Silver Bullets

With Halloween approaching, I begin to remember fondly the simplicity of old horror movies. The action needed to solve the problem was absolutely clear and guaranteed to work, even if it was difficult to accomplish. Drive the stake through the vampire’s heart — end of problem. Shoot the werewolf with a silver bullet and he will hunt no more. Unfortunately, there are no silver bullets for leadership challenges.

Exposing outdated processes and stifling cultural norms to bright sunlight is a useful first step, but will not immediately redeem them of their often stultifying impact on sustainability and profits. Companies who are underperforming because of deeply rooted organizational or systemic cultural issues must take a longer path to a new level of performance.

There are, however, business demons so endemic that significant and visible progress can be made by exorcising them. So, I offer here two of the closest things I have seen to leadership silver bullets.

  • Reinvent Meetings. Immediately insist that all meetings at your organization focus on the future. Re-engineer (or cancel) meetings held for the sole purpose of reporting progress on past events. The reason reporting (past focused) meetings are stultifying is that they often involve little interaction, give and take, discussion or co-creation. In other words, everyone could post their activity reports to the intranet or even in e-mail and have mostly the same outcome. Use people well in meetings. Set the time up for thinking, planning and interactive work that requires different viewpoints and spirited discussion. Expect meetings to have a published set of outcomes and agenda. Create a culture in which people turn off phones and participate fully. Start on time, finish on time and do real work that involves the best thinking and full participation of those in the meeting. Do not tolerate the waste of time and resource that ineffective meetings represent. If you need help — and you probably will — hire a facilitator. Better yet, train a few internally and engage them as meeting designers.
  • Show Up Where You Are Not Expected and Listen. For mid- market companies, leaders often have trouble maintaining the intimacy with customers, vendors and employees that was common in earlier days. Even if yours is a smaller business, accompanying a sales person on a call, showing up early at the store with coffee and doughnuts or late at the plant with pizza has the same effect. Remember, this is neither a state visit nor an opportunity to directly intervene. Go be present and curious. Listen. Tom Peters used to evangelize Management by Walking Around. I encourage you to refine this a bit into Leadership by Walking Around. Your presence (or lack of it) tells your company where your priorities are. Abraham Lincoln relieved Gen. John Fremont of his command, stating “His cardinal mistake is that he isolates himself and allows nobody to see him; and by which he does not know what is going on in the very matter he is dealing with.”

If you see serious problems, pass them along to the manager in charge with instructions to address the process, not blame the individual. Corrective action must be taken without making your next visit cause for fear and trepidation. If your presence gets associated with disciplinary action, abusive intervention or make-wrong management, you will have simply replaced one organizational Frankenstein with another.

Of course, the very concept of a silver bullet implies that there is some nefarious revenant purposefully creeping through the halls of your office to suck the life and energy out of people and profits. In general, such is not the case. But these particular silver bullets address issues that all companies have and generally show immediate and measurable return. And they are way more dependable and attractive than hanging garlic over the front door.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, September 20, 2004.