Inclusive Leadership

A lot of people are going to think this rambling is about something else. That’s because a lot has already been written about ways for leaders to open up communication, to delegate decision-making authority and to seek out external contributors to stretch the organization’s thinking. But all this presumes that there is a frenzied mob beating on the leader’s door with ideas, with advice and with energy to discuss and debate.

What really happens in organizations often plays out like this:

ACT I – Senior Leader “I’ve noticed Division J in Timbuktu is having issues. Chris, this is your area; I want you to go out there, figure out what’s going on and come back so that we can talk about it and take action.”

ACT II – Chris visits Timbuktu and finds that serious business issues plague Division J since their customer base is different. Customizing the product for this small division would be expensive. Partnering with another producer would reduce Chris’s contribution margin. Closing the division would incur fixed asset write-offs.

ACT III – Chris: “I have shut down Division J. We are now serving their only major account though Division K. We redeployed most of the assets and sold off the rest at break even. They just weren’t a strategic fit given their small size.”

Chris and the organization did not bring their leader ideas, or advice or dialogue; they brought an expedient solution. They solved the problem – a low performing division. They assumed that’s what was really wanted – a resolution, not options or a discussion. “Come back so that we can talk about it” which was meant to be a request for dialogue was seen as (a) a threat or (b) as an implication that Chris couldn’t keep the house in order or maybe (c) just not heard and retained.

What the organization lost was a robust discussion about the different customer needs of Division J. Are there other customers with similar needs who are being underserved? Do lost customers or non-customers throughout other divisions have needs that mirror those customers of Division J? There was no insightful discussion about the demand side of the business.

The organization also lost the opportunity to discuss how to partner with suppliers and build alliances. They didn’t investigate potential new partners or new technologies. And the organization never gave a second thought to which competitors picked up those stranded customers and how well the competitors served them.

Unfortunately, not talking means not thinking strategically. Not including your leaders in dialogue often means not including strategy in your decisions. Of course you have to do your homework. You have to come with more than a pile of data. You have to come with well-reasoned hypotheses. You have to frame the questions and engage your leaders. The lesson here is to include leadership in a broader discussion of your business strategy in order to get to long term growth and profitability. It’s about the organization including the leader, not the leader including the organization.


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