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This month's topic: Responsibilities of the Trusted Leader

May 10, 2005      
Topics of Trust and Leadership, from the authors of The Trusted Leader


The Trusted Leader

Previous Issues:

Thoughtful Leader or Trusted Leader?

Be a Person

Six Communications Mistakes New Managers Make


Next month's issue: Fostering a Vital Organization


Last month we introduced our series of articles on the responsibilities of trusted leaders by identifying four categories of responsibility. This month we start out with #1.

  1. Developing a community of future leaders.
  2. Fostering organizational vitality.
  3. Identifying and modeling appropriate personal attributes and behaviors
  4. Consciously planning your legacy.

We went back and forth trying to select the words to describe this responsibility. Should it be a “cadre” of leaders? A “group?” A “number?” A “network?”

We decided on “community” because “community” implies an interdependence, complementary strengths and interests playing off of one another, and an agreement between what might be very different people with The authors of The Trusted Leaderdifferent interests to come together and build something for a greater good.

As always, your feedback and comments are welcome at info@trustedleader.com

-Rob and Anne-

Developing a Community of Future Leaders

When you think of trusted leaders, think of the small town. Storekeepers, who may have disparate interests and beliefs at the personal level, but respect one another nonetheless. Who say things like “Can you make change?” or “Will you watch my store for a few minutes while I go to the bank?” Who care about one another and who share a mutuality of interest in the town’s well being.

A community of trusted leaders is much the same. They take the idea of a company that has a strong leader and a number of skilled senior managers, each of whom might be able to take command one day, and ratchet it up a notch.

The community of trusted leaders is also a skilled group. But these folks understand that although their own opinions might differ regarding how the company should be run, it is their duty to reach a meeting of the minds at some higher level and to work as a united front against the competition, and for their employees. And they extend themselves accordingly to fulfill that duty.

We realize that this is a tall order. It implies an openness of and honesty in communication channels that is rarely seen, even in great organizations. But we want to emphasize that fostering this community is a viable goal – even if it is difficult to achieve. Taking that thought further, we should probably also note that we are not talking about an extreme or extremely unrealistic scenario. We harbor no illusions that a community of trusted leaders is made up of a closely-knit group of soul-mates who never disagree about anything, and who share group hugs each day after lunch. The people we’re talking about can (and do) disagree with one another; in fact, it would be odd if they didn’t. And they often compete with one another. You may have a particular successor in mind, but in this group, there should be several viable candidates for the top job, and they should be aware – but not wary of -- each other’s readiness to move up.

“The key difference between a group of qualified senior managers and a community of future leaders is the depth of understanding of what it takes to live in the other leaders’ shoes, and the resulting respect and level of communication that stem from that understanding.”

Put simply: the key difference between a group of qualified senior managers and a community of future leaders is the depth of understanding of what it takes to live in the other leaders’ shoes, and the resulting respect and level of communication that stem from that understanding.

Fostering a Community

How does one go about fostering a community of future leaders? Think about how you would finish the following sentence: In an organization with trust inside, the future leaders would . . . . . . ?

Would one answer be “the future leaders would respect one another?” Would another be “the future leaders would have complementary skills?” Would another be “the future leaders would have a solid understanding of how each department functions and contributes to the whole of the organization?”

Then think about the people who are in position to “step up.” Is there more than one likely candidate for the top position? Are there several other people who will likely be promoted to senior management sooner rather than later? How are their current jobs designed? What would it take to help these folks become the future leaders you envision them to be?

Developing a community of future leaders is like succession planning, only squared. Once you’ve identified people of integrity with high potential (and in the process, possibly pinpointed some weaknesses in your organization that need to be addressed), the idea is to consider how, when, and why they’re being groomed for their next positions in the organization, and how, when, and why they currently interact. Then think hard about whether your current set-up is optimal for community-building. What forums exist for the kinds of interactions that build mutual support and understanding? What formal and informal mechanisms are in place to get people into new situations and to get shared experiences?

Turning Groups into Communities

We have seen and used a variety of tools that help turn groups into communities. A “trade fair” is one such tool. Trade fairs, essentially, are very basic displays of the various businesses and assets in an organization that are put up in trade-fair style so that participants – your group of managers – can literally walk around booth-to-booth to see what their colleagues do. A trade fair can be a very successful approach to community-building simply because it provides a relaxed forum for knowledge-transfer.

Another tool we’ve seen used is a “language guide” – picture something along the lines of a British/American dictionary. Different people from different parts of the organization have what we call their own sets of TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms). Sharing the TLAs of a particular area is one of the ways to build a community simply because it breaks down linguistic barriers, which are often proxies for issues that are very important in the organization.

Another idea: Synergy committees. Which cannot and will not work, unless they are supported by an attractive set of incentives and a sense of sincere commitment on the part of senior management to give people some slack in their performance measures while they devote some time to their “synergy”-work. When given the choice between “making your numbers” and “helping promote synergy,” is there really any choice when the chips are down? What would you expect people to do?

At one company we studied, so intent was the top manager on creating synergy among the troops, that he inadvertently created an excess of -- we’ll be blunt – meaningless meetings so that the higher-ups from various functions would be forced to interact with one another several times a month. An ancillary “new product discussion group.” A “work/life-balance committee.”

What happened? Predictably, the people in question quickly began to resent the additional demands on their time. They readily admitted that the new committees and so forth were interesting, but they also knew that they simply didn’t have the time to participate fully in those “extracurricular activities” and still perform their jobs up to the expected standard.

“You’ll know that you’re succeeding in developing a community of future leaders when you realize that the organization could indeed go on without you…”

The problem was, since these new groups were contrived simply to increase dialogue among the various managers, they didn’t have specific goals, or end-dates. What’s more, no one really knew what to do with any good ideas generated during those discussions. These committees were simply left hanging there – to no end, for no tangible purpose, and with no reward. They didn’t serve to increase productive dialogue. Nor did they set up their members as future leadership teammates. Instead, they fostered resentment, “How come he isn’t here today? What’s his excuse? I’m here, putting in my two cents, but for what? So that I’ll have 150 new emails waiting for me when I get back, and I’ll have to skip lunch trying to catch up?” And they fostered frustration, “That was genuinely a good idea we came up with during the prior meeting. But it’s just going to be lost in the shuffle. Who has the authority to put any of our ideas into action? No one, it seems.”

Lip service won’t get you anywhere with synergy committees and their ilk.

Signs of Success

You’ll know that you’re succeeding in developing a community of future leaders when you realize that the organization could indeed go on without you, and do quite nicely under the purview of its new leadership team. (Think the “flip side” of “It’s A Wonderful Life.” What if, in George Bailey’s absence, everything had been just fine? Now we know that’s sort of comparing apples to oranges – we’re not talking about what if you had never been around -- but you get the gist.)

Another litmus test? If you were to go to another company, would you want to bring along that same team that you’ve assembled? Perhaps more importantly, would they voluntarily reassemble as well?

Has your organization fostered a community of trusted leaders? Let us know.

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