Under threat, firms solve problems when leaders commit to the right roles and the right people to inform, inquire, and act.
You’ve all been there. A room full of eight, 18, or even 80 anxious people. You have come together to express alarm about a recent negative event. Usually someone or something catalyzed it: Several people left suddenly, saying they found the firm practice out of touch with the modern market. A long-term client took its new marquee project to another firm. The next generation of leaders announce that now is their time to lead, here or elsewhere. Emotions run high, rationality runs low, and everyone wants leadership to fix it – now.
How you got there is unclear. What happened to the firm plan for updating the marketing strategy? Who failed to check in with the client? What did we avoid doing that allowed our competitors to appeal to our emerging leaders?
One thing is clear. Solving the problem will require entering uncharted, choppy waters where difficult conversations and untested ideas await. These situations carry no checklists. The formulaic processes of a strategic planning retreat, client services training, or succession planning may not square with the actual problems at hand. You also have no time. Leadership must uncover root causes and spearhead change – now.
Situations that threaten a firm’s future demand immediate leadership attention. They also ask for their best. Best means setting aside ego and putting the right people into the right roles. Different leaders have different strengths. Some are organizers. Others are idea makers. Still others are conciliators. Ideally, they all can do all these things. On short notice, however, each of them might be challenged by one or more of these attributes.
Urgent circumstances call for three major leadership roles. All share a willingness to deal with ambiguity. They also require persons who are trusted, willing to take behavioral risks, and have senior executive support. Each role carries specific attributes and deliverables.
In deciding who will lead what, firms should match the leaders to the roles, not the roles to the leaders. One person can fill more than one role. Firms also should consider emerging leaders.
Three leadership roles:
- The messenger. Once the senior executives acknowledge the problem, someone must tell the relevant stakeholders. The goal is to inform them about the situation and launch the campaign to cure it. The messenger should possess strong communication skills to describe the current state, adopt a style that informs rather than alarms, and convey its importance to the firm. Tailoring the pitch to match the audience is key. Board members want to know the impact to the firm bottom line. Managers care about the consequences to their teams. Individual employees want to hear about their job security and career prospects. The messenger opens the door to inquiry, without pre-judgment as to its outcome other than moving the firm into a better place.
- The investigator. The investigator takes on the tough work of asking, listening, and reporting back without varnish. The person uses open-ended questions, listens actively with astute follow-up questions, and tolerates silence, creating room for people to collect and evolve their thoughts. Listening without judgment is essential, as leaders need to learn what people truly think, not what they want them to think.
- The legislator. The legislator evaluates the investigator’s findings and converts them into an action plan. The legislator must understand firm governance, i.e., what structures are in place, what needs to be changed and what authority is required to implement new measures. Equally significant is selling the plan to the board, management, and firm employees. Selling is advocacy in its highest form. To win buy-in, the legislator must know what motivates each constituency. Board members want concise, strategic summaries of ideas that will protect the firm’s future. Management cares about what new responsibilities they must assume, and when. Employees want to know what is in it for their careers and quality of working life. They also want the dates, deliverables, and promised results for the plan. An ability to read people is essential. Knowing what social style to assume in pitching the plan to different stakeholders is critical when addressing those who are not highly intuitive.
Effecting change in hard times happens when leaders commit to the right roles and the right people to inform, inquire, and act.
Julie Benezet spent 25 years in law and business, and for the past 16 years has coached and consulted with executives from virtually every industry. She earned her stripes for leading in the new and unknown as Amazon’s first global real estate executive. She is an award-winning author of The Journey of Not Knowing: How 21st Century Leaders Can Chart a Course Where There Is None. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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