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Real, Inimitable Competitive Advantage

PhD in Leadership: What They Don't Teach in Business SchoolsBy Scott Anthony Ward, 4ward Associates

PhD in Leadership: What They Don’t Teach in Business Schools

With more than 30 years of management experience, Scott Anthony Ward has worked for small and large corporations, public, private and employee-owned. He’s been in mid-level and executive positions and a consultant. Speaking at professional conferences, he’s promoted technical expertise and leadership expertise to create strong companies. His company’s website:

Abstract: Forget what you learned about competitive advantage. It’s not pricing, delivery, service, quality, technology nor even people. Any of your competitors can copy those. What they can’t copy is your internal corporate culture, collaborative efforts and the extent of systems thinking. Scott Ward can tell you why it’s important and how to
create a strong competitive advantage.

Forget what you’ve heard about talent management and innovation and any of the other so-called methods of gaining competitive advantage. Competitive advantage happens when your staff is engaged, aligned and passionate about their work. How do you make that happen? That’s the million dollar question. The answers can be found in PhD in Leadership: What They Don’t Teach in Business Schools by Scott Ward of 4ward Associates.

Your competition can match your prices, delivery, service, quality and technology. They hire the same sorts of people you do—with similar skills, talents, passions, values, etc. They can duplicate your internal policies and procedures, hiring practices and performance reviews. There are no magic bullets for competitive advantage when you start with the same raw materials.

Real, Inimitable Competitive AdvantageAccording to a Harris Poll of 23,000 employees, the results were startling low with regard to engagement. As managers, we might think that we’ve got 50% of the people interested in their work. As reported by Dean Tucker in his book Using the Power of Purpose, less than 40% of your employees understand or know the company goals. Less than 20% know what they’re supposed to do to support the goals, are enthusiastic about the goals, feel enabled to work towards those goals and fully trust the company. This is like a football team with only 4 people on the squad even knowing they’re supposed to move the ball towards the goal line in front of them. Only 2 people on the team know what position to play. Only 2 feel like they have a chance at winning. 9 people on the team would just as soon root for the other team. Instead of 50% of your team working for you, chances are you have only 20%. The other problem is that 65-80% of programs meant to create change fail. In some recent polls, at least 30% and as many as 80% of your employees are ready to jump ship and work someplace else.

The only good news in this is that your competitors have the same problems. So how do you get more on your team working towards your goals before the other team gets their people playing together? As a leader, your main job is to work on:

  • Corporate culture: the desired values and behaviors you want to see in company efforts
  • Collaboration: it’s one of the key ways to motivate people—giving them a chance to collaborate. It’s also the way to get things to happen faster with less risk and more effectiveness.
  • Systems Thinking: the more people understand that all business aspects are related, the less likely they are to change something in their sphere of influence that will mess up another department’s efforts.

You and the rest of the leadership team can create unique dynamics within your company. Even though the types of people are the same, the relationships are not. Creating a dynamic, living organization is important; a static organization dies or petrifies like a pyramid, crushing the talent at the bottom, according to Gordon MacKenzie in Orbiting the Giant Hairball. If everyone is focused on working together, knowing how they fit into the overall plan and how they influence the results together, your team will be unstoppable. So how do you make this happen?

The first step is to understand that people in your company are different from each other. They are driven by core behaviors and inherent motivators that may be different than their friend in the next cubicle. Therefore, any movement or change you want to create, like working towards a common goal, has to be communicated in ways that will appeal to a variety of people. Imagine the stereotypical accountant with spreadsheets to back up what the financial software is showing. In addition, there’s a paper-printing calculator on the desk just to audit the spreadsheet. Perhaps there’s a can of pens and pencils and a drawer of legal pads, next to an abacus and a slide rule in case the power goes out. The accountant likes precision, good analysis and hates being wrong. On the first day of the month, in the midst of working on the month-end analysis for the previous period, the production manager rushes into the office, out of breath. “Here’s the numbers you need. My computer crashed so I did my best. I couldn’t find the backup form so I wrote down what I think you want. I’m not sure I got the names right or in the right order. Also, the inventory numbers are estimates. The counts are right but we estimated the cost of the parts to come up with the total that we show here. Got to run. If you need any of the scratch sheets we used, like for the inventory sum, call me and I’ll send someone down with them.” Then he’s gone. Now you look at this handwritten piece of paper with words and numbers penciled in random order on the page. The nervous twitches are starting as you think about having to work with imprecise numbers. But it’s time to go to the big meeting with the CEO. The CEO with great excitement says, “We’re targeting big growth this next year. We’ve got a plan, but it will only get us into the game. After that, we have to be ready for any challenges that confront us. We have to be ready to shoot the rapids and respond quickly. We have to be creative and think outside the box. We’ll be changing in order to capture the opportunities before us and overcome any challenges. We will ‘boldly go where no man has gone before’…” and the speech continues for several more minutes along these same lines. The accountant wanders back to her desk, picks up the scribbled paper from the production manager. What’s she thinking? “How did I get roped into this loony bin?”

Is there going to be a lot of engagement? Is she going to be willing to align herself with others who may be going off the cliff without a plan? Her needs aren’t being met. How willing is she going to be to help fulfill others’ needs for cooperation?

If that’s the only message the CEO gives, the accountant is lost. One of the important insights the author discovered is that we tend to communicate a message we want to hear, and in a way we could learn it. We forget that the audience is not like us. They need a different message and they may need it delivered in different ways. The message has to be varied to meet different people’s needs and given in lots of situations and with different methods to accommodate people’s learning styles. Suppose the CEO stops at the accountant’s desk. Knowing that the CEO’s approachable, the accountant asks for more details about the plan. If the CEO can provide some details, and invite the accountant to help with the analysis of the plan (or if she’s already supplied input, thank her for the effort), then the accountant may be back on board. If the CEO acknowledges the accountant’s need for right answers and low risk, this leader has just increased alignment and engagement.

Now there’s more to communication in order to create engagement. The leader needs to define what kind of culture will help the people thrive, help the relationships foster collaboration and encourage thinking beyond their job description. The leader needs to challenge the status quo, the policies and the practices to see if they fit with the values and encourage the expected behaviors. For example, too many companies have strict purchasing approval limits, yet talk about trusting each other. More often those companies trust their suppliers more than they trust the people inside, sharing lots of information with them or placing less inspection burden on their work. As one wag put it, “CEO’s trust their brake mechanic more than they trust their staff.” What leaders most often forget is that they need to exhibit and practice the change they want to see. In one conversation with a CEO bemoaning the fact that his staff was not acting empowered, he was challenged whether he was declining meeting requests or delegating decision-making back to his subordinates. Until he changed his behavior, they were going to continue with their behaviors.

PhD in Leadership describes more elements to creating a strong corporate culture, and creating an atmosphere for good collaboration, like having a single corporate goal in contrast to the Balanced Scorecard advice. Using open book management is a key practice. Case studies are shown. Many of these considerations and practices have come from more than 30 years of leadership experience in small and large businesses, in a variety of positions including the executive suite. The ideas have been honed in working with those organizations, and others as a consultant. The author has provoked feedback on these ideas through speaking engagements encouraging feedback, comments and questions. Some other inspiring ideas and case studies are on the blog “Compassionate Curmudgeon and Radical Business” at . If after reading PhD in Leadership, you want some other practical advice, check out Servant Leadership Practice: 40 Days to Transform Your Leadership and Your Organization. In forty short essays with a daily challenge, you can create the organization that has an excellent chance at developing the competitive advantage that no one can imitate. Let your competitors suffer with only 2 people on the team knowing what they can do to win. Follow the advice in PhD in Leadership and you’ll have almost your entire team pushing down the field toward the goal line. It’ll be impossible to lose.

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