Current leaders are a bad example for our future ones
And you can hardly blame them... You what it needs to be successful, but it's hard to change.
Marty de Jonge
And you can hardly blame them for it. How to turn the tide?
I’ll admit it, I’m a lazy ‘laundry thrower’ and a very bad one too …. usually, it ends up on the floor next to the laundry basket. The few times I accidentally hit the center and the sock goes in, I immediately feel like Michael Jordan, but let’s be honest, I am a bad pitcher.
Being a bad laundry thrower is not really the problem. However, my habit to do it, because I am too lazy to walk to the basket. Not only is it making my wife crazy sometimes, but it’s also showing a bad example to my kids. I also keep up coming with excuses why not to act upon it. “ I’m running late hon, will put it in the basket tonight” or “ it’s almost laundry day so why bother to pick it up now if I have to do it tomorrow anyway”.
After all these years, everyone in the house is now used to it and they usually don’t say anything about it anymore. In retrospect, this is a shame because starting to do what I should be doing (putting my laundry IN the basket) has become much more difficult by now. It has become such a habit to be a thrower that I actually don’t think about it anymore.
When I’m not busy becoming a professional basketball player, I mainly work within large established organisations that are working on a transition process. The aim is to get them better equipped and agile for the current demands that are placed on them. This involves much more than just implementing tools and processes. These are important but besides of that I also work with them on the necessary mindset adjustments. Focussing on this topic with the management of the organisation in particular.
In the large organisations that I describe you often have to deal with top-level management and with the layer just below, the middle managers. It is in that specific area between the two management layers that the difference can be made for successful transition processes in the long run.
It is during the journey from middle- to top management where we can prevent middle managers to become ‘laundry throwers’ too!!
OK, now what’s the problem?
During the period you work in a certain occupation, you continuously develop yourself. A bricklayer over time learns to build a nice straight wall faster or more neatly, a basketball player more and more often scores from the 3 point line during training ;-), and a middle manager often wants to progress to top management.
Of course, not everyone can get there (or has the ambition to do so), but those who do develop the capacity and ambition are in the elevator that leads them up floor by floor to the rooftop.
During that lift ride up there are a number of floors on which the basis is laid for the type of leader he/she will become. And there is the problem!
These ascending managers learn from the current leaders of our organisations. They are their role models on how to successfully ensure that this lift continues to rise. The problem is that the good old ways of leading an organisation towards a bright future, like these current leaders have learned and done it, are no longer applicable today. The formulas that provided success for them can no longer be compared to the success formulas of today and certainly those of tomorrow.
What got our current leaders here, won’t get our future ones there.
Most of our leaders of today have become one by personal performances that stood out. They were the ones that took the lead when things got rough. They were the ones who did not take no for an answer and neither accepted a no from the people who worked for them. They learned to trust their own opinion as being the only right one. And rightly so! How else could they have landed at the top if they had not proven to be right in most occasions?
Besides this command and control behaviour they also played the internal political game perfectly during their ride up. Even more, they probably helped to shape it. To get their investment proposals and projects accepted and implemented, they knew perfectly what C-level Manager should get on board with what arguments and when in order to smoothly guide these projects through the approval process.
However, we now live in a fast-changing, digital, always connected, flattening organisation. Success is made by using the collective knowledge available in teams and decisions need to be taken as low in the organisation as possible to be on the market in time. The internal culture just does not change in the same pace. It’s not that middle management leadership doesn’t want to change this culture, they just don’t have the power or abilities to do so…yet.
Recent studies have shown that the expression ‘setting a good example’ resulted in middle managers copying the bad behaviour of their boss. Researchers from Erasmus University in Rotterdam and Cambridge University have conducted five studies that show that middle managers are likely to act like their superiors do (even more if they have offices close together) so something has to change.
A real-world story
One day a few weeks ago I was talking to one of these middle managers, Kathy. While we were waiting for the lift doors to open I asked her how she was doing.
K: “Well, Marty, quite busy. Next week the decision will be made about the product change we have planned so I’m spending a lot of time briefing the executives on this”.
M: “Hmm, but this plan has been worked on for the last few months and the progress was reported in every sprint review so there can hardly be any surprises anymore, right?”.
K: “I know, just not every executive came to these reviews so I have to run them down the proposal to make sure they understand the purpose and value of the product change.”
M: “That’s strange, we agreed with all of them two months ago we would only report back via the sprint review. This is where they could follow the progress and adjust accordingly based on the incremental deliveries that were demonstrated to them”
K: “True, and you are totally right, but that is just the way things go around here. When I sit in that chair in a few years from now, this behaviour will be among the first things I will change! Just for now… I have to follow suit otherwise things like these product changes will not get signed off and with that, I will never even come close to that chair. So…I choose my battles.”
I totally understand Kathy’s reasoning from her point of view, she feels she is squeezed between two extremes. On the one hand, if she really wants to bring about change, she has to get to a position where she has the power to change the rules of the game. On the other hand, to get there, she has to play the game like it is now and that is the trap.
When the moment comes that Kathy drops herself into that soft velvet of a C-level chair, there is a real chance she will wonder how she can still adjust her behaviour and way of working in this high-stakes, high-pressure executive job without risking her carefully built position.
“The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they’re too heavy to be broken.” — Warren Buffet
How to turn the tide?
Bad news for Kathy… her executives will not take the initiative to start the change, neither to really do something about it.
If there is someone who will have to pick up the glove (or laundry..), it is Kathy and her peers because they are the ones that will be impacted the most when nothing changes. Either they inherit an organisation that is failing because of stubbornly old-fashioned leadership, or they fail themselves to build the capabilities to lead the organisation of the future because they choose to keep on playing the game by the old rules.
Of course, they will need the C-level cooperation to succeed, but they will be the ones who have to break the paradox. This kind of dilemmas sometimes seem unresolvable, but there are tools and practices to get it off to a good start. One of those practices that can work well in similar situations is “Wicked Questions”.
This practice helps to find solutions towards opposing-yet-complementary strategies. Two scenarios that at first sight seem incompatible with each other can be brought closer together by means of this technique. By searching for the answer to the following question.
“How is it that we are … and we are … simultaneously?”
So, in Kathy and her peers' case: How is it that we are able to change the way we are working right now and we are getting support to do so from current leadership simultaneously?
The answer they came up with was as simple as it was true. It is all about growing trust, willingness to learn from each other and the guts to take the first step.
Choose a challenging and valuable change objective that does not impact the core activities of the organisation directly. Step up towards the current senior leaders and ask them; “do you trust us to get the job done and are you willing to give us the room to lead it like we see fit? We would love to be able to use your experience and advice but want to get responsibility and be responsible for the outcomes”
You can not expect leadership to just hand over the keys of the organisation just like that but they also know they won’t be there forever. In order to allow the leaders of the future to grow towards this position, they have to be given the opportunity and trust to develop this leadership. To do this in a sustainable and future proof way, that should be possible to do without being held back by old paradigms that the current leaders might have.
The techniques and tools middle management want to use should be up to them within the agreed boundaries and not forced upon them by current leaders. The goal to get everything IN the basket is not negotiable though. These current leaders have to be clear that sloppy laundry throwing is not allowed. They should be showing willingness to change the position of the basket if this is requested, to allow the growing leaders to have some room to practice. Above all, they have to start trusting the leaders of the future to become better and better in it by coaching them and let them find their own way.
The current middle managers on their side will have to stand up and prove to be the ones that can lead the organisation to the future. It is their responsibility to not only focus on technique but on the outcome too. If you want to make decisions, you are also accountable for the results. Of course, you can ask help and assistance but to become a leader, you’ll have to take the lead.
If you want something to happen, you have to stop being a laundry thrower and complain about “management not getting it” at the coffee machine. If you want something to change, take action to make it happen.
Marty de Jonge
As an agnostic change agent, I am constantly amazed at what happens in organizations and learn every day. Enthusiastic writer and always open for discussion.