Monday 4 January 2016

The Leadership Grand Gesture

VIEWPOINT: Just occasionally leaders need to make a grand gesture to get their message across, Rudi Plettinx, Managing Director of Management Centre Europe, offers valuable insight on when and how to do it, in this eighth in his series of articles for IEDP:Newly appointed leaders often have a shrinking window of opportunity to get the team they’ve been given to manage on their side. My view is that you need to get their attention from day one, the first hour if at all possible. I think it is vitally important to send a message that will make the organization know you are serious about getting things done.

This is particularly true if you are being parachuted into a situation where there is low morale, high turnover or some similar corporate malaise.

But getting people to sit up and pay attention sometimes calls for a grand gesture. Something truly memorable. The stuff of leadership legend that will be talked about whenever the business ‘war stories’ are recalled and retold.

Just in case you need to make a grand leadership gesture one of these days, here are three real-life examples that might just get you thinking the next time you feel you need to make some instant impact:

  • A newly appointed general manager was sent into an organization where communications had broken down and employees were all suffering from low morale. Day one the manager arrived with a tool box in his hand. As headquarters staff watched open-mouthed, he took out a wrench and a screwdriver and removed the door to his office and had it taken away. The message was crystal clear. “My door is always open, don’t hesitate to come and talk to me.” This dramatic gesture achieved its goal. Within seconds (thanks to the power of email) the whole company knew what had happened at headquarters. This no nonsense, hands-on approach was the beginning of a spectacular turn-around in the organization’s fortunes.

  • Not quite so dramatic, but equally successful, was the manager sent as the new leader of an ailing division of a software provider just before the Christmas period. The day she arrived top management sent a memo to the whole company saying that – due to budget restrictions – there would be no Christmas parties that year. The newly appointed manager tacked up a memo on the notice board inviting everyone in her new division to her Christmas party which she paid for! Again, it sent an instant message to everyone and was the starting point of a turnaround: which, of course, resulted in a nice, fat bonus for the ‘generous’ manager.

  • Or how’s this for total leadership chutzpah? Sent in to shake things up by his U.S. electronics firm, the new head of Europe sent a very definite message just hours after his plane landed in Brussels. Taken to a Michelin starred restaurant in the city as a ‘welcome to Europe’ gesture by his top 50 managers he came up with a bigger, bolder gesture of his own! He only stayed for the soup, saying, “well guys you may have time for lunch, but I haven’t.” There was more to come. A keen skier, the new boss started each day running up the 20 plus floors to his office as part of his keep-fit regime. His personal team was ‘encouraged’ to do the same. The message, “we are here to do a job and we can’t do that wasting time eating lunch or even waiting for elevators.”

For leaders, grand gestures have their place. Only you can’t do them too often. So my advice is save them for when you really need to strike a chord, sending a message that won’t, ever, be forgotten. You’ll also have fun doing it too. Whoever said that leadership shouldn’t be fun? Not me. 

Do you have a story about a CEO, or senior manager who made the grand gesture to get a point across ? If so we’d like to hear it.

This column on leadership and organizational development is written exclusively for the IEDP by Rudi Plettinx, Managing Director of Management Centre Europe, the Brussels-based development organization. Have a comment or a question? Connect with him via Linkedin. 


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