Posted on 19-05-2013
Filed Under (BUSINESS) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

My aspiring, ambitious corporate friends on fast track careers are in a great hurry to reach the top. When pausing for breath in their laddership gaits, they inevitably ask me about how to better focus on optimal efficiency. My return query is, Are you a frontline leader or a backend one? Seeing their flummoxed faces as response makes me share some gates to ladder up your career.

Both frontline and backend leaders require customer centricity, but their leadership activities have some seminal differences. Business schools offer umpteen courses for successful leadership. Theories galore blab on traits and styles of assuming authority, including BF Skinner’s famous positive reinforcement theory where a positive stimulus like praising employees modifies their behavior towards increased productivity. Empirical research suggests that leaders in companies like Frito-Lay, 3M, Goodrich, Michigan Bell among others have effectively used reinforcement to get higher performance at lower costs. But let’s not get into theories and theorizing, let’s look at hard facts on leading with customer sensitivity.

The frontline leader works in a non-captive, open environment that’s not under his/her control. A strong public relations mental framework is essential to perform here. Moving situations at any odd corner of the globe can impact your factory’s delivery, or your company’s share price, your brand’s image, your customer’s safety from a terrorist attack backlash, a flash flood can wipe away your overseas warehouse, even a sex scandal involving your company’s Board Director can shake business. Anything can happen on an everyday basis in the world external to you, and you, the frontline honcho, have to deal with it.
The backend leader must be an outstanding process master with seamless capability to drive cross functional teams. At every juncture, it’s the customer who drives the backend leader’s approach. It could be quality consciousness, or exceptional vendor management knowledge and capability to extract the vendor’s R&D ingenuity and prioritize it for your company. An outside-in approach that brings the outside environment inside the company is the most efficacious way to lead from the backend.

Especially in the Indian context, let me take you through 10 leadership gates I’ve found to be critical to gain business results.
1.    Prioritize your focus: On customer, the market’s competitive environment, vendors, talent pool.
2.    Power to synthesize analytics: Outstanding capability to extract insights from customers and market competitors, to collate facts that cannot be questioned, so as to synthesize analytics. Your capability to find meaningful patterns that are relevant in business analysis has to be superior to others.
3.    Confidence to believe in yourself: Self confidence cannot be based on rote learning. It has to be experienced with learning, failure, adaptation and refinement. A leader’s analytical capability builds confidence for the team. Whereas overconfidence can destroy behavior patterns and work efficiency of cross functional teams. Comic actor Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977) said: "You have to believe in yourself, that’s the secret. Even in the orphanage, when I was roaming the streets trying to find enough to eat, I thought of myself as the greatest actor in the world."
4.    Decision making: A leader’s decision ammunition is the ability of analytical synthesis with high quality of competitive market insights. Flawless decision making is critical for a leader, but it’s human that flaws can creep in. As a leader you should be flexible to quickly correct earlier decisions made to rectify the flaw.
5.    Proof of delivery excellence: The leader’s past delivery excellence has to be proven to establish his/her ability to lead. Delivery excellence should not be explained or discussed, it should be concrete with numbers for anyone to see
6.    Cross functional teamwork:  You as the leader should effectively use the competency of different professionals in various functions as a converging point for business results. You have to orchestrate every one’s performance. The Western classical music conductor is at once the boss, inspirer and controller of the performance of renowned musicians. People that the leader chooses to be surrounded with are a very big factor too as that can lead to criticism about who’s done what.
7.    Accountability with value of time: For managing a project of any size, you are accountable for what shows as the bottomline.  A leader has multiple tasks, but each task has to be accountable as 365 days cannot be stretched to 367 days. The value of time is an everyday alert. For the real leader, every day is a new year and result of execution excellence at the same time.
8.    High quality review mechanism: Establishing the framework for the review mechanism of the team’s work and business results requires holistic leadership capability.  It determines the leader’s accountability and effectiveness.
9.    Discipline within a defined boundary: Being from a heterogeneous country like India with diverse culture, geography, language, food, economic disproportions and religion, unless a certain company specific discipline is established with a defined boundary, everything will crash. The leader’s responsibility is to set up this discipline as the ceiling, and oblige the team to follow and action it. People can be very creative and innovative within the defined boundary but not outside it. This is within the leader’s power to conduct.
10.    Drive menu not thali: Indian managers at different levels can be deficient in team or project handling as they follow the food thali outlook where priority and order are mixed and confused. A menu system makes you achieve results when driving the Western business model in India. Being very specific, the menu has an order of usage and gives priority where needed.  You can define the menu, make the team follow it, and review it to ensure its working effectively with everyone. But to eat, I daresay the Indian thali has delicious charm.

My corporate friends, depending on your proclivity and competencies, decide on whether you want to be a frontline or backend leader. Either way, these ten laddership gaits will stand you in good stead for career climbing, acquiring customer connect, and in sustainably growing your business.

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