Tag Archives: Leadership

A Failure of Leadership

A beach after an oil spill.
Image via Wikipedia

The BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has highlighted many problems – problems with the technology for drilling at depths where the water pressure is around a ton per square inch; problems with BP not being transparent from the outset as to the extent of the spill; problems with oil companies putting short-term profits ahead of ensuring that these issues cannot happen; problems with the US Regulators who seemingly have been extremely lax in applying the regulations and have been granting waivers freely to the oil industry; problems with our ability to clean up oil spills even 21 years after Exxon Valdez (what’s happened to Kevin Costner’s centrifuge-based cleaner?)…

But for me, one of the most surprising things to emerge from this has been the failure of leadership. BP’s leadership issues are, to an extent, understandable – although not excusable – in that they have been focused on protecting shareholder value by trying to downplay the size, scope and likely cost of the problem. This doesn’t excuse the behaviour, as I’ve said, but one can understand it, so it’s not too surprising.

No, the leadership failure I’m referring to has been that of President Obama.

I realise that this statement might cause something of a firestorm from some readers of this blog, but bear with me on this for there are lessons to be learnt and actions to be taken – so it’s not (yet) too late.

We need to recognise that when running for office, then-Senator Barack Obama focused on the need for change – a need that the US population clearly believed in, given the fact that it propelled a largely-unknown junior Senator to the office of President. Central to this theme was his strong belief that things could best be accomplished by working together on the issues with all concerned parties – no matter on which side of the fence they stood.

This, of course, has not been a great success in the Congress and Senate as the divisions have, in many cases, simply been too deep to facilitate working together. The oil spill, though, is a different matter – for there is no question that everyone has a common goal: to stop the leak and clean up the mess as quickly as possible and with as little damage to the environment as is possible.

However, apart from being slow off the mark in terms of visiting the Gulf Coast, President Obama has spent most of his time publicly berating BP rather than being seen to work with them to address the issue in the most comprehensive way. Perhaps he was trying to cover up the shortcomings in his own administration – those regulatory bodies that were not doing their job properly – given the looming mid-term elections, or perhaps his anger simply clouded his judgement. Either way, instead of seeking to work shoulder-to-shoulder with BP and for them to jointly marshal the considerable forces that could be at their disposal if they, and other oil companies, worked together, the situation has become one of adversity. And an adversarial relationship never produces the best overall result.

It’s time for President Obama to put personal feelings and party politics aside on this problem; to work with all stakeholders – oil companies, state and local government (of all political persuasions), and anyone else that can play a positive role. He needs to remember his campaign promise to change the way things are done in Washington, and to work for the best result regardless of personal feelings, of politics and of attribution of blame. There’s plenty of time for all that after the mess is cleaned up.

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Leadership for the New Business World

The worst economic recession for generations has caused a re-evaluation of business practices in many areas, and a call for greater corporate governance and oversight. Now that we’re officially reaching the end of the recession with many countries in Asia and the whole of the Eurozone, amongst others, officially out of it, it’s also time to look closely at leadership practices in business.

One thing’s certain – many changes need to be made, and recent surveys showing a significant majority of employees are planning to change jobs as soon as hiring picks up make this an urgent necessity if companies are to avoid the upheaval and cost increases associated with high staff turnover.

There are many reasons for this level of unhappiness, among them:

  • Severe stress at work – as companies cut costs and staff, those that remained found their workloads growing, often to a point of near-unsustainability;
  • Severe stress at home – really an extension of the added stress at work, compounded by longer working hours, and often less pay;
  • Lack of appreciation – many, if not most, companies overlooked the stress factors and showed no appreciation for the additional efforts of their staff, a situation worsened by cost-cutting which impacted the staff “welfare” programmes already in place;
  • Do as I say, not as I do – as the recession bit ever deeper, many executives seemed oblivious, continuing with executive perks, parties and benefits even as they were making deep cuts in employment and other areas (look at the scandals surrounding many of the bailed-out businesses for example);
  • Lack of direction – as companies cut, often in several waves, many seemed to have lost their direction. Although, as I pointed out in an earlier article, 93% of companies had updated their strategies and priorities to address the slowdown, the fact is that much of this work was done well into the recession and they were floundering for a good time (only half have a strategy in place for the upturn!).

As a result of these and other issues many have lost faith in their business leadership and this is the reason for the potential dramatic increase in staff turnover.

A recent survey by McKinsey, “Leadership through the crisis and after” points to the way forward. What’s interesting is that the top criteria for leadership during the crisis are the same as those for after it, with only minor changes to relative importance. In essence, leaders are expected to be:

  • Inspiring, creating a vision for all to see and aim for, and doing so convincingly and clearly;
  • Unambiguous, defining expectations and rewarding people appropriately for this;
  • Challenging, through encouraging people to challenge assumptions and take risks;
  • Participative, involving others in the decision-making process;
  • Above Reproach, acting as a role model, mentoring and teaching;

These are very much in line with what’s being said elsewhere and with what executives perceive as the most important criteria for organisations going forward: Leadership, Innovation, Clear Direction and an External (Customer, Supplier, etc.,) Orientation being seen as the top success factors.

It may not be too late. Employment typically lags an upturn by several months, so leaders still have a little time to restore the faith of their workforce. However, they cannot afford to delay any longer to address these issues of concern and need to clearly demonstrate that they understand the way forward for success. Failure to do so will almost certainly cost companies dearly.

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Postscript: Was pointed to an excellent presentation by Dr Tommy Weir on CEO Shift demonstrating how leaders will need to shift their thinking in 5 key areas related to talent. Well worth watching! See it at http://tommyweir.com/Video.aspx

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Will your business survive the upswing?

An article I saw today in SmartPlanet.com confirmed what I’ve been feeling for some time: businesses have over-done the cost-cutting and are poorly placed for the economic upswing.

The fact that leading economists and business leaders around the world have declared an end to the recession is great news. However, even though nobody is talking about a ‘V-shaped recovery’ or quick upswing, the Forbes study of 200 large companies cited in the article showed that leading executives believe the level of cost cutting undertaken will severely restrict their future growth prospects.

As I posted a few weeks ago, short-term business thinking has done enormous damage – and unfortunately this thinking carried through the recession with companies cutting costs as hard and fast as they could with little thought for the future.

While I don’t have the statistics to hand that the Forbes study has, my own observations indicate that perhaps the report is conservative: it showed 22% of executives believing their recruiting/retention policies were not aligned with their strategic goals, while a quarter indicated their training and development programs were similarly misaligned. My observations indicate this figure to be significantly higher – here in the Middle East, training and recruitment all but ground to a complete halt for the first 3 quarters of this year, right at the time when forward-looking companies should have been upskilling and upgrading their staff.

This really points to the core of the issue – the study showing that nearly all (93%) companies had updated their strategies and priorities to address the slowdown, but only 51% admitted to having a plan in place to guide strategy once the economy turns. Granted, the almost all rest said they were working on a plan, but is it not too late?

Certainly it seems that companies around the globe have missed great opportunities to position themselves strongly for the upturn and this is sure to lead to many failures as those that have done so take new leadership positions – as has been the case following every previous recession. The difference this time being, of course, that the recession was far deeper than any we’ve seen in a couple of generations, so the post-recession fall-out is likely to be worse, too.

Perhaps some companies can still save themselves by moving quickly to position for the upswing – taking on top-performing staff, embarking on aggressive training and taking advantage of the opportunities for mergers and acquisitions – but they can’t afford to wait any longer. Investors, too, are likely to severely punish those companies they see as being unprepared for the upswing.

The question now is whether your company will be one of the new leaders or will fail to survive?

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