Friday, October 16, 2009

Leadership vs. Bean-counting

Succession is one of the most difficult things in the world to get your arms around: who will carry on the vision that you have created and nurtured. Good leaders often identify themselves by finding the right people to place as their successors and then letting those people lead, as they step into the background.

Of course, the key is the ‘right people.’ Who are the right people? Oddly enough, it can be almost anyone, if you are a capable enough leader and can inculcate in your followers the full breadth and depth of your vision. If you can, it fully becomes their vision as well, and then you will find that your vision will survive well beyond your presence in the organization. Even when you choose the wrong specific successor, if the ‘rank and file’ hold to your vision, they can prevent the organization from straying in the hands of a less than capable successor.

But, most often the leadership of an organization is not successful in developing that quality of ‘followership,’ nor is the organization structured to prevent the less than capable (new) leader from steering the organization towards ‘the rocks.’ Instead, what often happens is this: the great visionary finally retires, and is replaced by the great communicator:* someone who mostly understands the vision, but whose real skill is in his ability to provide an inspiring speech, to fire up the ‘home team’ and keep things moving in the same direction.

Then comes the second transition, and the communicator moves on. Invariably, the communicator is replaced by a manager. But not just any kind of managers, but by a bean-counter, someone who lets the numbers make decisions. Let me be clear: managers are a good and necessary part of any organization; accountants are also a good and necessary part of any organization. From managing a fast food restaurant to planning the invasion of Europe, management and accounting are as necessary as leadership. Bean-counters are not.

The bean-counter is the guy who hides behind the numbers, who chooses to react to the numbers rather than use the numbers to inform and to assist in making hard decisions, decisions that will, in the end, change the numbers.

Sometimes the great communicator and the bean-counter are the same person; the communicator changing over time as the organization moves further and further away in time from the founder and visionary. The communicator enters ‘uncharted’ territory and become resistant to change, because he is intellectually incapable of it. Change is needed because the world keeps changing, and that means the plans and operations must change to compensate for those changes in the environment. If plans and operations aren’t changed there is no hope of achieving the corporate goals, because the plans should always reflect the world in which you are, not the one in which you were.

Some organizations will face this problem as a result of a change in the Board of Directors, who will replace the titular leadership but then constrain it to act within the confines of the bean-counter’s numbers. This can be quite destructive, as the nominal ‘leadership’ will make pronouncements and announce plans to do ‘X’ but will be prevented from actually doing so by the efforts of the bean-counters who will report the potential numbers to the board. The nominal leadership ends up frustrated and the ‘rank and file’ end up confused.

If you are leading an organization, or a team or project within an organization, and it is one that is going to endure well beyond your tenure in the organization, you must spend as much time as you can both informing and shaping the people who work for you, so that the vision is sustained by the team, by the workforce as a whole – NOT you, and then you need to spend time identifying and grooming your successor. Before you pick a successor make sure you have had a chance to thoroughly evaluate his performance both as a leader and a manager, as well as his commitment to the vision. That evaluation will take a minimum of months, and may well take more than a year.  Failure to do so means you will inevitably be replaced by a bean-counter; failure to do so will mean you have failed as a leader.

* Not to be confused with ‘The Great Communicator’ Ronald Reagan, who was, in fact, a visionary and a great leader.


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