Executive Leadership, Women And The “Work Around” Approach To Getting Things Done

By Billie Bowe
Caribbean News Now, Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands.

There are certain best practices that we all can learn from various business gurus who have headed, founded or consulted for Fortune 500 companies.

Thankfully, many of them have written books to help us mere mortals become better leaders, so when I came across a very interesting interview in the McKinsey Quarterly1 featuring Tom Peters, a former Partner at McKinsey & Co. and co-author of the book In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies, I must admit, I was expecting the run of the mill leadership tips that are often regurgitated or “repackaged” by many, with a slightly different take. I guess that’s why they are called best practices.

What drew me to this article, however, was the frankness with which Peters speaks about executive leadership. Here is what he had to say.

Relentless experimentation — This was in response to a question about what’s missing from today’s conversation about management. Peters believes that leaders should be moving at the speed of light and “screwing around with nearly everything.” According to Peters, if relentless experimentation was important in the 1970s, in this century it’s do or die.

Do one thing at a time — This one is often tossed around as a best practice and it is. Time management, sure we’ve all tried to master it but is it really working for us? Peters recalled two lessons he learned from a book he read entitled Leadership the Hard Way. One is that 50 percent of an executive’s time should be unscheduled (I nearly balked at that), and two, the secret to success is daydreaming.

Even as I typed those words, I had a hard time wrapping my head around this one, but as Peters so frankly puts it, “The only thing on earth that never lies to you is your calendar.” Enough said.

Design mindfulness — Again, a very new term for me but I completely got it when I read his rationale. Peters believes that humans should do what we know best, and that is designing things. This ties nicely with his hypothesis about experimentation. Since we’re so good at designing things and we have machines automating just about everything in the 21st century organization, why not spend time mindfully designing every little thing? According to Peters, “There’s a character to business. It’s how you live in the world.”

Understanding corporate culture — I for one strongly believe that as an executive if you ignore your organization’s culture, you may as well be leading Martians not people. Peters cited Lou Gerstner, former chairman of the board and chief executive officer of IBM. Gerstner says that when he started at IBM he learned that corporate culture is not part of the game: It is the game.

People development, it’s not rocket science — Again, Peters candor about successful executive leadership is amazing. Simply put, leaders are paid to develop people. Without apologies Peters says, unless you were born with a very silver spoon in your mouth, you probably have to work just like the rest of us so why not enjoy it. He goes on to say that if you’re not prepared to do people, “do the world a favor and get the hell out before dawn, preferably without a gilded parachute.”

Tombstones don’t have your net worth on them — Peters certainly has a way with words. It was abundantly clear from the interview that he also has very strong views when it comes to executives who don’t get it when it comes to emotional intelligence. Neither wealth nor fame, according Peters, is really important. People are. About executives who are ignorant to this, he says, “I don’t have much patience with CEOs who don’t see it that way.”

The big-change business — Organizational change is impossible without first confronting culture. While we as leaders can attest that organizational cultures are living, breathing entities that can either make or break a company, many executives still seem oblivious to this hence they strategize their way into frenzies. Peters believes that change is about recruiting allies and I totally agree. I often encourage my clients to identify champions who can drive their change initiatives. Change doesn’t happen all at once and it certainly won’t happen during a giant meeting of the minds. Peters points out that change comes about “one person at a time, face to face.”

Silicon Valley versus ROP (Rest of Planet) — Call it irony or pure common sense that a man who has spent his career consulting executives at top tier companies would fundamentally understand that small to mid-sized enterprises are making the world’s economy tick, not the Googles or Facebooks of the world, and there is plenty of evidence to substantiate this.

When it comes to executive leadership, the way leaders think in big businesses is starkly different than those in smaller businesses. I especially enjoyed this portion of the interview for obvious reasons soon to become clear. Peters believes that women in management are adept at “work-arounds”, while their male counterparts are focused on hierarchy. Now you see why I like this guy! When it comes to working around a challenge he says, “The male response is, “I can’t do anything about it ’cause my boss is really against it.” And the female response, by and large, would be, “Well, I know Jane who knows Bob who knows Dick, and we can get this thing done.”

In the end, in this short, candid interview with Tom Peters and three senior execs from McKinsey4 taught me more about executive leadership in a nine-page article, than several bestselling books on leadership combined. So again I ask, are you a CEO or someone just pretending to be one?

Tom Peters on leading the 21st organization, McKinsey Quarterly, September 2014

Dov Frohman and Robert Howard, Leadership the Hard Way: Why Leadership Can’t Be Taught — And How You Can Learn It Anyway, 2008

Louis V. Gerstner Jr., Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?: Inside IBM’s Historic Turnaround, New York, NY: HarperBusiness, 2002.

Suzanne Heywood, a director in McKinsey’s London office; Aaron De Smet, a principal in the Houston office; and Allen Webb, the editor in chief of McKinsey Quarterly, who is based in the Seattle office.

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