From Command-and-Control to Align-and-Enable

In a mere four months remote working has become a reality for many people. And it seems unlikely that the majority will go back to their offices on a full-time basis at any point in the near future, if at all. The most likely outcome will be a hybrid model where many will work from home two or three days a week, while getting the support and comradery they need on the remaining days.
There is evidence that remote working can increase productivity, but it can also create problem of cohesion. In all of this, the question for the leader or manager is: ‘how do I manage my virtual team while maintaining, productivity, effectiveness and engagement?’
Or, better, increasing them.

The question is made more complicated by the fact that many of the members of these virtual team will be ‘Millennials’. Millennials, word has it, are different from previous generations. They are difficult to attract and even more difficult to retain; impossible to manage and a threat to prevailing corporate culture. Take a look at the press and you will also be told that millennials are demanding, disengaged from work, easily distracted and hold a naive sense of entitlement. Not what one would want from a remote worker.

But look further and you will find that millennials want work that has meaning and purpose; empowerment to get on with the job; development and growth; a path to promotion; and the freedom to work where and when they want. Maybe the real difference between previous generations and the millennials is that they have had the courage to say: ‘this way of working, well, it isn’t working’. Maybe what they are looking for is relevant to managing the virtual team.

“Once a year performance reviews are out…What millennials seek is ongoing feedback, clear goals and ‘collaborative goal setting.”

Richard Steinhilber, NBC: Seven ways Millennials are Changing the Workplace for the better

Compliance Culture Limits Performance

20th century organizational life was marked by a culture of compliance and of ‘doing my best’, sustained by a leadership approach rooted firmly in a command-and-control mindset. This model of leadership is neither appreciated nor understood by millennials, and not conducive to high levels of performance – for anyone. It’s not an approach that works particularly well when the manager does not have day-to-day oversight on the team member’s work.

Meanwhile, the current business climate is beset by disruption. These conditions, widely known as VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous), are both challenging and rich in opportunity. This is compounded by the ever-increasing speed of change and ever-more interdependencies across industries. In these conditions command-and-control approaches do not work. A different way of working is required, one that is more flexible, responsive and agile so better decisions can be made, and action taken, more quickly. And such a different way of working requires a different, congruent leadership approach.

There is little consensus on what such an approach should be, not least because we are still stuck with a 20th century mindset. For instance, most attempts to build a ‘coaching culture’ falter when they bump into the need – real or felt – of the majority of managers, to be in control.

There is an inflection point where the change in the curve can just be detected but what comes next is not entirely clear. The millennials may be pointing the way. Much of what millennials are asking for – development and growth; transparency and connection; work that has meaning and purpose; empowerment – suggest something simple:
A change in leadership style to something fitting to today’s business environment; an approach which aligns rather than controls, which enables rather than constrains.

“Millennials are the driving force behind workplace change…what’s surprising is that the changes they are pushing for in the workplace are the things desired by everyone”

Richard Steinhilber, NBC

Moving from ‘Command and Control’ to ‘Align and Enable’
Two types of organization need ‘to get the best from people’ more than most: the military and late-stage start-ups. Both have developed leadership approaches congruent with this need.

High performance in the military is critical from a practical and moral standpoint, particularly at a time when public resistance to war is at an all-time high. Similarly, in the world of a late-stage start-up, the need for a swift return on investment demands a high-performance culture. Consequently, both kinds of organizations have gone further than most in defining a leadership approach that delivers in a VUCA world.

What both kinds of organization have understood is that people can’t become high performers – acting quickly and decisively, developing and using talents – in an overly controlled or constrained environment. Within a military environment in which ‘no plan survives first contact with the enemy’, responsiveness on the ground is critical. ‘Command-and-control’ is not an option since the combatants are probably out of contact and cannot wait for someone else to make the decision. The parallels with remote working are clear.

Fundamentally, both kinds of organization have looked to resolve a specific problem: how should we empower people without a loss of focus and control? The answer, in part at least, is to align and enable.

The US Military is a prime exponent of ‘Mission Command’. This is an approach to leadership that combines a powerful vision or intent, communicated to all, supported by decentralised leadership on the ground. This generates swift, relevant decision-making and action within governing constraints. Align and enable.

“In executing Mission Command, sustainment commanders…must share their vision of operations and the desired end state.”

‘Understanding Mission Command’, Spectrum by Col. (Ret.) James D Sharpe Jr. and Lt. Col. (Ret.) Thomas E. Creviston

Within the start-up world, there is emerging clarity about ‘Entrepreneurial Mindset’: a way of thinking about performance that has many parallels with Mission Command. One ‘principle’, for instance, is objective driven execution. This is the idea that every action must be aligned with and contribute towards the over-arching goal. Again, this allows for swift, aligned decision making and action.

A New Model of Leadership: Lead-Manage-Coach

Lead-Manage-Coach is a model for leadership in action for high-performance business organizations, built on the principles of align-and-enable. It seeks to create an environment in which individuals and teams can perform to their upper limits. It does this by ensuring that there is a clear context to act within, that individuals and teams have clarity about what is expected of them. It also ensures they have clarity on how they are going to deliver on those expectations. It pushes decision-making out for swift, relevant responsiveness and accountability. It makes remote working possible. Importantly, it makes it productive and effective.

Lead is about Why a role, project or task is significant: it is about the context (the economic climate, the industry, politics), the mission, vision and strategy of the organization.

Manage is about What the individual is taking on: the specifics of the role and component parts, the goals, standards and expectations.

Together, Lead and Manage create alignment.

Coach is about How the role, project or task is executed: strategy, plans, approaches. An effective coach facilitates this part of any conversation – thus ensuring responsibility sits with the team member. To coach is to enable.
Shape middle managers into leaders…it can be edifying if the managers are prepared to handle pivotal scenarios, such as giving (and receiving) more frequent developmental feedback, managing difficult situations and learning to adapt to challenges.

“Millennials: burden, blessing or both?’ McKinsey Quarterly February 2016. Joanna Barsh, Lauren Brown and Kayvan Kian

Lead-Manage-Coach, align-and-enable, is underpinned by a foundation: a mutual trust-based relationship between the manager and team members. In the current climate, building trust may take some commitment, but without this, nothing works, there is no meaningful conversation and performance erodes.

“It is trust in subordinates who can plan, coordinate and execute flexible yet disciplined decision making…that gives commanders the confidence to conduct decisive action boldly”

‘Understanding Mission Command’, Spectrum by Col. (Ret.) James D Sharpe Jr. and Lt. Col. (Ret.) Thomas E. Creviston

Without the alignment that comes from these conversation ‘holding to account’ is merely an exercise in power or authority. With clarity and agreement, it becomes an enabler.

The Lead-Manage-Coach model improves employee engagement and retention, taps into latent motivation and discretionary effort, develops autonomy and responsibility and significantly increases individual performance, learning and enjoyment – flow.
It makes remote working possible.

Written by Myles Downey
©Myles Downey Ltd 2020

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