The Greatest Learning Leader Opportunity: Small-unit Leadership

The care, celebration, and support of small-unit leadership can lead to big results in your company. 

By Brent Filson - 7/2007

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower often made a point that underscores an enormous opportunity for learning leaders. Yet many learning leaders fail to realize this opportunity, let alone seize it.

"Generals move the pins on a map," he said, "but the front-line leaders and troops have to get the job done."

Eisenhower was describing the leadership of corporals, sergeants and lieutenants – small-unit leaders. Clearly, without good small-unit leadership in front-line units, battles usually can’t be won.

Eisenhower’s advice also applies to an opportunity that’s overlooked in organizations today.

And your learning function, more than any other function in your organization, is in a position to seize that opportunity by helping be a key player in driving both top and bottom-line earnings growth.

Clearly, organizations are fundamentally made up of small units. Such units provide speed, productivity, and adaptability. Without good leadership of the small units – supervisors and managers – those organizations stumble.

Today, many organizational leaders are trying to achieve earnings growth and cost savings by "moving pins on maps"; i.e. through mergers, acquisitions, downsizing, re-engineering, etc.

Sure, those activities may often be effective in bringing increased value to an organization, but they cannot come close to matching the value that can be realized through the good offices of small-unit leadership. For like the relationship of leaders to the troops in an army, organizational small-unit leadership touches the value-core of the organization.

In bringing leadership programs to top companies worldwide during the past 23 plus years, I’ve seen many companies neglecting small-unit leadership.

Here’re two drivers, right expectations and right leadership, that learning leaders can embrace to link the advancement of small-unit to earnings growth.

1. Right Expectations. Expectations are a self-fulfilling prophecy. Learning leaders must communicate to executives not only the importance of small-unit leadership but the expectations that such leadership is essential to achieving significant increases in earnings growth.

These expectations must go beyond simply paying lip-service to small-unit leadership. Learning leaders must motivate executives to take concrete actions to demonstrate that they recognize its importance. Demonstrated commitment to small-unit leaders will lead to committed small-unit leaders. Without top-down commitment, effective small-unit leadership will not flourish throughout the whole business but exist instead flicker weakly in scattered islands.

Such executive-sponsored actions can include: encouraging the skills-development of small-unit leaders through comprehensive, interlocking, results-producing training; celebrating their achievements; measuring their small-unit leadership-performance; developing compensation that is tied to such performance; and developing post-training programs that constantly bring small-unit leaders to ever higher levels of results-producing excellence.

But this is only half the story. Learning leaders must not only help drive the learning activities of small-unit leadership from top down throughout all levels of their organizations, but they must also formulate mechanisms and support functions that help propel such leadership activities from bottom up.

In other words, a passion for small-unit leadership must soak the entire culture of the organization. Excellent small-unit leaders don't just happen on the scene. They must be cultivated. Their leadership skills must be spotted early in their careers. They must have mentors. They must be mentors. Small-unit leaders must understand that they are not leading well until the people they lead are leading well; and so, they must not only be participants in leadership training that continually upgrades their skills, but they must also be the on-the-job trainers themselves, teaching leadership skills to the people they lead.

All of these "soaking" activities should come under the purview of learning leaders who must develop cross-functional learning systems and processes to promote and sustain them.

2. Right Leadership: Many learning leaders put courses together based on the wrong kind of leadership and then wonder why their clients avoid manifesting such leadership on the job.

If you don’t focus on right leadership at the beginning -- in your course design -- then, getting your clients to apply what they learned to achieve results that trigger earnings growth will be like trying to change tires on a moving car.

 Clearly, right leadership is fundamentally motivational. On one level, that’s a simplistic way of looking at leadership; however, on another level, seeing leadership primarily in motivational terms is a necessary first step in understanding and applying earnings-growth leadership to small-unit activities.

This leadership is not about ordering to people to go from A to B but having people want to go from A to B. Instilling "want to" in others, i.e., having people be motivated, is clearly the defining difference between average leaders and great leaders.

But that’s not all. Such motivation must be translated into action that achieves results. And not just average results but a concept I’ve been teaching leaders for some 22 years: "more results faster continually."

Many learning leaders, however, don’t make a systematic, comprehensive effort to support and strengthen such motivation and action. Such an effort could involve not only monitoring their on-the-job leadership activities but providing reinforcement through specific, on-going processes. There are many categories of such processes, recognition, rewards, punishments, etc.

For instance, in the recognition category, you can implement on-going processes that incorporate:

When it comes to your organization’s earnings growth, don’t leave small-unit leaders out of the process. Don’t even have small-unit leaders be a part of the process. Instead, it’s your job as a learning leader to have small-unit leaders BE the earnings-growth process!

Copyright © 2007, The Filson Leadership Group, Inc.

Note from Brent Filson: The Real Value Of Any Organization Lies In The Good Offices Of Small-unit Leadership.  I can help. For nearly a quarter of a century, I have been developing leadership strategies and processes that drive small-unit leadership. Please call, and let’s talk about how I can help you measurably enhance your clients’ job results-performance and their career paths as well as the cultural effectiveness of your organization.

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Leadership is too important for the advancement of your client’s job performances and careers and also for the success of your company to have leadership development simply fulfill training objectives. For the past 22+ years, I’ve been helping leaders of all ranks and functions worldwide get great business results.

"Brent Filson knows how to help others get results! His programs are proven in a variety of settings including industry, government, non-profit and the military proving that the way he practices and coaches leadership can work for any organization willing to invest the time and energy necessary to influence their people to produce at their highest productivity levels.”
—Joe Javorski, Director, Worldwide Staffing, Analog Devices

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Best wishes,

Brent Filson
Brent Filson