A couple years ago I had a client who was confronting a big problem in one of their overseas organizations. In retrospect I am not sure the CEO or his team actually knew how bad it was. The executive on the ground was a really smart, hard working, committed guy. He was also overly optimistic that the situation would get better and it didn’t. Some of the signs that something was very wrong were there, and some of the executives knew it and said that they tried to raise the issue. But I wonder if and how they actually did that. It can take a lot of courage to point out when something is failing. Courage is something I am finding less and less in organizations where enormous salaries and bonuses are the norm. Fewer people are willing to be the messenger.
I have come to realize that neither the GM of the operation nor the CEO knew what to do. And I don’t think that is uncommon, even for very smart leaders.
With the added efficiencies, technology is increasing complexity. By complexity I mean not only the level of difficulty of the leadership role or the volume of data and required speed of decision making. I also mean the sensory overload that many of us feel by the end of our workdays. Constant and faster change adds to this. We aren’t set up to move at this pace and yet we do. No wonder we are not always sure where to turn. So what can we do when we don’t know what to do?
My advice is pretty simple:
1. Hire people who are smarter than you and have a successful track record achieving similar goals to those you have for your business.
I don’t mean smarter at everything but smarter at the things you either aren’t well practiced in, good at or aren’t interested in. When you hire them, make an effort to build trust and to learn from them. Then you have to find a way to delegate and rely on them. Sometimes executives know what they need, hire the right person and then don’t let them do what they need to do. Hint: don’t hire them if you aren’t going to let them do what you hired them to do. It’s more painful for the organization to think something is going to change and then watch the new leader leave in frustration because you couldn’t hand over the reigns.
2. Listen to your internal movers and shakers and change agents.
I am not talking about your inner circle. If your inner circle knows what to do but they aren’t telling you or they are and you are not listening, you have other work to do. Often the people who know what is going on are in the middle of the house – or even lower. You probably know who your highest performers are and some of them are accomplishing things that their peers can’t seem to get done. Talk to the people who aren’t afraid to tell you the truth. When you hear the common themes, you are getting to the truth and you would be wise to listen to it and act on it. These change agents can often help you with the “how to”. It’s funny, when I write a summary report after my work, the change agents I have gotten to know will often tell me, “Well, thanks for telling us what I have been saying for years!” I understand (I used to be in their position).
3. Shake things up.
Everything is supposed to change, including us. If we don’t learn something really new every week or so, we all get stale. These days I feel that Learning Agility is one of the most important competencies for senior leadership teams (actually for human beings, all). Being comfortable, with your team, with what you think you know about your customers, your business and your industry is a fast train to extinction. If you find yourself wondering why your growth is stagnant (or worse) and your costs are too high, ask yourself how open you are to learning and asking for help from others. Most of us can get better at it.
Not knowing what to do is normal. I feel it all the time and I bet you do to. The best way to deal with it is to admit it, learn and surround yourself with people who care enough about the organization to tell you the truth and help you do what needs to be done.
Welcome to Moira's blog. I write a (mostly) monthly post about the work of building better work places: people strategies, systems, teams and leaders.