June 30, 2014 13 Comments
“It is the men behind who make the man ahead.”
American editor and author, Merle Crowell (1906-1959)
I have recently been invited to give the opening keynote at the 2014 HRM Expo in Cologne, Germany this coming October, my given topic being “Are we ready for workplace democracy ?” The fact that I wrote a blog piece on this topic last March (see “Are we ready for workplace democracy ?” posted March 17, 2014) may actually be the main reason that I received this invitation.
In this post, I reasoned that notwithstanding the changing face of management towards greater freedoms in the workplace, people still needed some direction and structure in their work lives, whilst accepting that this is significantly less than what was needed in my, and previous, generations. I also cited my reasons for rejecting the idea that business leaders should be democratically elected by their staff, as I had seen in one case, as being a leap too far. I felt that I would still rather have them appointed by the board and senior management.
I still believe this, but I do have some serious concerns about the way we generally seem to select, develop and promote our business leaders, as despite the changes we are seeing in our new mobile, connected world, these practices seem to have changed little over the last 50 years, including some Business Schools where the business case studies used can be significantly older than the students (see “Business leadership isn’t changing quickly enough” posted October 10, 2011). I have also been critical of the fact that senior management in larger companies tends to be suspicious and wary of promoting creative, imaginative people who are prepared to take some calculated risks and drive needed changes in an ever-changing world, in favour of promotion of those who are more inclined to protect the status quo. Senior executives do love to promote in their own image.
One of the other problems that I see is that there appears to be a growing belief amongst many that leadership and management can be easily taught, and taught quickly, and to foster this belief we have seen a growing availability of short, sharp, quick-hit training courses that seem to cater to the same clientele who see books like “The one minute manager” and “Who moved my cheese” as being great tomes on business life. This “leadership development” industry has grown into a multi-billion dollar business, in the main turning out managers who believe they know all that they need to know to successfully lead a team. I have, for example, interviewed many young MBA graduates who believe that they are ready for a management role immediately upon graduation, whereas I have always seen an MBA as being equivalent to buying a fishing license, which gives you the right to sit at the river, but which still means that you have to learn how to actually catch fish.
I have no doubt that some elements of management and leadership can be taught, but the reality is that becoming a capable leader and manager is a journey of discovery and experimentation over one’s lifetime, rather than being a destination that one reaches after reading a few “pamphlets” and some attendance on a few “quickie-how-to” courses. I recently had a newly appointed manager ask me whether I could give him an hour of my time to tell him about the key elements of management so that he could become effective quickly. Up until his sudden appointment into a management role, no-one had thought about how to prepare him properly for the move from an individual contributor to having responsibility for a team of people. I was delighted that he was keen to understand the role of a manager, but somewhat dismayed that he felt that “an hour of my time” was enough to get him started.
Another problem that we face today is that, lacking other empirical measures of management excellence, the main way that we tend to identify and recognise outstanding leadership in the business world is based almost entirely on the financial results, which often disregards at what expense these are achieved. A good example of this tendency, were the accolades heaped on the management of Enron right up until the final moments of its sudden and spectacular death. As a result of this focus on “show me the money”, the biggest fee earners and highest revenue generating sales people are the ones who most commonly get promoted, in the belief that they will somehow automatically understand how to pass these skills on to others, and the fact that they could sell product and services was an indicator of leadership qualities.
The issue is that when it comes to selecting future leaders, just looking at their potential leadership skills, based on past performance, is not enough, as it is critical that one also evaluates their “followership” skills.
The critical question is “Would anyone follow them if they didn’t have the title ?”
This situation was well brought home to me during my own career when a colleague of mine, who had been a successful regional President, was appointed to the role of Global CEO. Despite his previous successes, and despite having been able to build a small band of devoted acolytes, he was not able to build broad “followership” in the company. After only about a year in the role, there was a general uprising amongst staff that forced the board to rethink his appointment and resulted in his subsequent removal.
To me, this was at least a real example of workplace democracy at work.
This taught me not only the power of mob rule, but also the fact that a true leader cannot be defined by his own leadership persona, but is more defined by the number of, and the passion and commitment from, his followers.
As said by Harvard University Professor Barbara Kellerman “Followers are more important to leaders than leaders are to followers.”