individuals simply take charge of change as a personal mission, integrating the new goal with those (s)he already owns – total ownership! This is typified in the relentless energies of the entrepreneur.

The attitude is, "If it’s going to be, it’s up to me!” and that’s not too common in our business organizations once they move beyond entrepreneurship. The converse of "It’s not my job!” on the other hand impacts every one of us adversely whenever we encounter it as customers. Since we all develop our own version of the focusing vision we’ll each own a different sense of ownership and it’s this which is so often suppressed by overly diligent managers.

This brings up the third and perhaps most destructive practice, competition. In achieving change we can adopt three different variations of competition – just like golf. We can play against our partner; we can compete with the course bogie; we can try to exceed our previous best effort; our options can range from destructive to constructive.

All competition is not equal or even appropriate. If everyone is self motivated and owns an individual strategy we do not have to compete for limited resources. We can share outcomes, operating standards and even encourage collaboration and mutual support as we, as leaders, concentrate the competitive aspects on personal performance alone. The catalytic leader plays the part of the orchestra conductor, enticing each musician to play his/her best while blending and creating a symphony out of the many individual and separate contributions.

The Wheel Turns . . .

I’ve heard that managerial – staff relationships can be described as a wheel, with the boss situated at the hub exercising direct influence over the staff members along each of the spokes. Sometimes the point being made is that all connections need to flow through the center, the hub, so that a high level of control is possible. There’s another interpretation though, where each staff member is part of the rim, facing a different part of the market with the same support and opportunity to contribute as each other member.

If our attention is shifted to the rim, we can emphasize the connectedness between people at the front line. Break a single spoke and you’ve jeopardized the integrity of the wheel, if not that of the entire vehicle. The wheel needs to be perfectly round and equally supported in order to function best even though specific parts of the rim are experiencing widely different pressures from the road’s surface. The impact is beneficially regulated by the wheel’s rotation especially when the wheel is balanced.

It’s an interesting analogy and I invite you to reflect on its applications to your circumstances.

The Bottom Line . . .

Throughout this discussion, there’s been no reference to the manager being a direct, integral part of the implementation process! The military general does not fight alongside the front line soldiers, he or she fights for them by doing his/her job (which is different) as well as possible. I agree that there are stories of heroic military leaders who did fight shoulder to shoulder in the front line of battle, but this was only after the vital job of planning and organizing the battle had been thoroughly accomplished.

Perhaps the most descriptive role for the leader to adopt once the vision has been focused in the minds and hearts of those most directly involved in the change, is that of catalyst. In chemistry a catalyst is an agent that initiates and accelerates the chemical reaction but which does not form part of the result. The legacy of the change belongs wholly to those who are fully invested in the future state or condition.

It is very difficult for those leaders who feel the need to moderate and control the actions of their people – they are doomed to being ‘mere managers’. The true leader, however, who can hold him or herself remote from the detail of implementation, is like Sun Tzu’s ideal General – invisible to his victorious troops.

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.