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Leadership and staying informed

Owen Mavengere
I FIND it interesting when the leader of any body, be it a business, a church, a non-governmental organisation or even a political party has to answer for the bad decisions of others that report to him.

This is even more so for large entities, national or multinationals. For example, it might be a large national organisation perhaps headquartered in Harare, but the leader has to answer for what happened in Shurugwi.

It could also be a global corporation headquartered in New York and one has to be accountable for what was done by their team in Mauritius.

A number of examples of leaders have been thrust into public scrutiny at times resulting in them having to step down because of such situations.

It is the nature of the role of leadership that results in such a scenario, therefore the best that can be done by leaders in any right, is to find ways of managing under such expectations.

I remember the chief executive of a bank stepping down because of what their traders were doing. The cross-cutting oversight responsibility for the CEO makes this quite a challenge.

The difficult question is always, “where were you when this happened right under your nose?”

In my view that is the question that is costly to the leader. The role of a leader is wrought with mostly expectations of what one should be capable of.

The public and the led are not very kind with their leaders and thus do not accept excuses. Any issues even for occurrences in a place or department far from the leader are pinned squarely on the leader.

Once a leader’s mantle is questioned then that usually spells doom. The inability to account for or explain something that, in all fairness, was done by someone else on their team may cost the leader their position.

 The Iceberg of ignorance
I read about what is termed the “Iceberg of Ignorance”. While the exact details are hazy, it is said that a consultant by the name Sidney Yoshida produced a study called “The Iceberg of Ignorance”.

This iceberg has been touched on by various authors each taking different perspectives on the matter. In the applicable climates where icebergs are present, it has been noted that what appears above the surface of the water is only a small fraction of the entire body. The real iceberg as it were, is underwater. This is what I believe inspired the notion of this iceberg of ignorance. This is because at the shop floor or frontline, virtually all the information, especially around challenges is known by those teams.

Their immediate supervisors will also have a fair bit of detail. The amount of information is reduced at every level of supervision as you go up.

In large organisations with multiple layers, by the time you get to the apex, the details known are minimal. A quick internet search of this topic will show various perspectives and figures of what percentage of the relevant information is known by the leadership. I subscribe to the notion that it depends on the size of the organisation and the number of layers from the top to bottom. More layers will likely translate to less details and vice versa.

What is consistent though is that the executive leadership will almost always have a lot of detail missing concerning the problem areas at the shop floor.

Having gone to town to explain the fact that the executives will only have a small fraction of the actual detail of the challenges on the ground and yet they are answerable for the events that transpire, I would like to look at what I think the leaders should do to help close any gaps.

The few points I will raise, in my view, are applicable to any leader be it a shift-supervisor or the CEO of a multinational corporation, because either way there is some information that does not cross the hierarchic boundary, unless there is an active effort done.

Possible interventions
Possible initiatives to create an environment that has less impediments to the flow of information, particularly on challenges are discussed below.

 Problems/challenges on agenda
A number of authors have spoken about the need to have a standing agenda item focusing on problems/challenges during meetings. This will allow staff to share their concerns, and oftentimes issues are addressed early on before they snowball into something more complex. The old adage talks about how a stitch in time does save a lot more in the future.

Encourage innovation
Innovation must be encouraged and rewarded. This helps to identify challenges and resolve them before they become embarrassing errors. The front line will usually know how best to address any problems. Furthermore, I believe that any idea can always be improved and that then can be the responsibility of the supervisor or leader.

Allow mistakes and learn from them
The culture of an organisation should be such that mistakes can freely be brought to the fore and looked at as what they are, mistakes. The team should not be afraid to expose their errors, as the temptation will be to cover up and this is what may lead to some embarrassing scandals that the leaders are not aware of. When these are inevitably exposed, the leader will then be held to account. This is related to innovation, as through trying to innovate, there is a chance of making some errors as well.

Open door policy
Closely related to the allowing for errors would be an open door policy. Of course, this will still require a balance and parameters in terms of what the policy is meant for. It is crucial for the team to then understand what sort of information their supervisor or leader expects to be updated on. The temptation would be to get drawn into non-value adding issues hence to need to set a clear tone.

Formally appraise on informing
I recently learnt that informing is an area, which can be looked at formally as a key indicator when it comes to one’s performance. This will create a culture of ensuring that information is shared across the hierarchy and the leaders can make adjustments early on before situations get out of hand.

Meet frequently
Meetings should be frequent, but while striking a balance with still allowing the team to do actual work. Meetings can be very draining and should be well managed, lest they become a barrier to performance. This allows updating of concerns and ensuring that the leaders know what is going on. The leader can step in again, if necessary, on areas of potential concern.

Lastly, technology can assist. This can be the use of dashboards that show performance at a glance. Analytical skills will come into play, as one would literally, in a matter of minutes should be able to make some deductions and pick areas that require additional focus before things get out of hand. I will touch on the importance of having an analytical mind as a leader or business professional in a future publication.

 Final thoughts
Naturally, you cannot help but understand when staff are not willing to share too much information, especially, if it exposes their shortcomings to their superior.

However, the problems cannot remain hidden, and when eventually they are exposed heads often roll, especially that of the leader. This, therefore, makes it vitally important for leaders to actively ensure they are informed and able to make adjustments to avoid catastrophic disasters in the future.

  • Mavengere is the technical director at the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Zimbabwe (Icaz), which is the largest and longest standing PAO in Zimbabwe, having been established on 11 January 1918, and is a body corporate incorporated under the Chartered Accountants Act [Chapter 27:02]. Icaz provides leadership on the development, promotion, and improvement of the accountancy profession focusing in the areas of accounting education, assurance, good governance practices and leadership and organizational excellence. — technical@icaz.org.zw or twitter: @OwenMavengere.

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