Camels and Committees

Stan. Sewitch

Organizational theory of leadership has continued to evolve as our world changes, adapting to the practical needs of the entity. Command-and-control management worked for centuries, until the labor force reached a point of bargaining power that required negotiation rather than dictation. We migrated through "scientific" management, "theory Y" philosophies, "empowerment" and ultimately "self-directed" work teams. I took an experimental foray into this latest idea about two years ago. There was a compelling reason to try, as I would be unable to lead my team for a period of months, due to business dynamics that forced me to be out of town a great deal. So we convened as a team to discuss how to create a self-directed working format that did not rely on any one person to lead. How else would you start a self-directed effort? We had little to lose, since no other option was available to us in the context of our challenges at that time. And, I thought to myself, what a great way to really check out this theory with a smart, hard-working group of people who already clicked nicely as a team. We'd at least determine the idea's viability and be able to tell others what we learned. As it turned out, we discovered after a good deal of earnest effort that the legitimate purpose of a leader cannot be eliminated when three or more people are gathered together in the name of economic necessity. Somebody has to resolve conflicts of priority, resource allocation, functional accountability, methodology and evaluation. Somebody has to create an environment of problem-solving, and ensure that at least one idea is indeed created. Somebody has to decide how to look ahead farther and take the risks associated with doing the right thing, not just the customary thing. Somebody has to be able to make decisions when everybody isn't in agreement, and the problem won't take care of itself.

The list goes on. Lately, I've been noticing that more and more organizations are getting hungry for leadership. The infatuation with "theory Y" and consensus-driven approaches to decision-making is waning. Many people don't want to be "self-directed" as much, I think. They're asking for their leaders to be better, and to be more decisive. They still want autonomy and freedom, but they're also tired of the time and energy necessary to form consensus, and they have a sense of urgency that the decision can't wait that long. Sure, it's contradictory, but humans and paradoxical behavior have a long, rich association. I was speaking with a senior executive at a financial services company this morning, for example. He said, "Stan, our approach here has been to only proceed in some company program if there is complete agreement from all quarters. It takes a long time, and then when we present a committee recommendation, it always gets deferred to a time when the decision can be 'studied'. I just wish the CEO would tell us what she thinks at the time the issue is brought up. It's fine to ask our opinion and then make a decision. If we don't all agree, that's okay. At least something would get done!"

This sense of urgency and wanting to be led well is undoubtedly tied somewhat to our current global state of insecurity. But my sense is that this desire for directive leadership would still exist, absent war. And it's probably because consensus doesn't offer novel solutions. Consensus can't provide any behavior that is too far outside the group norms. By definition, consensus is that state which includes all parties, and thus must reflect those values that are common denominators. Outlying opinions or unusual ideas must necessarily be excluded, in order to arrive at that which can be accepted by all. So if a particular problem cannot be solved by commonly accepted solutions, then the problem remains. If that problem is also both high-risk and time-sensitive, as perceived by those concerned, then the rare idea which is required to solve it never arrives. Or arrives too late. In such cases, consensus-driven decision-making ensures group failure.

Now, my comments are centered on groups where there is economic interdependence and mutual risk. In these cases there are times when the group needs a leader. Most people will agree on this, but they disagree widely on when that moment arrives to give up group authority to a single person. My guiding principles have served me okay so far. First, the leader must decide (or follow the law) on what kinds of decisions she will make without consensus, and tell people what they are. Set their expectations. Second, get as much input as you can before you decide. And to do that you have to be able to estimate when your decision must be made. Third, once you've made the decision, commit to action immediately and don't second guess yourself. You'll know by the results whether or not you made the right one. If you screw up, admit your mistakes, learn from them, and let them guide your next decision. If you screw up too much, you don't have to worry. Your followers will pick a different leader. Fourth, don't ever try to hide or ignore a bad decision. Your followers will immediately fire you, even though it might take months for you to be physically gone. Fifth, tell your staff when it's their decision and don't take that responsibility away from them, even when they ask you to. If you can't trust them to make mostly right decisions, then they shouldn't have the job. Fifth, make sure that when you decide, it is indeed your responsibility. Sometimes we get so good at making decisions, we can fail to recognize when it's really none of our business. And finally, never shirk a responsibility to make a decision when it is clearly yours to make.



Stan Sewitch
HRG, Inc.

Stan SewitchStan is the founder and CEO of HRG, Inc. Formed in 1989, HRG initially provided organizational, operational, human resources and strategic consulting to hundreds of high-tech and middle-market companies. HRG's service assets were acquired by RSM McGladrey in 1999, and Stan continued with RSM until October of 2004. During his tenure with RSM, Stan was a Senior Partner, leading the southern California strategy and organizational consulting practice, comprised of four offices and serving clients throughout the western U.S. as well as other states. Stan left RSM to continue with HRG, developing it as a center for high-level expertise and investment financing for innovation-based ventures. HRG provides expertise and funding to qualified organizations, and consulting to clients of all types in strategy, organizational effectiveness and executive leadership development.

Stan also formed two other companies. In 1990, he launched Emlyn Systems, a software company publishing a human resources information system. In 1991 he co-founded Chromagen, a biotechnology company endeavoring to commercialize proprietary assays for drug research.

Prior to his entrepreneurial adventures, Stan held senior management positions in operations and human resources. He was manufacturing director for TRW's LSI products division in San Diego. LSI was the first company to produce one-micron analog-to-digital converters and high-speed digital signal processors in CMOS. Stan was also operations director for Elm Corporation, a salmon fishery in Bethel, Alaska. Stan's human resources management positions included Martin Marietta Aluminum, Smith International, TRW and Mycogen Corporation.

Stan holds an M.S. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from California State University, Long Beach, and a B.A. in Psychology from San Diego State University.

Stan authored a weekly column on various issues in business for the San Diego Daily Transcript, entitled "Notes from the Corporate Underground" and is working on a book of the same title. He is a frequent speaker at professional and trade organizations. He was a faculty instructor for UCSD's Extension School of Engineering for five years, teaching a course in technical group leadership.

Personal interests include teaching the martial art of Kenpo and playing bass in the local rock band, "Big Blue Cat".