Agenda management in leadership’s new era

By Dr David Butcher

Examples abound of successful businesses grown and managed by a forceful, dynamic leadership, not afraid to impose its vision on the organisation. Unfortunately, examples also abound of successful businesses brought low by a forceful, dynamic leadership, equally unafraid of imposing its vision on the organisation.

Which is why an approach known as consensus management has arisen: a leadership style that solicits views from within the business, and synthesises those views into a single set of strategic objectives and directions.

It’s an approach that has clear, pragmatic merits.

Broad constituencies

For one thing, the modern business world is too complex for a single person—or even a handful of people—to deliver all of the leadership that a large organisation requires.

For another, as businesses we put a lot of effort into educating and developing people in our organisations so that they think for themselves, innovate, and take responsibility. And given this, why wouldn’t we want to draw on their opinions about organisational direction?

Finally, given that our businesses employ skilled and capable managers, those managers are unlikely to throw their collective weight behind a set of objectives and strategic directions with which they do not agree.

Like it or not, building a consensus—and responding to it—is today’s leadership reality.

Twin perspectives

But that raises a different set of challenges—challenges that pose awkward questions for those who are the custodians of an organisation’s leadership development.

Senior leadership within business has grown accustomed to delegation. They set the strategic objectives, and then allow everyone else to work out how to realise them, provided that ethical standards are adhered to and that the law is obeyed. Indeed, ‘micro management’ has become a pejorative term.

But the flipside of that delegation is that senior leaders must recognise that sometimes other people within the organisation will be able to see things more clearly, from where they are, than can the leadership at the top.

Put another way, having set the organisation’s strategic parameters, the leadership must be open to being challenged on them.

Put still another way, if you are at an executive level, then you must at times be open to being led by those below.

Harnessing diversity

The difficulty is obvious: if it is important to solicit insight and opinion from management tiers further down the organisation’s leadership hierarchy, how is that to be managed?

How can different viewpoints be weighed, evaluated, and conclusions reached? How are the personal relationships that give rise to the required high-quality input created and fostered?

Because without the ‘social capital’ that such relationships comprise, worthy agendas remain unexpressed, or worse, repressed. Neither is good for the business. The key lies in being able to harness the diversity of strategic views that will inevitably be there.

Agenda management

At Cranfield, we have given a lot of thought to this challenge of agenda management.

Agenda management, we recognise, means developing in leaders the ability to resolve conflicts while getting to grips with the sometimes difficult internal politics that go hand in hand with delivering productivity and profit.

Moreover, we believe that no leader will be able to do this without learning how to accept that an element of challenge and a degree of conflict are essential for the health of any organisation.

The leadership development dimension

And clearly, the role played by leadership development will be vital.

Because helping leaders—and those elsewhere in the organisation—to challenge the status quo constructively is perhaps the greatest challenge of all.

Those with influence may not want their thinking contested. But like it or not, consensus management calls for that to happen.

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