The unfortunate demise of well-respected Lowell Hawthorne, founder and CEO of Golden Krust Caribbean Bakery and Grill, spawned numerous and various debates on the motivation behind his actions. The circumstances, whatever they may have been, have left his family and close friends in despair — sincerest condolences to them — staff in disarray, and communities locally and in the diaspora truly shocked at the turn of events.
However, it has brought into stark focus some titans of industry, and professionals of distinguished repute, whom we have lost or whom we know have been severely incapacitated due to what could be best described as “occupational stressors”.
It’s now almost cliché that today’s business environment is ultra-competitive, with firms intensely competing to be distinctive but invariably just achieving parity due to many of them adopting tactics from the same play book used by most business schools. The traditional view of how the effectiveness of an organization is managed seems to concentrate mainly on what is to be managed and how it is to be done, and to a lesser degree on who does it.
However, over the past several years there has been increased recognition that there is a need to match the characteristics of top managers — personality, skills, abilities and values — with the nature of the business to optimize their performance. So, the visage of powerful leaders — such as Jeff Bezos, CEO, Amazon; Anne Mulcahy, CEO, Xerox; Howard Schultz, CEO, Starbucks; Warren Buffet, CEO, Berkshire Hathaway; Elon Musk, CEO, Tesla and SpaceX; Kevin Plank, CEO, Under Armour; and Jack Ma, Executive Chairman, Alibaba — and the narrative around their exploits and successes dominate the media.
Within academia there has been similar growing awareness of the need to have adroit leadership at the helm of firms. Studies are now focused on investigating the relationship between business strategy and the personal characteristics of top managers.
Research has shown that when a business is pursuing a growth strategy it needs top managers who are likely to abandon the status quo and adapt their strategies and goals to the marketplace. Most will argue that leaders from within a firm are slow to recognize the onset of decline and tend to persevere in strategies that are no longer effective; so, top managers need to be recruited from the outside.
But what accounts for this behaviour? We will return to this shortly, but first we should recognize that leaders recruited from outside of a firm are not always helpful. Case in point, when a business is pursuing a mature strategy, what is needed is a stable group of insiders who know the intricacies of the business.
Top management recruitment should be tied to the nature of the business because different aspects of business demand different behaviours from the individuals running them. The implication, then, is that selecting the right top manager is an important staffing decision.
Another perspective holds that top managers can exhibit a wide range of behaviour, and all that is needed is to match compensation and performance appraisal practices with the nature of the business. Strategy formulation and implementation are the concern of a group of individuals in the organization, namely management, whose primary function is to interpret the environment, to formulate strategy, and to make the adaptations required of the organization to pursue this strategy.
This is no mean feat; generating significant pressure on these leaders since investors, employees and other stakeholders depend on them to continuously provide exceptional results. Some argue that it is the interaction of managers — the so-called network effect — that create the capabilities to analyze contextual shifts and make effective business decisions. Others contend that leaders need not be team-players, but they should be Machiavellian or embrace Stoicism — clear, unbiased and self-disciplined thinking that will enable one to understand the real nature of things — so that they can dispassionately lead and maximize returns for shareholders.
My view is that leadership — in today’s unforgiving and fast-paced context — is extremely stressful; especially for those at the helm of publicly listed firms (meeting the demands for quarter-over-quarter improvements), or with external investors, or those who must meet stringent covenants from creditors.
As rational beings, top managers do what they are most comfortable doing, and satisfice as much as possible. In fact, one of the key attributes of effective leaders, in the execution of competitive strategy, is the management of their own stressors — coping with the never-ending demands from diverse stakeholders.
I could spend time to chronicle the demise of many successful and wealthy business leaders, but I find that morbid and not very productive use of my time or yours. Instead, I’d like to share some tips that strategists, business leaders and aspirants may adopt as they contend with the stresses of managing the modern enterprise. Six suggestions are listed below:
1. Manage Yourself: You must manage yourself before you can lead someone else. This includes managing through apprehension, change, time pressures.
2. Walk Your Talk: Find healthy ways to live — eat, exercise, and rest — your approach one that most persons would aspire to replicate.
3. Prevent Stress. Preventing stress altogether isn’t necessarily possible. Planning, anticipating the unexpected, and building in time for non-work-related activities like exercising and sightseeing while traveling help balance a stressful schedule. In other words, be deliberate in planning for relaxation and recreation.
4. Delegate Work: An empowered organization is one in which individuals have the knowledge, skill, desire, and opportunity to personally succeed in a way that leads to collective organizational success. Leaders should find ways to empower teams within frameworks that feature accountability, rewards, and disciplinary codes.
5. Be Present: Being in the present moment is easier said than done for busy leaders. This includes not thinking about the next meeting when talking with a team member, not planning tomorrow’s schedule in your mind when having coffee with a friend, and not checking your e-mail when enjoying time with your family.
6. Keep it Simple: Setting strategy isn’t the same as leading strategy. Even the best strategist can falter when it comes to implementing and sustaining the right direction for the business. The pressure to meet short-term targets and solve functional problems is creating a leadership pipeline with limited strategic leadership capacity.
So, how do we lead in ways that position the business for the future while also meeting current demands without driving ourselves to ruin? As with most things in the strategic management discipline, there is no simple answer. One option is strategic thinking. Strategic thinkers take a broad view; ask probing questions; and identify connections, patterns and key issues; then they involve everyone in the development of solutions.
Then there is strategic acting; an organization’s actual strategies lie in the decisions and choices that people make. High-Performance Work Teams spread the burden and are more effective, given that they bring their collective institutional wisdom and connections to executing strategic initiatives.
Another possibility is strategic influencing, which is about building commitment to the organization’s strategic direction by inviting others into the strategic process, forging relationships inside and outside the organization and navigating the political landscape.
Finally, strategy is not limited to a few top executives. Strategic leaders are needed throughout our organizations if they are to adapt, innovate and succeed well into the future. So, my message is simple ‘share the burden’. After all, setting strategy is not an event followed by implementation; smart-leaders know that it is a learning process. Moreover, exceptional-leaders know that they learn about themselves as they study ever-evolving business contexts; while sage leaders strive for dynamic balance — hopefully you get what I mean!