Monthly Archives: November 2013

I C – do you see?

They outnumber leaders in any organization by a large margin.

They satisfy customers, negotiate with suppliers, create and support innovation and provide the manpower for the most pressing business strategies.

The exceptional ones visibly demonstrate skills in the key high-performance imperatives of influence, personal effectiveness, collaboration, and building stakeholder loyalty.

Yet, we have no clue how to deal with their aspirations. Or more specifically, their non-aspiration to become the much-hyped leader!

I am referring to the Individual Contributor.

Of all the irritating stereotypes, this is the most destructive in an organization. We are apologetic at best, and disdainful at worst to this least understood, most valued and hopelessly misused group.

Question. Should we only think about advancing the careers of such individuals by moving them into manager positions? And then do them a disservice by confusedly asserting that they do not have leadership skills to be there, when we are the ones with blinkers on?

Today is an era of flat organizational structures to reduce costs and get more nimble. Management positions are getting fewer and rarer – so let us say thanks to the numerous professionals who opt for individual contributor roles. And recognize and salute the strengths they bring to the organization.

Individual contributors hold the key and wield tremendous influence on how an organization realizes its business strategy or sinks in its underperformance. Many of them will step up effortlessly to informal leadership roles, managing parts of a process, function or workgroup, and the high performers will be the ‘make-or-break’ stitch with their unique expertise.

Is it possible to be both an individual contributor and a leader? I would say “Yes.” And “YES”!

Let us see. What are the broad leadership competencies we tout and shout about?

Maintaining effectiveness in leading and dealing with change?

The individual superman does this everyday in his work responsibilities and environment. She adjusts efficiently to work within new work structures, processes, requirements, and cultures. But of course, they do not trumpet it in status reports.

 Taking accountability for customer loyalty?

She exceeds customer needs by building productive relationships. Clients stake their continued relationship with an organization based on his very presence.

 Engage stakeholders to make them understand, accept and retain critical messages?

He clearly conveys information and ideas through a variety of media to diverse stakeholders in a manner that convinces critical audiences for their voluntary buy-in. She personably and inspiringly influences her team toward the completion of goals.

Conceptualize strategic solutions, and display execution excellence to successfully close the last mile?

The individual star anticipates, identifies and understands both challenges and opportunities. She brilliantly culls data from different sources to draw conclusions and make efficient decisions. He factors facts, constraints, and probable consequences with telling precision.

Draw a meticulous roadmap for oneself and slot the stakeholders’ roles for successful closure of goals and objectives?

Our individual topper is very aware that he can shine only if he opens the canals of collaboration. And she does so with a sure belief in teamwork.

The conviction and responsibility must come from both sides. Individuals must believe in and explore ways to build credibility through developing expertise, demonstrating values, and articulating a vision. Organization leadership should  move out of its comfort zone to provide ‘feel-proud’ career advancement opportunities to such key individuals through credible specialist and expert ranks.

The traits of well-rounded and integrated leadership are a fine balance of essence and form. It matters not if my role is that of an individual contributor or a manager to demonstrate both character (essence) and competence (form). Peter Drucker’s incisive insight on this may well be our lodestar. “Leadership is lifting a person’s vision to high sights, and raising performance to a higher standard”


Enter…the corporate artist

“An arts degree is now perhaps the hottest credential in the world of business.”  So quoted Harvard Business Review a few years back.

Interesting don’t you think? Dare we imagine organization leadership to be as much a stage for artists as for management executives?

Think about it. Is there really an unbridgeable gap between what can be imagined and what can be accomplished? Can not the artistic idealism of originality complement and prevail over the hard-nosed pragmatism of replicating past patterns?

‘Create value’, scream managers, organizations and various business summits. The bugles call for greater creativity, commitment and innovation in the business domain.

But wait! Aren’t these what artists do – and do well? Suddenly, the dots seem to be already joined.

Take strategists and coaches. They exhort their members to set and manage unreasonable expectations. To an artist, this business parlance echoes her courage to make her leaps without a safety net.

Take the mantra of innovation that sweeps across the business landscape today. It acknowledges the truth that viable path-breaking options need to be invented, not replicated or tinkered for difference. To an artist, it resonates the assertive message he practises. Move over, traditionalists – make way for my bold brush patterns of creativity!

Or look at the confidence of discontinuous and disruptive change that laughingly threatens the established practice of continuous improvement to define business success. This is what the creative artist does. No incremental enhancements for him He goes beyond re-jigging the how. She invents a new what.

The truth is, creativity and innovation are design efforts, not analytical tasks. And they are the ‘raison d’etre’ of artists. Maybe it is time for organizations to encourage artistic powers of their employees that they have hitherto been unwelcoming of. Maybe they should allow their artists to exercise the indiscipline of ‘out-of-the-box’ thoughts and actions without the burden of collecting evidence to bail themselves out.

Collaborative teamwork. What corporate professionals strive so hard to make a science of, an ensemble of artists transforms it effortlessly into a spellbinding masterpiece. It is interesting to know that even as early as 2003, Sloan Leadership courses at MIT had arts-based components, including ‘Leadership as Acting: Performing Henry V’. University of Chicago’s leadership exploration and development course has MBAs create and showcase a film. Wharton’s MBA program has a compulsory workshop on “Leadership through the Arts” facilitated by an internationally acclaimed dance company.

And what about the ability to improvise? To respond to unpredictable problems and opportunities as they arise? Artists unfold spontaneity in stepping both up and down to rein in individual brilliance from overshadowing collective success. And in doing so, they create a sure atmosphere of trust that each is looking out for the other and the team.

Yes, it is time for the corporate artist to step up and be allowed to step up. What can be a better vote of confidence for this claim than the following endorsements by two successful business stewards?

“You need to let the artists explore and create the next great thing, which they will do reliably if you permit it.”

Eric Schmidt, Chairman & CEO, Google

“Creativity is the one irreplaceable human skill in an increasingly automated world . . . the only sustainable source of competitive advantage.”

                                                                                                                                           Ivan G. Siedenberg, former Chairman & CEO, Verizon