by CIO Staff

Leading Quietly: A Win-Win Situation

Apr 15, 200210 mins
IT Leadership

Every successful organization has at least one or two high-profile risk-takers who triumph in the end and are a company’s public face, getting all the attention and kudos. Joseph L. Badaracco, the John Shad professor of business ethics at the Harvard Business School, calls them heroes. But in his new book, Leading Quietly: An Unorthodox Guide to Doing the Right Thing, Badaracco argues that heroes are not the only leaders a company needs in order to succeed. In fact, the most impressive, effective leaders are often the unsung ones, those who labor patiently in the shadows.

Nurturing any sort of leader is an increasingly important challenge in today’s complex workplaces. Badaracco, who has written frequently about ethical management and leadership in past works, including Leadership and the Quest for Integrity (with Richard Ellsworth) and Business Ethics: Roles and Responsibilities, believes that important lessons can be learned from the everyday obstacles that must be overcome by those toiling in the background. With this latest book, Badaracco provides case studies of quiet leaders at work, and gives tips and practical advice to those who want to function ethically without risking their careers. This excerpt focuses on the story of a marketing rep who was stuck between his company’s sales policies and keeping a vital customer. Here’s how he managed to bend the rules with integrity while making the sale.

-Mindy Blodgett, CIO senior editor

Frank Taylor was a senior marketing representative for Cybersystems, a major computer company. One of Taylor’s clients was Robertson & Bayless, a large Chicago law firm. Over the years, it had been a good customer, though Taylor’s dealings with the firm had been a roller-coaster ride.

Despite these setbacks, Taylor finally got the order. After this success, Taylor viewed the next year as a “make-or-break” career opportunity, a chance to establish himself as one of his company’s star salespeople.

However, by November of the next year, Taylor hadn’t made his quota. Although typically this would have worried him, he was working with Robertson & Bayless on a sizeable deal that would make up for his shortfall. The firm was poised to buy a couple new servers and several dozen desktop machines for its litigation area?until Taylor’s roller coaster swooped around another curve.

Taylor had planned to sell the law firm the S50 server, which would meet the needs of the litigation area for several years. However, Cybersystems had just announced the introduction of an even more powerful and less expensive server, the S60…[which the law firm] decided [to] purchase. He went to work immediately and, with the help of two senior account executives, developed a new offer. They would sell the firm two of the new S60s, along with several disk drives they were planning to purchase in the near future anyway at sharply discounted prices. The new offer was worked out under the terms of a sales promotion program called Win-Win, whose aim was to give sales reps the flexibility they needed for tough accounts. [The firm] agreed to go ahead with the proposal?if the new servers [could be] connected to two older computer networks in the firm.

Taylor’s heart sank when he heard the request. The Win-Win program prohibited, in fairly clear language, the kind of hookup [the firm] wanted. The purpose of this restriction was to make the S60 servers, which were in limited supply, available to the largest and most sophisticated customers. Because the law firm had an older network, it stood at the rear of the queue.

Taylor’s conviction that this was just another case of company favoritism toward big customers and their sales reps only fueled his anger. He also thought it was wrong to dump old machines on smaller customers when new ones were available.

Once Taylor found a little time, he began thinking there was some “flex” in the Win-Win. What if the server was connected to another server and that server was connected to the old equipment? With just a little effort and a little luck, he thought he could stay under the radar, get the new server installed and make everybody happy. Taylor’s first step was to check with his manager. To his surprise, she was quite evasive. She also told Taylor that the decision was his to make, wished him luck and told him to keep her posted.

After this frustrating meeting, Taylor called Al Cruise, a 20-year veteran of the company who had been Taylor’s first boss. Cruise told Taylor that violating the ban would be risky. He said the company’s senior executives were trying to put some clear boundaries around the “can-do” culture. According to Cruise, anyone who violated the ban could easily become “the poster boy for the new boundaries.”

Cruise’s comments helped Taylor understand why his boss had been evasive. She was known for acute sensitivity to political winds and was probably unsure which way they were now blowing.

Now Taylor was in a situation in which the truth?the clear intent of Win-Win?could cost him and his firm a deal worth a lot of money. Given his years of experience at Cybersystems, he was fairly confident he could get the new servers hooked up and cover his trail?but should he do it? In the end, Taylor found a way to get the new servers installed at the law firm without taking a public stand on the ethics of his problem, violating his principles or risking his career. To understand how he did this, it is important to put his efforts into a broader context.

Remember Your Responsibilities

The first lesson in Taylor’s story is the importance of not letting complexities obscure responsibilities.

While complexity wears people down, it also places greater responsibilities on their shoulders. As someone burrows deeper into a problem, they often become the only person who really understands it. Taylor’s efforts made him the “world expert” on how Win-Win applied to the installation of S60 servers at Robertson & Bayless. No one was better suited to sorting out the issue in a practical way.

When a problem is complicated and technical, it is tempting to think that the solution lies somewhere in the details. If only we could find the right formula, consult the right expert or understand the fine print, then we would know what we should do. But often that isn’t the case. If Taylor had not found a way around his problem, he would have had to choose between serving the customer and breaking the rules. Fortunately, by following the next guideline, he avoided this choice.

Look at Your Fish

This odd-sounding guideline is perhaps the most important thing that quiet leaders do when they face complicated problems. But what does looking at a fish have to do with addressing these problems responsibly?

The answer lies in a story told about Louis Agassiz, one of the most important American scientists of the 19th century. When graduate students first joined Agassiz’s lab, they were given a tray containing a small, ordinary fish. Agassiz would tell them to study the specimen?without damaging it, reading about it or discussing it with anyone. They eventually realized that Agassiz expected them to look at their fish for several weeks.

In particular, they grasped the importance of exacting attention to detail and what one called “hard, continuous work.”

Without realizing it, Frank Taylor did what Louis Agassiz advised. He raised the server issues with a series of individuals who helped him understand the problem from a variety of perspectives?technological, financial, organizational and political.

Taylor eventually remembered that Cybersystems had a policy of installing new equipment in a few customer sites before its wide release, in order to give the equipment a final test and deal with any bugs. This policy provided the perfect solution to his dilemma.

Taylor spent the next several days “ramming the idea up the division.” As a result, the law firm was approved as a test site for the S60 servers, which therefore had to be connected to all the other equipment at the law firm. There was no violation of Win-Win, Taylor’s customer got the computers it needed, Taylor hadn’t violated his principles, and he made his sales quota for the year.

Taylor succeeded because he had a strong but healthy fixation on his problem.

Don’t Go It Alone

The third lesson in Taylor’s story is to avoid the impulse to be a hero and resolve complex problems on your own. No amount of “looking at the fish” can substitute for training, experience and expertise. The reason is twofold. First, people with training and experience simply know more about particular problems. Second, even if they don’t have the answer right away, they have an intuitive sense of what is really going on in a situation and how to search for answers.

There are no shortcuts through spheres of complexity, no substitutes for hard-won knowledge and instinct. In Frank Taylor’s case, the time he spent thinking, even brooding, about his problem was only a first step. He also gathered perspectives from a wide variety of sources, and then rethought the problem.

Drilling down should not be a solitary activity. For him and for others, responsible leadership is in-depth learning. It is no guarantee of success, but it does improve the odds.

Don’t Be Afraid to Back Off

The final lesson from Taylor’s case is to back off if you’re in over your head. Sometimes a problem is so complex that no amount of reflection, analysis or consultation can provide a solid basis for action. In those cases, the morally responsible thing to do is to wait, buy more time and try to get the problem into the right hands.

What are the signs of being in over your head? One is that consultation leads nowhere. Another warning is an inability to frame the issue in simple English. Responsible action is not a shot in the dark?it requires a firm grasp of the fundamentals. Conflicting instincts are another flashing warning light. When you are pulled one way and then another, barreling forward is the wrong thing to do. A final warning sign is the nagging detail, the piece that won’t fit into the puzzle. In Taylor’s case he tracked down the discordant note in the music.

We cannot overlook the fact that specialized, technical knowledge pervades much of our lives, and that this creates distinctive challenges. This was clearly the case for Frank Taylor. He had to work through many layers of his problem before he found a solution. His story had a happy ending. But there was no guarantee that things would work out this way. Sometimes people dig and dig, they look at their fish, they consult others, they live with their problem, but they get nowhere.

When this happens, a natural reaction is to give up. But, as we have seen, quiet leaders don’t like that option. Taylor didn’t want to lie, he didn’t want to stick his customer with an inferior server, and he didn’t want to lose his bonus. Fortunately, there are alternatives to giving up or drilling down endlessly.