One of the greatest parts about becoming an executive is getting to delegate down some of the parts of the job that are boring, cumbersome, or just plain irritating. However, it pays to remember that part of being an executive is leading by example. One of the hardest parts of being a successful leader is realizing that the spotlight is always on you. Your actions and reactions will be seen and replicated at meetings, on phone calls and when it comes time to put in work. If you are always late to meetings it will bleed into the culture. Can’t put down your blackberry in meetings? It will become part of the culture. One of the hardest things to do in any organization is to bring in change, particularly if the thing you are bringing in is hard, tedious, or unfamiliar. This is the perfect time to flex your leadership skills and get your hands dirty. Sometimes, leading people through a difficult change is about more than just making sure people are doing what you are asking to – it is about leading from the front.
I never ask people to do anything I wouldn’t do and to the degree practical I like to show that I can do the doing. If you read any article published in the last 20 years about organizational transformation they will tell you that “executive buy in” is critical to success. I think too many executives read this as “I need to make sure the people below me are doing what they are supposed to do” as opposed to “I need to be out in front of this and show my team how to get this done.” There is more to this than simply showing that you are part of the team, or that you can do it to. Hopefully you became an executive based on your ability to overcome challenges just like the one facing your organization now. Who better to spot opportunities for improvement or tailoring? Maybe there is a better mousetrap that can be built. If you just pass down a prescriptive order to do something, the value of the activity may be diminished. Often the transformational activity is something totally foreign to your team hence the term “transformational.” If it is important, and usually transformational activities are, then you need to be a part of it. Usually transformations are only undertaken when the results are important. This is because according to basic organizational algebra the transformational activities are being done in lieu of other duties, so you are sacrificing the performance of some other task that had up to this point been deemed important enough to be part of your team’s regular duties. If this is the case then you owe it to the organization to lead, because otherwise you risk sacrificing that performance for nothing.
The fact is that most organizations are not able to successfully engage on transformation initiatives. As a consultant I have been involved in many engagements where we are the fourth or fifth group to tackle the same problem. Not to sell us short, but more often than not the culprit is not some small detail that the last set of consultants failed to see. The problem often stems from a lack of executive engagement or guidance. The consultants were brought in and the process was handed off to a team of consultants and in house staff with weekly reporting to the executive counting as the “buy-in.” This model often fails unless one of the in-house staff members is strong enough to be a substitute for the executive participation that should be supporting and driving the effort. I believe that if it was important enough to bring in outside consultants it is probably important enough to participate in the process of even if only enough to be seen and felt as an executive presence. As an executive your presence is the signal that the team is committed to succeeding and that failure is not an option.
When we come into these types of engagements on the heels of multiple failures one of the first things we address is the lack of involvement. The most often heard response is that the executive simply has not had time. As a consultant this is a difficult thing to address because the executive is essentially putting the engagement into play by positioning our participation requirement vs. firm time constraints. However, as a consultant in this situation you have to push for the executive engagement because otherwise the organization will be bringing someone else in on the heels of your failure. If the executive does not have enough time to be a part of the engagement then the organization probably does not have the bandwidth to succeed at the transformation program. At that point it may be useful to look at the portfolio of activities the executive is engaged in and try to explicitly identify the areas where executive leadership is required vs. where a trusted deputy can be successful. It has been my experience that many of the important steady state activities that take up the majority of an executives time are much better candidates for delegation instead of delegating the transformation activities.