From the Chairman: Leading, the verb

Jun 24, 2011

By Ed Friedrichs Chairman, ZweigWhite A good friend and business associate, Kit Miyamoto (CEO of Miyamoto International, a structural engineering firm based in California) recently sent me a reference to a one-minute video by John Maxwell ( in which John makes the case for thinking not of “Leadership,” an adjective descriptor, but of “Leading,” an action verb. I have long preached the gospel of leading with a bias toward action and this brief sermon got me back on my pulpit to share with you some thoughts about what this looks like. I’ll start with the simple stuff. Have you read any meeting minutes generated by your firm lately? Does each citation make direct reference to “who” (a specific individual, not a company) is going to do “what” (a specific results-oriented action, not merely a suggestion that “we’re going to study alternatives”) by “when” (a stipulated date certain) with an expected outcome (we will make a decision based on this action) and there will be consequences if the action does not take place (i.e. the project will be delayed)? Or, are you seeing the usual wishy-washy stuff: “The team will study the problem?” Learning to lead starts early in life and the patterns we develop set a path for each of us as our careers evolve. No one was born a leader. The habits and mechanics of leadership weren’t bred into your genetic structure. And those behaviors apply to all “leading,” from simple project management to the global, visionary, strategic direction a firm takes. Do you shy away from looking each person on your team in the eye and asking for a commitment to an action by a specific date, or are you fearful about pinning that person down? When they start to squirm and look uncomfortable, do you feel guilty about making them feel bad? Do you have a fear of rejection that prevents you from building a bias toward action and commitment within your team? I have found this to be the biggest stumbling block in firms with which I’ve worked. “Leading” carries a collateral step entitled “follow through.” It’s not by threat or harassment, but by building an atmosphere of a high level of respect for commitments made. Do you have to chase your team members down to find out if they are working on or have actually completed the action they committed to? Or are you lucky enough to have been blessed with a cadre of “set-it-and-forget-it” types? Sorry folks, there is no such thing. The occasional highly responsible person who simply can’t live with themselves if they don’t complete (on time) the task they agreed to is out there, but I’ve never seen a whole squad of them. “Leading” entails developing a culture of interdependence, wherein each person feels a strong sense of responsibility to each other member of the team to not let the team or the commitments that the team has made fail. “Leading” is the process of creating that kind of culture. The reality of business is “leading”… everything! Sadly, the vast majority of businesses seem hell bent on moving all activity into a series of processes— no leadership necessary. If we can codify everything, make rules and procedures by which all work will be accomplished, we’ll be successful, right? Sadly, the world doesn’t work that way, particularly today (and certainly more so in the future), where rapid change is endemic. This means building an organization that is able to respond and adapt in real time and this requires a whole lot of “leading” in all activities, from basic management to highly strategic direction setting. Do you avoid or procrastinate about convening your annual strategic planning meeting? Has it been a few years since your last get together with your firm’s leaders, both seasoned and aspiring, to figure out not whether you’re doing things right, but if you’re doing the right thing? Once you have a good fix on a strategic direction that will differentiate you in the marketplace, you will create a unique, sustainable advantage against your competitors. Monitor each interaction you have with everyone in your firm. Does it embody the meeting minute characteristics I cited above? At each turn, do people have a clear sense of why your firm does what it does, where it is going, and why it will positively excite and delight your clients? It’s no longer sufficient to be able to espouse an abstract set of characteristics that you read about in a book describing leadership. It’s time for you to be a verb.

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