When Design Trumps Leadership

I’m always surprised how some key ‘truths’ emerge on a recurring basis as I work with senior leaders on the application of performance feedback. One of the biggest insights is that the way a company is designed has a huge impact on how leaders ‘show up’.

More often than not, challenges with a leader’s effectiveness or with their team’s functioning, are often attributed to deficiency in some area of leadership practice such as strategic thinking, communications or decision-making. The CEO and/or board then jumps to the conclusion that something is clearly amiss with leadership in the organization that must be addressed through interventions such as training, coaching, and on the job assignments.

leadershipMy experience, clearly reinforced by two recent engagements, supports the notion that if the design isn’t right, there’s no way even the most talented leader can thrive. By examining the clarity, scope and alignment of these key elements there’s a good chance that several of the ‘leadership challenges’ are actually design issues.

So what makes up these design elements? At the organizational level, these include a well-defined mandate, coherent strategy, explicit culture, focused goals and clearly articulated key processes. In the team setting there needs to be an explicit understanding of expectations around group dynamics such as team purpose, member participation, information sharing, communication frequency and decision-making protocols.

For individual leaders, the biggest stumbling block in my experience, is clarity regarding their role boundaries and key accountabilities. It’s surprising how many leaders make assumptions about their role, relative to others, and step into the ‘white space’ without having conversations with their colleagues. This often creates friction among not only individual leaders but also within and between their work groups.

design wheelsKey questions that you should ask about your design include:

  1. Are we crystal clear on our mandate – for the company and our work group?
  2. Is our strategy clearly articulated – indicating where we play and how we’ll prosper?
  3. Can we identify the key attributes of our current culture including strengths and areas for improvement?
  4. Do we have a few clear focused goals that provide us with a guiding framework for our projects, initiatives and actions?
  5. Have we clearly defined our roles and responsibilities in relation to others in our group and beyond?
  6. Have we defined the way we work together – with explicit conversation around participation, communications, information sharing and decision-making?

Ensuring that these basic design elements are ‘in place’ is a ‘must do’ for senior leaders, for their own success as well for those who report to them. Searching out leadership shortcomings is not always the first, or best, option to enhance performance. So before you go looking for leadership ‘deficits’ and propose active remediation, make sure the design elements are in place as a starting point for success.

About The Author

Scott Borland, Founder & President of CYGNUS Management Consultants Inc, , is a recognized expert in helping executives host strategic conversations and obtain high impact feedback. He brings insightful perspective and proven strategies to strengthen the alignment between strategy and leadership behaviour. Scott has presented frequently at regional/national conferences and is a regular contributor to online journals/blogs. Follow Scott on Twitter or add him as a connection on LinkedIn.

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