You’re not paranoid. Everyone is watching you. Fact is, the typical executive feels like they are living in the Sting song “Every Breath You Take.” Everyone is watching “every move you make, every bond you break, every step you take…” for a sign of who you are and what you care about.
The realization is daunting to new executives. I remember my first week as a CIO. I couldn’t walk down a hallway without wondering if I was suffering from a wardrobe malfunction.
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There is power in all the attention—if you use it wisely. We all know stories of leaders who, through simple but powerful actions, quickly communicated their leadership agenda. I recently heard about a new superintendent of a school district who, in response to some neighborhood complaints about kids walking on homeowners’ lawns, took the time to drive down to observe the trampling-in-action and resolve the situation. What made the story worth repeating was that the superintendent’s behavior stood in stark contrast to that of the local principal who had simply dismissed the issue as one outside the school’s control. What made the story powerful was that it was clear to everyone that the superintendent intentionally selected the incident to communicate in actions what he had already communicated in words—that he expected the principals to know and take care of the kids and their community.
Unlike the superintendent, many leaders unconsciously condone behaviors that, if questioned, they would profess to oppose. I can think of CIOs who signaled to their organizations that teamwork was unimportant (by gossiping), that integrity was situational (by accepting gifts from vendors), that business collaboration was an elective (by spending most of their time in their office) and that strategy trumped results (by devoting most of their time to ideas versus deliverables).
The superintendent could have ignored the situation. Instead, he chose to demonstrate what it means to get close to the customer by making clear the priority that should be placed on feedback from the community and the kids. Similarly, a CIO who is interested in conveying the same message can do so by spending time talking with external customers and building relationships with business counterparts.
The key to powerful symbolic actions is that they are focused, unexpected and personal. Don’t muddy the water by leveraging every teachable moment. Your behavior will be viewed as manic rather than measured. Choose behaviors that are in stark contrast to the past so that the stories are memorable and will be repeated. Finally, lead by example by demonstrating the behavior that you expect others to emulate. Here are some suggestions for dealing with particular challenges.
If your organization is troubled with execution issues, you can convey urgency by getting close to the problem. Consider the CIO who, frustrated by the Keystone Kops’ approach to production issues, asked to be informed of any issue impacting more than five people. Not only did the issues get resolved faster, but the CIO shifted the focus from problem resolution to prevention by asking, “What do we need to do to make sure this never happens again?” over and over until that question started being asked at lower levels.
If you want your leaders to focus their priorities, be sure that you are clear about yours. Leaders keep their organizations on track by frequently referring to overarching goals when making key decisions and developing not only “start” but “stop” lists when setting objectives and developing plans.
If you want to communicate a sense of urgency, use time boxing and demonstrate flexibility on cost and scope. Follow the lead of a CIO who introduced the term “30-day wonder” to a doubtful organization and then helped staff members amaze themselves as they delivered faster than ever before.
If you want to encourage innovation, select a project to personally lead and provide seed money to those who are willing to take risks and lead change. If you want to instill a performance oriented, accountable culture—remove the senior level leader who is obviously phoning it in. If you want to promote teamwork, be open about your weaknesses, ask for and respond to feedback, call out unproductive behaviors such as gossip and force your leaders to have difficult conversations face-to-face.
Leading change takes more than compelling strategies, great hiring and moving speeches. Smart leaders understand how to leverage the attention focused on them by using teachable moments to convey their leadership agenda. Through actions that are simple, powerful and symbolic, leaders can quickly communicate their agenda and avoid the sense of impotence and dread that comes from relying on others to communicate it for them.
Susan Cramm is founder and president of Valuedance, an executive coaching firm in San Clemente, Calif. You can e-mail feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.