What Works and What Doesn’t in Leadership Style

by Stephen A. Miles

Leadership_0913The best CEOs are always learning. The certainties of today — whether it’s relying on a particular business model or banking on a “category killer” or operating under a particular regulatory framework — can be up-ended and disrupted tomorrow. Corporate chiefs who internalize this reality are best equipped to steer their companies through disruption.

Executives and directors should regularly examine their own leadership style — to see what is working and what is not. Four questions for leaders to consider are:

Am I enrolling my employees — or conscripting them? The command-and-control leadership framework has tremendous strengths, which is why the military has employed it forever. In particular, it can deliver outstanding results in high-stress situations. But outside of those situations, leaders need to go beyond this conscription model to enroll their teams and organizations.

Effective enrollment — through engagement, clarity of strategy and communication — is a powerful retention tool. Compensation will always matter, but feeling sufficiently enrolled in the mission of an organization leads employees to go the extra mile and do the additional work needed to achieve the mission.

Leaders need to connect company strategy with individual tasks: Having a clear and simple strategy that is unifying and translates into something employees throughout the organization can buy in to, understand and repeat day-in and day-out will create a multiplying effect on productivity and results.

Leaders need to bring in the “power brokers” within the team or organization: Engaging both the formal and informal influencers early will have a multiplying effect as these people can act as disciples and “preach” the mission.

Leaders need to ensure they are using all of the communication channels available to them: Make sure to reach employees at all of the effective touchpoints — including through newer communications and appropriate social media tools. A multi-channel approach is required to reach all generations working inside companies today.

Is my role mastery leading to complacency? When a CEO enters the top role for the first time or joins a new company (or both), the discomfort with being new causes the CEO to ask more questions, double check and triangulate information and seek out others’ opinions. For the vast majority of people, discomfort creates an accelerated learning environment. Over time, the CEO finds his feet and gradually gains greater confidence. This, combined with a natural inclination to become efficient (and the resulting lack of “diligence and inspection”) means that leaders tend to start asking fewer questions, verifying less and making more assumptions. This is the paradox of “role mastery.” As one’s confidence level goes up, one’s discomfort in the role goes down — until that “oh sh*t!” moment when a negative surprise leads back to being uncomfortable again.

Leaders need to assemble the “uncomfortable team”: Building a team around oneself that is excellent and diverse will increase the likelihood of debate and avoid a rubber-stamp and group-think mentality on issues. Make sure the team has a safe and supportive environment for discussion and debate, and leaders who are not getting it should jump in and play devil’s advocate.

Leaders need to listen for content: Have the patience to listen for content versus confirmation, and continue to triangulate multiple data sources. This means asking questions and engaging on the topic instead of trying to win the interaction and move on.

Am I tolerating mediocrity? The disease of “generalized mediocrity” is rampant in companies today. Mediocrity is insidious and tends to be tolerated a long time because it is not extreme in any way — it becomes hard to pinpoint exactly what the issue is. Too many executives tolerate unprepared people, poor work products and anecdotal information, which all lead to wasted time and unnecessary meetings and follow-up. This is just not acceptable.

Eliminating mediocrity requires high levels of engagement, discipline, follow-through and openness to tension. It can also call for CEOs to diagnose in themselves when they are compensating or not asking for things because that just becomes easier. Setting very high standards, not just for oneself but for every single person the CEO engages with, is the important first step (CEOs spend the majority of their time in meetings, so they need to be highly productive). If the CEO is leading a meeting, assigning project work or reviewing a business, the preparation and the quality of the thinking and work that goes into the pre-reads and then the engagement needs to be high.

Leaders must set and communicate the standard — and then be disciplined enough to hold to it even if it means stopping a presentation because the inputs are not high enough quality or the presenter has not adequately prepared, or canceling a meeting if the preparatory materials came in too late and substandard. In order to ferret out habitually average people, CEOs need to use a set of processes and tools that they are relentless and uncompromising on.

Leaders need to set expectations high for preparation: Make it mandatory that “pre-reads” for meetings be well-thought-out and data-driven (versus anecdotal) X number of days before a meeting. Jeff Bezos at Amazon is famous for having executives write a well-constructed and thought-out white paper (no more than six pages) that the entire executive team sits and reads together and then discusses and debates. The white paper helps eliminate any “presentation bias” so form never wins over substance.

Leaders need to demand accountability during and after meetings: Set the expectation that everyone is expected to contribute, and train the executives to build on a point and be additive versus simply restating points that have already been made. Always ensure minutes are taken, complete with assigned accountabilities for follow-up. Ensure that a “directly responsible person” is assigned for each action item — and then manage those “DRPs.”

Do I know when to be a “field general” versus a “Pentagon general”? Business today demands flexibility from CEOs. No matter what the size of a business, different situations call for different styles of leadership, and each has its time and place:

A “field general” role teaches someone to lead from the front, often in very operational situations that require ruthless focus and prioritization. This style is about strong decision-making abilities “in the field” and being willing and able to make decisions with speed and imperfect information. A field general typically utilizes more of a directive approach involving smaller but very focused teams. There is often a clean “mission,” and these leaders reach down and touch a lot of the organization.

Being a “Pentagon general” is making the strategic decisions that often are less reversible — one has to think through the second- and third-order effects. It is about slowing down and managing to an outcome — even if the route to get there is a zigzag versus drawing the straightest line between point A and point B. It’s about understanding one’s direct and indirect constituencies and what is in it for them. It requires evaluating what trade-offs one is willing to make — and what one is not willing to give up on. It is also about dealing with higher levels of ambiguity, being able to formulate a point of view when there is no right or wrong answer. Pentagon generals utilize those around them as true advisors who can help shape their thought process, and they triangulate this information for the purpose of making more informed decisions and having a generally broader perspective.

Many CEOs excel at one leadership style, but the trick is to be able to integrate both into one’s leadership process.

Leaders need to recognize the way they tend to lead: Reflecting on one’s own leadership style can explain a great deal about how one is motivating people in different situations and where there might be room for improvement.

Leaders need to push their comfort level with a leadership style that isn’t their own: Those who tend to lead at a “field general” level should consider a more strategic, long-term approach for steering the company into the future. Those who are more of a “Pentagon general” should step into a more operational, “field general” approach when the situation calls for it, as hands-on leadership will be required. The key is to understand one’s own foundational approach and then have cues to identify when one is in a field versus a Pentagon decision so that one can use the most effective approach for that situation.

Stephen A. Miles is founder and CEO of The Miles Group, which develops talent strategies for organizations, cultivates high-performing individuals and teams, and ensures effective leadership transitions through readiness coaching and succession.


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