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Time to inject adrenaline into your leadership team?

by Joseph Pistrui

In the ebook The Story of Next, I profile the kind of leadership traits that are most likely to propel companies to success. I name four companies with a team at the top that exhibit both avant-garde leadership skills and a 21C attitude toward the proper role of a leader. These companies are standouts simply because they seem to be brimming with leadership adrenaline. Many other companies were considered yet failed to make the grade. Why?

The calls for a higher level of quality in management and leadership have been steady and strong for years. You may recall Sumantra Ghoshal’s classic article for the Academy of Management in 2005: “Bad Management Theories Are Destroying Good Management Practices”. Of the article, Elena Yang comments that Ghoshal “highlights three theories that have been widely pushed by business schools but are fallacious in that they are devoid of fundamental understanding of the complexity of human behaviour, relationships, and emotions.”

In 2011, Julian Birkinshaw told Steve Denning (@stevedenning) of Forbes: “The trouble is, our existing orthodox view of management has been a great success for many decades, so its gradual decay is not readily visible to those in the middle of it. But there are many indicators that business executives have lost their legitimacy and that the quality of management, as currently practiced, is simply not as good as it could be.”

This year, Gary Hamel (@profhamel) was the guest speaker at a WorkHuman conference and said beforehand, “Only 13% of employees around the world are truly engaged in their work — so while they may be showing up physically, they’re leaving most of their initiative, imagination, and passion at home. I think it’s fair to argue that most organisations squander more human capability than they actually use. Until this changes, we can’t expect our organisation to be adaptable or innovative.” He adds, “I think our understanding of leadership needs to change.”

Of course, you only need to read current articles such as Emma Brudner’s “10 Terrible Management Practices That Kill Motivation”, Geoffrey James’ “11 Habits of Highly Ineffective Managers” or Ruby Lowe’s “6 Ways To Cope With A Terrible Manager” to grasp the sad reality that management today still suffers from the same ills that made Peter Drucker sigh, “So much of what we call management consists in making it difficult for people to work.”

Four “nextabilities”

During the last year The Nextsensing Project (which I founded in 2012 and continue to lead) — 27 team members of 17 different nationalities based in 24 cities around the globe — tried to isolate the absolutely essential abilities needed for 21C managers to be successful. We deem these abilities so important that we tagged them “nextabilities” and four skills rose to the top of our list.

Thinking about these four is perhaps a good way to see what’s wrong with management as it’s practised today. We determined that leaders need to

  • expand their sensitivity to the people and world around them
  • take a stand on what’s critically important to the firm
  • create a new order, a better way of working for all, and
  • lead with foresense — both demonstrate and reward behaviours that match the view of the future state of the organisation

Earlier, I mentioned that four companies were mentioned in The Story of Next; those companies were selected because their leaders seem to embrace one or more of the above abilities. It can be done, and I am pleased to report that more firms seem to be heading in this direction. What about the others? Since I am privileged to interact regularly with a broad range of managers and firms, allow me to show how, in too many cases, management as it operates today is frequently the opposite of what’s needed for companies to reach their “next”.

Expanding sensitivity? Because managers are over-goaled, overtasked and overburdened — with e-mails and voicemails hitting them on a 24/7 basis — there’s little time to explore new intellectual horizons nor pay much attention to the softer (human) side of management. The result is that they are often insensitive not only to what’s happening in their own workplaces but also what may be happening in their competitive landscape. As with any job, management can become a rut, then a ditch, then a chasm. Managers can, and do, become blind to employee desires, workplace needs, and marketplace trends.

Taking a stand? Managers I talk to often sound as if they are living in a precarious state of mind and employment. Deadlines for goals remain ultra-tight, and few managers see any meaningful organisational commitment to leadership development. As a result, the point of many managers’ careers seems to be about achieving exactly and only what their boss stipulates, regardless of whether it boosts the productivity and competitiveness of the company. Few managers will admit that they are trying to stay under the radar, yet that is often the outcome of a latent desire to simply punch a checklist provided by their boss. The idea of standing out by demanding new ways of doing business is seen as too risky, even though that is what would most motivate those following their lead.

Creating a new order? The Conference Board recently reported that “90% of executives understand the importance of employee engagement, [yet] fewer than 50% understand how to address this issue.” While managers might see a clear need (and even possess a strong desire) to change the status quo, few possess the knowledge or skill set to implement new procedures or systems that will take the firm to a new level. Then, too, such a change in attitude often must be sanctioned from the top. This creates an atmosphere in which everyone seems to be looking for someone else to take the first step forward. That usually proves to be a very long wait. Yet, the essence of the problem is the same as it has been for many years: the status quo too often dominates the ability of people to effect needed change. A new order may be needed and wanted, but it’s too often suppressed by powerful company norms in place for years.

Lead with foresense? When the status quo way of managing prevails, little time is spent thinking about how to operate in new ways. This, in essence, was the reason why the quality improvement programmes on the 1980s were so hard to put in place. Entrenched, if not hardwired, behaviours deep in organisational cultures impeded or blocked the proposed new ways of operating. Today, it’s little different. “That’s the way it’s always been done” still reverberates as the #1 put-down of anyone who tries to establish a new standard of performance. Anyone doubting this should make a list of the 10 most important process chains that exist in his or her firm — from creating a sales order to shipping products or delivering services. When was the last time any of these was changed in a fundamental way? Talking change must beget walking change, or nothing changes. The leader with foresense will both emulate a new way of doing things and reward those who follow suit. Such an event remains rare. Too rare.

Top of the leadership agenda

The Glassdoor Team has put together an excellent e-book tied to “Essential HR and Recruiting Stats for 2016”. It’s a compendium of findings from numerous sources that provide an interesting picture of the human side of global enterprise today. In its report, you will see statistics such as “1 in 2 employees have left their job to get away from their manager at some point in their career” or “84% of organisations anticipate a shortfall in the minimum number of qualified leaders over the next five years.” In all, it underscores what so many students of leadership have long known: that too often what’s holding back companies are the people now leading them.

Companies are starting to accept the fact that this century demands a kind of leader who is unlike those of the past. As such, for those firms who capped their own performance by accepting the existing team at the top, consider this a wake-up call. The first thing that should be on the leadership agenda for these organisations is the pressing need to develop a much stronger group of managers for the future, people who have the right abilities to move things forward.

 

Joseph Pistrui is Professor of Entrepreneurial Management at IE Business School in Madrid. He just published a free e-book and video, The Story of Next, which can be found on the nextsensing website. He can be reached at joseph.pistrui@nextsensing.com.

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