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The Leadership Imperative in Changing Times (Or, What We Can Learn From a Grey Goose)

Posted By: Mike Fitzgerald | Posted on: 09-20-2019

How did we work without Bluetooth, texting, video chat, digital calendars, smartphone apps, and online collaboration programs?  How did we live outside work without a camera on our phones, social media, Waze, Google search, Uber, and Venmo?  My managers wonder how we lived without mobile phones, FedEx, laptops, tablets, copiers, email and the Internet. And at my age, I still wonder how we lived without microwave ovens, HDTV, ATMs, debit cards, jet planes, air conditioners and clothes dryers.

My point?  We have multiple generations in the workforce, representing the greatest opportunity we’ve ever had to embrace change and learn from each other up, down and across our companies.  Talk to each other.  Share history.  Learn what’s new.  Listen to each other.  Be humble and embrace new ideas and perspectives.  Anyone obsessed with missing the way it used to be is ignoring an extraordinary opportunity to learn from others the way it will be.

The young people we’re hiring today are different, and so are the managers who are emerging as our future leaders. Young people coming out of the top business schools today were born at a time when Silence of the Lambs was best picture, Bush (the first one) and Yeltsin declared the formal end of the Cold War.  And Smells Like Teen Spirit was released by Nirvana.  They were about 7 years old when they struggled to understand the tragedy of 9/11 and the changing world around us.

Times have changed, and so has the leadership imperative. You needn’t look far to see that young people today are faced with greater danger than ever before. Not just our children and grandchildren, but the young people we hire. The danger they face isn’t just physical. They face the danger of being underused by a manager who can’t relate to the changing world. The young people we hire or advance in our businesses today need a leader, not a manager. They need role models. They need teachers. They need hope. They need you.

They need to learn to take chances and not be afraid to fail — but to fail forward and learn from their mistakes. They need to learn from you, and you must be willing to learn from them. You can teach them to win with grace and to lose with dignity. Challenge them to suggest new ways of doing old things. Managers effect change in their organization to respond to the changing world around them. Leaders anticipate and embrace change and help prepare the organization and its people for more change. And leaders do this through their people, not for their people.

A leader will hire for attitude, competency and intelligence and he will train for skill. He (or she) will select fine young people to be molded into future leaders. And he will allow his new people to be agents of change. A manager organizes what needs to be done, sets goals and keeps people on task. He inspires greatness from unlikely heroes, and he builds success by building character. Ken Olson, the founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, was a manager, not a leader. He completely missed the PC and Internet revolution, and he couldn’t relate to a new generation of employees and customers. Bill Gates almost missed it too, but as a great leader, he knew when to step aside and let his soldiers fight the battle.

We have an unfortunate tendency in this society to focus on what’s wrong, and it’s been a struggle recently to focus on what’s right with America. Are you doing that in your company? Rather than dismiss another hire as someone who wouldn’t have made it in your world, reach down and inspire him or her to be one of your champions of change.

One of my heroes, Bill Mitchelson at Salem Five Bank, made me believe on my first day at the bank that my ideas were important to him. Together, we built one of the first bank websites in the world. We’re nearly a generation apart in age but he communicated with me through a challenge, and we met it. Do this and you will lead. Embrace and nurture change. Recognize that our world was not better than the world in which our new hires and emerging leaders live. Their world is our world.

Our challenge is timeless. Consider this statement. “We live in a decadent age. Young people no longer respect their parents. They are rude and impatient. They inhabit taverns and have no self-control.” This statement isn’t from the editorial page in USA Today, it was found etched in an ancient Egyptian tomb, created nearly three thousand years ago. Sure, our challenge has endured throughout the ages, and I believe that knowledge can be passed along from generation to generation and from person to person.

But wisdom can never be taught…it must be experienced. It is said that with the death of every wise man or woman, so too passes a library of knowledge. As you grow wise, share your wisdom. As you grow older, share your experience. Return what you can to your community, to your friends and family, and to the people in your company who look to you for guidance and leadership.

Learning from Geese
For a poignant illustration of leadership, author Milton Olson suggests that you needn’t look further than to the crisp autumn sky. He suggested we look to geese for lessons in leadership and teamwork. He said, “As each bird flaps its wings, it creates an ‘uplift’ for the bird following. By flying in a ‘V’ formation, the whole flock adds 71% greater flying range than if the bird flew alone.” The lesson? People who share a common direction and sense of community can get where they are going quicker and easier because they are traveling on the thrust of one another.

Olson said, “Whenever a goose falls out of formation, it suddenly feels that drag and resistance of trying to fly alone, and quickly gets back into formation to take advantage of the ‘lifting power’ of the bird immediately in front. The lesson? If we have as much sense as a goose, we will stay in formation with those who are headed where we want to go (and be willing to accept their help as well as give ours to others). He said, “When the lead goose gets tired, it rotates back into the formation and another goose flies at the point position.” The lesson here is that it pays to take turns doing the hard tasks and sharing leadership – people, like geese, are interdependent on each other.

He also suggested that, “The geese honk information from behind to encourage those up front to keep up their speed.” And he said the lesson is that we need to make sure our honking from behind is encouraging – and not something else. Finally, Olson said, “When a goose gets sick or wounded or shot down, two geese drop out of formation and follow it down to help and protect it. They stay with it until it is able to fly again or dies. Then they launch out on their own with another formation or catch up with the flock.”

In this time of great uncertainty and change, you represent the future to your employees and your children. You’re the lead goose, the one that needs to drop back occasionally to let others share your leadership and for you to honk encouragement from behind. You have to keep the geese in formation to prevent them from being dragged down by uncertainty. And occasionally, you need to follow one of your group down when he’s wounded. You’ll gain the respect of all geese on your way down and back to the lead again.

When’s the last time you traded places with someone on the line in your company, or handled a customer complaint? Did you pull an all-nighter with your Technology and Operations teams during your last systems conversion, even if it was simply to buy the coffee and donuts and to show your people you love them? Are you building support or demanding it? If you think your time isn’t well spent at the copy machine once a week, you’re wrong. When asked what made him such a successful leader, Dave Thomas, the founder and CEO of Wendy’s said, “I didn’t go to college, but I put in more apron time than my competition.”

You’re the Athletic Director who has hired the best coaches, and your job is to set the long-term direction of your program. Know when to let your coaches coach and your players play. Know the rules of the game…know when you need to be a cheerleader or to start the wave in the crowd to demonstrate support for your team. And let your coaches be comfortable with knowing that the game has changed, and that what worked last year may not be enough this year. We need people in our companies to be more willing to accept risks to win a game. Wayne Gretzky once said, “You miss 100% of the shots you never make.” He was so right. A great leader will put the best team on the field and let them play the game.

“The Past is Prologue” 
These words are inscribed over the entrance to the Supreme Court of the United States. It means that what has been deemed righteous in the past shall serve as the foundation for future decisions. We must never lose our respect for the past, but we must constantly direct our vision toward the future. Much can be learned from history. And much history can be made from our learning. Game plans change. People change. As a leader, you must know when to change before it’s too late. And you must cultivate change in your organization for the good of your customer.

Today’s greatest risk isn’t credit risk or interest rate sensitivity. It isn’t operational risk, shrinking markets or increasing competition. These things are important, but the greatest risk we face is complacency. We risk not accepting risk. We risk not taking chances, not trying new things and not having the courage to change. If we, the leaders, aren’t demonstrating this willingness, how can we possibly cultivate it in our future organizational leaders?

If you haven’t already, I challenge you to reach down into your organization and nurture your future leaders. Be their leader. Be their teacher. Be their friend. Take more risk. Try new things. Have more fun. Take more chances. If you’re wrong, don’t make the same mistake twice. If you’re right, celebrate your success with the rest of the team. Expect of them what you expect of yourself. There’s no better time to prime the creativity pump in your organization, and to challenge your younger associates to become leaders.

To most of you, what I’ve said is common sense. To those who live by these rules I admire you a great deal. To the others, I ask you — are you ready to dig down in your organization and find the people who stand ready to lead in the future? Whether a bright-eyed trainee or a delivery person who bleeds the color of your logo, he or she represents the customer of the future and perhaps the future leaders of your organization. But the succession of leadership begins with your courage to change, and your ability to lead your company into the future.

Go to work tomorrow and find him. Challenge him. Ask her to build a better way of doing things for her friends and relatives. Stimulate the imagination of your people, at every level of the organization. Lead your company forward by inspiring greatness in the unlikely hero. Listen. Just listen.

And don’t be afraid to drop back and honk every-so-often.

Mike Fitzgerald 17 Posts

Fitzgerald MSI provides clients with a talent management framework that helps them make better hiring, advancement and talent development decisions. We identify how people process information and make decisions, predict how they are motivated, and suggest how well they fit into the client’s culture. We help clients select the right people, and accelerate the onboarding and assimilation process to make them more productive, more quickly. And we help clients improve relationships among and between teams, manage training and development gaps, and identify next-generation managers and executive leadership. Mike Fitzgerald, the president of Fitzgerald MSI, created the company in 2002 to help clients achieve peak performance to improve the client experience, improve efficiency and productivity and enhance revenue. Clients include E *TRADE, TransAmerica, Direct General Insurance, HarlandClarke, Cendant Corporation, State Bank Financial Corporation, ING DIRECT (now Capital One), CHD Meridian Healthcare, Radio-One, Wilmington Trust Company, and more. Fitzgerald is a former chief talent officer, president and CEO, chief operating, officer, and sales, leader. He is a certified practitioner in the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI) and Hogan assessments. He’s been a consultant to Fortune-100 companies, startups, turnarounds, and served as an executive officer for companies as large as $4 billion. He’s an Economics graduate from the University of Massachusetts, a frequent speaker at industry events, and the author of three books on service quality, client experience management, and business communications.