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Speed Up, Let Go: The New Rule for Ego-Free Leadership

by Bill George on April 8, 2010


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Speed Up, Let Go: The New Rule for Ego-Free Leadership

Fifty years ago, America had General Motors and Alfred P. Sloan. One CEO—one decision-maker. “If you do it right 51 percent of the time you, will end up a hero.”
Today, America has Zappos and Tony Hsieh. One CEO—millions of decision makers. “Customer service shouldn’t be just a department, it should be the entire company.”

Forty years ago, news seekers had Walter Cronkite.
Today, they have more than 100 million independent blogs.

Thirty years ago, potential customers had interruptive TV and radio commercials.
Today, they have brands competing to deliver free trials and no-strings-attached value.

Twenty years ago, leaders couldn’t communicate with audiences after leaving the podium.
Today, they can use social networks and blogs to stay completely connected.

Ten years ago, customers had toll-free, voice-automated complaint departments.
Today, they have live-chat and real-time access to companies on Twitter.

Yesterday, the old ways of doing things were going away.
Today, they’re gone.

2010 is more than the first year in a new decade. It marks the end of “the lost decade,” a ten-year stretch of flawed business leadership, short-term behavior, and poor decision-making.

It also ushers in a new concept of company-customer relationships and leader-employee dynamics. The advent and spread of innovative communication technologies—particularly social media like Twitter and Facebook—have irrevocably changed the way consumers think about companies, and the way business leaders relate to employees. Today’s customers want companies that who will respond to complaints about broken widgets or lost luggage in minutes, not days or even hours.

The days of automated engagement are finished. Real-time engagement, predominantly across online social networks, is now the normal consumer expectation. To adapt, CEOs need employees who can take the helm themselves and be confident, forthright company representatives—leaders in their own right.

This is not a sudden development, nor is the Web 2.0 culture a passing fad. Facebook now enjoys more than 350 million users, and accounts for nearly 25% of all daily internet page views. But it is not just that significant behavioral change is underway—it is the pace at which that change is occurring. In 2002, Facebook did not exist.

This commercial and communication revolution makes it easier for customers to find precisely what they want—and they’ll go from company to company to find it. For business leaders, the revolution poses a significant challenge—a CEO can’t simply flip an “empowerment” switch and expect that her employees will know exactly how to behave.

Leaders are therefore responsible for restructuring now-dated business leadership models. No longer can companies remain successful with CEOs acting like kings, and their employees acting like a tactical peon. For a company to thrive today, and not wash away in a sea of ever-faster consumer feedback, it must to fill the ranks with empowered leaders—employees, managers, and executives alike—who prioritize flexibility, collegial empowerment, customer over-satisfaction, and mutual trust.

Some companies are already sprinting ahead. Google uses employee polls, not executive measuring sticks, to gauge project success. Zappos runs factories 24/7, 365 days a year not to make more money, but to process always-free returns faster and keep customers happy. W.L. Gore does not have an official organizational structure—their employees just get the job done. The course is clear. It’s now a matter of which business leaders can adapt to the new environment. And which can do it the fastest.

It’s fitting that such change would accelerate in the midst of the greatest leadership crisis of the past seventy years. As I wrote in 7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis, the great opportunities offered by crises result from the challenges created by great crises. And as leaders like Avon’s Andrea Jung, Novartis’s Dan Vasella, IBM’s Sam Palmisano, and GE’s Jeff Immelt can attest, crises also present leaders with a real test of their abilities, and a great opportunity to reinvent their leadership approach.

Today’s customer engagement and employee empowerment challenges offer just such opportunity. And those who deploy ground-up leadership—empowering employees at every level and seeking leaders in new places—position themselves for a greater upswing as the economy emerges from crisis.

The transition will require immense effort to create lasting cultural change. It takes time for employees to feel comfortable in their empowerment, and to embrace responsibility for their actions and the impact they will have on the organization. Likewise, it is a challenge for powerful CEOs to listen to the advice of 28 year-olds with superb ideas. But that is an essential bridge to cross to adapt meet the challenges facing today’s leaders.

How can you get buy in for revolutionary change? Ask yourself these questions:

  1. How can I adapt my leadership to this new environment?
  2. How much of my time am I devoting to meeting face-to-face with customers and individual employees, as opposed to meeting with investors’ representatives and other outsiders?
  3. What kind of new leaders will it take to get our organization to where it needs to be in ten years? Who are the top ten leaders under thirty-five in my organization, and how can I accelerate their development by giving them major leadership challenges now?

A final note to top leaders: ideas are everywhere in your organization. Your young leaders are chomping at the bit to prove themselves. Customers are testing you to see how you adapt to their changing needs. It’s your job to create a culture where your employees and managers throughout your organization feel compelled to transform your organization to an outward-facing one where the front-line employees assume the power to meet customer needs, freed from the restrictive command-and-control organizations of the past. Both for your customer’s sake, and your company’s sake, it’s time to let your employees redefine your company’s voice —and your leadership.

That’s leadership in 2010.

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satyabroto-banerji's picture
It seems to be that innovation should move outwards and sideways. Since you rightly point out the limitations of a top-down approach in contemporary times, I feet that Grounded Theory, sociology, and consumer psychology should have greater says in formulating cornerstone policies. Let stakeholders at large determine innovation paths, rather than the centrist approach of old.
ed's picture

Nice comments.

Would it be possible to create 50+ innovation spaces with across the uk with you using the spaces we
have and your great software as a not for profit as we would love to
work with you to create charitable outcomes? would love to creatively enhance your work
for example with the user interactivity of the service and the
organisation structure is one example of how open source software
can be used with that business model.