Leaders have to lead

Friday, November 17, 2017

AME Author, Change Management Associates, www.cma4results.com

The annual AME conference always gives me reason to reflect. In attendance are people from around the world, representing a diverse set of organizations, sharing their experiences regarding all matters of enterprise excellence. Keynote speakers included Margarette Purvis, president and CEO of Food Bank for New York City, Paul Akers, president of Fast Cap, Raye Wentworth, GM of New Balance and Wil James, president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky. Their stories evoked strong emotions in attendees. The common theme of their messages is ‘Leaders Have to Lead.’ Each related stories that demonstrated some level of personal involvement. The responsibility for affecting significant organizational change cannot be delegated to the Continuous Improvement (CI), Kaizen Promotions Office, Lean Group, Black Belts, or whatever term your organization uses for change agents.

Various sessions throughout the week reinforced this fact. Art Byrne, former CEO of Wiremold, AME Hall of Fame inductees Helen Zak and Jerry Bussell, and the list goes on. Style is not a factor, as each one has his or her own ranging from highly energetic to more reserved. Passion and a deep commitment are common. Each was confident in the path that they were taking over time. This is important, as it is easy to waver when difficult obstacles arise. And passion can be contagious in an organization.

Each exhibited a strong amount of humility as they described the success that they and their organizations realized.  Never mistake humility for a lack of confidence or ability. The beliefs that leaders must ‘have all the answers,’ and ‘cannot show weakness’ have long been disproven. ‘People-Centric Leaders,’ one of six themes of the conference, have confidence in the potential of their team members. Leaders must put people first. They cannot treat people as mere resources that can be manipulated at will, and quickly discarded when deemed unnecessary. An organization’s success, and that of its leaders, comes through the abilities, actions and decisions of its team members, day-to-day, and hour-by-hour. Leaders must ‘serve’ value adding associates rather than the opposite, which is more commonplace.

Often the journey to enterprise excellence represents a markedly different approach than that practiced historically. Therefore, leaders must provide a compelling case for change to the traditional approach to conducting its business. Ideally this is part of a broader inspirational purpose for the organization and ‘Purpose Driven Change’ was another theme of the conference. Trust is key here. Team members must trust their leaders and the case for change that is being made. Organizations that have achieved a high level of enterprise excellence have a strong foundation of trust and a lack of trust can be a substantial hurdle to overcome. Leaders must first address trust issues, if they exist, often undoing years of damage in their relationship with the general populace.

Next, leaders must provide the ‘means’ for all associates to be successful. This is not to mean that they must direct the specific ‘path’ for improvement, but to develop, over time, the team members’ abilities to problem solve and to improve processes. Such skills, along with appropriate methodologies and tools, represent ‘fundamentals’ required for team members to ‘innovate.’ The ongoing development of associates’ skills, abilities, and even mindsets is endemic in all ‘excellent’ enterprises. People Development, Fundamentals and Innovation were three additional themes of the conference, and numerous sessions hit on them. A key here is ‘practice, practice, practice.’ Only through deliberate and frequent practice can people develop their skills in the fundamentals, and drive innovation in their organization’s processes, products, and services. And, of course, leaders must support said development, and even participate in it. Leaders must be acting as teachers or coaches of the fundamentals. Once again, this responsibility cannot be completely delegated to the continuous improvement folks. Think of the bond that often forms between student and teacher, athlete and coach, or similar relationships. Think of the impact on the aforementioned topic of trust if leaders are among the teachers and coaches.  

The last theme of the conference was ‘Lean Management.’ All of what has been described thus far cannot be left to chance. Process thinking is a key characteristic in successful leaders. What processes or activities must leaders be engaged in to make all of this happen? How will they find the time to do what is necessary? These important questions represent formidable obstacles indeed.

The fact of the matter is many leaders are presently occupied with various activities that have little to do with what is necessary to become an excellent enterprise. These same leaders spend upwards of 70 percent, or more, of their time in meetings of questionable value. They pore over reports to understand what is happening in their organizations, or rather what has happened. They attempt to affect change through sheer will and activities such as the budgetary process, or ‘managing by objective’ (MBO) practices. The result is that they really have little understanding of the processes for which they are responsible, and the people who are performing them. In fact, they’re doing very little true leading. Recognition of this fact is a necessary first step to changing the current reality. The next step is to break the vicious cycle to the leader’s current routine.

The overall theme for the Boston conference was ‘Get Engaged.’ Organizations in all industries seek the ever-elusive engagement of its team members in their pursuit of Enterprise Excellence. Consider the AME conference themes I’ve mentioned: People-Centric Leadership, Purpose Driven Change, People Development, Fundamentals, Innovation and Lean Management. Together, they form a framework to follow for any organization interested in becoming ‘excellent.’ But it all begins with leadership, ideally coming from the top, but not necessarily. Leadership involves the influencing of others, and all of us can affect some influence on our co-workers, direct reports, and even our bosses. Years ago, it was suggested to me to first concern myself with my ‘sphere of influence;’ to affect change in my area or areas of responsibility. What I learned is that a person’s sphere of influence is often greater than he or she first believed. So, every one of us can be a catalyst for change, to be a leader in our organizations. It will not be, easy. It will take time. You may not realize the full potential benefits. Nonetheless, it has to start somewhere, and with someone. That someone can be you.