By Brian Majeska
“Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality” – Warren Bennis
About fifteen years ago, I was not satisfied with the level of leadership skills that I was developing. I realized that my boss, who was outstanding, was not going to be my personal developer, and that a journey of study was needed. During that period, I was lucky enough to work with a professional coach who guided me in some remarkable ways. Neil Fiore, gave me a number of insights while also holding me accountable for personal growth.
Neil recommended that my leadership style would be strengthened by studying Warren Bennis, who was a leadership and business scholar. Mr. Bennis did an incredible job of clarifying and simplifying the requirements of leadership. Specifically, Bennis studied extensively the requirements needed for team excellence from the perspective of the team member, and his needs relation to the leader.
Recall that there are four areas within the commercialization framework, those areas are:
- Technical or Product Development
Lets dive into the leadership requirements for commercialization.
Commercialization leadership is probably where there is the highest degree of two core traits: courage and trust. Let’s dig into understanding these two leadership traits specifically.
Why courage? Commercialization of a new product or service is the art of handling internal conflict effectively. The inertia of the existing successful products and business practices of the past are about to be challenged with something that has no track record.
So, conventional organization wisdom dictates optimization of the current practice and elimination of the new. Ironically, the very cure for growth in a business is change, but the risk of being wrong makes it tough. This reminds me of a quote on courage, “The willingness to be wrong in the short term in order to be right in the longterm,” that is what commercialization is from a leadership perspective; it is taking the long view of the best inters tests of the business.
Why Trust? Leading commercialization means going into the unknown in a number of areas, but specifically:
- New technology and science
- New application or manufacturing processes (sometimes both)
- New costing and pricing models
- New orientation of a customer need, and thus, customer preferences
Why go through this when optimization of the existing will get incremental improvement? Because, innovation and marketing are the two key activities to ensure the long-term health of a business. Consider a business that de-emphasizes either of these activities for a minute. Now, predict the business performance three years later. I see a grim future for that business.
Okay, you probably are getting “the why” of leadership based on the trust and courage component. But, what are the key few leadership attributes that make a difference?
Based on my experience, there is a leadership zone, consisting of the components which are in Diagram 1.
These four components of leadership help give context of what are the important traits and actions a leader should consistently do. The next section covers each quadrant with a bit more detail and color to gain a stronger perspective of the implications to a team.
The Ability to Get Things Done
Over twenty years ago I was sales representative for Westvaco’s Chemical Division, and I was selling emulsifiers to the asphalt industry in the West of the U.S. Emulsifiers are the chemicals that allow oil and water to stay together, and asphalt emulsifiers allow the liquid asphalt (many mistakenly call this tar) to be milled with water to create an asphalt emulsion, which are often used for a number of road construction processes.
An account had bought a truckload of emulsifier from us to make asphalt emulsions at his plant outside of San Francisco, and unfortunately the asphalt emulsion would not remain stable in his finished product tanks. The asphalt being heavier than the water was dropping to the bottom of the tank, and would not meet the quality requirements for the customer.
The client was demanding that we take the truckload of emulsifier back since our product must be the cause of the failure. I “kind-of” agreed with the customer, but Westvaco’s senior management was telling me “No Way” on taking a return truckload. This is called leaving a sales rep on an island and seeing if he can survive the customer needs and demands, balance the internal demands of his company, and still meet his sales goals.
I saw this as hopeless, and decided to see if Ed Rose my boss at the time was smart enough to work his way through this issue. I called him and suggested that he make a swing up to Northern California and that we meet with the account. This tactic might have been a set-up on my part, but let’s just call it a learning opportunity for me.
This is where I saw first hand the ability to get things done have a significant impact on my career. Ed told me that if we needed to take the product back due to a quality issue, then the emulsifier should be returned by the customer. But, here is where the real power of getting things done was exhibited. When we met with the account, Ed said to the customer, “ We will do the right thing for you, but at this moment, I don’t know what the right thing is to do.” That statement changed the course of the season for the customer.
We sampled our product, we sampled his asphalt, and we asked him to review his plant process. the customer had changed how he was making a subset (the emulsifier soap solution) of the final product, and this had introduced the final product performance problem. All stakeholders in the process contributed to fixing the problem, and I was learned a great deal about the ability to get things done.
I still use the phrase, “We will do the right thing once we understand what that is,” Especially when events seem to be going faster than I can keep up. A final benefit of this customer interaction was that I was empowered to bring management resources to a crisis and use other experts to resolve an issues.
I guess, the key leadership insight is two-fold:
- Get into the game with your subordinates – Travel and see what is going on, and
- The ability to get things done
Let’s consider the next leadership quadrant within commercialization.
When I went to work at Koch Materials in the late nineties as Vice President of Technology, understanding what my vocational knowledge was in that role was the most important first step in succeeding in my new role. I studied computer science in the college of business at The Ohio State University (It is a requirement of acceptance to the institution of learning that you refer to the name only in its entirety)
I love technology and find chemistry, civil engineering, chemical engineering, and the sciences in general to be a fantastic area of learning. But, my pedigree was built around sales and business management, and now I was going to be the leader of a technical team comprised of brilliant technologists (Some of the best in the industry that I am indebted to for the remainder of my career and life.).
How to go into a team of strong talent and be effective leading the organization to success while also improving people’s lives? There were two initial decisions that I made, and with a great deal of support from a number of people at Koch, it worked out pretty well. These decisions and actions were:
- I chose not to define my vocational knowledge as being purely technical. This allowed me to ask for help from the team that I was lucky enough to lead. Specifically I asked the various experts to teach me about polymers chemistry, refineries, asphalt terminals, and civil engineering.
- I chose to reflect on the other vocational knowledge that are required for technical success at Koch Materials. Specifically, Rob Witte and Jeff Siebels had hired me in to do a job that was not getting done, and they believed my background was right for the role. Upon reflection, it became apparent that it was three basic things, which were:
+ Leading & communicating the mission of technical to the technical team and to the overall company.
+ Aligning the technical team to the vision and mobilizing resources to the top projects
+ Managing numerous projects with appropriate measures and accountability
At Koch there was focus on a concept called Comparative Advantage. It is a powerful management tool. The example often used, is that a surgeon may be the best person in the hospital at cleaning the operating room, but his comparative advantage is saving lives and performing operations. Getting a qualified person to clean the room after the operations allow the entire organization to be more effective.
Why bring up comparative advantage in vocational knowledge? Because, sometimes if you read your title on your business card, that is not necessarily what is your vocational knowledge required for organizational success. Ronald Reagan said that a leader must delegate all that others can do equal of better than the leader to ensure that the leader has time to do what other cannot do.
Regarding vocational knowledge, I understood that competence was required to be a team member of the technical organization. Dan Wegman was pivotal in my development of understanding in civil engineering. He took me out to projects, gave me training material and discussed the process of designing, building, and maintaining roads.
Ironically that allowed me to gain a deeper appreciation of the requirements thrust onto him in the role of being a regional technical leader at Koch. It further taught me that the need of being a leader in aligning the vision, communication, and project management were the areas that were needed for the technical tea
m and also Koch Material success.
Once a leader understands the focal point of his vocational knowledge and how it applies to his subordinates, it becomes clear what each team member is providing to the team winning.
Based on understanding the existing vocational knowledge with a perspective on comparative advantage, a team can understand what its capacity is to complete work. And, the team understand what its overall strengths or comparative advantage is in a business segment.
In the case of Koch, we achieved understanding of our technical focus, and eliminated a number of technical projects. In fact, this is partially how the concept of a “Systems” approach was implemented at Koch Materials. We determined that a bundling of application technology with material science and a strong marketing presence made more money for every link in the value chain while achieving greater value to the agency customer.
The last two leadership quadrants are mutually re-enforcing, and are more philosophical versus the hire action orientation of the two above. The next quadrant is Trust.
When looking up the definition of trust on the Merriam-Webster website, the word trust ranks in the top 1% of look-ups. For such a simple word there seems to be a bunch of people that don’t understand its meaning. here it is according to Webster,
Trust: Belief that someone or something is reliable, good, honest, effective, etc.
Pretty simple, but this is the basis of more organizational failures than just about any leadership component. In politics and branding there is a big push toward being “authentic”, which really means being reliable and consistent with your core identity and your actions; or maybe congruency with what you do and who you are.
The best example of the importance of trust and vision is Warren Bennis’ study of the Manhattan Project. Recall, this was the project where the U.S. and Great Britain were working to develop the atomic bomb that were used to end the fighting in Pacific Theatre of World War II. At the time the Germans were also working tirelessly in the pursuit of “the bomb.”
Let’s go back in time. It is 1943 and the best engineers and technicians that the U.S. could recruit were stuck in Los Alamos working on energy calculations associated with splitting the atom. The fear of Nazi spies was an acute issue for the Army, and thus, the technicians and engineers could not be trusted to know that they were working on THE MANHATTAN PROJECT!
Well, the technologists focused on doing the minimum and spent their time on important projects like competitive paper-airplane making contests ( I still want to see the winning plane design, but I digress). Obviously, the Americans were falling behind because the people who were dedicated to making the bomb didn’t know they were dedicated to make the bomb.
The leader of this team was Richard Feynman, a physicist, who convinced Robert Oppenheimer the overall project leader to get the Army to trust the technicians and explain what they were doing. Lift the secrecy. Oppenheimer gave a series of lectures to the engineers and technicians about the ramifications of there work to the development of the atomic bomb.
The immediate transition was stunning. The team began working around the clock and developed new methods for doing the calculations. By trusting the team, the members understood the ramifications of their actions for the project, the army, and the world. One action of trust by the leader can transform a culture, and win a war.
What isn’t written about so much is the reciprocal nature that trust is, and the importance of consistent and open conversations about where the leaders thoughts and heart are on an issue or the state of a commercialization project. When the words and the actions are inconsistent, the leader has lost his authentic nature, and often the only person who does not realize it is the leader.
Hope (Code for Vision)
The Theological Virtues are Love, Hope, and Faith, it is interesting that Mr. Bennis uses Hope as one of the big four traits of great leadership. Again, when looking up the definition at the Merriam-Webster site, hope ranks up there with the top 1% lookups. Another simple word that has a great deal of weight to it. Here is the definition:
Hope: To want something to happen or be true and think that it could happen or be true.
I consider defining a compelling vision to be the most empowering leadership step. A well defined vision that is clear and simple allows for individuals to participate and do all of the little steps without the need for bureaucracy and too many rules. The difference with a vision couple with hope is that the team brings Belief in the likelihood of the result and therefore, works hard to create the vision. It is a positive self-fulfilling prophecy.
Think of any underdog movie, book or real life situation and you see an undying belief in the achievement of the vision or outcome.
Personally, being in the midst of starting up a business with partners and trying to understand our important tasks and overarching strategy, the single most important discussion is what is our vision and do we believe it.
I have often heard and have said that hope is not a strategy, but if you consider the inverse, what is a strategy without hope? In the atomic bomb story with Feynam, there was fear of failure and the ramifications to the world. Fear is a great immediate motivator, but over time it leads to burn-out and weakening of the team. Fear is never sustainable, teams will dissolve in time due to fear. In the case hope pertaining to World War II the entire country believed that we would prevail, and that setbacks were not failures. Our leaders developed strategies and improved them with experience. Hope with a vision and strategy is pretty darn unbeatable.
The Bennis work focuses on what teams need from leaders and not what leaders need from teams. The leader gets to choose if he is presiding over a team or a member of the team that is leading it – And, great teams pray that the leader choose to be a team member versus a presider (thanks Dave Henderson for that insight).
Bennis in his last book stated that more leaders are developed at West Point versus all of the Ivy League schools combined (This coming from a guy who attended little Antioch College and then received his PhD from MIT.). His reasoning was sound, he sees military colleges as a place where people are first taught to follow, and then learn how to lead. This puts future leaders in a position of understanding the implications of there actions to the overall team or business.
When considering leading in commercialization the four quadrants of leadership are:
- The ability to get things done
- Vocational knowledge
- Hope (Compelling Vision)
We would value hearing your perspectives, and if you know someone who would benefit from this article, please pass it on.
In next week’s blog we will dive into another phase of the Commercialization Process
(For your reference listed below is the commercialization process framework for your review.)