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John Baldoni
Leadership author

John Baldoni

John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach, and regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review online. His most recent book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up.

Is there a common cause?

Q: This week's Washington Post investigative series on the government's burgeoning intelligence network prompts the question: Can an organization get so big and so complex that it just can't be managed effectively? Or is "too-big-to-manage" just a cop-out for flawed structure and lack of leadership?

The job of a leader is to bring people together for common cause. When you are managing a startup with a few employees, it is pretty straightforward to get individuals focused on what is important. When the organization is as large and as complex as a governmental agency -- or, in this case, multiple government agencies -- getting people focused around common cause is more difficult. One reason is people inside the organization may not hold the same views as the people at the top and for that reason see no reason to follow through on strategic directions.

This symptom is something I call the "myth of the hierarchy."

Time and again directives from senior leaders fall on deaf ears because managers in the middle do not follow through. Even presidents are not immune from it. When General Dwight Eisenhower became president, Harry Truman said, "'He'll sit here, and he'll say, 'Do this! Do that!' And nothing will happen. Poor Ike--it won't be a bit like the Army. He'll find it very frustrating."

While size does add complexity - it is harder to bring 100 people together than it is 10 - size is not the sole culprit. A more serious concern is a failure to commit to common cause. When people in the middle, and on the front lines, do not believe in the directives they will not follow through on them. That's where a strong leader, coupled with a robust management system, is a must. Ideally, it works in four ways.

One, demonstrate the vision and couple it with urgency. Coming up with vision is important but giving it impetus to fulfill is harder. This is where executives need to drive it home with their communications. They also need to challenge their direct reports to do the same by translating the vision into day-to-day action steps so people know that is expected of them.

Two, hold people accountable for their actions. Expectations are relatively simple to set. The challenge arises in following through on them. When the stakes are high, managers who do not follow through will be transferred to other jobs, or asked to leave. Do this a few times and people get the message pretty quickly. Those at the top are not exempt from review. Accountability applies to everyone.

Three, insist on localized decision-making. There is a mitigating factor to complexity. No organization can survive for long if everyone thinks and acts the same way. Savvy leaders build in room for push back. You need to encourage employees at every level to think for themselves and make appropriate decisions that complement the organization's vision, mission and values. This allows for employees to contribute with their brains but keeps the organization's spine (mission) intact.

Four, celebrate the outcomes. Managing a large-scale enterprise is tough, and when the organization is challenged to change, it is even harder. Employees lose focus pretty quickly. That is why those at the top need to acknowledge the milestones and more importantly recognize those who have helped the organization achieve those milestones.

One executive has given us a playbook for how to drive purpose throughout an organization. When Alan Mulally hired in as CEO of Ford Motor in September 2006, the company was in dire shape financially. It was a sprawling enterprise with a number of disparate products and no central focus in vision or management. Mulally seized the initiative and with his team developed what is known as the One Ford plan.

The beauty of the plan its clear focus on strategic intentions and disciplined execution. Even better every employee in Ford can know how his or her job - be it purchasing or product development, marketing or human resources - contributes to the fulfillment of One Ford.

Size does matter yes, but savvy leaders know how to hold organizations together by communicating the urgency of the mission and following through on its intention by holding themselves and their teams accountable for results. Easy to say, but devilish to implement!

By John Baldoni

 |  July 19, 2010; 4:25 PM ET
Category:  Government leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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