Why Vision Matters
|Managing for Values
People rated low in leadership and values -- even if rated high for performance -- have a risky future.
Source: The Leadership Engine: How Winning Companies Build Leaders at All Levels, by Noel Tichy and Eli Cohen (HarperCollins, 1997), p. 263.
For instance, in succession planning, I first rate each manager's performance and leadership values. Then the rest of the management team challenges me based on their observations. Rarely do we agree on all candidates, but they usually fall into one of three groups. There are the easy calls -- high performers with good values. There are others who have the right attitudes but have performance problems. We try to help them succeed if we can. Finally come those who get results, but do so at the expense of teamwork, integrity, openness to change, development of others, or the interests of customers. People who don't share our values are cancerous to the organization, regardless of their performance. In my experience, every time you invest trying to save these people you end up regretting it. It's simply too difficult to change people's values.
Putting Teeth into HR
Obviously, it is not enough to cheerlead for values; you still have to make tough business decisions. In 1998 I joined Covad Communications, the first company other than a traditional phone company to offer Digital Subscriber Lines for high-speed Internet access. After less than 30 days on the job, I saw that our sales strategy was wrong. We would never get the necessary reach or volume with a direct sales force; we needed multiple channels and partners. About 40 people, in a company of less than 200 at the time, were affected by this change. My opening act was to say that 20 percent of the workforce had the wrong skills for the job, and by the way, and the company's current strategy was doomed.
The only way a leader wins support for those kinds of decisions is to make the business case, to respect people and the organization, and to slowly build trust. No boss can do that without strong leadership in the management team and throughout the organization.We build trust, and develop other leaders, by talking honestly. Every other month our senior team takes one or two days to examine our strategy, our effectiveness as a team, and own growth as leaders. These are difficult sessions. We try to get as brutally honest as we can with each other. There is nothing I like about those sessions. I put myself front and center to get facilitated feedback on how I'm doing as a leader -- what works, what doesn't work. This opens lines of communication; it discourages political agendas. Eventually it brings clarity about the way we operate. We gain rich perspective on our business and ourselves because we are a diverse team in every sense -- thought leadership, culture, religion, race, gender.
Walking the Line
Leaders also must connect with customers, partners, and front-line employees. If you really want to understand a problem, go to the front line and give people your ear. It is amazing what you will find out about your business, your customers, and how life really is.
I recently made changes in our business as a result of a visit to a reseller of our service. My host wanted to give me an executive tour, but I asked if I could sit with someone who worked on our account. It was a revelation. The young woman I met showed me what she had to go through to do business with us. She was trying to correct a mistake on a customer order. She had to talk to four people at Covad -- and none of them could fix the problem. Why not? That order passed through our company like a part on an assembly line. No one had accountability for where it went next. It reminded me of a culture I know well -- the phone company. Of course, phone company mentality is not unique to the phone company.
We implemented a system that I think will change the way our partners view us. We made a supervisor and a dedicated team responsible for each of our channel partners. It will create a new customer experience. But I never would have seen that problem if I did not sit with someone who does our work.
It takes time and commitment to be at the front line. It also takes an ability to relate to people. One of the first things I learned as a manager was a communication technique called FORM. You can learn a lot about people and open useful conversations about your business by asking about any of these elements:
Family -- what's happening with
spouse, children, immediate relatives (usually the most important thing in
Occupation -- what they like or don't like about their job
Recreation -- how they spend their time away from the job
Money -- how they spend it, what they enjoy; what's important to them
Leading for Change
Leadership is about managing the constant of change. The market and the world shaping your market are never going to stand still -- especially in the New Economy. One technical breakthrough or blockbuster deal could render your strategy irrelevant overnight. Leaders have no choice but to be fluid, to learn to deal with the ambiguity, to be able to change their business model. That is why it is so important to have an overarching vision and values to steer by.
But, given a clear vision and strong values, how do we help move an organization forward? I have discovered few great ideas on my own; friends, colleagues, and mentors have taught me most of what I know. However, I have led large-scale change efforts in three organizations, and have found that several principles hold.Start with the Answers
Knowing the Warning Signs
Most change efforts fall far short of their potential. Even with principled leadership, implementing change is a messy, perplexing, and never-ending process. I have found five warning signs that can undermine change.Underestimating the Culture
Leaving a Legacy
You cannot build value for customers, shareholders, or the community without a vision and values for your organization. You build value by becoming the leader in your field, the company that everybody wants to work for, buy from, or invest in.
It takes tremendous confidence to stake out that territory and to lead others toward it. You have to withstand the doubts and loneliness of leadership. At the same time you have to acknowledge to yourself and others that you don't always know how you will reach your destination. For others to follow you through times of uncertainty requires mutual trust and faith. That is what clarity of vision and commitment to values can bring.I once thought that the test of personal leadership was the number of people that follow a leader when he or she moves to a new organization. But what is more rewarding is to look across an organization and see the number of leaders in place, people who share a common aspiration and have the tools and wisdom -- the vision and values -- to achieve something great. That is any leader's greatest legacy.
An Exercise in Visioning
How can a management team build a shared vision and translate that vision into a strategy? I have used a process in three different organizations that has helped develop both a vision and a plan for the future.
First we listen to Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. We talk about one leader at a point in history and note that his speech said nothing about the current state of affairs. Instead it painted a picture of the future. It tapped a deep aspiration.
We try to define our own aspirations for the organization. Then we each imagine that Fortune or Business Week is writing about our company five years from now.
We have just achieved our dream, and the reporter asks exactly how we did it. The combination of thinking aspirationally about where you want to be and then tactically about how you would get there helps crystallize a vision for the enterprise.
That process led us to see we wanted to be "the next great admired company" -- a company that delights customers, attracts top talent, rewards investors, challenges an industry, serves the community. Our strategies may change, but those aspirations do not.
Had King lived, he would have witnessed an extraordinary phenomenon -- the achievement of a far reaching vision articulated at a time when the leader had no idea how to get there. That is the challenge of leadership.Return to reference
|Copyright © 2000 by Robert
Knowling. Reprinted with permission from Leader to Leader,
a publication of the Drucker Foundation and Jossey-Bass.
This article is available on the Drucker Foundation Web site, http://drucker.org/leaderbooks/L2L/fall2000/knowling.html.
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|Robert Knowling is chairman, CEO, and president of Covad Communications, a national provider of high-speed Internet access. Previously he led large-scale change efforts at U. S. West and at Ameritech. He also leads the Digital Opportunity Initiative to increase minority participation in the high-tech workplace. Knowling has been featured in Fast Company, Forbes, Business Week, and The Industry Standard. (9/2000)|
|More on Robert Knowling|
This article appears as "Why Vision Matters" (Chapter 12) in On Mission and Leadership. Read more.Order from Amazon.com.
|From Leader to Leader, No. 18 Fall 2000|
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