Chartered Management Institute: In my Opinion

Chartered Management Institute Companion Keith Clarke argues that dependence on outside advice harms business leaders' political awareness.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

There has been an unhealthy trend in recent years for companies to take 'expert' advice on a variety of core business matters such as mission statements, values, and corporate and social responsibility policies and strategy. Many services go well beyond legitimate and desirable benchmarking or critical knowledge transfer. They amount to the outsourcing of the management thought process and of management's engagement with staff and others.

In my opinion, this is unhealthy, because it tends to remove management from the political effects of their actions. The role of management - despite, or maybe because of, the increasing complexity of business - is to provide the flexible glue that holds together all the pieces that make up an organisation and its environment. This includes the company's shareholders, capital, markets, staff, competitive forces, government and so on.

To be the glue in this context, leaders need significant political ability. This includes the normally touted skills, such as clear communication - although many firms outsource control of their communications to a public relations agency, which ends up writing the script. But perhaps more important are the often neglected skills of understanding the complex interplay between interested groups of people. This encompasses an ability to understand their strategic interests as well as reading the individuals that you're dealing with - and having the personal and interpersonal skills to get results.

Such political astuteness is not about doing enough staff surveys or producing lots of newsletters - although these have their place. It's about management teams having empathy for the groups they work with. Such understanding of the character of an organisation is vital and provides a solid basis for progress.

If managers have an in-depth understanding of the issues that interest people, the things that bother them, what they're passionate about and what motivates them, they will be far more successful at engaging people to respond to the future challenges of the organisation. As a result, progress is more likely to include the majority than the minority.

Every company has a character that emanates from its history and its current staff. Regardless of what the annual report may espouse, the organisation will have a set of underlying values and behaviours. Often, these emerge in times of stress - they provide the default position when people are being made redundant, when staff have died in an accident or when pension plans are being changed. Understanding the character of an organisation provides a basis for progress. Woe betide any manager who has removed themself from the ability to sense how an organisation is feeling.

Such deep values can change, but this rarely happens by revolution. For most organisations, it is evolution - often gentle but persistent - that is likely to carry change further. But the endurance of an organisation's values should not be confused with the willingness to change - perhaps radically - what the company actually does. It is always easier to write the decisive 'big change' board paper than a recommendation for incremental progress.

Regardless of whether it's incremental or sudden, though, change - and hopefully progress - is more likely to be effective and take hold if the leaders of an organisation understand and are sensitive to the underlying values. For me, this is one of the ways in which political skills are most valuable: the ability to appraise the shifting behaviour of interacting groups of people when they are made uncomfortable.

The mistake is for company leadership to fall back on the indexing of staff attitudes, CSR benchmarking and a plethora of CEO blogs and corporate communications. For me, political skills start at the point at which surveys stop. It's about judgment, colour and being respectful to the values that exist. The manifestation of applying such skills may be a CEO speech or even a blog, but it must be the consequence of a management team's thoughts and deliberations. Formulaic and clumsy responses just won't cut it.

The art of management is rarely about interpreting facts. It's usually guessing what may become a fact and doing something either to make it happen or to stop it from happening. It's a reasonable proposition that the more senior a person is, the greater their obligation to take decisions based on fewer facts. Those who guess well - who have good judgment - need the political skills to convince others around them of both the question and the answer, framing it in terms that all the various groups can understand and respond to. They may even agree.

The Leading with Political Awareness report will be published by the Chartered Management Institute on 12 June. A downloadable executive summary and information on the full report will be available free at www.managers.org.uk/politicalawareness

CV Keith Clarke is chief executive of WS Atkins plc and is a chartered architect with more than 30 years' experience in construction and engineering. He joined Atkins from Skanska AB in October 2003. Clarke is also chairman of the Construction Industry Council's Health and Safety Committee, chair of the National Platform High Level Steering Group for Constructing Excellence, an advisory board member at Imperial College, a member of the National Employment Panel and patron of the Environmental Industries Commission.

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