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Looking for Leadership

In 2000, Cisco Systems, led by John Chambers, was riding the crest of the internet bubble. Among the business pundits, Chambers was hailed, based on his leadership, as the "best CEO in the information age." Said Forbes, "You have to understand managers are empowered there in a way they just aren't at Oracle or Sun or HP or Intel." Interestingly, the same press just a year later came down hard on Chambers, accusing him, among other things, of "basking in a culture of [over]confidence."

Did Chambers and his management team forget how to lead after 2000? Effective leadership is not easy to see; and media perceptions colored by current results tell little about what effective leaders actually do. As we noted last month, it is impossible to measure leadership by objective measures. But as someone in charge, you need to be able to observe the signs of leadership, and to foster its development.

Leadership Tracks
Great leaders are able to accomplish significant things through others. While the leader's role is essential, it is not always evident. The old proverb, "When the leader is done the people say they did it themselves," is true. But we can see indirect evidence of effective leadership where significant results are achieved. Here are some "tracks" that effective leaders may leave:

  1. They have a relatively quiet office. Effective leaders don't tell people what to do (or how to do it) and they don't take the work back. Thus, people don't spend a lot of time parading to the leader's office to share work issues and problems that they want solved or blessed. This gives the leader time to do planning for the future.

  2. They discover and use existing support that others have overlooked. Well-run units often use fewer resources than other units.

  3. They don't let important things distract them from the critical ones. Since people will make important what the one in charge pays attention to, leaders don't let non-critical matters encroach on the work.

  4. They use "we" instead of "I" or "you." Effective leaders focus people on the cause and/or end, not themselves. You will not hear great leaders use the pronouns "I" and "you" much.

  5. They don't interrupt the work of others. Adopting a style of managing by walking-around sounds good, but don't expect effective leaders to spend a lot of time in the work spaces of their subordinates (unless they are coaching, supervising, or part of the team). Parachuting into the work context is usually more disruptive than helpful.

  6. Subordinates know how they are doing on the essential metrics. Effective leaders make sure those who do the work have useful knowledge of results.

  7. They celebrate success when people accomplish important targets with all who contributed. This can be done inexpensively. Importantly, great leaders say and mean, "Thank you." This is a great alternative to praise or other coercive "performance inducements" which are more likely to divert focus from the work.
Developing Leaders
Leaders are difficult to identify through typical objective measures so it behooves companies to develop leaders from the people they have. Some ways to develop good leaders:
  • Don't focus evaluation or assessment on personality behaviors. These evaluation systems will likely lead towards behaviors that don't leave the tracks just presented (e.g., they will become over-involved, make personal issues important, or seek to praise). Vague criteria such as "needs to be a better team player" are probably also not useful.

  • Help and encourage subordinates to evaluate their own performance and to seek counsel with peers who are also learning to be leaders.

  • Provide high-potential leaders big jobs so they develop. People learn by doing; leaders learn by being in charge.

  • Provide clear focus and direction for subordinate managers and get out of the way.
Chambers and Cisco lost to the market as their customers got burned by the bubble. The business press might evaluate the strategy choices after the fact, but they likely have little insight into the actual leadership ability of even the top managers.

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