Romancing the stone

Discovering the power of “with”

“Design thinking is a waste of time”. “I don’t need my management team to co-design strategy, I know what needs to be done”. “There’s nothing wrong with our strategy, the problem is execution”. “I really need my management team to step up”. These are examples of what CEOs of small and medium sized firms have told us.

We have also had an opportunity to hear from their management team members. We can see their agency draining out. That is a fancy way of saying that they gradually feel more powerless even as the CEO is demanding that they get more done. 

As an ex-CEO my own story is that when I felt most powerful, I was the most toxic to my team’s agency. My certainty infected their power. A recent phone call from an Organisation Development colleague who is struggling with his CEO’s approach to strategy and design reminded me of this. He was deflated and disempowered, as nothing he proposed was being adopted. In his case, a technocrat CEO demanded growth and talked about valuing team members but could not create the organisational conditions that foster growth. Every initiative was being shut down by the certainty of the CEO, and the organisation has a history of hitting a growth plateau and then shrinking again.

Contrast that story with more positive correspondence from another Organisation Development colleague. Martin Kopsch recently shared a wonderful story about a great South African business leader, Martin Preece who was the COO of De Beers Group at the time of the story. In this story, Martin Preece powerfully created the conditions for a culture of safety through his actions, not just his words:

He invited everybody to phone him at any time if they needed help with their situation or had suggestions regarding how to improve safety. That also took guts, but he was true to his word.

Employees travel from Musina to Venetia mine along an 80km stretch of road, every day. The speed limit on this road is either 80 or 100km/h. You never overtook Martin Preece on this road as it was known he travelled at the speed limit. I was travelling a distance behind him one morning, when a contractor’s LDV overtook me, and then overtook Martin. A short while later, at the entrance to the mine, I saw Martin in conversation with the LDV driver. Later that day I heard that Martin cancelled their contract that day and contracted with a new supplier. His reason? “If that’s their attitude to Safety, then I will not allow them onto my mines.”

In this story, we have a leader who did his own work (share the vision for safety, and make himself available), invited agency (called on all to improve safety) and showed a willingness to work with others (call me).

Leadership literature talks about three important leadership transitions: (1) getting work done myself, (2) getting work done through others and (3) getting work done with others. We are not sure that they are exactly transitions – they are more like layers. Whatever the position, there is still “my work” to be done, and there is some managerial command required. 

Many entrepreneurs have made it to this point – working hard (myself) and delegating (through). Not many add the third layer – working with others. Corporate employees that manage to climb the corporate ladder generally learn to work with others as there is little choice in a corporate environment. Even the solo specialists have a relational context in a large corporation. Entrepreneurs suffer from the fact that their first job title in the firm was “boss”.

Middle management responds to the style from the top. The management style of many entrepreneurial firms becomes “certainty merchant” (getting buy in) and not “agency merchant” (generating human potential). Working through people diminishes their agency and turns them into a pair of hands waiting to be told what to do. Working with people increases their agency and liberates their power to help the organisation.

Even in complicated environments where a technical expert leads, technical teams can either be commanded or consulted. Command works fine if the leader is smart, and the overall organisation is simple. For the first few years everything goes well, and prosperity seems assured. But as the firm grows and adds more teams, complication becomes complexity. When the emboldened CEO decides to expand into new geographies and or markets – then the complexity cloud drifts into everything. At that point, leadership needs to be distributed – but the organisation (and the CEO) has no way to navigate the complexity other than shouting louder commands. Technical leaders might struggle to see that, and keep trying to work “through”, without a way to work “with”.

Often these entrepreneurial CEOs come across as clear, experienced, battle scarred. They may have been right enough times to have survived for 10 or 20 years. Maybe 30 years. They have seen people come and go. They have solved problems, grown, made some money, earned some recognition. If they keep it small – they can keep going even as they feel old age creeping on. But leading second and third stage growth cannot be sustained if the leader is a command-spider in the web. 

The heart of that most powerful leader would have to change. Charan, Drotter, and Noel (The Leadership Pipeline, 2000) talked about a values-shift that must take place. Value shifts are easier to write about than to achieve. For growth in complex environments, leaders need to value sharing power with others, and to value growing the agency of the people around them. 

Many corporate leaders learn this early in their careers. Entrepreneurial leaders learn later, after watching their dreams flutter away through another failed attempt at growth. Expensive lessons. 

In the old adventure movie “Romancing the Stone” a writer must change a brash mercenary and so save her sister by finding a priceless gem called “El Corazon” (the heart). It’s a fun metaphor. She and the brash mercenary figure out how to work together, find the gem, and the ending is a happy one.

Organisation Development theories and practices help organisations to unleash the power of “with”. Good facilitation creates the space for a CEO to practice the art of “with”. Have you learned to “lead with” and not just “lead through?” How is that working for you? If you or your organisation are struggling to move beyond through, talk to us. We would love to hear from you.