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Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog

  • January 9, 2012
  • minute read

Why Visionary Leaders Must Institutionalize their V-ness (and how to do it) 

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Having a Visionary leader can be a competitive advantage. 

All other things being equal, the Visionary leader (strategic, creative, charismatic, communicative) will produce greater step change and higher growth than the Operator leader (driven, tactical, focused, determined) or the Processor leader (process-oriented, systems focused, iterative, conservative).

The problem comes when it’s time for the Visionary leader to move on.

Whether it happens by choice (Bill Gates), ouster (Michael Eisner) or death (Steve Jobs), the Visionary often leaves behind a vacuum rather than a legacy.

The reason? Any organization of size is typically populated with Operators and Processors.

So when an Operator or Processor leader moves on, they leave behind an underlying Operator or Processor framework that can (relatively) easily be managed by a successor uber-Operator or Processor.

"All other things being equal, the  Visionary leader will produce greater step change and higher growth than the Operator leader or the Processor leader." - Les McKeown, Founder and CEO, Predictable Success

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The Visionary leader, on the other hand, is often the personification of their organization’s leadership and vision and, unlike the Operator or Processor leader, fail to institutionalize it.

So when they leave, the vision crumbles (see Howard Schultz, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell and Ted Waitt when they each left their companies for the first time).

Unlike the Operator or Processor, the Visionary often fails to leave behind a visionary framework that can carry forward their legacy and maintain the vision.

Visionary leaders frequently personify their organization’s leadership and vision and, unlike the Operator or Processor leader, fail to institutionalize it.

This doesn’t need to be so. Like Sam Walton, Estee Lauder, Robert Johnson and Herb Kelleher, with planning (and commitment), a Visionary can institutionalize their V-ness and leave behind a lasting visionary framework by taking six specific steps:

1. Have a talk with your ego.

Of the three natural leadership types, Visionaries are most defined by their particular style.

While Operators and Processors can be just as proud of their leadership achievements (and rightly so), they have a lesser need to be seen for what they are.

Visionary leaders need to be seen as the alpha-Visionary.

Hence, it is hard for a Visionary to happily co-exist with other like-minded people. They often drive out lesser Visionaries to preserve their position in the pecking order.

Hard-wiring visionary leadership into the enterprise requires encouraging - not eliminating—other visionary leaders (accepting the existence of other visionaries as a good thing, to be encouraged—a strength, not a threat).

2. Step back from the front line.

Once you decide to institutionalize Visionary leadership, the time involved and the need to be protective of the seeds you sow mean that it’s unlikely that you’ll succeed while managing the business full time.

You may begin to institutionalize the vision, only to find your efforts choked by the sheer volume of other responsibilities, or stunted because of the too-high opportunity cost of taking your eye off the operating needs of the business.

Institutionalizing your vision is best done at a time when you can lighten your operational load.

Look for times when you can shift some duties to trusted colleagues—windows when you feel less stressed, less committed - and hand over some responsibilities.

3. Change your hiring process.

If you have been the personification of the vision, your hiring process downplays Visionary attributes (such as creativity, initiative and controlled risk-taking), and emphasizes Operator and Processor attributes, such as systems thinking, execution skills, and compliance.

Hiring is the lifeblood of capability, and only through hiring can Visionary leadership be introduced in its natural form (you can mentor, coach and train Operators and Processors to emulate the Visionary mindset, but it’s not the same thing).

Begin by identifying the key roles you wish to see Visionaries occupy over time, and examine the hiring profile.

Add the Visionary characteristics you think are important for the role, and get involved in the hiring process for those roles.

You may need to move incumbents out of those positions to get the process under way.

4. Change how you deploy people. 

Institutionalizing visionary leadership won’t happen simply by dropping an individual Visionary leader into each major division or department and leaving them to do their thing.

All that achieves is to decentralize your personified vision. The goal is not to enlist a cadre of Visionaries who replicate in their fiefdom a smaller version of your personified Visionary leadership.

Doing so multiplies the very weakness you are trying to eradicatedependence on one person.

Instead, deploy company-wide your newly hired Visionaries, using job-sharing, jobswapping, cross-functional teams, internal hiring, and placements to ensure they rotate. 

Build the muscle of visionary leadership without developing a dependency culture.

5. Mentor and coach. 

If you are the vision personified, to institutionalize your vision, you must mentor and coach others.

You can mentor the newly hired Visionaries on what you expect from them, about what your vision is; how it shows up; how to protect it and grow it.

You can coach Operators and Processors on how to interact with the Visionaries: how to understand each other’s thought processes and communication styles; how to work together as a cohesive team for the good of the enterprise.

6. Integrate and protect. 

The process of institutionalizing a personified vision is tricky, even dangerous.

Operators and Processors feel threatened by new Visionaries. Veteran employees sense the culture is becoming more bureaucratic. 

Big Dogs (who had the Visionary leader’s ear) fear their high-level access is losing its value. 

Front-line employees can, at first, misinterpret the institutionalization of the vision as disengagement by the Visionary leader. What should be an exciting process can be a fear-tinged drift.

Institutionalizing your vision does not mean disengaging. To the contrary, you must, for a while, be even more accessible. 

However, this heightened accessibility is now about the process, not the vision. Town halls, group and team meetings, one-on-ones, online FAQs - utilize every vehicle possible to explain, persuade and evangelize the new process.

What about you? Is your visionary leader giving your organization a competitive advantage? 

Let Me Know In The Comments Below!

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