Are you seen as a champion leader or imposer by your team?

Every important initiative to be successful requires a champion-leader. The method of a champion-leader is different – persuasive as opposed to imposing. S/he begets a team that is high on ownership and self-directed efforts. S/he delivers results. But champion-leader’s team, even if competent, may perceive him/her as an imposer, more so if the leader is CEO. Or, CEOs may be believing that they are persuasive when in fact they may be imposing. It is difficult for leaders to self-correct because, teams may fake ownership and motivation.

Change agent: Champion or Imposer?

How does one assess oneself whether one is seen as a champion leader or an imposer? Here is a self-assessment tool-kit. But a story before that!

One of my second generation entrepreneur friends, who had recently taken over the reins from his father, was talking to me about his (unsuccessful) attempt to scale his foundry business. It required automation of a few processes. Essentially, change.

He was an MBA from one of the premium US b-schools with a specialization in running family business. So he armed himself with a near text book approach. He (1) created urgency within the organisation for a rapid change, (2) created & communicated a clear goal and execution plan, (3) formed a core group of members, with one clear “spoc” to drive every activity, etc. (see for more: John Kotter’s classic HBR article “Leading Change. Why transformation efforts fail”)

The core group appeared high on ownership- talking positively about potential of the change and how great the process automation idea was. It even cited early wins, e.g. Value Stream Mapping had identified and removed certain non-value adding steps – lulling our friend into believing that the course was correct! But after a few months into the change initiative, little had significantly moved. Detailed task lists were drawn and reviewed in regular weekly meetings.  He was rather lamenting about how in spite of championing the change, his team did not deliver. “It is time to take action” he said and promptly fired the foundry operations manager.

The new foundry manager, now part of the core group, had been observing the dynamics for several weeks. My friend suggested “I had to give him time to settle.” The foundry manager soon blamed the poor managerial skills of his predecessor, made some changes in the execution plan and suggested that some extra rewards would make things work faster, which was agreed to. He later assured that the employees were “falling in line” – citing even more success. Other pressures took over and the process automation initiative was given a quite burial. Probably, this was not the first one.

When we were discussing this case much later, we were intrigued as to how an entirely internal-to-the-firm initiative did not move enough? I had to either doubt my friend’s leadership style or the team’s sincerity in adopting the change initiative. I had little doubt on the former. Probably, the team was faking ownership? My friend was steadfast in believing that it was not the case. So I drew up a list of evidences that may point to the contrary.

Imagine yourself as a CEO or Head of a division. Recall a few important change initiative and read the statements below carefully.

  1. Your team downplays any crisis news / poor performance metric. Worse it “shoots the messenger”!
  2. Your team engages outsiders, e.g. consultants, to bring unwanted information.
  3. Your team rarely discusses crises in meetings that requires a change initiative.
  4. Your team cites downside of a change initiative more often than upside.
  5. When you propose a change initiative, somehow you suspect that you have several  “yes-men” faking ownership.
  6. After the ball is set rolling, your team has not conducted detailed communication about the change initiative to employees at large.
  7. Change projects are driven by just one or two top leaders of your team, even though it calls for at least several others to form a core group or a guiding coalition.
  8. Even the two or three who are part of the change team – they do not seem to have agreement on how it is to be done.
  9. There are very few junior executives are members of the change team.
  10. The predominant motivation technique is cash incentives.
  11. There are members of the team who are just paying lip service and not demonstrating real change in behavior? Or such members do not encourage his/her team to change behavior
  12. Review meetings is not offering course – correction, or  analysis of performance.
  13. Review meetings are mostly about a big list of tasks – whether done or not.
  14. Team shares little inputs from the field, both negative and positive.
  15. At least one or two members are asked to leave for poor change management

Now please count the number statements to which you could say “Yeah..that happens”. If they more five, then the next-in-line team lacks true ownership.