Thursday, September 5, 2013

Do You Know Which Situation Calls for Which Leadership Style?

By Bob Weissman
Former Chairman & CEO of Dun & Bradstreet

Back in the dark ages of my business school education, most of the time in class was spent on learning the theories and practices of business; marketing, financial analysis, logistics, etc. Very little was offered in the way of providing insight into the mysteries of managing people. Oh, there were case studies that asked for a perceptive situational analysis and a description of the remedial action to be taken, but it was implicitly assumed that if you could articulate an effective course of action, all parties involved would automatically step up and execute perfectly.

Of course, when I got out into “the real world”, I found that real life was
considerably messier.

I remember visiting my business school Dean a year after graduating. When he asked me if my training was proving useful, I responded that it was, with one exception: I said, “There was a problem I encountered with a particular employee where I knew that I had the answer. I had encountered an almost identical problem in one of my cases at school and I had had aced the course with my answer. There was only one thing – In the case, unlike in the real world, the employee didn’t tell me to go “bleep” yourself.”

The hard reality of having to work through other people to get things done was a challenge.

I watched how my boss did it and tried to emulate him. I also talked to my boss and asked him for advice.

His answer: “You are the Assistant to the President. As such, I will often ask you to accomplish things that are not achievable without the cooperation of others. The challenge is that you are in a staff position; no one reports to you. You cannot order anyone to do anything. Yes, you have the implied power of my office, but that is a hammer that I would recommend that you use very sparingly. Now, I don’t care how you get the job done: Beg, cajole, bribe, threaten, reward – whatever works for you. But remember, the acid test is if they are willing to help you the second time you ask them.”

It was invaluable advice.

I also found the work of Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard, who developed the theory of Situational Leadership. Wikipedia describes it thusly: “…The fundamental underpinning of the situational leadership theory is that there is no single "best" style of leadership. Effective leadership is task-relevant, and the most successful leaders are those that adapt their leadership style to the maturity ("the capacity to set high but attainable goals, willingness and ability to take responsibility for the task, and relevant education and/or experience of an individual or a group for the task") of the individual or group they are attempting to lead or influence. Effective leadership varies, not only with the person or group that is being influenced, but it also depends on the task, job or function that needs to be accomplished…”

Understanding the implications of this theory brought home the realization that I should always try to understand the incentives driving an associates’ behavior and that my incentives might not match up. Recognizing the gap made a huge difference in fashioning programs that met the needs of us.

As my career advanced, I managed programs less and less, while I spent more time on developing strategies that were executed by others. That led to another important insight, one which I learned from the CEO of a company where I sat on the Board.

When I met that gentleman he was not yet the CEO, but held a senior post.  I asked him what he thought his most important skill was. He responded by saying that he thought of himself as a “people broker”. He was meticulous in amassing a deep inventory of people and their associated skills and aspirations. When he needed to select a manager to lead an activity, he identified the critical attributes needed to be embodied by its leader, then matched that to his “inventory”. The last step in the process was to convince the candidate that taking the assignment was consistent with the candidate’s incentives. I recognized that, whether he realized it or not, his people brokerage was just Hersey-Blanchard applied in a real-life world.

In our technology and data intensive world, there remains a constant: success is driven by understanding and motivating people, not just understanding and deploying technology.

What do you think? I’m open to ideas. Or if you want to write me about a specific topic, let me know.

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