Wednesday, September 30, 2020
Before You Grow: Balancing Creative Vision with Operational Leadership

Before You Grow: Balancing Creative Vision with Operational Leadership

Question marks can create conflict. Organizations that were previously comfortable with their seemingly solid plans for personnel engagement and conflict resolution have learned the hard way that most humans do not thrive in chaos or uncertainty.

Morale is at rock bottom for many as the pandemic drags on and even the companies that enjoyed great synergy prior to the onset of COVID-19 are finding that they struggle to lead when they don’t have any answers to give.

The problem is that executive leadership and HR prepared all of the contingencies, strategies, and mission statements to address future personnel crises when things were calm and conditions were ideal. As they say, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.

Many companies are being rocked by layoffs and downsizing. Some sectors are collapsing altogether, and an unprecedented glut of candidates around the world will be looking for employment at the same time, as detailed in a recent article by Harvard Business Review.

As globalization recedes, at least temporarily, companies are revisiting their international growth plans while workers reconsider their personal purpose and priorities.

The recovery phase post-pandemic will shift candidates’ geographic and work preferences. The number of available candidates is growing, and company leadership is thinking ahead to post-crisis recovery hiring. For some companies, this will be an opportunity to reorganize and restructure. Although growth begins with getting the right people in the right roles, the economic uncertainty of the situation is eroding risk tolerance and long-term planning. 

As leadership inevitably rearranges in the recovery stages, the addition of new authoritative voices may eventually lead to internal conflict over the best way to proceed. That conflict could be further destabilizing for vulnerable companies, especially those which only react to crisis rather than prepare themselves to thrive. 

The organization’s visionaries, the individuals who lead the creative direction of the company, may be pushing to innovate at a faster rate than the operational leaders, who are tasked with motivating key teams and making sure changes are executed on the ground. 

When strong personalities with different priorities collide, the resulting uncertainty and ambiguity are a recipe for conflict. If you’re a C-suite or top management professional thinking ahead to growth, it’s crucial that you value  the power of personal dynamics within your own organization. 

An earlier article explored the differences and similarities between visionaries and leaders in organizations. Understanding the intricacies of each role is the first step to fruitful collaboration between all parties.  In this article, we’ll dive deeper into some specific ways to foster collaboration, instead of competition, between two distinct types of leaders.

Utilize Non-Hierarchical Skill Sets

It’s important that leadership recognize and respect different, yet complementary, non-hierarchical skill sets. Not everyone has the creative depth to brainstorm new product innovations or carve markets out of hypotheticals. Not everyone has the organizational and empathic skills needed to tackle the five dimensional chess  game of day-to-day operations. A company with a deep bench of talent should have executives that align with a shared vision, can develop executional strategies, and get teams motivated to meet milestones and goals.

According to best-selling author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek, most people are either “why” or “how” types, and the best business teams are a balance of both. “Why are the visionaries, the ones with the overactive imaginations,” Sinek writes in his book “Start With Why”. “They tend to be optimists who believe that all the things they imagine can actually be accomplished.” 

Sinek describes Apple Co-Founder Steve Jobs as a “why” type, and Co-Founder Steve Wozniak as a “how” type. “If you get really insecure about figuring out all the details, and it really makes you uncomfortable, you’re probably a ‘why’ type. If you get really insecure that you don’t have big ideas every day, you’re probably a ‘how’ type,” Sinek explains.

The important thing to remember is that one type is not superior to the other; each relies on the other. Each member of the executive suite must find someone who complements their skill set. This dynamic was at play in the early days of Apple.

“Steve Jobs was the rebel’s evangelist, but Steve Wozniak is the engineer who made Apple work. Jobs had the vision, Woz had the goods,” Sinek writes. “It is the partnership of a vision of the future and the talent to get it done that makes an organization great.”

Of course, Wozniak left Apple in 1985 because he reportedly longed for the early days when he could focus more on product development in small teams and less on corporate division management. Companies change in size and mission, which is why it’s important to define key roles and put people in positions that truly utilize their skill sets.

Define Roles: Who Does What Around Here, Exactly?

When roles aren’t clearly defined, the organization can find itself in a precarious state. If you’ve watched the 2010 film “The Social Network” about the founding of Facebook, you may recall the scene when Co-Founder Eduardo Saverin angrily breaks Mark Zuckerberg’s laptop after learning that his stake in the company has been diminished substantially. The scene may have been dramatized, but the background is true. Zuckerberg created a new company to acquire the old company, and then distributed new shares to dilute Saverin’s stake. Through the reallocation, Zuckerberg was able to fire his co-founder.

Although Zuckerberg is portrayed as somewhat of a villain in “The Social Network,” he reportedly struggled to get Saverin’s attention on key matters and to get him to make a decision. Zuckerberg, the CEO, wanted to fire Saverin, the CFO and business manager, because he needed to run every decision past him, which was stalling growth. He eventually replaced Saverin with COO Sean Parker, who was able to raise funding the company desperately needed to grow.

Many quickly growing companies don’t have the luxury of starting with a detailed organization design that’s built to scale, and some reach a point where they need a reset or redesign. There are myriad advantages to proactively designing a company structure that best suits your people, including increased efficiency, faster decision-making, improving the quality of goods and services, and motivating teams. Company structure and communication go hand in hand. 

Fostering Bilingual Communication Between Eclectic Speakers

Communication styles can differ between visionaries and leaders, but there needs to be a foundation and commitment to keep the lines open. This is especially crucial during the current crisis, as priorities continue to shift and organizations continue to pivot. McKinsey identifies five things superior crisis communicators do well: 

  1. Give people what they need, when they need it 
  2. Communicate clearly, simply, and frequently 
  3. Choose candor over charisma 
  4. Revitalize resilience 
  5. Distill meaning from chaos

A great communicator – either in a time of crisis or not— also prioritizes listening and exercising empathy. Listening has a rippling effect. Visionary leaders can’t understand the challenges of executing their ideas without listening to organization leaders and organization leaders can’t know the challenges of their employees without listening to their concerns. Open, honest communication should be a high priority for any individual you hire. 

This is your moment to raise the bar on your company leadership. Harvard Business School analyzed 4,700 companies across the last three recessions, and discovered that 9% were able to come out in much better positions than they entered because their focus was “progressive.” They had to cut back, but were extremely selective about how they went about it, and they continued to make strategic investments. It wasn’t an either-or choice between hiring or downsizing; they embraced an “and” approach. They understood that they could do both smartly.

Here are 3 key hiring takeaways supported by research

  1. Ask your top leaders to identify three to five great players they would have liked to have hired in the past few years and check in with those individuals.
  2. Approach the remote interviewing and reference checking process with as much rigor as an in-person process.
  3. Go above and beyond to motivate the best candidates.

This blog was originally drafted by Executives Unlimited.

Executives Unlimited serves a global roster of clients ranging from entrepreneurial middle market companies to billion-dollar multinational corporations, both publicly and privately held, as well as nonprofits.

With offices in California, Utah, New Jersey and Connecticut, Executives Unlimited provides clients with a nationwide perspective of well-qualified candidates for upper management positions including Presidents, Vice Presidents, Chief Executive Officers, Chief Financial Officers, Chief Operational Officers, Directors, General Managers, and Interim Executives.


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