When I think about the challenges a CEO, MD or GM faces running a company, division or business unit it is perhaps surprising that any are successful. After all, so much needs to go right. There are many “things” to plan, resource and execute if the customer is to receive the product or service requested and the business is to flourish. In the vast majority of cases these things are completed by people and that is the nexus of the leadership challenge; doing the right things, doing them well and leading the people effectively.
I had assumed it was a management guru, such as Peter Drucker (The Effective Executive), Charles Handy (Gods of Management) or Stephen Covey (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People), who had coined the phrase shown in the first part of the title. I was mistaken. The source was someone born in New York City over one hundred years ago, a computer pioneer!
Grace Murray Hopper trained as a mathematician and managed to excel in a six decade career in academia, industry and the U.S.military. She had outstanding technical skills, was a whizz at marketing, repeatedly demonstrated her business and political acumen, and never gave up on her good ideas.
One of her outstanding contributions to computer science changed the lives of everyone in that nascent industry. She co-developed the first programming compiler, COBOL, and coined the ubiquitous phrase “computer bug”. Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper was held in such esteem that she was laid to rest in Arlington Cemetery in 1992.
A visionary, scientist and pioneer Grace was famous for her sayings which reflected her desire to push boundaries. They included prescient statements such as:
“If it’s a good idea, go ahead and do it. It’s much easier to apologize than it is to get permission”.
“Humans are allergic to change. They love to say, “We’ve always done it this way.” I try to fight that. That’s why I have a clock on my wall that runs counter-clockwise”.
“One accurate measurement is worth a thousand expert opinions”.
“Some day, on the corporate balance sheet, there will be an entry which reads, “Information”; for in most cases, the information is more valuable than the hardware which processes it.” (This quote is becoming more relevant as this century unfolds).
And the one which concerns us here:
“Our young people are the future. We must provide for them. We must give them the positive leadership they’re looking for…You manage things; you lead people.”
Managing things includes activities such as developing processes, systems & technology; setting goals and standards; measurement and reporting; strategic planning; continuous improvement; directing and control and so forth. The result is efficiency, effectiveness, delighted customers; a platform for growth.
Leading people includes activities such as valuing, developing and motivating; communicating a vision; inspiring purpose, excellence and innovation and so on. The result is a high performance culture; also a platform for growth.
Organisational leaders exhibit a variety of behavioural styles such as those articulated by Blake & Mouton almost 50 years ago in their managerial grid. Depending on the bias towards Task or People at the extreme the leader may be a Dictator (all task, no people), a Socialite (all people, no task), Absentee (no task, no people), a Compromiser (a bit of both), or a Leader (Task + People).
CEOs, MDs and GMs why not take some time out to reflect on your leadership style? Ask yourself these three questions:
1. What percentage of my time is spent “managing things” to ensure the job is done versus “leading people” to embed a high performance culture?
2. How would my direct reports, and others in the organisation, answer that question about me? (Dare I ask them? Dare they respond with candour?)
3. Is there a healthy balance? Should I make a modest adjustment & re-calibrate or do I need to re-boot and make a step change?
Take a good look and check that you have a balance between personal behaviours relating to “things” and to “people”. If you feel a strong correction is in order, bear in mind another of the Rear Admiral’s exhortations:
“A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.” You may well need to set sail!