Dec 1

Learning New Aspects Of Caring Leadership

David Pilarek
David Pilarek is an Inhouse Consultant at Merck KGaA.

Over a year ago, when I wrote my first guest blog, I defined caring leadership as „always keeping your commitments“. I tried to illustrate how one can practice this everyday both at work and in one’s private life. That still holds true, I believe. Nevertheless, I would like to suggest three additional aspects of or criteria for caring leadership:

  1. To act as a role model and to be authentic
  2. To appreciate new perspectives and unconventional approaches
  3. To give comprehensible and transparent reasons for decisions made

Rather than providing some academic substantiation for these suggestions – even though I am convinced, this evidence could be found – I will use real-life examples that I have experienced to make my point.

Let’s take a closer look at the three aspects, starting with acting as a role model.

If you ask 10 people holding a leadership position, if they perceive themselves authentic and a role model for their staff, all of them would probably confirm. However, I am afraid this highly important leadership skill is too often missing.

One C-level executive of a tier-one supplier launched a comprehensive efficiency program, when the company was hit by the 2008 / 2009 recession. Senior executives were asked to identify and realize substantial but smart savings within their organization. They were encouraged to think out-of-the box and to consider radical measures to make the company more agile and cost-efficient. In view of the most alarming situation those days, the majority defined painful but nevertheless inevitable saving actions in their business units and functions. It would have been a compelling signal, if the C-level executive would have realized comparable measures in his own area of responsibility – hence act as a role model. However, he didn’t and the whole initiative petered out. I am sure the company missed a great chance due to a lack of leadership.

The example of a German engineering company shows how it could work. During the recession employees were confronted with salary cuts and short-time work and left uncertain about the future of their plant. People on the shop-floor felt more and more alienated from management and showed signs of frustration. Their formerly strong identification with the company was at risk. A new CEO realized that re-building trust in the company and in the management team was a top-priority.  But rather than starting with a comprehensive strategy program (he started that a few weeks later anyway), the CEO just walked-the-talk. He for instance visited the workers at the assembly line during night shift and just listened to their worries. That sounds trivial, but as soon as managers heard about this, they knew they had to go out themselves and get in touch with their people again. In this case, a leader acting as role model initiated a process towards more openness and communication in the company.

A leader who leads by example and stays authentic will not only convince more easily, but also make a more substantial and lasting impact.

A leader who leads by example and stays authentic will not only convince more easily, but also make a more substantial and lasting impact.

Turning to the second aspect  – appreciation of unconventional thinking and new perspectives – I always remember the story a friend of mine told me recently.

He started a new job as project manager in the strategy department of a medium-sized company. Coming from a very innovative technology firm and being a rather creative person, he was encouraged by his boss to bring in new ideas. He did so very cautiously, because he did not want to offend anyone.  He was not surprised that some of the long-established managers disliked his ideas. What really struck him was that even colleagues of his age (mid-thirties) weren’t willing to consider any new approaches. It took him a while to realize, that this attitude was fostered from the very top of the company. The CEO would treat any proposed change to the procedures he had implemented as an affront. It’s hardly surprising that the company definitely lost many of its innovative and dynamic talents to its competitors.

The Chief Technology Officer of a leading materials company shows exemplary how to make the most out of diversity and unconventional approaches. Being a very creative person himself, he built a small team of most diverse characters and skills. He put highly creative scientists and very rational economists of different age and background into one team with the objective to come up with new technologically feasible but also economically viable solutions. The way the CTO composed and managed the team – taking all perspectives into account and treating every opinion equally is a perfect example for leading with diversity.

Diversity can be a powerful tool – if a caring leader fosters and manages it diligently.

Finally, my third suggestion for aspects of caring leadership ( to give comprehensible and transparent reasons for decisions made):

Everyone sometimes struggles with an unexpected decision made by a superior. The way we react to such decisions and thus the way we perform in future strongly depend on how the decision is made and communicated.

I recently talked to a manager who had applied for an internal job posting. The job profile exactly matched his qualifications, his experience and his motivation. From an objective viewpoint, there was no other candidate in the company more qualified for the job. However, the position was a given to another person whose former job within the company had been made redundant. The responsible manager could have saved the situation, if he had made the entire issue transparent to the manager. Instead, he tried to justify the decision with implausible arguments. I do not need to mention that the manager left the company shortly afterwards.

By contrast, the case of a project manager whose major project had finally been terminated by the executive board. The manager spent months in building the strategy and making the business case for developing and commercializing a new technology. The case was compelling and suggested most attractive profits in the long term. However, a significant upfront investment was necessary and the technological risk could not be neglected. By weighing chances and risks in view of the financial constraints of the company, the board decided to stop the venture. His direct superior then explained the criteria for the decision and the discussion process amongst the board members to the project manager. Of course, he still was disappointed, but he understood that the board considered his proposal seriously and arrived at a rational and fair decision. After a short period of frustration and reflection the project manager picked the original idea up again. He developed a trimmed-down plan for the project which was eventually approved by the board.

Thus, explaining a decision transparently can help the leader to retain motivation and commitment of people.

I would like to conclude my reflections with one final observation I made during the last months: you most often understand and value caring leadership in situations where it is obviously missing.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, December 1st, 2010 at 00:07 and is filed under Leadership, Management. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.

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