Leadership - easier said than done

01 May 2014
Published: May 2014
Organisations' efforts to improve leadership might be misplaced, if efforts are focusing only on training the capability of individual leaders. While the capability of individuals is growing through training and experience, their ability to lead is not always realised, where an organisation’s context is not set up to meet the need for leadership.
This report explores the capacity of individuals at all levels of an organisation to buy into and lead on the organisational agenda, highlighting how misaligned organisational structures and processes can get in the way of leadership.
01 May 2014

Four key organisational systemic factors

Even where individuals possess the capability to lead, organisational factors may affect their ability to respond to the external context.
The challenge
  • Despite the rhetoric of devolved leadership and courage to make independent decisions, individual suggestions or challenges to the top–down decisions are often dismissed.
  • Existing top–down communication channels are not suited to provide adequate support to staff and speed up adaptation and learning.
  • There is a split in the perceptions of the quality of leadership and management between ‘operational’ and ‘strategic’ parts of the business, which is indicative of the lack of communication and joint priorities between the more senior and the more junior managers.
  • The decreasing average tenure of senior leaders means a new round of changes is sometimes brought in before the previous ones have settled.
  • When implementing the fast-moving change agenda, managers don’t always have the buy-in themselves, which undermines their ability to gain trust and credibility from their staff.
What are organisations doing in practice?
  • Removing managerial levels and allowing employees to operate within a collegiate structure
  • Training individuals to take responsibility through small things at first
  • Identifying good role models among senior managers who tackle the blame culture and encouraging them to speak courageously of the examples of challenging decisions made at the more senior level
  • Using the mission command model to empower independent decisions
  • Putting additional or expanded roles in place to oversee and facilitate internal information-sharing
  • Planning ahead for change, involving the individuals affected in the change process, whenever possible, and genuinely showing that their contribution has been taken into account
  • Identifying and supporting informal influencers within your organisation
  • Setting up cross-functional teams on work-based projects, set around operational and organisational strategies
  • Developing in-house training solutions that take into account the organisational need for leadership and are more responsive to ongoing change
  • Investing in succession planning to close the gaps between strategy-focused senior leaders and operations led front-line managers
  • Providing in-house mentors and coaches
The challenge
  • In practice, performance management and promotion processes focus on task-related success even though individual behaviours should be counted as part of their performance score.
  • There is a lack of measurable indicators for people management and leadership behaviours.
  • Scrutiny of managers increases at times of underperformance or crisis, and senior managers tend to adopt a command-and-control style in that situation rather than coach middle and front-line managers through it.
  • Increasingly demanding performance targets do not always take into consideration the human and technological resource capacity, as well as the limited opportunities in the external environment.
  • Failure to allow time for forward planning reduces opportunities to seek bottom–up feedback. It also causes managers to operate primarily in the firefighting mode and apply directive management styles.
What are organisations doing in practice?
  • Using balanced scorecards to measure performance; ensuring that performance management forms are appropriately completed
  • Using objective measures of staff development levels; making the balance of delivery-based versus behaviour-based components of reward visible
  • Encouraging managers and employees to book out protected time to reflect and plan by giving direction and through senior managers and leaders setting an example
  • Introducing skip-level management meetings between a manager and the employees two levels below them in order to collect the staff feedback on their supervisor
  • ‘Doubling’ management – one manager leads on the project and manages the processes, another is responsible for managing performance and well-being
  • Using role-play and action learning sets in training
  • Providing leadership and management training that is tailored to the role/position in an organisation.
The challenge
  • Faced with competing priorities, individuals are likely to focus on those aspects of their role that are directly linked to their individual performance in order to avoid sanctions.
  • If specific individual targets do not ‘add up’ to the common goal, employees pursue activities that support their personal performance and career goals over other priorities that can improve the performance of the team as a whole.
  • Judgements on how appropriate a decision is can be subjective and people prefer to ‘err on the side of caution’.
  • A company’s overall vision is not always clearly translated into specific objectives for individuals, resulting in competing priorities in cross-functional teams.
What are organisations doing in practice?
  • Actively tracking managers’ span of control to maintain an optimal number of direct reports per manager
  • Providing training on ways to manage remotely and also providing appropriate support systems to facilitate this to enable frequent one-to-one contact
  • Allowing teams to complete their PDRs (performance development reviews) collectively and to contribute to the ratings of each other’s performance in a safe environment
  • Placing individuals into ‘acting manager’ positions to allow them to try out the job and to collect feedback on their performance as managers
  • Designing roles of senior leaders in such a way that they act as organisational stewards and measuring their performance on the predicted long-term effects of their decisions
  • Facilitating top–down translation of organisational objectives into departmental and individual goals at each level in the hierarchy through the performance management system
  • Creating opportunities for front-line managers and employees to have frequent contact with the end client and obtain direct feedback from them
The challenge
  • Organisations fail to benefit from workforce diversity by continuing to use unduly subjective methods of selecting and rewarding staff.
  • By aiming to eliminate undesired behaviours, organisations can create frameworks that restrict the scope for discretion and unconventional judgement.
  • Managers are limited in the range of instruments they can use to motivate a diverse workforce.
What are organisations doing in practice?
  • Mapping the needs of the business to individual roles and producing behavioural profiles for them; overtly taking these behaviours into consideration when recruiting and promoting individuals into managerial positions
  • Introducing ‘technical’ grades for progression of non-managers
  • Challenging succession planning decisions of senior managers through review meetings of the completed performance reviews, where performance against targets and against behaviours is benchmarked and calibrated across the roles of the same level
  • Giving managers and employees exposure across a range of roles and departments to help them understand the bigger picture
  • Allowing room for flexibility in organisational policies, so that managers who are confident in applying discretion can make use of it, within clearly defined parameters, and not avoid having difficult conversations
  • Considering a range of motivators for individual performance and the implications of differentiated reward for fairness
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