Lessons In Leadership

PSCU Member Forum speakers offer lessons on listening to the front line and why to lead the process, not the content.

Attending industry conferences are a highlight for us at Callahan Associates, and each of us seem to have our own favorite reasons why. I’ve always thought it was great how vendors and trade groups provide these types of opportunities for education, networking, and the injection of new ideas into what’s often an insular industry.

Some of us particularly enjoy catching up with credit union decision-makers and vendors on the trade show floors. Others favor those drill-down breakout sessions. For me it’s often the general session speakers, especially those that provide new and refreshed visions on one of my favorite topics: leadership. More specifically: how effective leaders can empower optimal decision-making by bringing out the best ideas from their teams.

Some of us are natural leaders, but many of us have to work at it. And even those to whom it comes easy can learn much from my two favorite speakers at the PSCU Member Forum earlier this year in Nashville, TN.

The first was Marcus Buckingham,best-selling author, researcher, motivational speaker, and business consultant. His seminal 1999 book First, Break All The Rules was one of the first business books I read. Sixteen years later, he’s still a business leadership guru, and at this session, he described his research on why different teams perform so differently within the same organization.

Buckingham a longtime leader in the Gallup Organization now out on his own focused on responses to a handful of employee survey questions that he says particularly matter, because they’re the ones that indicate greater team performance.

Below is a table that places responses to eight questions in two columns. The first column is about being part of a collective (credit unions should have some natural advantage here with the first one in that column!) The second one is about the individual employee’s unique skills and contributions to the organization.

Buckingham then narrowed it down to two questions all great managers ask their employees each week:

1. What are your priorities?
2. How can I help?

I like another point he made. On many annual employee reviews (including ours at Callahan, I will admit), leaders discuss strengths and areas of opportunity. Let’s be straight that second bucket is really your weaknesses, where you aren’t performing as strongly. And Buckingham’s thesis is that continually focusing on the so-called areas of opportunity detract your from focusing on your true areas of opportunity your strengths, the reasons you are successful in what you do. That’s where you have the most chance of success and the ability to contribute. You can’t ignore weaknesses, but you want to make them irrelevant, make it so they don’t get in your way.

There is no perfect profile; only perfect practices that fit your profile, Buckingham says. Your challenge is to take what’s unique and make it useful.

Supporting Human Interactions

Another great leadership presentation was by Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, a chair established to support the study of human interactions that lead to the creation of successful enterprises that contribute to the betterment of society.

Sounds like credit unions, right? That’s why she was such a good fit for this conference. Edmondson focuses on the concept of teaming. Her research demonstrates how organizations thrive, or fail to thrive, based on how well the small groups within those organizations work. That includes the ability to build teams on the fly and to work well across boundaries.

That observation resonates with my experience hosting roundtable discussions with credit union executives around the country. I repeatedly hear that communication among teams is lacking; for instance, between IT and marketing, or member service reps and underwriting, just to name two.

These credit union leaders know that lack of communication is holding back their organization’s performance. Fixing it begins with the leaders themselves, how their performance drives team performance, and how their attitude towards an idea or issue in great part dictates what happens below.

Edmondson says this, and I couldn’t agree more: A leader’s enthusiasm for an idea can stifle conversation that might improve it or even highlight reasons for not doing it.

This table illustrates that point:

Edmondson used this quote from legendary General Motors chairman and CEO Alfred Sloan: Gentlemen, I take it we are all in complete agreement on the decision. Then I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.

Business has changed dramatically from Sloan’s days. This table shows why teamwork continues to be important to success, but in somewhat different ways.

When people are more concerned about CYA, about protecting themselves they don’t open up, they don’t say what they really know. Indeed, what’s good for the individual can be bad for the organization and well beyond that. Really bad things can happen.

Remember the space shuttle Challenger, that blew up soon after liftoff in 1986 because of faulty gaskets? People knew about that potential. But managers didn’t want to listen. Lives were lost. Then again, in 2003, the shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry, and reports followed again of front-line experts’ warnings being ignored.

And those were instances where the staff spoke up but the ultimate decision-makers turned a blind eye. What about when the staff feels like they can’t? Lots of managers say they have an open door policy, but do their behaviors really encourage people to speak up?

If you a credit union executive who has to make decisions that impact your employees and your members want the best possible information to make those decisions, you can’t expect your subordinates to be heroes. You may think it’s easy to see something, say something, but there are a lot of power dynamics that come into play that make it hard for people to feel comfortable doing so. Edmondson advocates for leaders to recognize this challenge and to embrace their role in soliciting feedback from everyone, regardless of status’ in their organization.

The most effective leaders, especially in today’s economy where change is constant not glacial, know that the best way to do that is to nurture an environment where good ideas get the proper airing and consideration.

July 19, 2016

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