What Matters for the CEO

Looking up the hierarchy employees can believe that being CEO must be a game changing experience. However, the reality is that the imagined power comes with its own constraints. Here are a few words for the new CEO (or any new manager) on what matters. This is where the reality and the illusion diverge:

What You Hear Matters More Than What You Know: You have plans and agendas. You know the place & the ropes. You have great skills, knowledge and wisdom. Show it by going and listening to the people who matter most – those doing the work, your customers and your community. Ask their views and change your own. Let what you hear guide what you do.

What You Do Matters More Than What You Say: You are surrounded now by people who want to listen to you. You are supported by teams of professional communicators. You can order an expensive new brand campaign if you want. You have a soapbox but the smartest way to roll is to get down off the soapbox and go to work. Let others work out who you are by what you do.

Your Reputation Matters More Than Your Record: You must have a great record or you wouldn’t have the job. Nobody cares about what you did now. They only care about how you did it. The how determines your reputation internally and externally. Everything you do is added or subtracted from your reputation. Everybody wants to discuss your reputation because they want to predict what you will do next. Your reputation has more influence on what you will get done than you think.

Your Influence Matters More Than Your Power: Congratulations on being top of the hierarchy (excepting of course for your accountability to the board, the chair, shareholders, analysts, community activists, politicians, your family, and anyone who ever had a view about your company, etc). You have the power now, but mostly you can’t use it. You can’t sack everyone. You can’t survive a revolt. You can’t do the work yourself. You can’t answer every question. Accept that with all your power the best way to get anything done is still with influence, the same way you climbed the ladder.

Your Network Matters More Than Your Hierarchy: The hierarchy mutes your influence. A hierarchy is only one part of your network. Some of your direct reports are openly campaigning for your job. You’ve been there and you know they won’t wait long. The further down the hierarchy you go the less your voice is heard and understood. Importantly, you are now the face of the organisation to customers and the community. Looking down the hierarchy won’t help you deal with those critical stakeholders. Start leveraging the networks through and around the organisation. Those networks helped you on the way up and they will help you now. That’s where you should use your influence. The network magnifies your influence. That’s where you do your best work.

Your People Matter More Than Your Process: Nothing in the organisation gets done without people. The best processes, technology and organisations will fall apart without the right people. Start focusing on building their capabilities and changing the processes to adapt where required. Your customers and community will appreciate the immediate increase in your organisation’s responsiveness.

Your Exceptions Matter More Than Your Rules: If everything was predictable, great people wouldn’t be required. Focus on how you identify, manage and adapt for exceptions, anomalies and surprises. Don’t let your team explain them away. Many exceptions hide insights, risks, threats or breakdowns that your current processes can’t handle. Exceptions are where the disruptive innovations lurk and where reputations are won or lost. See exceptions as a chance for you to lead make changes, especially to help your people and your customers.

Your Effectiveness Matters More Than Your Efficiency: Your new staff are going to make your life extremely efficient. They will quickly create a schedule, cut access and manage a protective bubble of carefully selected information. That’s the best way for them to make their life easy and predictable again. However, obstacles are the work, exceptions hide insights and you will need to experiment on your personal effectiveness. Without slack, freedom to connect and thinking time you won’t be able to do this. Incidentally the need to focus on effectiveness of purpose goes for the whole organisation too (see ResponsiveOrg).

Your Purpose Matters More Than Your Pay: You’ve spent a lot of the crazy pay already and here I am saying it doesn’t matter. What matters is the impact you have on the world. The internal motivator called purpose pushed you so hard to get here. You wanted to make a mark, not cash. Delivering on purpose is what makes the role worth doing and will be how your tenure is judged. Years from now you will barely remember the money but you will see the faces of those in the network around the organisations whose lives you changed. Which way do you want to influence their lives? Let’s hope they are smiling later. 

The Job Matters More Than You: Unless you are a founder or a complete failure, the role you play existed before you came along and will exist afterwards. That role means a lot to the hopes and dreams of all the employees, customers and community. Those dreams deserve your respect. The role is not yours. You are no better because you have it. You are just the current steward. Leave it better for the next person and make sure that you have the influence to choose them wisely. That may be the best legacy you can leave.

Episode 6: Executive Engagement in Enterprise Social Networks / Work out Loud Week with Simon Terry | The Yaminade

Paul Woods and I discuss strategic value, leadership, authority, executive engagement and working out loud on the Yaminade podcast.

Episode 6: Executive Engagement in Enterprise Social Networks / Work out Loud Week with Simon Terry | The Yaminade

Authorise Yourself

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The biggest limit on our actions and behaviours is our perception of what we are authorised to do. We deauthorise ourselves constantly. We wait to be given authority to act that we could just take.

Authority is Often Your Perception

Because we are unsure of what authority others will give us we wait for clarity. In this uncertainty, our perceptions of authority can be wildly off the mark.

In most cases, other people are just hoping we or someone would do something. They are willing to give authority to act to people who can get something done.  Their view of your authority is a perception too. The best way to change it is to act.

Our perceptions of authority also cause us to deauthorise ourselves in other ways:

  • we worry whether we can express our opinions
  • we worry what information we can share
  • we worry whether we can help others
  • we worry whether we can solve problems
  • we even worry what clothes are acceptable to wear

All of this worry is wasted. We either have the authority or it can be quickly clarified. It can be embarrassing to be wrong on one’s authority but a little social embarrassment is part of getting things done.

Authorise Yourself

Recognise authority is a perception. Perceptions change quickly. Authorise yourself. Act.

If there is an issue, you will discover quickly. Mostly others will gravitate to support your authoritative acts.

For the cost of a little occasional embarrassment you can avoid a great deal of worry and stress. More importantly you will get much more done.

As the famous adage goes “Ask for forgiveness. Don’t ask for permission”. 

Leveraging Accountability in Networks

In networks we are less able to leverage power to enforce accountability. Leveraging accountability requires a different focus as we are challenged to consider how we connect to personal purpose, relationships and reputation. Considering these approaches benefit leaders in each domain.

Accountability in Hierarchy is Done to You

In traditional hierarchical management, accountability is the responsibility of those in power. Accountabilities are enforced leveraging the power of leaders to reward, punish and exclude.

As a result accountability can be an imposed experience.  Decisions made remotely have impacts on status, rewards and other benefits. Accountability is a transaction of consequences that may not endure. An individual depends on good leaders to fully understand the process by which they are held to account and the rationale of the consequences.

Accountability in Networks is Personal

Confronted by an absence to enforce consequences with power many traditional leaders assume there is no accountability in networks. Individuals collaborating as peers are coming and going under their own authority. How could anyone hold them to account for their actions or decisions. We are too familiar from discussion of trolls and lurking with the idea that in a network domain there is little accountability.

Accountability in networks has not gone but it must be founded in personal decisions, relationships and reputation. Trust is the fundamental commodity of collaboration in networks and trust is a human process with swift and effective accountability.

For an individual to have any accountability in a network, they must have made a personal decision to engage.  The best of these decisions are founded in and reinforce personal purpose. Individuals rarely walk away from commitments aligned to their personal purpose. One of the reasons, efforts to hold lurkers to account fail is that the individual has usually made no explicit commitment to do anything. 

Communicating the decision to engage to others in a relationship is the the foundation for accountability in that relationship. Once the personal decision is shared it creates expectations in another.  How an individual performs against those expectations has implications for their ongoing relationship, their reputation in the community and the trust that others have in them.  Trolls explicitly avoid this relationship. They leverage anonymity to escape personal consequences and explicitly reject the norms of the communities that they attack. Trolling is a transaction in a community built on relationships. The major enterprise social networks rely on verified identities of employees to draw into the organisations community these relationships and their consequences.

Individuals who fail this relationship based approach to accountability will feel consequences. They may not be excluded or punished but they will find their influence decline as people decline to engage with them. Individuals will lose their authority to act. Having proved themselves untrustworthy the network routes around them like a blockage. The consequences of this for an individual can be harsh, devastating and enduring. Ostracism is a punishment for failing accountability in many ancient communities for this reason.

Leverage Accountability in a Relationship

To leverage accountability in networks, even those woven through our hierarchies, leaders need to follow some key practices:

  • Get personal: The best accountabilities are personal so we need to move from imposing accountability on groups to a focus on the individual and the individual’s actions and decisions.
  • Stand for a purpose: Purpose underpins deep accountability. If you stand for a purpose, you have a better chance of drawing the commitment of others who share that purpose and also of those people holding themselves to account.
  • Discover & share common truths: Shared context strengthens accountability. Focus on discovering and sharing common truths. You will be held to account for spin
  • Ask for explicit public commitments: Public commitments become part of relationships. Be explicit. Encourage people to share theirs and ask others in the community to hold them to account 
  • Lead adaptively: Creating tension that enables individuals and the community to reflect on performance and identify opportunities to improve is a key skill. The network will not always listen to leader’s answers but it is more likely to engage with a great question.
  • Enable in a Responsive Organisation: The focus of a Responsive Organisation on autonomy, transparency and experimentation increases the focus on personal commitment and relationships. A Responsive Organisation reduces the excuses around process and policy and seeks to extend the accountability of relationships to customers and community external to the organisation.

Accountability in hierarchies is based on transactions of power. In networks it demands a much more personal and relationship based approach.

This post is the last in a five part series on managing accountability in the network era. The other posts deal with:

Accountability, Rank and Authority

We assume people who hold rank in a hierarchy are accountable. Rank is rarely the measure of accountability. Accountability in networks is more likely to be found with social constructed authority.

Accountability in hierarchy can be attenuated by the distance of people in positions of power from customers, employees or others stakeholders. Our expectation that the buck stops with those with highest rank increasingly disappoints us. Without trust, those in hierarchical positions can continue to operate and exercise power.

Authority is earned and lost in networks

However, authority is earned in networks. Authority is not given or imposed.  The status of authority as a social construct means accountability to the network is built in.  

Importantly, in a network authority will often attach to the most authoritative figure who is a part of the conversation, whether they seek it or not.  Nilofer Merchant described this phenomenon well recently highlighting that leaders who step up to engage in social conversations will be expected to act. The reach of this expectation will run to their supposed authority, well beyond their power or their rank. In a societal conversation, leaders may be expected to act on their own power and influence their industry or society. By chosing to bring their rank to the conversation, they start with an expectation and an authority. The challenge is what they do next.

An authority who fails to exercise their status will lose it. Any authority that becomes unreliable, malicious or inauthentic will quickly lose their status. Losing the authority that is the underpinning of influence and action, is the swift form of accountability found in network relationships that depend on trust.

As we lose our trust in hierarchies, we will go looking for trusted authorities in networks. Should they fail us, we will change them rapidly.

This post is the second in a five part series on managing accountability in the network era. The posts deal with:

Leaders Can Authorise Debate by Working Out Loud

A key role for leaders is to authorise discussion in organisations. Leaders need to foster frank and authentic discussions by all employees. The best way to signal willingness to discuss the real issues is to start that conversation yourself and to show you will take action on the outcomes.

How do you invite questions?

I was recently asked what was my favourite aspect of a YamJam was. A YamJam is a Q&A session in Yammer usually by a leader or other authority figure. My answer was that my favourite element is that a YamJam authorises employees to question leaders and role models. This starts to create the kind of leadership that employees want: open, authentic and responsive.

Working out loud by leaders has the same positive impact. By openly sharing the work in progress with all its doubts, flaws and uncertainties, leaders invite others to engage them on that work. They make transparent their personal work processes for the benefit of others. The sharing authorises others to engage and respond to the leader’s work. This is a powerful tool to cut through hierarchy and change leadership interactions in an organisation.  Change the interactions and you change the culture.

Authorise the debate

The greatest barriers to human potential are the things we think we cannot do. Too often we look for others to authorise us to act. For many people and organisations, questioning leaders falls into the category of some we can’t do without permission. The role of leaders in realising potential is to release this constraint and authorise the kinds of generative conversations that enable organisations to be responsive.

The Blocking Boss

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Obstruction is everywhere

The commonest question I am asked when talking to potential change leaders is:

What do I do when my boss doesn’t support my work, my change agenda or my leadership approach?

That challenge is one I am personally very familiar with it. I am not alone. Recently in conversation with Geoff Aigner one of the authors of The Australian Leadership Paradox we were both reflecting on how commonly change agents experience this challenge. The topic came up repeatedly in conversations the authors had exploring Australian leadership in preparation for that book. Many of the reasons for the conflict are tied to the four paradoxes that the Australian Leadership Paradox book outlines. If your boss prefers the other side of paradox, you are unlikely to agree on a way forward. However, both Geoff and I agreed that overcoming a blocking boss likely deserves a book of its own. Instead, here’s a short post from my personal experience.

In this post, I refer to a boss because it is the concept most experience. However, the person in a hierarchical position of power may not be your direct boss or even in your line of management. In other cases the blocking may be more abstract to pin down with distant committees or an abstract ‘they’ opposing your work. In these latter cases, it is essential to first separate the myth from the reality and find real people with whom discuss the work. One can’t argue with a perception.

Here is some lessons from my experience working with a unsupportive or blocking boss:

  • Be wary: Aware
  • Embrace your power: Ignore 
  • Change the conversation: Influence
  • Work the system: Evade 
  • Flee the system: Escape 

Be Wary: Aware

Before you continue with any change that is opposed by the hierarchy you need to be aware. You will need to check your motivations. You will need to understand your own strengths, weaknesses and resilience (each will be tested). You will need to be clear on your change, its impacts, risks and consequences. You will need to understand the landscape incredibly well. You will need to see the networks in the organisation, the political agendas, the personal agendas, the influence, the strategy and much much more.

If you are simply in the flush of enthusiasm for an idea, stop. If your ego is bruised by rejection or you don’t like criticism, ostracism or exclusion, then don’t continue. If it has become a power game to continue, then stop. Important change is not about you. Leading important change is about delivering better outcomes for everyone. Leading this kind of change takes enduring commitment and purpose to deliver for others. A bruised ego is a warning sign that this is personal. 

Only continue if you can see the landscape, the benefits and risks to others and your own motivations clearly. Only continue if you know that the journey will be rough and unrewarding and you have the strengths and the resilience to persevere. The experiences you have in this difficult leadership journey will demand continuing self-awareness and system-awareness. You will need to manage this carefully and know when to protect your self (see Flee the System: Escape)

Embrace Your Power: Ignore

The simplest technique is to ignore your boss and continue on. Of course, this is rarely the safest. It also misses the opportunity to understand whether your boss might be right (see Change the Conversation: Influence)

When you understand the difference between your job, the role you are playing and your authority, you may discover you don’t need your boss to endorse your work to achieve the change that you want. We often have far more influence and resources at our disposal than we expect or understand. Remember we have a uniquely human capacity to constrain our power to act. These constraints are insidious. Thinking you need support of your boss or organisation for action is one artificial self-constraint.

Without formal support from the hierarchy there is much you can do by taking on new roles and leveraging your authority in your networks. If you do this in a community with others, then you will magnify your influence. (see Work the System: Evade)

Sadly, you may find this also means you will receive no recognition for your work from your boss. You may even see your performance discounted for having engaged in activities that were not required or were seen as a distraction. Ultimately you might lose your job for insubordination or the threat you pose to the authority of your boss.

Most people are not comfortable with this level of risk. Therefore it is advisable to use this approach in combination with the others below. Remember if you believe enough in the change, losing your job when you can’t bring about change might not be such a bad thing (see Flee the System: Escape)

Change the Conversation: Influence

Every leader needs to have hard conversations to influence change in action. You should seek to engage your boss in conversation about the change, if only to understand their perspective more deeply. Prepare for this conversation.

How well do you understand your boss’ goals and drivers? What reasons does your boss have for blocking you? Does the strategy of the organisation or the bigger system give you any levers to change their perspective? Are there facts that you know that your boss does not or vice versa? What is it that you see that you may not have discussed adequately with them?

Before you begin this conversation recognise that the conversation will go best from a position of strength. Prepare. Find others who can help you with your change and to influence your boss (see Work the System: Evade).

Choose your timing. Make sure you have done all that you need to do on the other areas that you boss has asked of you. You don’t want this conversation to become a feedback session on how you fall short of your role’s performance expectations.

Prepare for the conversation.  Seek to find alignment on goals & purpose first. Only then move on to the implications and finally to agreeing new actions.

Hard conversations are not easy and may not be appreciated. The difficult conversations might lead you to further insight into changes required or to see change is impossible (see Flee the System: Escape). However, change will not come about without continuing to have hard conversations.

Work the System: Evade

Not all change uses official channels. Not all change is public and approved. There will be times when you might need to run a rebellion or even a revolution to make change happen, particularly in large organisations or large systems. At worst, you are going to have to play the politics of power and influence to at least continue your work or at best find someone more influential to release your constraints.

To continue to work on change when it is opposed, you will need to become well aware of how to lead in the networks in your organisation. You will need to use networks to avoid the obstructionist managers and build a coalition that can continue your work. This may even enable you to stop completely, if a coalition of others takes up your work.

You may need to even go into the networks outside your organisation and push change back in with influence from external sources. External networks, like customers and community, can validate the reasons for change. That can help you find new ways to influence your boss (see Change the Conversation: Influence) or more confidence & strength to continue (see Embrace Your Power: Ignore).

A boss who is asking you to stop work on change will not appreciate activity to perpetuate that change in this way. If you are working at the boundaries of the organisation take care that you are not jeopardising both your goals and the organisation. However, it is almost always required that you work the system and its rules to advance your cause when your boss is opposing needed change. The risks you are taking might lead straight to Flee the System: Escape.  Running an evasive strategy is rarely fast or effective first time. You will need to prepare for a long campaign and many setbacks. Be ready to persist.

Flee the System: Escape

Not all change succeeds. Sometimes persistent & effective opposition is a warning signal to leave. Your organisation may not want to become the organisation you would like it to be. 

Sad as it may be, in this case the best option is to get out fast. Staying will only lead to the organisation rejecting your changes and you.

Leave and take your leadership elsewhere. You will find greater reward working elsewhere and you might even find a way to make the change later.

Conclusion: Be Aware. Lead. Continue.

Be aware first and foremost. Maintain that awareness as circumstances change.  If you have a purposeful & needed change to lead, the only option that you have is to continue. When you stop, you lose your authority to lead. You will become part of the blocking mechanism of the manager who opposed you – by your actions, by your words or by your example.

Networks route around obstructions. You should too. Keep going. Be aware. Persist. Learn. Change your approaches but above all continue until you succeed or must escape.  

Good luck for safe and successful change leadership.

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Networks Demand Leadership. Make Your Choice. Act.

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Leadership in networks is less about the position you are assigned. The opportunity is the role you choose and the challenge is building authority. The job might be assigned, but the role is chosen and your authority is earned. The networks in and around your organisation are waiting for you to act. If you don’t act, they will move on without you.

Networks solve obstructions

Networks route around obstructions. One potential source of obstruction is the formal roles in an organisation, the hierarchy and the resulting silos.  What results is a wirearchy which Jon Husband has described as

a dynamic two-way flow of power and authority, based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology

Think about your organisation. There is a formal process to get a decision made, but everyone knows that the real decisions don’t follow the process. There is informal lobbying. Often someone who is not the decision maker is hugely influential. People chat casually testing positions. Additional information is shared. Deals are done. Trust and credibility play a key role in influencing the ultimate decision, often more than the facts on the table.

These actions are all examples of a network working around the potential obstruction of a hierarchical role or process. These conversations are all examples of how ‘two-way flow of power and authority’ is shaped by people’s actions to demonstrate ‘knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results’.

You are a potential obstruction

If you aren’t results focused, aren’t performing the roles required or the network doesn’t have confidence in your actions, a network of people working together will start to route around you.  Your failure to lead others becomes an obstruction. No matter how fancy your title or your place in the hierarchy the network will start solving for the obstruction that you represent. The network in and around every hierarchy is what makes the hierarchy functional.

To avoid being an obstruction, you need to focus on your authority and fulfilling the roles that advance the needs of the organisation and its networks. Your job won’t save you.

Authority takes Action

Leadership in networks is not an abstract and exalted status. Every person in a network is connected. Leadership is demonstrated when people take on needed roles and others move to action.

Leadership is the technology of realising human potential. Leadership is the technology that inspires and enables others to action. That takes a decision to embrace a role, action, influence and authority.  In networks, including the networks wrapped around your hierarchy, that authority comes from action, not position.

The differences in influence and ability to create value come through action.  Action is what builds authority.  The best way for someone to assess your ‘knowledge, trust, credibility and focus on results is to experience it’.  Authority grows influence with other people in the network and that accelerates further action. 

Networks and Network Leadership is not Bounded

If a network needs to go around or outside the hierarchy to solve a problem it does. All it takes is a connection for your network to extend further. Network leaders need to ensure that their leadership goes outside their hierarchies as well.

Customers, community, other stakeholders all influence your knowledge, credibility, trust and focus on results. Sharing the voice of the customer or the community can be a significant part of influencing change. Try to have influence internally without influence externally and you will find over time that your credibility erodes. Celine Schillinger has described how change agents can find that they need to build credibility externally to be more influential in their internal networks.

Leadership is a Choice. A Choice to Act.

Taking on a leadership role is a choice. It is a choice to help others make something happen and enable them to realise their potential. Whether you are in a hierarchy or a network matters little. The same rules apply. The choices that you make, the knowledge that you gather, the influence you build through credibility and trust determine your authority as a leader and whether others will follow.

Nobody has to follow you. Our hierarchies are a fiction that supports our need for status, order and clarity. The networks in and around your organisation know that and work around the hierarchy every day.  

That same network is waiting for your choices and the actions that follow.

Leaders help realise potential

An insightful quote by David Foster Wallace on leadership in which he describes leadership in terms of the development of human potential

A leader’s real “authority” is a power you voluntarily give him, and you grant him this authority not with resentment or resignation but happily; it feels right. Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, the way you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you couldn’t ever get to on your own.

In other words, a real leader is somebody who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better things than we can get ourselves to do on our own

Authority is earned. Authority comes when others judge you ready. Development of the potential of others in your networks is the work.

How are you working to earn the authority of others? How do you help them realise a potential that they couldn’t reach on their own? Show that potential and people will follow.

That is the future of leadership