The Rise and Fall of the Control Freak

Successful business leaders tend to be control freaks.  They care passionately about the quality of their product.  They are perfectionists.  They are the architects of the vision and the strategy, and they understand their business and their brand better than anybody else. So they retain control of every aspect of the management of the business and no decisions are made without their approval.  Their leadership style is the key driver of business success but as the business grows, their leadership style is also potentially its downfall.

The reason for this is that the other defining characteristic of control freaks is that they find it difficult to trust.  It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy.  If they trusted others to make the decisions that they would make themselves, they wouldn’t be control freaks.  The challenge for the control freak is that the bigger the business gets, the more difficult it is to control.  If the control freak doesn’t evolve his or her skill set and management style, the desire to control will paralyze the business.  Decisions aren’t made, opportunities are missed, the organization becomes paralyzed.  It’s at this point that the control freak needs to learn to trust.

This wasn’t always the case.  Once upon a time the pace of business – even retail business – moved more slowly.  There was no Electronic Point of Sale technology. There was no social media, with the power to destroy a brand’s reputation over night. The walls hadn’t come down.  Decisions could wait until the control freak was ready to make them.  Not any more.  Retail strategy may need to change overnight and reputation management demands a constant grasp of the Twitter Handle.

Trust therefore becomes a business critical issue and successful business leaders respond to the challenge by evolving their management style to act in a totally counter-intuitive way.  It takes a high degree of emotional intelligence in order to do this.   They look for organizational structures and processes that seek to promote trust within a defined framework.  These structures and processes entrust management teams to distinguish between those decisions that they can make themselves and those that require the business leader’s input.  This may well feel like a huge step for the control freak but the only way to make somebody trustworthy is to trust them, and when this works, it is liberating for the control freak and transformational for the business.  There is another, corollary benefit.   Autonomy, mastery and purpose are what drive brilliant performance in creative businesses (see my earlier post), and control freaks don’t naturally foster autonomy.  So the need to delegate powers through an evolved organizational structure can actually motivate the broader team and drive improved performance.

The dangers for the control freak who cannot evolve their leadership style are serious indeed.  Firstly, their management team become ‘yes-men’ and tell their leader what they think he or she wants to hear, rather than what they really think.  They rationalize this by saying, ‘What’s the point of telling him what I really think?  He’ll only do what he wants to do anyway’.  This becomes exacerbated in a climate of fear.  Sam Goldwyn, the G of MGM, once said, ‘I don’t want any yes-men around me.  I want everybody to tell me the truth, even if it costs them their job’.   And if people are prepared to put their necks on the line to tell you the truth, you need to be an active listener in order to hear it.  The second, related issue, is that the control freak’s definition of trust becomes twisted.  When a business leader tells me that they need to know that they can trust me, I respond by saying that that depends on what they mean by trust.  If trust means to always execute orders flawlessly and without question, or trust means to take the bullet whatever the circumstances, I cannot guarantee to deliver against these iterations of trust.  If trust, however, means to always strive to give the best possible advice, honestly, and transparently, without fear or favor, this is a definition of trust that is likely to build functional and committed management teams, and deliver long term business success.   Yes, in the long term, trust is the only sustainable strategy to secure the rise and rise of the control freak.


How Agencies Rank Their Clients

The Talent Business’ Global Brand Owner Reputation Survey was the first research study of its kind to investigate what motivates the world’s most senior agency talent to work with one brand owner rather than another.  The survey’s 398 respondents provide irrefutable evidence that a client’s reputation in the agency community directly impacts on the quality of talent that agencies are able to attract to work on that client’s business.

To read the opinion piece I wrote for Fast Company, and to view the top line research findings, just click on the link below;

Competency, Culture and Innovation

For decades, management scholars defined leadership in terms of the skills required to formulate and implement a successful business strategy; in other words, what a leader does.  More recently, psychologists have focused on interpersonal behavior and corporate culture; in other words, how a leader influences others within an organization.  Not surprisingly, research suggests that both ‘What they do’ and ‘How they do it’ are equally important when it comes to determining leadership success.  After all, there’s no point having a brilliant strategy if you can’t galvanise a leadership team or an entire organisation behind it.

For example, Google conducted a rigorous statistical analysis to determine the characteristics associated with their most effective managers. The company expected to find that technical expertise was the most important attribute for leaders to possess within a world-class technology company.  Instead, according to The New York Times, Google’s most effective leaders “were even-keeled bosses who made time for one-on-one meetings, helped people puzzle through problems by asking questions, not dictating answers, and who took an interest in employees’ lives and careers” — all “How they do it” leadership characteristics.

In contrast, a recent global study by Deloitte Consulting explored how investors determine the value of a firm. The top two factors in order of importance were financial performance and leadership. Investigating how analysts evaluated leadership, the study found three core components that clearly belong in the “What they do” category; clarity of the strategy, ability to execute, and a culture of Innovation.

The reference to Innovation in the Deloitte study is especially interesting to us at The Talent Business.  Our starting point is to assess leadership talent in terms of The Two C’s – Competency (which we break down into commercial, strategic and operational skills) and Culture (assessing management style and leadership DNA).  A business leader’s ability to deliver Innovation is becoming increasingly important for many of the creative businesses that we partner, but where does Innovation fit in terms of ‘What they do’ and ‘How they do it’?  At The Talent Business, we view Innovation as a Competency, but it’s a Competency that’s more difficult to assess than the traditional competencies in the leadership skill set.  And if Innovation is a Competency and therefore ‘What you do’, Innovation is probably the Competency most inextricably linked to Culture and ‘How you do it’.  You can’t have an Innovation driven organisation without a Culture of creativity running throughout that organisation.  Creativity (in the broadest sense) is how you take people on that journey and how you deliver Innovation.  Creativity is the ‘How you do it’ to Innovation’s ‘What you do’.  And together, they’re the hallmark of a transformational leader.

Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose

Some of you will have seen Dan Pink’s TED talk on ‘the puzzle of motivation’.  Dan’s book, ‘Drive’, challenges the inherited wisdom that underpins business school theory on what motivates us in the work place.  If, like me, you’re not a great reader, there’s a brilliant, ten minute animated film on the link below, which illustrates Dan’s findings.  And in case you don’t know – autonomy, mastery and purpose are the key drivers for those of us who work in creative businesses.