When you were a kid, did you ever play “crack the whip” at your local skating rink? It’s a fun, but somewhat reckless game. A large group of skaters join hands, and as the leader turns the group rotates around them. With each consecutive turn the tail of the chain picks up speed. Within a few rotations the kids at the end of the chain have to struggle and struggle just to hold on. The weight of the leader’s changes takes its toll, and finally the chain breaks. The kids at the end of the chain are flung across the ice, sprawling on all fours.
Often Strategic Leaders put their own organizations through a similar dizzying experience. Strategic Leaders put their employees on a crack the whip ride when they can’t convert their strategies into operational realities. Each time the leader changes direction the effects ripple through the organization. In a large organization a series of poorly managed changes can be crippling. The symptoms are obvious: high turnover, low employee morale, management frustration, disjointed sales results, poor customer service, and high operating costs. The system is running inefficiently.
Organizations need these big thinking leaders. Their unique vision builds brand, finds opportunities and solves problems others can’t see. They rise to the top because they see the big picture in high definition, and companies learn to rely on that vision quickly. The challenge for these leaders is their knack for seeing the big picture doesn’t easily translate into actions others can follow.
A Strategic Leader caught in his own strategy is ripe with frustration. Projects are constantly being chased, but never fully completed. Direct reports describe their job as “chasing the leader.” They are waiting to hear what they will be focused on next. Low level employees are disgruntled and disconnected, because they don’t understand their purpose or how they contribute value to the organization. The leader himself is frustrated and feels he cannot delegate, because others don’t get him. Eventually the system begins to shut down on itself, because it just can’t get off the dime. It’s a vicious circle.
Established businesses develop excellent Operational Leaders. They run the business surprisingly well, and are very good at their jobs. But what happens when they face a significant change? Consider how the rapid change in the Canadian dollar has impacted manufacturers and exporters. This coupled with the rising threat of overseas manufacturing could make any executives head spin.
As much as these businesses run well, many times, they are poorly equipped for significant change. Operational Leaders tends to be strictly focused on themselves, or on the job. They focus on production, EBITA (earnings before interest, taxes and amortization) and staffing. They don’t have time to focus on strategy or the big picture. Nor are they equipped to do so.
Growth can also be a major hurdle for an operational management team. It requires a totally different skill set, as well as a different mindset.
Tackling Leadership Challenges
How do you tackle a broken system? Fire the problematic leader? Put the management team on a performance plan? Bring in high priced consultants to solve the problem? Invest in training and other education services to acquire new ideas?
These are all classic options, but they don’t guarantee the optimal outcome.
A problematic leader is often a symptom of an imbalanced system. The strategies are stuck in the minds of the strategic leaders, or the operational leaders can’t see the forest for the trees. Either way the system has to change. It’s a holistic process.