During my frequent conversations with managers, executives and business owners, on the state of leadership in their organizations, a recurrent challenge faced by most is the lack of time. Everyone appears to be busier than ever, struggling to complete lengthy task lists, appointments, and calls, while running daily operations. Who has time for strategic thinking and leadership skills improvement?
The prolonged economic downturn, regardless of current official optimism and improvement trends, has put enormous pressure at all levels of these organizations, particularly those in senior positions: more work and less resources, higher demands for results and performance, numerous stakeholders claiming for attention, etc. “It won’t get better anytime soon”, is what I hear from clients and colleagues. This realization brings dissatisfaction to the job of being a leader.
I was reminded of a particularly tough year in one of my previous jobs, as General Manager of Leadership, Organization and Communications, for a large, 4,000 employee strong business. Over a period of only 12 months the organization underwent three major crisis events: First, we implemented a complex, system-wide strategic agreement that significantly modified employee compensation, work rules and productivity, which took the better part of the previous six months to negotiate.
While recovering from that execution, which created numerous operational problems, our parent company announced that our subsidiary would be spun off and sold to the highest bidder. This second event created the need for managers and leaders to split themselves: running daily operations and regular business, as well as developing all the legal, strategic and financial information packages together with an investment bank and external consultants.
Finally, after promoting our company to as many as four different potential investor groups, the parent company reversed its decision when none of the bids reached the minimum sale conditions. Immediately, they announced that in order to continue operations, our management team had to implement a drastic downsizing reducing capacity and headcount by almost a third (1,000 full time employees).
All of us worked hard and without taking any breaks, and had been doing so for many years. To say that the management team was busy was the classic understatement. And while the company provided additional resources to support our incremental workload (bankers, consultants and lawyers), none of us got (or asked for!) leadership support. We each resorted to our own, personal contacts for mentoring or coaching (former bosses and colleagues, who were sympathetic to our challenges, but who could not provided a formal, structured process to improve our effectiveness as leaders).
I know that our performance did not reach the highest levels of quality and results, in part, because the increased workload and multiple priorities created a tunnel vision in our leadership behaviors. We all worked hard to accomplish short-term goals, and we hoped for the best when it came to securing the organization’s levels of engagement, alignment and motivation. As time went by our company underwent more critical events (managed in more or less the same fashion), and eventually spiraled down towards bankruptcy and liquidation.
Most of the companies I consult with today are nowhere near these levels of crisis and frantic activity, but I do recognize troubling signs: people are exhausted, pressured to do more with less, and virtually no resources are being deployed to support better leadership skills and development. It is as if business owners and boards are simply hoping that their leaders will eventually find time to create their own effectiveness and improvement programs, once the current crisis is resolved (more sales and growth, or concentration and rationalization of the business).
My key question is: why are leaders so reluctant to seek support in leadership effectiveness? Insecurity? Fear for being criticized? Too much trust in their skills? Budgets are being allocated to recruit specialists in finance, marketing, IT, legal and regulatory issues, etc. These are areas that most leaders have no problem to declare their reliance in outside experts. But when it comes to the people related aspects of running an organization: articulating and inspiring a vision, creating a culture of motivated and engaged colleagues, developing current and future talent, etc. there is a disconnect between the needs and the investments that are eventually justified.
I can speak from experience that busier times can almost certainly create the kind of tunnel vision that eventually seals the fate of many organizations. Fortunately, today, the market is richer with more professionals than ever in the fields of leadership effectiveness, organization improvement, and development of the skills, behaviors and competencies that can prevent major failure in businesses and other types of organizations.
Dear Leader, are you ready to leave the tunnel and ask for support?