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How to challenge the old ways of leadership

Perhaps creativity and innovation are the most important sources of competing due to challenges in new shapes and forms (….you’ve heard it all before: globalization, digitization, disruption, speed and complexity and so on). 

Just to keep up a lot of us must put innovation at the core of our company’s DNA and business. The well-known medicine of streamlining and optimization is simply not enough anymore – something new and different is needed to change the company at the same time as reality changes, and it’s impossible to create something interesting in an atmosphere of constant pressure or a timeframe of 9 to 5, sitting at the same desk, with the same people, in the same environment, with fixed ways of doing most of the work. It is not a realistic scenario.

Therefore, a prerequisite for this innovation is freedom – a theme we’ll return to in a minute. But first let’s just look at what leadership innovation really is and what is needed to use is successfully. The actual test in relation to the innovation of your company’s leadership will not only be whether you’re willing and able to innovate your products, services and company models, but also whether you have the courage to tackle the way things work in the everyday life. The test will be if you and your companies dare to look at the way you actually practice leadership and innovate parts of this.

What leadership innovation does is to change the way leaders act in your company – and in ways that strengthen your ability to realize the company’s purpose and performance. Where other types of innovation are aimed at your products, strategy and company processes, leadership innovation is focused towards the way leadership is conducted in the everyday life. For example, it’s about the ways in which you work with: strategic planning, allocation of resources, recruitment and promotion, development, assessment and pay, project management, one-to-one dialogues and so on.

We can learn a lot about the value of leadership innovation from many of the newly established companies, that don’t have a “ball and chain” around their ankles in the form of dogmas about how leadership should be done properly. There are also a number of experts, such as Julian Birkenshaw, Gary Hamel and Michael Mol, who are highly engaged with this and who can give the field further depth and add real valuable ways going forward. One of these researchers’ conclusions is that the greater progress in companies’ leadership practices leads to significant changes in the competitive position that often involves long-term benefits for those companies.

The investment in innovating your leadership can thus pay off company-wise and improve the company’s ability to compete. In short, it adds something to the bottom line that can be directed into purpose impact. This should be an attractive menu that most managers and companies are pouring over, but as yet, not so many people who actually need it are doing something about it.

And why is that exactly? Well, the two first reasons I can come up with are:

  1. If you look through the class doors in most companies, you’ll see that a leader’s power is often directly linked to the resources at his or her disposal. That’s why you will see that huge amounts of time and energy is currently being used discussing resource allocation, since a so-called loss of resources is translated as a loss of influence, prestige and power in the company. And that wasn’t why you became a leader in the first place, right?
  2. A prerequisite for innovating is to question what exists today. In relation to leadership, it is about being willing to challenge the ruling dogmas about how leadership is best done. Yes, it is particularly about the willingness to challenge the dogmas and practices that currently give you, as a leader, benefits and privileges. Privileges that are associated with your position as a leader in the company. 

Are you willing to give away some of your power so that others can have it? Most people actually aren’t and spend a great deal of time protecting their territory and their own short-term success – defined in the narrow sense as based on their team, company unit or, even worse, their own individual success. There are natural reasons why it’s like this. One of these reasons is that this is precisely the behavior that companies measure and reward. 

It’s much easier to get a bonus or recognition by reaching your own local, narrow goals than contributing to the common company goal or temporarily allocating your own skilled employees to other places in the company for the benefit of a larger desired impact. 

To solve these challenges, there’s no need for yet another expensive analysis, but there is a need for leaders who are brave enough to change reality and stand firm when they meet resistance. Because resistance they will meet when trying to change this.

There will be strong forces in the company that will fight for things to stay the same as they are today, which is why innovation is not going to happen only from the top down. There will be a need for bottom-up pressure where a hundred employees put on the pressure to change something that no longer makes sense.

Maintaining status quo

Too many executives have too much self-interest in maintaining the status quo. They will certainly verbally support ideas about employees getting and taking more responsibility, but they will feel the heat when they find out that they themselves have to give up large amounts of responsibility so that others can take it. Then the game suddenly changes and you can hear the chairs creaking under them as they turn in their seats.

It is the ability and willingness to look beyond one’s own interests and the willingness to give up power that often stands in the way of others taking more responsibility. So, perhaps you’re thinking, “Fair enough, but what can I do about it?” Let me give you six examples that you can benefit from focusing on right away:

Moving focus from input to impact

A lot of companies’ processes are controlled by input. Being on time, working as much as possible and being as productive as possible. It’s prestigious to be busy and to fill your time up. If you spend 50 hours, then by definition it’s good, because the way productivity has traditionally been measured has been closely linked to the number of hours spent doing something. If you turn up at the office and deliver the hours, then you’re keeping up. Here, there is a need for a significant change. Shift the focus from input to impact. First and foremost, it should be about quality and results and less about time. There are lots of managerial mechanisms that keep people busy in companies today – the question is whether they are busy with the things that adds the most value?

Of course, effective utilization of the company’s resources is still important, but it’s not an end in itself, which it unfortunately often ends up being. It’s output and real impact we’re looking for.

Power in the company must be redistributed  

If you knock on the door at some of the most progressive and innovative companies in the world, one tendency will be visible time and time again. They have all, in each of their own way, consciously changed the way in which power is distributed in the company. Whether it’s genuinely self-managing teams, decentralization of recruitment, moving decisions to front employees or something completely different, they are all challenging the classic power balance in the company. A traditional and old-fashioned power balance, where the people sitting at the top of the pyramid make the most decisions, and the most important ones, for the rest of the company.

Changes here are, amongst other things, about mindset, will, courage and the organisation of the work and the way in which information flows in the company. All the leaders in your company would certainly like to have commitment and initiative from all your employees – and certainly also more than they get today. In order for this to happen, they themselves have to swallow the pill called surrendering power. In order for others to take responsibility, they have to let go of some responsibility.

The quest for more leadership innovation is called more freedom 

How difficult would it be as an employee in your company to spend 15–20% of their time on something that the manager in question has not defined or been involved in? Something that doesn’t have anything to do with the employee’s current core area?

You can have a lot of creative people in your company, but if they don’t have the necessary freedom and mandate to express this and deal with things that aren’t short-term critical, then a great deal of their creativity will never be activated. This is well described in many parts of the research about motivation, and in a way there’s nothing new about this: only very few people become heavily engaged by tasks that others have narrowly defined for them and manage. So, freedom and autonomy are a basic requirement for gaining access to the best in people, since they don’t want (or shouldn’t want) to be micro-managed.

As a promising young talent said to me recently, “They can do a lot, but they should never f*uck with my autonomy!” It’s a very incisive remark and should be a wake-up call for a lot of leaders. 

Does it mean that everything is allowed and there can be a Friday bar on a Monday, rave parties on Wednesdays and beer bongs on Thursday? Of course not. A high degree of freedom should always be balanced by a high degree of accountability. Accountability for impact, accountability for cooperation, accountability for customers and for the company. In brief – the more freedom, the more accountable people should be. Freedom is not the goal, but you won’t be able to achieve really ambitious goals without freedom.

Make all meetings voluntary

Too many people hate the meetings they go to in their company. Right?

A large majority will definitely say that there are too many meetings with too little value. This won’t be changed by small “gimmicks”, such as facilitating the meetings differently and walk and talk sessions. It doesn’t fundamentally change anything – something extra has to be done. One place to start is to make all meetings voluntary. Yes, you heard right. What would happen if all of (or at least some…) the meetings in your company were voluntary?

As it is today, you’re called in for too many meetings with unclear objectives, a lack of inspiring leadership, sub-optimization and a focus on own interests. This steals time and steals value creation. For many of the meetings, you don’t choose to take part yourself but because others say so or because it’s not okay to decline the invitation.

What if the person responsible for the meeting had to make him or herself deserving someone actually showing up instead of demanding it? 

Then you’ll really see someone going to a lot of trouble, otherwise it wouldn’t be a fun experience to stand in a meeting room with coffee, cake and fruit for 30 people where no one turned up. You only want to experience that a certain number of times. If it sounds too radical to make all meeting voluntary, what about just making some of them voluntary? Get some experience of the effects it creates and how it moves the focus away from demanding others’ time and attention – to actually deserving it.

Allow the employees to choose their own leader

One of the big wheels of fortune in companies is about which leader you get. The wheel spins, and if you’re lucky it lands on a leader who fits well with who you are, what you can do and what you dream about. You can also be less fortunate and have a leader who has all the opposite characteristics.

How can it be that one of the most crucial factors for employees’ success in a company is associated with such a big coincidence? We know that one of the biggest factors for employees leaving companies today is their immediate leader. Because the leader doesn’t listen, doesn’t take the employee seriously, is only interested in his/her own success, doesn’t support the employee’s development, etc.

Who do you think is best qualified to choose the leader who best fits your employees and help them succeed? Your organisational chart or the employees themselves?

Make leadership meetings open

The last example mentioned here is about transparency and trust. Is it transparent why the decisions are made in your company and is there trust in the people who have made these decisions and the way they have been made?

This is a field with many variables, but one of the places to make an effort is to make more leadership meetings open. There will be existing leadership meetings in your company that would really benefit from being open and accessible to everyone. It can be a physical format, where you can actually meet up and see what’s happening (… and maybe even be a participatory part…). You can also just start by streaming them live on your internal platform so that everyone can follow.

There will certainly be leaders who will complain loudly about their need for a private space. Yes, certainly in relation to some things this is still important, but there is even more need for activities with greater openness and transparency. And moreover, today leaders already make conscious decisions for the benefit of the whole company, where employees’ perspectives, talents and engagement are naturally a part of the decision-making process? Because that’s already how it is today – isn’t it?

In conclusion

So, you might say that we can’t do these things. We can’t make meetings voluntary, give more freedom or open up manager meetings. We can’t run a responsible company this way. I would argue that you can because it is already happening in other companies bigger and more complexed ones than your own.

But it may well be that you don’t want to, because it will shift the foundation of the way that leadership is practiced. But that’s something different and a totally fair comment. It’s the desire and the ability to change your leadership practices that comes into play here and not whether it can actually be done. And moreover, it’s not always necessary to run a big risk in order to solve big problems.

So, you actually can innovate leadership in your company, because all the rules and ways of doing things that exist today are all created by people. This must mean that people can also change it if they want to and can see the value in it. Because of course it’s not about changing something just for the sake of change. It’s about changing something so that your company isn’t stuck in the dogmas of the past that were made up fitting into a completely different reality that the current one.

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