A focus-creating question for new executive leaders

Sometimes, your journey to the top makes you believe you already know the view from the summit. Even before you get there.

Executive leaders work diligently to get to the top. As deserving performers over the years, they learn in the school of hard knocks. Many a time, they have made a mental note of how they will do things differently once their time comes.

Ask them questions and they will have ready answers. How their function, their area is performing. What the ‘real’ obstacles are.  What the most crucial tasks are, who the most critical team-members are. All this and more. In effect, they know what efforts they want to put in when their time comes.

And when they do take charge, the first impulse is to intensify effort. They want their team, their function to do better on all parameters. What does the executive leader do? In good faith, he takes upon himself the responsibility of being a good leader. And looks inwards, to his responsibility area, the team in place, and how he can lead them.

What is wrong with this? If that is all they do and things turn out well, then apparently nothing. But that is a rarity.

If there is a hiccup, it could be because a crucial pre-requisite is missing.

Results. A fresh assessment of what constitutes results for the leader.

A new executive leader in IT will launch forth on his dream ‘game-changer’ initiative that he believes will make IT an outperformer. He wants to surprise his peers and the top boss and keeps this as his little secret. All significant effort within is now redirected at this initiative. The leader has not thought through what ‘results’ are. If they fail to deliver the results once considered sacrosanct, and business is hampered, that indicates that one has faltered in thinking through and acting upon the ‘mission’ of IT – an even more fundamental lapse.

A new executive leader in customer service or HR unilaterally decides that the internal-service level agreements need to be re-negotiated. Rather than raise it upfront with his peers and the top boss, he encourages his team to be newly assertive and demanding in cross-functional dealings. This is sure to win him brownie points as a leader who cares for his team and wants the best for them. Again, the leader has not thought through what ‘results’ are.

A relook at results. A re-articulation of what matters and why. That’s what is needed. Doing it requires discipline. And an ability to overcome the natural instinct we have. Our natural instincts as human beings is to focus on what we can control, especially in a secure environment. Rather than go out and seek to understand the wider external environment that is beyond our control. Executive leaders home in on that same natural instinct and look inwards, to their function, and their team, and themselves as leaders.

This question can begin the process of overriding that natural instinct and moving beyond that inward bias into the external environment.

What is the one immediate key challenge?

Executive leaders will have a million different answers to this question. They will be tempted to dig up answers that begin with making changes within the team, the function, and their leadership.

When they persist with the question at a deeper level, they will realize a truth that can really act as a beacon or a compass – for all times, in all conditions. It is this. The results are always on the outside. The results that they aim at are achieved outside their secure environment.

For executive leaders, what becomes even more challenging is this. The higher the level of executive leadership, the closer they are to crossing the boundary of their organizational context. They are compelled to cross this because that’s where their results lie. Closer to the realm of the market, and the customer. Closer to the force-field of competitors.

And what an insecure and challenging environment that is! An executive leader has a measure of influence within his own organization beyond his immediate function. Outside of it, precious little.

Success begins in engaging with this environment. In getting a grasp of the demands of their task. In defining what constitutes effective results for their team. The answer will inevitably define how the team contributes to organizational success. And since it takes shape outside in a dynamic environment, it can and does change in nature and kind. This well-thought through, specific answer is the strategic context for leadership success.


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