A gaggle of financial executives crowded onto the tiny covered porch of a wood frame house in rural Pennsylvania, ducking the rain and, apparently, each other. They weren't a dysfunctional team, but they were a long way from optimum. The chief of staff for a chief financial officer (CFO) wanted the team to visit Gettysburg to study leadership with a focus on getting better at decision-making, specifically, consensus decision-making.
By the time they spent most of the day on one of the most famous North American battlefields, the CFO opened up even more. This is not unusual; the emotional impact of the stories gets people over their natural reticence.
The CFO said that the organization was not getting the most out of the talent on his team, and frankly, people are getting tired of being "discounted."
This conversation took place on the front porch of the farmhouse where, late on July 2, 1863, Federal Commander General George Meade gathered his key leaders to discuss their options. Terrible fighting on July 1 and July 2 had caused thousands of casualties. Meade's army was badly battered, though he suspected the Confederates, under General Robert E. Lee, were as bad off.
The wily and resourceful Lee was Meade's biggest problem, but there were other challenges. Meade had been in command for only a few days when he was forced into this gigantic battle with a dangerous foe. Lose a fight here--less than 90 miles from Washington--and the South might win the war. Meade was not well liked by his officers, who had been his peers a week earlier. Several of them had no confidence in him and might not completely support his decisions. Add to that the physical reality--12 exhausted men crammed into a tiny room that reeked of body odor, horse sweat and tobacco--and tensions were high.
After painting the picture the executives were asked how they might run the meeting. The CFO said he'd poll the people who already agreed with his ideas.
Another executive jumped in with, "That's exactly the problem we have." And thus began a conversation the group had been avoiding for some time, about how to air differences of opinion.
"That," the chief of staff said, "was exactly why we came to Gettysburg."
These financial executives were originally hired for their technical skills, and they still had to call on those skills from time to time. But as they moved up in leadership in the organization, their responsibilities changed. The need for technical financial know-how became less acute, and the need for leadership skills increased. It should be noted here that "leadership," in this instance, means "influence." One does not need direct reports to exert influence. Executives influence people all the time, purposefully or as a by-product of their actions.
Senior financial executives who sit in solitude looking at spreadsheets are not having the greatest possible positive impact on their teams. Senior executives who form great teams, who communicate a vision and inspire others to accomplish great things, are earning their pay at the highest levels of the organization.
Unfortunately, most people do not get a great deal of formal leadership training. This isn't just the case with executives; it happens in all sorts of places. A great drill press operator, at some point, will be recognized by the boss and put in charge of other drill press operators.
In American companies, the chances are good that leaders will be elevated into that role with no formal preparation. No matter what your skillset...