Management Lessons from Max: Three Phases of Leadership

As my dog Max and I were walking the other evening I noticed that he always acts differently through the various phases of our walk and we both change roles as leaders and followers during the process. In viewing our interactions, I saw the immediate parallel need for leaders to mimic these same traits at different times in their journey within an organization.

To provide perspective, I have been a change leader for many middle market companies throughout my three decade career, starting with leading engineering departments and then quickly transitioning to plant and overall business organization leadership. Because I was almost always brought in to make improvements in a struggling business, many of these situations have been very intense and the survival of the business depended on the success of those turnaround efforts. Those conditions mandate decisive leadership and strong actions.

In all of those leadership roles, I always was operating in one of three roles as I led the organization through change. The first is what I would term as a Trailblazer, the second was the Partner and the third was the Coach. I will use Max to help you understand the description of each role.

Trailblazer

When Max and I start out our walk I can often barely keep up. He knows the route well and he starts out as this type of leader, setting a confident and robust pace for both of us, blazing the trail we will be taking. He is a big boy by Airedale standards at 95 pounds so when he is in this “large and in charge” role I often feel I have to hang on for the ride during the early part of our walk.

As far as applying this, given any new engagement with a struggling business, I often take on this same type of leadership role early on. I want to start strong in order to drive home the following:

  1. I am confident in my own leadership abilities; I will personally take the lead and those responsibilities and risks associated with that role.
  2. I have a vision for what needs to be done and it will lead to our success.
  3. While I will seek your input, the final decision will be always be mine because I am the one accountable for it.
  4. As the leader, I will be directing the organization to implement changes, sometimes at a rapid pace, whether the changes will be popular or not.
  5. Through this process, I will also review the capabilities and attitudes of all the staff.
  6. As an existing member of the organization, you need to choose whether you want to be a part of this process or not. Your actions in how you engage or get involved with the effort will indicate your ability to be a part of the company’s future.

Some of this approach may seem to be autocratic and hardhearted. However, setting a high bar and a rapid pace in the beginning will get the business primed to quickly implement and absorb the needed change. This urgency is often also driven by the need to quickly get the businesses cost structure in line with its revenues and margins so we can create a positive cash flow.

Of great importance for the leader during this phase is to watch the responses and reactions of those front line employees, supervisors, and managers while this is happening. The process will help the new leader understand the cultural issues, good and bad, as well as those leaders that will be able to step up in the next phase. This “stressing the system” is invaluable and this trial will also separate the leaders from the followers on the team.

Partner

Once we have walked several blocks, Max still acts in a leading role but starts to get into a rhythm with me, matches my pace and walks by my side. During this phase of the walk, it feels like we have common goals and are reading and measuring each other. We have accepted each other and our walking side by side is a respectful way of expressing that approval. This phase is more of us acting as Partners and not the leader or follower in the process.

It works almost exactly the same with leaders and managers during this phase when participative leadership becomes more the norm. In this phase the following occurs:

  1. Both the leader and those reporting managers have now gained some comfort level and trust with the other.
  2. The leader often allows the managers to interact as both peers and partners in the management of the business with the leader reaching out more often for the manager’s perspective and advice on decisions.
  3. The leader also gives the manager more autonomy in the management of their responsibilities, establishing deliverables and then allowing the manager more discretion on the means of accomplishing those objectives.
  4. In this phase the leader is still very involved with many details, more like a player/coach, insuring that each manager is successful as they take on more autonomy and responsibility.
  5. For both the leader and manager, this phase is more personally rewarding and the interaction becomes much less stressful and more enjoyable on a personal level.

While the work environment may become less stressful, the leader must still insure that they still stay distant enough relationally from all reporting employees that they can be objective in their leadership. Becoming friends with any subordinate is dangerous and will interfere with sound decision-making.

Coach

In the last phase of our walk, Max is usually tired and starts lagging behind. It is then that I take on the more visible leadership posture in the walk. In this change up, I will begin speeding up the pace, and urging and encouraging him to keep up with me as we finish the course.

Once a leader has been in an organization for a while, the newness is gone, people are in a routine and the pace of change has slowed substantially. By this time the leader should have delegated most of the detailed tactical management of the organization to the management team, allowing the leader to spend more time looking forward on strategic issues.

What cannot be lost at that time is the need for continuing business improvements as well as the ongoing leadership growth of every supervisor and manager. In this last phase, the leadership actions will take on the following directions:

  1. The leader has defined and delegated all of the responsibilities of each supervisor and manager to each one so they can run their own departments.
  2. Processes have been fully defined and documented to create clarity of responsibilities.
  3. The leader utilizes dashboard reports to assess the important performance elements of the business and uses these to keep the leadership team focused on priorities.
  4. The leader has reviewed and qualified those leaders that are a fit for the organization and now spends more time improving the competence of the group for the future.
  5. The leader focuses on each of those subordinate managers by defining development needs and then working with each leader on an action plan to make those improvements.
  6. Finally, in addition to the leadership and skills development, the leader spends time evaluating his leadership team on their performance and encouraging them to achieve ever higher levels of accomplishments individually and as a team.

Summary

It has been my experience that the transition for an entire organization from one phase to another is not a discrete ending of one and the starting of the next. The transition is often very fluid and unique to each situation and organization. Everyone and every organization does not absorb change at the same pace and so its timing will be unique with each individual and situation. Therefore, it is quite common for the leader to be acting in all three roles at any given time with individuals within the management team until the entire group has progressed to a similar level.

In reality, the new leader will be reviewing each member of the leadership team from day one to assess their capabilities and attitudes. The transition of phases with each member of the management team can move slowing or very quickly depending on that manager’s willingness and ability to buy in to the new directions, step up their performance, and finally, desire a greater role in leading the changes. The leader, upon this assessment, would then create a transition plan that is unique to that supervisor/manager and begin implementing it as quickly as possible.

Within the management team some will always be the stars that are excelling within the new reality as well as those that are lagging the group. Those that measure up quickly will be given more autonomy and will be treated more as partners. Unfortunately, those that resist or are not ready will need to be led more autocratically in the short term. Eventually, each will have to prove they can break through or it will mean more radical actions are required and they will have to be evaluated as to whether they should remain as part of the leadership group.

In closing, this process of developing a leadership team can be very rewarding for the leader as well as the team members. It is a time of learning and growth for all parties. Most importantly it fulfills one of his/her greatest responsibilities which is creating that next generation of leaders.

 

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Posted in Blog Post, Growing Businesses, Restructuring Businesses, Selling Businesses and Struggling Businesses

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