By Erik Chilian
Everyone has an idea of what “leadership” is or what “leaders” are supposed to do. Though all leadership has commonalities, executive leadership is different in important ways. Executive leaders (ELs) must frequently step into the unknown and into the chaos in order to bring order, organization, and orientation. When this is done successfully, great organizations apply processes to reinforce and sustain this newly created platform from which success can be consistently launched. Regardless of your skill sets, how you spend your time between these creative and sustaining efforts is a high determinant of your effectiveness as an executive leader.
1. Too Much Processing, Not Enough Conquering
Mature organizations have earned their longevity (in part) by effectively establishing processes to protect and fuel their unique value. Unfortunately for ELs, these processes can become a safe, low-risk space in which to operate. In fact, for some, it becomes addictive. These processes are often proven activities where transformations have already taken place. Significant or breakthrough progress, by definition, will not find its genesis here. Said another way, process has primarily the maintainer of “progress that has already been made”, not the creator of it. Even more so, all process has a half-life. It eventually becomes archaic, bureaucratic and cumbersome. This is where transformative executive leadership must step in… guided by a conviction to higher priorities. ELs must understand the need to modify process or to scuttle it altogether, if the priorities of the organization can be accelerated by other or improved means. More importantly however, the role of the EL is not to linger in the “already established”, it is to forge new paths, better connections and to accelerate innovations.
I encourage ELs to develop priorities and then muster the conviction to consistently follow them:
• Away from processes that are already working well and can be delegated.
• To prune, reorient or even sever processes that aren’t serving priorities effectively enough
• Into the unknown or the chaos, where no one else in the organization is yet treading in order to conquer it
One of my favorite books is Team of Teams, by General Stanley McCrystal. In it, McCrystal recounts how coalition forces were on their heels in Iraq and what he and others did to regain the initiative. His story telling approach is humble and he credits so much to the abilities and heart of his warriors. But you cannot read the book without seeing the brilliance and the bold “Executive Leadership” of McCrystal. He realized that coalition warfighting, in this theatre of combat, had become a leviathan, weighed down by the summation of processes it had become. And as a result, the otherwise “superior in every way” coalition was being blistered by a smaller, nimbler enemy.
McCrystal comments on a crew that was steeped in dysfunctional processes:
“…(Their) attachment to procedure instead of purpose offers a clear example of the dangers of prizing efficiency over adaptability.”
Today’s ELs must fight the comfort of spending the majority of their time in refining and managing process. They must develop and gain conviction around transformational priorities and then step into the chaos and create the future.
2. Too Much Focus on the Short Term and Not Enough on the Long Term
Juice can be made today… for consumption today. But no one pays $50 for a bottle of juice… no one says, “Wow, that was a great bottle of juice.” Juice extracts its highest price from the market when it is fresh (its highest purpose). As time elapses, so does the value of the juice. Wine on the other hand, takes great skill to make, to process, to age… and as we all know, its value increases over time.
Organizations need many people who “make juice every day”. But ELs should spend their time sparingly at the juice press. And yet, this is perhaps the most common way ELs throw time away. The further a leader’s position is removed from the front-line, the further her time horizon ought to be for influencing the actions of the front line. ELs must spend less time immersed in what their teams, customers and competitors are doing today, and more time on what they should / will be doing next year and beyond.
What’s difficult is that short term efforts bear extremely tangible results. ELs can get addicted to the results they are able to affect in the short-term. They learn at some level that when they tell the organization to “jump”, it does! And so, not only does this fuel their self-esteem, they begin to think that the organization is only capable of “jumping” if they “supervise” each leap. Often, they shift the focus of the entire organization to each of these singularly focused priorities, causing everyone to neglect their many-other spinning plates. This may sound like I’m setting up a “caricature of an EL” that is easy to “knock down”, but I believe we’ve all drifted into mind-sets too focused on execution today. As ELs, we’ve all gone AWOL on OUR jobs… which is to strain to see the future and to deal with it before it gets here.
These are some examples of the things we “think” and sometimes even say, when we begin making juice and neglecting the challenge of fine wine making”:
• Was anybody going to take action if I didn’t intervene?
• Why do I always need to be the one to fix these problems?
• It just seems like no one gets anything done unless I make it a priority.
• We would not have achieved the results we did last month if it were not for my actions.
ELs ought to have priorities in which the future is the targeted timeframe, not today. The front-line and even middle-management should be free to “make juice” while ELs should concern themselves with fine wine-making.
Now, before you write this off as an “I already knew all of that”, consider this. A very broad study was done by PWC in 2015 where they measured 6,000 executive leaders to identify which were execution-oriented leaders (process and short term) and which were strategic-oriented leader (transformational and long term). Transformative-strategic-oriented leaders accounted for only 8% of the total leaders in this large sample. Execution oriented accounted for the other 92%. Even more disturbing is that the study was also done a decade earlier, in 2005, where the number was roughly the same, at 7% and 93%. As much as we learn about leadership, the more we want to be transformative leaders, the data says we are basically staying the same year after year. It is in our nature to live in the security of established process and to measure our importance by influencing actions and results that we can see today. This is human nature. And unfortunately, this is abysmal executive leadership!
I strongly encourage ELs to evaluate their priorities and how they are pursuing them. Are they spending too much time in process and not enough time immersed in the chaos of the new, more important frontiers? Are they spending time in activities serving the short term and not following priorities that will bear more valuable “wine” in the years to come?
One of the things TruNorth Partners really does well, is to help executive leaders and their organizations develop the most valuable priorities, gain conviction around them and then follow them into the exciting frontiers of growth and value.