I have always prided myself on being an inclusive leader, driven by a heavy emphasis on early consensus. Building that consensus pays dividends down the road as difficult decisions and strategies face their moments of truth. Major change is ultimately impossible without sustained organizational support, and it feels good and right to gain that support prior to proceeding.
However, after leading a gut-wrenching but successful multi-year technology transformation, I now view leadership in a more nuanced manner. While I still tend towards a democratic leadership style, I now know that no single leadership style is universally appropriate.
During times of great change, the urgency and a sheer number of key decisions to be made demand a faster decision-making process in order to ensure momentum and avoid getting bogged down. In this setting, pure democratic leadership doesn’t fit. This is particularly true for traditional operating companies who have been successful and who have entrenched behaviors and attachments to the status quo. Fresh, courageous thinking is required.
A visionary leadership style that projects a confident and compelling view of tomorrow can increase speed without compromising organizational support during the inevitable difficult times. How?
Let’s start with how to make the right decisions more quickly. For nearly every critical decision, I now rely on a small, enlightened group of people who are unafraid to give me candid feedback and new ideas. Smaller teams are better. By creating the smallest group possible that allows you to get the right answer, you’ll go faster without sacrificing quality.
In forming these small teams, you’ll need your “Grade A” players, your best thinkers, by your side. After all, you may live with these decisions for years, either creating a new win or explaining a new loss. Speed is achieved by having the right talent and only the right talent involved in deciding on a strategic direction. As your strategy progresses, you’ll find that as you work through one difficult decision after another, this speed effect will compound and can accelerate a transformational effort by months or years and save millions of dollars.
When the stakes are high, being right trumps being fully inclusive. Yes, this leadership style is faster, but there are tradeoffs. How do you bring along those not directly involved in key decisions? Once you’re confident you’ve made the right decisions, you’ve got some selling to do, and it will take investments in time you may not feel you can afford.
In order to ensure support for broad-reaching decisions, I’ve learned to lean heavily on change management practices. Early-on this was one of our blind spots that I wish I’d have addressed sooner. Dismissing these best practices as a “soft” skill is both pejorative and risky. Change management is a crucial and artful leadership skill that requires training and practice and can be harder to find than most technology and management skills.
During times of great change, achieving buy-in from those not directly involved requires more than saying “here is the strategy.” It’s not enough to just explain the vision and changes. Invariably, as you’re talking about change and disruption, people naturally sift through your words, trying to figure out how it affects them. “What does this mean for my job? What will my role be? Will I have to learn new skills? Am I at risk?” Only when your staffs get answers that make them feel informed can they get on board.
Evangelizing your decisions, listening and spending time out in the field are important steps to build the support of those in less strategic roles. Staff will feel reassured by visionary leaders who take the time to communicate meaningfully. If your strategy is right, they’ll rest easier knowing that a strong vision and plan to execute is in place. However, trying to communicate strategic shifts remotely, via email or video, is risky and in my view a serious mistake. Yes, it’s time-consuming to spend time in person, particularly for a global organization. But it’s absolutely crucial, particularly in the early days of change when trust is low and anxiety is running high. There simply isn’t enough universally available bandwidth on the Internet to communicate emotions or to gauge reactions. Many leaders will feel they don’t have the time for face-to-face gatherings. Great leaders must realize they don’t have a choice.
You’ve probably heard the expression that “failure is an orphan but success has many parents.” Said another way, if you’ve gotten your strategy correct and you’ve taken the time to evangelize and listen to your broader audience, those in the organization will follow and ultimately treat your decisions as their own.
By combining faster decision-making via your trusted “A Team” with a focus on evangelizing your message to your broader organization, you’ll simultaneously achieve three critical goals:
- You’ll build momentum by accelerating delivery
- You’ll earn trust with the broader organization through candor and accessibility
- You’ll begin to change your organization’s culture as it becomes more comfortable with change.
Get your decisions right as quickly as possible and tell your story with passion and confidence. Your organization will follow.