Years ago, I ran a large software engineering organization creating the first release of a new operating system for a new line of mini-computers.  About six months from the scheduled completion date and three months from entering final system test, a group of the managers responsible for software development descended into my office and informed me of a terrible problem.  A key piece of the software had been written to an obsolete hardware interface specification and would not work with the actual hardware we were supposed to run on.  This software had been tested using a hardware simulator that was also built to the wrong spec.  The component in question had taken six people two years to develop and had to be re-written from scratch.

Obviously, if we were to fix the problem using conventional processes, the entire project, the work of hundreds of people, would be delayed by months.

I was beside myself and close to being in a panic.  My boss, who was responsible for the entire hardware/software product line sat across the building from me, and I walked over to see him to let him know what was going on.  He was in the middle of a very large meeting in his conference room, but I interrupted him and told him that I needed to speak to him on a matter that could not wait.  We went to his private office, and I told him the situation.  He said, “Well, you’re the best one to fix this, and you either will or you won’t. Get to it and keep me updated.”  I left the room with the upset and panic behind me, ready to get to work.

What had happened to enable this transformation in my state of being?  First of all, my boss now knew what was going on. Second, he had empowered me to fix the problem, and third, it was obvious that his skin was in the pot along with mine.  I learned a lot from that 5-minute meeting.  He returned me to being effective.  When I got back with my people, I noticed that they were considerably calmer than when I saw them earlier.  Having your boss know about the breakdowns you are dealing with is freeing.  Having your boss tell you that he or she trusts you to resolve the breakdown is empowering, and knowing that your boss has as much at stake as you do in solving the breakdown is crucial.  All three of these aspects mark a great leader (my boss), and a great leadership development experience for the people being led.

On the path to solving this breakdown, another great example of opportunities for leadership development occurred.

It turned out that one of the engineers in the group that had developed the component that needed to be redone had come forward to his manager and offered to re-do it on his own.  He said to his manager something like “Leave me alone for three months, and I will re-do the software to run on the correct interface and have it ready in time for system test entry.”  The manager proceeded to grill the engineer asking how he would do it, how did he know he could do it in three months, etc., etc.”  The engineer had no detailed plan and so he was unable to prove he could do it.  The manager continued until the engineer walked out of his manager’s office in disgust.  Fortunately, I was at the coffee machine nearby, and the engineer saw me and said “You tell my boss to leave me alone for three months and I’ll fix your problem in time for system test.”  I knew that this particular engineer had a reputation for producing results. Since I had no other solution, I told him to go ahead, and I would handle his manager.

What was different about the conversation that the engineer had with his immediate manager and the one he had with me?

The manager heard what is technically called an assertion, that is, a statement with a commitment to provide supporting evidence.  What the engineer was actually doing was making a declaration, a statement of commitment that is based on who the speaker is .

One of the common failings in many organizations is that declarations are heard as assertions.  Consequently, people making powerful, transformative commitments, that is, people making declarations are not heard.  Because the commitment to produce an unprecedented result is created with a declaration, such organizations suppress leadership opportunities.

By the way, the engineer, a fellow to whom I am eternally grateful named Dave Brush, got the job done, on time, and with virtually no bugs detected.  He saved the project, not to mention my career.

There is one last point to be made from this example.  The engineer who saved the day actually stepped forward as a leader when he declared his ability to solve the problem for us.  As the nominal leader of the group, it was up to me to shift my role to follow Dave’s lead.

Sometimes, leaders also have to be followers, and vice versa.

 

Read more…

Part 4: Leading Teams

Part 5: Leading and Organizational Culture

And if you haven’t yet, read…

Part 1: Talk is Not Cheap

Part 2: Leadership and Delegation

 

© ALS Consulting 2017

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