Lessons on the wider context
All organisations are basically the same: an agreed framework through which a defined group of people pursue a common objective. As outlined in Yuval Noah Harari’s bestselling book Sapiens, human dominance of our planet has derived from our astonishing capacity for complex collaboration. We lack the physical capabilities of some competitor animals, but our ability to use language and abstract concepts to organize collectively has enabled us to assert total dominion over our world. And the framework through which we continue to do this is the organisation – an imaginary construct which governs a wide range of activities and relationships. And although the nature and structure of organisations varies widely according to their purpose, they all require leadership.
Individuals don’t behave rationally. Organisations generally do. While individual human inputs can often be irrational, organisations are unlikely to survive for long if they fail to conduct their affairs in a rational way. The more professionally-run organisations run highly sophisticated systems designed to filter out the more emotional human elements from their decision-making in order to ensure the pursuit of their purpose is not hindered. Even churches tend to behave in a hard-nosed commercial fashion when buying and selling property or dealing with legal disputes.
Expertise in your organisation’s core activity isn’t the same thing as knowing how to run it. As a union leader I witnessed tremendous industrial fighters fail comprehensively when put in charge of running their unions. Managing a union’s finances, payroll, IT, regulatory obligations and property is very different from fighting battles with bosses. The best lawyer won’t always be the right managing partner, the most devout priest isn’t necessarily destined to be Archbishop, and the best surgeon shouldn’t automatically be installed as head of the hospital.
The best lawyer won’t always be the right managing partner, the most devout priest isn’t necessarily destined to be Archbishop, and the best surgeon shouldn’t automatically be installed as head of the hospital.
Everything in an organization is ultimately about numbers. Even those with deeply emotion-driven constituencies like churches and football clubs will wither when the numbers turn against them. As Kodak discovered, a globally dominant brand is no protection if your numbers go sour. A leader who fails to understand that their organisation’s performance is always about numbers is destined to fail.
The primary need of all organisations is relevance. It has to deliver something that matters to lots of people. Success levels will fluctuate over time, but loss of relevance is fatal. It doesn’t help being best of breed in your product category if the entire category is losing relevance. When Netflix comes along, it doesn’t really matter if you’re the best video store in Australia.
Your scarcest resource isn’t money: it’s the time and attention of your leaders. Most disasters involve a serious misallocation of leadership time and effort. That’s why micro-managing is such a flawed approach: as well as undermining your subordinates’ ability to do their jobs you are displacing your own capacity to do yours.
Building and enforcing a coherent delegation framework is central to effective leadership. Get this wrong and you can end up with key decisions being made by middle-managers – or decision-making paralysis because you insist on vetting every decision, no matter how minor. Modern government has become increasingly sclerotic because of Prime Ministers insisting that all decisions be cleared in advance by their office. Effective delegation requires trust, and leaders need to be insulated from the routine operational decisions of the organisation so they can concentrate on fulfilling their roles.
Clarity in functions and responsibilities is crucial to organizational success. The Federal Government has unwittingly done the banking and insurance sectors a favour by imposing the Banking Executive Accountability Regime on them, as it is forcing companies to inject greater rigour and precision into their organizational structures. One of the key underlying factors that led to the outbreak of World War I was internal confusion regarding power and responsibility in the hierarchies of almost all the major nations involved.
An organisation can only focus on one big unusual thing at a time. Like individuals, an organisation has a conscious and a sub-conscious brain. And like individuals, most of its ordinary activities are dealt with by its sub-conscious brain. When something out of the ordinary comes along, it tends to absorb all the available energy the conscious brain has to offer. The Essendon drug scandal totally preoccupied the club hierarchy for several years, inevitably relegating other major priorities to a secondary position. The club will be one of the last to field an AFLW team as a result. But we were able to lay some important foundations for the future with major infrastructure development plans while the drug scandal raged: the key is understanding the limitations that a giant organisational distraction imposes on you and working within them.
The power dynamics shaping organisational behavior are universal. A large organisation is inherently feudal in practice. While the centuries have rolled by and technologies have transformed, the organization still comprises monarch, barons and peasants. And although the monarch exercises great ultimate authority, his or her power is still heavily dependent on the extent of alignment with the agendas of the barons. When I commenced my advisory role at Victoria University, an external review revealed that the connection between decisions of the central administration and the actual running of the various faculties and colleges was rather nominal. The design of an organisation’s hierarchy and the way it is managed have a fundamental impact on how it functions. If the three elements of the feudal structure aren’t working together in relative harmony and balance, the organisation is likely to become dysfunctional.
Lessons on leading an organisation
Always know what your nuclear option looks like. The exercise of power in any human framework is always founded on the individual’s underlying capacity to cause harm to others. But that capacity has to be genuine, not hypothetical. By defining your nuclear option, and the circumstances in which you would be prepared to use it, you will get a reasonable picture of the strength of your position and the actual bargaining power you have at your disposal. There are few more counter-productive kinds of organisational behavior than empty threats and over-reach. Almost by definition, any nuclear option will have seriously negative ramifications for the person exercising it, and hence its use is likely to be very unwise. Australian pilots made use of their nuclear option in a major industrial dispute in 1989 by resigning en masse – and it didn’t end well for them. So you need to understand both your maximum ability to hurt your opponent and just how realistic the prospect of doing so actually is.
Delegate execution – not knowledge and understanding. You can’t do everything, but you can have a comprehensive understanding of what is being done on your behalf. A chairman should be informed but not interfering. And a CEO should fully understand all the activities that in aggregate contribute to the organisation’s output.
Hire a deputy who complements you, not a mini-me. John Worsfold impressed me in his interview for the Essendon coaching position when he pointed out that he had deliberately hired an intuitive, emotionally instinctive deputy at West Coast to counter-balance his rational, data-driven and emotionally detached style of leadership.
People may not be equal, but you should treat them as if they are. Few things are more corrosive of an organisation’s efforts than pervasive resentments surrounding perceived favouritism and special treatment. To inspire individuals, you need to convey a clear message that you understand the importance of their role, and you’re relying on them to deliver. A harmless tinge of conspiratorial tone can work wonders: people entrusted with confidential insight into your thinking are very likely to buy in, whereas their response to an impersonal, abstract instruction could be quite different.
To build trust with your subordinates, give in on the little things. A leader’s every decision, action and word is relentlessly scrutinised for signals conveying wider meaning. Much of this scrutiny is sub-conscious. Your approach to dealing with trivial matters isn’t trivial at all: in many cases it will define you. If you are seen to be reasonable and caring when circumstances clearly allow it, you will be trusted to make the hard decisions that are difficult for subordinates to accept.
Effective communication requires broadcasting on the right frequency. The intent of a communication can be easily distorted or obscured by tone, language and medium. Most people are inherently cynical about leaders. If you fail to communicate with them in a way that is easy to relate to, they will be pre-disposed to disbelieve or ignore your message. Words like “flexible”, “productive” and “efficient” are widely deployed by employers: to an ordinary worker they can often mean “I might lose my job”. The content they reflect is likely to be entirely sensible and in some cases unavoidable, but a leader who wants the support of workers in challenging times needs to communicate with them much more effectively.
We are all acutely conscious of status, particularly those of us who don’t have much of it. A leader who wears his or her status lightly will win greater commitment from subordinates. One great piece of advice I got years ago was get your coffee where your staff get theirs. Informal interaction as equals builds trust and familiarity in ways that formal, hierarchical interaction can’t. The five phoniest words in the English language are “my door is always open”. What these words mean is roughly “if you, the inconsequential underling, should have the temerity to cross the threshold into my office I may condescend to acknowledge your existence”. That’s why the best way to transcend the status barrier is to go to where your subordinate is – don’t expect them to come to you. By meeting on their home ground you reduce the status imbalance and display interest in and respect for what they do.
Praise in public, criticize in private. Make sure you don’t use your status and knowledge to publicly humiliate a subordinate, no matter how stupidly they may have behaved. If you have to admonish, particularly publicly, positive framing works much better. Emphasise the good things in the individual’s performance or perspective and then raise the particular aspect that isn’t appropriate. Former Essendon captain and coach Barry Davis once told me a great story about an early game as a very young player. He’d made a mess of a simple play and his captain Jack Clarke trotted over and just said “you’re better than that”. A few minutes later, Davis kicked a brilliant goal and Clarke called to him “I thought so”. The fact that Davis – who went on to become an outstanding leader in his own right – remembered this fifty years later says it all. The sensitivities of status are so acute that perceived misuse of your status as a leader will invariably produce negative consequences.
Individual conduct always reflects purpose. If you understand what drives an individual, you will be able to predict how he or she is likely to behave in a given situation.
Rituals matter, but only if they connect with purpose. Organisational cultures vary and so do national cultures. You should be respectful of the role that small rituals play in the life of an organisation – for example, celebrating an employee clocking up twenty years’ service – but wary of initiating rituals that may simply generate cynicism and mockery. Walmart’s team chants and exercises at the commencement of the working day presumably work for them, but they would go down like a lead balloon in most Australian organisations.
To a hammer everything looks like a nail. This is my all-time favourite saying. All professional input is transmitted through a particular lens which tends to reshape the problem to suit a particular kind of solution. Lawyers litigate, engineers build, and surgeons operate. The leadership of China is dominated by engineers, whereas the United States is run by lawyers. In both cases, it shows.
To a hammer everything looks like a nail. This is my all-time favourite saying. All professional input is transmitted through a particular lens which tends to reshape the problem to suit a particular kind of solution. Lawyers litigate, engineers build, and surgeons operate.
Inertia is the most powerful driver of organisational behavior. Organisations only reward risk-taking in certain very specific functions. In all other situations, people automatically default to safety-first, and seek to avoid doing anything out of the ordinary. Systems are similar: anything outside the particular questions they’re designed to deal with probably won’t compute.
Familiarity is the most powerful driver of individual behavior. We default to the familiar because the cost of the energy and time required to adequately scope the unfamiliar option is out of all proportion to the likely benefit. If you are selling or persuading, you want familiarity working for you, not against you.
The recipient of a secret invariably tells one other person. And that person is likely to tell another one. If something needs to stay secret, the best way to guarantee it does is to tell absolutely no-one.
A story relayed indirectly will be distorted. Never rely on an indirect account of an event or conversation. Biased perspectives and subtle shifts in meaning can present a picture dramatically different from the truth.
Common sense is a term that means “obvious, but probably wrong”. Anyone who cites common sense in an argument probably has a weak argument.
Leaders rarely lie, but routinely distort the truth. Contrary to popular belief, politicians don’t lie very often – but they misrepresent the truth all the time. The enormous information asymmetry between leaders and followers allows leaders to use artful language to create a false impression without actually uttering an untruth.
No-one ever complained about consultation when they liked the outcome. All complaints about consultation are thinly-disguised opposition to the substantive proposal.
Surveys reveal sentiment, not specifics. When answering survey questions, most people don’t focus on the literal words in front of them, but treat them as generalised themes. Hence staff engagement questions tend to boil down to a generic “how are you feeling about work?” theme. It’s the same in politics: voters tend to project general feelings onto specific questions.
The best way to get a bureaucrat to do something is to make their alternative options more painful. People working in large bureaucracies will default to the line of least resistance, so modifying their choices can shape the result.
There’s no such thing as a free lunch, but everyone wants one. Throughout the modern world, regardless of the issue or group involved, everyone marches behind a single banner that reads: “Someone else should pay”.
Hiring or firing a leader is a defining moment for any organization. Leadership change doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Before heading down this path, some serious questions need to be addressed. Are the organisation’s performance problems attributable to the existing leader’s deficiencies? Given all leaders have weaknesses, how much do this particular leader’s weaknesses matter? How much of the supposed under-performance is objectively measurable? Changing a leader can often reflect a simplistic analysis of problems which run much deeper than just the performance of the person at the top. After dominating the late 1960s and 1970s, Richmond Football Club experienced decades of under-performance marked by regularly sacking coaches. Recently it has focused on fixing its underlying problems and showed faith in its coach, and has returned to the top as a result.
Replacing a leader entails substituting one set of human flaws with another. Organisations often make the mistake of over-correcting for the weaknesses of the departing leader, and thus expose themselves to other potentially more serious risks. It is sensible to think through the required attributes of a possible new leader before making the decision to dispense with the existing one.
Total loss of confidence is not survivable. Sometimes the loss of confidence in an existing leader can be so profound that the specific merits of the situation lose relevance. The brutal facts of life – collapse in share price, loss of members and sponsors – simply make it unsustainable for the existing leader to continue, regardless of whether he or she is to blame.
For countless office workers around the world, attending meetings is the primary device for pretending to work. Meetings are the lubricant which enable larger organisations to function. But just as an engine needs oil of a particular viscosity, an organisation works best when formal meetings reflect genuine need. As a leader, you should ensure that all meetings have a defined purpose, and that all activity within a meeting is directed to the achievement of a specific output. These imperatives may seem obvious, but they are routinely ignored.
Every meeting needs a chair. Chairing a meeting requires you to manage the proceedings and synthesise the contributions into a broadly acceptable outcome. You shouldn’t unduly impose your own views, but equally you should ensure that discussions don’t degenerate into a directionless ramble. A majority vote is a useful reserve weapon that enables you to impose discipline and structure on a messy discussion. A mere reference to it is often enough to allow you to draw disparate opinions into a coherent outcome.
If you can’t say it in six sentences, don’t say it. As a Cabinet Minister, I tried to live by this simple principle. An argument’s impact tends to be inversely proportional to its length. Over my political career I saw several colleagues seriously undermine their standing by speaking too long and too often. If you are speaking regularly in a group – whether in meetings or more formal speeches – develop a sense of how many words a minute you typically deliver, and what a given quantity of speech-notes is likely to produce. I speak about 100 words per minute, and I have a good sense of how many minutes a given number of pages of notes will generate.
Don’t speak on every issue. You may know more than everyone else in the room, but speaking on every item will generate irritation and devalue your contribution.
To shape a debate, speak early. By speaking early, you can influence the terms of a major discussion. If you wait until most other people have spoken, you risk having the shape of the discussion determined by others and even being seen as a fence-sitter not prepared to commit yourself until you know which way the wind is blowing. If you are a leader, you should be setting the terms of debate.
To shape a debate, speak early. By speaking early, you can influence the terms of a major discussion. If you wait until most other people have spoken, you risk having the shape of the discussion determined by others
Every um and er undermines your argument. If you speak like you do in ordinary conversation the impact of your argument will be diluted. Speaking in groups large and small is central to the art of leadership: make sure you master the basics of the craft, like short sentences, short words, crisp delivery, coherent structure and minimal digression.
Ask yourself what you really want to do. Before committing to a major leadership role, you should look through the title and the salary into the actual content of the role. Is that what you want to spend the peak phase of your career doing? Once our ambitions crystallise, we tend to lose sight of why we want to get to the position we covet. These things can change over time, so it is important to keep interrogating your underlying motivations.
Opportunity only knocks once. It took me a week to decide what to do when a golden opportunity to run for Federal Parliament presented itself. Although I faced a very challenging situation in the Clerks Union at the time, my mind was ultimately made up by the instinctive sense that this was my one big chance. If I knocked it back there probably wouldn’t be another one. Opportunity knocks, but it doesn’t always announce itself – so don’t say no to any plausible opportunity immediately. Time and further discussion may render it much more attractive than your initial impression suggested.
If you fail as a leader, you may get a second chance: you won’t get a third one. Unless your failure is caused by obvious unsuitability, you are likely to get another leadership opportunity, albeit maybe not at the same level. Fail twice and your career as a leader is probably finished.
Don’t do stupid things. The key to successfully steering Essendon to full recovery from the drug scandal was simple: we managed to avoid doing anything stupid. Doing nothing is often the right way to tackle a particular situation – as long as you have the judgment and courage to make the right calls. The key is an intense focus on the merits of the issue – not the transient appearances you may be generating.
Confidence and self-doubt are good servants and bad masters. A balanced awareness of your own strengths and weaknesses coupled with the resolve to back your own considered judgments is invaluable. Brash over-confidence undermines your credibility – and false modesty can be self-fulfilling. If you don’t sufficiently value your own contribution, others are unlikely to.
Firmness and clarity lie at the heart of good leadership. A the height of the Rudd Government’s internal gyrations on climate change, Tony Douglas from Essential Media Communications offered this profound advice: the Australian people will put up with almost anything in their leaders, but the one thing they won’t tolerate is weakness. And while the circumstances differ across different kinds of organisations, the principle is the same: apparent weakness in leadership will inevitably be punished.
Make sure your actions align with your words. Few things undermine a leader’s authority more than the sense that they don’t live up to the expectations they set for others.
Don’t make it too serious. All leadership roles are serious, but a healthy awareness that life will go on if the organisation falters will alleviate your stress and create a better working environment for your subordinates. Defiance in the face of adversity strengthens team confidence and commitment: excess bravado and insouciance can obviously be counter-productive, but a hint of “damn the torpedoes” can be inspiring. As First World War French general Ferdinand Foch famously said: “My centre is giving way, my right is in retreat. Situation excellent: I shall attack.”
Physical appearance matters. No matter how often we remind ourselves not to judge a book by its cover, our subconscious mind won’t allow us to ignore superficial appearance. You should be conscious of the visual impression you create, and try to ensure that it fits your role. The appropriate appearance for a leader varies considerably across different cultures: in some countries ostentation is important, but in Australia informality and understatement are preferable. Make sure you embrace your erstwhile physical deficiencies, don’t try to hide or compensate for them. Elevator shoes, comb-overs, dyed hair, and cosmetic surgery send a message of insecurity and vanity, which erode your credibility as a leader. Similarly, excessive display of the trappings of power – huge office with lavish furnishings, fancy sports car, enormous mansion etc – will suggest you are an over-promoted carpetbagger.
Be visible and relevant – but never desperate. Trying hard to be liked or noticed is generally counter-productive. If you make sure you are always where the action is, you won’t need to unduly advertise your virtues. Friendship is highly qualified in a hierarchy, so don’t imagine that your subordinate is going to be your best friend. You may have to sack them, or they may steal your job. Maintaining genuine friendships outside work is crucial, because they are extremely hard to sustain inside work.
Think inside the box. Innovation and imagination are just as important to the mundane, business-as-usual aspects of your role as they are to blue-sky thinking. Much of your leadership role will be relatively routine – that doesn’t mean you should do it on auto-pilot.
Don’t be right too early. Allow your insights to ripen organically, and allow them to evolve with the opportunities they’re intended to exploit. Premature propositions tend to end up as historical oddities, half-remembered quirky forerunners to someone else’s world-beating idea.
Read everything. There’s a fair chance those around you won’t. The ignorance of others is your ally. Information asymmetry is a key source of competitive advantage in the endless struggle for organisational advancement.
Read everything. There’s a fair chance those around you won’t. The ignorance of others is your ally. Information asymmetry is a key source of competitive advantage in the endless struggle for organisational advancement.
Make sure every significant interaction is documented. Verbal understandings are often misinterpreted later – both innocently and deliberately. An important verbal agreement should be immediately followed by a confirmatory email setting out the precise terms of your agreement. Any unpleasant surprises will surface very quickly.
Get it in writing. The written word is also useful for deflecting unnecessary requests for action. If someone asks you to do something that is inconsequential and peripheral to your role, ask them to put the request in an email. An amazing percentage of such requests die a natural death at this point.
Leave the hand grenade in your in-tray overnight. Leaders are commonly on the receiving end of very unpleasant surprises, which trigger an emotional need to respond immediately. Such surprises seem much less threatening when you have allowed the urgent emotional reaction to dissipate. When I felt the urge to write a letter to the editor complaining about my treatment in the media I would always leave the draft letter in my in-tray overnight – and then tear it up in the morning.
If you cover up someone else’s mistake it becomes your mistake. Most serious scandals are driven by an inappropriate response to an initial misdeed. It’s not the crime – it’s the cover-up, is one cliché that is spot on.
Don’t waste time on routine interactions. The modern world has given us a variety of communication avenues precisely to enable us to maximise our operational efficiency. Use text before email, email before phone call, phone call before meeting, meeting before lunch, and lunch before dinner. Always opt for the quickest and simplest tool that is appropriate. By and large, lunch is a waste of time – and dinner is an even bigger waste of time. Formal meals can be an important relationship-building tool, but should never be used for routine business matters. If you want to balance your high-powered leadership role with family responsibilities, work-related social events outside working hours should be kept to an absolute minimum.
Workarounds often come back to haunt you. In some circumstances short-term fixes are unavoidable, but you should give serious consideration to the potential longer-term traps you may be setting. A substantial proportion of IT spend is driven by the effect of past workarounds.
Only bend a rule if you can construct a principled rationale for your decision. Your staff will be sensitive to any hint of special treatment for particular individuals – so make sure you have a logical and defensible reason for it if you need to do it.
Pragmatism usually triumphs. Standing firm on a point of principle is preferable, but at a certain point excessive adherence to protecting your honour becomes foolish. It can even undermine the very principle you are seeking to uphold. Formal processes for hiring staff and dealing with customers and suppliers protect you from endless lobbying from the wide range of individuals and companies clustered around your organisation. If you fail to keep your distance from the huge number of specific decisions you will find yourself trapped in an endless cycle of wheeling and dealing.
Avoid the black box. An inquiry I ordered as Minister for Finance into Federal Government IT management found that most agency heads paid little attention to the operations of their IT systems – even when they accounted for up to half their entire business. You don’t need to acquire a vast array of obscure technical knowledge, but you do need to understand how the system works.
If one of the recommended option seems obvious, you’re probably being played. The oldest public service trick in the book is to present a Minister with three options – the preferred choice and two extreme alternatives. This technique can also be seen in the private sector, so when you are scrutinising alternative pathways, make sure the options in front of you are real.
Beware of clichés. There’s a saying for every situation, and one for every side of an argument. Absence makes the heart grow fonder – out of sight out of mind – familiarity breeds contempt. Reaching for a slick catchphrase is easier than serious analysis, but unlikely to lead to an acceptable outcome.
Don’t go halfway when introducing a new system. When I took over as leader of my union I discovered we were running two parallel membership systems – one on computer and one on cards. Changing a system means fundamental change, not duplication.
Be careful what you threaten. Threats are a valuable leadership tool provided they are used sparingly. Never make a threat you aren’t prepared to carry out, and never grandstand to that effect in front of subordinates. Some threats can only be carried out once – so if your bluff is called you have to be certain that the situation warrants using your non-reusable weapon. Once you’ve exploded your device you can’t blow it up a second time.
Leadership is ultimately about making decisions. To be effective, every leader needs a set of key principles that guide their approach to decision-making.
Precision will triumph over confusion. In similar vein, the specific will trump the general. Pedantry may have a bad social reputation, but it works a treat in an organisational context. While a leader carries responsibility for the big picture, lack of attention to detail is likely to be fatal.
Before crafting a solution, define the problem. The slightest hint of confusion around your objective will undermine your strategy.
Half-solutions create new problems. Understand the scope of the problem you’re seeking to solve, and ensure that your proposed solution is a comprehensive response.
Process isn’t a solution. Politicians are adept at announcing a process as a way of appearing to do something about an issue. Royal Commissions, Senate inquiries and references to expert bodies like the Productivity Commission all fit this category. Process has its place – an external review of a particular problem can illuminate your thinking when you seek to address it – but be careful to ensure it doesn’t become a substitute for meaningful action.
Everyone’s problems are your problems. As the head of an organisation, you own all the problems that exist within it. And you don’t have the luxury of distancing yourself from unpopular or controversial decisions.
Data isn’t everything – interpreting it is. Misuse of data is widespread – most graphs convey a distorted picture, and longitudinal trends are shaped by the choice of base year. Ignoring data is foolish, but you need to understand how to interpret it, and how much weight to attribute to your conclusions.
No principle is entirely absolute. Especially in a pragmatic, informal culture like Australia’s, people will always ask for context before casting judgment on a transgression. When Labor accused John Howard of regularly lying, the instinctive response from uncommitted voters was “yeah, but what did he lie about?”
Big decisions generally default to a binary choice. If you try to sidestep the real choice you’re confronting, your stakeholders will arbitrarily allocate you to one of the two real options. Elegant triangulating can work, but it requires considerable finesse and benign circumstances. You’re better off facing up to the unpleasant choice and dealing with it.
In the battle for hearts and minds, intensity of feeling trumps raw numbers. A committed, focused minority usually wins an argument against an apathetic, uninterested majority.
In the battle for hearts and minds, intensity of feeling trumps raw numbers. A committed, focused minority usually wins an argument against an apathetic, uninterested majority.
The definition of a crisis is when all your options are bad. Your decisions will inevitably be criticized by others who gloss over or ignore the downsides of the alternative choices. Back your judgment and stare down the doubters – and don’t let the crisis divert you from other opportunities. One of the reasons Essendon was able to recover quickly from the recent drug scandal was our commitment to a major upgrade of our relatively new facility at Tullamarine. If you allow the crisis to take complete control you will pay a double penalty as your organisation steadily falls behind the competition
Strategic plans are often a waste of time and resources. As great German military leader Helmuth von Moltke famously said, “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy”. Strategic planning sessions can be useful, but their outcomes are sometimes so overcooked as to be virtually worthless. Most organisations function in such a volatile environment that projections three or four years ahead are pointless. Targets are often used as a substitute for real action – particularly if set at a point in the future when the person in charge of achieving them is unlikely to be around. Pre-ordained responses to hypothetical scenarios mean very little when the real thing is upon you. I’ve seen many “red lines” crumble in negotiations, when the unpleasant cost of protecting them becomes apparent and immediate.
Most offsites, retreats and strategy days are wasted. Most of these exercises I’ve attended over the years have been a waste of time and money. Some were thinly-disguised junkets – others attempts to shore up failing leadership – and some involved more travel time and down-time than actual working time. These mechanisms can be made to work well, but they require careful design and organisation. Start with a detailed outline of your purpose: what are the issues you are going to deal with, what outcomes do you intend to achieve, and what potential content might be better dealt with through other routine mechanisms. Specific questions used as headings can be a valuable tool for directing discussion.
A prospective decision needs a business case, an owner and an exit strategy. A common question in internal decision-making is “what does success look like?” It’s not a bad question, but you’re better off asking “what does failure look like?” Crystalising your understanding of the risks and possible negative consequences is central to good decision-making.
Reputation matters, but so do other things. Most organisations are feeling the pressure of ever-intensifying public relations challenges. Social media have magnified customer complaints, behavioural scandals and social responsibility demands enormously. This has driven rapid growth in an already significant professional cohort of consultants, spin doctors, pollsters and communications advisors.
PR is obviously important, but it should never be permitted to drive your decision-making. If you let the marketing department determine strategy you’re doomed. Management of PR challenges is a critical component of your operations, but it shouldn’t be allowed to overwhelm the other components. It is vital to remember that outcomes shape reputations, not the other way around.
A lot of bad publicity disappears without trace. If you’re troubled by a single unfavourable newspaper article, do a few rough calculations: how many copies were sold? How many people read the article? Of those, how many cared about the content? And how many people remembered it three days later? True, it isn’t quite that simple, as social media may amplify and prolong the story and it could lead to further bad publicity – but it is wise to place your reaction into a wider context. In 2018, Essendon was subjected to several vicious and highly misleading and in some cases simply untrue media reports – such as suggestions we sought the assistance of Mick Gatto during the drugs crisis – and yet in the same year we achieved record membership, record attendances, and a huge improvement in our finances.
It is easy to fall prey to the temptations of media exposure. In some occupations like politics, it is essential: name recognition and personal brand are paramount. In most organisations, though, there are a lot more risks than rewards entailed in discretionary media appearances. All such oppoprtunities should be subject to mini-business plan scrutiny: what is the purpose? What is the key message? What agenda is the media organisation running – and how will they seek to frame the content? What advantage is gained from the appearance, and what are the risks? The advice of your communications professionals is an important input into such deliberations, but don’t allow it to dictate the outcomes.
A lot of the time, the correct answer to a request for a media appearance or comment is a simple “no”. If your organisation is under challenge, a short and carefully-worded written statement is probably the best option. Unscripted interviews, particularly for television, carry extreme risks: grabs will be replayed out of context and without important qualifying phrases, and unflattering video will be used to illustrate the negative theme of the story. For most journalists, any deceit is justified if the story warrants it, so don’t assume the purpose of the interview is as advertised.
Soft sell beats hard sell. The public relations task isn’t all defensive of course. With positive promotion of your organization and its products, people respond quite well to reasoned persuasion but not to bullying and badgering.
In a digital world, distribution is everything. Your product doesn’t need to be the best in the market, just broadly comparable. The factors that collectively make up the distribution process – marketing, consumer awareness, accessibility, ease of payment, speed of delivery and so on – will then determine the outcome.
Visibility is critical. The one guarantee people won’t buy your product is if they don’t know it exists. And if it is difficult to obtain if they do know about it you’re also in trouble. In whatever field your organisation is in – business, sport, politics or charity – it’s vital to understand what your offering looks like from the perspective of the customer-spectator-voter-donor. A senior business figure who ran one of Australia’s biggest law firms once told me the key to successful marketing in professional services: forget all the complex business development strategies – just hang around. Be visible, be available, be in the places where your clients congregate. It was very wise advice.
Lessons on managing people
Informal authority always trumps formal authority. Irrespective of formal titles and responsibilities, the true nature of an organisation’s hierarchy is usually a complex ecosystem in which real power and importance don’t always reflect formal roles. If you are prosecuting a major change agenda, understanding where real authority lies, and who are the opinion-leaders that you have to get on board, is crucial to achieving success. There will always be a permafrost layer in the organisation that manages its day-to-day operations. People in that layer are often dismissive of the directives and views of senior leaders – sometimes with good reason – and can thwart any reform initiatives without even really trying. A good leader knows how to enlist the ideas, energy and commitment that lies in the ranks of its subordinate leaders – and how to identify the ones that really matter. One or two of these subordinate leaders will be battle-scarred veterans who know where all the bodies are buried and harbor few illusions about the organisation. You should seek out such people – their unvarnished perspective can be an invaluable resource.
All power is conditional. The innate power attached to your leadership role can be expanded or diminished by many factors, particularly the way you treat people. The world looks very different from the lower reaches of a complex hierarchy. A good leader ensures there is a place in the sun for everyone in the organisation, no matter how insignificant their role may seem. You have to work hard to inspire trust and commitment at all levels of your organisation.
Never condescend. It is the easiest thing in the world for an incredibly busy leader to condescend when dealing with a lowly underling – and it happens often. Under-educated isn’t the same as unintelligent, and junior doesn’t mean unimportant. Politeness and consideration are cheap – and often deliver enormous returns. The late James Strong, former CEO of Qantas and Chairman of Woolworths, was an outstanding example of a business leader who innately understood and practised this principle.
Understand the whole person when hiring. Managing people is at its most difficult when making decisions to hire, fire and promote. When hiring someone for an important role, I’ve always asked them two questions: what do you do outside work, and how will you go about disagreeing with me? Often you will be confronted by numerous CVs that all look the same. The key to making the right decision is understanding the whole person, and how they are likely to approach the job. Establishing that a candidate’s formal qualifications and experience are appropriate is the easy bit.
Great care should always be taken when dealing with unsuccessful candidates for promotion. If you want them to stay, you will need a clear strategy to ensure they overcome their disappointment and re-energise. A new project or expanded purpose will usually work, even if it is obvious that it is a minor consolation prize. More money doesn’t hurt, but money is no substitute for job satisfaction and self-worth. Showing that you want them to stay, and that notwithstanding the fact they failed to win the promotion contest you still feel they have a bigger contribution to offer, is what matters.
Public recognition must be strategic. Similarly, when bestowing recognition or approbation on one of your organisation’s high achievers, make sure you are conscious of their peers. The instinctive human response in such situations is to ask“what about me?” If the answer isn’t obvious, you have a problem. Leaders often fail to act strategically when awarding public recognition, and pay a significant price in staff commitment and performance as a result. They also often fail to factor in degree of difficulty when assessing individual performance. It is the nature of human existence that some people end up in charge of handing out the toys and others have to take them away. Make sure you don’t confuse cheap popularity with outstanding performance – they generally don’t coincide.
An astute leader quickly learns that everyone is ‘special’. No matter how compelling the case for an organisation-wide strategy or reform agenda, key people in most parts of the organisation will instinctively grasp for reasons why their division should be treated differently. A weak leader buckles in the face of such special pleading: a dogmatic, inflexible leader refuses to acknowledge that in some instances the case for special treatment has merit.
Everyone sees the world through their own eyes. A colleague or subordinate helping you address a specific task or problem is quite likely to see it in a very different way – because they are a different person. We all interpret the world differently, because we have had different upbringings and life experience. That’s why diversity in the workplace is so important: if all your subordinates are just like you, they will think like you and you’ll miss the additional value that different perspectives bring.
People live in their hearts, not their heads. I received this advice from a film producer who was giving me tips on my media performances. I was astonished when he admonished me for consistently trying to win the argument. When he explained that my real objective should be to connect, I got the point. All decision-making involves some interaction between reason and emotion, and at the individual level, emotion often wins.
People often don’t understand where their self-interest really lies. The old saying about always backing the horse called self-interest in the race of life has a lot of merit, but shouldn’t be taken too literally. Motivations can vary enormously, and self-interest is a complex mixture of rational and emotional factors.
Most people succeed in life, but not in the way they expected. Serendipity plays a huge role in shaping individual life outcomes, so be prepared to enable it to work its magic. Even the most glittering careers rarely reflect an orderly linear progression to the top.
Determination plus modest talent beats talent plus modest determination. As the intensity of competition continues to increase across most forms of human endeavor, deep commitment to succeed is essential.
Determination plus modest talent beats talent plus modest determination
Flattery will get you everywhere. In the extremely subjective world of politics, winning the support of your colleagues requires world-class flattery, sometimes at the nauseating level. The business world is slightly better because it has more objective measurements of performance, but flattery is still an important means of advancement.
Mediocrities vote for mediocrities. Jealousy is a very strong driver of competitive behavior – none of us likes to be reminded there are others better than us at executing our key skill. Sometimes popular resentment against the best candidate can allow an inferior candidate to triumph.
Professionals hate amateurs. If you’ve devoted a lifetime of painstaking endeavor to your craft, a gifted amateur from another sphere constitutes a direct insult to your years of striving. And the more gifted, the more resented.
Over-promoted people cling grimly to their exalted positions. Amateur sporting bodies are often dominated by people with deep experience in the sport but little competence in running organisations. They invariably resist attempts to inject serious professional expertise into the organisation.
Someone saying no to you will generally not reveal the true reason. Mostly they will opt for the most plausible excuse that is hard for you to rebut. If there is a substantial imbalance in knowledge and expertise, they won’t want to open up an argument where they’re at a big disadvantage.
Debtors hate creditors. Someone struggling to live up to their financial obligations will often blame the unreasonableness of the creditor as a way of deflecting attention from their own failings.
Total victory can incubate disaster. A winner who rubs a defeated opponent’s nose in the dirt can create a lifelong deadly enemy. If there is a chance you will encounter your vanquished opponent again, allow them some face-saving consolation.
As your own career in leadership unfolds, you will undoubtedly develop insights of your own – in some cases from painful mistakes and setbacks. These insights could well be different from mine – these questions are inherently subjective and human experience is always evolving. The important thing is that you continue to reflect on these themes and develop your own way of approaching them.
Unthinking leadership is a classic oxymoron: as you go about fulfilling your leadership responsibilities, you should be constantly assessing and interpreting the lessons experience is teaching you and searching for opportunities to become an even better leader. Good luck!
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