Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Leaders and Proactive Organizations

All of us come across several instances in organizations where we feel the process owner could have demonstrated more 'ownership' or thought through the details of the process.

The result could be a combination of a very sloppy execution of the task, frayed tempers, disgruntled employees, unimpressed clients, upset managers, and a lot of finger pointing.

In most instances you would hear "but I was never told to do this..."; "I did not know this was my job"; I was expecting department abc to do this"; or a variation of the above.

There is clearly a lack of proactive action and ownership on the part of the individual or team or process owners.

Leaders, managers and the organization have a great influence and role in building a culture of ownership or proactiveness.

How an individual develops is largely dependent on the direct reporting manager of the individual, and then the culture of the organization.

Organization Culture as a topic has itself continued to be dissected, written about and discussed. i.e what creates a culture and how can we change it. I will not hazard to get into details of culture now, but surely will do so in a later article.

However, my take on how specifically a culture of ownership develops or can be inculcated is that it is largely dependent on the level of control that the leadership of the organization is comfortable or willing to give up. It also largely depends on the extent of 'Trust' that exists between leaders and subordinates.

Delegation and Empowerment also play a pivotal role in building this culture.

Another variable is the leaders' operating style - Micromanage vs. specify; highly directive vs. democratic; delegate vs. specify; Results vs. Checklists...

Leaders and strong personalities like to get things done the way they think is appropriate, which in itself is not a bad thing given their rich experience and the fact that they want to build towards their vision the way they think is fastest.
But where this could cause problems is when the leader over-directs, over-manages or over-specifies in most situations. Subordinates, in these scenarios, hesitate to do anything before taking permission, or checking at each stage, for each action and activity.
Managers usually do not discourage these, in fact many of them actually get an ego boost from their subordinates checking back with them before taking any or each small step! They feel in control!

This is counterproductive in several ways -

One this causes an unnecessary strain on the leader, a high degree of transactional load that could easily be delegated to the team. This is true at all levels of hierarchy - right from C-Level and senior P&L owners reporting into them; to project teams. After-all, why are so many capable individuals being paid salaries if not to do things on their own and use their brains?

Second - the team and reportees, over a period of time, turn into highly cautious, 'do only as told' lot and stop using their own judgment, creativity and thinking while doing any task. They wait for detailed instructions and do not dare to take any action till their boss has given an OK. They lose their initiative and originality and turn into an army of transaction processors.

The more independent ones might fight this out for some time, would try to do things their way etc and maybe do something radically better. But if they are a minority, and the leader continues to micromanage, they will either choose to leave rather than fight, or conform. Either way this is not the best of outcomes for the organization.

Aggregated at an organization level, if there are a large number of leaders who get into transactions rather than delegation, instructions rather than results etc, it will turn the organization into a slow, reactive, cautious, low-risk taker, and a dull place overall. Creative and innovative workers will slowly leave or conform, new people will be assessed on their ability to follow instructions and a culture of apathy and sluggishness slowly develops.

Another interesting point to consider here is the proportionately large impact of the leader on the building of this culture
- higher the leader in the organization's hierarchy, greater the impact. The top-down effect of leadership style can either build or destroy the 'ownership' culture at the execution level and lower down the hierarchy. It is a classical case of diffusion of leadership style.

If most team members in the organization hear their managers say 'let me check back from my boss' for most decisions, it means the organization is already well on its way to being a reactive, lack of ownership culture organization.

How to recognize and reverse this trend, or change a deep rooted culture itself if it has already set in, requires leaders to have the capability to pick these signals from various sources, employees, clients, allies and partners, and vendors. It requires them to read between the lines of loads of e-mails floating around. Look out if there is a high degree of 'I did my bit but the other did not do their bit' flying around and also an inordinate large number of managers attempting to highlight 'As directed by you i did this..' in their communications - watch out!

Other signs include frequent breaking down of processes involving more than one department, clients or employees giving direct or indirect feedback on increasing response times or degraded performance for previously efficient processes.

Recognizing these danger signs and hence reversing this requires leaders to step out of the hectic pace of daily transactions, observe, take feedback from relevant teams and people, create an environment of trust so people feel free to voice concerns, listen as against hear. It also requires leaders to have the ability to sift through the noise, that will ensue with opening direct channels of communication, and pick out the signal ( much like the LNA low noise amplifier in radios, Leaders need to have a high SNR - Signal to Noise Ratio!)

A culture of ownership differs from the opposite when leaders and managers set expectations and results, set direction, but not necessarily detail out all the steps and checklists. They allow a higher degree of independence in decision making, set authority limits and empowerment limits for all levels, and follow them. But they also define the boundary conditions for operations, and not necessarily let the teams free float and absolutely give a free reign! the extreme too leads to troubled organizations. Balance, middle path, whatever we call it, needs to be maintained.

I had intended to not write on ‘organization culture’, but as it turns out most of the above thoughts gravitate towards culture! But then, organization culture is to a very large degree a reflection of the organization leadership!

More on culture change and how it can be really effective in my coming articles.

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