When I was a general manager of a leading consumer business in the mid-90’s, one of my managers came to me one day and challenged me with the statement: “We are over-emphasizing leadership and under-emphasizing management.” I pondered that, not understanding his point initially, and subsequently concluded that he was right and went about changing my leadership approach to bring management and leadership into right balance. Since that time, however, whether in my role as a business executive or presently as a consultant, I continue to see the “over-led and under-managed syndrome” regularly, even in a tough economy like the current one (where you’d expect the opposite issue, “over-managed and under-led,” to be more common). What are typical symptoms of this all-too-common leadership problem?
- A company experiencing consistently poor execution in projects, programs, new product efforts, etc. Deadlines that get missed routinely, meetings that generally don’t start on time, and an accompanying malaise of “that’s just how it is (and always will be) victim’s mentality” prevailing within the organization.
- Seasoned personnel who really know the business and can “do their jobs in their sleep,” who end up often “doing their jobs in their sleep.”
- Hard-driving employees who issue lots of “friendly fire” while trying to push things forward and find themselves routinely locking horns with colleagues, having little or no idea of why they are feeling isolated, avoided and misunderstood.
- A lack of accountability in the culture, with many “hiding in teams” to avoid personal responsibility and others clinging to narrow job descriptions with an accompanying “that’s not my job” perspective.
- A workforce and greater culture of “worker bees” and doers, who busily and dutifully do their everyday jobs, but who aren’t developing the skills to grow professionally. This often shows up in companies continually needing to bring in talent from outside to fill key leadership roles, with the “have nots” who’ve been in the business feeling left behind and increasingly disenfranchised.
- A company that over-relies on “tribal knowledge” and does not have solid processes, resulting in too many activities that are reactive and/or ad hoc.
- An overly “leader centric” environment, wherein the leader makes “every” decision and “call every play” like a quarterback drawing up plays in a sandlot football game. Such decision-making is cumbersome and slow, trapping the leader into get over-involved in too many minor issues and relegating the rest of organization to being tactical and myopic (see “worker bees” comments above, 5th bullet), leading some to “do their jobs in their sleep” (2nd bullet above) and others to “call their own plays” out of frustration (3rd bullet above). All of this contributes to ongoing problems with accountability (4th bullet above), making it tough for the business to execute well (bullet #1). The leader, bogged down in the everyday, doesn’t get to drive a strategic agenda as much as he/she would like to and, even when he/she does step out as such, often feels disconnected or “out of touch” to the rest of the organization.
Why does this syndrome exist commonly?
- For executives, strategy setting and the accompanying visioning activities can be more fun and heady than the “everyday management stuff.”
- Laziness: related to prior, it’s harder to muster energy for the “unfun” things: holding people accountable; giving needed “tough love” feedback; jumping in and rolling up your sleeves to help with key, “unsexy” efforts; etc.
- As businesses progress beyond startups, the visionary founder wants to continue as “master inventor” or spend all of his or her time in the future.
- Many leaders simply don’t know how to manage. They may have “grown up” professionally in a “small town” business that got bigger and more complex, but never developed their management skills (often including underdeveloped self-management), or they may be strong individual contributors/doers who simply don’t work well with or through others, more effective as “lone wolves,” “technicians” or “dictators.” Some leaders are visionaries who simply cannot relate to the everyday and people and issues in the “real world.”
There is a leadership hierarchy in work that can be categorized as: Do, Manage, Lead. If the “doing” is not happening well, the company’s core operations and processes are faltering and customers (and/or employees) are not being taken care of. Problematic doing will kill a business and leaders need to make sure that the doing is getting done right, with managers/leaders part of “all hands on deck” as necessary. Managing is about making sure that the doing is done in the most effective ways possible, that the “right things” are getting done the “right way” in sustainable fashion. Leadership happens best when the doing and managing houses are in order; it is about where to go as a company and preparing the organization to get there. As managing is in the middle between doing and leading, it is often mistaken for either or both, or it is too often ignored or downplayed. But, since “good execution beats good strategy” (paraphrasing Tom Peters) and since managing is about sustaining and improving upon good execution, the over-led and under-managed syndrome is a prescription for failure. As preparation for strong management, leaders need four levers to ensure that their organizations appreciate, build and sustain strong management practices:
- Getting to strategic clarity: the company’s mission and vision, stated in inspiring and challenging terms while also succinct, tangible and practical. Achieving strategic clarity means answering, in very concrete terms, two questions that are core to a company’s mission: “What impact are we prepared to be held accountable for?” and “What do we need to do—and not do—in order to achieve this impact?”
- Anchoring strategic clarity in a few key metrics: people need to track “How are we doing?”—it’s a key way to help them self-manage (and strong self-management is the most sustainable management) and hold each other accountable.
- Building and aligning the senior leadership team: in the areas from #1 and some of #2 above, along the company’s core values and criteria for assessing employee performance and potential.
- Establishing objectives throughout the organization that enable #1, include the metrics from #2 that pertain to the role and/or department, and are guided by the core values of #3.
What to do about the over-led and under-managed syndrome and where to start as a leader?
- Manage yourself: be on time; deliver on commitments; be informed, current and prepared; model the behavior you expect from others. Remember: leaders go first.
- Be clear and get buy-in regarding priorities and objectives: the company’s, the department’s/team’s, and the individuals’. Apply “SMART” guidelines to the objective-setting process, ensuring that objectives are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-bound.
- Establish and sustain ongoing communications methods/processes, to keep the organization attuned to business performance and progress, key issues, status of priorities, etc.
- Hold people accountable for commitments and emphasize results.
- Ensure an effective, formal employee review process, not instead of “in the moment,” less formal feedback, but as a regular, structured and standardized supplement to ongoing feedback.
- Have metrics to track progress and report cards that share key metrics in clear, user-friendly and digestible fashion.
We are talking about the primary requirements for a culture of strategic execution that follows Group50’s Business Hierarchy of Needs®. Effective strategies are fully ingrained in everything we do and leadership tools and skills development are a significant part of our organizational development practice. Take a look and feel free to give us a call to discuss how you can be more effective at leading and managing people. About the author: Steve Sharp is a senior consultant with Group50® Consulting and heads Group50’s Strategic Execution practice. Steve and the Group50 team are all former executives with well-known manufacturing and distribution companies who understand what it takes to put together and manage the implementation of a successful strategic plans. Group50 Consultants have significant experience in leadership and organizational development for major companies including Avery Dennison, Black & Decker, US Postal Service and others, utilizing leadership tools such as learning maps, metric dashboards, Cascade, 360 reviews and others. You can request more information here, or call (909) 949-9083.
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