Changing the management context

C. Villefrance Moeller, TalesOfLeading

It was a big change for the managers when the new director was appointed. The former director had taken almost every decisions in the company. The managers followed directions and were leading in the same way as their director. They were giving orders. This formed the context as it was in the company before the new director took over. The new directors wanted to form a new context, where the managers more independently made decisions on their own. The new director didn’t want to tell the managers what to do. He wanted to transform the organization from a patriarchal culture of managers giving orders to a more open and cooperative culture. He focused on developing the management team, but how could he make this change?

Changing the context

This change of director formed a need to change the organizational context for the management team. The management team had to see the change, understand what it meant to them personally and learn to adjust their practice. Simultaneously, they had to contribute to the construction of this new context. As the director imposes the change to a new leadership role on the manager, ambiguity emerge. It’s as if the director tells the manager to change to a practice where you are not directing.

The shift in context leads to a situation, where the manager’s method of solving problems no longer works. The feedback they gets from the director is not as they had expected. On the contrary, they were told it’s not ok. This was frustrating for the managers, who was used to another kind of leadership from their director. If the managers cracks the code to this new kind of practice and understand how the code was cracked, they have learnt to learn. Learning to learn means that the managers has learnt not only to adjust their practice, but also reflected on how they learnt to adjust.

In context of the old director

The old director delivered a fantastic vision, inspired and engaged the entire organization on the quest of leading the company to prosperity. The managers were to deliver on a daily basis within his area of responsibility. This form of transformational leadership (iii) is an idealistic vision only few leaders can live up to. It’s not sufficient for the director to sell the dream of the future. He is also responsible of transforming the dream into reality. The director depends upon the managers doing what they are told without questioning why. Therefore, he promoted managers due to their professional skills, their ability to get the tasks solved and delivering the service to the customers. Did the director really want the managers to lead? Did he authorize the managers?

You can also question whether the managers authorized themselves. The director was a role model for the managers. They had internalized this way of leading in themselves (ii). They deprived themselves from taking responsibility to any decisions made in the company. Each manager was rewarded for saving the day, when there was a risk of not delivering the expected service to the customers. They were fire-fighters rewarded for putting out fires, not for preventing them to occur. Gabriel & Hirschhorn (1999)(i) has characterized narcissistic leaders as dividing the company’s tasks into easy to grasp departments, which give the managers a sense that if they deliver the tasks on a daily basis, the director will protect them from the world. As long as the director is making all the decisions, there is no need for the manager to relate to the coordination between the departments. The director took care of that.

In context of the new director

The new director characterized a new way of leading the company. He defined his expectations to the managers as unlike what they were used to. It was more like painting a picture of what kind of leadership this meant to the managers. According to Hirschhorn (2003) (ii) the postmodern reality implies that the manager has to trust his own authority and show more of himself making it possible for the organization to identify with him. This is what the new director tries to explain by describing himself as more open than the former director.

The managers succeeding under the authority of the former director were forced to make decisions on their own. Decentralized decisions implied the managers to put themselves in the place of others and see the circumstances from their perspective. The new director defined a good manager as one who was conscious about his role as a manager and was able of motivating his employees. He expected the managers to improve the workflow to prevent fires to rise. The manager’s former skills as fire-fighter was now counterproductive.

The company’s task is changing

The company (here called MD) were distributing magazines for two major publishers. MD was owned by the two publishers and originally established as an alternative to traditional distribution companies. The task was to prepared and distributed magazines to the retailers in the front end of the process. In the back end of the process, they collected and stored magazines not sold. The amount of magazines was declining forcing their customers and owners to reduce costs. Under leadership of the new director a new strategy and vision for MD was developed. The company had to find new business opportunities within distribution. The vision was that the new business should pay the distribution costs of the magazines.

The new director were not offering the managers protection from this new and unsecure reality. He expected them to engage in developing the business. The investigation of possible countermeasures was a task that implied cooperation from the management team. This time there were no authority to tell them how to manage this responsibility. The director only provided them with what he didn’t want them to do. And that was the opposite of what previously acknowledged from the former director.

Feeling dependent and incompetent

The individual manager now had to relate to his piers when a proposal of changes in workflow had consequences in other departments. Therefore, the relationship between the managers in the management teams became important for success and achieving performance objectives for the company (iii). The management team had to explore possible countermeasures together and evaluate which countermeasure would be the most appropriate for the company and not just for the individual department. If each employee and manager individually were creative and proposed improvements, they would subsequently compete for resources in the organization (ii). In the case of MD this emerged as the manager’s difficulties in sharing resources across the departments.

The need for sharing knowledge and cooperation across the departments was a central theme for the management team in their internal discussions at meetings. In their reflections at a session at their seminar, they tried to discover how the organization worked and handled issues. In the reflection, the managers shared their knowledge and tried to create a differentiated picture. Understanding the present situation was crucial for them to start focusing on what had to change (ii).

The director express sharing resources as something you just did. This was the conditions he came from is his previous experience. He didn’t see that the prerequisite for doing it as an environment able to contain the unsecure feelings caused be negotiation in the management team.

Exploring the learning process

I had a chance to explore the learning in the management team without a specific way of thinking and a specific objective for the transformation process. It made the management teams reflection on their future leadership role more openly, without giving them answers for what to do. I was interested in how the management group could create a containing environment for learning a new practice. I have found some indications in the in the intervention I made with the management team. I observed situations where they were able to work effectively with a common task and reflect on how they worked together. A space for reflection and thinking were created for trying to understand what works and what doesn’t work and why. Learning in this context is more than competencies appropriate to the individual. It’s also the shared experience that arises from working on a shared task. The shared task is in this context the development of the business defined by the purpose and the vision. Along the way there will be many problems, the management team must work its way through.

(i) Gabriel, Yiannis & Hirschhorn, Larry (1999): ”Leaders and Followers”. I: Yiannis Gabriel: Organizations in Deph. London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi: SAGE Publ.

(ii) Hirschhorn, Larry (2003): “Autoritetsrelationer i nye sammenhænge – personligheden på arbejde”. København: Hans Reitzels Forlag

(iii) Binney, George, Williams, Colin og Wilke, Gerhard (2012): “Living Leadership – A Practical Guide for Ordinary Heroes”. Edinburgh: Pearson Education Limited

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