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Most Senior Leaders Work Too Hard

I have a few friends in senior leadership positions. Universally, they all work their butts off! Mostly, they are in meetings. Many of those meetings are with other senior leaders. Others are with subordinates. Some leaders also meet with external people.

Having been a senior leader myself along the way, I can only assume that the meetings other senior leaders have are similar in nature. They talk about what’s going on in the organization. Is it the right thing to be going on? Does it need to be tweaked? What can WE do about it?

The more I learn about the idea of a truly agile organization, the more it becomes clear that these are the wrong questions to be asking (well, not completely wrong). If the premise that leaders are responsible for mission, vision and values, as I made the case for in yesterday’s video podcast is true, then what remains is to see if those three things are working.

Today’s video podcast (which I haven’t made yet) will be about feedback. While the video will be fun, informative, and relatively brief, I felt that this topic needs more elaboration than I can give it in that format.

Imagine that you work as a senior leader in an organization with 3500 employees (maybe you don’t even need to imagine it if you do). 3500 is a lot of people. Each one of them is making observations every day. They see things that you don’t see. Because of their specialties, they are drilling deep into important areas of the company’s operations and gaining insights that guide their next actions.

Now, if you are a traditional command-and-control leader, you’d like to know what’s in the heads of all 3500 employees. Then (and only then) would you have complete knowledge of what’s going on in your company. Clearly, this is impossible. So, you set up some mechanisms to have the “important” information bubble up to you.

Let’s take a moment to dissect “important.” Since you’re not there at its inception, someone else needs to decide what is “important.” Did you give them clear criteria? How reliable is that criteria? Must everything conform to it in order to be deemed “important?” It turns out that with 3500 individuals all gathering and evaluating information all day every day, the likelihood that what’s “important” for you to know won’t be fully understood.

Therefore, what you’ll get is a hodge-podge of important and not-important information. Furthermore, you WON’T get plenty of “important” information because it wasn’t deemed “important” by the people making that determination. This is the fundamental reason why command-and-control management structures are NEVER going to be as good as agile organizational structures.

Instead, envision yourself in an organization that has been fully empowered by agile practices. You are continually communicating the mission, vision, and values throughout the land. Everyone in the organization is working on autonomous, fully functional teams. They understand where they’re going, and why they’re going there. They are continually interpreting the feedback they get from their environment and evaluating their options in the proper context. Based on that, they are delivering ever-increasing amounts of customer value (be they internal or external customers).

So, in this context, what do you as a senior leader need to know? It turns out…a lot less! You’ve built the essential trust levels with everyone in the organization to feel confident that they are doing the organization’s bidding in the best way possible. In this environment, the only feedback you need is at the most macro level. Is the organization on track to achieve its current vision?

As a servant leader, there will always be obstacles that cannot be overcome without your intervention and they will bubble up to you. Your job as a leader is to remove those obstacles if you can, or redirect the issue to the proper solution source. If the values you have put in place are helping to build the culture of empowerment and independence that agile organizations must have, then as time goes on, fewer of these issues should bubble up to you.

In fact, you could evaluate the issues that come to you as a way to determine how far along on that journey you are and what needs to be done to encourage the organization along the path. If someone comes to you with an issue that should have been addressed before it got to you, use that as an opportunity to encourage the right people to take ownership and develop the capabilities to address it themselves. In this way, you turn an ongoing activity into a one-time (or few times) activity.

I get it. This agile thing is all pretty new and nobody has completely nailed it yet. Most of us who are in senior leadership positions got there through a command-and-control type organizational structure. Letting go of the details is…uncomfortable. We’re used to our superiors, even if it’s the board of directors, asking us “why didn’t you know about this?” “Because I didn’t need to,” will often be received as an unacceptable answer -- especially if the outcome had a big impact on the organization.

The fact is, empowered employees will sometimes make big, impactful mistakes. They will learn from them and the organization will take the hit for that learning. You can’t have it both ways. Boards need to understand agility, too. If they want to support an agile journey, they need to hold senior leadership accountable to different standards. After all, the buck stops with them.

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