Vigilant Leadership

Not Your Average Feds

I spent an interesting and spirit-raising day with senior executives of the Social Security Administration recently. I delivered learning experiences on “Vigilant Leadership” – sessions on how to look into the future, forecast, prepare flexibly, and take action.

I work with federal agencies from time to time. GSA, NASA, and the National Credit Union Administration are all past clients. Federal agency leadership gets a lot of bad flack in the media, from legislators, and from the general public.

What I saw, heard, and experienced in Baltimore with their top tier of SSA professionals differs from what one sees and hears in the press. These are smart, imaginative, and well-informed managers. They’re some of the best I’ve seen in 25 years of doing this work.

When I’m doing an executive education seminar at least half the session time is interaction about the future. Whether it’s question and answer or small group activity this important part of a learning experience is approached differently by every group with which I work. In the SSA’s case the eagerness to tackle foresight, emerging issues, and inevitable challenges was some of the most keen I’ve ever seen. It was even more encouraging to see it come from these very senior groups that included the number two person in the agency.

The management is pragmatic and realistic. They know they’re administering a system under huge demographic and economic pressures. But they also recognize and are anticipating social change, generational differences in interaction, shifting workplace habits, privacy concerns, and the long term impact of current deficit spending.

I was impressed.

Vigilant Leadership

The single most valuable asset I see in an organization is a habit of foresight coupled with contemplation and tied directly to action.
If I rank the organizations I consult on their effectiveness, those that do all three of these do best overall. They generate more profits, have better looking balance sheets, attract investment, or serve their stakeholders the best.
I like to call it
vigilant leadership.”
What’s involved?
Vigilant leadership engages as many individuals as possible in an organization, and certainly all of the directors and senior management, in a discipline of looking ahead. That means staying abreast of events, being advised of emerging issues, recognizing “weak signals” of shifting environments, having depth of knowledge in areas specific to the organization’s strategy, and focusing particularly on long term thinking about what will affect the organization over a decade-or-longer time frame.
This is extraordinarily difficult for most organizations to achieve. Clients of mine have difficulty with it. I think it’s for several reasons.
One is the lack of a major
commitment to foresight. For example, with some of my financial service clients an environmental scanning piece developed by a national trade organization is distributed to the board in advance of the annual planning retreat. When I ask about what foresight process they’re using that’s the answer I get. A start, but not nearly enough.
Another difficulty is the governance structure and
expectations. I don’t believe organizations ask enough from their directors. Every organization’s director should be expected to be not only up to speed on the industry market as well as geographical or industry or product or service niches. They should be accountable for depth of knowledge in the much broader and higher impact developments in the economy, consumer behavior, emerging competition, and geopolitical forces.
A third barrier is the lack of discipline, time, and process for
contemplation. Retreats are for contemplation. Their very label presupposes getting away to do some thinking. They are for discussion certainly. But most of all they should be an immersion away from one’s typical environment in order to gain perspective and spend time in thought.
I find thought is rare in most retreat settings. There are many reasons. One is the assumption that because the retreat is being held in a nice location with recreation opportunities then one should focus on those. Another is the presence, in too many settings, of spouse and family. Nice, but counterproductive largely. Another is a tendency to crowd agenda. One presentation after another. A need to sign off on strategy. A board meeting with a consent agenda. A race to complete work in order to have fun, socialize, or get to a meal.
Most of all retreats feature way
too much opinion expression and much too little contemplation.
This doesn’t mean that directors and senior management should be shut up in monastic cells to think. But it does mean that there should be time to gather one’s thoughts, form opinion, discuss deeply, and only then to reach consensus on decisions.
Fourth is
stamina. Vigilant leadership is a process, a journey. There is no letup. There is no downtime.
I’m not suggesting that all of an individual’s time away from an organization should be spent in foresight. Nor am I espousing huge amounts of force-fed reading. But I’ve found through the years as I’ve taught anticipatory skills to management, installed foresight systems in organizations, and consulted on strategy that the really good work that makes a successful organization happens in between all the other daily responsibilities in my clients’ lives.
When directors and senior management are introduced to
foresight techniques, integrated into a system that pushes appropriate amounts of information to decision-makers, and encouraged to contemplate on one’s own time, good things happen.
Image: susanvg, via Flickr CC license