About 1.2 million years ago there was a programme on the radio called ‘What’s My Line’. People would come onto the show, introduce themselves and a panel would try to figure out their job in 20 questions or less. Typically, people with unusual jobs would guest on the programme and it was good fun trying to guess what they did. I often play a consulting version of this game with clients. Here’s how it works.
What’s my Role? Sometimes senior executives need help in figuring out their exact role. On face value, the question seems deceptively simple. Is it simply a matter of constructing a set of S.M.A.R.T. objectives for the coming year? Hardly. They could do this on their own, without any support from me. A more profound question for executives is what they want to leave as a legacy – assuming that they remain in the role for 3+ years? Now, there’s a question that needs more careful thought. To answer this, you need to take a half-step backwards and consider the organization mission.
Mission Clarity: Many years ago I did some work in a Juvenile offenders facility in Singapore. They were all young men – teenagers really – who’d fallen off the ladder for a variety of reasons. Roll the clock forward 20+ years and I had an opportunity to again work with some adult offenders in Dublin, people who’d spent time in Mountjoy. Externally, the two institutions were the same. Both were custodial prisons. High walls. Barbed wire. Restrictive regimes. However, their missions were fundamentally different. In Singapore, up to 90% of the inmates were involved in some form of education and the mission was educational and rehabilitative. In contrast, , about 4% of the prison population in Mountjoy was involved in education. The mission was primarily custodial and punitive. So, the goals selected by a senior manager working in these institutions would be fundamentally different – even though, outwardly, the institutions look very similar.
End Result: If you’ve read the popular Steven Covey book – The 7 Habits of Highly Effectively People – you may remember the principle: ‘Begin with the End in Mind’. When travelling from Dublin to Belfast you probably cruise up the new northern motorway. Heading for Cork? Hit the M50 and take the exit south. In other words, your final destination dictates the immediate route chosen. The same point applies for senior executives. They need to define the end point before they can set intermediate objectives. Will your legacy be great customer service, employee engagement, lowering costs or business growth? (and, no, you can’t choose everything on the list; strategy implies choice). So, the deceptively simple question ‘what’s my role’ is not so simple in practice.
Better Tomorrow: While deciding critical personal objectives is a sound idea, people in leadership roles need to consider an extra dimension. The following story, set in the Middle Ages, is old but still good. A wealthy Lord, visiting his empire, came across a man cutting stone and asked: “What are you doing?” The reply was: “I’m cutting stone”. Further down the road he asked another man the same question and was told: “I’m building a Cathedral”.
Leaders don’t just focus on their own goals, they create larger than life goals for their organizations to aim towards. The Lesson: Setting your objectives as ‘last year + 10%’ is not enough. Leadership is the art of making your people believe that they are building Cathedrals!
PS When you are trying to influence others, what you do is typically more important than what you say. One of the interesting facts about the recent IMF chief Dominique Strauss Kahn case was the fact that he was staying in a New York hotel room that cost $3,000 per night. Now I have stayed in New York many times – sometimes even in good hotels – but never managed to pick up a $3,000 tab. I’ve no idea whatsoever about the veracity of the sexual impropriety charges made against Mr. Strauss Kahn but remember this is the same IMF which is forcing the austerity programme on the people in Greece. A case of do as I say rather than as I do? Leaders beware. Most people have a fine-tuned ‘bullshit detector’ from which there is no escape.