Tuesday, December 10, 2013

How Leaders Build Trust-They are Clear When Implementation is Required in Spite of Disagreement

I have discussed the "Implementing When you Personally Disagree" leadership dilemma in a previous blog entry. It's worth repeating some of the key elements in the context of Trust Building behaviours.  I believe it is one of the toughest leadership dilemmas outside of "people" issues.
All leaders, will eventually find themselves in the position of leading implementation when they don't agree. This occurs in all large organizations and is especially common in global companies when standardization is involved.  So what's a leader to do when faced with this challenge?

First of all, I believe it is the leader's duty to argue her point of view vigorously during the decision making process, even if it is the minority view....no, especially if it's the minority view.  The senior decision maker needs the honest view of all concerned.  Many times the "right answer" isn't clear; often the decision is a 51%-49% close call that must be made.  If there is a business case behind the decision you need to be prepared to challenge the assumptions of the business case.  However, after all the arguments have been made and all the points of view expressed, sometimes the decision doesn't go your way.  What happens next is an important test of leadership skill.
I believe the leader has three different choices, two of which are honorable. One, and I see this all too often among early leadership practitioners, is to say "Well gang I did my best to argue our case but I lost.  I know it's a dumb idea but "those guys" up there say we have to do it anyway".  This approach undermines confidence in the entire leadership chain. It's purpose is to make the speaker look good and absolve everyone but the higher ups of any accountability for failure.  This is inappropriate leader behavior under any circumstance.

A second approach is to resign.  This is an extreme approach only appropriate when there are legal, ethical or integrity issues involved.  No leader is obligated to take illegal or unethical action and resignation is appropriate under these circumstances.  That said, resigning just because you disagree, leaves your staff in the position of implementing without your leadership....it's going to happen anyway.  The leader who does this is walking away when her staff need them the most.  The true leader stays and helps the organization through a difficult challenge.  

That's really the third option.  Having voiced your disagreement, and assuming there are no ethical/legal issues,  when the decision doesn't go your way, implement as if it were your own decision, even if you disagree.  Sometimes this requires you to explain that all the arguments have been made and that those making the decision are aware of the consequences and risks.  Sometimes it's necessary to explain that some policies/projects benefit the organization as a whole, even though the benefit locally is a hard to articulate or doesn't exist at all.

Most people understand you don't always get your way in a large organization.  Leaders build trust when they can both be loyal to their staff and simultaneously loyal to the larger organizations.

Monday, December 9, 2013

How Leaders Build Trust: They are the Voice of the Person on the Ground

In leadership roles, it's common to find oneself in the middle of some directive or initiative from a level  higher  in the organization than you. Inevitably the leader finds himself in the position of implementing something that is difficult for the staff in his organization.

In my experience this particular leadership challenge usually involves some sort of change initiative.  In global organizations this often takes the form of standardization.  One of the big advantages of a global structure is the opportunity to scale activities and through standard processes reduce internal transaction costs and achieve efficiencies.  The benefits of these efficiencies are often not visible to the staff on the ground who have to change the way they have done their work.

Stated another way, there are things that make sense at a higher headquarters level that make no sense at all to the person responsible for implementation.  In addition to the disruption to their own work, the person on the ground often must deal with key stakeholders or customers. In some cases local staff have to give up relationships with trusted suppliers and partners in favor of global ones.  It's common to hear change-weary staff talk of initiative overload or "the flavor of the month".   Sometimes these changes come with a new leader who is eager to achieve a dramatic short-term improvement.  In global organizations, the decision makers often are not even in the same country as those most affected.

There is always resistance to change.  No matter where located in the organization, the effective leader has to distinguish between the noise that always accompanies doing things differently, and a serious problem with implementation.  The HQ level leader has to be willing to listen to the "voice of the person on the ground" and adjust implementation plans when warranted.  The local leader has to be that voice....an amplifier of important considerations going back up the chain....and they have to find balance..  The local leader can't just complain about every global initiative...you lose your voice when you complain about everything. On the other hand, the local leader can't be a mindless "yes man",  afraid to articulate local concerns.  Sometimes staff....especially since many have been through wave after wave of standardization and change....don't expect the latest initiative go to away.  They just want to know that "those guys up there"  know how hard it is down here.

The leader who is that voice...the amplifier of the message from the person on the ground...builds trust by demonstrating that he too knows "how hard it is"

Friday, December 6, 2013

How Leaders Build Trust-Leading by Example- A Story

A couple of months ago I had the opportunity to interview twenty successful leaders in a large company in Southeast Asia. This particular company, like most, has a base country but operates throughout a number of ASEAN countries. Our team were trying to tease out from their stories how these leaders built their leadership capabilities over time.  The company wanted our team to help them become more deliberate and consistent in building leadership competencies across the company rather than being somewhat idiosyncratic and inconsistent.

One of their stories helps illuminate the lead by example maxim. In one interview, I was exploring the change management competence. The leader being interviewed mentioned he'd led a turnaround in another country in the region.  I asked him to tell me what that was like.

First of all the business in the other country had under-performed under several managers for the previous ten years. His charter was to fix it or close it.  Because he knew the scope of the challenge he chose to leave his family in his home country since he knew his job would be a twelve to eighteen hour day, seven day a week task.

Early in his tenure he gathered the employees into a town-hall-like meeting.  He bluntly explained the situation...  if together they could not establish the unit as a profitable activity, it would close and they would all lose their jobs.  He went on to reveal he had left his family with young children at home so that he could fully commit all his time to their collective success.  He explained the business problem with charts that illustrated rising costs and flat or declining revenue and was clear both costs had to come down and revenue had to increase.

As he assumed his duties he chose very modest housing near the plant...using less than half of his expat allowance for housing.  While operating in this tropical climate, he had the air conditioning turned off in his office.  He told me "If I got hot I could always take a cold shower".  He turned off the refrigerator in his office saying "It only held water and I can drink room temperature water."  When his leadership team wanted a team-building away day,  rather than going to a local hotel or resort, he arranged for them to help build a home in conjunction with the local franchise of "Habitat for Humanity". This leader told me his role in the team building activity was to carry the bags of cement from the truck to the mixer.  He also arranged for the families of employees to sell baked goods or made-at-home foodstuffs in the company cafeteria both providing extra income to cash-strapped families and reducing outsourced catering costs.

The business broke even in his first year there and has been profitable every year since. Although there are clearly other factors that contributed to the sustained commercial success,  this leader's personal examples set the tone...to make the personal sacrifice of family separation, to choose modest accommodations, to work in an un-air-conditioned office in a tropical climate, to drink room temperature water, to demonstrate both community and family welfare concern....In so doing he built the trust essential to make the hard choices necessary for success..

Thursday, December 5, 2013

How Leaders Build Trust- They Lead By Example

"Lead By Example" seems to be one of the oldest and commonly accepted leadership maxims.  At one level this is about jointly enduring hardship....people will follow someone who they know will endure the same hardships they do. As an Army officer this often meant physical hardship....being present when it's cold or wet, or insufferably hot, or in the middle of the night or going long periods with insufficient sleep.

In the private sector, especially in a global role, it means getting out of the headquarters and visiting staff in their workplaces.  If some of your staff work in extreme weather climates, it's best to show up when it's toughest.  You time your visit to cold weather climates in the winter and desert climates in the summer.  If staff are doing their job in risky security areas, the good leader demonstrates the willingness to take risk too, by site visits.  If it is remote, you show up to demonstrate you understand what it's like to be remote.  If there are tough customer or stakeholder relationships, you show up and deepen your understanding of what the staff on the ground are dealing with and "run interference" if necessary

"Leading By Example" is more than jointly enduring hardships.  At another level it has to do the extent to which one's behaviour as a leader honors shared values.  Most companies have some version of "Honesty, Integrity and Respect for People" as core values.  There is usually a code of conduct  that covers such things as health, safety and environment;  conflicts of interest; gifts and gratuities; compliance with the law, views on competition and proprietary information, etc.    Here's a sample template of a typical code of conduct.    The point is there are usually a set of values and expected compliance with certain standards of behaviour.

Leaders build trust when they lead by example....when they "walk the talk"....both by jointly enduring hardship and by honoring shared values and standards of behaviour.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

How Leaders Build Trust-They are Willing to Engage in Difficult Conversations

I'd originally written about this in the context of "giving honest feedback".  Upon reflection I think it's far more than just being willing to send a tough message.  I think its more accurate to say one builds trust by demonstrating the willingness to engage in a difficult conversation.  Everyone is perfectly willing to provide feedback when things go well and we are congratulating others on a job well done.  When there has been an error or target not met or customer complaint...or any number of unpleasant events....that's when conversations get difficult.

We've all probably experienced the dilemma...if I don't discuss this issue things may get worse, the event could occur again, my own frustrations will rise and I deny the other person the opportunity to improve.  If I do raise the issue, emotions are likely to run high, I may be rejected or attacked, or the relationship might be damaged.  There are many things that make these situations charged...fear of the consequences of being blamed for a bad outcome, ones identity as a competent and capable employee, a desire to avoid hurting others or being hurt yourself,

Good leaders learn the skills necessary to engage in these conversations.  They understand and can apply dialogue concepts like mental models and the ladder of inference.  They understand how different people can interpret the same event in very different ways.  They practice inquiry and advocacy skills.  They approach a difficult conversation from a learning stance meant to explore how everyone, including the leader, may have contributed to the issue at hand.

The book Difficult Conversations:  How to Discuss What Matters Most is an excellent reference for those who want to get better at this particular leadership skill.  I've worked with one of the authors in a program to develop this skill among emerging leaders in a US company and seen the marked improvement among those leaders as a result.

The point of this post is that everyone finds themselves facing the dilemma of how to confront an error or failure of some sort.  Great leaders develop the skills that give them the will to engage in these inevitable conversations.  Staff respect that willingness, the opportunity to improve, the genuine dialogue and the how-have-we-all- contributed-to-this" approach.  It builds trust. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

If Building Trust is So Important Why Is It So Hard?

While in the middle of this series on "How Leaders Build Trust" I learned of the results of a recent Associated Press/Gfk poll that shows less than one third of Americans trusted their fellow citizens.   To be clear this isn't just a lack of trust of government, or large institutions or big corporations....it's a lack of trust in each other.  These results show a significant drop in trust in others over the last 40 years.

I think the implications for leaders is obvious.  The data show that more than two thirds of people....at least in America... come to the workplace not trusting each other.  This means that the leader must be especially mindful of trust building behaviours...and of those things that undermine trust.  I don't have any data to support this view, but my hypothesis....and experience....tell me this is an even bigger challenge for a global leader. If a leader from one's own culture isn't automatically trusted it's reasonable to assume a leader from another culture would have an even more difficult challenge to build trustIf staff come to work with a mental model that others are not to be trusted, any behaviour that reinforces distrust will solidfy that point of view.  I gave some examples last week which I repeat for emphasis:

  • If you say you care about people..... and do nothing to develop others
  • If you say you value challenge and disagreement....and admonish those who disagree with you
  • If you say you value work-life balance....and send email or text messages at night or on weekends or during your holiday
  • If you say you value multiple cultures....and schedule meetings or require travel on holidays of other countries/cultures
  • If you are running a global organization and say you don't favor one region over another....and then all the most favorable actions are directed toward one country or region
  • If you say you value feedback....and then react angrily to any feedback that isn't favorable.

Leaders must come to their role with the understanding that many of their staff will not trust them.  Trust has to be earned every day, action by action, behaviour by behaviour.