When Leaders React Rather Than Manage
R ED FLAG . This was the text I received from a woman I'd been mentoring for a year or so. She had recently been promoted to a senior management position in the software division of a large technology company. We had developed our own language for when she had a serious professional problem. Texting RED FLAG was a call to action.
We met that evening, and she shared the reason for her text.
Eighteen months ago, her division had adopted the Agile methodology, which is basically a set of principles for software development where requirements and solutions progress with collaboration between self-organizing, cross-functional teams. Agile introduces a new way of thinking, speaking, and acting, including its own vocabulary. Her division had fully committed to it, and it had experienced extraordinary results.
Unfortunately, not everyone evaluated the results the same way. The chairman of the company had come to the last board meeting, very frustrated with her division in particular. He told the CEO that there was a serious problem due to the lack of a solid road map for each customer. He proceeded to share a bound set of client and technology specifications, written in excruciating detail, from another company where he is a board member.
His colleagues were impressed, and so the board, determined to have its own set of bound, detailed product road maps, voted unanimously to make it happen.
The RED FLAG text came after the senior management team was informed of the board's decision. The CEO was implementing quarterly all-day meetings to produce a similar set of customer and technology road maps to share with the board. The CEO reminded everyone that the chairman was also the lead investor, so it was very critical that this be given top priority. He then announced that these all-day quarterly sessions would be mandatory and held on Saturdays.
The senior management team had been quick to point out the conflict between the new mandate and the Agile approach. They expounded on how much had been invested in Agile and how successful this methodology was. The CEO tolerated this discussion for about ten minutes before standing, banging his hand on the table, and saying, "Enough! This is what we are doing, and there will be no further discussion. The first Saturday meeting will take place in two weeks. I will be there to ensure full attendance and cooperation. This is critical to our future and therefore your future."
The woman was breathless by the time she had relayed all this to me. Unfortunately, this was not the first time I had heard or experienced something like this. Some executives love to adopt the latest, coolest tools for cocktail-party conversation or maybe because they really believe they work. Unfortunately, they don't often take the time to understand the consequences of abandoning these tools without considering the consequences.
In this case, the board was impressed by a set of fancy documents and as a result, risked throwing away a methodology that was working. The CEO reverted to the old ways (often called "waterfall") of getting projects completed. He dictated the how and when, rather than managing within the Agile approach, where a cross-functional team would break the project into small pieces (called "sprints") and make it happen. Additionally, the CEO reacted to the board's vote to create these tomes when he didn't even know what they would do with the fancy documents when they were done.
My mentee was convinced that if the project moved forward as directed, all the investment of dollars and time in Agile would be lost. It would disrupt everything that they had worked so hard to achieve and result in personnel turnover, creating morale issues and impacting existing projects.
After dissecting the situation, we finally came up with two feasible options:
Option 1: Educate her CEO and the board on how this can be accomplished without impacting the current process.
Option 2: Do nothing and begin the job search.
In our sessions together we talked about the importance of trust and respect between both peers and management. In my opinion, the mere idea of dictating mandatory weekend meetings to produce questionable results showed a serious lack of respect.
Ultimately my RED FLAG mentee left the company to find a better opportunity. What did she look for? Respect, trust, and strong leadership skills in her new CEO.
There are a lot of "red flags" in this situation, but the main ones are:
• The CEO lacked confidence in himself and his team and so allowed himself to be intimidated by the chairman. He was hired to drive the company to success for all involved, not cower under pressure.
• The board had embraced only the "beauty" of those bound volumes without considering the potential confidentiality breach of producing these detailed road maps. There were risks of their IP being shared with others not bound by confidentiality.
This story is pure fiction, but it is an example of how executives, who are not leaders, often make ill-advised decisions for all the wrong reasons—or in this case, no reason at all.
First published on the thoughtLEADERS blog.
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