The Leadership Vantage: Seeing the Forest and the Trees

John Walter Baybay
Originally Published in the Star Malaysia – Leaderonomics 04.20.14

I have been working in the area of strategy and planning for the past 17 years and I would have thought I have seen everything at this point. I worked with many companies who at some point have been considered to be the most innovative companies that the world has ever known. I once had a client whose company was once known as the leader for lighting after WW2 and was one of the pioneer of the compact disc in the 80s and 90s only to suffer in more recent days to commoditization as cheaper products most of which are copies of their own designs are flooding the markets from China. One thing is inevitable and that is “change”. There are no hard feelings about it, when we realize that we simply have to innovate.

Industry structures shift and those who fail to see these changes early when they start to happen usually are the ones who are hurt the most. This failure to see the shifting environment has resulted in some of the most harrowing examples of restructuring and lay-offs in corporate history.

Leaders need a better vantage point to see what is going on. Change management gurus have headed up the boardrooms to develop breakthrough strategies and introduce game-changing strategies to steer the company in new directions. Some have been more successful than others. Many however always attribute successful changes to leaders who had the ability to see the big picture and determine industry shifts that were going to change the rules of the game.

The likes of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were able to usher in the era of personal computing in the 80s through their forward thinking perspectives. The airline industry is close to 100 years old and the industry still continues to shift on both extremes from the highly differentiated Virgin Atlantic to the reconstruction caused by the budget airline segment led by the likes of Southwest and Air Asia. The ability to see the big picture and go beyond what everyone else is thinking has been the determining talent that has led to the prosperity of innovative companies. Many of which were able to thrive in periods of volatility and challenge.

The roles of leaders in having to identify changes that will affect their organization and industry for better or for worse cannot be understated. While it is very unlikely that we can have a reincarnation of Steve Jobs or have the divergent creativity of Richard Branson on demand, the ability to see the big-picture is a key talent of any strategic leader. The question that remains however is whether or not having the ability to see the big picture is enough? It is obviously a “yes” in a situation where the organization has a crisis of innovation and needs to get unstuck from its status quo. A fresh perspective is always needed.

The importance of having a good vantage point is that it allows the leader to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. It allows him to see what is happening in the world outside the organization and its impending effects to the current strategy. It allows the leader to get out of their own processes and go deeper into the employee and customer experience. This is an ability that we would like to call “Seeing the Forest and the Trees”.
The former notion is that a leader does either-or. Either he focuses only on the big picture (forest) or he sees them for the trees (internal processes). There is a danger of being too much of either.
When you only see the bigger picture, you might find yourself in a position where you believe you have motivated people on the new strategy, only to find months later that nothing seems to be moving.

On the other hand, if a leader is too caught up with the details, processes and procedures, there is a great danger that the organization might not respond quickly enough to changes in the industry and customer demands. Worse! Stakeholders get impatient in not seeing immediate results of the intended changes and lose confidence both in their leader and the team. Pink slips are being issued, the leader is replaced and the company starts all over again, and that is if it has not imploded yet. This then sends ripples outside in the marketplace and the public loses confidence in the company and its management. Everyone says goodbye.

Seeing the Forest and the Trees is having the ability to view things from different lenses at different points in time when they are needed:

  • Situational Appraisal and Scenario Analysis: Use a big picture perspective and engage your team in looking at the facts together and have a shared appreciation to determine a broad strategy. Develop a broad sense of vision and direction amidst the sea of competition. See the future through a telescope and build a navigational roadmap.
  • Use other people’s perspectives in visualizing different scenarios that could affect the execution of your strategy. In this case you are not using your own lens but that of your Cross Functional Team (CFT). This gives a leader a chiastic perspective across the organization. This helps the leaders anticipate barriers to execution.
    Have a diagnostic mindset: Sometimes a leader needs to take a “deep-dive” into their own organization to identify constraints to execution. These constraints could be motivational or systemic. They could also be resource based. At this point a leader needs to have a lens similar to microscope to get to root causes of problems and deploy measures for corrective action.
  • Instrument Flying: Have a dashboard for navigating the strategy. Build a system for measuring progress and milestones. Have the necessary indicators for strategic traction that measures finances, learning and growth, customer perspectives and internal processes. Use a balanced scorecard perspective.

The good news for the leader is that he does not have to be omnipotent to see the Forest and the Trees. He needs only to have the right perspective at the right given time and if he chooses to specialize in certain aspects, then a true leader recognizes the need for the other perspectives and gives way to empower others to formulate and execute strategy.

Gone are the days that one leader does all. Leadership in the Age of Execution as I wrote about earlier, demands more collaboration and a broader cross-sectional perspective to make things work. This demands a certain level of leadership from all of us and we cannot have a zero-sum perspective of power and influence.
Having a leadership vantage makes us realize that strategy goes beyond the self or the leader. And while it may take a visionary to cast direction, it takes a whole crew to navigate a ship to its destination especially in troubled waters. Use the right lenses and get the right perspective.

If you found this article to be useful do not hesitate to drop me a note by following me on Twitter: @JohnSBaybay or visiting our website: square1coaching.com to leave a comment.

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Human, Take Me To Your Leader! A Human Sigma Perspective of Leadership

John Walter Baybay
Originally Published in 4.19.14 The Star Malaysia

In a previous article called “Leadership in the Millennial Age of Execution, I have said that the era of the 80’s and 90’s visionary is leaders have started to ebb away. Leaders of the era such as Jack Welch are long seen to fade away as he should from the succession plans. During Apple’s turn over to Tim Cook, the market and the industry reacted with quivers of ambiguity. The public is often looking towards a venerated character on to which they could latch on. This has always been the paradigm of leadership. We see it in Hollywood and we see them in reality shows. In alien movies, the leader takes the sole responsibility for speaking and deciding for the rest of humanity, sometimes in very sacrificial scenarios. The funny thing is that they never seem to land in Russia, China or India!

We’ve idolized the characters of Jack Welch, Tony Fernandes and even Donald Trump! What will happen when they’re gone? Have you ever considered that the closest thing that you have as a leader is your immediate boss? If you haven’t figured that out yet, then “You’re fired!”

Apple’s Tim Cook, being the competent manager he is, has never risen to the same levels of visionary charisma as Steve Jobs. He is just a different person. That does not mean that he is an insufficient leader. There seems to be a notion that managers are different from leaders but the truth of the matter is that leaders are more accessible than you think. We simply have to change our notions on what they are supposed to look like. Yes, if your boss has the power to fire you, he is your leader. What about the man or woman tasked to lead a project, is he not a leader as well? Of course he is! According to John Maxwell, “leadership is influence, no more, no less”.
This influence extends far beyond the realms of ethics, morality and principles. In the previous article I mentioned leaders must use their influence to garner resources (money, physical assets and human resources) to get the job done. Many times, you do not have to go as far as the CEO to be able make things move. Apart from the romantic notions, leaders have their more accessible and practical uses. This is the supply side of leadership.
On the demand side, we must appreciate that our expectations of leadership has a strong human perspective. Leaders and the people they lead are humans. While this may be stating the obvious, we need to realize that emotions define the human experience and so affects the way we look at our leaders and the way we latch on to them.

In John Fleming and Jim Asplund’s book “Human Sigma”, they defined a customer and brand experience essentially as an emotional experience with progressive levels of engagement called the “Four Dimensions of Emotional Attachment”. While the mental model was used in relation to employee and customer engagement, the same is true in the ways we look at leaders. Leaders also need to look at their employees as internal customers and ultimately, consumers of their leadership. The model progresses from Confidence, Integrity, Pride and Passion under the following description with some paraphrasing for our example.

CONFIDENCE: Always delivers on promise. Name I could trust
INTEGRITY: Fair resolution to any problems. Always treats me fairly
PRIDE: Treats me with respect. I feel proud to be a customer or employee
PASSION: I can’t imagine a world without this Perfect Company for people like me.

With the above example we could see how these human dimension could frame an emotional perception over brands and even our leaders. Developing a leadership brand could be drawn along the same progression from confidence to passion. With this framework, it is not difficult to understand how some leaders have such strong levels of following. This can only be attributed to the progressing levels of emotional engagement and attachment.
Conversely, we can also see that a failure to engage your employees as a leader, can lead to stale or waning influence over behavior. Behavior determines your team’s output and effectiveness. Employees and their emotions cannot be managed exclusively from each other. We work in a human environment with behaviors that are driven for the most part by emotion.
There is more to charismatic leadership than what meets the eye. Do you have a leadership brand that your employees or teammates can trust? Are they confident in your leadership approach? Are you delivering consistently on your promise as a leader? Use the Human Sigma as a model and take it step by step.

Leadership in the Millennial Age of Execution

Have you ever gone to a motivational seminar where you left the halls charged and motivated to slay your next day only to find that when you get there, you actually don’t know what to do next? I’ve said it before. I’ve heard someone speak. I’ve seen a bunch of TED-X videos and said: “I am so inspired and motivated! Now what next?” Where is the take away? Leaders Wanted! Please!

The truth of the matter is that as much as we have these great learning events that expose us to charismatic and inspiring leaders, we simply cannot bring them back home to talk to our parents to convince them to support your strategic shift in careers. Unless you’re paying these speakers to talk to your boss for an hour on how to become a better leader (not that he would appreciate it), then perhaps you need to come to grips with reality. There’s a lot of work to do. You need to tell yourself: “Get Over it and Get it done!” Let’s face it; if you’re feeling the pressure and cannot seem to gather the strength and motivation to make it over that hill, then perhaps you do need a leader.

Leadership however is not what it used to be. Gone are the days of charismatic visionary and motivational leaders. According to a John Hopkins School of Education the new millennium has pronounced a paradigm shift on how we look at leadership. The Visionary leaders of the 80’s and 90’s have seemed to have a muted importance in the millennial workplace. Not that “Vision” has disappeared, but the importance has shifted in favor of “Execution”.

The demand on leadership has also expanded its dimensions. The working environment is marked with so much diversity that a leader needs to have both a deep and broad understanding of his/her working environment. The new workplace emphasizes on gender sensitivity, race, culture, religion, age, current events, and maybe even music. Leaders need to work within a greater context of complex social issues as everyone brings a piece of it into the working environment. It influences behavior, work outputs, and quality. It is said that during the golden age of the 50’s it was enough to be “competent” (IQ) but in this millennial age leaders also need a high level of Emotional Quotient (EQ). A leader needs to be emotionally strong to handle complex situations and also emotionally intelligent enough to manage the feelings of others.

Beyond the issue of EQ however, is a functional realm that focuses on implementation. With such, functional skills such as planning, resourcing, controlling, and documenting tend to have great levels of importance. There is a need for a leader/manager who has a meticulous eye for process management. A leader needs to be able to identify constraints, anticipate delays and creatively navigate immediate changes in course and direction. Knowledge, Skills and Experience counts! Leaders need to go to where bottlenecks are and have the knowledge to fix them. In a project driven enterprise as we have today, leaders need to have an understanding of the language and protocol of project management. It is not enough to cast a vision and expect people to buy-in expecting them to execute automatically; sometimes a leader also needs to bring his/her people through a collaborative process of gathering a situational appraisal, brainstorming on creative options and following-through with a concrete action plan. This takes both a diagnostic mindset and knowledge on the use of analytic and strategic development tools. It isn’t enough to cast a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) and say “Let’s Do It!” People need to know why and people would appreciate if a leader could go to the level and show them “How”. If you find yourself telling someone how to do his or her job without you knowing “how”, you will be in a lot of trouble. Credibility along with the trust that comes with it goes down the drain.

The challenge for the leader in the millennium is that we are living in an environment where every answer is just a click away. We live in a world of immediacy and access. Speed and convenience are no longer luxuries, they are expected. Technology has shaped the way we work, communicate, and think. Information is instantaneous. Gone are the days when we had to go to card catalog in a library to find the book that you need. Research took days, piles of books and red eyes zipping through miles of microfiches. The screen generation might not know what I am talking about, as research to most would be a matter of clicking the “search” button.

The phenomenon of immediacy also places similar demands on leaders. This gives a whole new meaning to the old term “Management by Walking Around” (MBWA). Leaders need to be accessible and teach. Leaders need to be a great source of knowledge and information. Just as they would love to see a YouTube video on how to do a particular task, it would be even better if a leader could demonstrate how things are done with a “hands-on” demonstration. This is not a negation of today’s workforce. While leaders are investing the time to teach, coach and mentor, they are also transferring skills and sometimes values into the workplace. Effective leaders of today invest heaps of praise and acknowledgment to their teammates, as they know it pays dividends in productivity. The role of leaders is more holistic than the old paradigms. A leader is that wise indispensable sage that empowers people in the organization. This is how things “get done” in today’s workplace.

The misconception about “execution” is that it is based on “hard skills”. The truth is that “execution” requires both EQ and functional competence from a leader. Getting things done requires both politics and skills. While you may have the “planning” tightly screwed down, you may find that it also takes a bit of politics to get your projects prioritized and resourced. You may be able to command a good and engaging presentation, but you may also need the data to back up your arguments. You might have all the data on hand, but many times you need a team behind you to back it up.

Leadership in the age of execution requires the ability to move laterally and vertically to get things done. A leader needs to have the integrity to exercise his/her influence in every level of the organization, even if it takes someone else to do it. It is not enough to have a big picture; a leader must be able to see both the forest and the trees. Today’s work environment calls for leaders with flexible roles where one can be a strategic leader in one situation and a field marshal on another, taking personal charge of a project with a team. Effective leaders know when to coach and when to mentor and actually know the difference between them. They know when to direct and they know when to facilitate. They know that leadership is less about talking and more about doing. They navigate through a whole slew of issues and eat them for breakfast in a meeting or over an afternoon coffee.

Today’s effective leader knows that “the task” is way beyond self and has no time looking down. The mission is more than the leader himself; it is more than what his lifetime could afford. Excellent leaders are always scouting around screening for talent and grit. They are always looking around searching for opportunities to work with the next set of leaders that will get the job done, someone to whom they could pass on the baton. That is the Leader of the Millennial Age of Execution. It could be you or the person next to you.
For all my mentors of the past, this one is for you: THANK YOU!!