Literal Thinking

Real stories of workplace follies

Archive for the ‘Team Leadership’ Category

When good performers fail as leaders

Posted by A Friend on 3 March 2009

Power Failure How often do we see some good performers in our organizations being rewarded with promotion into leadership positions only to see them struggle, even fail, in the performance of their new duties?

We find that there are generally two reasons for such failures. First of these is the often accepted view that not all good followers, performers, and managers can become great leaders. Good performance and management of tasks and people require a different skill and competency set to good leadership; some people just don’t have leadership in them.

Second, and perhaps a more subtle but fairly common reason, is a lot of our good performers are not being adequately prepared to take on future leadership roles. They are often thrust into leadership positions without undergoing the preparatory or molding process required to successfully take on such roles, and often because it is taken for granted that taking on the new roles are a natural progression. It is not.

Adrian, who had built a solid reputation as a consulting account manager with his strong ability to establish rapport with clients and continuously create repeat business, is a good example. He was recruited by an old colleague to join his startup consulting company to be its long-term account manager. It was projected that the startup was going to grow quickly as it already had a growing list of clients and projects in the pipeline.

Unfortunately, most of the projects in the pipeline, for various reasons, did not push through, and Adrian suddenly found himself with no accounts to manage. However, because of his long-established account management reputation, his new boss felt confident that he could be transitioned into becoming the company’s new national consulting manager, in charge of project delivery. Meantime, in the short term at least, Adrian could lead the company’s first few consulting projects.

Adrian’s first engagement as a project leader was disastrous. Adrian had very little experience as a consultant and had no experience at all as a project leader. He used a generic project plan to start with, and not only did he struggle to follow it, he found it impossible to adjust when the plan very clearly did not suit the project. His account management background made it very hard for him to decline customer requests, and this led scope creeping to uncontrollable levels. Most gallingly, he found it very difficult to manage his consultants. Having had little experience managing direct reports before, he had no idea what needed to be done, what his consultants were doing, and what they were capable of doing.

Adrian’s team resented his inability to produce a plan, set directions, and lead. The project struggled because of his shortcomings, and a lot of unhappy and extremely overworked consultants left after project completion. The project also ended up becoming Adrian’s first and only attempt at project leadership, and he was slowly eased back into account management, where he had always been very good at.

Debra’s case is a little different, but the end result is similar. Debra had been a career employee with a leading company in a highly regulated industry. She had worked for 15 years in the company’s purchasing and inventory management department before she was seconded into a project that implemented a large enterprise application. She became part of the retained support team post project implementation.

Most of Debra’s work in the retained support team was to address and manage change requests raised by the business. The support team was divided into various functional areas, and Debra continued to work in purchasing and inventory management. This was not a difficult task for her, as she had long been familiar with the business processes in this area. Furthermore, the company typically brought in external consultants when more complex requirements came up. In short, Debra’s work was not particularly challenging and she had a lot of time on her hands. For want of better things to do, Debra expressed her interest when the company made its annual call for employees who are interested in attending a company sponsored postgraduate scholarship.

Management mistook Debra’s boredom for ambition, and they decided to fast-track her into a prime leadership role. She was first given tasks to manage small internal projects, and she passed these with flying colors (thanks, in most cases, to the external consultants the company brought in to do the real work). She was then promoted to functional team manager. Debra is a very strong coordinator and organizer, so she handled this new role with aplomb as well.

Finally, less than two years removed from merely being a support officer, Debra was promoted to manager, enterprise applications. This was a group of more than 30 employees and five functional teams. And more than just handling support work, she suddenly became responsible for budgets, succession planning, and most especially setting the strategic direction for the group.

Debra struggled with her new responsibilities. She never had a budget to worry about before, and she had absolutely no idea where to start with the budgeting process. Her people management experience was limited to work coordination and managing expectations of her internal customers, so she struggled when she was suddenly required to look after and plan people’s careers. But most dreadful was her inability to think strategically. She had always relied upon people guiding her and had been great at performing the tasks assigned to her; but she had never been one who could provide guidance and direction.

Both Adrian and Debra are examples of great performers who suddenly struggled when they were thrust into leadership roles they did not have adequate preparation for. Unfortunately, there are a lot of organizations that assume leadership as a natural progression for good performers and take leadership development and training for granted. It thus often falls on employees to ensure that they prepare themselves for the challenge of leadership.

We will present a personal leadership development framework, which we have used in our own practice and hope others can also use in their own, in our next post.

Posted in Case Studies, Leadership & Management, Team Leadership | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

Consensus building, or team sabotage?

Posted by A Friend on 11 January 2009

A popularly talked about management concept, particularly from the late 1990s to the early 2000s, are self directed work teams, or SDWTs.

SDWTs are conceptually an autonomous team of individuals who are given by their organizations a specific set of objectives to meet; but beyond that, they are left to manage themselves and their objectives the best way they know how. SDWTs are formed with full empowerment, transparency, and accountability of individual team members in mind; even team leaders or managers are nominated by the team, and are often rotated on a regular basis.

That is the idea. In reality, a lot of SDWTs are formed merely because some manager heard about it in a coffee shop conversation or read about it from a book he got from Borders. It can also be a roundabout way of sending a group of people out on their own because management do not want to deal with them directly anymore. A lot of SDWTs formed do not have clear objectives, are not given the true autonomy required so they can manage themselves, and are handed down management-nominated leads.

The SDWT that is the topic of our post today was such a case. The team had a strong leader who had always fought for the team’s cause to management, but that leader resigned. Instead of getting the team to nominate a new leader, management mandated to appoint a new one.

The newly appointed leader was perhaps the most qualified, but the point is she was not chosen by the team, thus she did not have the support and empathy of team members that the previous leader had. As an individual, she was also not as popular to the team as the previous team leader: she was known to have personal issues with various team members.

Shortly after her appointment, this leader called for a team meeting, to discuss the team’s objectives for the next year. Consensus building is vitally critical in SDWTs – important decisions are made by the team, not by individuals.

One of the main discussion points during the meeting was training. Because of budgetary constraints that year, not everyone could attend training, so the team had to decide who among the members should be attending. At the end, two were chosen.

On the way home after the meeting, two other team members, merely because they take the same public transport route, had more chances to talk about the meeting outcomes. One of them was particularly concerned about the decisions made about training, specifically the choice of who should be “given the privilege”; he thought that some kind of favoritism was at play.

The other member did not agree, but when pressed by his concerned teammate for concrete reasons why or how the selections were made, he could not give a reasonable response. So this team member took it upon himself to send an email to the team leader, asking for clarifications around why and how the selections were made.

The team leader did not take the email nicely. She sent an email response back to the member saying that if he had issues, he should have been open enough to the team and raised these during the meeting. Furthermore, she said that she was going to forward the email to the team so the team could resolve it.

The team member quickly responded and said that he did not have an issue with the decision, and that he was in fact only asking the questions in good faith for another team member’s behalf. He further requested the team leader not to forward his email to the team as (1) it was likely to be misconstrued by some of the team members, and (2) since he was merely asking questions, there was no need to involve the team.

The team leader ignored the member’s reasoning and proceeded to forward his original email to the team, and even included a stern reprimand about openness, communication, consensus building, and teamwork. She pointed out that if the member was not happy with any of the decisions made during the meeting, he should have raised the issues then instead of going behind his teammates’ backs.

The team member felt he had no choice but to respond to the email, and he did so in a very aggressive way. He took the team leader to task about why she forwarded his first email and not the second, which would have clarified a lot of the points she brought up, including the point about him only acting as an intermediary; and that her inability to answer very basic questions about team decisions showed an utter lack of leadership.

As a direct result of this incident, the team did not have a single meeting for three months, and members became cold to, and quietly suspicious of, each other. This, in turn, led to none of the team objectives, aside from the two team members continuing to attend the aforementioned training, being met.

In this situation, the application of the SDWT concept appears to have been a failure; but why?

If you wish to read more about SDWTs, this is a useful portal that you can start from.

Posted in Case Studies, Team Leadership | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »