This is a story about a woman named Josephine and her leadership blunders. One day Joe (her nickname) got a great job in a large company in the Human Resources Department. She became the department’s Director and reported directly to the VP of Finance.

Joe’s boss, Michelle, the VP of Finance, was also a very successful woman. She had held this position for several years. Michelle worked extremely well on the executive team. She consistently demonstrated an ability to influence the executive with her ideas and listened to and adopted their ideas as well. She was seen as a very collaborative yet influential leader. Collectively, this executive became a powerful force, driving the organization successfully forward. Michelle was not only an excellent team player; she had built an excellent team of employees. She coached and guided them – directing them to strive forward to meet the organization’s short and long term strategic plan.

Michelle provided her staff with on-going performance coaching sessions to ensure that they managed within the scope of their work, their customers and their own staff. She engaged them in the development of strategic plans, ensuring that their concerns and opinions mattered in the final strategies. She recognized that a lack of engagement of the staff would lead to their lack of buy-in to help execute the departmental and organizational plans.

As manager, Michelle worked with Joe to develop her competencies, ensuring that they met the organizational competency requirements, a key factor in performance management. Joe worked well under the direction of Michelle. Her team of employees was innovative. She developed long-term goals for her department that were designed to help the organization reach its longer-term strategic plan. She often missed the opportunity of engaging her staff in the development of these goals but her staff trusted her and accepted that this was probably the way goals and strategies were supposed to be developed. Joe’s staff were unaware of the fact that Michelle insisted that staff be engaged in the development of key strategies, thereby ensuring their participation in the successful execution of these strategies. But Joe’s staff members were motivated. Sometimes she got too focussed on short-term thinking but Michelle was always good at getting her to understand the larger picture.

Joe set 90 day agendas. However, she became so focussed on these that the concept of long-term thinking was missed. If someone had a 15 minute meeting with her – that is all that they had. All meetings were with Joe were focussed and to the point. The idea of allowing a meeting to be so long as to permit deep explorations of issues was not seen as necessary. She knew what the problems were and she knew what the answers to these problems were.

Joe re-organized her department, let staff go, and moved other staff to other departments so that she could build her own team. She talked about how each change would help her to keep her 90 day agenda going. Her successes were continuously communicated to the executive team. Unfortunately, Joe’s short term planning approach did not encourage continuous improvement or innovation because staff tended to focus only on reaching the 90 day objectives.

Whenever someone asked how her department was doing she always spoke of her 90 day agendas and how successful she was in achieving these. But cracks started to appear in her departments’ performance. Staff motivational levels were dropping. Turnover was increasing. Her staff didn’t feel their efforts were recognized. They felt that their contributions went without notice and that their performance reviews were too short and to the point.

Joe never spent time to converse with her staff in an informal way—she was a busy woman. She was always doing something, day and night. She did not realize that a leader’s job was to create an environment of trust. Trust is needed for cooperation and communication. Together with her short-term planning approach, that failed to provide vision or purpose for their department, it became clear to her staff that Joe was not a very good leader.

Joe had used 360-degree feedback systems in other organizations and had spoken of their value to members of management. When it was suggested that perhaps it was time that that she applied it to herself and her team, she wrote off the request. After all, she knew herself and her staff just did not realize how much she had accomplished.

After several years of many staff changes and turnover, a significant promotion was at Joe’s doorstep. Here was an opportunity to join the executive team! She could taste the rewards that would come with this promotion. However, unknown to Joe, her staff and peers had been complaining about her leadership style to their own managers and other members of the senior management team. Senior management listened carefully to the feedback about Joe and she did not get the coveted promotion.

It seems that while Joe had worked hard to manage upwards, she did not try to manage downwards. As a result, her staff lacked trust in her and her leadership. By excluding them in planning and not having time to listen to their suggestions and actions, she was sending a message that nothing here will change. A 360-degree feedback assessment would have showed this flaw in her leadership style and given her an opportunity to work on it.

However, it is one thing to be aware, another to accept what the feedback is saying. It is impossible to know whether or not Joe would have “listened” to what the feedback told her, but it would have at least been a chance for honest feedback and increased awareness about her performance as a leader.

Some may say this story had a happy ending and others might see it as a sad ending. It all depends upon your perspective. Regardless, there are some lessons we can learn from Joe’s story about leadership:

  • Do not focus only on the short-term. Great innovation occurs through longer-term thinking
  • Manage both upwards and downwards
  • Manage all your internal and external customer expectations
  • Use a 360-degree feedback process as a forum for feedback on your performance and management approach

Great leaders inspire others to action by providing direction so everyone understands where the organization or department is going and what they are striving to achieve. They have an obligation to communicate their efforts, lead by example and manage both upwards and downwards to get others to join them.

Michael Stanleigh

Michael Stanleigh, CMC, CSP, CSM is the CEO of Business Improvement Architects. He works with leaders and their teams around the world to improve organizational performance by helping them to define their strategic direction, increase leadership performance, create cultures that drive innovation and improve project and quality management. Michael’s experience spans public and private sector organizations in over 20 different countries. He also delivers presentations to businesses and conferences throughout the world. In addition to his consulting practice and global speaking he has been featured and published in over 500 different magazines and industry publications. For more information about this article you may contact Michael Stanleigh at mstanleigh@bia.ca