The Modern Leadership Challenge

There are leadership challenges in growing a business – as many millennials now know! But there are stranger and perhaps tougher leadership challenges in changing a business.

In technical roles the issue of leading for growth is becoming a well covered topic. I am more interested in a different very modern leadership challenge.

First, as my previous articles here should make clear, agility, or what I call flow, should extend to all parts of the business and not just be a post-agile method for IT. Flow is tough in the tech part but really the goal is to create multidisciplinary teams where flow is the method across the business.

Second,  the discussion about tech leadership can become a set of lessons for how to facilitate change more generally. IT is now a pioneer of change and should become the driver. We are always on the move, always uncertain, always trying to leave our architecture and commitments open enough for the next improvement to go in.

That environment requires much more modern leadership. What are we learning?

Modern leadership defined

Whether the whole of the executive suite likes it or not we are inevitably moving towards a real time context for decisions, large and small.

Recently I read about high-growth startup, Skyscanner’s innovation rate. In the period 2010-2012 it was 20 times a year, a big improvement on the old days when IT introduced new systems every 3 years. By 2017 Skyscanner had achieved 2 million updates a year. This is truly remarkable but it will become the norm. All leaders have to grasp that fact – 200 updates a day – done deal.

Getting to that involves:

  • Managing growth through real time innovation
  • Managing huge uncertainty about what will work and what might not in innovation environments
  • Creating an experimental context at work to give employees the best chance of success (through testing, through permissions to do new things, by delegating choices about where to make changes and so on)
  • Recruiting and developing the best people possible
  • Building trust with them and between them
  • Transparency in information
  • Acknowledging that no single person can make all this happen

That last point is perhaps the one that needs to guide modern leadership philosophy.

It is not saying “no single person can run a company”. That much is obvious. What it is saying is that no single person, no source of authority, can truly oversee all the change that needs to happen. Even “business-as-usual” now involves too high a degree of change for “management-as-usual”. In circumstances where transformation is the key objective that problem of managing the abnormal is magnified.

It means the leader’s role and identity has to change. The culture of leadership has to change. Tough challenge – because we usually insist everyone else has to change. That’s our prerogative as leaders….

But leadership has to change from “I lead the way that this business executes its processes and runs its systems” to “I lead the way this company changes itself, each and every day.” When you get to a stage that your core architecture is adapted over 200 times a day then you know you are in the flow and your decisions are real time. You know most organisations cannot survive this without new leaders and new “clans” who are prepared to work in new ways. The leader’s role is to bring about the reality of continuous change.

Effectual modern leadership

There’s a term now used in entrepreneurial communities called “effectual leadership”. It means the combination of emotional and physical resources that go into creating a successful business outcomes. It refers also to an entrepreneur’s ability to manifest those qualities in herself or himself for the sake of the team, showing what’s possible and creating belief.


The goal in the era of exponential change is not an abstraction like: “we should not work in silos” or “I want us to be more innovative”. These leadership diktats are meaningless in practice though ideal in theory.

The goal is to work like a startup. Large enterprise, startup mentality. We aspire to that because startups are enjoyable places to be, they are pretty hard work, they chop and change, but they also unlock people’s deepest aspirations and give them goals that they will travel the extra mile to achieve. Startups rarely grow to the size that interests a large company but they do give good culture.

The startup mindset has distinct process advantages too:

  • There is no IT-Business divide
  • Most teams will grow from a holistic, cross-disciplinary base
  • Information is transparent, so people know what’s going on and don’t feel threatened by the unknown
  • You are in it together
  • You have to keep learning because you are posing a new hypothesis to the market, to the customer base and to do good science like that you need to think, what might add value to my customers experience of the company

These are all valuable attributes that can be strong outcomes of environments where you are demanding that people alter the way they work.

To get there you need to address leadership characteristics and the way leaders affect teams.

Modern leadership qualities

There is a new cadre of leaders around now who have done the change process a few times. They owe nothing to the old school of management or the MBA. They didn’t learn any of it at Harvard or INSEAD or LBS.

There are, of course, consultants who arrive in a company with a change programme that involves reallocating roles, defining new objectives and realigning expectations; there are coaches who try to persuade people to change attitudes and who have their five point plans for encouraging people to do essentially what they are not.

By way of contrast, I mean people who have led an organisation through a specific process transition. People who have managed process model innovation. There are few of these people but they’re growing into a distinct breed with accepted practices.

Process change in the tech space that might be from waterfall to agile, though in my view most agile processes are anything but. Nonetheless the people who do this have earned their stripes. They have entered the ranks of “management by uncertainty” experts – leading in the grey.

They will have taken away many of the crutches that people use to do just enough between 9 and 5.30. They will have successfully raised the demands the organisation makes on people in work. They will have figured out how to make an enjoyable and rewarding experience out of changing what we do for eight hours each working day. In short, they will have achieved results from the need to change and they will have done it by making the bulk of an employee’s waking day a far better experience.

In the process they will have dealt with huge resistance from some, suspicion from executives and failures that come close to costing the change-makers their jobs.

People who go through that a couple of times learn a huge amount about people and yet even more about their own role. Like what?

In modern leadership, I believe, there is a huge increase in the emotional commitment you make to people and that they to you.

Because you take them through a novel and often scary process, where their jobs appear vulnerable, and where they often doubt they can deliver, they nonetheless end up being liberated. Because of that, they come to believe in you.

You are winning trust but also this much bigger emotion – belief.  That, quite frankly, can be scary for a leader and that’s why many of us avoid it. It is very human and we are not used to engaging in these deep human experiences at work. We prefer to give orders and set targets. But modern leaders need to engage emotionally.

Many people are looking for someone to unlock something in their work-lives: a talent they have not had a chance to express, a personal goal, a new kind of balance in their lives, the right to enjoy work.

When leaders unlock these qualities and people believe, work becomes emotionally fulfilling. That, sadly, is not the norm.

Normal leadership traps you into thinking you know it all or can get by by pretending.

There is also a truism that you have grown up professionally learning the know-how of your profession. Maybe as a techie you started out coding and you know architecture and other stuff. That doesn’t make you any kind of leader but you are an expert and you want to hold on to that.

However, we know from studies of high performance sports that people who play well don’t necessarily manage well. Experience has shown in football that football players have to earn coaching badges before they get a shot at management. Often they learn more by managing in the lower leagues before they go to the big stage. Leadership is a profession in its own right.

This is a good parallel when graduating from a role in a function like technology to leading changes in the way a team performs.

Getting it right on the field, or getting the right dynamics in the team, reverberates on the organisation as a whole. So leading change is an organisation-wide role even when it feels like it’s just you and the team.  Here are some of the tips and tricks I’ve learned.

The leader’s baseline principles

Being the recruiter

In my last role I spent about half my time recruiting for the team. It turned into the most time consuming job I had but was worth every minute as this is how you create cultural change. I needed to know these were people who had the talents and temperament to work with minimal supervision and yet also engage in plenty of interaction with their peers. They need to be people who are comfortable with uncertainty and transparency too. And I wanted them to trust me through what could be difficult times ahead. They had to trust me to make work fun too. Getting this right means those people become your recruiters too – they tell friends, they spread the reputation you want to build. And in some funny sense, being a bit of an emotional person, I do think of them as my team.

Being visible about learning

I am always very visible about my own learning needs. I read a lot, I tweet, I attend tech meetups and hackathons and I give speeches that I need to revise for. There’s no point people looking to me as the guy who knows it all, or who knows more than them. Both of those are impossible objectives for me to aspire to. I can, however, lead by one very important example. I am always willing to learn.

Being a good or at least willing teacher

In flow teams everyone is a researcher, teacher and student. As a leader I have to be those things too. Dismissing the needs of other people when you have a busy schedule is one of the perverse perks of power. But use it at your peril. You have to find time to teach people and to show them you believe this is an important part of your job.

Outside foot forward, a keystone for what you stand for

In 2016 the English rugby team were transformed by one simple rule. Their backline was told to stand with their outside foot forward. The effect of that is to ready them for the challenge ahead. Leading with the other, inside, foot means you are always tending to run away from the challenge; you drift physically and mentally. My “outside foot forward” mottos are two fold. The first is the most confrontational. In what we are doing “what is the benefit for the end customer?”. If you can’t state that then we’re wasting our time. The second is “It’s not about the person; it’s about the profession.” In other words I want teams to be critical of professional work without being hurtful to the people they work with.

Visualising the small gains to give people successful outcomes, and raise the risks and issues

Our work is potentially invisible until the day we make mistakes in public. We are knowledge workers. We can slave away in silence rarely talking to other people. That’s why I place so much emphasis on visualisation. In particular, I like to see the small gains visualised, the day to day stuff. We do daily stand-ups so we are sure to get our wins out to everybody in the team. And of course to bring risks and issues to the surface so everyone is aware of their responsibilities.

Putting the goals of the company first

In a workforce now dominated by millennials it can be tempting to put people first. In many senses that is what we do. But I like to remind people they are there primarily for the collective, and that is the company. I want to encourage them to embrace our mission. I avoid talking about the company as if it is a third party. The company is us.

Taking on the team’s fears

In team building sessions I always want to talk about the Moose on the table (or elephant in the room). Is it other people? Sometimes. But often it is a fear that the organisation will not be supportive enough of change, budgets might be inadequate or uncertain, key innovations might get binned.

As the leader it is my role to address those concerns. I said earlier that entrepreneurs are effectual leaders and that means being able to manage all kinds of resources. If the organisation cannot afford some of the activity we are interested in pursuing, it is up to me to provide alternatives and to be adept at pulling resources from where I can because of my abilities and relationships. As a leader one has to take that on and not instinctively hide behind adverse decisions about budgets.

Building the first flow team

With those principles in mind how do you create the flow team? I’m going to breeze through this final section just to give you a feel for how I approach it. Most important is I always work with a psychologist on this process. It is too much for me, the leader, to understand all the dynamics of team creation, especially when the task is to build a different type of team capable of change.

Purpose of the team in one sentence

I want a one sentence summary of the team’s purpose. We have to co-create the statement. It’s only possible to finalise it once you go through the following steps. The purpose statement should be capable of imparting a sense of adventure.

Being open about who is in the team and why

Why are these people in the room with you? They need to know. Everyone needs to know why they are part of this journey.

Putting boundaries on the team’s scope of work

Teams that have been selected because they are comfortable with uncertainty actually need boundaries placing on their scope of work. If you don’t do this the team can overreach itself, and it is likely to. You are now with people who want to achieve great things. Placing boundaries on that guides and directs them.

Making clear how it relates to company goals and where people fit in the mosaic for the duration of this project.

The mosaic is a better term than the one we used to use grudgingly – a cog in the wheel. You can, instead, be part of a beautiful picture. You need to know your role in that mosaic and you need an insight into what opportunities high performance will open up for you during this journey. That’s all part of the mosaic.

Identifying the blockers

Every team faces blockers and they need to get these out in the open. Blockers will be routine process issues rather than the big elephants. The question you need to address here are; what is it in the way we work that gets in the way of efficiency, automation and value? You are not looking for the bit picture political struggles of the organisation. Think: We are the blockers. What do we do wrong?

Speaking of elephants

But there are also elephants in the room. You need to talk about them and as a leader take responsibility for addressing them as I said earlier. These are the organisational issues that can derail momentum and motivation. Talk about them!

Psychological profiling

I said at the start that I always work with a psychologist on this. I want profiling. It is so important to know what your individual team member motivations are and how best to blend different styles into a high performing team.

Being holistic

You also need a team made up of people from across the organisation. Of course the organisation will try to pull resources away from you but flow teams need to be interdisciplinary. They need to represent the new way of work. And you have to fight to keep them together until the new methods are embedded and can demonstrate success.

Encourage people to challenge

People have to be willing to challenge each other on efficiency automation and value. But they also need to challenge me and ignore hierarchy in order to stop be doing something stupid.

It’s not personal it is professional

But it is never personal, it is professional.

Those are some of the key thoughts I have about how people in the new cadre of change professionals go about the issue of being a leader of new teams.

These are not exhaustive – read my other articles here. But they are a good start to understanding the new dynamics of leadership in the transformational organisation.

The management of change requires precisely those qualities: a respect for resources and how they are used; creating a sense of common enjoyment with all the successes you can achieve through being a good team; creating the opportunity for frequent success to accompany the frustrations and failures that go with change during the average day. Somewhere in there is the key to bringing people into work happy and committed.

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