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Gary Cohen On Just Ask Leadership (Part 1)

Posted on Thursday, Dec 30th 2010

By guest author Gary Cohen

[The end of the year is a time for people and businesses to reflect on the past twelve months and think about goals for the future and changes that need to be made. With, among other problems, the financial crisis, the BP oil spill, and, for many U.S. companies, record profits at a time when joblessness remains high and wages stagnant, it is vital that business leaders continually assess their leadership and decision-making skills and strive to maintain long-term vision. One way to do this, believes Gary Cohen, is to ask rather than tell. Cohen’s book, Just Ask Leadership: Why Great Managers Always Ask the Right Questions, aims to help leaders change their mindset through asking the right questions in the right way to get more engaged employees and higher-quality decisions.]

Improve Vision #11:

How would I feel if this issue made the front page of the newspaper?

Feel-good stories rarely make the headlines, and meeting your organization’s sales targets won’t sell papers. Reporters don’t wear rose-colored glasses; they look for dirt—especially on the wealthy, famous, and powerful. So before you make a controversial decision, or sign off on a discretionary expenditure, imagine what the headlines might be.

Whenever we had an issue in dispute, Tom Madison, retired CEO of US West Communications and a board member of my former organization, asked “How would you feel if this issue made the front page of the newspaper?” And when he didn’t, John Kunz, former president of Dun and Bradstreet, often did. They were well aware of what negative press could do to our company and careers.

Once a writer or news source takes a stand against you, you have little chance of reversing the tide. Your every comment will feel as if it’s taken out of context, and the press won’t necessarily stretch to get the full story. I recall an instance when only former members of our organization were interviewed for an investigative report, not current ones. Needless to say, the results were not good—or fair.

The papers are filled with stories about leaders with golden parachutes and performance bonuses that leave employees and stakeholders feeling bitter—especially when health care benefits and pensions are being cut. As a leader, you’re in the limelight. So whenever you make a decision that could affect your image or the organization’s, ask, “How would I feel if this issue made it to the front page of the newspaper?”

Improve Vision #12:

Am I a decision-maker or a goal-achiever?

At an executive retreat I attended, an expert consultant asked the assembled leaders, “Why do you get paid?” After listening to a variety of responses, he revealed his answer: “Leaders get paid for making decisions.” He’s right, to a point, but the message he sent was a dangerous one for leaders to hear.

Yes, leaders make decisions, but if they think of themselves as decision-makers, that’s what they’ll be. Not leaders. Decision-makers organize their universe around problems. In general, they seek to define a problem, solicit input, create a desired outcome, and then select a strategy.

Exceptional leaders don’t start with the problem. They start with the organization’s goal. Next, they assess the current state of the organization in relation to the goal—the organization’s position, in other words. The third step is to determine the strategy to reach the goal from the current position.

Although these two approaches are similar, they are not the same, and the difference in outcomes can be dramatic. The goal-achiever works from a proactive state (Where do we want to go?). The decision-maker works from a reactive state (How are we going to get out of this situation?). Goal-achievers lead and inspire their coworkers as they head toward a concrete destination. They want to do the right thing. Decision-makers seek personal recognition, engender distrust, and go where the wind takes them.

Authority figures in hierarchical organizations who consider themselves decision-makers do so because as they moved up through the ranks, they rode the coattails of their clever decisions. Exceptional leaders, who demonstrate leadership, inspire those beneath them to make sound decisions. If leaders are making all the decisions, there are fewer opportunities for their coworkers to excel. And these leaders are not spending enough time or effort identifying their organization’s overarching goal, position, and strategy (what I call “GPSing”). It works just like a GPS: You supply the destination (goal), the system triangulates your location (position) relative to the destination using a satellite, and then produces accurate and efficient directions (strategy).

Start using GPSing if you’re not already. With questions, focus in on the goal, identify the organization’s current position, and then search for the correct strategy. Think of yourself as a goal-achieving leader, not a decision-maker.

This segment is part 1 in the series : Gary Cohen On Just Ask Leadership
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