Mastering "Takeaway Leadership"
By Liz Ryan
The recent flurry of CEO firings (Hewlett-Packard's (HPQ ) Carly Fiorina, Merck's (MRK ) Raymond Gilmartin, Boeing's (BA ) Harry Stonecipher) has again raised the issue of leadership.
It's tempting to ask: Has the job of CEO for a megacompany become too complex to handle? Is it asking too much of just one person to expect him or her to build fruitful relationships throughout an industry and the financial community, deliver revenues and earnings that excite the stock market, launch ambitious initiatives for the long term, and avoid product, financial, and sexual scandals -- all while presenting a perennially pleasant personality?
The answer is no, it isn't expecting too much, in part because all of that comes second to a CEO's paramount responsibility. That should be to shape the organization's goals, to communicate them through many levels to the people who are charged with getting the work done, and to demand -- and reward -- behaviors that demonstrate the company's ethical values and standards. This is one of those "simple, but not easy" tasks, and it's a critical one to master. Often, CEOs get credit for everything good that happens in a company when, in fact, their greatest impact comes from influencing the people who report to them.
I had a boss, John, who understood this well. I haven't heard a better description of leadership than the one he shared with his team at an offsite meeting. He said: "As your president, I'm here to help you be successful. You already know the company's goals and how your job fits into that picture. If any of that is unclear, I'll expect to hear from you. My job is to take away any obstacles that keep you from succeeding. Then, it's just you and the goal line. If there's an obstacle between you and any of our targets, I need to know about it."
What sorts of obstacles was John referring to? Things like red tape, office politics, hierarchical nonsense (a vice-president won't return a director's phone call, for instance), disagreement about direction, territorial disputes, and so on. John's speech was short, but it left three critical impressions:
1. Everyone knew that the usual complaints and excuses (the guy wouldn't call me, I couldn't get the information, I was held up by HR) wouldn't fly in John's organization.
2. They also understood that they had a powerful advocate for simplifying and clarifying the process of hitting the group's goals and every individual's targets.
3. Everyone understood that their enemies were all outside the building -- and that the focus was on Us vs. Them, not Us vs. Us or Us vs. Those Horrible People in Accounting.
Thinking about leadership in terms of removing obstacles, rather than of piling on demands, makes the CEO role seem more useful and more humane. "You already know what to do" is a powerful message. It reassures managers that they needn't scurry back to the boss for further instructions every week, month, or quarter.
It also positions the leader as the person who really needs to know when artificial (man-made) blockages are keeping employees from hitting their marks. Imagine that -- a boss who wants to make my job easier!
In a subtle sort of way, this style that I'll call Takeaway Leadership also shifts responsibility to all the other managers: No longer can they say nothing when confronted by an obstacle, then complain that it kept them from succeeding.
A CEO who takes this approach can make corporate veterans uncomfortable: You want me to tell my lofty boss about some petty political incident? Well, yes and no. You should tell the boss if the petty politics were keeping you from being successful. And yet -- is it possible that the prospect of explaining to Mr. Big that Jane is touchy or that Javier won't share his research might motivate you to try one more time to work things out with them? Yes, I thought so.
Or say your new marketing idea sounds nifty to you, but you can't sell it to sales. Do you bring that problem to your ultimate leader? I don't think so. If you do, he will say: "Tell me how I can help you do a better job of either selling the sales group on your idea or killing the idea." You'll probably slink away thinking: "I guess I don't need help after all."
Once the Takeaway Leader sets the organization's goals, there will be course corrections -- and the CEO will communicate those in person or via e-mail. But the input that leads to those corrections will come from you and other talented managers who are closer to the action. Mostly, this type of leader will simply try to help you get to where you want to go faster.
And most of the time, that will work. You may find that you feel empowered to reach higher and run faster once you know that your boss is wired to make you successful, rather than to watch you like a hawk for signs of failure.
Could you be a successful Takeaway Leader? You should ask yourself three things:
1. Do I trust my subordinates enough to allow them to do their jobs without excess interference?
2. Am I willing to dig into day-to-day operational issues, if necessary, to eliminate the bottlenecks that so often cause organizations to stumble?
3. Am I willing to root out whatever internal cultural maladies -- fear of looking bad, risk aversion, peer-to-peer squabbling -- that are plaguing our company?
If you're able to answer yes to these questions, you could be a Takeaway Leader, and your team will be grateful for that.
When I'm not providing career advice or being an overstressed mom, I sing opera. And one thing that singers learn, over time, is that most of our vocal problems come from blockages of one sort or another. We close our throats too much, or stop our breath from descending into our bodies, or create some other artificial barrier to singing. Our job, and our coach's job, is to remove those obstacles, one by one. Your job as a manager is to do the same thing -- to take away the barriers that keep your team from achieving the business success it deserves.
Remember, as you make this Takeaway Leadership commitment, that you have to be ready to listen! You may hear unpleasant truths regarding your department heads' run-ins, or even your own management style. Some of your habits, for example, may slow down your team.
If this is the case, it's good to start the discussion: When you hear that your tendency to squash subordinates in meetings is having a dampening effect on ideas, you can make a visible effort to stop it, immediately. Showing your crew that no barrier is off limits is a great way to get people on board.
After that, you can start knocking down obstacles with abandon. And let your leadership voice ring!
Do you have any great business leadership tips to share with BusinessWeek Online's readers? Send them to Liz Ryan, an at-work expert, speaker, and writer, and CEO of online networking organization WorldWIT