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Adapting to Being a Better Leader

by Dan Pontefract

When thinking of IBM and Xerox, one tends to think of paradoxical leadership. In the blue corner, we have a company - and a leadership model - that superbly enacted the attribute of adapting. In the red corner, we have a company that was highly innovative and thought-leading, yet for a period of time didn't possess the adapting attribute and suffered for years thereafter as a result.

Back in 1993, newly appointed IBM CEO Lou Gerstner had been parachuted in to salvage a beleaguered, if not bankruptcy-destined, organization from the verge of collapse. The instructions given to him by the board of IBM were clear: "Help us adapt to the new world of business." Gerstner wasn't an engineer, nor was he a technology expert; at his core, he was an adapting change agent who could help Big Blue with its transformation needs. Drawing on similar experiences from his days at Nabisco, American Express and McKinsey, Gerstner successfully brought in an adapting leadership attribute to the organization.

It permeated throughout all facets of the company. Through his leadership and a willingness and perseverance to push the company into a new way of thinking - a more adaptive way of operating - IBM trimmed anything that wasn't working and evolved into the technology idea factory it is known for being today. Through Gerstner's nine-year reign, IBM's value and revenues grew by more than 40 percent, and the company radically transformed from a monolithic, rigid giant to a flexible and adapting organism. As he left his post, Gerstner underlined the point of his belief in adapting and in people in general by saying, "In the end, an organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value." By instilling the behavior of adapting, IBM has gone on to be a role model organization.

In the 1970s, things were as positive and rosy as can be if you were a member of the Xerox team. The world was gobbling up Xerox technologies everywhere, from photocopiers to highly sophisticated laser printers. Today, we take these technologies for granted, but it's Xerox and its innovative culture we have to thank. It's this innovative mind-set throughout the organization that also saw the launch of Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), a facility instituted by CEO Charles McColough to cook up even more cool gadgets. But this is where our adapting attribute story takes an unfortunate twist.

Imagine a research center that developed the technology we use today, like the mouse, or electronic file folders, or the graphical user interface, or what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) software. Yes, all of these were born at Xerox PARC. But, due to a culture that was very territorial, less entrepreneurial than its Silicon Valley counterparts and absolutely lacking the adapting gene, Xerox squandered the opportunity to bring these magnificent inventions to mass market. Instead, because it was lacking the adapting gene, the innovations Xerox PARC developed were sold to budding (and adapting) leaders like Steve Jobs, who ran wild with their functionality. Why didn't McColough, or his successor David Kearns, see the inherent opportunity in PARC-related technologies? Why didn't they adapt to the changing societal and business needs? It's most likely because they did not have the adapting attribute like Lou Gerstner did. And we know full well what Jobs did with the technology afterwards, don't we?

What is evident in the business world is steadfastly simple to some and eerily overlooked by others. A failure to adapt, to anticipate, or to possess continual flexibility in previous decisions will be the unnerving undoing of an organization. The company formerly known as Research in Motion (RIM), makers of the iconic BlackBerry smartphone line, is a classic example. Former co-CEOs Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis were innovation machines, producing technology products that were snapped up in droves by their customers. But an unwillingness to adapt or to look ahead and better the organization ultimately led to their resignations in early 2012. RIM's board and the company (with new at the time CEO Thorsten Heins) attempted to hastily play catch-up to the likes of Apple and Samsung. It was a desperate quest to gain a stronghold in the consumer space. It eventually led to the departure of Heins a short year later and the installation of long time, high-tech veteran John Chen to steer the Blackberry ship to safe passage. Only time will tell if it's too late for the company.

What of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) as well? In 1977, founder Ken Olsen quite famously said, "There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home." This oft-used quote nicely illustrates the adapting attribute. DEC was a market leader in technologies, such as the minicomputer, data processors, mainframe computers and networking, yet didn't see the benefit of personal computers until it was far too late and others had flanked, outwitted and adapted much earlier.

Unsurprisingly, the company was pared back and bit parts were sold off until eventually what remained was sold to Compaq. If only DEC had a better adapting attribute, perhaps it would be the world's most valuable company and not Apple as it is today.

The words of Alexander Graham Bell nicely summarize the adapting attribute for a connected leader: "Don't keep forever on the public road, going only where others have gone."

If leaders understand they can both adapt and better their leadership capabilities to fuel the growth of the organization itself, why aren't more doing it?

At the 2012 Democratic National Convention held in Charlotte, North Carolina, First Lady Michelle Obama gave a rousing speech, some argue, for the ages. It poetically painted her husband, President Barack Obama not as the President of the United States, but as a true connected leader of the people. She depicted a graceful, loving and empathetic man. One line in particular stuck out and it went as follows:

"Success isn't about how much money you make, it's about the difference you make in people's lives."

We might take some creative license with her words and suggest the attribute of being better as a leader is as follows: 

"Success isn't about how many direct reports you have, it's about how well you are bettering your team and the organization whatever the situation."

Who cares how big your team is or your organization's girth?

The goal is not a larger team, it is making that team - whatever the size - the best it can be. It is the responsibility of the leader to assist team members in hitting their professional or career pursuits. And the true connected leader will take interest and provide counsel on personal endeavours, as well. Likewise, it is incumbent upon connected leaders to refrain from invoking a culture of status quo. Jim Collins, author of Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...And Others Don't, in quoting Voltaire, said, "Good is the enemy of great" and it is this phrase that leaders should tattoo on their foreheads.

Bettering is improving. This is the essence of moving beyond status quo leadership. Euan Semple, author of Organizations Don't Tweet, People Do and the former Director of Knowledge Management at the BBC, states to "do whatever you can" and "encourage a shared sense of ownership" and "keep adapting and be willing," all of which help us understand the importance of consistently demonstrating the behavior of bettering your people and the organizationBettering the team helps in so many different ways. For example, in December 2008, it was evident that TELUS had a number of team members who were in need of some bettering action. To be clear, bettering isn't about sending people off to a training course. It is about improving the situation of the employee, with the employee, team and organization all equally in mind. Two individuals in particular, Rob Sharpe and Marguerite Behringer, were learning and collaboration consultants working on various projects. They were rock stars and the company was lucky to have them. When they were approached separately about their portfolios, ambitions, likes, dislikes and traits, it became evident that they were in need of some bettering action. For example, there were numerous conversations with Rob about his passion and ways we could tap into that outside of our team to better his skills and experiences. We found a three-month job shadowing opportunity in a completely different part of the organization, fully paid for by his current role, which then led to other bettering opportunities outside of our team.

Rob is still a highly contributing member at TELUS on a different team and now has a team of his own that he is leading. The act of bettering helped Rob in his career at TELUS, and more importantly, kept him at the company as well. Through many conversations with Marguerite that focused on bettering her skills, career options and talents, we shifted her portfolio on the team from one that focused on a single deliverable to one that supported an entire business unit. From there, we continued our bettering dialogue and she happily graduated from our team to go on and become a highly successful HR business partner for the TELUS enterprise sales team. It's another example of how the act of bettering can help both the employee and the organization as a whole.

The act of bettering is nicely encapsulated in the book, 30 Reasons Employees Hate Their Managers: What Your People May Be Thinking and What You Can Do About It, by Bruce Katcher and Adam Snyder:

"Such support for employees is not merely altruistic. It will further the goals of the organization by keeping a cadre of highly motivated, accomplished, and upwardly mobile employees who refuse to become complacent slaves. It will also be attractive to potential new employees to know that the organization supports employee growth and development."

As a leader, ask yourself what you're doing to adapt to the times, but don't stop there. Also ask yourself how you're bettering both your own leadership skills and those you are supporting. It is this type of leader who understands what a FLAT ARMY is all about.

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