SHIFTing the Mindset During COVID-19: Part 8 “Leadership”

Over the past few months, Eileen Brown, co-author of Shift: A New Mindset for Sustainable Execution, has been writing a blog series called “SHIFTing the Mindset During COVID-19.” This week, in the final installment, Eileen discusses the value of leadership and why it can make or break an organization’s ability to improve execution.

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This is the last installment of this blog series. In the previous seven installments, I have covered the three levers of execution – structure, rhythm, and awareness – as well as the four progressive shifts to fill gaps and eliminate distractions. The chart to the right shows a simplified matrix of the content. This model can be used to help track and reduce the overall cost of execution, and improve both short and long term sustainability of an organization’s ability to execute predictably. However, the conversation is not complete without a discussion on the execution leader.

Leadership

When an organization is working to improve execution, positive gains will either be made or be broken by leadership. To execute successfully, the actions of the leader at the very top flow down to set the tone on how the rest of the leadership team will act. There are four key attributes, discussed below, that must be demonstrated and valued by the top executive and all other members of the leadership team.

The COVID-19 pandemic affords us the luxury of comparing the best and worst examples of leadership everyday on the news. In Canada, and in Ontario specifically, we have been fortunate to be spared public debates or politicking between our federal and provincial leaders, though they belong to different political affiliations and do not share the same perspectives on some policies and ideologies. At the local level, the mayors that I can see, are also working on a commonly shared agenda. Most are putting their differences aside in the interests of citizens, choosing not to engage on partisan agendas when there are plentiful opportunities to do so.

Why is it that some leaders can thrive in any environment, even dire situations, and perform better than their predecessors? Why is it said that some people have a knack for getting things done? Our research has shown that there are four common characteristics that set apart leaders that are skilled at execution.

Fortitude

Most of us think of perseverance or courage when we hear the world fortitude. Those leaders who are best at execution are able to thrive outside of their comfort zone, and do what is inconvenient or difficult each and every time that it is essential to do so. It takes mental and emotional strength to take the higher ground and rise above the inflammatory “bait” that is so often tossed in their direction. They know how to assess risk in terms of threats and opportunities and accept those that have clear benefits. They do not sugar-coat their messages, but instead are truthful and direct using candor to illustrate how actions are aligned with their messages, and better prepare us to deal with adversity. For example, it was a memorable moment when our Prime Minister (PM) looked directly into the television camera at a press briefing, paused then somberly declared, “It’s time for all Canadians to come home, now.”  I spoke to several travelers who said it was that one sentence that made them change their plans and return home immediately.

Leaders with fortitude also set clear boundaries. They have learned how to say “no” and are not reticent to make decisions or refuse questions they are not prepared to answer. Most importantly, having fortitude means relinquishing control when it drives a better outcome by letting others focus more intently. You will recall that the PM gave full discretion to Chrystia Freeland, Deputy PM and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs when there was an issue with the delivery of N95 face masks from a U.S. supplier, early in the pandemic. She was able to dedicate more time than the PM and leverage relationships she had built through the NAFTA negotiations to resolve the issue. His confidence in her ability was proven to be well placed. Those who are skilled at execution, know that allowing issues to be resolved at the lowest level possible, closest to the issue, is usually most efficient.

Fortitude can be thought of as the “structure” or backbone of a leader.

Resolute

Successful execution leaders place the organizational agenda above all others, and demonstrate zero tolerance toward activity that is not aligned. They have a plan; they make sure everyone knows the plan; and they exploit all resources at their disposal. They don’t ask for more than what they need. Strong leaders work to simplify issues and make the priorities clear. They have an intolerance for “nice-to-haves” and any personal preferences that redirect energy away from the organizational priorities. They aim to differentiate boundaries and drive optimum trade-offs. Those who work for resolute leaders feel they have the support and information they need to do their job. At his daily press briefings, the Premier of Ontario starts by thanking the front-line workers for the resolve they continue to demonstrate, announces any new benefits, and then quickly moves to highlight problem areas where the government needs to improve and how he will find a solution. The day-after-day commitment to discuss the good, the bad, and the ugly helps to reassure citizens that someone is at the helm and reinforces the need for the continued support of citizens’ (social distancing). Through this methodical and predictable approach, he is building trust that he is resolute to lead the province through these uncertain times.

It is commitment and resolute behaviour that provides the “rhythm” for how a strong leader executes.

Accessible

It is human nature to want to avoid certain people and certain phone calls that tend to make our work life more difficult. Our level of accessibility is a conscious choice that we all have to make. The best execution leaders are visible. They do not quietly slip in the back door, dash up the stairs and hide in their office all day, hoping not to unexpectedly encounter anyone who is not scheduled on their calendar. Being accessible is a way of finding out, on a timely basis, what is really going on rather than merely relying on what information you are being fed. Falling prey to messages that are “spun” is a land mine to be avoided. Our research shows that awareness barriers have the greatest negative impact on the cost of execution. Leaders who are serious about executing better, need to be accessible and seek opportunities to gather/validate information and engage every mind. During the daily COVID-19 updates, I get frustrated by the media’s repetitive questions – asked in English and then again in French, or repeated from the previous day, or asked when the media knows the answers are not available, like “when will this be over?” The PM and Premier do a good job of hiding any frustration and they respectfully try to answer the difficult questions the best way they can at the time. That is what it takes to be accessible – creating a forum for dialogue and willingly addressing the hard, unpredictable and frustrating questions.

Another notable point is that accessibility strengthens networks. Leaders who make people feel comfortable accessing their help, also increase the probability that it will be reciprocated. This becomes especially valuable when trying to influence peers and colleagues outside of your reporting structure. The network of accessibility was evident among some governors of U.S. states as they reached beyond government and partisan alliances to balance supplies where possible. Who can forget that Patriots jet that brought masks from China for the governor of Massachusetts (GOP), of which a portion he shared with the governor of New York (Dem)? Lowering your defenses may be difficult for some but it will increase the quality of information you receive and the breadth of your network. Also, seeking external feedback from peers and customers on the ease of interacting with your organization is a good way to validate your assumptions about your own group’s accessibility, especially if you are delivering a service.

Allowing a high level of accessibility gives the execution leader greater “awareness”.

Integrity

Integrity is the fourth and final characteristic of a successful execution leader. It is blatant when integrity is missing, as it is demonstrated through consistent behaviour and communication over an extended period of time. Integrity can be subjective, but one thing is for sure: all levels in the organization know when it is missing at the top! Maintaining objectivity and letting people know that there is a higher court of appeal where the “buck stops” is key to authenticating integrity. Along with objectivity, setting a “zero tolerance” for gamesmanship and political motivation is a prerequisite to being recognized as having integrity. Results must be driven through honesty and strong ethical principles.

Integrity is so important that if absent, it can de-rail the positive effects of the previous three attributes and the benefits of any efforts made to improve execution.

We have all witnessed strong and weak leaders.  Those who execute best have a low cost of execution. They do not leave a wake of destruction and damage behind them as they get the job done. They calmly cut a smooth and still path like a canoe on a quiet lake. No thrashing.

It has been a pleasure sharing some of the concepts of our book with you, using examples from the current COVID-19 pandemic to demonstrate our research and execution model in action. Stay well.

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This was the final installment in the “SHIFTing the Mindset During COVID-19: Part 8” blog series. Click here to view previous installments in the series.

Interested in finding out more about Shift: A New Mindset for Sustainable Execution. Click here to read an excerpt from the book.

Click here to purchase your copy of Shift: A New Mindset for Sustainable Execution.