Feature Article: Leading the Enterprise

Russ Volckmann

I’ve always wanted to be an iconoclast. I mean, an effective iconoclast: someone who can powerfully and successfully challenge our conventional thinking, our conventional wisdom. Perhaps that is why the subject of leadership interests me so much. Leaders cannot afford not to be iconoclasts of sorts. They need to continually challenge the conventional wisdom in order to assure that whether in business or other aspects of life we are able to successfully engage with this messy organic process of life and learning–and business.

The quotation from Ken Fayaro seemed particularly appropriate to this series of articles. He is celebrating iconoclastic leadership. And he is doing it in a way that points out that despite our messy and organic world there are some principles that can guide effective business leadership. That is also the subject of these articles. I think we are in harmony. You be the judge.

Thus far in this series I have traced the path of leadership from focus on evolving business objectives through leadership purpose, use of resources and teamwork. This series has been a once over lightly treatment that lays the foundation for some deeper work. I hope to bring this to future issues, but first I have one more level in this holarchic model of leadership: leading the enterprise.

To this point everything that I have been presenting has been about individual and collective aspects of leadership within the leadership system. The leadership system is comprised of that set of individual leaders who are more or less aligned and engaged with each other to achieve somewhat shared business objectives.

Focus, purpose, organization and teamwork are all about the internal dynamics of the leadership system. The use of conditional terms like “more or less” and “somewhat” reflects my belief that in a real business situation everything is fluid and dynamic– even when we pretend otherwise (And sometimes it is important for us to pretend otherwise).

In a business environment the leadership system is populated by those in key positions for achieving business objectives and whose tasks it is to align other stakeholders with the leadership in achieving those business objectives. This is what leading an enterprise is principally about. This system usually includes a CEO, various CXOs, and sometimes other roles such as key board members, “you bet your company” project managers or science/technology leads. No matter what the composition at this fourth holarchic level the task of leadership becomes Janus faced. That is, it faces inward to the leadership system and outward toward stakeholders.

The inward focus is about aligning individual leaders with an approach to the relationship with each stakeholder group and identifying ways of engaging with each other to support the implementation of what is important to the leaders and to the stakeholders. The capacity of the leadership system to do this is built on the foundation of the levels of leadership described in earlier editions of LeadershipOpportunity and in the ebook, Leadership Opportunity.

At the executive level leaders seek to create and sustain a vital enterprise, an organization that can successfully achieve its objectives. What does that take? Well that is what most of the literature about management and organizations is all about. Leadership must be concerned with developing and implementing organization strategy, design and culture and the engagement of stakeholders in each of those aspects of business.

To help us sort through this it is necessary to be clear about what we mean by stakeholders. A partial list might include customers, employees, investors, suppliers, vendors, government regulators or strategic partners. Each has their own set of requirements and aspirations.

It is the collective task of leadership to create alignment and engagement between the leadership system and these stakeholders in support of business objectives. What does that require? That will vary from business to business and context to context. It will all vary according to the strategic orientation of the business and the objectives that are most immediate.

In an expanding economy and a growing market for the services or products of the business recruitment of talent for the organization may be a more critical issue than is apparent in a shrinking economy and/or market. In the former there is considerable competition from other industries and from competitors for this talent. In the latter there is a surplus of talent to choose from. Therefore, the business objectives regarding recruitment would vary and the leadership of the enterprise would relate differently to the stakeholders with talent, the pool of potential contributors.

It is the collective task of business leadership to determine how they are going to apply their roles as leaders, their leadership resources and their teamwork to support the infusion of talent into their business. All of the levels we have been discussing in these e-journals will contribute to how successfully they do this. Clarity of objectives, definition of purpose, use of resources and teamwork will all play critical roles. And so will their collective understanding of what is important for the enterprise to be vital.

Just as the conversations among leaders that generate teamwork are most important when they are working to achieve some significant change, so are the conversations they have about relationships with stakeholders necessary for developing and sustaining the vitality of the enterprise. Each leader brings important elements to this conversation: experience, technical knowledge, knowledge of the organization and its components, knowledge of the industry, knowledge about specific stakeholders and their requirements and aspirations, etc. It is the task of leaders to bring this information to bear on how the leadership engages with each stakeholder group. Examples might include:

  • A decision is made to delegate working with certain customers to people elsewhere in the organization under the direction of one CXO. Several CXOs request that their employees support those people in a variety of ways. The leaders collectively then focus their attention on one or two key customers.
  • Labor relations is handled by professionals. The leaders of the business stay aloof or, at best, issue statements that their professional advisors have urged upon them.
  • The leaders pool their energies and talents to develop a strategy for dealing with a governmental regulatory agency. They assign roles and provide support for dealing directly with the agency, dealing with lobbyists or testifying before a legislative committee. Press releases let the world know that the business is doing everything possible to lead the industry in compliance with regulations that they, the leaders support.

And note that in most cases the amount of resources invested in conversations depends on business objectives that reflect context and strategy. The evolution of the leadership system and of the enterprise itself is dependent upon these conversations. They are necessary, if not sufficient, to promoting the efficacy of the leadership system and the vitality of the business enterprise. They reflect the capacity of individual leaders to bring an entrepreneurial role to leadership. That will be the subject of the next issue.

> Russ Volckmann