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Leadership development for senior managers

מאת אבי אלטמן – "מכון מנהיגות – ייעוץ לארגונים לומדים"

פורסם לראשונה אפריל 1999

(הרצאה שניתנה בכנס IODA בהונגריה בספטמבר 1997)

 

There is a manager I know of, a CEO of a large economical and industrial corporation in Israel. As a junior manager in a technical domain he was O.K., a conservative manager who tends to stick to the rules, but you couldn’t tell for sure that he would advance up to the highest organizational positions in his area. Only in these high positions, he proved himself as a visionary leader who left a distinguished mark on his organization. In his present high-rank position he was the initiator of an innovative and courageous macro moves (and also a dream of every consultant to work with).

This reminds me of chairman Gurbachov who led major changes in the Soviet Unions and in the entire world. This outstanding leader advanced as an ‘Apartchic’, a man of the machinery, a bureaucrat in his previous duties. I think that no one could tell then, that he is the man who will start the ‘Glasnost’ and the ‘Perestroika’, moves that started probably the most prominent changes in the second half of this century.

On the other hand, there are many good examples of the inverse kind. It is very common in armies: i.e. officers who did very well as platoon or even as regiment commanders, some of them are highly decorated for outstanding functioning under combat situations. Many of them couldn’t adjust themselves to their higher jobs, lacked an understanding of the essentials of their roll, and were either doing their subordinates duties or detached themselves to be ‘unidentified flying objects’ causing damages to their organizations.

This is a well-known phenomenon in most organizations. Unfortunately, we find the second phenomena more widespread in organizations for reasons I am not going to specify now. My interest is to explore the obvious fact that when we consider leadership in junior positions and in senior positions we are dealing with entirely different domains. I am not doing that for mere academically reasons, but as a practitioner in OD who asks himself, what, in the frame of my profession, I can do, to develop leadership of senior managers.

We shall start by briefly stating the Characteristics of senior

Characteristics of senior management

 to be distinguished from junior leadership. Next, we shall proceed in setting Working assumptions for senior leadership development .

Than we shall talk about Themes to be focused on in senior leadership development

 while working with seniors. And finally, we shall discuss some of the Methods of working with seniors on their leadership development.

Characteristics of senior management

 

  1. Leadership from a distance1

As OD practitioners, a meeting with the head of a large organization is not big dill, for us it’s a common experience. But those of you, who were or are part of a large organization, try to remember the few times you had a personal encounter with the man at the top. As a soldier I remember vividly the single time I met in person with the chief of staff. He interviewed us after a commando action. I remember well his patient, fatherly talk when he sought to find what actually happened there, and the feelings of confidence and trust in which everything can be said that he inspired.

These rare encounters and the fact that I bear these memories for so many years illustrates the effect of what I shall refer to as leadership from a distance.

This distance creates the tendency to idealize and romanticize2 the leader due to lack of accurate information about him/her and about the organizational ‘big issue’s3. Hence, there will be over estimation of the senior manager’s influence on the organizational events4. As the distance of the leader grows, so are the occasions in which he is exposed to others become rare. This, combined with people’s wishes and attributions, helps to intensify the symbolic aspects of the manager’s actions. Every rare encounter with him is loaded with symbolic meanings, and becomes a part of the organizational folklore, and a story to be distributed as a brick in building the image of the leader.

Naturally, we should remember that albeit all that is said here, there is always a small group around the senior manager, and his work with this group will be characterized as close leadership.

  1. Achieving goals through others

The senior is not operating by himself, others operate in his name. He becomes more and more dependent in those who operate on his behalf. The transition from the direct instructing to indirect achieving through others requires better understanding of creating influential processes, and creating an atmosphere in which he can trust his subordinates to act according to his spirit5. This means ever growing investment in the development of managers, their recruiting, coaching, monitoring, and so on.

  1. Limits of control

The growing span of control brings with it increasing limitations in exercising it.

When planning a meeting with seniors I always have to allocate time for telling the manager about his organization. It is amazing how little the senior manager knows about his organization in various aspects, like what people think and how they feel, and what is going on everyday (unless of course an accident or another catastrophe happened). The high rank manager cannot see what is going on in every part of the organization. Instead, he must see through the eyes of others, and create an image of the actual picture. This means the use of imagination, abilities of abstraction and generalization, to tell the essence from subsidiary, integrating etc.

The ever-growing amount of information creates a load of information6, in which his capacity of categorizing and identifying the critical variables becomes essential. In these positions there is also a growing dependency in assistants who deal with the information, screen it, process it, interpret it and present it to the manager as a raw material for creating his own image of what is going on.

  1. Complexity of the task

The ability to see the phenomena as a product of multiple interacting causes is one aspect of the need to handle complexity. In terms of complexity we refer to the enormous amount of details and tasks to handle simultaneously, as well as the dynamic complexity in which there is no proximity in time and place between causes and effects. Complexity increases when variety of tasks to execute is greater, and the time span to complete them is longer7.

  1. Cognitive demands

Zvi Lanir9 wrote a brilliant article about the changing of cognitive demands when moving from junior to higher positions.

In order to perform well in these levels of management one has to think differently and to abandon thinking habits that served him good in prior positions. The senior manager is acting according to long-range feedback circles and therefore he has to refrain from frequent changes and to judge events on basis of continuity and succession. He has to function in situations that contain contradictions of values and opposing objectives, and therefore has no clear-cut alternatives of actions. He has to move from traditional analytic thinking to holistic system thinking10 in which contradictions are complementary, i.e. short and long range, outside and inside orientations, production driven together with community building etc.

  1. Emotional coping

Making an appointment with senior managers is a frustrating effort because of their busy timetables. But according to my experience, once the meeting is started, the clients are very talkative, they seem to have an eager need to talk to somebody, to get assurance for their deeds, to express frustrations and concerns about things that not going well, and so on usually to extend the length of the meeting. One cannot refrain from the observation that there are strong emotional needs here.

All those aspects stated before, complexity of task, cognitive challenges, limits of control etc., bears with them emotional challenges which are not easy to cope with. The space between acting and seeing the effect; the need to consider options without haste; the need to delay action and reflect in the stage of idenquestion or the problem to solve, all these, demand a high tolerance for ambiguity and the ability to bear the anxiety involved with the unknown and the uncertain.

The ability to think in opposing terms and the recognition that every decision in the high level has a wide range of consequences11, not just one – comes with the ability to contain contradictions.

Another source of emotional stress is the need to part from the satisfactions involved in maintaining close relations with people in the organization, and to cope with the solitude and feelings of loneliness attached to being at the top

Working assumptions for senior leadership development

  1. In working with managers on leadership development we build programs that can be used with minor modifications in different organizations and in different jobs. This kind of standardization cannot serve us right while working with seniors. For instance, we can’t build a profile of the ‘outstanding senior manager’ because in these positions, the uniqueness is a prominent variable. In fact, they have reached their positions because of their unique qualities. Therefore, no standardization.
  1. Seniors prefer to learn in a way that will not emphasize their status as students. There may be exceptional, but usually they want to be in control in learning situations as well.
  1. Investment in the senior manager is of high dividend in terms of influence on the organization. The meaning is that economical calculations here are entirely different. I.e. the rate planing/performing may come to 3/1hs.
  1. In view of all these, the outcomes are programs that are tailor made. To every manager, or group of managers we have to conduct a unique design, according to their special needs.
  1. When training is carried on the job, it is preferable to construct it in “small portions” that will be dedicated to the manager himself.

Themes to be focused on in senior leadership development

  1. Enhancing the ability to see the organization as a system12

Systemic thinking exists for some four decades. Yet, its amazing how little use we make of it in management. Kevin Kelley13 tries to explain it by the fact that the human consciousness presents itself in a serial mode and therefor we process information and solve problems in the same serial mode, whereas systems, including our own brain, work in parallel mode. Therefore, in order to acquire systemic thinking, we have to learn to abandon thinking of linear causality in favor of non-linear causality. We have to think in terms of multiple variables that exist in co-control instead of one that controls the other(s). We have to change focus from entities to relationships. This is not an easy task to perform neither to the learner nor to the one who teaches it. Managers find it hard not to react directly at the place were a problem appears while systemic thinking teaches us that solutions are to be found not were the symptoms are presented. Medicinally  They concentrate in improving sub-systems although we find that improving part of the system can damage the interaction between the parts and the result could be decrease in performance of the whole system, and so on.

  1. Envisioning as exercising the ability to abstracts and to see the “big picture”.

Realizing the vision as exercising the ability to translate the abstract ideas to concrete doing. I will not elaborate here. Envisioning is essential in leadership and therefore in leadership development. When we are working with seniors, we stress the symbolic acts along with the awareness to own behavior and the sense people making of it. Examples are: allocation of their time as an indication to what is important; questions they ask as aiming toward what is interesting in their eyes; functioning in critical incidents as occasions when the real values and attitudes of the manager unfolds; rewarding, appointing and dismissing people; designing the physical space, use of language, symbols and rituals, and so on…

  1. Enhancing the ability to handle complexity.
  2. Jaques14 tells as that the ability to handle complexity is crucial to effective leadership. He stresses that the increase in complexity of cognitive processes is not occurring in a “smooth” mode but in transformations like the changing of a substance from Crystal to liquid and to gas. In order for these cognitive transitions to take place there is a necessary base of personal potential to exist and an opportunity to develop this potential by creating an action space of complex tasks to be handled.

Therefore, development of leadership for seniors should create such action space that will challenge and fulfill the cognitive potential of the manager.

Handling complexity involves also emotional aspects. I remember few times I faced hostile and aggressive reactions of managers who faced ambiguous and vague situations. Situations that need the ability to contain contradictions, and to bear the anxiety that comes with the uncertain. On the other hand, I myself once, drew confidence when I entered into an unstructured workshop with seniors when I realized that the head of this group was even more willing to participate in activity with no clear cut outcomes.

Anxiety produce the tendency to regress in our organizing level and to enact defense mechanisms like splitting and stereotyping the world, which is counter to effective functioning of the senior manager. Therefore we have to assist seniors by adapting them to handle complex situations in anxiety reduced conditions, i.e. when cost of failure is low, when effort is gradual etc.’.

  1. Enhancing the ability to create new ideas.

There is one senior manager I always like to heare. He is the master of reframing. Time and again he challenges the way I look at things. This is what I consider the highest level of ability of the senior manager. The power to advance in quantum steps beyond the frame of a given concept system.

  1. Senge15 suggested that the ability to create new ideas can be developed by acquiring language, concepts, and habits of thinking that create the ability to get out of boundaries and patterns, toward new ideas.

Methods of working

As we all know, effective learning should comprise of theoretical and experiential components in order to acquire knowledge as well as to create unlearning of previous conceptions and prepare the ground for new others.

 

Large scale simulations

In regard to experiential learning in laboratory conditions, i.e. workshops of various kinds, we have to create tasks that will simulate the leadership challenges mentioned earlier. Large-scale simulations that will imagine complex and multi-variants organizational situations could reach this.

As my experience tells me, these simulations demand enormous amount of work to create and to produce, and the opportunities to use them are not many. Computer simulations could be helpful here.

 

Using actual organizational experiences

The other, and probably more applicable mode of experiential learning is the use of actual organizational experiences for learning. According to the previously mentioned assumption that status of students is of no preference, this mode makes use of the valuable knowledge and experience of the managers in order to perform a project of organizational development. So far, this mode has proved to be the most successful according to my experience.

The project involves in acquiring relevant theoretical knowledge while dealing with critical issues, and implementing the knowledge in real time. It enables a multilayer learning, or in Argiris words: one, double and triple loops of learning.

I.e.: using systemic thinking in a project of downsizing along with cultural change of the “rules of the game”; Creating a process of mutual envisioning; Conducting a workshop to improve dialog and create a different kind of conversation where the senior manager is an appreciated leader but is also aware of his deficient in “personal consideration”, a workshop that extends later to form a “windows” of different kind of conversation among the managers, along with the routine action.

 

Leaderless learning groups

Another form of successful work with senis leaderless group for mutual consultation. Seniors usually experience loneliness in their positions. They have a strong need for a setting in which they can think and reflect without being aware that they are on duty all the time, meaning: free from subordinates expectations. There is also a great benefit of exposing seniors to a variety of organizational and leadership contents, ways to handle problems, new ways of thinking, a cumulative experience of colleagues etc. A kind of leaderless group which I have the opportunity to work with is voluntary organized group of commanders of military schools in the IDF (i.e. medical, communication, rescue, intelligence, women officers etc.) who formed a setting for learning that gatheres every time in one of the schools for a close look at the activity there and discussing various issues concerning their work. We also conducting workshops for this group working on senior leadership issues and learning from case studies they present. A very useful contribution to the learning of this forum was to visit civilian organizations, and to meet with managers from outside the IDF. These experiences proved to be enriching and a catalyst for breaking through of previous conventions.

 

Individual consulting

There is a very high value added to the individual consultation for senior managers. This is learning setting that enables intensive and deep work that focuses on the manager himself, and is well suited since it is comprised of ‘small portions’ dedicated to the manager. This setting is appropriate to deepening awareness to personal leadership patterns, enhance the forces and minimize the effects of weaknesses; helping in crystallizing his vision; working through emotional difficulties that accompanies his functioning, etc.

  • To conclude, senior managers do need help in developing their abilities to lead. This is not the seniors need only, but an urgent need of the organizations they are leading as this is one of the crucial components dictating the organizational effective functioning. Nevertheless, the seniors sector is probably the most neglected one in regard of leadership development. Our task as consultants here becomes complicated, after all, the decision to invest in the seniors development is lying on the seniors desks. I think there is still a long way to go in elaborating the contents and the methods of working with seniors on their leadership development. I am looking forward to meet and discuss anyone who is interested in it to go on and promote this promising domain.

Bibliography

 

  1. Shmair, B. (1995), Social Distance and Charisma: Theoretical Notes and an Exploratory Study, Leadership Quarterly, 6(1), 19-47.
  2. Meindel, J. R. (1990), On Leadership: An Alternative to the Conventional Wisdom. In B. M.Staw & L. L. Cummings (Eds.), Research in Organizational Behavior (vol. 12, pp. 159-203).Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.
  3. Katz, D. & Kahn, R. L. (1978), The Social Psychology of Organizations, New York: Wiley
  4. Meindle, J. R., Ehrlich, S. B., & Dukerich, J. M. (1985), The Romance of Leadership. Administrative Sceince Quarterly, 30, 78-102.
  5. Altman & Katz (1995), Leadership and Leadership Development: theory and Practice, School for Leadership Development – IDF (in Hebrew).
  6. Toffler (1990), Power Shift.
  7. Jaques, E. (1989), Requisite Organizations: The CEO’s Guide to Creative Structure and Leadership, Cason Hall, Arlington, VA and Gower, Aldershot, Hants.
  8. Senge, P. M. (1990) The Fifth Discipline.
  9. Lanir (1993), The edge of Strategic thinking, Ma’arachot, 326, 2-11 (in Hebrew)
  10. Kofman, F. & Senge, P. M. (1995), Community of Commitment: The Heart of Learning Organizations, Organizational Dynamics, ,5-23.
  11. Massick, D. M. & Bazerman, M. H. (1996), Ethical Leadership and the Psychology of Decision Making, Sloan Management Review, Winter, 9-22.
  12. Ackoff, R.L. (1995): ‘Whole-ing the Parts and righting the wrong, Systems research 12, 1, 43-46
  13. Jaques, E. & Clement, S. D. (1991) Executive Leadership, Cason Hall & Co. Publishers, Arlington, VA
  14. Kelley, K. (1994): Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines. London Fourth Estate.
  15. Argyris, C. (1982), Learning and Action: Personal And Organizational. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


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