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Be brave, not busy

Be brave, not busy

Why being busy 'chasing mice' is the enemy of success in leadership teams

Can a US President teach your leadership team how to increase their impact on the business? The answer is yes, provided they follow Ronald Reagan’s advice to “hunt antelopes, not mice”.

The simple yet compelling story is that Reagan took his lead from lions who are such brilliant hunters that they can actually catch mice. However, the energy expended is more than they get from the meal. Not surprisingly, lions rarely bother with mice, focusing instead on larger prey such as antelope because one meal sustains the lion and its pride for days, not minutes.

When he was President of the United States, Reagan refused to be distracted by ‘mice’. He had just three ‘antelopes’ in his sights: Instil national pride, grow the economy, and defeat the Soviet Union. Anything else was delegated to someone else.

Is there a lesson here for your leadership team, particularly in a rapidly changing environment where so many things demand attention and it is easy to be lured into being busy ‘chasing mice’?

Why mice are a problem

Let’s use a case example of ‘Jack’ the chief executive of a $100 million plus turnover manufacturer (a subsidiary of a multinational).

Jack’s leadership team is under constant pressure from ever-tightening budgets, crumbling margins, demanding head office, disruptive technologies, and hungry, somewhat desperate competitors.

At the CEO’s request, we gathered feedback from the wider management group on Jack’s team and their performance and style under pressure. The data revealed a typical pattern for leadership teams:

  • Increasing time spent working inside their business units
  • Time horizons getting shorter
  • Executive meetings spent on operational issues
  • Niggles and frustrations between business divisions over conflicting priorities and bottlenecks
  • Individuals working 70 hours+ while constantly playing catch-up on emails, reports and projects.

In a pressure-filled situation, Jack’s team was doing exactly what any performance psychologist would predict. They were narrowing their attention, getting more hands-on and working to the full limits of their physical and mental endurance.

Unfortunately, this was robbing the business of strategic leadership and decision making just when it was most needed. The effects were showing in new product release times that were too slow, bottlenecks on new initiatives and a blame game emerging about sales forecasting and non-standard orders. In Reagan-speak, they were “hunting mice”.

Why it’s difficult to hunt antelopes

“OK, so we’ll change the agendas at executive meetings to be more strategic, and do a review of the new products stream”, Jack suggested in an all-too-typical attempt to apply a technical solution to an adaptive problem.

“OK, but what are your three antelopes?” we asked. Thirty minutes on a whiteboard produced over a dozen items and some almost heated resistance to the list being challenged and reduced.

A little further prompting revealed that Jack (and no doubt his team as well) was falling for the three most fundamental reasons why leaders get stuck in the mouse-chasing cycle:

  • Assuming that he had to personally solve the big problems
  • Trying to do too many things at ‘A-level’ performance
  • Attempting to keep multiple (conflicting) stakeholders happy all the time.

Like the business he led, Jack was facing an adaptive challenge which meant that unless he and his team could change their mindset and behaviours they would remain stuck at the current level of performance.

Of course that change wouldn’t be easy because Jack had to redefine what competency and control meant for a CEO, and that wasn’t anywhere near as easy as changing the agenda of the executive meetings.

Out-dated leadership practices

An offsite with Jack’s team rigorously assessed to what extent they were being held back by out-dated practices and beliefs. Four came readily to the surface. (You may find it interesting to reflect on how these apply to your team.)

1. Absence of team accountability

In a disruptive and rapidly changing environment, a high performing leadership team invariably focuses on a small number of key result areas (antelopes). Jack’s executive team agendas read like a to-do list for the operating divisions. When we asked, “What is this team actually accountable to deliver?” the whole executive team realised that busyness had taken away their focus on whole-of-organisation delivery. Alignment and accountability starting with the top team would help to get a bigger bang from all the management teams across the business.

2. Independent leaders

A great strength of high achievers is their willingness to act independently and with initiative. Jack and his team benefitted from that strength when conditions were less volatile and cycle times were longer. Now, with forecasts changing daily and disruption the new normal, the absence of strong partnering between leaders was creating bottlenecks that frustrated the business and made business model innovation all but impossible. Boosting the partnering skills and practices of senior leaders would pay dividends and Jack could reinforce this by changing his decision-making style to push responsibility to clusters of executives (rather than have them deal one-on-one with him).

3. Keeping stakeholders happy

The multiple pressures on Jack’s business meant a never ending cycle of juggling the conflicting agendas of the overseas head office, the board, staff and key customers. With all the right intentions, the CEO and various executives were frantically quelling endless spot-fires.

The reality of adaptive change is that you can’t please everyone all the time. That doesn’t mean that boards, staff and other stakeholders aren’t important. Quite the opposite. They do need attention but a successful business with a united and strategic leadership team will make ‘best for the business’ decisions that inevitably create heat from stakeholders. The test of the team is whether it has built the trust of these stakeholders, so they can accept that heat without unduly affecting the relationship. Building that trust is where Jack needs to be spending more of his time.

4. Reinforcing busyness

It didn’t take much searching to find examples of how Jack’s team was reinforcing busyness in themselves and their teams. Examples provided from the wider management group included detailed management reports that were barely used, email overload, too many meetings and a culture of unsustainably long hours. The shift within the executive to team accountability for major outcomes and better partnering between leaders would help to challenge some of the sacred cows that were burning up valuable resources for little benefit.

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