The Virtues of Horse Trading

A few weeks ago, I was teaching executives – ranging in titles from Directors to VPs – at a blue chip company that is routinely considered one of the best run in the US. While discussing interactions among structure, processes, culture and skill, I introduced the idea of networks.

Like many other huge companies, this one has many fairly independent business units (that is, an internal network) unified by little more than a brand name, a culture and a financial superstructure. As in other such companies, the executives believed that the financial superstructure impeded collaboration among business units. As such, they felt powerless to exploit the full extent of their corporate capabilities.

A senior leader came to talk about leadership and the attendees brought up the collaboration challenge. The leader began telling of a recent product creation/launch effort that she had led. Missing a key technology, she had found the capability necessary to create it in another business unit. Her peer there said that the pressures of his own goals and resource constraints would not allow him to help her. So, for the duration of her needs, she transferred an equivalent number (and quality!) of people over to the other BU and paid for both sets of employees out of her budget. Her subsequent successful product launch gave the company clear market presence.

Quite possibly, some of my program’s participants would have felt better if the head of the BU that had the needed skills had acted out of belief in “the greater good.” Yet, there is no escaping the fact that a great win-win – there, I’ve used that overused and little believed term! – emerged here not out of altruism or any great principle, but out of enlightened self-interest. The speaker won because she got her resources and created a market leading product; waiting for altruistic behavior would have killed the launch. The other BU’s head won because he reduced his costs and possibly gained an IOU chit for the future while still retaining the capacity to meet his goals. Finally the individual employees won too, for they ended up being exposed to new challenges in their fields of expertise and just as important, were able to create new contacts that they could draw upon in the months and years ahead.

To me, her behavior is a quintessential example of what I call Operational Leadership: faced with a challenge you are passionate about, instead of simply talking, can you get something done? She did not simply extol the importance of collaboration and bemoan its lack in the company’s internal network. Instead, she figured out a way of assuring collaboration and showed her peers, bosses and direct reports how to make it happen.

What do you think about the story and my takeaway? Do you agree or disagree? How what are the upsides and the limits to such behavior? Do you have stories to tell either supporting or challenging this notion?

Category: Leadership, Organizational structure Comment »


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