Can leaders be too collaborative?

Can collaboration can go too far? Is there an arc to the effectiveness of collaboration, where at some point, collaboration begins losing its effectiveness? This kind of seems ridiculous to write. Of course we should collaborate. Teams are necessary in today’s ever-changing world. Collaboration is necessary for innovation. There’s no ‘I’ in team (on an unrelated note, does anyone else want to hurl when you hear that cliché for the 1000th time?). No one wants a bunch of cowboys doing their own thing in the organization and not working together on projects.

Anyone who has worked in a large organization has probably seen collaboration morph into insane bureaucracies. Timid and incompetent managers often hide behind collaboration to spread blame around. They talk, and talk, and talk. They set-up committees to study and discuss ideas and then form committees to manage the committees that oversee the committees. This happens a lot in government, but it also happens in private organizations as well. It is possible to collaborate your organization to the point of extinction, by taking great ideas and subjecting them to so much discussion that no one actually makes a decision on implementing the idea. The decision might get made made, but only after 174 people have contributed to the discussion on the new color of paint in the lobby. In the meantime, countless dollars are spent on wasted productivity.

At some point, collaboration implodes on itself. It begins contradicting the exact purpose of having it in the first place. I am not advocating for zero collaboration; we all need to be challenged by other viewpoints. But organizations do need to understand that talking about ideas is easy; having the chutzpah to make a decision is hard. Leaders that can find ways to collaborate without allowing that collaboration to paralyze the organization will succeed in complex organizations.


Org. Design and Social Networks

Hierarchies rely on job titles to command the attention of others. Social networks thrive on the social ingenuity and influence of the individual people in the network. Intuitive 21st Century organizational designs will allow this inevitable influence to happen and reward those who thrive on it, not punish them. In many organizations, bypassing structures to sell an idea to someone higher up is taboo, and may get the person fired. Designs must intentionally create and support bypasses to structure in a utilitarian approach to the structure. It does not suggest structure is not needed, but rather, that structure is a fluid concept that is constantly evolving. Galbraith (2000) calls this the “reconfigurable organization” and argues that this type of organization involves three capabilities:

(1) The organization is reconfigured by forming teams and networks across organizational departments.
(2) The organization uses internal prices, markets, and marketlike devices to coordinate the complexity of multiple teams.
(3) The organization forms partnerships to secure capabilities it does not have.

Proficient social networkers are perfectly poised to thrive in this reconfigurable organization. The portfolio life has become more and more viable now, because people have an immediate captive audience of friends and friends of friends. This is analogous to a return to the pre-industrial cottage industry life. A person can market him or herself to their immediate network, and those people can then recommend that person when they know someone who might need their services. (credit for sparking this idea in my research goes to Dan Friesen).

Organizations, like marketers, are confronting the reality of the power of social connections. This is not just an Information Technology (IT) issue. It is a complex issue that affects all aspects of an organization.

The explosion of the use of social networking sites has coincided with a need for organizations to recruit and retain avid social networkers in their organizations. Goleman argues that emotional intelligence is a primary indicator of the success of a leader. Adept social networkers will have that needed high emotional intelligence and will thrive in 21st Century organizations. This also means that some employees may be bypassed for promotions and projects because of their inability to navigate the complexities of the fluid and global organization. Adept social networkers have already thrived in complex social networks, and are perfectly poised to thrive just when organizations need them to. I’m just not sure organizations are ready for them yet.

Galbraith, J. (2000). Designing the global corporation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R. & McKee, A. (2002). Primal Leadership: Realizing the power of emotional intelligence. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

In Defense of Violating Policies

“I have seen a lot of things, and have seen a lot of guys die…but I have never seen a Marine cry.” (witness to incident below)

I don’t know any Marines personally, but I suspect that making one cry is a very difficult feat. A story surfaced recently regarding a Marine trying to fly home on Delta Airlines. This young man lost two legs in Afghanistan last year and was trying to fly home for Christmas. The Customer Service people (and I use the term ‘service’ very loosely here) decided this Marine should be boarded last at the back of the plane. It’s a pain for able-bodied people to navigate through a crowded plane, let alone a double-amputee in a wheelchair. So they dragged him through the aisle, bumping into seats along the way despite offers of assistance. A couple First-class passengers even offered to trade seats with him but the Delta employees refused and continued the humiliating journey down the aisle in front of a crowded plane.

Now in defense of Delta Airlines, they acknowledged they mishandled this situation, and issued a statement saying “We failed in this situation”. That takes a lot of guts for an organization to publicly say they made a mistake, and I respect their willingness to do so. (other organizations who mess up should take note of Delta’s response)

Incidents like this happen every day in large organizations (albeit most don’t make the front page of newspapers). An employee gets presented with an opportunity to use their brain, their internal compassionate tendencies, and their discretion…and they hide behind the policy instead. How many times have you heard a variation of, “Thank you sir, but our policy states that…”? Does it ever make you a more engaged customer? In most cases, it enrages you. But I think the issue is not the employee him/herself, but rather the leaders who enforce those policies, and who punish violators irrationally. Policies can’t encompass every conceivable situation, even though they sometimes try to.

Our orientation and training for employees should include a review of policies, but also a review of when to violate said policies. If the employees you hire can’t handle that discretion, then you shouldn’t have hired them. It’s amazing what can happen when you give employees liberty, discretion and opportunities to provide the service you want them to. Policies are needed, but not at the expense of what your organization is there for in the first place.

The quote at the beginning if this article is haunting. So many things could have gone different in this incident had this organization empowered their employees to violate policies when it makes sense to do so, and who backed up their employees when they did. It may very well avoid embarrassing situations like this one.

The Intertwinement of Personal and Professional Lives

As Millennials begin to move into leadership positions, they will bring with them a littered trail of living life in the public domain. Want to know what the 2025 CEO of GE values? Look no further than his/her social networking past history. By then, many Millennials will have 20 or more years of social networking information stored on public sites; a gold mine of data about the true values of a person.

James O’Toole wrote a brilliant book on values in 1996. He wrote about many things, and distinguishes between private and public behaviors of leaders. He argues that only public, not private, discrepancies determine the worthiness of a leader. I would argue that public and private lives are now the same thing. Who I am at work is the same as who I am at home, and vice versa. This is especially true as more and more people develop “portfolio” lives (to borrow a term from Charles Handy), and mix and match jobs/careers into an eclectic tapestry, not a linear trajectory.

There was no way O’Toole, or anyone really, could not have predicted the interconnected world we currently live in, but his statement that there should be a separation between public and private lives illustrates a belief that we can be a ‘professional’ and a ‘citizen’, and the two lives don’t crossover. That theory was erroneous decades ago and is even more so now. We can’t live two lives, and social media’s intertwinement of our personal and professional lives makes next to impossible now. Just think of how many talented leaders have seen their careers shattered by personal discrepancies or personal errors in judgement.

This intertwinement will create very interesting dynamics in future leadership selections. Want to know what I really think about leadership if you are considering hiring me? In the past, you would rely on your HR Professional to write some supposedly reliable interview tool to ask the ‘right’ behavioral questions. I would answer articulately, you would would be wowed by my hypothetical response, you would hire me, and then wonder why I acted completely different when in the actual leadership role. It is difficult, if not impossible, to find out someone’s true values in an interview.

Now, you can just Google me and decide whether my thoughts, viewpoints, and actions are aligned with the values of your organization. I can’t bluff my way into anything, and astute recruiters have years of online history to comb through if they are ever considering me. Sure, there are privacy issues to deal with and the courts continue to set those precedents. But I look at this as a good thing. Read enough of my posts/tweets/comments/pictures/status updates/likes…and you should (hopefully) get a pretty good feel for who I am. I am a fallible human being, as is every leader you have ever considered to work for you. The big question is, are you willing to tolerate those faults?

I think we will see fewer organizations center themselves around one central leader in the future. It will seem ludicrous to do so, because every leader’s faults will be readily available (or already published in Rolling Stone or Vanity Fair). Organizational values are the collective sum of the values of the individual people in the organization, and are not the same as a single person’s values in the organization. Future organizational paradigms will accept fallible leaders because they will realize we are all fallible. The organizational values will be generated on the collective backs of those fallible leaders; not the back of one of them. Finding a collective form of values, that is not dependent on one person, will lead to much stronger foundations of organizational culture. When we do that, our organizations will survive anything, including the failure of a single leader.

O’Toole (1996). Leading change: The argument for values based leadership. New York: Ballantine.

New Article Published: Rest in Leadership

My latest article, entitled “Rest is the Hidden Key to Successful Leadership” was just published in the Human Resource Management International Digest. In this article, I discuss an oft-forgotten topic of leadership: Rest. We seem to focus on everything a leaders does, rather than what a leader does not do. Very few leaders actually take all of their allotted vacation time. If they do, they typically work while on vacation. Most leaders seem to be glued to their smartphones almost 24 hours per day. And we praise them for their dedication to the organization when they do this.

Our ambition drives our work-ethic, sometimes to the brink of burnout and personal-life catastrophes. Is that healthy long-term? Perhaps organizations need to mandate rest for their leaders, and my article proposes some practical solutions on how to do this (i.e. mandate “no smart-phone” access between midnight and 6am, enforce “no contact” practices while employees are on vacation etc.).

Even Michael Jordan required rest to maintain his top form. He averaged 38 minutes per game in his career, meaning he rested for an average of ten minutes per game. Perhaps we should consider rest as essential to our own leadership, to keep ourselves and our followers in top form.

You can check out my article here.

Do we talk too much about values?

We talk a lot about values in organizations…perhaps too much so. It has become somewhat vogue to talk about values (find me one person who feels values are NOT important), but sometimes in doing so we are just trying to sound smart, rather than focusing on living those same values.

I feel we can probably learn more about values from those who are serving and loving quietly away from the limelight, and not worrying about communicating their values to others. Unfortunately, our society and organizations seem to lack many of these true role models, and we instead settle for looking up to those who speak the loudest, rather than live the life they talk about. We promote and revere charisma, rather than service.

For a recent research project, I interviewed a group of nuns who had given up their lives, taken a vow of poverty, and devoted their lives to service. I am still in awe of these women and will treasure my experiences interacting with them for the rest of my life. They left me with a quote from Mary Teresa of St. Joseph (a woman who devoted her life to caring for the homeless and orphans in Holland, Germany and America). I think it should be an anthem for all organizations:

“Try practicing love for a year and only then begin to preach, and your words will fall on well prepared soil…”

Replace the word “love” in the quote with “values” and you have a great challenge for your organization: Live your values, don’t preach them. Quit talking about what you “should” do…and do it. Quit hammering your followers with value statements and high-priced communication plaques. Live those values authentically and genuinely, stop talking about them, and (ironically) the values will be better imparted into the followers around you.

Now if we can all just learn to keep our mouths shut.

Creativity and Leadership

Creativity starts with humility. It starts with saying “I don’t know the answer”. The resulting journey to find that answer most times results in creative solutions. Creativity stops when we think we know everything and no longer become sojourners on a journey of inquisitiveness. It also stops when our teams become unbalanced because of homogenous recruitment to the team.

Jaussi, Stefanovich & Devlin (2008) argue that there are four categories of effective followership for creativity and innovation. They build on Roberts Kelley’s dimensions of effective followership, and label their categories as follows:

1. Creative Skeptics – Challenge and prod new ideas through bold questions that challenge assumptions.
2. Creative Statics – Bring calm, rational energy and a sense of stability to the team.
3. Creative Supporters – Open to creative solutions but have an easier time with incremental new thoughts that build on existing thoughts, than coming up with brand-new ideas.
4. Creative Catalysts – Inspire creativity by idea dropping, and create positive disturbances through those ideas.

A leader needs to build a team around him/her that has all four qualities/people on it. If the team is unbalanced towards on or more quadrants, creativity and innovation will be severely hindered, dysfunctional or irrational in the organization. Leaders must intentionally recruit diverse team members to their teams, that are different than themselves. This diversity will become a primary catalyst to creativity.

Jaussi, K.S., Stefanovich, A. & Devlin, P.G. (2008). Effective followership for creativity and innovation. In R. Riggio, I. Chaleff & J. Lipman-Blumen (Eds.). The art of followership: How great followers create great leaders and organizations (pp.291-307). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.