Some years ago in my first IT business, LINC Computer, we had a situation where the company was growing quickly, but the pressure of the growth was starting to have a negative effect on the team. People were becoming stressed out, tired, irritable, unpredictable, selfish, uncommunicative, bullying or submissive, and increasingly unresponsive to their clients. While it wasn't a total melt down, the resignations of several key people made me realize as the CEO something needed to be done.
Around the same time, I'd hired a talented software developer who I got to know pretty well due to his habit of late starts and late nights and my being at the office 18 hours a day. During one of our late-night chats he revealed to me that he was doing an MBA on HR development and eventually planned to ditch the software side of things. I in return opened up with what was going on with the management team and what I felt some of the problems were.
In particular I was vexed with how I seemed to be spending all my time every day putting out fires with customers and cooling heated relationship problems with employees who were acting like prima donnas. What I really wanted to do was sales and business development. His response was, "Well, Terrie, I've been working here for a while and from what I can see, you have two problems: your leadership style AND your team's understanding of what's expected. But the solution has to start with you."
He then handed me a book from his personal library called Thriving on Chaos by Tom Peters. For those of you in the HR game, the title will tell you that this occurred in the late 1980's.
Peters' basic arguments opened my eyes. In a very clear cookbook style, he talked about personal development of the manager, development and empowerment of your staff, and how an empowered group can get amazing results. In short, Peters was saying that teams need to be given direction, resources, a goal, AND leadership, then they need to be empowered to get on with the job - with appropriate follow-up and intervention as necessary.
Perhaps more importantly, as my software guy pointed out, I learned that as manager the process had to start with me. While I had had vague ideas about what leadership was supposed to be, to be honest I was just too darned busy to think about such conceptual stuff previously. However, I guess it was a matter of reading the right content at the right time, because Peters' multilayered definition of leadership really rang a chord and opened up my understanding of how business-related human interaction works.
He spoke of the power of having a vision, communication of that vision through continuous verbal reinforcement and supportive deeds, mutual respect and how to earn it honestly, and how to set rules in a way that people would accept and follow them. I learned that there are different strokes for different folks and that leadership styles should change according to the situation. A coaching or laissez faire management style (sometimes known as a participative management style in the HR biz) are desirable but occasionally have to be replaced with an autocratic one, so long as the right to command has been earned and is understood by the players beforehand.
After reading Thriving on Chaos, I felt like I'd been converted to some new religion. It was a very weird experience to be told in such clear terms basically how the human interaction in business works. For example, I found that customers like vendors whose staff have a clear purpose, and that you can change your destiny and company's by having that sense of purpose. Also, as a leader you can impart your purpose to your colleagues so that their energies will be directed and synergetic, rather than confined and unimaginative.
Nowadays of course, self-help books are a dime a dozen, but those focusing on business in a holistic and useful way are still rare. If you're looking for one that is not as dated as Thriving on Chaos, I'd strongly recommend The Naked Leader by David Taylor. As with Peters' book, it focuses on helping yourself to become directed first, before helping others. It's a great read and very motivational.
I went back to my developer and asked him whether he would be willing to change job roles and become our HR Development person. He said yes, providing I stayed with the program, and we went on to set about transforming the company. Next week I'll share some of the things that we did.