One Style Does Not Fit All

Accountability for resolving an issue between top executives lies, in the first instance, with them. But astute leaders have a laserlike ability to focus on the capabilities of their top team. Realizing that not every team member is at the same stage on the team-development wheel, they choose to be more ”or less ”directive, as needed.

In working with the members of their team, leaders can adopt one of four general styles: [4]

  1. They can be directive and tell employees the what, where, when, and how of an issue.

  2. They can coach , deemphasizing the "how" in favor of the "why."

  3. They can choose to be collaborative , and treat their senior team members as partners .

  4. They can choose to delegate , allowing team members to run with the ball.

Each style has its advantages, and each is appropriate in a different situation. Lew Frankfort, CEO and chairman of Coach, Inc., explains how and when he varies his style:

I try to be on the alert for ways to maximize my effectiveness with each person I work with, based on the situation at hand. My style with each of my teams varies based on the situation and my relationship with my people. In some cases I feel very comfortable saying, "I'm telling you to do this." I often choose this style when we need to move rapidly , and I am very clear about what needs to be accomplished, while the other people who are involved don't have the broader view. At other times, I decide to hang back, maybe to participate, but to let others take the lead. For instance, if a person is really expert in his or her field, I don't need to do much more than provide an understanding of goals and some oversight. I also consider coaching, or mentoring, to be one of my most important roles. I coach in many ways: by modeling behavior; by consistently using rigor and logic to make decisions; by setting realistic, firm expectations; and by providing critical feedback ”both constructive criticism when a person is underperforming and appreciation when they have been successful.

Let's examine in greater detail when and why a leader would opt for each style.


Directing has a long pedigree. In the old, vertical organization, orders came down from higher up and were expected to be carried out with few questions. In today's horizontal organization, leaders of high-performance teams at every level are somewhat akin to the prime minister of England vis--vis the cabinet: They remain primus inter pares ”first among equals. The ability to influence ”to persuade others to change their points of view and behaviors so that they are aligned with yours ”has become a critical skill. Today's leaders must command respect without commanding . Given this new paradigm and the complexity of the modern enterprise, effective leaders are gravitating increasingly toward assuming the roles of coach and delegator.

There are, however, times when a leader must be directive. For example, the CEO is ultimately the one who is responsible for the strategic well-being of the organization. If there is a directional dispute within the top-management team, he or she is obliged to listen to all sides. But when action is needed, the CEO must make the tough choice rather than allow strategic disagreement to go unresolved .

Even at an operational level, leaders at times must be directive. For example, when a new vice president of marketing comes into the company from an entirely different industry, he or she may lack the technical knowledge necessary to make decisions related to the company's product lines. Or, when a person has moved from one function to another, the leader might need to step in and shore up shallow knowledge or lack of experience.

Sometimes it is obvious from the questions the person asks that additional direction is required before the task can be carried out or the decision made. In other cases, the leader may need to test the person's capabilities with questions such as:

  • What experience have you had working with _____?

  • When you had a project similar to _____, what were the first steps you took to get it rolling? How would you begin to get this project going?

  • When you put together task forces in the past, how did you decide who should be on the team? Who would you want on the team for this project?

  • When you were looking for information on _____, where did you look for it? Where would you look for information on this project?

  • In the past, when conflict came up on your team, how did you deal with it? How will you deal with it if it comes up during this project?

The responses to these and other capability-testing questions tell the leader a great deal about the employee's ability to work independently and about the degree of direction that will be needed.


Even in situations where employees possess the ability and willingness to step up to increased responsibility, leaders must proceed cautiously. Before leaders can legitimately hold people accountable for solving problems, making decisions, and managing conflict, they must ratchet up the level of competency. By coaching employees through tough issues, leaders help them to develop the skills they will need to operate effectively on their own.

One of the most effective coaching techniques is the use of so-called boomerang questions. After the person answers one question, the leader turns that statement into another question, and the answer to that question into another question, and so on. The objective is to encourage the person to look beneath the surface of the issue, to explore every avenue, before arriving at a decision.

A highly skilled manager at Motorola U.S. used boomerang questions to help one of his team members resolve an issue with a colleague in Europe. The U.S. manager and his team were in charge of developing a worldwide plan for introducing a new product. But the data that the team required from the European manager had not been received, in spite of numerous requests . The American was completely frustrated when he began complaining to his superior . The conversation went something like this:

  • LEADER: "What do you see as the next steps?"

  • TEAM MEMBER: "I can just move ahead on my own."

  • LEADER: "Could you elaborate on that? When you say you'll move ahead on your own, what exactly do you mean?"

  • TEAM MEMBER: "We'll write up the plan and start executing without him."

  • LEADER: "What are the pros and cons of doing that?

  • TEAM MEMBER: "I'll get it done, but I'll alienate the folks in Europe."

  • LEADER: "Do you have any other options?"

  • TEAM MEMBER: "I can tell the rest of the European team that we can't wait any longer. We've got to move ahead, so let's discuss it in a conference call."

  • LEADER: "What are the pros and cons of this option?"

  • TEAM MEMBER: "It will get them on board, but it will slow us down, and it may not resolve the issue."

  • LEADER: "Do you have any other options?"

  • TEAM MEMBER: "Yes, we can engage in a 'conflict conversation' (part of Motorola's conflict-resolution protocols). I'd say we need to escalate this to the team."

As it turned out, the issue between the two managers was brought to the attention of the team. It was discussed at the next team meeting and resolved speedily.

One key to effective coaching is to refuse to be drawn into the content trap. Once a leader becomes entangled in the details of an issue, it becomes difficult to resist the temptation to start giving advice and offering solutions, which completely defeats the purpose of coaching. Here, there is an obvious parallel with the old saying, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." Give an employee a solution and you enable that person to resolve a specific issue, but teach an employee how to arrive at solutions and you enable that person to resolve future issues.

Leaders who are committed to passing on analytical-thinking skills do not focus on content questions such as "What will happen if you have to go into overtime to meet the deadline?" or "How long will it take ship the new packages to Europe?" Instead, they check the thought process by which employees have reached conclusions, asking questions such as: "How did you get there?" "What factors did you consider?" "When you made your decision, what risks did you consider?" "What is your contingency plan?" Sticking to questions such as these keeps the leader from becoming bogged down in the details and reinforces in the employee's mind the value of independent thought and analysis.

When we think about a leader coaching an employee, we tend to envision the former guiding the latter in the resolution of a business issue. But it is equally important for a leader to provide coaching in the area of conflict management ”where even the most senior members of the team often are trapped.

Paul Michaels, president of Masterfoods USA, believes that even at the highest levels of an organization, there are steps you can take to gain perspective on and manage conflict so that it focuses your energy on the needs of the organization, moving both you and your peers toward a more productive working relationship. He recalls a situation in which one of his vice president required help to resolve a disagreement with a peer:

One of the characteristics I seek in people I hire is their ability to be solution-oriented. After "Jack" explained to me why he was angry with "Elliott," I said, "Look, I agree with you 100 percent, but what are you going to do about it?" Jack replied that he was going to call Elliott and "ream him out." I pointed out that, yes, he had to speak to Elliott and explain where he was coming from, but he also had to present some ideas on how to resolve the problem between them. Jack understood what I was driving at, admitted that he hadn't thought of doing that, and said he would come up with some concrete, viable ideas to present to Elliott. He did, they agreed, and the issue was resolved. All Jack needed was for me to plant the idea, and he took it from there.

Susan Fullman is a leader who sees her role as primarily strategic, which is to formulate Motorola's e-business direction. But she also believes that she is responsible for keeping functional the protocols for conflict management that she and her team of global managers have put into place. She has also taken action to ensure that those reporting to the senior executive team developed a similar set of protocols, so that everyone is tightly aligned.

Fullman takes her role as conflict-management coach seriously. At her executive team meetings, which occur twice each month, the typical strategic and operational issues are discussed. But she continually tests team behavior against the agreed-upon protocols, and she is relentless in holding team members accountable for getting closure on key issues for which they have responsibility.


Many employees are anxious about trying their wings, even after considerable coaching. An astute leader recognizes this anxiety and shifts his or her style accordingly . Agreeing to collaborate, along with the employee or employees, in the resolution of the issue is often a good compromise. However, before the leader commits to this arrangement, it is important to make clear the reasons he or she is going to be involved.

The leader should ask the following clarifying questions:

  • Why do you believe that it is necessary for me to collaborate in the resolution of this issue?

  • What is the value you see yourself bringing to the resolution of this issue?

  • What value do you see me bringing?

  • What do you need/want from me to make this collaboration work?

  • What can I expect from you?

  • Who will have the final say?

While collaborating in a problem-solving or decision-making session, the leader can take the opportunity to do some additional coaching, increasing the skills and confidence level of those involved.


Delegating implies the highest level of trust. When a leader delegates, he or she hands over the reins ”in one area at least ”to one or more members of the team. They are on their own, fully accountable and, hopefully, fully equipped to take action.

Once again, it is the responsibility of the leader to ensure that those who will be held accountable for results are set up for success and not failure. Before empowering others, the leader needs to ask:

  • Do they have all the information, or access to the information sources, that they will need to resolve this issue?

  • Do they have the resources, such as staff, budget, or space, with which to carry out their assignment?

  • Do they have all the tools they will need, including hardware, software, and printed materials?

  • Have they forged, or have I forged for them, relationships with other employees whose help they may need during the project?

Given the right players, delegation is the most efficient leadership style. When the leader is the member of the top team, it frees him or her from many of the day-to-day operational concerns that divert attention from strategic issues. Delegation at every level of management saves time by eliminating the need to go back to the leader for approval. It short-circuits conflict by removing the leader, and his or her preconceived notions, from the loop. It keeps decision making closest to the customer. And, most important, it increases an organization's bench strength. It creates a new generation of leaders who will be able to take over, without trepidation, when their turn comes.

[4] Kenneth Blanchard and Paul Hersey have written extensively on the various styles a leader can adopt. For further details, see Blanchard, Kenneth, and Paul Hersey, Management of Organizational Behavior: Utilizing Human Resources (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1982), pp. 82 “105.

When Goliaths Clash. Managing Executive Conflict to Build a More Dynamic Organization
When Goliaths Clash: Managing Executive Conflict to Build a More Dynamic Organization
ISBN: 0615198686
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2002
Pages: 99

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