Tuesday, July 16, 2013

About Leadership, People, and...People.


Almost all management problems can eventually be traced back to human problems.

Whether it is lack of foresight, lack of responsibility, lack of courage, lack of communication, or some other human condition, it will end up playing a major role in any situation. All else being equal, this is the critical difference between companies. Or to put it another way, all else can be purchased, fixed, or executed if you can solve this one basic conundrum.

Machines are generally reliable, software always executes the same way, all tangible assets of a company are generally predictable. Even if they are inadequate they are predictable and once you take stock of them, you can execute with them or around them. Humans, by contrast, are not predictable. Or at least they don’t always respond the way we think they would.

The way you manage your people and the way they behave in a situation is the defining characteristic of an organisation. 

How  else would you explain the likes of Nokia and Blackberry ? Big companies who were pioneers in their field. How is it that they fell behind at their own games and ended up being taken down by upstarts? Surely they had the resources to execute almost anything ? If they did not have some expertise which an emerging trend demanded they had the muscle to purchase it or develop it. Surely they must have had many a strategy sessions about the future directions of their industries ? Surely at least some of their thousands of employees would have known what to do ? Why couldn’t they act on it ?

Turns out that knowing what to do is one thing; getting people to agree on it is something else; getting everyone to really get behind it is monumental; and getting everyone to push in the same direction in unison is herculean.

I’m always amused when leaders issue orders in movies. Whether it’s the chief of some crack comando unit, or some investigative team, or some research firm, or whatever. “Get on it”, the leader barks out. “I’m on it” says his deputy. And that’s that. We’re given to understand that the orders will now be carried out with military precision. Real life of course is more complicated, because this is where the fun starts - or rather ends. 

In a way, the movies are right. This is the holy grail of all management where it is all entirely about a carefully thought out strategy. Acceptance, understanding, and execution of that strategy is a given. It is a glorious simplification because it reduces the job of leadership to it’s core cerebral essence. And if you have have built a team that can translate from here to execution flawlessly you have a tremendous asset. 

The real work of leadership therefore happens much much before that moment of truth when marching orders are given out. The real work is building the human resource to support those orders. And this takes time, patience, trial and error, and considerable luck - there are no shortcuts. This will be months, even years of work, building the capability set that will propel you. Once you have reached the moment of execution, it is already too late and your success or failure is pretty much already decided based on what kind of human capability you have at your disposal.

Later, when people slice and dice your decision they will wax poetic about how the single decision set the company on the path to glory or ruin. About how, sometimes, a single decision can change the destiny of a company. They will be wrong. The decision is just the vehicle to channel the real competitive advantage that you have already built in the form of an efficient human resource.

People. When the chips are down, they’re all that matters.

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