A contemporary perspective of corporate leadership. By Geoff Cohen
Business is going through a metamorphosis. A chief executive can no longer rely on high profit as the sole benchmark for leadership. Society is angry about many things: pollution, environmental destruction, air quality, retrenchments, failure of the traditional family unit, excessive working hours.
At times, “rationalisation” is essential for survival, but repeated rationalising, restructuring and cost cutting is poor management and leadership practice.
Economic rationalist managers have provided, and will continue to provide, an invaluable service. They are like intensive-care medical specialists: once the patients have been stabilised, move them out of emergency into recovery.
Many such managers wear out their welcome by staying on, and corporate recovery never eventuates. They are rarely team players and, given the job that they have to do, are not trusted by staff.
None the less, it is possible to re-earn necessary trust and respect, and some remarkable managers have done so.
Some practical steps
No other time in history has seen such demand for strong leadership in the corporate world. There is a need for flexible, skilled professionals who can take a long-term, holistic view of the way ahead.
To achieve such a daunting objective, corporate leaders must learn to take risks as never before. They have to leave their “comfort zones” of being the ultimate determiner. They must build teams around them that appreciate the challenges of a positive, co-operative work environment and that do not rely on corporate titles to get things done. They must, through their winning ways, be able to achieve willing commitment from their staff. (During the recruitment process, and before making appointments, consider for a moment whether you would be happy to work for the person you are about to employ.)
The corporate vision and mission must be shared. Staff must play a meaningful part in strategic planning. If they are at all unfamiliar with the process, then training is a vital prerequisite to any planning sessions. Upward communication is just as important as sending messages down the line.
The leaders must ensure that decision making is devolved throughout the organisation. Turn the organisational pyramid upside down and redefine the layers of management as “support” areas, not as the abodes of decision makers.
Leaders must also put a stop to restructuring/re-engineering or whatever it may be called. Gaining respect as a leader is no easy task, and a stable, energised work environment is a great launching pad for a success.
If staff must be retrenched, it should be done quickly and in such a way as to preserve the dignity of the individual. Handled badly (it usually is), this is a primary cause of organisational instability (those that remain have long memories) and no amount of effort will bring leaders the respect they desire.
Truthfulness at all times is essential. Of course, there will be occasions when confidential information may not be disclosed. A good leader, if asked, will say so, and if possible provide some idea of when it will be possible to disclose such information. It is important to communicate and to take an interest in the wellbeing of employees. Praise (preferably public) is deserved for a job well done. Discipline and counsel are done behind closed doors.
A good leader is seen walking about, picking up a broom or scrap paper, helping people to shift a box or a chair if they are having difficulty.
And now for the “big one”. Shareholders need some essential education on the benefits of long-term sharemarket investment strategies. They need to understand a few facts:
- Best practice in customer service, environmental management and similar elements does come at a short-term cost, but the resultant increased market share is a most desirable outcome for all stakeholders.
- Generating regular profit by continuing, frequent cost cutting is a limited exercise and invariably weakens corporate market presence. There are consumers now who reject brands produced by businesses that have a publicised poor record in retrenchment while over-rewarding directors.
- The business is there “for the long haul” and the aim is for steady growth and quick response to opportunities. Stockmarket “players” in and out for quick profits do so at their own peril.
Remember that success as a leader is not something you can fairly determine. Peers can give you their perceptions, however the most valid and reliable assessment will come from the fine people who work for you.
How not to
How not to alarm the public
The award for the worst sales pitch goes to William Harvey, a 54-year-old New Yorker. Dressed in army fatigues and standing near the ruins of the World Trade Centre towers last October, Harvey gave an impassioned public address supporting Osama bin Laden. He told stunned onlookers that the September 11 terrorist attacks were retribution for the treatment of Islamic countries by the United States. He was arrested and charged with consciously disregarding an unjustifiable risk of public inconvenience or alarm.
How not to prove the obvious
Prize for the worst research and development goes to David Schmidt, assistant professor in mechanical and industrial engineering at a big university. Schmidt spent two weeks researching why shower curtains billow in and stick to the body. Using software designed to include spray patterns, Schmidt drafted a model of a typical shower. He then divided the shower area into 50,000 sections, and let the software run. The software used a technology called computational fluid dynamics to assess each of the 50,000 sections over 30 seconds of shower time. Schmidt explained what he had discovered: “What makes the shower curtain suck in is that you have low pressure on the inside and high pressure on the outside.”
How not to feed the birds
R&D runner-up was Mike Madden, a part-time inventor, who suffered whiplash when a squirrel landed on his head while he was out road testing a bird-feeding hat. He was walking through woodland when a large grey squirrel spied the nuts on the feeding tray mounted on his headwear. The beast leapt from the top of a tree and landed with such force that Madden was knocked to the ground and injured his neck. He has been taking painkillers and wearing a neck brace since the accident near his home in West Yorkshire.
Slithershanks liked to be told by management consultants how to get closer to his customers (for the sake of argument they would assume he had some). It was thus with some puzzlement that he realised members of his staff were upset because he had tried to re-engineer the corporation by selling their office space for landmine experiments.
After all, he had done worse things. Of course, nobody had found out then, but that still didn’t give anyone a reason to criticise his attempts to find new customer opportunities. Perhaps he should have read X-Engineering the Corporation by James Champy. Then he would have been able to X-cel and find the X-it:
“X-engineering requires would-be partners to change many if not most of their processes, the relative importance of all three categories of process … has to shift. Each partner company will probably find that it has fewer proprietary processes – those that are unique to it and essential to its competitive advantage – but the proprietary processes it retains will be fiercely defended.”