Exercising good leadership in a growing organization can be a little like juggling on a tightrope whilst blindfolded. Take to firm a hand and you risk alienating valuable staff; become too hands-off and your people and departments can spin off into choas like so many planets into space after their sun vanishes.
A balance must be struck between active involvement and the exercise of trust in people who were hired to do their jobs.
It can be particularly difficult for boards and their various dopplegangers (municipal councils, legislative assemblies, house of worship elders or councils etc).
One of the reasons it is difficult for boards is becuase the goal of a board is to focus and emphasize governance and not to nitpick at the operational level – this is what the CEO/Executive Director, city manager, CAO, deputy minister, pastor, imam, rabii etc. is for.
Staff report up to the CEO and the CEO reports to the board. All communications from staff to the board should go through the CEO and all communication from the board to staff should be through the board chair/mayor etc.
So how do we manage effectively and no when there are issues at the operational level? Well the kind of reports provided to boards on a monthly basis should contain metrics that can provide you with an overall sense of organizational well-being. The reports should give you the information you need to ask the right questions.
Ultimately the health of an organization is dependent upon the strength and clarity of the vision as developed by the board and effectively communicated to the staff through the CEO.
The CEO should be someone who can assist the board in developing the vision and be capable of implementing said vision. There should never be a disconnect between the two as that creates friction and structural breakdown at the operational level.
An organization should never be in a position where the CEO is complaining to staff and management about the board and the board should never be in a position to be complaining publicly about their CEO – when this happens one or both have failed in their roles.
Conflict will always arise in organizations and it is up to the board and management to come to a place of understanding and peace – if they cannot management needs to go.
You might ask – “why not the board? Maybe the board needs to go.”
This may be true but this is the decision of the shareholder/member/electorate at the AGM or election and for them to make an informed decision they need information and that is their responsibility to get it and the responsiblity of the board to ensure the organization distributes it.
Unhealthy organizations fear distributing all but the most harmless information. The healthiest organizations are as transparent as they can legally be.
If you want to know how healthy an organization you are a member of is start asking questions. Stonewalling, patronizing or outright lack of response is a sign there are significant problems.
Back to leading amidst growth.
There are two primary kinds of organizational growth – strategic/planned growth based upon the need to meet strategic vision and unplanned, reactive growth that results from a lack of vision at the corporate level.
The first kind of growth happens when leadership is clearly and regularly communicating the strategic vision to the staff and the members of the organization. The second kind of growth happens when there is no strong strategic vision or that vision is not communicated on a regular and clear basis.
In the second instance the vacuum of vision and leadership begins to be filled on an ad hoc and tribal basis at the department level. This most often leads to internal conflict, low morale, and inappropriate spending on competing micro-visions developed by formal and informal departmental leaders.
You want the first kind of growth but this requires a great deal of effort and intentionality on the part of the board and the CEO. It requires a clear vision that feeds a strong and clear corporate strategic plan that can be elecidated at increasingly accurate levels from 5 to 3 to 1 year on a rolling basis (or whatever timeframes are appropriate for your organization).
From this plan department heads are to develop departmental strategies accordingly – all designed to meet the desired results of the corporate plan. At this level all hiring, budgeting, growth etc is fed by and feeds the strategic plan and vision.
In all of this one of the significant keys to success is strong, clear, vibrant, inspiring communication of the vision and strategic plan to the staff and membership.
For a plan to succeed those obligated to carry it out must be inspired and believe in that plan. They must feel like they matter in the ultimate achievement of said plan and have been able to contribute to the development of the plan and vision otherwise you are simply an organization trying to maintain the status quo all the while deteriorating into chaos. You become the practical outworking of the second law of thermodynaimcs demonstrating that all things tend toward entropy and fall apart.
The struggle with leading in a time of growth is that growth brings immediate challenges that need to be met and it is easy to forget the vision and strategic plan in order to remove the challenge as fast as possible. However if you do this you risk eroding the vision and plan with poorly thought out decisions that have a ripple effect throughout the organization.
It is better amidst growth to allow immediate pain and take time to make the right decision than to eliminate the pain by a quick decision and suffer significantly over the long term.
The longer you take to implement sound vision-based leadership the more likely small, tribal leaders will emerge and become recalcitrant in their ways communicating competitive visions to their staff creating conflict between staff and one-another as well as staff and the CEO/board. In this circumstance departmental needs begin to outweigh corporate needs and costs can begin to dramitcally increase due to decentralized, selfish thinking.
If you are not careful you run the risk of being in a situation where you have to reboot the entire organization from the top on down which, while it may be necessary, is both costly and distracting.
To avoid this from happening the board must maintain a strong and healthy relationship with the CEO while the CEO must do the same with management and management with staff. Each relationship models the next and starts between the board and the CEO feeding the organization with the organization feeding the membership and the membership then feeding and informing the board.
Eventually a healthy cycle ensues…and trust me when I say the absence of a healthy cycle is not a vacuum – it is the creation of an unhealthy and destructive cycle that sees perpetual turnover, escalating costs, and constant disastisfaction amongst all stakeholders.
Strong vision. Strong strategic plan. Strong leadership and, tying it all together, strong communication – these are the keys to success amidst a growing organization.