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.

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2012 – My year in Review

It’s funny how a year flies by. I think of how much has happened to me in the past year and am excited for the new year. I finished my Doctorate, published a few articles, wrote a book, hired an agent, and am attempting to publish the book. I interviewed some of the top HR leaders in Canada and have grown more passionate about HR in doing so. I also realized that many of these leaders are pondering the same issues most HR leaders deal with.

I work in HR and a large portion of my job is labour relations. I’m intentionally careful about what I post / share because it’s usually not appropriate to share the really interesting stuff. It’s been an interesting and challenging year at work and I think I’ve grown a lot as well. I’ve experienced things that some HR Professionals may never experience (collective bargaining, union certifications etc.). My team is stronger than ever, and it’s awesome to watch them continue to grow into HR Professionals.

I’ve written lots of articles/posts on this blog, many of which were published on LDRLB. Some were ignored; others were read and shared widely. But it’s fun to flesh out my thoughts on leadership in public forums and hearing different points of view. I feel that the more I study leadership, the less I know. I’m sure many other scholars feel the same way. It’s such a broad field and there is so much I still don’t know. That’s why I love it and why I’ve spent so many years studying it.

To everyone who reads/follows this blog, thanks so much for your comments and emails. I love the debates and look forward to 2013!

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.

The Art of HR: Building Trust

Effective HR leaders are able to generate trust from both employees and managers in their roles. Trust is a foundational building block of effective leadership. Without it, the entire spectrum of leadership collapses, no matter how talented individual leaders are. HR leaders must earn personal trust but also ensure the organization maintains its trust relationship with its employees.

Corporate executives can easily forget what life is really like for the front-line staff. This notion is capitalized on by the popular reality television show, Undercover Boss where CEOs put on disguises and work at the front lines to see how the work really gets done. Robert Kelley (1992) describes the high cost of leader worship in his work on followership. Kelley argues that “the errors of leadership are better overcome…by engaging everyone’s heroism rather than waiting for some improbable hero to emerge” (p. 21). HR leaders can ensure these followers are engaged and connected, but must be effective followers themselves. Ira

Chaleff (2003) describes five “courages” of effective followers. These courageous followers:

  1. Assume responsibility for their actions,
  2. Serve the people around them including their leaders,
  3. Challenge their leaders,
  4. Participate in transformative actions, and
  5. Take moral action in their organizations and with their leaders.

Effective HR leaders help provide a framework for these five courages to blossom and thrive in their organizations. They must be willing to courageously advocate on behalf of all stakeholders (employees, managers, shareholders, customers and the public) when no one else will.

One 2010 study on whistle-blowers in the pharmaceutical industry found that most whistle-blowers attempted to address problems internally first, before resorting to legal action. Each of the whistle-blowers then described the long and tortuous process of legal proceedings (Kesselheim, Studdert and Mello, 2010). Another study found that 89.7% of employees who filed false claims act lawsuits initially reported their concerns internally (as cited by Meinert, 2011). In a perfect world, these practices would not happen in structured environments. But organizations are comprised of imperfect, and occasionally, unethical people. A gutsy HR leader, with credibility from both employees and management, could prevent millions of dollars in litigation if these issues were dealt with internally and in a timely and ethical manner.

HR leaders have a responsibility—even an obligation—to ensure their organization always engages in ethical practices. They must do this by facilitating a high degree of trust and organizational distaste for unethical practices. Their organization’s long-term success is partially dependent on them doing this effectively.

Chaleff, I. (2003). The courageous follower: Standing up to and for our leaders. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Kelley, R.E. (1992). The power of followership: How to create leaders people want to follow and followers who lead themselves. New York: Doubleday.

Kesselheim, A.S., Studdert, D.M., & Mello, M.M. (2010, May 17). Whistle-blowers’ experiences in fraud litigation against pharmaceutical companies. The New England Journal of Medicine, 362(19), 1832-1839.

Meinert, D. (2011, April). Whistle-blowers: Threat or Asset?. HR Magazine, 27-32.

This post is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, “The Art of HR”. For my final Doctoral project, I researched how Top Employers provide effective HR services to their organizations. I compiled my results into this book. Please email me directly if you would like a copy.

Leading HR: Combatting Pathological Tendencies

HR leaders have an essential role within organizations to combat the pathological tendency to pursue profit at all costs. Joel Bakan calls corporations “pathological institutions” that are dangerous possessors of great power over many people. By their very nature, corporations do not care for people; only profits. They care about people only when they contribute to profits. Bakan’s pessimistic assertion is probably correct, but it can be combatted or limited by bold HR leaders. Done effectively, this will paradoxically increase profits long-term.

Bakan’s views are poignant for HR leaders to understand and organizations desperately need HR leaders to be a voice of reason. Dave Ulrich advocates for HR leaders to be “credible activists”, where HR professionals are willing to take personal and professional risks that create value for the business. Are HR leaders willing to speak up with tangible facts and data when egos get in the way of the business? Where are these gutsy and credible HR leaders hiding? I asked one HR leader if he had advice for other HR leaders. He replied:

“It’s a great time to be in HR. It’s a time where industry is struggling for talent, especially in Alberta. My advice is to be bold and believe in the discipline. If you don’t believe in the discipline of HR, then get out of it, because chances are, you are not going to add value. You will continue to erode the perception that this profession has in the business community.”

HR is not a profession for the passive or timid. I get angry every time I hear an aspiring HR Professional say they want to get into HR because they “want to work with people.” HR requires boldness. Without that boldness, it adds no value. HR leadership requires “chutzpah” to speak against the grain when the organization needs the HR leaders to.

HR leaders have a wealth of information at their fingertips. They have information on hiring practices, demographics, benefit utilization, sick time usage, employee turnover and many other things. This information, if used effectively, can tell a story of individual departments and leaders. It can help identify departments and leaders that approach their employees with psychopathic tendencies, and help senior leaders deal with them accordingly. It can outline trends and propose solutions to combat those trends. Facts are one thing, but those facts must be weaved into tangible solutions that understand the context of the quest for profits corporations operate in.

HR leaders may not be able to fully prevent corporations’ psychopathic tendencies, but they can minimize their impact by having the credibility to speak up when organizations inevitably begin exercising their pathological tendencies. The long-term success of the organization may depend on them doing so effectively.

Bakan, J. (2008). The corporation: the pathological pursuit of profit and power. Toronto, ON: Penguin Group.

Ulrich, D., Younger, J., Brockbank, W. & Ulrich, M. (2012). HR from the outside in: Six competencies for the future of human resources. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

This post is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, “The Art of HR”. For my final Doctoral project, I researched how Top Employers provide effective HR services to their organizations. I compiled my results into this book. Please email me directly if you would like a copy.

Leading Change

Bill Manduca wrote a great article we published in Strategic Leadership Review (a journal I help edit). Check it out here.

Here is the abstract:
While some leaders view change as an occupational hazard, being able to introduce and carry out change effectively is an essential leadership skill. Today’s economic, sociological, and political environments put pressure on organizations to adapt rapidly or cease to be competitive. This article discusses the process to create effective change. It offers insight into readiness for and resistance to change and provides recommendations to ensure a successful change implementation.

Book Review: You Can’t Fire Everyone

Hank Gilman is the Deputy Editor of Fortune, and You Can’t Fire Everyone is a meandering blend of thoughts on management, leadership, hiring and firing people.

Gilman has a witty and engaging prose style. I didn’t really learn anything from this book, but yet I happily read it cover to cover, wondering what crazy rant he would go on next. It is raw and honest, something most leadership books avoid. He describes management as it actually is, not how it should be according to someone who has never managed before. This is truly a practitioner’s book; it won’t be cited by any leadership scholars soon.

The book made me wonder again about the gap between scholarly and practitioner leadership literature. Leadership theory is important, but it tells you nothing about what to do when your star employee walks in and demands a raise. It does nothing to help a new manager fumble through firing a dysfunctional employee. It does nothing to help a manager “manage performance” (really, does anyone do that effectively?). Gilman doesn’t tell you exactly how to do it, but he does reassure you managing is tough, and that you are not the only one who has no idea what to do next. Few are cut out to lead, and few are really good at it. Gilman strikes me as someone who is very good at it, and if he struggled at times with “what” and “How” to manage, I am sure all leaders will at some point in their careers.

This is a great book for someone looking for an entertaining and humorous read, and for someone who is sick of all the bland business/leadership/management books out there. You will be entertained and reassured, but not necessarily informed. Read it on your next vacation or trip, but understand it will not be on the book-list of your next MBA class (although I am sure Gilman would be amused if it was). I enjoyed it, and it was a happy break from the stack of other leadership books I intend to read.