Leadership Observations of a Road Warrior

Leadership Observations of a Road Warrior

By William R. K. Innes, D.Eng., Executive Advisor

There have been innumerable thoughtful treatises on the subject of leadership, of which I have read and enjoyed my share. But looking back on the experience of leading in a global Fortune 10 company over many years, I am left with the question, “What did I really learn from the practical experience of leading?”

The following are my observations, gleaned from a long journey well-traveled.

1. You can’t lead from behind. This is probably the most essential reality of leadership. At every step, one’s thoughts, one’s horizons need to anticipate the needs of the future. The organization will and should be preoccupied with delivering in the present, but in order to provide direction as a leader, my thoughts needed to be ahead of my leadership team and their thoughts ahead of the organization. When the organization was digesting an acquisition, we were thinking about the opportunities from the new platform; when a new contract was put in place, we were thinking about the collateral implications.

2. You don’t have to start the parade. You may have to lead the parade, but you don’t have to start it. Sometimes you just need to get in front of a parade that has already started. I have found that understanding of the needs and opportunities for improvement often lies closest to the work itself, and dedicated people at the work interface start to fix the problems. This is one of the many reasons why listening closely to what is going on down in the organization is imperative. As a leader, you have the platform to leverage their insights across the whole organization and then lead the parade. Frustration with overhead duplication in one set of countries provides the stimulus to look at the regional overhead structure; breakthrough product development in one area can stimulate a whole new approach to product development.

3. Visions without dimensions are just aspirations. Vision is probably one of the most overworked subjects in the business lexicon. Having worked to establish corporate visions on several occasions, in each case I’ve been left with the reality that no matter how articulate or inspirational the vision may be, in the end, the organization only wants to know, “What do we need to change?” If the vision is to be a premier technology company, what needs to change—speed, value, product focus, etc.? Visions without dimensions are simply aspirations and are not particularly useful.

4. You are only as good as the people around you. One of the most frequent failings of strong leaders is their reluctance to deal with the performance of those closest to them. Issues of loyalty and the need for stability often get in the way. Unfortunately, the mathematical reality is that whatever shortcomings we see from above are magnified several times over when viewed by the many people who work in parallel or below. I found I had to continually push myself to think about whether I really had the best team possible, and I usually wished I had acted sooner. The collective relief from the departure of a weak team member is a reminder that things are usually worse than they seem.

5. Be dispassionate in decision, compassionate in execution. This is a piece of business advice my father gave me. When making decisions involving people, one needs to maintain a clear-eyed view of only what is the best for the organization, without considering the impact on the individual. Once the decision is made, however, the same thought and energy needs to be invested in dealing with the individual compassionately. Too often we fail people by not being as dedicated and imaginative at this stage, and yet the reputation of a leader and the broader impact on the motivation of the organization will be as much decided by how we deal with those displaced, as by whether the right decision was made.

6. Leading is only one leg of the stool. Too often it seems that management and leadership are positioned as a binary choice—to work on the business or in the business? The reality is that I have never met a strong leader who was not also a strong manager, and frankly, I doubt that one would ever get the opportunity to lead if he or she couldn’t control the business. It really isn’t a choice. In my experience, effective management is the essential platform for successful leadership.

7. Keep it simple. It’s a sobering reality that people and organizations can only remain truly focused on a few issues at any one time. When looking back on the leadership roles in which I was involved, in each case there was always a huge amount of complex activity but only three or four major changes which redefined the business. It is hugely important to decide what these are, to make them visible, and to relentlessly focus on them. Now in my consulting work, I find that one of the most frequent failings of leaders and their teams is in not maintaining an explicit view of their critical priorities. Nothing is more enervating to an organization than not being clear about “what’s really important around here.”

8. Clarity, clarity, all is clarity. One of the most fundamental responsibilities of any leader is to create and maintain alignment and a common sense of direction. In this there is no substitute for clear and simple ideas, frequently communicated, and it is a paradox that when the world is most complex and confusing, the need for clear and simple messages is most pressing. In situations of corporate crisis or major change, the organization needs to feel that its leaders have a clear understanding of where they are going.

9. People work for people. People usually join organizations because of their reputations or the purposes they fulfill. However, as employees, their motivation is predominantly determined by their relationship with the people with whom they work. With this, it is hugely important that even in very large organizations, people have the opportunity to interact with their leaders personally. Electronic media have given us huge reach and an easy (but insufficient) alternative to standing on your feet and interacting with an audience. Your demeanor, the confidence you express, your command of the subject matter, will all be read instantly and communicated by word of mouth, which amplifies the message. I was always surprised that the feedback from employee sessions was as much about how I acted as it was about the message content. Again the paradox—it is when the world is most confusing, and demands on your time are the greatest, that you need to take the time to be seen, so that the many people who recognize that they cannot control the outcome can gain confidence in their leaders who do.

10. Think slow, act fast. Adversity is a great teacher. I had the privilege of being part of one of the largest corporate mergers ever. Much against our wishes, the two organizations were held separate for a year for antitrust reviews. However, during that time we were able to think through all the key issues in detail, and once we had the green light, implementation took place very quickly. This process saved us from one of the major costs of disruptive change—loss of effectiveness in transition. That experience left me with a bias—think slow, so we can act fast.

11. Expect the impossible. This is the opportunity and paranoia of leadership. On one hand, the pinnacle on which leaders sit provides a unique perspective—they, alone, can see all the pieces and the entire context. This gives them the unique ability to set what would seem to others to be impossible expectations. I believe it was Colin Powell who said that the essence of leadership is about taking an organization to a place beyond its expectations. On the other hand, leaders live with the paranoia that the impossible will happen, and they need to be prepared.

One final reflection—I will be forever impressed by the dedication and resilience of the many people I have been privileged to lead, and at the end of the day, despite these observations and learnings, I tend to the view that they deserved better—from someone who knew these things from the start.

About the Author:

Bill Innes combines hard scientific acumen, a head for running global businesses, and masterful relational abilities to be a powerfully effective Executive Advisor. After a long and successful career with ExxonMobil, Bill has spent more than a decade advising CEOs and C-suite leaders of corporations in Europe, India, and North America, bringing valuable insight and experience to clients walking through strategic business and leadership challenges.