I blog a lot about leadership.
And, usually, my blogs are geared towards people who are already in leadership positions. But, today, I want to do something different.
Today, I want to reach out to aspiring leaders – those on the way up the corporate ladder who haven’t yet reached a leadership position. Because demonstrating leadership qualities doesn’t start only when one attains a leadership role. It can and should begin when one is a follower.
Sometimes, bad leadership by someone in a leadership position opens the door for a follower to show leadership. Let’s walk through some specifics.
A common symptom of bad leadership is when the “left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.” If you’re not familiar with that adage, it means that two people can have related roles, but don’t work together causing all sorts of problems. Those problems can include duplicated effort, conflicting results, poor communication, delays, critical work not getting done and so much more.
It’s the leader’s job to assign roles and to set forth standards for individuals with related roles to work together. But too many people find themselves in awkward situations with fellow employees and there are business risks that arise.
I can think back to a couple of examples in my career as a buyer in the airline industry where poor leadership caused such awkward situations. In both examples, I was responsible for buying aircraft parts for maintaining the airline’s fleet of planes.
The airline’s purchasing department was split into many sub-groups. The sub-group I was a part of was called “Aircraft & Technical Purchasing.” The Aircraft & Technical Purchasing sub-group was further divided into teams. I was on a team called “Maintenance Support” and other teams were “Warranty Services,” “Expediting,” “Interiors,” and so on.
Us buyers in Maintenance Support were measured pretty much only on cost savings and spend under contract. The only external training we received was on negotiation. And leadership didn’t want us getting involved in tactical purchasing activities. So, they created several of those other teams to handle tactical issues. Warranty Services handled warranty claims with suppliers. Expediting handled all communications with suppliers when a part was needed sooner than the standard lead time, including emergency situations when a part was needed because an aircraft was not permitted to take off prior to that part being replaced (called an “aircraft on ground” or “AOG” situation).
Sounds like a good division of labor, right?
Well, it wasn’t always.
I recall one incident where a buyer in Warranty Services approached me during a time when I was working feverishly on a project with a very heavy workload. Apparently, he was trying resolve a warranty issue with a supplier with whom I contracted and he had trouble connecting with an appropriate contact. He asked me to get involved. He pictured me calling my contact there, walking through all of the details of the warranty-related problem, arranging the logistics of return and repair/replacement, negotiating any conflicts, etc.
As a super-busy buyer – and a 25-year old at that – I kind of took offense to that. I thought he was lazy. I resisted getting involved in a task that the company hired someone else to do. He felt that the business relationship that I had developed with the supplier could be leveraged to make a difficult task easier. In hindsight, we were both right.
But we were both stubborn.
I stood my ground. He kind of threw a temper tantrum and went to his manager who went to my manager and the issue blew up more than it needed to. But all because there were two people involved in a related task with no leadership inspiring us to work harmoniously.
We spent more time arguing about how a task should get done than if either one of us had simply done the task! In a situation where there was a lack of org-chart driven leadership, we as followers showed no leadership either.
The second example involved me and a buyer from the Expediting team.
Again, my performance was heavily evaluated based on cost savings. So, when I got a requisition to purchase new parts, I would spend an amount of sourcing and negotiating time on the buy that was proportionate to the cost of what I was buying.
I had received a requisition for a “nose cowl.” This is the large, circular part that attaches to the front of an aircraft engine. These things cost several hundred thousand dollars. So, it was worth spending some time sourcing and negotiating for this beast!
Nose cowls get damaged frequently by ground vehicles, like catering trucks, those luggage-carrying vehicles, tugs, and the like. So, despite their high cost, airlines at the time would keep a small inventory of nose cowls to prepare for such unanticipated events and prevent the damaged aircraft from being taken out of service. Most times, that damage can be cost-effectively repaired, so there was no need to buy a replacement nose cowl. But, other times, the damage would be too severe and we’d need to order a new nose cowl for inventory.
So, I began speaking to aftermarket suppliers of nose cowls, some of whom had repaired/overhauled nose cowls in stock. These suppliers were smart negotiators. Before we’d even get to the topic of price, they’d ask: “How soon do you need it?”
Well, the requisition I had did not specify a need date. So, I answered that we were not necessarily in a hurry, but were comparing availability and price among multiple suppliers and would choose the supplier who offered the best overall value.
However, as I was beginning this process, little did I know that the Expediting team was duplicating effort.
Apparently, there had been an unusual rash of incidents where nose cowls were damaged by ground vehicles. Not just within our airline, but in the entire industry. Industry-wide availability of serviceable nose cowls had almost dried up! Remember, these things are expensive, so if every major airline only had one or two extras, that was only slightly more than a dozen in the entire country!
So, unbeknownst to me, the Expediting team was engaged. Apparently, the two nose cowls we had in inventory had quickly been dispatched. And, now, we had an AOG situation where, if we didn’t get a nose cowl for a certain aircraft scheduled to conclude its maintenance cycle, the company would have to cancel flights. At the time, the rule of thumb was that an aircraft unexpectedly out of service cost the company $40,000 per day. So, any time there was an AOG situation, it set many people into a panic!
Expediting was calling the same suppliers I was calling. Some of those suppliers refused to sell Expediting the solitary nose cowl in their inventory because they were “already negotiating with Charles Dominick.” Other suppliers quoted Expediting an exorbitant amount of money, then called me to say their previous quote was now off the table because they were contacted by Expediting, who needed the nose cowl immediately. Other suppliers were telling us both that they had no nose cowls available any more.
I was never informed that we had an AOG situation. Expediting was never informed that I was sourcing a nose cowl and close to making a deal. So, when suppliers were telling us that they were dealing with another employee of our company and that was impacting our ability to get a nose cowl at a reasonable price, we got quite mad at each other, yet didn’t communicate directly. It wasn’t necessarily policy, but it was common practice to address issues with our manager who would, if necessary, then talk to the manager of the other team. All this time, the clock was ticking. The left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing and it almost resulted in a situation where we had a $40 million aircraft sitting on a tarmac without the ability to fly our customers or generate revenues for an indeterminate period of time!
The Expediting manager stepped in and purchased the nose cowl for a huge sum of money but, fortunately, prevented an AOG.
Now, both situations involved leadership problems. Leadership divided work in a way that was certain to result in overlap and conflicts. But, looking back, I see that – despite being in a follower role – I should have exercised some leadership. I should have initiated direct dialogue with the counterparts with whom I was having a conflict. I should have begun that dialogue by setting the goal that we’d have an agreed-upon plan by the end of the conversation.
Both situations were relatively easy to resolve. But, because of lack of leadership and flawed work structure, we followers were floundering.
So, here’s my advice. As soon as conflict with another employee seems to arise, don’t wait for leadership to lead if you already know that you’re working in an environment with poor leadership. Lead the resolution yourself. Don’t be defensive. Don’t be abrasive. Do what a good leader should do: make the best interests of the organization your focus, open a dialogue, don’t waste time, suggest resolutions, get buy-in, take action, resolve the problem, and move forward onto the more strategic activities on which you should be focused.
Sometimes, followers have to be leaders. That makes you a great follower. And great followers often become great leaders on the org chart, too.