A bird does not sing because it has an answer.  It sings because it has a song.

24 February 2009

Disposable Assumptions

I'm working with a client this week that is a startup company.  On the one hand, it's a lot of fun working with a startup, because they tend to have few or no assumptions about "the way we've always done things around here."  On the other hand, it's an interesting challenge, because there may not be much of a framework to help us figure out how to create the operational structures and processes that will become that assumption base in the future.

One of the things we are building is an organizational chart.  At first glance, this might seem simple - just take the folks who are working to build the new company, slap job titles on them, and gin up a structure that seems to fit them all together.  Or alternatively, look at someone else's business plan or org chart, and fit your people into whatever positions on that chart seem most logical.  Both of those will get you an org chart, but odds are neither of them will represent either the company you want, nor even the company you actually have.

A better approach is to create the structure first, based on the needs of the customer and the nature of the product or service.  Decide what departments are needed, how they function within themselves and among each other.  Make these decisions based on how the company needs to look ultimately, in order to meet the mission and vision while working within the values.  Then place your existing people in the right roles based on their competencies and interests, and determine what talent the company is still missing.

This exercise is not only valuable for startups.  If you've been in business for awhile, when was the last time you threw ALL your assumptions out and really examined the question of whether your company's current structure meets its current needs?  Successful companies evolve and change over time, as well they should.  After a few years, a new department may be needed, or one may need to be eliminated.  Some may need to be combined, or recombined, in order to reduce waste, improve innovation or better respond to customers and suppliers.

The process won't be quick or easy, but the results of a careful evaluation and reinvention of a company's operational structure (or even a thoughtful validation that the current structure is the best it can be) will surely reveal opportunities to increase effectiveness and profitability.

03 February 2009

New Bottles

I'm sure you've heard someone dismiss an idea with the statement, "oh, that's just old wine in new bottles."  It's a way of accusing someone of labeling an old or familiar concept as something new.

Perhaps you've drunk some old wine out of a new bottle lately -- tried a new weight loss plan (doesn't it all boil down to expending more calories than you consume?), seen the latest James Bond movie (let's face it, the plot is pretty much always the same!).  In fact, we humans often seek out the old wine for its dependable familiarity -- but at the same time, we love the new bottle because it refreshes the experience.

In the leadership development business, there are thousands of books, tapes, classes, articles, and "flavors of the month" for helping you, your career, and your company be more effective.  And some of the best, and bestselling, authors of those materials will come right out and tell you that what they are saying is not new.  A truly unique approach to leadership or business success is incredibly rare, and ones that work are even rarer.

But that is not to say this "old wine" is not rich, complex, flavorful, and satisfying.  Quite the opposite!  A "back to basics" approach to leadership may be the greatest innovation you'll ever see in a business setting.  Common sense is anything but common, and like an effective weight loss plan, it's not a passing fad and it's not easy, quick, or effortless.

There's nothing wrong with putting a fresh face on timeless ideas, if that will inspire you to act on them.  So feel free, as you build your legacy of leadership on a foundation of honest communication, clear mission, and meaningful goals, to create a beautiful, shiny new bottle to wrap around it.  By all means, put that old wine into a new bottle -- and drink deeply!

02 February 2009

Leading from the Middle

If you were following the news a couple of weeks back, no doubt you heard a lot about the amazing Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger, who performed a nearly flawless emergency ditching of the crippled U.S. Airways flight 1549 into the Hudson River.

You may not, however, have heard much about Sheila Dail, Doreen Welsh, and Donna Dent.  These three remarkable women, the flight attendants on that A320, saw to it that all 155 passengers got out of the aircraft quickly and safely.  While much credit must, and should, be given to the highly skilled pilot, he was not the only critical leader who deserves kudos and deep gratitude for a job well done.

Very few work tasks are accomplished by a single "hero."  It takes a team of talented and trained experts to handle each challenge that arises in a dynamic work environment.  For most of us, an office "crisis" is rather less dramatic than this particular example, but the principles still apply.  You will have your greatest successes when you understand your resources, your opportunities, and your constraints, and when you know how to lead from where you are.  Leadership is not a job title; it is a choice.  It is a way of living and working that stays focused on achieving the best possible results, no matter what the circumstances.

Are you a leader in your organization?  Are there people leading in your organization, like those U.S. Airways flight attendants, who deserve greater recognition for the leadership roles they assume?  How can you influence your company culture to encourage and reward effective leadership at all levels?  What can you do about it today?