May 9, 2009

“Soft Hands” Leadership

Conventional wisdom has it that there are two primary types of leaders: one is focused on the work (task-oriented) and the other is focused on the relationships (people-oriented). Of course, the exceptional leader can find the right balance between the two. Usually though it is the people skills that are short-changed in lieu of getting the job done.

Personally, I am a firm believer in the military doctrine of “Mission first, people always!”—Although, I am certain that some leaders even in the military are better at exemplifying this than others.

With the global financial downturn, there is an interesting article in Harvard Business Review titled “The Right Way to Close an Operation,” May 2009 that sheds some light on this leadership topic.

In this article, Kenneth Freeman advocates for a “soft hands” approach when closing or shrinking an operation. This approach calls for leadership to “treat employees with dignity, fairness, and respect—the way you would want to be treated.”

Wow!!! This is great--A human-centric approach to leadership.

Unfortunately some unconsciously believe that being tough on mission means being tough on people too. However, there is no need to "flick the whip." There is another way. We can embrace people as human beings, work with them, have compassion on them, treat them well, and lead them towards mission delivery.

It doesn’t have to be supervisors versus employees--different sides of the bargaining table. It can be in most instances people striving together for organizational success.

For me, this ties right in to my vision for enterprise architecture to have a human capital perspective. Human capital is critical to mission delivery. We must not focus exclusively on process and technology and forget the critical people aspect of organizational performance. A stool with only two legs (process and technology) without the third (people) will assuredly fall.

Freeman states that even when doing difficult things like downsizing we can still treat people humanly, the way we would want to be treated. He says: “reducing a workforce is painful, but you can do it in such a way that people will someday say, ‘you know I once worked for Company X. I didn’t like the fact that they shut my plant down, but I still think it’s a good company.’”

Here’s some tips from Freeman as I understand them:

- Address the personal issues for the employees—why they are losing their jobs, how the closure will affect them, what you will do to help them land on their feet…

- Communicate early and often—“People need to hear a message at least six times to internalize it.”

- Get out there—“Be visible and personal. A closure or a downsizing is not an excuse for leaders to go into hiding.”

-Take responsibility—“The leader should take personal responsibility for the organization’s behavior.”

- Be honest, but kind—“Explain that the decision is being made for the sake of the overall business not because the people who are leaving have done a bad job.”

- Treat everyone fairly—“who stays and who goes should be decided on an objective basis.”

- Help people go on—“help people find jobs.”

- Maintain a quality focus—“leaders should regularly remind everyone of the importance of quality and keep measuring and celebrating it.”

Freeman goes on with other sensible advice on how to not only treat employees well, but also customers and suppliers “like valued partners.” He has a refreshing perspective on delivering results, while maintaining human dignity.

Here's the critical point:

Having a “soft hands” approach to people doesn’t mean that you are soft on mission. That can never happen. But it does mean, we remember that delivery of mission is through our professional relationships with people—employees, customers, suppliers, partners, shareholders and more.

Treating people with dignity, respect, and fairness will positively generate mission delivery for the organization.


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