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March 12, 2009

One more on Leadership– creating common grounds

I was reading an interview (here) of the founder of Acer Inc, a Taiwanese computer technology manufacturer, Stan Shi . In this he discussed the qualities of leadership he possess and this spurred some thoughts in my mind. Some of the things he said were

"I (lead) through the use of (people) organisation, not me personally driving (progress, change). Of course I utilise my persuasion skills, but my persuasion comes from understanding the psychology, thoughts of everybody, and combine them together. This is what I called "Meeting the expectation of the group".

"For example, when we first started, every young people wanted to make a difference, do something meaningful. At that time we tried to drive the second industrial revolution because we didn't have the opportunity to take part in the first one. So I said to my team. If we understand this, but still don't do it properly, we will carry the blames of history. I used this to motivate them, so they understood this is the right path to follow. I used this to activated what is on everyone's mind, (by finding their common grounds).

From this I wish to talk about leading in a group environment from my experience. Sometimes it is difficult  to achieve what Mr. Shih refer to as finding the common grounds . Often individuals or leaders themselves focus on their argument/persuasion skills but forget to pay attention to what the group is saying or want. It is easy to argue with people on things we don't agree with. We find flaws in other people's logic and try to criticise it. It's almost a human nature and we do it intuitively. But at the same time, I do not mean leader should accept every suggestion made by group members. Of course there has to be crtical thinking on why a particular idea is useful or not. But before we rush to judge or criticise it, why not take a moment to listen what other group members have to say about it. Often initial ideas proposed by any one person will be unrefined and contain many flaws. But before we rush to criticise and treat it as unworthy, why not use the group mechanism to further discuss and refine the idea so that it becomes stronger.

This is why I believe a leader should not be a debater, but a listener. Before he/she had a chance to listen to everyone's views he/she should not rush to shut people down. Instead he should listen to all the voices and seek to reconcile the opposing views so that everyone can reach a common ground.

January 24, 2009

What does your business stand for?

I was reading an HBR article on "change management" and in it the authors uses an example of a military equipment manufacturing company to illustrate the idea of "tinkering" or small scale changes. Something he said triggered what I want to say in this entry.

"The company developed a new production strategy, which it called the Barbie doll. It built a base helicopter that could be dressed up with a set of accessories- guns, bombs, avionics - for customers in the military to play with. The strategy allowed the company to reap the benefits of both mass production and mass customization"(Abrahamson, July-August (2000), Harvard Business Review)

You are probably wondering what the hell I am on about. Well, as I read this passage, I was amazed by how the tone and attitude adopted by the author is so innocent and naive, using words like "play" , "Barbie". Especially in the last sentence, I just wanted to add another word "mass destruction".

Considering that these product are going to be used for only one purpose-- extermination of human lives, I can't help wondering how, and what can the purpose of vision of the company be? As the leader of the company, how can he argue what his company is doing is in fact beneficial to the human race?

The same argument probably could go the same way with tobacco companies. How do they justify to themselve and their employees what they are doing is ethical or even moral? Satisfy people's needs? There are demands out there, we just supply the product for that demand? I suppose, at the end of the day, this comes down one's moral propensity of whether the end result (i.e. loss of human lives) should be a consideration of the people who did not directly cause it (i.e. manufacturers).

This is something I really like to get some ideas from you guys, all inputs are appreciated.

January 14, 2009

Leadership is a function

Today I learnt about leadership is a function in which to satisfy three levels of needs (Fig.1).

  1. Task need
  2. Group need
  3. Individual need


Fig1. John Adair's three circles of need. (Source: Sterling)

Some of the leadership theories I read such as trait theory, behaviorist theory, and contingency theory and so on, and the sort of research studies done by Hersey & Blanchard, Fiedler e.t.c, although it helps to see the different leader styles (i.e. task versus people oriented) , it's no so clear what is it that leaders should do. I mean, for example, with Fiedler's theory, is it true that in alls situations with the characteristics of 1) poor  leader-follower relationship 2) high task structure, always mean a soft management approach will be effective? See (Fig 2). How can be sure that a task-oriented appraoch wouldnt work? Maybe this is what his empirical evidences tell us, that there is a certain style for different situation, but I think this kind of conclusion is hard to accept.


Fig.2 Fiedler's Contingency Model. Situation I, II, VII, VIII are suitable for Task-oriented leadership style. Situation III, IV, V, VI are suitable for People oriented leadership style. Source: MBE Leadership and Excellence homepage.

In contrast, I find John Adair's three circles of need much more practical and easy to understand. For starter, he describes leadership as a function to fulfil certain needs which he identifies as the need of the group task, the need of the group, and the need of the individuals. Essentially, he argues, the success of any one need is dependent on how well other needs are satisfied (that's why three circles are overlapping each other). For example, to be successful at a task assigned to a group, is dependent on how well the group is maintained (whether people get along), and how competent/motivated each individual are. Equally speaking,  if task is successfully accomplished, it wil lead to better team maintenance (morale is high), and higher self esteem. Thus forming a virtuous reinforcing cycle, or a destructive cycle- if any one of the circle is severely compromised or missing, then the group can easily disintegrate.

So what is the role of the leader? Adair argues that "leadership resides in the functions not a person"- that is leaders fulfil certain functions that leads to the gratification of these three different needs. Therefore, anyone who perform these functions is potentially a leader. Although he does not explicitly states what functions needs to be performed (my guess is that if he does, the leadership function would be too restrictive), he does lay out the general principles. In terms of the three circles of needs, leaders need to

  1. Have awareness of the content of group discussion as well as (more importantly so) the underlying behaviors or reasons for those behaviors.
  2. Need to understand what those reasons or behaviors mean, and know what need to be done.
  3. Have skills to carry out supportive/corrective actions sucessfully. This can be judged by observing whether group respond to leader's intervention.

An example he gives in the book that shed light on leadership functions is in a group discussion, whoever provides the key functions such as intiatiate, clarify, and summarise the discussion is essentially carrying out the leadership function. But does that mean anyone who provide such function is the leader? Not necessarily, he argues, if the group reject for example, the summary being provided, then the supposed leader is not providing leadership. In this sense then, the approval or recognition by the group is essential for leadership.

John also gives some key characteristics which differentiate leader from group member. Firstly the leader is responsible for the success of the task. Therefore if the task failed, the leader will step down from his responsibility. Secondly, leaders should keep distance from the group members because by being to friendly with the group , the ability to make unwelcoming decisions is compromised. Popularity is not his top concern (this coincide with George W Bush's  leadership view- see my previous blog). Therefore, the leader is often a loner and must satisfy his social need through interacting with other leader at his level.

The last two remarks are particularly interesting because of their practical/pragmatic slant. But whether they are true I am not sure. Is it not possible for a leader to be someone that is highly empathetic and "nice" ? (I am reminded of Ahbi's blog "can leader be nice?" at this point). And second, instead of stepping down, shouldn't leader's get a second chance, as long as he know what went wrong and improve on it?

On the whole, I like John Adair's explanation of leadership as a function to fulfils three levels of needs. To me it seems more useful and provide a better idea what leaders should do to be effective.

January 03, 2009

Trait theory and Behavioural theory of leadership

I spent some time today reading about leadership theories and find that the subject to be really facinating to study. During the in module work, we touched on some leadership theories but never really got into the details. Talking with Paul today suggest he deliberately leave this part out of the in module work for the PMA. I think Paul made a good call on this. As he said, it would probably be very boring to listen to a lecture on different school of leadership thinking. Reading about it in our own time allow us to think about it in more depth and relate theories to our experience.

Today I did only two theories on trait theory and behaviour theory. They are probably the first two ideas to be studied in leadership research and are probably the easiest to understand given that they are the basis for the leader "'made/born" debate.

Trait theory

When first talking about leadership, we're usually talking about the trait theory, although we often do not think about it in these terms. It's main idea is that leaders have certain traits that makes them leaders. For example Churchill is a 'persistent' leader when fighting against the Nazis or Mandela is 'visionary' leader about the black civil rights. So the raitionale goes that leadership can be identified or even defined if individuals exhibits these so called leadership traits. However, the problem is after extensive research by Stogdill in 1948, he reached the conclusion that there is no single set of universal traits that is predictative of leadership (cited in Northouse 2004). In another word, we couldnt possibly predict if anyone is going to grow up to become a leader by testing if he has got all the leadership traits (presumably through psychological assessment) because there is nothing to benchmark him against. The second important conclusion is that leadership arise from a need for it (situation) and it invovles interaction with other people. All these suggests trait theory cannot be the only way to study leadership. Fortunately, after a period where it was almost discarded , recent research have shown traits theory is important for understanding effective leadership (Northhouse 2004). There are still a set of traits that are consistently found in leaders such as intelligence, determination, integrity, sociability, and self confidence (Northouse 2004). Nevertheless, when we think about leadership in more depth, we would realise when we think about leadership we think about things such as what leaders do, what they say, how they influence people and these are the behavioural things that have little association with individual traits. Not surprisingly, one major limit of trait theory is that it is impossible to see how traits such as intelligence and determination can bring about influence in other people's motivation and performance (Maurik 2001).

Behavioural theory

Logically, behavioural theory complements the flaws in trait theory because putting together what leader are naturally and what they do seem to pretty much encompass every dimensions of leadership. One important appeal of behavioural theory is that if we know what leaders do, then it is possible to teach people leadership. So in theory everyone is capable of become a leader if they learn leadership properly. Now, to discuss about what leaders do is quite a dauting task. Most of the books and journals we read on organisational learning, effective management which talks about listening, empowering, and inspiring people are on this subject. They are all by in large styllistically prescriptive while ignoring the situational aspect of leadership (Maurik 2001). the leadership style that works in one situation may not work at all in another situation. Churchill's great leadership during WWII didnt carry his premiership afloat after the war ended (Maurik 2001). However, despite being limited in this way, behavioural theory can still shed light on how we understand leadership. If you wish to read up more about it, there are two seminal research studies on this subject (Bake and Mouton 1964; Tannenbaum and Schmidt 1958 cited in Maurik 2001). One is by Bake and Mouton in 1964 who defined leadership behaviours in task-relationship oriented dichotomy (cited in Maurik 2001). This is looking at management approaches which are "focused on finishing assigned tasks with little concern for follower's human needs" on the one hand (Task) and "creating a friendly atmosphere of work but fail to deliver on output" on the other (Relationship). Their key findings are that the task/relationship oriented leadership in practice is not a case of either/or scenario. In fact, effective leaders utilise both approaches by fitting to the management needs of given people situation (cited in Maurik 2001). What I find interesting about this is the 'middle of the road' approach which invovles a 'balanced need for task accomplishment and maintaining healthy relationships' style of leadership is depite being "politically expedient" (Maurik 2001 pp12) (in another word makes everyone happy) but is unlikely to initiate changes in the status quo (Maurik 2001).

Maurik, J. v. (2001). Writers on Leadership. London: Penguin.

Northouse, P. G. (2004). Leadership: Theory and practice (3rd ed.). London: Sage.

December 20, 2008

Forced ranking , why?

Something I have been thinking about while reading Welch (2001) "Lessons I learn leading a great company and great people" along side with Kohn (1994) "Punished by Reward". A similar question has been asked by Mei Hu in her blog here

"After the other team presented their understanding about false ranking, I thought I should raise the question that if false ranking has so many critics, why are there still so many companies using it?"(Hu, 2008)

To me this is a very interesting question. Because in many ways it challenges our fundamental believes about competition.  We have all been brought up in an environment where we have to compete to get what we want. Survival of the fittest as they say is the nature of the world. Compeitition and fair play is the best bureaucracy buster.

Forced ranking , then is simply a technique to simulate that environment.

If competition is the best way to differentiate the best companies from the mediocre ones , applying the same princple within the company would theoretically only homogenize the people into the best.

But is that the right way to manage people, and to lead? Moreover, competition between companies or between individuals who have no incentive to work together is probably a healthy sign of equality, but do we really want people that work together to compete with each other within the same company? Doesn't people work best when they cooperate and share information? Is putting people in a situation where they are judged as success/failure by company ranking the best way to harbour cooperation and teamwork? Or more directly, would you share information with someone else if this person's success could lead to you being forced out of the company? No , I guess not. Ultimately people care about whether they've gained their fair share and if today   people feel unjustly treated by the ranking or reward schemes and all management say to them is "hey! tough luck, try harder", then it is unlikely people would look forward to coming to work and give their best shot.

"What is the problem?" You may ask, "just make the reward system fair and all the problem will go away!". How do we do that exactly? what measures do we base performance on ? is it sales revenue? is it total profit? or is it how much new account you bring into the company? Maybe it's how well you keep your customer happy! Not to mention Deming's variability of the system. Even if someone seems to be doing a good job and we reward him for it, there is no guarantee that he is doing something different, on top of his routine day to day activity. Are we really rewarding him for good performance then? or just giving him a "nice to have" or "feel good" company lottery? The truth is, there is no truly objective way to measure "added value" each employee bring to the company. And if the reward is tied to the so called "perceived value" such as performance by sales revenue then it will likely lead to resentment and possibly undesirable behaviors such as cheating the system. Now do we have a company that is built to last or do we have something that will quickly collapse into its own demise?. Consider a hypothetical situation where a Wall Street broker tries to meet the target for the number of new account his boss set him, or else he will not get the company bonus which he plans to buy a new Astin Martin with. Will he not try to persuade his client in the most soothing and reassuring manner that their money will be well looked after while investing them in the high risk high return housing market. When the housing bursts, his clients lose all the money invested, his company goes into bankrupcy, and he will still have kept his Astin Martin. Sounds familiar? maybe this situation isn't so hypothetical afterall (Wall Street example adapted from Paul Krugman's column in NY Times here). All I am trying to say is there is a real risk associated with ranking and rewarding if that's all you use to drive performance out of your people.

So far my discussion is a little off track. Coming back to the original question if forced ranking has little merit in terms of management, why has many other companies choose to adopt one form of ranking or another? I believe in most cases it is a simple case of "monkey see monkey do". When successful companies such as GE practice ranking of employee, it leads other companies to believe it is a great way to manage performance. Welch himself believes that principle to its root. But if we look at Welch or GE as an organisation, forced ranking or pay for performance isn't the only performance management used in GE (Mei also clear on this point). Other methods suchs as Section C  (take place in Crontonville- GE's management training centre), Mentor/Coaching, and boudaryless communication (Work-Out) are the real examples of leadership and getting people onboard on the real business issues. Just to highlight how Welch values the development of people, while under enormous internal pressure, he spent US$45 millions on improving Crontonville at the same time laying off tens of thouthand workers to cut cost. I am not saying laying off people is good but he knows who are the people he wants to develop in the company and provide them with all the resources.

So coming back to the original question, if forced ranking wouldnt work in theory, why has GE and other company continue to use it? Any attempt to relate the vitality curve with GE success perhaps has little meaning. To bring GE practise into your own company, without devoting the same amount of management resource into training, reviewing, and building a boudaryless culture is perhaps like walking in the dark without a flashlight- you don't really know where you're going. Use it , you can if what you want is to get smart people on board without spending time to develop the unpolished gems. One word of caution though, if you don't follow that up with some real, solid, and proven management leadership, and rely solely on reward and punishment to drive performance, then you run the real risk of harbouring self interested individuls while losing the value driven employees who form the cornerstones of a truly great company. 

December 05, 2008

LE reflection + the social right of a leader

Second day into LE module and just want to quickly reflect on the class content thus far

1. In class exerciese on day1 was quite good and it helped us to begin thinking about some of the issues around leadership. I think some points that came up  from the life boat leadership exercise was that not only the appointed leader need to possess potential to leader, he/she must also have the right skill set. For example, navgation skill is one main reason why I was persuaded to choose Roger over Lyn. Lyn seem to have a much broader range of skill and experience as CEO but none of it included working in the sea.

2. This brings about the point that leadership is situational. Possesing the right skill set I think gives the leader a much greater personal power because the follower can believe that their leader knows what he/she is doing. When I look back on my own experience of leader, I think this is quite true, I can feel confident about leading in a clas environment because I have had experience before working in class groups. I know what tasks needs to be done and what resources are available, and I know I can help others with their tasks. But if I were put in a unfamiliar situation e.g. being a capitain of a sport team , I probably wouldnt have the same sort of confidence.

3. there was a slight debate over how much power leader have and whether without 100% consensus a leader should be able to make a decision for the team. And if he/she does, what right does leader have and what obligation does member have to obey leader's decision. To me I think the leader does have the right to make the decision for the team. First if the leader was elected then , the member would have given up the right to veto since he/she has already agreed to transfer his/her right to decide to the leader (contentious point !) . Second , 100% consensus is rare, yes it's a nice idea that no body should be forced to agree to something against his/her will. But if the different voice within a group is stopping the ability to make progress because a decision cannot be made, then the effect on the group is detrimental. Think about being on a sinking ship, if we have to ask everyone what our next move should be, the end result is probably everyone die together. Coordinated effort is necessary in any situation if the group is to suceed. And leadership is the core ingredient to that coordination. Any decisions made by him would need to be the best decision possible given the situation. Therefore when picking a leader we would look at the qualities, abilities, influence, and all these other attributes so that we can have someone who can make the best decision for us. The decision is already made during the leader selection, not during the individual decisions. Sure , one might ask, what if the leader makes a crazy decision that nobody agree. Well, then the group made a wrong decision in choosing their leader, so the education of member is important. Second, even when a leader is chosen, to lead effectively, he/she still has to respect the dominant opinions in the group, weigh up the strength of argument between sides, then make a decision for the team and move on. If he/she doesnt do that , then he will soon loose the personal power to influence others, and his will be punished by not to be chosen to lead again.

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  • totally agree by prestige car hire on this entry
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