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dirtyhandsQuestion #1: Why are there referees in football, soccer, basketball and hockey and umpires in baseball?

Answer: To enforce the rules and maintain order.

Question #2: Why are referees and umpires allowed to call penalties, fouls and other infractions and “punish” offenders?

Answer: Because influence alone is not enough. Without the power to impose consequences they could not enforce the rules.

So why do we think it is different for CEOs driving change in their organizations? Too many CEOs operate on the belief that if they explain things well and provide enough support, people will “do the right thing.” The corollary belief is that people will only truly commit to something if they are full participants in setting the goal and creating the plan.

Imagine if a football referee had to reach consensus among the players and coaches before calling a penalty and the only consequence of the infraction, once agreed to, was an admonishment to do better next time. Ridiculous, right?

This is the approach that passes for leadership all too often. CEOs and executive teams set a vision and create a plan and then try to “sell” it to managers and employees. Once the vision meetings are done, leaders sit back and wait for the organization to respond. This is called execution through hope. Someone with painful experience using this approach wisely said, “Hope is not a plan.”

CEOs and executive leaders must become more versatile in style and more willing to “get their hands dirty” in the process of strategy execution. Leaders must be able to diagnose the leadership style required in a situation (forceful or empowering) and then apply the right approach.

Theodore Roosevelt’s most famous quote, “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far,” is often referenced when leaders need to engage and excite their staff. Roosevelt, well known for diving into the nitty-gritty of daily business, was known as a leader willing to get his hands dirty. What does it look like for a CEO or an executive to get his or her hands dirty when ensuring the plan is executed? Here are five suggestions:

  • Demand alignment and commitment from your executive leadership team. If necessary, replace members who can’t get it, don’t want it or aren’t capable of it.
  • Attend the team meetings of your direct reports to make sure they are communicating the new direction clearly and whole-heartedly supporting it through words and actions.
  • Risk being unpopular. Referees are rarely cheered. They live with being booed for doing their jobs. You must be willing to be unpopular in service of doing the right things.
  • Be a risk taker. Be willing to put your stamp on your organization by trusting your gut and acting with urgency. You won’t always get it right but you will send the message that courage is valued in your organization. Another Theodore Roosevelt quote: “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”
  • Stop accepting the unacceptable. Hold people accountable. Reward good performers and sanction those that aren’t trying or can’t do the job. This is how high performance becomes part of the culture.

The Bailey Group supports dozens of CEOs a year in creating urgency and execution for change in their organizations. Can we help you?

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