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The Executive's Famous Last Words

Jan 9 2014, 5:16am CST | by

The Executive's Famous Last Words
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At Kotter Intetnational, Jimmy Leppert has the challenging job of encouraging executives to view leadership from a new perspective. This change in perspective can be critical to an executive’s future success.

“My people have more power than they know: I’m afraid of what they’ll do if they figure this out.”

I’ve heard executives speak these words too many times to count on my hands. This single statement reveals both a fervent respect for the power employees have, as well as a deep-rooted fear of that power. This fear can prove potentially fatal to any executive’s career.

These executives need to answer two questions:

  1. Is your fear based on reality?
  2. Do you understand what you are risking by not acknowledging employee power?

Don’t get me wrong, acknowledging how much power your employees have is risky. But if you don’t recognize their power, you’ll never realize the tremendous potential of a leadership-based organization.

The Myth

Many executives consider the power of their employees an “unspeakable” topic. Hiding in isolation, they tell themselves that no one else is capable of really understanding the most pressing opportunities and wolves at the door. They fear that sharing the details with employees would lead to endless debate, unskilled focus, and possible mutiny. Intimidated, they hide behind the myth that “it’s my job to figure it out, and my teams wouldn’t understand anyway.”

Some executives endeavor to share key opportunities with their teams. Unfortunately they do it the “safest” way they can: They qualify and quantify until the message is buried in their slide presentation. I absolutely believe that with all the charts, graphs, legal-ease and jargon (and slides), no one can filter out the top 2-4 priorities from a 10 x 15 matrix of goals. No one.

The Result

Whether secrets are kept, or shared in this obfuscated fashion, employees are left incapable of making independent decisions or of taking the fast action required to create or maintain their company’s competitive advantage. Employees are taught not to think outside the box, ahead, or anywhere else except about the immediate task at hand. Sometimes, like when you need to deliver on today’s immediate commitments, that type of focus is essential. But after a few months or a year of operating in this mode, what’s left is a slow, heavy, stale organization. The people who used to go above and beyond the call of duty (found in every organization) have no way of going above and beyond. Left with nothing to focus on but today’s fire, those employees are focusing their energy on interviewing for a new job.

What if you shared with those employees the top business priorities, and showed them how those priorities could lead to significant impact and growth in the next six-to-12 months?  What if those employees made some significant progress, and enticed others to join them?

The Reality

What we learn in MBA programs goes against what I’m saying, but how much of the MBA argument is based on reality? Over and over again studies show that 70% of change efforts fail. SEVENTY PERCENT. Projects go over budget, over schedule, and goals are missed. The reality is this: The prevailing system we use to try to create substantial change is tremendously unsuccessful.

How to Leverage Your Employee’s Power

So how can you increase the probability of success? Here’s how to leverage your employees’ power into the business results you’re trying to achieve.

  1. Paint a picture of what winning looks like. Set some definite guardrails in the form of a clear and actionable vision. Along with your senior team, come to clarity on your company’s top 2-3 priorities that if you can achieve in the next 6-9 months, you will win – and win big. Unless you want to over-complicate things, stick to just those top priorities, and skip the slide presentation. Don’t worry about going into the details of “how.” In this approach, those that do the work also plan the work. Your role is to paint the picture of the win – what it looks like on the other side. This leaves room for your employees’ to put their imaginations to work on how to achieve it.
  2. Simple and informal conversations. Have conversations with teams and individuals to help them develop clarity on what winning looks like. Employees will develop their own ideas about how to contribute within their own sphere of influence. They might even take a chance, and step outside that sphere in order to make a really big impact.
  3. Celebrate what you want to encourage. When you see people taking chances, regardless of whether they result in success or failure, reward the risk-taking. Even if they’re just doing things in new way, celebrate, celebrate, celebrate! This does not mean writing them a check, it means recognizing their small acts of leadership. As the risk-takers are rewarded, you’ll see more people taking these types of chances. As momentum builds, the size of the accomplishments will increase.

If you’ve never tried it, you’re in for a surprise. You hired these people because they’re smart enough to get the job done. If you can trust them to help achieve your company’s initiatives, and you trust your leadership skills to communicate the vision, then you and your people are in for possibly (as many of my clients call it) the biggest reward of your career.

Jimmy Leppert is an engagement leader at Kotter International (www.kotterinternational.com), a firm that helps leaders accelerate strategy implementation in their organizations. Follow Kotter International on Twitter @KotterIntl, on Facebook, or on LinkedIn. Sign up for the Kotter International Newsletter.

Source: Forbes

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