Sep 28, 2009

Task-Oriented Leaders, Relationship-Oriented Leaders, or Both?

Samuel R. James, Ed.D.

The importance of well-functioning teams is increasingly the norm in organizations. While many factors determine a team’s success, one critical factor is the leader’s orientation to his or her team. Currently, there is a debate raging about whether the most effective leaders are task oriented—focused on accomplishing tasks—or relationship oriented—concerned with the team’s members. Yet this debate has a third option; the best leaders are both! The leader’s facility using both orientations enhances his or her ability to create and maintain trust, stability, and effectiveness.

Task-oriented leaders are focused on accomplishments. Initial success depends upon the leader’s ability to demonstrate competence and commitment to the team’s members. Faced with an initial uphill challenge, a task-oriented leader can help the team understand their challenge by providing a coherent series of steps that structure their initial meetings. These steps include creating a persuasive challenge; ensuring that the team has the right skill sets involved; developing a shared understanding of their interdependencies; and providing strategies for getting started. Each step fosters a collaborative culture in which the team members trust each other and their leader, carry out quick wins, and begin the pursuit of long-term work.

Relationship-oriented leaders focus on the relationships among the team’s members. This can be tricky because some team members can be suspicious of relationship-oriented leaders fearing manipulation and/or exploitation. To neutralize this concern, leaders create an atmosphere of trust and goodwill by emphasizing camaraderie, dignity, and respect. Time is taken to develop relationships with each member; simultaneously, the leader encourages the members to build constructive relationships with each other as well. They instill a culture focused on team performance; thus, individual achievement is downplayed by being woven into the team’s success. Only the team can succeed; conversely, only the team can fail.

The best leaders are skillful at both task completion and creating effective team relationships. In the beginning, they recognize the team’s need for structure and create a foundation that is both firm and flexible. Once the task-oriented building blocks are in place and members begin to take risks by sharing information and speaking honestly about the task, the leader can shift to a relationship orientation. When this shift is successful, the leader strikes the right balance between leading and following the team’s emerging leaders; knowing when to make decisions and when to yield to the team; and ultimately placing the emphasis on the team, not the leader. Consequently, the members’ evolving competence and interpersonal commitments drive them to become more courageous and influential with each other and within the organization.

Task and relationship orientations are not a linear process. Rather the leader oscillates between the two. When the team plateaus, a leader can return to the basics and maintain their focus on achieving results. Otherwise the leader is helping the team use their individual and collective skills and abilities to reach their goals. Combining both orientations provides leaders with a strategy for launching the team from a firm foundation and subsequently encouraging each member to be innovative, collaborative, and effective.

Sep 3, 2009

Leadership and Advice Giving

Samuel R. James, Ed.D.

Recently I posed a question: “What is the best advice you have ever received?” Quickly forty people responded. Many responses were deeply personal. Others were professional, offered by former bosses or teachers and equally appreciated. Some were satirical: “Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and it annoys the pig.” At times the best advice was a teaching moment, at other times it was a mere statement without the advisor knowing his or her impact. Leaders in time-starved work environments overlook the importance of their advice to the people in their charge. In the respondents’ own words, hear the value of the best advice they have ever received.

One group spoke of how advice taught them that excellence must become a personal commitment. “Never become numb,” cautioned his teacher, and do not lose an “open mindedness or an emotional artistic side . . . [it creates] an artist’s sensitivity, empathy, passion, and feelings.” Advice was given about separating pride in one’s work from meeting a client’s expectations: “If pleasing the client is your highest goal, the bar is set pretty low; pleasing clients is easy.” Another was “unburdened” when his boss told him: “. . . not to worry . . . I did not have the authority to make a decision that would wreck the organization or my career; [this advice] freed me to make better decisions faster.” Finally, one woman built a commitment to excellence on football star Jerry Rice’s quotation: “I will do today what others won't so that I can do tomorrow what others can't.”

A second group, challenged to be good managers, focused on the needs of others. Some advice was blunt: “Shut up and listen!” Another was prescriptive: “Management requires patience, tolerance, and forgiveness; control requires none of that. Control your assets; manage your people and processes.” Repeatedly, respondents spoke of listening—“we have two ears and one mouth so listen twice as much as you talk”—or being engaged with their subordinates—“always ask what do you recommend, why, and how will it be accomplished.” Another learned if “you want to progress, help others progress; then hand over your tasks and move on to new ones.” Working with superiors was also noted: “To become a senior member of the organization, learn how to manage your manager.” Finally, good management requires courage: “If everyone is smiling and saying everything is great but there are alarms going off in your head, don't ignore what your eyes and gut instincts are telling you.”

Some were challenged to focus on inner strength: “Try not to become a man of success,” quoting Albert Einstein, “but rather to become a man of value.” “Pursue your interests with passion,” said one, “and do it to the best of your abilities.” This advice provided him with “flexibility, ownership of his tasks, and the acceptance of hard work.” Self-awareness led another to state: “Distress and motivation are directly proportional to expectation. Expectations from others will give you distress; expectations from yourself will give you motivation.”

Regardless of who advised the respondents, the advice was a compass that helped each navigate and map the business terrain—“It is what it is; keep moving forward.”

Think about it. How is your advice supporting others' performance, management, or personal development? You might change a life. © Samuel R. James, Ed.D.

Aug 31, 2009

Strategic Leadership: White Papers and Teams Part 2

Samuel R. James, Ed.D.

In a previous blog, Strategic Leadership: Creating White Papers Part 1, I described the use of strategic white papers to facilitate and transform a senior leader’s nascent ideas into a written document. The purpose was intended to provide peers and subordinates with a succinct, specific, and accurate summary of a plan of action. Since the team is critical to success, the white paper process is also used to gain their buy-in and pull together their contributions in order to ensure the success of the overall strategy.

After Max met with Ellen, his boss and her senior team, he knew he had to work with his team to gain their insights and acceptance. The first step was to ensure that the best people were members of the team. We discussed individual members of his inherited team; he believed all but one had the skills and temperament needed to drive his agenda. He proceeded to transfer the member in question out of his team and began a search for his replacement. With the other team members, he got to work. Katzenbach and Smith in The Wisdom of Teams assert that teams develop from a shared understanding of compelling goals that challenge people to commit themselves to make a difference. Max had a compelling challenge. Now he and his team had to transform many directives into specific, measurable performance goals; agree on clearly defined objectives; align each person’s skills against the team’s goals; and create a team that was dependent on each other for success.

“What is the best way to go about this?” he asked.

Before I could answer he said: “White papers, right?"

I nodded yes.

Social psychologists say that if you want people to abide by the rules, let them participate in making them. Strategic white papers encouraged his team members to be the architects of his or her responsibilities. Once the purpose was clarified, I met with each team member to create a white paper, replicating a process that Max and I followed: strategies for achieving results against key deliverables, resources, timelines, measurements, and cross-functional partners. Using an LCD projector, each team member’s ideas were projected onto a screen so that he or she could see their ideas developing. Throughout the exercise, I typed and captured the specific detail of each idea, exposing it to rigorous thinking, innovation, and identifying areas requiring collaboration. Upon completion of the draft, Max returned for a presentation of his subordinate’s plan. Together they discussed the draft and problem solved the recommendations until he gave the go-ahead.

Now it was time for the team to present to each other. Each received a folder of his or her peers’ white papers in advance. In the meeting, they took turns briefly presenting their individual plans. Fellow team members were encouraged to vet the proposed plan, identify redundancies, and decide who would lead and who would follow each tactic. Collectively they agreed on their overall strategy for moving the department forward.

Max successfully transformed a collection of people into a committed team oriented to goals and results in a climate of trust, where data were shared freely, and decisions were made collectively.

Strategic Leadership: White Papers Organize Action Plans, Part 1

Samuel R. James, Ed.D.

Recently a newly hired senior manager, Max, and I were discussing his two most important domains: creating strategy and managing his people. He was new to his position and eager to assess his department and transform it into a vision of what he believed it needed to become. Together we agreed to work our way through the vast volume of information and multiple relationships that needed to be thought out and aligned.

“How do we get started?” asked Max.

“It is simple,” I said, “Create a white paper.”
“A white paper? Surely you jest?”

“Not at all; white papers began as an informal parliamentary document explaining government policy. Then they morphed into introducing new ideas, typically technical or marketing. Now white papers provide senior management with a brief, specific, and accurate summary of an opportunity or plan of action,”
I added.

Our task was to create a detailed outline of his transition plans: goals, prioritized steps toward realizing the goals, his team’s responsibilities, cross-functional collaborators, the resources and assistance needed, benchmarks, and timelines. Max’s white paper involved using an LCD projector to project the work onto a screen so that Max could see his ideas developing. As Max talked, I typed and captured the specific details of each idea. The process of projecting ideas on the big screen requires a commitment to rigorous thinking, innovation, and identifying areas of expertise that lay outside Max’s team. Quickly, Max realized that ideas that appeared to be adequately articulated wilted under the scrutiny of putting them to paper.

The rigor of critical thinking is challenging but it works. Ideas can be moved from one part of the paper to another to clarify important objectives. For Max, a hard copy of the working document was simultaneously generated so that missing elements could be identified and added to his plan. When we finished the draft, Max’s boss Ellen, the company’s CEO, joined us. Max presented the white paper as a work in progress and asked her to join in the discussion. She readily validated his ideas expanding the scope of some of his recommendations. She was impressed with the quality and level of detail of his plan and offered her assistance. Max in turn was in charge of his transition. He was not encumbered by the typical trial-and-error; he was ready to go.

A strategic white paper is a working document. This framework encourages active problem solving and discussions while strengthening the overall design. The clarity of the paper helped Max and Ellen review his plans with her senior team to gain additional insights and build momentum. The inclusion of the senior management team had the desired effect of engaging Max’s peers. They welcomed the clarity of his plan, built upon his ideas, and identified ways to collaborate with him. Max mapped disparate ideas into a woven plan of action and, with fellow senior managers, engaged a coalition of partners. With an approved plan, he was ready to influence the organization: It was time to move forward with his team.