Learning Leaders, The Economic Crash And Small-Unit Leadership

The road to success in these hard times runs through small-unit leadership activities.

By Brent Filson - 11/2009

As the economic sky falls, I’m reminded of a framed inscription that stood on Winston Churchill’s desk during WWII. It said, "It’s not enough to say we are doing our best. We must succeed in doing what is necessary."

Other than the typical knee-jerk, cost-cutting reactions – layoffs, capital expenditure curtailments, budget freezes – what can companies do immediately to get through this crisis?

The answer is simple, and it’s a fat pitch to learning leaders.

Yet many leaders of all ranks and functions don’t know the answer even exists.

If they do know the answer, they don’t know how to apply it in systematic and comprehensive ways to their organization.

It’s to develop and execute the strategic and tactical activities of small-unit leadership, the leadership of the smallest organized units in a company, first-line supervisors, etc.

Leadership, of course, is a necessary ingredient for dealing with organizational challenge. But companies often focus on the leadership of executives.

A good indicator of such focus is pay. Thirty years ago, the average CEO salary was 30 to 40 times the average American paycheck, according to the advocacy group, United for a Fair Economy. However, in 2007, that salary jumped to 344 times that of the average U.S. worker.

And the top 50 highest-paid managers of private investment firms made, according to the business trade journal "Alpha", 19,000 times the average worker's pay.

I’m not proposing, of course, that small-unit leaders should be paid on the order of CEOs. Instead, I’m saying small-unit leaders should receive support and compensation equal to the value they provide the company. That value is often underrated.

After all, small-unit leaders are at the nexus between products/services and the marketplace.

Small-unit leaders’ activities can provide speed, productivity, and innovation in product/service development and distribution.

They are the critical fulcrum when safety is a consideration in the workplace.

Finally, it is the small-unit leadership of sales and marketing teams, not the Lone Rangers out there by themselves, that are the real drivers of top line growth.

I submit that the leader who can best develop, direct, and sustain great small-unit leadership in your organization is you, the learning leader.  You speak the company's language.  You align learning objectives with business goals.  You interact with all ranks and functions of employees.  You think, speak, and act strategically and tactically.  You introduce and disseminate new concepts throughout your entire organization.

Here are four ways you can help insure that small-unit leadership is doing the things that are necessary to get your company through these difficult times.

1) Recognize. the importance of small-unit leaders, celebrate and champion the continued development of their skills and their status in the company. Who else, other than your CEO, has the widespread company interaction to make this happen other than you?

2) Act. Recognition is not enough. You must:

3) Strategize. Make small-unit leadership part of the company’s strategic initiatives. I began developing the concept when working with GE's Jack Welch and his executives several decades ago. He said, "Driving motivation down into the grassroots of the company is always a key challenge of mine." For the past 25 years, I’ve been developing comprehensive, systematic, interlocking processes to make that happen in all organizations. 

4) Link. Link the results small-unit leaders achieve directly to the company’s must-haves such as earnings growth and shareholder value.

The tactical aspects involve having small-unit leaders get results that have a line-of-sight connection with those results the organization badly needs, such as earnings growth and share holder value.

This involves:

5) Integrate. Make excellence in small-unit leadership be a part of hiring, development and succession planning. Succession planning must not just be the purview of executives, but it must also in comprehensive, systematic, interlocking ways encompass small-unit leadership as well.

As a learning leader, you must be a key player in integrating small-unit leadership activities with succession planning.

You must:

Small-unit leadership is all about top and bottom-line growth. It’s small-unit leaders who design, make the quality products/services, deliver them quickly and react to customer reactions.

That’s where learning leadership comes in. Because you speak the company’s language, because you are involved cross functionally with all ranks and functions of leaders, you should be the key player in making small-unit leadership live up to its great potential.

Investing in small-unit leadership is a true capital investment, the most effective, least expensive capital investment a company can make.

As a learning leader, you should be the key leader in the company making it happen.

But keep in mind that in order to unleash the amazing capabilities of small-unit leaders, you need the support, cooperation, and participation of your top executives.

When you do, you’ll have the company doing what is necessary in terms of succeeding in these hard times. 

Note from Brent Filson: I’ve had more than two decades of working with learning leaders and small-unit leaders. Please call, and let’s talk about how my methodologies can make it happen for you.

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Best wishes,

Brent Filson
Brent Filson