By Phil Keil
As we wrap up 2020 and enter into the new year, it is often a time of reflection and contemplation. I always encourage others to take this time when things are usually slower to look back on the lessons that have been learned and look forward towards the triumphs that are yet to be won. There is much to celebrate even while the year has been a difficult one. We’ve learned that our organizations need to be more agile and adaptable, our vision clearer. We need everyone to understand the purpose we are building towards, and that everyone is valuable. We’ve also learned that there is never a better time to develop ourselves and our people than now. It can be difficult to look at ourselves and our firms clearly and admit that change needs to occur. Therefore, as we enter this new year with much hope and anticipation, let us empower those around us and work towards a more decentralized structure within our workplace.
Admittedly, I have at least one thing to get off of my chest before entering the new year. It is something I hope that we leave behind. I’ve had too many discussions with leaders that feel like their people cannot understand certain concepts and ideas. It is certainly phrased in a myriad of ways, but the bottom line essentially boils down to two things. Either “my people are too stupid to understand”, or “they are not ready.” It makes me want to simply say, “stop treating people like they are stupid.”
Now, I submit that everything has a time and place, but the mentality being so pervasive within our space is troubling. I doubt, that when pressed, any leader would truly say this is how they feel, but if this is the takeaway I have, you can be certain that the people they lead feel the same implication. Exposure to advanced concepts, principals, and ideas in the way our business operates, how things fit together, and what we are building towards is long to be understood to be beneficial to an individual’s career. It is also been shown that the higher the average intelligence (business, emotional, etc.) of the people whose summation comprises an organization, the more successful that entity is. The reticence in sharing information or concepts simply astounds me given these precepts. So, without elaborating any further, I’d like to leave this negativity behind us in 2020, as you reflect on your performance this past year, let’s recognize that we can do a better job moving forward. I encourage you to take those moments in your career or while mentoring others to simply find the opportunity to learn/teach the more advanced concepts that we all know would make us more successful. Even if you or your people cannot put everything into practice at a particular moment, allow the time for growth and a recognition of concepts that we must be aware of. It will allow the performance of the firm to be elevated substantially.
Now onto the second premise, which the first helps us to facilitate. That is the decentralization of structure within our firm to allow for a more agile, adaptable, and counterintuitively unified organization. This certainly elicits a larger conversation around organizational theory in which I hope to expand throughout 2021, but in the remaining space I have left in this article, let’s see if I can give you, the reader, a better understanding of the components required. I also welcome debate on the premise as it may not be as self-evident from the events in 2020 and the projected near-term future as I may think. In order for a firm to pursue a decentralization strategy, it needs to be able to do a few things well. I covered one of them already in the training and development of the entire organization—treating everyone as a vital and valuable component of a larger system.
Another is teamwork with its fundamental precepts being trust and communication. One person is a simply ill-equipped to succeed compared to a well-functioning team of two. Now think about if that two becomes four. It is simply not a linear expansion of impact and capability, but exponential. Without coordination and cooperation between teams, the organization is doomed to fail. The next, is a clear vision. Your teams need a simple and clear goal that everyone is working towards. It isn’t a how, but a why. Communication is key both up and down the chain of command, so it is important that we focus on the simplicity of the message. The next important component is the ability to prioritize and execute on tasks. A painful lesson that many firms learned this year is that they were focused on too many things and implemented very little of their strategic plans as a result. If a team tries to accomplish too many things at once, they will likely accomplish nothing. Utilizing these key components allows an organization to decentralize in such a way that really makes a firm come to life and accomplish some amazing things. It allows for everyone to step up and become a leader.
Ask yourself, if you were CEO of your firm, “What if each division leader clearly knew what your intent was and what you wanted each team to accomplish and they took the initiative to accomplish that intent?” That would make your job as CEO fairly easy. Now, that requires your communication to be simple and clear and simultaneously requires the division leaders to feel empowered enough to make things happen so that they will step up and lead. This has to be imbedded into the culture of your firm. Finally, two additional components are needed to make this strategy work, accountability and balance. Everyone needs to feel ownership, not make excuses, or blame anyone or anything else when problems occur. Leaders also need to be balanced. For example, you can’t talk too much or too little, you also cannot be overly assertive, etc.
As I come to a conclusion, I would like to touch on one final thing that many leaders struggle with yet is required for a decentralized structure. That is delegation of authority. Leaders must push tasks and authorities down to their subordinate leaders and so on. It is only when you have delegated all actions that you can truly lead strategically. It is impossible to do so when you are busy trying to manage less significant tasks that could be handled by others. This doesn’t mean you should be trying to do nothing. In fact, from time to time, you should be willing to do the most awful job and get your hands dirty. It will clearly display your humility and increase your team’s respect for you. That is all I have to share to start out the year. Let me know if this reflection is something that resonates with you and how we might help you put these ideas into practice within your own organization.
Phil Keil is director of Strategy Consulting, Zweig Group. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.