Leadership is something you learn from the masters, from experience and from imagination. But you also increasingly learn about what you don't know. So you need to approach it with humility. That is what I hear in this stanza from Wallace Stevens' famous poem:
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.
I'd like to talk about four perspectives on leadership that I've experienced:
- An Investment Bank: First Boston Corp (FBC) in the 70’s (before the big-bang deregulation)
- A small Management Consulting Firm: HPMD in the 90’s
- An International Nonprofit: Save the Children (STC) in the 00’s
- And a Board of Directors: NetHope currently
I'm going to talk about these four chapters by telling some stories. Stories are what we tend to remember, anchoring ideas and concepts to them. It's why the case studies are so powerful for learning in an MBA context.
FBC - Power and Decisiveness
Two FBC executives are riding down in the elevator. It is mid January. 10 degrees out. Joe is wearing a long, herringbone wool coat. John has on a dark gray pinstripe suit, no coat. Joe is the head of Mergers and Acquisitions. John is one of the managing directors. Each is obnoxious in their own way. Joe rides in the front of cabs and immediately takes over the two way radio. Dispatchers love him. John has a copy of the New York Social Register on a table outside his door, opened to the page where he and his wife are listed. Joe turns to John.
"Where's you coat?"
"I don't wear a coat."
"You don't wear a coat? It's 10 degrees out!"
"I f you noticed, only two people in the firm don't wear coats: the president… and me!"
Whereupon Joe takes off his coat, throws it on the floor, jumps up and down on it and says:
"Why didn't you tell me!!"
It's a funny scene, and though 30 years later, I can still hear and see Joe tell this story. What it says is that the context from investment banking in the 1970s was very much about position and power. In groups, people deferred to the most senior person. Decisions were made by a decision-maker, and after listening to the data or other evidence, made the decision, quickly and decisively.
This is evident in the second scene from FBC. We are having an early morning meeting in the corporate finance department to decide the final pricing for an equity deal. A managing director is presiding. A small group of analysts are presenting their weighty report. I'm sitting in as the token IT guy because I created all the charts. Ten minutes into the presentation, the MD takes the 100-page blue book, drops it on the table, and takes off his glasses.
"You don't need to walk me through every damn detail in this report," he says
"Your job is to lead me to the decision."
Aside from being good advice to aspiring consultants, this reinforces the leadership model at FBC: decisions were made by the senior person. Period. They often took opportunities like this one to remind us that this was their job.
A final note before we leave Wall Street. Decisions were fast, especially if an M&A deal hung in the balance. The analysis may have been thorough, and weighty, taking a week of round-the-clock work, but the "here's what we're going to do" came quickly on its heels.
HPMD - Influence and Analysis
In the 1990s I co-founded a small management consultancy. We provided services to IT executives, and specialized in balanced scorecards and IT processes. Many of our customers were the Wall Street colleagues that were my customers during the prior 13 years. The relationships you form in one setting often carryover into another.
Moving from a line position with P&L responsibility to a consulting position is a culture change, to say the least. While the thought processes and analysis approaches are the same, the decision-making changes radically. In short, you are no longer a person who makes decisions. You are advising, prodding, and cajoling the person who does make the decision. To use a sports analogy, I moved from being a captain on the field to being a coach on the sidelines--a coach with very little power. Coaches may design the plays, but they don't play the game.
In a one project for a Wall Street data provider, we developed a detailed project list of all active and planned product development activities. Projects were classified into five categories, such as "revenue projects," "infrastructure projects," and "custom client requests." Product and Engineering managers were then asked to estimate the time and people needed to complete each step within the projects. From these estimates, we developed a model to forecast the implied people resources required on a quarter-by-quarter basis to complete each project within its expected timeframe.
We then held a full day meeting with senior managers and the product managers to complete a "Post-It Note Exercise." The objective of this exercise was to (a) gain a clear sense of the magnitude and timing of the product development activities, and (b) to "re-sequence" projects so that the higher priority items could be completed near-term with the available resources. Different color Post-It notes were used for each project to indicate the originating department (Marketing or Engineering) and type of project (revenue generating, cost savings, revenue retention and longer-term bets). The Post-It notes were arranged on flip-charts where each one represented a different calendar quarter, extending out three years.
It was immediately apparent that an inordinate number of the projects were clustered in the first quarter. In addition, our model suggested that a doubling of the Engineering and Marketing staffs would be required to complete them. The next step involved managers negotiating with each other to move projects out to future quarters. At each juncture, we recalculated the implied resources, and encouraged managers to make the tough decisions on delaying more projects in order to live within their allotted budgets. At the end of the day, the group had reached consensus about the priority of the projects and their timing. The exercise allowed them to reschedule the project list without losing any, so that the probability of completing near-term projects was vastly improved. As important, a skeptical president of the firm, was won over to the result, and heartily endorsed it.
The important points of this story are that the results depended heavily on thorough analysis. We presented a raft of information, and "let the data talk." The process was arduous, but in the end a consensus was reached, the senior executive ratified the decision. Here's the kicker: we knew the answer going into the process. The analysis and exercises confirmed it. But we needed to lead the decision-makers to the decision.
Save the Children - Consensus and Death by Consensus
When I joined Save the Children, one of my consulting clients, the president in the story above, gave me a year at best before I'd throw in the towel. He was on the Board of Outward Bound in Maine and was fully committed to the mission of this nonprofit. So I wanted to know why he would say that. "You'll be too frustrated with the pace and process of decision-making," he said. He was right about the frustration, but not about the year.
Before I give you some examples, I want to say how committed I am to the Save mission. Working at Save is incredibly rewarding. The opportunities to have impact on children's lives and on how the organization operates are the highest of anything I've experienced. In addition, the degree to which I am valued as a contributor to the organization is unsurpassed. So when I offer critique, it is as a member of the family, and from the heart.
The management groups at Save like to meet. Incessantly meet. It is telling how each manager that joins Save notices this and laments it within the first thirty days. Things are discussed, opinions gathered, again and again; decisions often take months to make and are frequently tweaked for months following. We held a World Summit in October 2007 to work on our strategy and 160 managers attended. The planning for the Summit took months to develop. The strategic planning process took 14 months to develop a five year plan and another 6 months to roll-out to the organization. To say that decision-making is a participant sport with triple overtime at Save is an understatement.
Participation is important for a mission-driven organization. People are passionate about our mission. Having their hearts and minds aligned with our strategy is paramount. But along the way, we've lost sight of what consensus is. It came as a shock when I heard that some senior managers thought consensus was unanimous agreement. Consensus is universal hearing, not universal agreement. Consensus asks that those who don't agree, to agree to go along with the decision. It is telling that a country manager stood up at the World Summit and said to the senior management team, "OK, you've heard our feedback and gathered our input, now we need you to make a decision so we can move forward." Many in the room nodded in agreement. Even a consensus run organization hungers for decisiveness.
One final story. When the Tsunami destroyed Banda Aceh, there was an unprecedented outpouring of concern and support from Americans. In the months that followed this tragedy, the workload at Save more than tripled. People worked around the clock. Decisions had to be made on the spot. Individuals had to act. There was no time for lengthy discussions or meetings. Action was needed. And we responded. The organization survived on the sheer will and talent of the employees. Near the end of the disaster response work, many of us noticed how well we did without the drawn out decision processes we had followed for years. And we asked why we couldn't continue in this fashion going forward.
NetHope - Town Hall to Parliament
When NetHope began as a consortium of seven in 2001, we did everything as a team. Our monthly conference calls and semi-annual Summits were a poster child for the traditional town hall meeting approach to making decisions. Everybody participated in everything. And it worked.
Over the next seven years, we tripled in size, incorporated, and became our own 501(c)3 nonprofit. As part of this growth and change in our organization, we needed to move from a town hall approach to a representative form of governance. We elected a Board of Directors, hired a CEO, and appointed committees to handle the business of the organization. This is how corporations work.
There's a famous photo of a cabinet meeting in the White House in the early sixties. John F. Kennedy was president. Lyndon Johnson was Vice President and Robert McNamara was Secretary of Defense. In the photo, you can see them seated about the conference table. In addition to the players at-the-table, you can also see the senior advisors seated along either wall, behind the presidents' men. This is a strong image of representative decision-making. Everyone doesn't have a seat at the table. Putting aside our form of democratic government for a minute, the broader organization trusts the representative leaders to carry out the business of the organization, to make decisions on behalf of the stakeholders.
Themes in Leadership
For each of the contexts we talked about, we can see different degrees of decision-making power, participation and speed. One size does not fit all. Using the typical consulting matrix approach (what consultant can think without a matrix?) the following diagram is one way to summarize this. You may quibble with which organization goes in which box. That's OK. Truth comes through debate.
In each of these four cases, and a half a dozen stories, you probably have noticed the prominence of decision-making . At the bottom of this is a strong belief that I hold about leadership. At its core, leadership is about being decisive. A fundamental responsibility of all managers is to make informed decisions ... for leaders, it is decisiveness.