With Martin G. Moore

Episode #88

Rolling your sleeves up: Is this leading from the front?

It’s difficult to lead properly or act at a more strategic level, if your boss expects you to have a very hands-on component to your role.

Some larger organisations these days seem desperate to become more entrepreneurial, and to ‘transform’. To do this, they are trying to mimic start ups. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all be tech unicorns?!

What it means in practice, though, is that people in senior leadership positions are expected to roll their sleeves up and work alongside their teams, buried in the detail.

We cover a lot of ground in this episode, from innovation theory, to micromanagement, to what it really means to lead from the front.

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Episode #88 Rolling your sleeves up: Is this leading from the front?

Hey there and welcome to Episode 88 of the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast. This week’s episode, “Rolling your sleeves up: Is this actually leading from the front?” We’ve heard from a lot of listeners since we started No Bullsh!t Leadership who tell us that they aren’t able to lead properly or to act at a more strategic level because their bosses expect them to have a hands on component to their role. Our long-time listener, Lisa put it very eloquently to me some months ago in an email. Her experience of some larger organisations these days is that they seem desperate to be more entrepreneurial and to “transform”. To do this, they’re trying to adopt the behaviours of startups and introducing what they call, “new ways of working”. And this effectively means that people in senior leadership positions are expected to roll their sleeves up and work alongside their teams, buried in the detail.

The net effect is flattening of organisational structures and cost reduction, but is it really a good thing? Does it really make you more agile and responsive and does make your organisation more competitive? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all be tech unicorns? I’m going to take the challenge on today to talk about the pros and cons of the, “everyone needs to roll their sleeves up” approach. Every organization’s different, but there are sometimes hidden costs and unintended consequences in trying to set a culture based upon what you see other companies doing. We’ll start by examining agility in larger organisations. I’ll recap briefly on why we have leadership at all. I’ll then pose a question, what’s beyond micromanagement? And we’ll finish with a discussion on leading from the front. So let’s get into it.

Agility in larger organisations is quite elusive. If your organisation is already relatively large and you’re trying to become more innovative and agile, there are some natural barriers to this. And quite often, the things that have made you successful are the things that will make this the most difficult. If we cast our mind back to Clay Christensen’s book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, which many of you will have read, he talks about why it’s difficult in larger organisations for innovation to succeed. Larger organisations paradoxically are designed so that they stifle innovation. For a start, they have really good rational investment decision making processes. That’s a good thing, right?

But when you think about an investment committee that’s faced with two potential investment options – because capital is always scarce, where are we going to invest the organization’s dollars. And one person turns up with a request for money to fund a product that is already a cash cow that has an established customer base and returns great margins for the organisation. The second person turns up with a proposal to invest in a product that is untested in the market, that doesn’t have an established customer base, and where the investment is far going to exceed the returns in the first say two years. Is it any wonder that a rational investment committee is going to say, “We will fund investment one because we can see an immediate return, investment two may be too risky.”

There’s also the focus on customer profitability. Really good organisations understand where their most profitable customers are and they go after those. They leave the less profitable and lower margin customers for their competitors to service. Really good organisations also deliver what the customer wants. Although there is a caution here, Henry Ford said, “If I asked people what they wanted, they would’ve said faster horses.” So how do we innovate beyond people’s imaginations when we still need to keep close to the customer and what their current needs are?

And then of course there’s that hoary old chestnut, hitting the earnings guidance that you give to the market. Because this is where the self interest of management is aligned with the interest of the owners. And in large organisations behaving rationally, you know which way that’s going to end. Sometimes trying to retrofit innovative behaviours into an existing business is futile. And one of the key premises is that you need to innovate outside of the larger, more bureaucratic structures of the organisation. This is why many companies that have a premium product and wish to move down market, create a totally separate brand and organisation in order to do that.

Before we really tackle the concept of rolling your sleeves up, let’s just remind ourselves why we have leadership in the first place. I did a podcast episode very, very early on in the piece. It dates back to October of 2018, “What is leadership?” And there were six key points that I pulled out then. Now it’s worth you going back and having a listen to the episode, if you haven’t heard it for a while, but I’ll just give you the six points in short here. The first thing is leaders set the tone, the pace and the standard for their teams. Leaders communicate purpose. Leaders show people where they fit. Leaders focus only on the highest value objectives. Leaders develop talent. And finally, leaders challenge, coach and confront their people. Leadership exists to ensure that an organisation’s resources are put to the best effect in a competitive environment.

And by resources I mean all of them. Physical, financial, technological, intellectual, and most importantly, human. And it doesn’t matter what type of organisation you’re in, we all compete with something, even if it’s just the expectations and ongoing goodwill of stakeholders whose support we rely upon. A core part of this leadership work is controlling the flow of work and activity towards the most value-accretive outcomes. And I’m not just talking about financial value. So we’re talking about resourcing and workload. Now, some would say that this is management and not leadership. But to tell you the truth, I have real trouble separating the two. I find that it’s only people who’ve never had to lead properly that make this big black and white distinction. You have to manage to get results. And guess what? That takes leadership. And ultimately, you need to understand what creates the greatest value and to stop all the other sh!t that creeps onto the agenda. And that really takes leadership. And remember too, if we look at the wisdom of people like Elliott Jaques, Ram Charan, Steve Drotter, every layer in an organisation must have a unique purpose. If it doesn’t, then why do you have it? You need to get rid of it. So defining the purpose of each layer is important and it’s a critical part of organisational design. We see plenty of poor structures in place, but fortunately any structure works. Some are just more effective than others.

Okay leaders, I think you’re all getting fairly accustomed now to the new ways of working, and for many of you, you’ve realised that we’re never returning to exactly the way things were before the pandemic lockdowns commenced. While many of you are in a demand trough or your people’s productivity is inherently limited, it’s a good time to steal a march on your competitors, by improving your leadership bench strength. I’m going to be running a limited number of cohorts of our Leadership Beyond the Theory programme, which we designed a couple of years ago, specifically with this pandemic in mind. Well, okay, not really – but we did design it specifically to enable maximum impact on global leadership capability, and we do this through our leading edge delivery channels, which are perfect for leadership teams who are in fragmented location. If you want to take No Bullsh!t Leadership to the next level, and turn your leadership team’s downtime into growth time, get in touch with us at emma@yourceomentor.com. Now, where was I?

Rolling your sleeves up is different to micromanagement, but not. So when someone asks you to roll your sleeves up, it’s an interesting dynamic. What it does is that it naturally flattens the structure of the organisation. Now there are pros and cons to doing this. If you’re pushing the leaders below you down below their level, there is some upside. So for start, if you actually take out a whole layer and levelise people, then you’re starting with zero base. It’s always easy to take out costs and then work out what you need to build back in than it is to try and cherry pick, to get some cost reduction. And there are short term benefits to this. It also gives you a greater opportunity to decentralise your decision making, because it’s happening at lower levels of the organisation naturally, but there’s a lot of downside to this.

The first thing is there is less control over who does what. One of the earliest definitions of management, was it’s all about planning, leading, organising and controlling. So if you’re not doing these things, then who is managing the business? Once you start pulling layers out of your organisation, then a lot of that control just goes by the wayside. The other thing that happens is that you increase the span of control of each individual leader and so in other words, they have more people reporting to them. Now, when this happens, what do you think disappears first? It’s the stuff that is the most discretionary. For example, we don’t have time to do capability building or to indulge ourselves in training and development of our people because guess what? We’re just too busy. We also haven’t got time to do things like communication and direction setting, and we certainly don’t have time for performance management.

Now, arguably these are fairly important things for leaders to do, but once you start pushing leaders down to doing the detailed work, this is precisely the stuff that doesn’t get done. Getting your hands dirty to do the work of the layers below you is almost never a good idea. Taking a person you’re paying a higher salary, and asking them to do the job you could get done for less, is just not sensible. It’s counterintuitive. So it really pays to think about what you’re asking leaders to do, cause while they’re down doing detailed work, guess what they aren’t doing? They aren’t doing the work of leadership. And is it really important for them to be across the detail in that type of way? Now, it is true that some of the greatest people of our time have been mired in the extreme detail of their businesses as well as being able to look at the big picture.

But it’s an extraordinarily rare person who has the capacity to do this. Now, a lot of examples that people site are once in a generation outliers. So think about Steve Jobs. He was famous for having control of every detail of design and decision making for Apple’s products, and what an unbelievable outcome he managed to achieve. But how many of these exceptional people have you ever seen in your lives? Like one or two maybe? Out of the billions of people who’ve passed through the planet in my lifetime, there wouldn’t be more than a handful who’ve turned this type of control into a large global business advantage. Jerry Seinfeld is another. And look, although I’m not a huge fan of comedians who smile at their own jokes, he is undoubtedly one of the greatest comedic talents of our generation, and he reputedly controlled everything. Seinfeld said in an interview recently that the reason his eponymous show worked so well was it he controlled every little detail, the script, the set, the lighting, the scenes, the production, everything. It would have been really interesting though, to see what would have happened if he’d relinquished some of that control. Maybe the show wouldn’t have worked as well and maybe it wouldn’t have been as successful. Or just maybe, his brain would have been freer to harness even more of the comedic brilliance that he held. I guess we’ll never know.

Is leading from the front a good thing? Well, the short answer is yes, but it comes with one major caveat. I’ve seen many leaders doing the work of people below them and then excusing this as a virtue by saying, “I’m leading from the front.” Well, okay, but this concept is completely flawed. In my opinion, it’s really dangerous to misinterpret this way. In its true form, leading from the front has absolutely nothing to do with doing the same work as your people, or helping them to do their jobs. It is about demonstrating the values you expect from your team. The behaviours you’re trying to establish. You need to do this without any dissonance or hypocrisy. For example, if you said one of your values is being close to the customer, you need to demonstrate that clearly and lead from the front, but you do it in a way that’s appropriate for your level.

It absolutely doesn’t mean, that you should be in every customer interaction personally and you certainly shouldn’t be attending or conducting sales calls in the bowels of your organisation. What leading from the front means in this context, is that you demonstrate the importance of the customer, and this may include things like, investing in understanding the customer better through market intelligence. It might be giving the customer opportunities to give you feedback. It might be about identifying your most critical customers and establishing relationships at an appropriately senior level. Leading from the front is about you demonstrating your intensity and passion for the organisation, and the values that it upholds. It’s about your willingness to take full accountability for the outcomes of your team. It’s about being a leader who sets the example of stepping up and taking on personal risk in order to benefit the organisation. None of this has anything to do with doing lower level work that’s inappropriate for your pay grade.

Another classic example is the saying, I wouldn’t ask my team to do anything on not prepared to do myself. Well, a good example came out in a group mentoring session I had with an executive team just last week. We used the example of the CEO of an airline who was famous for his connection with the people on the ground. He was incredibly well loved, and by all accounts he was a pretty good CEO. If he was flying on a plane that his company was running, after he’d taken that flight, he would remain onboard after all the passengers had disembarked and he’d help to clean the aircraft. So we’re thinking that’s pretty cool, right? There’s no better way to demonstrate that nothing is beneath you. And his people thought it was pretty cool, too. He’ll pick up a freshly filled sick bag as readily as the next person. He’s a man of the people. He connects with us and he understands us. And this is a great symbol of service.

But I just have one problem with that. He’s not doing what he’s getting paid to do as CEO of an airline, and it’s not that. Every minute he spends picking up empty coffee cups is a minute he’s not thinking about how to make the airline perform better, how to improve on time running, how to increase revenue-passenger kilometres, how to use negotiating leverage to get reduced pricing on the landing slots in the major airports in which they operate. Don’t get me wrong, there’s always value in connecting with and learning from the people in your organisation at every level, but there are better ways to do this. You don’t have to get into doing other people’s jobs for them. Having connected conversations where you focus on them – not trying to do their work – can have the same impact. And as a symbol of service, the “Nothing is beneath me” principle, there are other ways to do this, too.

At CS Energy when we used to celebrate milestones, very often we’d have a barbecue for the people. And those who’d cook and prepare the barbecue were generally the leaders. So you’d see the leadership and the general management of the site, and if I was there, I’d pick up a pair of tongs as well to flips some burgers. But what that was saying was, it’s not beneath us to serve our people just because we happen to be leaders in the organisation. Another great example is, one thing I used to do for my personal assistant, was to bring her coffee in the morning instead of having her bring me coffee. And that had a really big impact in terms of people understanding that nothing is beneath me just because I’m the CEO.

We can lead, and you can lead from the front, but never make this an excuse for dropping into the work of the people below you. That’s not what you’re paid to do. But if you do it your people will happily let you, let’s face it. If you find yourself in the awkward position as a senior leader where your boss is asking you to get your hands dirty with work you haven’t probably done for many, many years and which clearly isn’t appropriate for your level, well you need to have a chat to them, explain some of the concepts we’ve been through in this episode to them, and use it as an opportunity to develop your leadership skills. Always bear in mind that the most important outcomes rely on your ability to influence. You won’t win every discussion, but it’s an important one to have no matter what. And in a world full of hard leadership conversations, this one could bear a lot of fruit.

Alright, so that brings us to the end of Episode 88. Thanks so much for joining us and remember, at Your CEO Mentor, our purpose is to improve the quality of leaders globally. So please take a few moments to rate and review this podcast as it enables us to reach even more leaders. I look forward to next week’s episode, “Are all projects doomed?” Until then, I know you take every opportunity you can to be a No Bullsh!t Leader.


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