Monday, February 27, 2017

How do you succeed when your team does not report to you ?

The review meeting was getting hot and interesting; the function head was being questioned on the lack of leadership and ability to influence business units to follow defined standards; after all he had defined the standards and formulated implementation guidelines. Then why was he not able to get the business to follow them ? Weren’t the standards touted as industry benchmark, leading edge best practices, and emerging technologies that would put the group in leadership position locally and among the best globally ?

Matrix organizations have interesting group dynamics; there is functional reporting normally a dotted line to the department head and a straight line reporting typically to business unit in a diversified business group or geographical unit like a country head in a multinational company. In almost all cases the straight line drives the agenda for the person with the dotted line is left to drive synergies, cost optimization, standards, governance models, and the unified agenda across business units/countries.

For the newly inducted CIO it was not the first time working in a matrix structure, his earlier avatar had clearly defined boundaries for each role. At every node of the matrix the accountabilities were commensurate to the authority vested and influence expected. He had thrived in the position that helped bring value to both sides; his managers – straight line and dotted – acknowledged the contribution and maturity. Teams within his span of control as well as the matrix into which he reported enjoyed good relationships.

He took the role for its larger span of control, a different industry and domain, the challenge and the opportunities the new role presented and off course monetary value. Overall it appeared to be a great jump from his prior assignment which had reached a plateau. Reality hit him hard on his head when he met his peers and collective boss – the CEO in the first management meeting. The structure was unique to him and the dynamics hitherto unknown, made his skin crawl on his ability to create professional success.

Each group function head played two roles: the first to set strategy, direction and define standards that the group was expected to follow. This part was easy for most of the CXOs and function heads who were knowledgeable and well recognized as high performers in the industry. The group of experts thus depended on the partner ecosystem to help them craft the solutions and processes that were expected to be followed by business units; implementation was also left to the respective business unit functional heads.

Business functional teams were not obligated to follow directives or policies defined by the group; they could almost get away with anarchy. Matrix reporting had created a structure that the straight line manager could override the dotted or define alternate path for his business unit. It would appear to be a ceremonial position with a lot of responsibility but no authority to control outcomes, a fact that did not surface during the interview. Results were expected from the titular heads to ensure that the group has synergies and commonality.

The specific case really did not matter, it required a different structure and approach to solve the problem at hand. The Group CIO reasoned it out with the Group CEO and other peers in the room to highlight limitations the structure imposed; he also pointed out cases where mandates were followed, the group heads had ensured that respective members were subservient or underqualified thus open to listening and following diktats. The problem it created was larger than the current issue being discussed with suboptimal talent.

Making some sense to those present, the CIO pushed forth the agenda to unify the team; while the structure could be amended over a period of time, he gained acceptance to the idea and way of working. Step by step he worked on the antagonists to the idea, nudging, pushing, helping them win, he brought them to neutral ground within 6 months. A surge of activity followed with the group now harmonized and working with agility and synergizing effort, they reduced individual budget allocations and time to market.

Is the model replicable ? The answer is yes though requiring significant effort beyond normal for the leader to bring everyone to common and shared objectives. Instances can be found widespread of failure to capitalize on such an opportunity, accepting destiny and remaining an Advisor whose knowledge and expertise stays underleveraged by enterprises. Power struggles are always detrimental to progress, it would serve leaders and corporations well to recognize these before they become a malaise for the company.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Right doses of right Leadership can indeed drive Big Hairy Audacious Goals !

It was a difficult project to begin with and starting from the business team and the solution providers and the implementation team were all cautious in their predictions of success. In this part of the world it was the first time that such an audacious project was been executed; there were a handful of global precedents and they too had seen significant challenges in achieving successful adoption by the business. The team attempting the feat was a collection of disparate skills which added to the challenge, they had no choice.

The project was conceptualized by the CEO – it could have been termed as his pet project – who painted a dream that few could visualize. He was convinced that if he did pull it off it would be a benchmark in an industry that was beset with delays, cost overruns and quality issues. His man Friday and close confidant was put on the job to find people willing to take the risk and become part of the team. Thus empowered, man Friday reached out far and wide to enroll an eclectic group which had created unreasonable success in the past.

Naysayers many, they warned citing instances of failures of mammoth proportions; any normal person would have probably been dissuaded, but the assorted team had never said no to any danger – perceived or real. Their confidence in attempting the journey was akin to the first team that successfully climbed virgin peaks. Internal pessimists decided to go along with a detached passion while the optimists decided to take on the project of their lives to partake in the glory should the summit be achieved.

So the project got off to a tentative start with the bunch of experts with no prior experience but loads of attitude, commitment and willingness to explore uncharted territories. They broke down the problem into micro steps which appeared achievable even by rookies. A monitoring system was put in place to carefully analyze every step, sign-off, and celebrate every step that took them forward. Challenges were scrutinized and alternatives tested with speed until they found the solution that fit the mosaic.

Stumbling through the journey the team slowly aligned to the task at hand; each individual contributor came from high ground of past success with associated ego and a winning formula that worked for them. The CEO stayed glued to the ground taking stock frequently, pushing the team to drop their differences and doubts. It took effort for them to arrive at common ground, but they did in their loyalty to the CEO and the challenge the project represented, a peak unconquered, a path untrodden, a batch un-lapelled.

Collectively the group now functioned like a well-oiled machine; the journey seemed easier than it did at the beginning, the road smoother and the target achievable. The CEO continued to charge the team showcasing their success to one and all while plaudits were showered on his audacious vision. As the finish line showed up on the horizon it brought many doubters back wanting to bask in the derived glory; their disconnect from the project visible, their faces clearly plastic in their celebration of imminent achievement.

Study conducted by Standish Group for over two decades clearly outlines the first and foremost reason for project failure as lack of Management focus; this project had more than a fair share of management oversight, in fact at times the group wished that they would be left alone to work. The CEO though overpowering in his demeanor, he knew when to back off and when to push. The end result was for everyone to see and learn from; the industry celebrated his success and many attempted to emulate it.

On another part of the world another enterprise in the same industry with the same set of internal and external challenges decided to pursue the safe path which was the norm. They too started their journey around the same time with resources available unwilling to take undue risks. The CEO – an able man – believed that his will shall be done, delegated the responsibility with an occasional tab on progress. Hearing of success in the other project he berated his team and their inability to complete simple tasks.

Leadership is not just about defining the vision and charging the team to execute; effective leadership requires a lot more, a connect to the ground, knowing when to push, when to back off, finding the right resources, and empowering them while keeping different personalities together. Leadership is not vested only with the CEO or a title holder, it can be practiced by anyone who is charged with a cause and willing to take a stand. Are you ready to get into discomfort zone to try something new ?

Monday, February 13, 2017

Build trust and respect at work, it stays a long way !

A: Much feared and revered he had iconic status in the industry; a hermit who was rarely seen in any public forum, stories were abound on his persona. Everyone knew he was a workaholic for who spending 12-14 hours at workplace was normal; he was famously notorious for midnight meetings and negotiations in the wee hours. Stories spread on his passionate work style and commitment to the enterprise, he was not a role model but inspired a generation of workers; he was synonymous with the company he worked in.

He made few friends with his ruthless style, it was difficult to find people who could say that they knew him as a person. Little was known of his antecedents or when he would give way to the next level of leadership. Commanding respect he was enigma that the industry had not been able to solve. 80 hour work weeks can be punishing even to the fittest, it finally did take its toll leaving him incapacitated for a while; understanding mortality, he hired a trusted lieutenant who modelled himself in his shadow.

Providence or coincidence, the teammate fell to pressure faster with serious medical condition which was rare for someone that young; but by this time the superman was back in full force thus taking up the slack. Over time their collective success elevated them into role models with many attempting to emulate their success little realizing the price they had paid to rise to the summit. They had sacrificed their personal lives in favor of their careers – families that were well provided for but emotionally disconnected.

B: Envied by many his steady climb did not go unnoticed; well read, articulate and opinionated in a good way, he was always ready to help his peers. He was a prominent speaker across conferences and events – people loved his views and thoughts which were at times audacious but pragmatic enough to be followed. Rarely one to put in long hours excluding exigencies, he did not expect his team to burn the midnight oil, but work to a plan with efficiency which he demonstrated and expected of his vendors too.

His team revered him and trusted him to keep the flag flying high and pass on credit where due; he coached them and encouraged them to take calculated risks – ready to take the brunt of failed experiments. Vendors loved him for shooting straight, his candid talk and fair approach to value realization on a sale while negotiating to build relationships with shared success. Always open to case studies and references it made him a beacon for every company that he worked in and industry that he adopted.

His family could be seen beaming at his success openly in family gatherings as well as industry events which added to his persona. He dissuaded people from imitating him, his mannerisms or style; but he created many leaders from within his team who grew to prominence in the industry – some also acknowledging the role their mentor played in their success. Shortcomings if any stayed hidden or overpowered by his professional success and the fact that he was always available to Management Trainee or CEO alike.

The contrast between A and B appears to be extreme and exaggerated; their approach to work and life are quite divergent. Professionally both created success that set benchmark in their respective industries, both were sought after by the industry, both loved and thrived in the attention showered by big and small. Their paths crossed many times with each acknowledging the other; they knew about the differences between their approaches, neither commented on them and the industry took them for what they represented.

While A continued to stay invested in his professional life beyond the normal retirement age, B got off the corporate treadmill early to enjoy the fruits of labor and started his entrepreneurial journey. Many years passed by with A now taking a backseat and B fading away from the scene; providence arranged their meeting which brought them face to face again. His reputation had stayed firm even when A had taken a backseat in most matters; the meeting never took formal overtones with mutual respect demanding a different setting.

The transaction happened quickly, the relationship built on a strong foundation stood the test of time. For B it was a validation of the seeds he had sown carefully over the years – of treating people with respect irrespective of rank and position, of helping without expecting anything in return, of being the spokesperson when none ventured, of being a good human being. Life goes round in circles; invest in people and relationships, the returns over the long run are worth a lot more than you can imagine.

Monday, February 06, 2017

Cost is also a 4 letter word in the corporate world !

My first tryst with cost happened a little more than a decade back when the company reins were taken over by the CFO; he replaced a young charismatic CEO who found greener grass elsewhere. The first review meeting conducted by the CFO with score of year of experience announced an initiative to control costs – something he had harped about in the past but was overruled. His predecessor always worked on the numerator (revenue) and not the denominator (cost) when looking at profits and ratios.

Many years later I was facing a sense of déjà vu in another company when the new management which had initially created high costs now under pressure from shareholders started an initiative to cut costs. Fast forward to current business environment when everyone is uncertain of global trends and policies that potentially impact parts of business and resultant revenue and profits – quite a few are preparing to cut costs to sustain impact if any to short-term and long-term operations and business strategies.

Why not cut the flab or get rid of deadwood that the organization may have collected on the way. In almost all such cases of cost containment, it is typically a new set of Managers who initiate the exercise wanting to sculpt the company in a specific way getting rid of legacy. The other interesting fact is that almost all such cases a big name super expensive consulting company – coincidentally the same one in all cases that I have seen – is hired to suggest ways and means to reduce cost. So what’s new in cost cutting ?

Predictably it starts with hiring freeze, HR makes a list of low performers (exception Finance team) travel freeze for everyone except the Management; the inner circle gets discretionary approvals, everyone else is expected to use Audio/Videoconferencing. Cookies and biscuits disappear from meetings, packaged bottled water is replaced by refilled water bottles, control on printing with introduction of network printers, deferred training and development budgets, and last but not the least a cut in IT operating budgets and new projects.

Frugality in times of plenty is a virtue practiced by a few and they stay immune to variability in the market conditions. Working for one such company we celebrated our most profitable year when everyone was struggling with costs in the year of black swans. If that is not part of the organizational DNA, operating expenses should ideally be reviewed periodically and not necessarily wait for a formal cost control exercise. The challenge lies with some types of costs which do not lend themselves to reduction without an impact.

So when as a CIO I was asked to cut cost by 20%, it created an interesting predicament; can I cut manpower supporting business as usual ? Should I get rid of my Project Managers who have delivered successfully in the past ? Shall I ask the support partner to reduce onsite manpower without impacting SLA ? Can I cut network bandwidth across and hope that the business will not notice the resultant impact ? Annual Maintenance Costs are locked in with COTS and hardware vendors, no not much scope there.

Can hardware refresh be deferred ? For desktops and laptops potentially by few quarters, the server upgrades cannot if the transaction volume continues organic growth. New projects can be deferred or pushed into functional P&L, after all if they want the new solutions, they will find a way to justify. In both cases IT took a similar approach to cost cuts with partial success; reduction in operating expenses was marginal since the contracts were already optimized by Purchase and Finance, the deferred capital investment made up for the shortfall.

Decades apart the rest of the company dithered and murmurs of unrest were heard across the companies. The big consultant bill horrified the employees who had seen their friends depart and morale go south across functions. The net resultant saving was something they could have achieved by involving the staff across levels invoking their emotional connect towards their adopted company. The leadership team declared success gloating in the derived glory to gift themselves an exotic international offsite as a reward.

So much for cost savings which were believed to be necessary for survival of the company (read the management team). Mature leaders do not take conventional wisdom at face value, they internalize the opportunity and seek collaboration across layers for sure shot success. E.g. the frugal company that beat profits in a lean year by calling upon all employees to contribute; it enrolled every CXO to the cause not by setting targets, but appealing to help the company and how they did ? It remains a benchmark for the company !

Cost does not need to be a 4 letter word !