Obscure management phrases for real people: No. 2, Leadership

This is the second in a short series of articles intended to restore the reputation of certain words — words that have been abused by managers and therefore have likely become meaningless to people who have to listen to them. Today: “leadership”.

“Leadership” is surely a word that needs saving from the management jargon-fest. It does mean something real and important, but I think it’s too easy to switch off when you hear it. It’s so loaded with portent that it’s easy to mistake the speaker as deluded or (at best) mistaken — after all, how many Winston Churchills, Nelson Mandelas or Martin Luther Kings can you expect to find in your organisation? Also, unless you recognise a revolution in progress, it’s hard to spot leadership at work.

Yet leadership is important and possible in even the smallest groups or organisations. As with the discussion of “strategic”, earlier, this article is part apology, part explanation.

Leadership in the animal kingdomAbout “leadership”

There is much that’s been written about leadership, but it tends to be for ambitious management-types [1, 2, 3], and therefore ignorable by the people who probably feel they’re doing the real work. Yet it’s important for everyone.

For me, leadership is about encouraging groups of people to being doing things they wouldn’t do if left to their own devices. These might be people inside or outside your team.

So if your team is stuck in a rut, then someone needs to exercise some leadership to help you out of it. Or perhaps there’s a dysfunctional relationship between your department and the rest of your company; again, it requires someone with some leadership to change the way people work together.

These situations are not just about implementing changes, they’re about changing the otherwise-routine behaviours of groups of people. And leadership doesn’t need to come only from those with the keys to the executive washroom. Here are some examples..

Example: Increasing the value of our product

This story comes from one of my former companies, and is about someone I’ll call “Mike”, because that was his name.

Our company produced shrink-wrapped software for search engine marketing, and its most common function was to produce search-engine-friendly content for sites which didn’t already have it. (An aside here: that kind of thing isn’t too respectable today, so let me assure you of three things: (1) this was a very long time ago, when the rules we know today weren’t written, (2) we always made sure our clients used the software for respectable purposes, and (3) the company today is quite a different beast and enjoys strong partnership relations with all the major search engines.) Mike was one of the technical consultants for the sales staff: he’d go along with them to sales meetings, answer technical questions, feed back ideas to the developers, configure installations, and so on.

The core module of the software was given manually-entered information about your company (company name, key product names, common related terms) and generated the content. This was a nice, simple sales proposition and was relatively easy to sell: we put you on search engines — simple, eh? However, we always felt it was undervalued, because it took a lot of time and effort to demonstrate and explain, and it was incredibly difficult to justify anything more than quite a low price on something as vague as “visibility”.

There was another module, too, which mined your company’s product database and drew out terms from that so you didn’t have to key them in yourself. If you’ve got 5,000 products and you were actually going to key them all in, that’s a real time-saver. But database connectivity was quite a new and and cumbersome thing (I told you this was a long time ago), difficult for the sales people to understand, and difficult to convince clients that they should spend time doing this when the only real value was to save you some typing which you probably weren’t going to do anyway. In the end our software was a technically advanced product of lowish-value and with a fancy database add-on.

But one day Mike started seeing things differently. He realised that by mining a product database the system was raising the profile of every single product that your company offered. Each of those products was a direct revenue stream for the company, and by raising the visibility of those products the system was going to put those products in front of more people, leading to a proportional rise is sales. Suddenly you could put numbers into a spreadsheet, and even a very conservative rise in sales would mean our system could be incredibly valuable to companies. We could comfortably value our software much more highly — as a proportion of your company’s annual turnover.

Mike went to our CEO with his new perspective, and our CEO was enthusiastic. He created a PowerPoint presentation, and took it round the sales people and his fellow technical consultants. It was clear to us that we had seriously misunderstood our own work. We had a new sense of excitement — we were sitting on something really valuable and hadn’t realised it. Nothing physical had changed, but we had a new outlook. We could explain what we did in a new and much more compelling way. We started using the phrase “return on investment” with conviction, and it actually meant something to our clients.

It wasn’t instantaneous, of course. Mike went out to trial our new outlook and our new presentations in front of clients. Lessons were learnt — the good and the bad — and were fed back to the team. Occasionally there was a confusion or misunderstanding, or subtle presentational tweaks needed to be made so as to make our message clear. Mike would ensure we kept learning the lessons from each other, and that our understanding was common and thorough.

I think the first actual sale of our software with this new perspective was ten times the previous average, and four or five times higher than anything we had sold before. And everyone was a winner: our clients had a tool to increase their revenue, and we were making more from our product.

Mike might have been one of the many people in the team, but he showed leadership. He changed the outlook and the behaviour of a large group of people. Nothing changed physically: we didn’t change our software, we didn’t change our staff. But we changed our attitude, we changed the way we talked about ourselves and our product, and we changed the benefits we offered our clients.

Oh yes, and we changed our revenue. That went up.

More leadership examples

There are numerous other examples of leadership that I’ve witnessed, but I fear writing about the protagonists as if they were saints, and I don’t want to embarrass them. So instead I’ll list a few examples only briefly…

  • The developer who lead the replacement of our proprietary application server, bringing in an open source (and much more managable) alternative. While everyone agreed it was important to do, he designed the architecture, sketched out the plan, and guided the other developers through the implementation. We still had a project manager and many others involved, and I can still say it was a team effort, but that developer saw it through from beginning to end and was a pivotal authority throughout.
  • The sales manager who led his disparate transatlantic sales people to be much more accountable and transparent about their prospective clients. He created a system of gates, in which the sales people needed to categorise their prospects, and ensured each member of the team shared their progress in a weekly conference call. With increased accountability, the sales team became much more trusted and respected throughout the organisation.
  • The team lead who helped us integrate a third-party Javascript product. He engineered an appropriate test framework, coached his team on its appropriate use, oversaw the development work, and volunteered himself as an out-of-hours technical point of contact in case of any problems. Something that was previously deemed risky and made people nervous was ultimately held up as example of how people might do things on future projects.
  • The business development manager who translated Agile planning techniques into his own (non-technical) department. He used these to regularly organise and prioritise a demand pipeline that was not only impossibly large, but was so diverse the various demands weren’t easily comparable. He ensured the various stakeholders discussed their needs together and came to a common agreement, allowing the department to regularly present a clear, consistent message to the rest of the business.

I can be quite certain that when these people did these things they didn’t for one second think they were demonstrating leadership. The sales manager will have thought he was just implementing good practice; the app-server developer will have thought he was just sorting out a long-standing problem. And in all cases they’d be right. But they demonstrated leadership, too.

Leadership in review

I’ve deliberately picked out people who were in the middle — not the top — of their respective organisations. The individual things they did towards each achievement ran over a sustained period, and were interspersed throughout their day-to-day jobs. But at the end of this they had changed the way their colleagues worked, and they were all undoubtedly better teams as a result.

So although leadership might sound overly-grand when referenced by management-types, it really can come from anywhere. I hope these examples show that leadership is a real and important quality, needed at all levels and in every organisation.