Leadership in troubled times

Sep 23 2010 by James M. Kerr Print This Article

As the worldwide recession continues to affect organizations, many have tried to put in place internally- focused improvement initiatives in hopes of improving their execution practices while lowering the cost of operations.

As I help clients plan and implement these sweeping transformation programs, it has become readily apparent that they need deliberate leadership if they are going to succeed. Without inspired leadership, most firms lack the necessary insight required to break the natural inertia that can smother productivity and slow progress during troubled times.

Simply put, when we, as leaders, fail to lead, we fail. It is obvious that most management teams are very skilled at identifying what is needed to help a company evolve as well as assigning those activities to subordinates. However, most are much less accomplished at knowing what to do when the work of change falters.

As Blanchard and Hersey made famous with their work in Situational Leadership Theory decades ago, the fact is that all teams follow a very similar and predictable productivity curve when first charged with a new or challenging assignment.

Teams begin enthusiastically and are eager to dig in and deliver on the new assignment. But when the novelty of the new assignment wears off, all of what is lacking in understanding becomes apparent. At this point, teams falter and productivity dips unless they are given the direction needed to absorb the learning curves required to be successful.

If a team does not receive the active, directive leadership that is required to propel it forward, it will stall and make no progress at all. So, the recognition that organizations require directive leadership on significant and new change initiatives is significant and will make or break a program's success.

Once a management team becomes more active and directive (providing teams with much needed direction-setting and support), project teams can hit stride and become extremely productive Ė enabling the changes that were envisioned to begin with. This adjustment to a senior management team's leadership style not only brings significant productivity gains, it also contributes to employee engagement and commitment. Let's explore what all this means.

Leadership Starts With Vision

Senior executives clearly have an obligation to their organizations to articulate and socialize a clear and absolute vision for the future. But producing a vision statement is not enough. Rather, it is much preferred (and, far more effective in gaining staff understanding and support) to develop a Vision Story that paints a vivid picture of the future and explains how all staff members fit within it. This is important to note because change programs that lack context (that a Strategic Vision provides) will often die on the vine due to staff misinterpretation and resistance.

Once defined, a vision for the future is achieved through the flawless execution of a myriad of projects and programs. It is during project and program execution that active leadership is most needed. It is here that we walk our implementation teams through the various stages of the productivity curve.

How Do We Provide What Is Needed?

This is easier to do than one might expect. It simply requires us to take our roles as executive sponsors very seriously. By doing so, we are uniquely positioned to provide our teams with desired leadership as necessary. For, at project commencement it is our responsibility to engage our team, we must direct them when they falter, support them as they overcome adversity and empower when they need us to get out of their way.

But we won't know when leadership is needed and which style is necessary if we are disengaged and slack-off as executive sponsors. Our connection to projects and programs as their sponsors will serve to motivate and inspire our teams to do their best work Ė helping us to institute the changes that are needed to achieve the strategic vision that we have set forth.

Trouble-Free Sponsorship

Here are a few tried and true techniques that can be used to ensure that your project and program sponsorship moves along swimmingly:

Build Regular Sponsor Review Meetings into the Project / Program Plan: The chief way that you can keep a pulse on where your project team(s) is by regularly reviewing status and understanding the challenges that your teams are facing as they manage through their initiatives. It's important to build regularly scheduled Sponsor Review sessions into Project / Program plans. While each initiative is distinctive, a project team should not proceed for more than three weeks at a time without a sponsor review.

Demand Weekly Project Status Reports: It's important for project teams to regularly document project status. Weekly project reports are particularly helpful to executive sponsors to track progress during the "in-between times" among sponsor reviews. If your intervention is needed on an off-week, you will know it and can take action.

Hold Project Manager One-on-Ones: It's a good idea to build a solid rapport with your project manager(s). Once trust is built, you will likely get a more fair and balanced point of view of project status. The unfiltered honesty will likely make your intercessions more timely and effective.

Do "Drive-Bys": No need to limit your time with the project team to just regularly scheduled review sessions. Visit your teams while they are in workshop and during project meetings. This type of "management by walking around" can go a long way to improving your understanding of where your teams are, both, emotionally and intellectually.

Institute an Overall Program Coordination Process: Organizationally, a firm is well advised to establish a formal program coordination process that ensures that the project managers, responsible for each initiative that comprises a program, meet on a regular basis to discuss progress, share cross-project work and brainstorm solutions to nagging problems that can wreak havoc on a complex and multi-faceted program. Normal attendance at project coordination meetings can help you better steer your teams to success.

Keep Your Door Wide-Open: Finally, practice an open door policy (especially for your project managers and teams). By making it simple for team participants to approach you and discuss issues, you create a winning atmosphere that will spill over to the entire project / program.

But be sure that you practice what you preach. If you claim that you have an open door policy, yet, make It difficult for team members to reach out to you; you will defeat the purpose and potentially sabotage morale.

To Close

It is our responsibility to lead. If we fail to articulate a vision and define how we are going to get there, we are not doing our job. But, simply stating a strategic direction is not enough. Indeed, we must provide the "right" type of leadership at the "right" time in order to ensure success in our organizational transformation programs.

The best way to make certain that you know what is needed, when is to engage and actively sponsor all of your change initiatives. While there are certainly no guarantees, by using the techniques suggested above, you can hedge your bet and be well on the way to leading your company to real success.

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About The Author

James M. Kerr
James M. Kerr

James M. Kerr is a long-time author, management consultant, vision maker and coach to some of today's best leaders. His latest book, Indispensable: Build and Lead A Company Customers Canít Live Without was published in February 2021.