Managing Complexity – A Leadership Checklist

by Brusman, Dr. Maynard Thursday, October 27, 2011
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I was recently working with one of my San Francisco Bay Area executive coaching clients – the CEO of a Silicon Valley High Tech company. We had an enlightening coaching conversation, that revolved around how leading people and organizations today is much more complicated today than just a few years ago.

Economic uncertainty and globalization, along with innovative technologies provides leaders constant challenges to successfully run their business enterprise. The following checklist can help business leaders navigate complex change initiatives.

A Leader’s Checklist

  • 1. Articulate a Vision: Formulate a clear and persuasive vision, and communicate why it’s important to all members of the enterprise.
    • a. Do my direct reports see the forest, as well as the trees?
    • b. Does everyone in the firm know not only where we are going, but, most importantly, why?
    • c. Is the destination compelling and appealing?

  • 2. Think and Act Strategically: Make a practical plan for achieving this vision, including both short- and long-term strategies. Anticipate reactions and resistance before they happen by considering all stakeholders’ perspectives.
    • a. Do we have a realistic plan for creating short-term results, as well as mapping out the future?
    • b. Have we considered all stakeholders and anticipated objections?
    • c. Has everyone bought into, and does everyone understand, the firm’s competitive strategy and value drivers? Can they explain it to others?

  • 3. Express Confidence: Provide frequent feedback to express appreciation for the support of those who work with and for you.
    • a. Do the people you work with know you respect and value their talents and efforts?
    • b. Have you made it clear that their upward guidance is welcomed and sought?
    • c. Is there a sense of engagement on the frontlines, with a minimum of “us” vs. “them” mentality?

  • 4. Take Charge and Act Decisively: Embrace a bias for action by taking responsibility, even if it isn’t formally delegated. Make good and timely decisions, and ensure they are executed.
    • a. Are you prepared to take charge, even when you are not in charge?
    • b. If so, do you have the capacity and position to embrace responsibility?
    • c. For technical decisions, are you ready to delegate, but not abdicate?
    • d. Are most of your decisions both good and timely?
    • e. Do you convey your strategic intent and then let others reach their own decisions?

  • 5. Communicate Persuasively: Communicate in ways that people will not forget, through use of personal stories and examples that back up ideas. Simplicity and clarity are critical.
    • a. Are messages about vision, strategy and character crystal-clear and indelible?
    • b. Have you mobilized all communications channels, from purely personal to social media?
    • c. Can you deliver a compelling speech before the elevator passes the 10th floor?

  • 6. Motivate the Troops, and Honor the Front Lines: Appreciate the distinctive intentions that people bring to their work; build on diversity to bring out the best in people. Delegate authority except for strategic decisions. Stay close to those who are most directly engaged with the enterprise’s work.
    • a. Have you identified each person’s “hot button” and focused on it?
    • b. Do you work personal pride and shared purpose into most communications?
    • c. Are you keeping some ammunition dry for those urgent moments when you need it?
    • d. Have you made your intent clear and empowered those around you to act?
    • e. Do you regularly meet with those in direct contact with customers?
    • f. Can your people communicate their ideas and concerns to you?

  • 7. Build Leadership in Others, and Plan for Succession: Develop leadership throughout the organization, giving people opportunities to make decisions, manage others and obtain coaching.
    • a. Are all managers expected to build leadership among their subordinates?
    • b. Does the company culture foster the effective exercise of leadership?
    • c. Are leadership development opportunities available to most, if not all, managers?

  • 8. Manage Relations, and Identify Personal Implications: Build enduring personal ties with those who work with you, and engage the feelings and passions of the workplace. Help people appreciate the impact that the vision and strategy are likely to have on their own work and the firm’s future.
    • a. Is the hierarchy reduced to a minimum, and does bad news travel up?
    • b. Are managers self-aware and empathetic?
    • c. Are autocratic, egocentric and irritable behaviors censured?
    • d. Do employees appreciate how the firm’s vision and strategy affect them individually?
    • e. What private sacrifices will be necessary for achieving the common cause?
    • f. How will the plan affect people’s personal livelihood and the quality of their work lives?

  • 9. Convey Your Character: Through storytelling, gestures and genuine sharing, ensure that others appreciate that you are a person of integrity.
    • a. Have you communicated your commitment to performance with integrity?
    • b. Do others know you as a person? Do they know your aspirations and hopes?

  • 10. Dampen Over-Optimism: To balance the hubris of success, focus attention on latent threats and unresolved problems. Protect against managers’ tendency to engage in unwarranted risk.
    • a. Have you prepared the organization for unlikely, but extremely consequential, events?
    • b. Do you celebrate success, but also guard against the byproduct of excess confidence?
    • c. Have you paved the way not only for quarterly results, but for long-term performance?

  • 11. Build a Diverse Top Team: Although leaders take final responsibility, leadership is most effective when there is a team of capable people who can collectively work together to resolve key challenges. Diversity of thinking ensures better decisions.
    • a. Have you drawn quality performers into your inner circle?
    • b. Are they diverse in expertise, but united in purpose?
    • c. Are they as engaged and energized as you?

  • 12. Place Common Interest First: In setting strategy, communicating vision and reaching decisions, common purpose comes first and personal self-interest last.
    • a. In all decisions, have you placed shared purpose ahead of private gain?
    • b. Do the firm’s vision and strategy embody the organization’s mission?
    • c. Are you thinking like a president or chief executive, even if you are not one?
Not all of these questions are applicable to every situation, but it is the questioning that counts. Whether you are facing a typical day at the office or walking into a crisis, ask yourself and others these questions to inspire correct actions. Only then can you make sense of the complexities you encounter.

Leaders learn to manage complexities not by prescribing specific behaviors, but by creating an environment for optimal behaviors to occur—even though “optimal” cannot be defined in advance.

Problems are solved when you leverage others’ cooperation, skills and ingenuity
. Employee satisfaction and performance will concurrently improve. There’s less need for complicated layers of management, with more energy available to manage situations wisely and effectively.