Leadership and continuity

I’ve been by turns amused and horrified by discussions recently of the proposed WeWork floatation, and the apparent hubris running through it. WeWork runs co-working spaces with the kind of perks and atmosphere attractive to many tech workers, and I was first alerted to the craziness of the $47bn floatation by an incredulous piece in The Verge, entitled “WeWork isn’t a tech company; it’s a soap opera”. It’s well worth reading the whole (profanity-sprinkled) piece.

Much, but by no means all, of the concern was centred on the near-total power of—and questionable decisions for—its CEO and co-founder, Adam Neumann. Once some of the dangers inherent in the floatation were recognised, the floatation was pulled and there is a now second run at it, as The Guardian now explains:

Now comes a plan to get the show back on the road, courtesy of 30% shareholder, Softbank: ditch Adam Neumann as chief executive.

What caught my attention in that piece was the recognition that though this CEO may be singularly problematic, he has also been singularly central to WeWork’s success to date:

But, assuming Neumann can be pushed out, what then? In the shoes of would-be outsiders, you would surely want to be convinced that the company would not fall apart without its buccaneering pioneer. It is, after all, hard to see what, apart from Neumann’s undoubted ability to charm the likes of SoftBank boss Masayoshi Son, has fuelled We to this point. The company remains heavily loss-making and operates in the dull world of bricks and mortar.

Most companies I’ve worked with have been undergoing a significant change, and often that change has been driven by a dertermined and—inevitably—charismatic leader. They are someone who must stir their team and their board peers to go through a period of pain to achieve some greater promised goal. There is much faith in and support for that leader.

But major change takes time, and sometimes that leader leaves before the change is complete and embedded. When this happens, what comes next depends on the past actions of that leader.

If that person allowed a “cult” or, let’s be more generous, a culture and process to be heavily dependent on them, the change will typically fall apart. Their team members will no longer be motivated, because the motivation came from outside themselves and is now gone. The board or owners will not believe or understand the approach of the now-departed leader and so be unable or unwilling to appoint a successor who continues their work. In the face of stalled and reversed change, the few who did really believe in it tend to leave, too, as they seek the greater promised goal elsewhere.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. A leader who continually listens, communicates and educates will leave behind a different legacy. If they work to ensure their team members really understand and believe the actions they need to take, then those people will be able to continue without their leader. If the leader helps their senior peers and board members to similarly understand and believe in their work then those senior peers and board members will be motivated to find a replacement who builds on their initial work.

Listening, communicating and educating ensures those in and around the leader to understand, internalise and willingly advance the agenda. It allows the work to continue even after they leave.

Photo by MIKI Yoshihito