How Leadership Makes a Difference

If you’ve got a generous budget and an appropriately-sized, energetic, motivated and productive staff, you can stop reading now. Clearly you’ve got more assets than most knowledge managers and must, as a result, be achieving great things in the world of knowledge management. If, however, you aren’t so fortunate, you might want to read further.

In this political season (or as one of the presidential candidates called it, this “silly season“), there’s a lot of talk about leadership. Unsurprisingly, much of that discussion is superficial. When you look back at some great leaders in this country, you realize that some of the talents they brought to the table are innate and simply cannot be purchased or developed. For example, George Washington was universally known as a great leader and, undoubtedly, that reputation was due to more than the mere fact that he was often the tallest man in the room. However, while having an imposing physical size was not sufficient, it certainly was helpful. Unfortunately, that’s exactly the sort of asset that is hard to purchase or develop. A different kind of asset is the moral compass Abraham Lincoln had or the personal courage Theodore Roosevelt had. While they may have been flawed men in many ways, they also had enormous strengths that ultimately made a huge difference in how they led and what they accomplished for this country.

For the purposes of this discussion, however, it’s useful to put Franklin Roosevelt front and center in your mind. The manner in which he led involved methods that can be developed in adult life. Furthermore, we are learning now that some of these methods are critical to good leadership in modern enterprises. Here are a few of these methods for your consideration:

How you deliver the message matters as much as the message itself

In day to day leadership, one of the most critical things you do is communicate what’s important and how it is to be accomplished. What isn’t always understood is that the way you communicate matters as much as (if not more, sometimes, than) the message itself. Looking back at FDR, he was very careful in his public appearances to project vitality, strength and optimism. But this was not just for show. Most of us, after all, have fairly good personal radar for detecting insincerity. Rather, he was able to project these things successfully because he believed them himself, truly embodied them, and had great faith in his overriding purpose.

Bruce MacEwen of Adam Smith Esq. reports on a study that compared the results of communicating a positive performance review accompanied by negative body language (e.g., frowns, narrowed eyes, flat voice, etc.) with communicating a negative performance review accompanied by positive body language (e.g., smiles, nods, good eye contact, open hand gestures, etc.) What the study found is striking: people who received positive reviews delivered with negative body language felt worse about their performance than people who received negative reviews delivered with positive body language. The latter felt encouraged and capable of making improvements. This study puts a premium on intentionality and clarity in leadership. You need to be sure that you are coherent and consistent in what you say AND how you say it.

Leadership is about more than achieving personal acclaim

By the time he became president, FDR had already been governor of a great state and had all the benefits of having grown up in one of the country’s leading families. He really didn’t need to burnish his résumé. Unfortunately, too many business “leaders” are in it for the glory and not as many have a cause truly worth fighting for. FDR had several Herculean tasks, including bringing the country out of the Great Depression and curtailing fascism. Are you working for anything more than your ego and your résumé?

Leadership means developing the best in others

One of the hallmarks of FDR’s leadership was that he understood that historic times required historic efforts. To that end, he called on the people of the United States to give more than the they thought they could give and be more than they thought they could be. History tells us that they answered that call.

FDR clearly understood that at the end of the day, leadership is not about you, it’s about the people you serve and lead. We now know that there are also some compelling business reasons for focusing on them rather than on yourself. An exhaustive study at Bell Laboratories followed the career trajectories of engineers in an attempt to identify the traits of star performers and determine how to recruit and retain the best engineers. In his paper, “Are We Selling Results or Résumés?: The Underexplored Linkage between Human Resource Strategies and Firm-Specific Capital,” William D. Henderson reports that what they found was striking:

– researchers found no relationship between performance and various social, psychological, and cognitive abilities, such as I.Q
– higher productivity among knowledge workers was attributable to several distinctive work strategies that were teachable
– controlled experiments showed large and persistent productivity gains for engineers who completed the training program, with women and minority workers posting the largest increases [emphasis added]

What this suggests is that building a great team depends less on recruiting stars, and more on how you develop the people who work with you. A great leader will take the time and make the effort to ensure their team learns the “distinctive work strategies” for success that the researchers at Bell Labs found were “teachable.”

In knowledge management, as in politics or any other discipline, good leadership is a rare asset. Those of us who have it will be ahead of the pack. The good news is that even members of that pack can develop some of the attributes of good leadership. And, when they do, we’ll all be much better off.

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True Leaders Value Mistakes

It’s a natural human tendency to run from failure. In our understandable need to avoid pain, we try to put it behind us and move on. (The more cynical would say, we sweep it under the carpet, shrug, and move on.) While I’d be the last one to recommend that we should wallow in misery, it is useful to remember from time to time that the main point of experience is to learn and grow. And, it is hard to learn and grow without a little reflection and analysis. Reflecting on your successes may give your ego a brief boost, but that in and of itself doesn’t always equip you for the next challenge. Reflecting on your mistakes can, if you’re careful about how you uncover, analyze and handle the information.

Nancy White at Full Circle Associates makes this point in her post, Learning from our mistakes, in which she reports on the remarkable after action review undertaken at Amazon after an embarrassing technical failure. What comes through her report is the integrity and decency inherent in the way Amazon handled what could have been an opportunity for upset, abuse and unhappiness in the hands of less skillful managers and a less mature organization. Their object wasn’t to find fault, but to learn. As Nancy White observes:

“Pulling our mistakes out and looking with them, alone and with the aid of colleagues, is a simple and effective learning practice. But it takes both a personal commitment to productively looking at our warts (rather than simple self-flagellation or guilt) and an organizational culture that values learning along with success. And we all know it… we learn more from our failures than our successes.”

I can’t stress enough the importance of leadership in this exercise. Every child knows how to deflect blame and finger point. That isn’t an effective after action review. That’s an exercise in avoiding responsibility. In Amazon’s case, the participants appear to have assumed responsibility and then taken the next vital step: they understood that this responsibility required them to learn from the event sufficiently to avoid repeating their mistakes. Very few of us do this without the right leadership. I don’t know who at Amazon led this effort, but I do commend them.

Leaders help us rise above our natural tendencies and move us along the path to doing the right thing for ourselves and for our organizations. However, this isn’t a isolated action. Well before the mistake occurs, a good leader will have put in place an organizational culture that emphasizes the importance of innovating, going out of our comfort zone, and taking reasonable risks. Above all, a good leader understands that innovation inevitably involves mistakes. A great leader knows how to use those mistakes to yield the maximum advantage (in terms of lessons learned and growth) for their team and their enterprise.

When you’re dealing with an organization that faces liability if it doesn’t reach the right result every time in a predictable, controlled fashion, mistakes take on an even greater importance. Consequently, there can be a tendency to sacrifice innovation and growth for predictability and control. In that environment, mistakes are barely tolerated and rarely encouraged. The problem is that an organization without mistakes is an organization without innovation and growth.

In our drive to avoid mistakes, we don’t always spend enough time learning how to react to mistakes in a manner that is productive. Therefore, when we do respond, it is often in an ad hoc way that doesn’t take advantage of the tremendous opportunity for growth presented by mistakes. The good news is that response patterns to mistakes are learned responses and can be improved — provided participants know they won’t become scapegoats or pariahs. Looking to cases like the Amazon after action review can provide some guidance on a better way to learn from mistakes, grow, and achieve greater success.

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Leadership Lessons

Don’t kid yourselves. If you haven’t realized that knowledge management is about leadership, you’re in the wrong business. It takes leadership to analyze and implement system reforms. It takes leadership to achieve behavioral and cultural change. It takes leadership to get all of this done when your colleagues aren’t entirely sure they know what it is you do for a living.

Leadership is a huge topic in the business press and gets scrutinized regularly. Much of what we read is not terribly deep, although occasionally someone publishes an insight that can help broaden our view. Often we are distracted by the razzle dazzle of celebrity CEOs whose personal flair (and adoring press) tend to obscure the basic fact that at the end of the day the core components of leadership remain remarkably consistent over time. — regardless of personality.

In “Driving Lessons,” Knowledge @ Wharton interviews Dr. Dieter Zetsche about lessons learned while with Chrysler. In the article he talks about his experiences running and then selling the company. What emerges is a summary of those core components of leadership:

1. Competence

In Zetsche’s experience, “if your people sense you are not prepared or don’t have the right stuff to get the job done, you’re in trouble. Even if they don’t like your personality, they will respect your ability.” He then discussed how basic competence is the building block to creating a sense of common purpose that helps colleagues tackle change. “`As a leader, you have to be consistent in implementing the program and making very clear that sitting out is not an option,’ said Zetsche. Good leaders make change and common goals part of the corporate culture. `The key for any leader is to make sure everyone on the team is on the same page and understands where he or she is going….'” For knowledge managers, getting everyone on the same page is a huge challenge. Having a reputation for competence will help win both the support of management and the cooperation of your colleagues. And, this support and cooperation are necessary for most KM initiatives.

2. Responsibility

With respect to taking responsibility, Zetsche referred to the famous sign on President Truman’s desk: The Buck Stops Here. For Zetsche, “[t]hat remains a simple and powerful statement about the responsibilities of leadership. As a leader, you simply can’t pass tough decisions up and down the line and neither can the people in the organization.” Finding a business leader who actually walks the walk is a rare thing. It’s far too common to work with people who are happy to claim the credit when things go well, but then point fingers when a problem arises. Given the nature of KM, knowledge managers often end up as de facto risk managers, quality control officers, professional trainers, chief cooks and bottle washers. With this comes huge opportunities and commensurate responsibilities. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges is for knowledge workers to have a clear understanding for which buck stops here. We rarely have the wherewithal to be responsible for the entire firm. Once you and your firm are clear about the scope of your responsibilities, then you know which buck stops with you.

3. Authenticity

On the subject of authenticity, Zetsche notes, “`[y]ou have to be the real deal.’ Don’t pretend to be John Wayne if that description doesn’t fit you. `And if you are John Wayne, don’t pretend to be Woody Allen. If you try to be someone you are not, the analysts and the media will see right through it.'” And, perhaps more frequently, your colleagues will see right through it. In the context of knowledge management, this means having clarity about who you are and what you are supposed to be doing. It is very hard to get colleagues to do things they would not otherwise do if they aren’t sure who you and what you stand for. A lack of authenticity leads to a lack of trust. And trust is critical if you are trying to bring about lasting change.

Leadership and knowledge management are inextricably entwined. While great leaders may be born not made, none of us is incapable of developing competence, responsibility and authenticity. It all starts with a good faith effort in the right direction.

[Disclosures: (1) The Knowledge@Wharton article may require a password, but registration is free. (2) My firm has had the privilege of working with Chrysler for many years. (3) I’m posting this using the mail to blogger functionality — let’s see what happens…]

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