Monday, November 3, 2008

Leading Companies Manage Paradox

What differentiates top-performing companies from those with mediocre performance? According to OnPoint research, one of the critical skills leaders of top-performing companies possess is the ability to lead by managing paradoxes (1)

Most of us were raised with an either/or mindset. There was one answer in the back of the book when we went to school, we were taught that leaders are paid to make tough decisions, and we learned early in our careers to select the answer to solve the problem.

Researchers tell us that the top leaders understand that things are not always black and white. Top performing companies have leaders that are able to supplement their traditional problem-solving skills with both/and thinking. They learn how to manage the tension between what seems to be mutually exclusive demands from diverse stakeholders. The best leaders grow the business by: embracing short and long-term goals, maintaining control and providing autonomy, keeping costs low and quality high, ensuring stability and stimulating change...

How do you manage a paradox? By considering the two issues of the paradox interdependently as you make decisions. For example, high performing leaders do not push change without providing stability. OnPoint’s analysis shows that leaders adapt the following key behaviors to help build a platform of stability so they can implement change:

A. Provide open and honest communication. Sixty-four percent of the 655 participants in an OnPoint survey said that open and honest communication from leaders, even when they don't have all the answers, would make change easier.

B. Be the change you wish to see. This quotation from Gandhi reminds us that employees need to see words in action. Employees comply with what they hear, but commit to what they see.

C. Set realistic objectives and milestones. When I was Chief Administrative Officer of an Institute at UCLA, I was a member of the "Dean's Goals 2000" committee. The Dean wanted us to set forth the strategies and tactics necessary to accomplish his vision -- for the UCLA School of Medicine to become the preeminent medical school in the world by the year 2000. At the time, UCLA was ranked number eight or nine depending upon which survey you reviewed. The Dean's goal was so lofty that most of the committee members did not believe it was achievable. They therefore did not put forth the effort. They gave the Dean’s initiative lip service but very little hip service.

D. Estimate resources accurately. Employees have a specific capacity to handle change. Too much change overwhelms them. Yet, many organizations push one change after another without assessing the ability of the people to digest the change. One high-tech firm that I've consulted with had three major change initiatives affecting most of its employees at one time. The resources required to implement these changes were severely underestimated, while the capacity for people to absorb them were overestimated.

E. Maintain motivation. Too many change initiatives begin with a grand kickoff meeting and fade because of decreasing communication and leadership visibility. If you want people to stay committed to change, keep communicating and making small victories visible.

The stability/change paradox is just one of the tensions leaders must manage. Which ones are you struggling with?

Keep eXpanding,


1. Richard Lepsinger, How Top Performing Companies Get Ahead of the Pack and Stay There, ‘American Management Association’s MWorld,’ Summer 2007, 3 - 4.

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