Understanding Leadership Processes

Organisations are shadows of their leaders. That’s the good news and the bad news!

In earlier blogs I wrote about leadership processes and the work of the senior team. Based on the feedback, there is an interest in understanding more.  What do I mean by leadership process?   Let’s start with the generally accepted definition of a business or work process.

Business Process:  an organized group of related activities that together create customer value. The focus in a process is not on individual units of work, but rather on an entire group of activities that, when effectively brought together, create a result that customers value.

Similarly, we are defining

Leadership Process as:  an organized group of related activities initiated by the senior team and under their direct guidance that together enhances the ability of managers and employees to deliver value.

The key differentiator of a leadership process is that it is initiated and under the guidance of the senior team, and in this case the “immediate customer” is management and employees, not the end customer.  Leadership Processes are internal activities focusing more on organizational and management effectiveness than on the end customer.  Thus, the real customer of the senior team is their direct reports, a notion that has heretofore only been understood and accepted by a few senior teams.

When defined this way leadership processes become immediately obvious; the annual budgeting and periodic review process, the (quarterly or monthly) operations review process, the annual strategic planning process, senior team staff meetings, the executive talent development process, the employee performance review process,  and senior staff meetings to name a few. In many ways, these are the work packages of the senior team.

However, when we ask to see documentation or value stream maps of these processes, few companies can produce them!  If they do exist they are not written down to anywhere near the detail and precision as a manufacturing or supply chain process.  In fact, in most cases leadership processes reside in the collective knowledge of the company and usually the senior executive most closely associated with the issue.  For example, the CFO tends to be the owner of the annual budgeting process; the COO owns the Operations Review process, etc.

In the words of one senior executive:

 “Most of our leadership processes actually work more on tribal knowledge than well designed or documented process steps. And its hell for a new senior team member – to survive the first year they must rely heavily on their long serving direct reports and other team members who know how things are done. As the old saying goes – the natives have the maps!”

In several cases we have gone into an organization and helped map out one or more of the leadership processes, (much like an “as is” process map at the beginning of a lean transformation on the manufacturing floor) looking for overall flow, time spent at each activity, overall process efficiency and waste.  And we have been surprised by what we have found.

First we notice that leadership processes tend to be a patchwork of fixes and changes added on to a legacy process as a way of “making it work better”.  And when the overall time consumed is compared to the actual value-add time, the amount of waste in time, money and human energy is shocking.  One senior executive describes it this way:

“Our budget process is mostly an historical exercise.  We take the past 5 years of budget numbers, plug in a growth estimate for each business unit, roll up the figures, then haggle over what we can and can’t afford in order to arrive at the three big numbers corporate wants from us in the first place. As a result we spend more time during the year cutting costs and moving allocations around than actually focusing our energies on growing the business in a strategic direction.  The waste of time and effort is criminal.”

Without standardized, effective and best in class leadership processes, every time a new CEO or leader comes into a company, they tend to change things to fit their style or personal way of doing things.  Changes in how strategy is developed, how meetings and operations reviews are conducted, how the senior team is structured, and also executive development changes tend to have a negative impact on the momentum of a company. A seasoned mid-level executive summed it up this way: “It’s as if everything going on before was wrong and the new way is the right way; except it’s never the silver bullet fix intended.”

Unfortunately, after two or three successive leadership changes at the top, cynicism tends to invade the ranks of middle management.  In one company, after having five CEOs over a 12 year period, each with their own “way of running things”, a group of disenfranchised middle managers began calling themselves the “We Be’s”  – we be here before you and we be here after you!  Needless to say their collective resistance to change had a considerable negative impact on any intended improvement process.

When new leaders bring in new ways of doing things because “that’s the way I did it at my previous company” or “it’s the way I like to manage”, without establishing well documented and designed leadership processes, they run the risk of  creating greater disenfranchisement among the very employees whose job it is to help improve the company.

Contrast these “ad hoc” leadership practices with the standardized leadership processes at work in the military, often referred to as the “Mission Command” process.  Here, adherence to standard processes for Planning, Briefing, Executing, and Debriefing can mean the difference between life and death on the battlefield.  If an officer is lost or incapacitated in the midst of the engagement, there is no time for a “new way of doing things”.  From the General to the platoon sergeant, everyone knows the standard processes, how they work and how they are to be implemented.  In the majority of cases, the process carries the day, not the whims or favourite approaches of the leader.  Built into the Mission Command process however is the ability of teams on the ground to determine how to deliver on the mission and the authority to respond to unforeseen events as appropriate within the mission parameters.

 “We Be. . .  looking for more good leadership processes!”

Tight Lines . . .

About johnrchildress

John Childress is currently Visiting Professor in Strategy and Culture at IE Business School in Madrid and a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at john@johnrchildress.com or john.childress@theprincipiagroup.com
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2 Responses to Understanding Leadership Processes

  1. Pingback: People problems are not always problem people | John R Childress . . . rethinking

  2. Pingback: Not McKinsey again . . . Upwards Feedback | John R Childress . . . rethinking leadership

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