Whom do you follow to become a leader? The paradoxical question makes sense for the CIO eager to open the doors to the executive suiteWhen an organisation is focused on delivering change, face-to-face communication is as vital to its success as the organisational culture and corporate vision. These days every CIO is a leader, and every leader is learning to appreciate the importance of being a communicator. This is because success is likely to be elusive unless every interaction a manager has supports the culture and vision, rather than undermining it.
So when pharmaceutical company Reckitt and Coleman began working to implement its vision of becoming a globally oriented business focused on consumers, communications was certain to be a key component of its efforts. Reckitt and Coleman's three strategic priorities for 1998 are a focus on brand leadership in household and over-the-counter pharmaceuticals, extending the global reach of its operations to fuel growth, and intensifying its activities in developing markets. Its ongoing restructure of the global supply chain has meant integrating processes -- from purchasing raw materials to delivering product for sale -- while it is also continually modernising and harmonising systems and processes through implementation of "continuous improvement".
Towards these ends, enabling technologies -- from basic transaction systems to e-commerce -- are helping staff work more efficiently and effectively to improve the organisation's responsiveness to the market.
To support the change process, Reckitt and Coleman knew it needed effective leaders capable of influencing the way others felt, thought and acted. That meant developing leaders capable of persuading individuals to sign up to the corporate vision and of motivating the teams and individuals that would underpin that corporate success. Increasingly, information system and other senior managers responsible for introducing corporate change have recognised communication as a key to that kind of leadership, says business change leader Australasia Jill Connell.
"Communication is what allows people to understand the company direction, their contribution to that direction, the ways they need to work together to deliver value to the customer as part of that value chain. And it helps them feel valued and recognised as individuals contributing to the business performance," Connell says.
"If we look at some of the literature, [Peter] Drucker says that with so much ambiguity and flexibility in the businesses of the future, the guidance is around the mission and the values and the strategy.
"One of my key aims in the business change role is to help build alignment to the business direction, and communication is absolutely fundamental to building that alignment. Communication [must be a priority for] our regional director, the regional leadership team and each of the managers and supervisors so that everyone in the business understands where we're going and their role in that and also feels a part of the process."Connell was a member of the regional leadership team responsible for bringing the Australasian operations into line with the global direction and ensuring the organisation delivered improved performance. She, therefore, knew such leadership would be vital to the success of the Reckitt and Coleman change program. And so, with a number of events on the agenda designed to communicate the overall business direction to more than 1000 Australasian staff -- from senior management down -- Connell contracted leadership communications specialist Rogen Learning Centre to run skills programs to coach her 11-person team in presentation skills.
Connell is also responsible for leading business communication for the region.
She soon recognised such training could also help other managers and supervisors understand the importance of communication in improving their own and their team's effectiveness. Altogether, the company has now given specially tailored "Leaders are Communicators" coaching to about 50 Reckitt and Coleman managers and supervisors.
During the program participants get together in groups of six or eight to learn the leadership skills necessary to work with people to achieve shared goals.
The Reckitt and Coleman program was structured to provide participants with the skills to influence colleagues, suppliers and customers and helped them communicate clearly in all leadership situations. According to Connell, there was a lot of emphasis on moving people away from the belief that information is power towards a recognition that when information is shared, staff are more effective and everyone gains.
"In the past some managers have relied on an autocratic approach to their team meetings; partly because that was the role model historically, and partly because they may have lacked the confidence to make the meeting a more interactive forum, where their people could ask questions and present ideas."She says a major strength of the program was that managers were videotaped, so they could clearly assess the difference in their performance between day one and day four. Differences, she says, were marked.
The company now recognises the training as one of the core programs on its middle management development path. Although conceding it can be difficult to tangibly measure the success of such programs, Connell insists the company has been able to measure a marked improvement in internal communication within the Australasian group.
"I certainly think the training has added value to Reckitt and Coleman's change program. The feedback from participants has, in general, been very, very positive; and because we've run the groups in cross-functional departments, it has actually helped build the networking across those parts of the business. In turn this is helping to break down some of the traditional silos," she says.
As team leader, Connell recognises business change for Reckitt and Coleman will be increasingly built on an underlay of good communication. Effective communication will guide the business strategy and nurture the core competencies that will provide the business with its competitive advantage in the long term. It will also help staff to understand and hence buy into the business strategy.
But communication is also a factor in a third and even more crucial arm of the change management strategy: the rewards and recognition the company is using to motivate staff and keep them on side with the process. Connell says too many leaders fail to recognise the contribution of individual staff to the change process.
"This is all too often forgotten. But recognition is incredibly powerful, particularly when you are going for major change where people are inevitably stressed because they are being asked to do something differently and -- usually, in the short term if not the long term -- to do more," she says.
"Recognition is really important. It is part of helping people to feel that they are valuable contributors to the overall business success and part of building alignment to the strategy is also empowering people so they can get on and do what is necessary."The company is now working hard to build a culture which welcomes constructive challenge, where information is shared. And that has been a useful move in an environment where both institutional and individual investors are becoming more powerful. That, Connell says, requires making sure all staff understand the overall value chain and how each individual and each team can contribute to that. It demands behavioural change concentrated on making all members of staff externally focused, to create a positive impact on the market.
"In terms of the shareholder market, and the increase in institutional investors, the share market or the key investors now are much more vocal and more powerful than they were in the past, and that is requiring quite different skills in terms of managing them," Connell says. "External communication from that point of view is absolutely fundamental. Our CEO does spend quite a lot of time addressing that and I think that is true of a lot of major global businesses these days."Information systems director Frank Coogan attended the course last year as part of the corporate training program. He found much of the time was spent in understanding the techniques involved in putting together more competent presentations and on developing presentation styles, content and format. In this, he says, the course was very useful.
With regional managers having to fund initiatives centred on rollout of globally consistent processes out of their own budgets, much of Coogan's time is spent making people aware of global initiatives and ensuring they fully understand the global IT strategy. "It becomes a matter of trying to put forward a case which alerts them to the strategy and makes sure that we have full buy in from the regional senior management to the actual deployment of that strategy," he says.
The regional leadership team hosts regular presentations from business project leaders and tries to adopt a consistent style to reduce time spent understanding the issues. That is where Coogan does much of his communication with the region on behalf of global information systems. There is also an annual open day where Coogan's team formally presents key IS initiatives, and business analysts from within his department also meet with small groups of people from around the business, as needed, to explain the business benefits of specific applications.
To this extent, Coogan says, the Rogen course had been very useful, teaching both him and his team to use a more structured approach to delivering and reinforcing the message. "I think the value has been in giving me a mechanism that enables me to structure ideas and present them more cohesively than perhaps I would have done previously.
"It actually helps the decision process, because if you have someone presenting a concept to you and they do that in a consistent way and a structured way, you almost know what to expect in terms of the format. So there's not a lot of time wasted or a lot of distraction on the part of the audience in trying to tune in to what it is you're trying to say. Doing it in a fairly comprehensive and structured way makes it much easier for the audience to pick out what you're trying to present to them," he says.
But would he accept the Rogen claim that the course was as much about leadership as communication? Not quite. Coogan says he found the course was focused much more on that technique for structuring and presenting ideas than on any form of broader vision of leadership. "I wouldn't say I was disappointed -- that's too strong a word. But it wasn't what I expected, and it focused very much more on a mechanical process than an examination of what your particular behavioural style is like and what way you exhibit leadership qualities."He was also a tad unhappy the course failed to provide him with techniques to help him develop a relaxed style of communication with various types of audiences, but says it represented good value nonetheless.
Dare to be Great
According to worldwide director of the Rogen Learning Centre Brett Oetgen, the tag best associated with the great corporate leaders is versatility. Great leaders have a wide range of behaviours they use with different people. Great CIOs, for instance, will dramatically alter the language they use, the vision of the organisation they express, and their tone and manner, according to whether they are dealing with the Company Board or chatting to a group of software engineers.
"Great leaders have a behavioural flexibility when dealing with different people and communicating with different people. Bad leaders tend to have just the one style they use every time," Oetgen says. "Unfortunately, the IT industry has had its share of people like that -- who were very good technically speaking, but tended not to know how to deal with people and just used the same paintbrush every time."As well as developing a range of influencing behaviours, Oetgen advises CIOs and other leaders to strive to develop sensitivity to the different communication needs of different groups of people. And he says it is especially important that IT managers be able coherently to construct communication with people in a way that makes sense and influences them, since the ideas, concepts and solutions that they must convey are frequently so complex.
"In those circumstances the ability coherently to construct communication for others is a critical, critical leadership skill."CIOs are finding leadership -- and hence communication -- increasingly important as the pace of technological change accelerates.
"From a technology point of view, so many companies are developing new technology and new ideas that there is a realisation that the companies that are going to do really well will be those that not only have the great technological advances but also the leaders that can develop people," Oetgen says. "That means focusing not just on the technological advances but on developing people within their organisation. That's traditionally an area that has not been played up within the IT area."And it also means having a vision and making sure that vision is clearly communicated to a variety of different audiences. Oetgen says to teach leaders to communicate, Rogen first considers the organisation and its culture. The goal is to ensure that every interaction the manager has supports the culture and the vision.
"People talk about the information age we're in today. I think we've gone beyond the information age -- it probably happened in about a year when the Internet got going. Now information is readily available to anyone. Information is no longer a competitive advantage to a leader," Oetgen says. "The only genuine competitive advantage a leader has is imagination. Any company can get the information or the knowledge, but taking that information and imagining what you can do with that information, that's the real key of leadership."The best leaders today are working at developing a culture that enables people to be far more imaginative in the way they do things.
What do the major successful sporting organisations or teams -- like the German National Soccer Team, Manchester United, the Dallas Cowboys, the Australian cricket team or the New Zealand All Blacks -- have in common? What is it about these organisations, from a leadership perspective, that's enabled some of them to be constantly successful over periods of up to 100 years, despite the fact that coaches, managers and players have all frequently changed?Oetgen says a study conducted at Waikato University in New Zealand points to some answers.
"What they discovered was that there were two constants within those organisations that enabled them to always be at the top: culture and values," he says. "In other words, no matter who was leading the organisation, the culture the leaders have been able to develop has transgressed time. There has always been that strong culture that's been passed on from leader to leader.
And the values have always been the same, and the number one value for them is the will to win."Absorb those lessons into the business, and the inescapable conclusion is that one of the best things CIOs and other leaders can do to maximise the long-term success of the organisation is to ensure they have got the culture and the values right.
And then use every trick in the book to communicate both to all and sundry.
In an era when more and more CIOs are considered part of the executive suite, it should come as no surprise that organisations are demanding that they possess that mystical yet indispensable skill still known as leadership.
Still, no agreed-upon definition exists for leadership, though most experts at least concur that business leaders focus on the future. Most assent to the idea that leaders have a strong sense for where an organisation should go, and few quibble with the notion that leaders effectively generate "motivating energy" so that people in the organisation want to get there. The debate begins, however, when experts are asked if leaders can be made, and the discussion becomes downright heated when they are asked precisely how that might be done.
Still, no matter where in the debate an expert settles, all agree that because IT is increasingly central to companies' future visions, the pressures upon the CIO to move through the ranks of company leaders are increasing.
Lessons to be Learnin'
There's more than one school of thought on how to go to school.
There are all sorts of ways to become a leader, but Jay Conger, chairman of the Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California has tried -- through research and personal participation in various leadership programs -- to make sense of what works and what does not. He divides the vast array into four approaches: 1. Personal Growth -- equates bungee jumping off a cliff with installing the new SAP system on time. Intense physical and emotional "risk taking" experiences are designed to imbue potential leaders with the guts to try new things on the job. Many participants get their most profound insights on a personal rather than professional level, fomenting lots of teary, 3am phone calls home to unsuspecting loved ones after a trainee has aced the bungee jump.
Virtues: Vivid, challenging physical and emotional experiences really do have an impact on human learning and create a capacity to view things in a new way.
Liabilities: No guidelines exist for applying the lessons learned back at the office.
2. Skill Building -- focuses on the attributes of leadership that can be converted into teachable skills, such as inspirational speaking or team building.
Virtues: The skills are clearly defined and exercises are highly focused.
Liabilities: Mastering any skill takes a long time, and the resolve to practise fades quickly. Furthermore, as with personal growth, the exercises might not translate well to the daily routine.
3. Feedback -- presumes we need a mirror -- with a consultant standing behind it -- in which to see our leadership style as others do.
Virtues: Often this methodology creates insights for people whose self-image contradicts how others see them; for example, young managers are frequently surprised to learn that their peers view their skills favourably.
Liabilities: Such an approach can have an impact only if people are highly motivated to learn and are willing to examine their own behaviours.
4. Conceptual Awareness -- outlines and presents for study the five or 10 (everyone has their own list) most important leadership skills, with case studies and demonstrations showing what it's all about.
Virtues: Case studies and leadership profiles usually are relevant to the student's own company or job.
Liabilities: If that's all it took, we'd be a world of Roosevelts, Ghandis (or, heaven forbid, Hitlers and Stalins).
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