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Monday, April 21, 2014

Leadership Is Customized

     “You’re being unfair. You let her do X or Y, but you won’t let me do it.”    
     That particular personnel problem confronted me early in my first managerial job, as a daily newspaper city editor. A basically fairminded person, at least in my own opinion, I was buffaloed.
     It took a while (never mind how long) for me to understand how to deal with the issue. Fairness is essential to effective leadership, but, it turns out, fairness to people does not mean identical treatment.
     Over the years, I have added to my management consulting the concept of customization of leadership. The good leader accounts for all the circumstances in relationships. Fundamental circumstances are the ability and commitment of the particular staff member.
     Back in the day, my leadership behavior would be to issue instructions (relative to my opinion of the ability of the staff member involved). Sometimes that would be quite a brief conversation. That’s it. I’d just wait for what might happen.
     If the ensuing activity or outcome was unsatisfactory in any way, there generally would be some level of conflict and lingering irritation and/or withdrawal. Over time, the respective attitudes would solidify into a relationship, maybe productive, or somewhat all right, distant or hostile.
     That pretty much was the way things worked themselves out. Maybe I would just do the hell-with-it thing, accepting whatever level of performance the person turned in, and maybe some moment would result in a blowup that would end the situation one way or another.
     I wasn’t much different from all the other managers I associated with or witnessed.
     One editor was a true throwback, not old but an oldtime thinker who had a striking way of managing newsroom personnel. First of all, he would tell job applicants, “If I hire you, the next 90 days will be the worst period of your life.” And he was true to his word.
     People who made it through the wringer and hung around a while became marvelous hires for all us editors at other newspapers. They were thoroughly grounded in the craft, and totally grateful to be off the hot seat.
     That editor also simplified the problem of defining what made a good news story: “What is news? News is what I say it is.”
     You have to admire the honesty and clarity of that philosophy. I did not, however, emulate that manager. His style of leadership did have its influence, though.

     I use the illustration to make the point that you can streamline the process of group activity, but in doing so you will narrow the scope of the potential results. And you’d better be right.
     Also, most importantly, you stifle creativity in everyone but yourself. You rob the enterprise of the knowledge and best talents of the people you lead.
     Years later, now a management consultant, I came across an excellent approach advocated by Marion E. Haynes in “Stepping Up to Supervisor.”
     In this construct, the manager-leader learns how well the individual knows and understands the work to be done, and how reliable the person is in showing up and devoting himself/herself to consistently doing it well.
     So the manager determines the job maturity and personal maturity of the person, and adopts an appropriate leadership style on a range from directive to collaborative. When a person joins the group, the leader will begin as an interviewer, instructor and close supervisor. As the person’s record builds, the observant manager adjusts accordingly.
     It is impossible to ignore the reality that, as the individual contributor’s professionalism rises – or is identified as high-level – the demands on the manager also rise. We’re all familiar with the frustration felt and exhibited by quality performers who work under the “direction” of not-so-quality bosses. And the mediocrity – or worse – of organizations whose management doesn’t provide direction to beginners or other low-performance workers.

     Turning the Haynes concept in the other direction, think of the maturity level of the manager on two tracks: skills in the management of process and skills in human relationships. As with the two-track approach to viewing individual contributor potential, the manager/leader who is to be excellent must be strong in both process and people. You can’t be just a taskmaster or only a buddy.
     What exactly do we mean by that?
     Well, when we do the classroom exercise of making separate lists of management skills and leadership skills, we put the process stuff (schedule, budget, work procedures) under “management,” and we put the change elements (vision, growth, persuasion) under “leadership.”
     Dana Morris-Jones, an organizational consultant, presented a good template example of  the combined demands in Mainebiz. The article is entitled “Create a culture that supports, rather than sabotages, innovation.”   http://www.mainebiz.biz/article/20140310/CURRENTEDITION/303069995

     A key part of the article says these are the practices to follow:

·         Bring multi-disciplinary teams together to define their own collective common vision, goal or objective.
·         Provide facilitative leadership that is neutral and respected by all.
·         Allow time up-front for learning about one another's values, assumptions, practices and methodologies.
·         Build skills in constructive dialogue, decision making and conflict resolution.
·         Provide rewards and incentives for outcomes only the group as a whole can produce.
·         Reinforce that creativity and innovation require time, exploration and experimentation.
·         Create an environment that encourages learning from mistakes and failures.

      That’s how you lead groups in innovation, the essential practice of leadership.
      Morris-Jones defines innovation as “the creation of something different and useful.” Leaders convince us to do things  we’re not otherwise going to do, sometimes quite difficult things in not-comfortable circumstances.
     We expect whoever’s up front there to devise and implement processes that will make it possible to accomplish this demanding outcome – and to assist the team with the motivation and discipline to get there. That takes a whole bunch of skills that come with experience, thoughtful analysis of what worked and what didn’t, management of time and focus, building skills of listening and persuasion.
     It also calls for wise management of that precious resource, human talent. And patience. Tolerance.   
     Fairness has an important place in all that. Identical treatment of people does not. Customized leadership is personal to each individual. That’s why it works.



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