The Leadership Parachute List

Leadership development is an organic process. Development of more effective leadership, a more sustaining culture or of more powerful teams requires patience and a willingness to undertake personal change. And time is needed for those changes to become natural and sustained.

Organizations that position leadership development as a strategic initiative understand from the beginning that to be successful they must commit for the long haul. But along the way, almost all leaders look for leverage points. The search for “silver bullets” comes up in workshops, coaching, off-site meetings and conferences.

Since this is the season that leaders are thinking about a new year, I decided to share my “Parachute List.” If I were to parachute into an organization with no previous knowledge of its specific challenges and be asked to find a high-value contribution to leadership and organizational effectiveness quickly, these are the places I would look first, along with a “quick resource” for each. These are not silver bullets promising an easy or instant fix. Instead, these represent the most pernicious ways I see effectiveness and profits leak out of organizations.

  • Meeting culture. Does actual work get done at meetings at your organization, or are they rituals of reportage and repetition? Is there the kind of forthright debate in the room that is ineffective or even nasty when conducted over e-mail? Most organizations have effective calendar systems for scheduling meetings and often fall short on content and process design. Make meetings a time during which real work happens and decisions are made, and they will cease to be a drain on energy or a waste of time.

Quick resource: Read “Death by Meeting” by Patrick Lencioni.

  • Cynicism. Some corporate leaders naïvely think of cynicism as a natural part of employee attitudes. In fact, many leaders actually engender a cynical view of the business. Cynicism arises when a leader’s actions and decisions are inconsistent with the values or standards they espouse. A pervasively cynical culture is toxic.

Quick resource: Pull out your corporate values and test to see how seriously they are reflected in the organizational culture and your profit-and-loss statement.  Do you do that stuff or just talk about it? You do have a set of corporate values, don’t you? Remember, Enron had them too. Having them written is not the same as living and doing business by them. Or just walk the office floor and read the “Dilbert” strips that are posted in cubes and common areas. That will tell you a lot about what people think of the culture pretty quickly.

  • Too much CYA. Often the worst of the productivity-eating wolves show up in sheep’s clothing – or even as the shepherd. Controls on how money is spent and how compliance and risk are managed become more stringent as a company grows. But an asset overused becomes a liability. Productivity plummets (as well as attitude) when every action, decision or expense must be justified to redundant layers of management or gets marooned in processes that are far too complex. (Does it really take 90 days to set up a new vendor or require an SVP to approve travel expenses?) In the worst of cases, this kind of choking oversight becomes a self-sustaining bureaucracy that can damage both profits and brand.

This is the area in which I initially experience the most pushback. A bureaucracy responds badly to doing what it asks others to do: justify itself.

Quick resource: View your company from the outside and your internal processes with new eyes. Talk to vendors, customers and partners. This is a place to get some objective help since outside eyes will view the environment without a dog in the fight.

Have a happy new year.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, December 27, 2010.