Eight weeks of learning, 30 minutes to tell all (part 2)

Alas, it is only in recent years that MBA-minting institutions like Kellogg and Fuqua have made the human side of the business a core focus for management learning, and consequently a management cadre spanning decades has brought with it attitudes and beliefs that can undermine effective organizations and weaken them to the point where they devolve into fiefdoms and siloes competing against one another for primacy, for resources and for control rather than focusing their combined efforts to take on the external competition.

Interspersed throughout the course, we touched on the various bases of power: coercive, reward, referent, expert and legitimate. Coercive power is fear-based, and to build on the Sunbeam example above and many other examples discussed in class, some managers feel that employees should be grateful to have a job and that they have no further rights or voice in how the business is run or in how they are treated. Reward power is tied to a manager’s ability to provide monetary and other inducements to keep their employees motivated, and in the context of coercive power and reward power, it is the classic “carrot and stick” that managers wield in spurring performance and driving certain behaviors within their organization.

In a class discussion, we talked about the notion that career paths are more like a tennis match than a marathon, in that when you lose in a tennis tournament, you are “out,” contrasted with the marathon where as long as you can keep running you are still “in.” This led to a discussion about falling from the “star system” to the “goat pen,” and in some rare instances when the goat simply rides out the waves of temporary adversity they can resume their career path under new leadership. This is far from typical; my observation is that once your brand is tarnished within a company, it is simply a matter of time before you leave on your own or are shown the door.

We touched on Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great, in the context of the class and in one of the later videos (Robert Stevenson, Beyond Excellence) that we watched. In the discussion, the concept of a “Level 5 Leader” was introduced, someone who is capable of leading through the paradox of selflessness and a “fanatical” drive for sustainable results. Their ability to lead at this level was seen as an essential factor in separating “Good to Great” companies from the rest, and the vast majority of the Level 5 Leaders that were identified in Collins’ research had actually risen through the ranks of their respective organizations. This only underscores the importance of organizational culture, because a company that lacks the ability to create leaders runs the risk of making external hires that cannot grow or sustain the organization, and may not have the appropriate motivation and leadership style to take the organization to the next level. In the EMOB exercise, “My Best Boss/Leader,” many of the traits that Collins pointed out in Good to Great were also highlighted as desired leadership traits within the class.

Clearly not an example of Level 5 Leadership, our class EMOB exercise, Upward Communication: Young Manufacturing Company provided a poignant example of managerial incompetence that ultimately led to a series of bad decisions. For the topic of power and politics, it was an example of what can go wrong when nepotism trumps due diligence and friendships at the top of the organization inhibit the necessary tough questions and oversight that are needed for a corporation to stay on its game, so to speak. In this case, the clueless CEO of the company relied, to his detriment, on the sound judgment and good counsel of one of his executives, and as a result the entire company was pushed to the brink.

In an interesting sidebar that tied to The Ropes chapter on “Cooling out” we discussed the compliance effect that is created when career-oriented managers are trying to move up the corporate ladder and consequently must play the game when it comes to taking orders from top management and making things happen without question and without fail. As certain managers reach their plateau and make the conscious decision not to press on in their ascent of the corporate ladder, they also gain a new level of power in their ability to say no without repercussion. This was discussed in the context of mobility, and the ability of “non-mobile” managers to draw on their extensive networks and bases of established personal power to remain relevant, effective, and in many cases revered for the chutzpah of what they are able to say and do in the organization.

In the prologue of The Ropes some concepts are offered as to why hierarchies continue to not only exist but thrive, among them the creation of order and stability, a certain level of predictability, the career ladder and upward mobility effects, and the trappings of success as one climbs higher in the organization. These trappings of success are not only expressed in title and salary, but also in the office furnishings, perquisites, and relative location in the building. For those in power, it is self-reinforcing to maintain and cultivate the hierarchy and to foster a continual desire to reach the next level. If not for the apparent pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, few people would make the senseless sacrifices and give up so much of their lives in pursuit of a corporation’s goals and objectives.

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From “star system” to “goat pen” …

Tonight, Shelton led our “Ropes” discussion, which was essentially a number of chapters discussing power, formal and informal, within an organization. Shelton described upward mobility in the terms of a marathon versus a tennis tournament; in a marathon, as long as you can finish, your successful in completing the marathon. In a tennis tournament, once you lose, you’re out. He then shared with us a number of examples where he had watched people that had been identified as stars in organization, but then, as things do, something happened in the organization that tarnished the star and put them in the “goat pen.”

We spent some time discussing the different sources of power, including examples of the informal power, such as an administrative assistant who, because of proximity to leadership, has access to information, gatekeeper authority, and a perceived level of power.

One of the examples, in chapter 47, talks about how people’s reputations can be placed in the balance when they’ve recommended someone for a job and that person is not performing to expectations.

In another example, in chapter 48, the author discusses the perils of working in an organization where a family calls the shots, and people who are related to the leaders get the choice jobs.

Shelton shared with us the example of a manager in an organization who is no longer on the career ladder, and therefore can take a stance were in the past they would have been forced to be compliant. In this instance, in chapter 50, Ben Franklyn simply refuses to attend and 8 o’clock meeting on a Friday night and knows that there will be no repercussions.

In chapter 52, people at The Company simply cannot bring themselves to ask Mr. Marsh what he meant by this statement ” exercise on this” … consequently, the staff go through unnecessary turmoil trying to make their best guess as to what Mr. Marsh actually needed.