May 1, 2007  

Essay: Leader, transform thyself!

Good leadership requires both vision and communication skills

Leaders tell us that we have to change. Every senior leader in Washington is proclaiming that we are in a time of unprecedented change. Everything we do must be transformational. But transformation means different things to different people. For some stakeholders, things aren’t changing fast enough. For others, everything is changing too fast. Programs and projects are being returned to sender because they are not sufficiently transformational.

One Navy admiral acknowledged the misuse of the trendy term. “If it works, then it’s transformational. If it doesn’t, then it’s not.” One former senior Navy leader tells the story of calling his IT staff together and asking them for their top transformational priorities. At the next staff meeting, he asked how their prioritized transformational goals were coming, and he received nods all around. But at the following meeting, he was chagrined to find that his staff was starting to formulate excuses why they couldn’t transform.

Should transformation be the real goal? Is it an end in itself? Must an organization change for the sake of transformation? Or transform for the sake of change? Is it right to ask our managers to declare what they are going to do to be transformational, or should leaders explain and get consensus about the situation or environment and work with managers to find innovative ways to get where the organization needs to go?

It is a leader’s duty to have a vision for his organization. The vision is a vivid description of a desired end state, an outcome to work toward. The leader must share that vision with his people to make them aware of the vision, to help them understand that vision, and to have the people want that outcome to be a reality. Fleet Adm. Ernest King wrote that “leadership is the art of inspiring, guiding, and directing bodies of men so that they ardently desire to do what the leader wishes.” King accurately defines leadership. To inspire, guide and direct is a process — the process of leadership — and that process is intertwined with and inseparable from the process of communication.

Ned Barnhold, chairman, president and CEO of Agilent Technologies in Palo Alto, Calif., speaking to the International Association of Business Communicators in Toronto, where he received IABC’s 2003 Excellence in Communication Leadership Award, said there are three critical roles for leaders. The first, he said, is setting the direction and vision for the organization. “That’s relatively straightforward and easy to do during good times, but tough to do during rough times. It’s really important in tough times that people know where you’re headed and what you’re trying to accomplish, and what the company is going to look like when you come out of the difficult period that you’re in,” Barnhold said. “The second critical role that leaders play is in recruiting the team and developing the leadership. The third is in creating the environment where everyone around the company knows what the job is and how their contributions align with the overall success and goals of the company.”

According to Barnhold, communication plays an important role with every one of those three roles of leadership. “In the case of communicating our vision, our strategy, I think communication plays an essential role not only to make sure that everyone knows where we’re headed as a company, but also enthusiastically endorses that and embraces it. In terms of identifying the top leadership and developing leaders in the company, I think the members of the communication team have played a role in helping all of the leaders around the company be better communicators. I expect every leader at all levels to be a communicator, to communicate effectively in their organization. And then finally, in terms of creating environment, there’s an important role that communication can play in helping shape the culture and values of the firm, as well as making sure we have goal alignment across the company,” he said.

A vision, Barnhold said, must rest upon a solid foundation of company values.

As senior leaders, it is incumbent upon us to develop and articulate a vision of unity and respect within our organizations, built upon a foundation of core values. The Navy has such core values, and Navy men and women know what they are, what they mean and how these core values must be a part of our daily Navy lives.

Why transform? Do people change simply because we want to? Or because we have to? Do we change because our leaders are telling us to change, or because the environment requires it, or the “customer” is insisting on it?

Organizations don’t really change. It is the people within the organization who change. And people usually do not change unless there is a reason. In business today, managers are asking workers to change. But the reason employees need to change is because the customer demands it, not because management directs it. In the military context, the customer is really the threat, or the operational realities (some of which remain fairly constant, and some that change frequently). The Tailhook Association, for example, has changed. Forces outside the organization forced it to change, but it was the people from within who made it so. Change, says Roger D’Aprix in his book, “Communicating for Change,” is “rooted in the marketplace.” He continues, “If the customer insists on change, we have no alternative. To ignore the customer’s demands is to make the business irrelevant and eventually insolvent.”

Awareness, understanding and conviction

As it is a leader’s duty to have a vision for his organization, and that vision should be driven by the changing environment as defined by the customer, so that vision should be a description of a desired end state — an outcome to work toward.

The leader must share that vision with his people to make people aware of the vision, to help them understand that vision, and to have the people believe in and want that outcome to be a reality. The leader must communicate the vision through clear and consistent effective communications. This cannot be accomplished by a single memo, a speech to the workers on the shop floor, or a notice in the company newsletter or the “plan of the day.” One doesn’t put out an idea, a concept or a vision just one time and expect that everyone will be aware of it, understand it and believe it. Awareness and understanding require a consistent message, frequently communicated with clarity and impact, and making sure that message is being received and understood. Barnhold believes that people in the company want to be communicated with the same way that he does. “They want honest, direct, prompt, consistent, open communications. I think that’s at the heart of everything that we do. We reinforce that over and over again across the company. I believe that the whole communications process is a very interactive process. There’s a lot of feedback, a lot of listening that has to go on. Not only to understand the messages you need to be communicating, but also how those messages are being received, and you can tune your messages to make sure you’re more effective. I also believe that communication and the messages ultimately have to be owned by the leadership team.”

The vision must be shared and communicated using all the tools available to the leader. Through effective communication, the target audience will become aware of the vision. Then, through continued effective communication, the target audience will begin to understand the message. If the communication effort supporting the vision is effective, then eventually the target audience will believe it. Awareness and understanding are cognitive, but belief is emotional. When people believe in the vision, they will act so as to achieve it, and will move in the direction of that vision on their own volition because they believe it is the right thing to do, without being told what to do.

The leader will have succeeded when people come to see the leader’s vision as their own, that they “ardently desire” what it is that the leader desires. Here’s where communicating the values comes in. If a leader can communicate the values of the organization so that the work force embraces those values, then the work force will do the right things for the right reasons, without being directed each step of the way.

People are smart. Employees are very bright and dedicated to the customer. They want to succeed. If they are aware of how the customers’ needs are changing and understand the implications of the changes that affect the customers, then they can see how the organization of which they are a part needs to adapt to meet the changing or growing needs of the marketplace. The only way to discourage people from backward glances, warns D’Aprix, is educating employees to marketplace realities. In the context of the Navy, our people must be made aware and understand the changing strategic and tactical realities.

“You have to communicate the ‘why.’ That’s the key element. People have to understand why the status quo is so unacceptable,” Vice Adm. Harry Ulrich said. “Then you have to set the right conditions for people to be able bring about change.”

Transformation is the process whereby the Defense Department is overhauling the U.S. military and defense establishment to enable it to counter 21st-century threats most effectively. Transformation is about new ways of thinking, fighting and organizing the department and its operations — as well as about acquiring new system capabilities. Employees are concerned about change, to be sure. Inertia is a powerful force of nature. Many fight change with cynicism, others ambivalence. Some will do all they can do to thwart change and preserve the status quo, if only until they can execute their exit strategy. Some, sadly, cannot change. They are too entrenched in the old ways.

“One of the things I learned a long time ago is putting yourself in the place of the audience’s shoes,” Barnhold said. “I think it’s really important to think about what are these messages you’re delivering and what are the important questions and issues that the recipient is going to have. I think that’s something I learned — I spent a lot of my career in marketing, and the importance of putting yourself in the customers’ [shoes] is the exact same thing, whether you’re talking to shareholders or whether you’re talking to employees. Put yourself in the other’s shoes. You can never over-communicate.

“Just when you are getting sick of your message, your people are just beginning to get it. We spend a lot of time making sure everyone understands the objectives, goals and priorities of the organization,” he said.

Navy men and women have been bombarded with “flavor of the month” management programs. Where is “Management by Objective,” “Total Quality Leadership” or “Business Process Engineering” now?

Do we really need to transform?

Retired Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni, speaking at the U.S. Marine Corps Association and Naval Institute Forum in September 2003, said, “The military does a damn good job of killing people and breaking things. And we can sit here and design a better rifle squad, build a better fighter, a better ship, a better tank. And we’re so far ahead of any potential enemy right now in those kinds of technological areas, in the areas of expertise, of quality of leadership, and all the things that make military units great on the battlefield, that you wonder why we keep busting brain cells wondering how to continually do it better, or to transform into something else.

“I’m for transformation, if you define it as finding better, remarkable ways to tap into technology, into our own brain power, into our training and education, creative ways of redesigning our organization to make our military even more efficient, more powerful on the battlefield. But that is not the problem and it hasn’t been.”

Maybe we need less “transformation,” and more leadership and communication, in the words of Adm. King, “to get people to ardently desire what the leader wants them to do.”

When people are aware and understand where the organization is going, and why; when they understand their role, and why their contribution is vitally important; when they have the assets, resources, training and direction they need; when they are truly empowered, then they will do the right things for the right reasons and the right times. And you can follow your people to achieve your vision.

The challenge for leadership is to see where the organization needs to go, and why. Leadership needs to communicate that vision to the employees with sound and rational reasoning, and communicate it so that the employees will ardently want to move the organization, transform it if need be, from where it is today to what it needs to be to serve the customers best. Then we won’t need to tell people what to do. They’ll know. They’ll believe it. And they’ll do it without being pushed because they believe it’s the right thing to do.

Maybe our leaders need to transform themselves.

Words without meaning

Simply communicating core values is not enough. One major company had these values emblazoned upon its Web site:

Respect: We treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. We do not tolerate abusive or disrespectful treatment. Ruthlessness, callousness and arrogance don’t belong here.

Integrity: We work with customers and prospects openly, honestly and sincerely. When we say we will do something, we will do it; when we say we cannot or will not do something, then we won’t do it.

Communication: We have an obligation to communicate. Here, we take the time to talk with one another, and to listen. We believe that information is meant to move and that information moves people.

Excellence: We are satisfied with nothing less than the very best in everything we do. We will continue to raise the bar for everyone. The great fun here will be for all of us to discover just how good we can really be.

The company? Enron. Proclaiming values is not enough. Leaders must live by them.