Business Standard

Leading with conviction

Great organisations are built on people who act like leaders and speak up even at the risk of sounding stupid

Business Standard 

Put yourself in the shoes of the decision maker, and decide what you would do if you were that person. This is not about figuring out what arguments you would make or playing devil's advocate; instead, it's about actually figuring out how it feels to be in the leader's shoes and agonising over what you would do in his or her place.

Every day, on our television and computer screens, we see pundits criticising business and government leaders for their actions - all the while never putting themselves on the hot seat and articulating precisely what they would do if they were in charge. Think of the water cooler talk you hear at work. People second-guess senior decisions, even though it's anyone's guess what these critics would do if they had the power to decide. It's so much easier to poke holes in others' actions than to go through the stress and soul-searching required when you truly put yourself in the shoes of the decision maker.

In many companies, junior people believe that the path to success is to do their assignments, keep their heads down, and keep their mouths shut. They further believe that it's wise to figure out what the bosses want and work hard to give it to them. To take this logic a step further, it might seem clever to figure out what the boss thinks and then act as if you think it, too; in that way, the boss will think you're really smart. There's an abundance of conventional wisdom rattling around most companies about how to get ahead, and unfortunately it often doesn't include speaking up and making waves.

Great careers and organizations are built on people who are willing to act like leaders. Great organizations depend on people having the guts to speak up - even though the boss may disagree with them, and they may sometimes feel a bit stupid for having opened their mouths. This effort begins with figuring out what you believe and learning to act like an owner.

The assistant product manager bites his tongue
An assistant product manager in a consumer products company was working as part of a team on a new product launch. The head of the project was the divisional VP. The team had been wording on this launch for several months. The new product would be a brand extension of the firm's highly successful flagship product. In preparation for the launch, the team held a critical meeting to discuss product features, advertising strategy, and a package of retail trade arrangements that would help market the new product. The proposed trade arrangements included special product displays that retailers could use in their stores. The VP led the discussion, detailing the latest proposals for the key details of the launch. At the end of his comments, he asked the seven professionals in the room if anyone had any comments or disagreed with anything that had been discussed.

The assistant product manager felt a pang of anxiety as he sat silently. He looked around the room and saw no indication that anyone was planning to speak. The VP rephrased his question: "I take it that all of you completely support these plans?" The assistant product manager nodded along with his peers.

As he nodded, he wondered why he felt so uncomfortable. He realized it was because he didn't agree with key elements of the plan. In particular, he didn't like the in-store display, felt the advertising budget should be restructured, and thought the timetable for the launch should also be changed. So why was he nodding?

"I hated myself for just going along with the crowd," he later confessed to me. "But how could I be the only one to disagree with an entire group of people? Plus, it wasn't really my job on the line-it was the divisional VP's responsibility."

The plan proceeded as described. It ultimately encountered several problems, including a number that would have been addressed by the changes the assistant product manager had in his mind during the meeting. He told himself that this wasn't his fault. After all, he was only one member of the team.

Coaching is a key part of a leader's job: Robert Steven Kaplan

It is time leaders looked beyond their job profiles, Kaplan tells Rohit Nautiyal

Organisational interests and employee career development needs seldom meet. How did you negotiate the two? Please share your experience at Goldman Sachs.
In great organisations, career development and organisation interests very much coincide. Superb organisations articulate a clear vision with specific priorities and work with employees to build their skills and reach their unique potential in way that builds the organisation. In this regard, as a leader, I always worked hard to encourage employees to act like owners and made sure that incentive, promotions and coaching all reinforced this mindset.

What role can leaders play in making coaching part of their organisation's DNA?
Coaching is a key part of a leader's job. If a manager wants to be considered for a leadership job, I believe they need to first demonstrate leadership skills. They need to act like they "own" talent development even if it isn't part of their current job description. Many organisations make it clear that people need to demonstrate leadership behaviour first before they are considered for a formal leadership role. Most great companies and non-profit organisations realise that coaching is an essential part of achieving their vision.

In steering organisations, leaders end up taking hard decisions that, at times, take a toll on their image. Yahoo's chief Marissa Mayer and Apple's CEO Tim Cook are two examples. What do they lose and gain in the process?
One part of leadership is about making key trade-off decisions. The CEO must have a clear sense of how the organisation adds value and what distinctive competencies it must build to add that value. This vision is the prism through which alternatives are weighed and decisions are made. Both these CEOs have a very clear sense of what they are trying to do and, as a result, worry more about being true to the vision versus managing their image.

Commitment to an organisation can undermine an employee's work-life balance. How can successful CEOs guide subordinates here?
First, it helps if subordinates are in jobs that fit their skills. Second, subordinates must learn to delegate and work through others. This requires thought, ability to communicate, and tolerance for some loss of control. All this takes practice and often some coaching from the CEO.

Robert Steven Kaplan
Senior associate dean & Martin Marshall professor of practice in Business Administration, Harvard Business school

BOOK: What You're Really Meant To Do
AUTHOR: Robert Steven Kaplan
PUBLISHER: Harvard business Review Press
PRICE: Rs 795
ISBN: 9781422189900

Reprinted by permission of the publisher. Copyright Harvard Business Review Press. All rights reserved.

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First Published: Mon, June 17 2013. 00:14 IST