It is critical to leverage individual leadership so that it supports the culture or brand of an organization. This is the view of David Ulrich, a professor at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan and a partner, RBL Group, who will be a keynote speaker at the CGE Leadership Summit in Ottawa this February. He elaborated in an interview with editor-in-chief Toby Fyfe.
You say there is a difference between “leaders” and “leadership”: what do you mean by that?
Leaders are individuals who personally make decisions, get things done, and direct an organization. We all can immediately think of a leader who has influenced both our lives and our agencies. Leadership is about the collective or shared processes to make decisions and direct an organization. It is not one person, but many people. We often admire great leaders who inspire us to perform better. These iconic and celebrity leaders often gain a lot of media attention and notoriety. But, in organizations, much of the work is done by the legions of leaders throughout an organization who more quietly go about the business of getting work done. When the collective leadership in an organization is effective, the organization’s success is not dependent on any single individual.
Why does this matter?
The context of public sector organizations is changing today. People have talked about these changes as VUCA: volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. In response to VUCA conditions, organizations have to become more adaptable, able to make decisions based on access to information, able to work as teams inside and across silos, and empowering and able to coral the passion of employees. It is nearly impossible for a single leader to grasp all the VUCA conditions and to create adaptable, analytical, collaborative, and empowering organizations. When leaders share their responsibility with others by building leadership, the organization creates the capabilities required for future success. In public organizations, top leaders who are politically appointed often come and go with the winds of political change. The lifetime leaders within an agency who make sure that the agency meets its charter have to adapt to the political winds while continuing to serve citizens in predictable ways. This requires leadership even more than leaders.
You indicate that a successful leader needs to allow organizations to “align with changing strategies.” The public sector is going through significant change: what can public sector leaders do to respond to that?
The only constant is change. The half-life of knowledge and what was required to successfully lead an organization is getting shorter. Organizations that fail to change as fast as the world around them will atrophy and die. We found that there are three domains of change leaders should pay attention to.
First, individual change. All change begins from within (Ghandi). The broad VUCA changes require personal individual responses. Leaders have to figure out how to let go of old and master new behaviors. In our book, Leadership Sustainability, we showed seven disciplines that effective leaders mastered to sustain personal change.
Second, initiative change. Every transformation that is about strategic redirection has to be accomplished through specific initiatives. Most organizations have dozens of initiatives around employee engagement, information management, quality, operations, and so forth. Far too often, these initiatives begin with great fanfare and ribbon cutting, but end with fizzles and disappointment. To master initiative change, leaders need to have disciplined approaches for turning what is known about change into what happens. This is often accomplished by creating a change checklist – like the pilot’s checklist – that enables leaders to ensure that the initiatives that drive change will be implemented.
Third, institutional change. Every agency or organization has a culture that reflects the pattern of how work is done. This culture often shapes decisions, information, relationships and actions. Leaders need to be able to intentionally manage culture change by defining the right culture, then making it real to every employee through management processes. When leaders are able to manage individual, initiative, and institutional change, they help their organization respond to the changing conditions around them.
You have referred to the concept of “leadership brand”: how might this apply to public sector leaders?
A brand exists as a promise to customers. Apple promises innovative products; Disney promises a guest experience; FedEx promises on time delivery. These promises become the identity of the organization and are sustained by a host of actions within the organization. We have found that leaders also have a brand. They make promises to those they lead, which may include employees, customers, communities, and organizations themselves. When these promises become an identity, they become a leadership brand. The leadership brand makes sure that the promises and expectations to customers show up in leadership behaviors. Apple wants to hire, train and pay leaders for being innovative; Disney for customer service; FedEx for accountability.
We have found that a successful product brand exists when the product does the basics and then the differentiators. A Rolex watch and a Timex watch are very different brands, but they share many of the basics of watches. In studying leadership brand, we found that about 60 to 70 percent of successful leaders are doing the basics well. In public and private sectors, leaders need to master the five basic roles of leadership:
• Strategist: have a point of view about the future of your organization that is articulated in a focused and clear way;
• Executor: be able to get things done by making decisions, ensuring accountability, and managing change;
• Talent manager: coach and communicate with current employees to ensure that they are competent, committed, and contributing;
• Human capital developer: invest in tomorrow’s employees by workforce planning, empowerment, and career management; and
• Personal proficiency: build trust by demonstrating intellectual, social, emotional, physical, and ethical behaviors.
We found that these five roles constitute what we call the leadership code. All leaders have a predisposition to one or two of these roles, but successful leaders master all five. But, 30 to 40 percent of effective leadership goes beyond these five roles and becomes the differentiator. Each organization has a unique brand, and the leader’s personal brand should match that organization brand. A social service agency, hospital, education, or national defence organization may have a unique charter that requires a distinct identity. Leaders in these agencies should adapt their personal brands to these agency brands.
So while a leader needs to focus on self, there must also be a focus on the organization?
In team sports like hockey, basketball, or soccer, the leading scorer in the league is on the team that wins the championship from 15 to 25 percent of the time. About 80 percent of the time, teamwork trumps individual excellence. In the academy awards, the leading actor and actress are in movies that win movie of the year about 20 percent of the time. These data are also true in organizations.
Leaders should help people do their best, but they should make sure that teams work well together. These data have enormous implications for the public sector leader. It is important to hire and recognize exceptional individual talent, but it is even more important to leverage individual talent into organizational capabilities so that the organization is better than the individuals. You could say that federalism and the national union is stronger than any of the individual provinces.