A leader I met with once said something that has stuck with me. “Most people are trying to do what they believe is in the best interest of the organization. The trouble is they may not have the same point of view on what that is. And that leads to chaos.”
As an example, take the case of two account managers who are serving the same customer who is going through a difficult period and who are both under pressure to reduce prices on upcoming orders. One account manager agrees, believing that loyalty to this longstanding customer is in the company’s best interests. The other account manager refuses, believing that doing so will lead to price erosion across customers and put the profitability of the company at risk.
We have here two people operating with the best of intentions and trying to do the right thing. Both options are valid. The conclusions they reach, however, are in direct conflict with each other, and clearly create confusion with the customer.
We have to decrease our obsession with leadership and increase our focus on good management. This column highlights one reason leadership is, and always will be, critical to the success of an enterprise. Leaders provide the guidance others need to make decisions and take actions. Without overarching vision, values and guidelines, organizations run the risk of expending a lot of energy in pursuit of the wrong goals.
Good leaders provide a compass
A good leader provides a team or organization with vision, values and guidelines. These are critical to helping people make the best possible decisions and operate in a way that advances the company’s strategy and objectives. A good leader provides clarity, decision criteria, and help in maintaining consistency across people and over time. Is the company’s core value to maintain customer relationships at all costs? Is it to drive profitability no matter what? What are the strategies and values our two account managers should use to guide their decisions?
When a leader fails to provide clear direction, the result is always the same: Employees struggle with ambiguity; decisions are delayed or deferred or punted upward and; politics start to become more important than principles.
Good leaders coach others around key principles
To build culture and values across an organization requires a lot of people to act in concert. A good leader monitors how well employees understand and adhere to direction and guidelines. As coaches, a good leader helps others think through implications that can impact the broader team’s goals and objectives. Once people have orienting values and principles, their ability to think and operate independently accelerates.
Good leaders hold people accountable to the values and principles – including themselves
There are times when every leader needs to confront a difficult decision that puts principles to the test. We can all think of examples of people who are tolerated, often for years at a time, because they consistently deliver outstanding performance by following their own rules. As a leader, do you tolerate good performance but behaviour that is inconsistent with core principles, or demonstrate that commitment to the values trumps individual performance? If performance is the core value, there is not a dilemma. But if how people accomplish their goals is a core value, allowing this situation to continue communicates very strongly that there is, in fact, no leadership compass and principles are merely suggestions. A good leader understands that saying one thing and doing another undermines all other efforts to drive consistency. He recognizes that it fundamentally damages his own credibility, and that of the organization.
To lead requires one to consistently uphold core values and principles and to reinforce their importance on an ongoing basis. In the same way that a child who is taught to ‘always tell the truth’ will point out when a parent is lying, employees are quick to spot a lack of integrity in those above them. When a leader does not consistently demonstrate core values and principles, it is impossible to expect it of others.
The majority of us are proud of what we do and want to do a good job for the companies we work for. When leaders have a vision and guiding principles they consistently communicate, it makes the job of managing people much easier because everyone is marching in the same direction. When leaders complain to me that people are working against each other, that they are not aligned, that they don’t seem to ‘get it’, I tell them to do one thing: look in the mirror.
Rebecca Schalm, PhD, is founder and CEO of Strategic Talent Advisors Inc., a consultancy that provides organizations with advice and talent management solutions.