Thursday, March 27, 2014

Spreading Excellence or From Greatness to Art

The other day I came across a discussion between some company leaders. It was about excellence. Excellence in an organization. And questions were raised: How can excellence be achieved and maintained? How can excellence be spread all over the organization? What does it take to have everyone excel? What can leadership do to make it happen? And it was clearly identified as a core responsibility of leadership. And it is indeed.
The majority of organizations are still  traditional, older organizations. Therefore they are structured in the old ways: hierarchical, silos, linear, command and control.
Spreading excellence throughout any organization is the hardest thing to achieve. Even in the ideal case of only having A-players on board. In a large, traditional, and complicated organization it can become a nightmare. And it often does.
Technology is changing the playing field. It always did. Yet, never in history it happened so fast. And the changes are profound. There are more competitors than ever. New competitors no one had on the radar appeared out of nowhere. Businesses are being disrupted.
Leadership enables their organization to excel in such a complex environment. And it’s more important than ever. It requires to play the game in new ways.
What leadership can do
The single most important factor are the people in your organization. Including leaders. Leadership must create the environment and the conditions for excellence to thrive and prosper.
I think it’s best explained with an example:
The Situation
Some time ago the automotive company I used to work for was in dire straits. One of the largest players around. Fortunately for us we got a new CEO. This man had (and still has) long term vision. And he likes radical thinking and radical approaches.
One major problem we faced was the inefficient way car projects were handled. And I am speaking of billion $ projects. It took by far too long. And the quality was at best mediocre. Typical for our company were the silos and the linear thinking. Impenetrable walls between the different silos. Mistrust was the rule.
To give you an idea of the problem:
a car consists of thousands of parts. Some parts are manufactured inhouse. Others are manufactured by many suppliers. And then there are the suppliers of the suppliers. Add to this a global network of 60+ factories.. Add also a global network of suppliers. Just imagine the huge challenge of transportation to get the material just in time. Add to this different cultures. Add to this about 150 markets with different requirements. Now you have rough idea what that means.
The Analysis
The Process
What is the goal of the process? What is the scope of the process? Who are the players involved?
We took a radical approach. First, we threw away the existing project handbooks. We created the entire process from scratch. We described it from the very first idea to the end of the product cycle. We went into the nitty gritty of every task, even the smallest one. That gave us a profound understanding of the magnitude of the challenge. We called it the PEP, the Product Evolution Process. The core piece of car projects.
The Project Organization
How could we organize a car project in a way that eliminates all the issues mentioned above? How could we create an environment that makes sure that excellence is spread?
And again we started from scratch. And we had another radical approach. We thought of a gearbox. A gearbox gets the momentum on the driveshaft. That became our analogy. Each gear-wheel is equally important. And each dent as well. If only one dent breaks the result is disaster. We designed the entire project organization that way.
Now imagine all these gear-wheels put into the right places in the gearbox. The result was that excellence and know-how could be transferred fast and effective.
The Execution
Setting up the gearbox. We had to make sure that information flows in real time. The right information to the right person. Here’s how we achieved that:
All areas (like for instance  R&D, Manufacturing, Purchasing, Finance, Marketing & Sales …) are represented in each gear wheel.
The project leader (PL) now indeed leads the entire project. The PL reports directly to the Board, the CEO. You could call the PL the linchpin.
Next gear wheels are Development Specialty Groups (SG). There are different groups like for instance chassis, drivetrain, engine, interior, etc. The SG Leaders report to the PL.
Then there are Simultaneous Engineering Teams (SET). One team per component. Hence, quite many teams. And so are suppliers. The SET leaders report to that SG leader the SET belongs.
The PL at any time must know and understand what’s going on. Therefore, anyone can approach you with a problem. Hence, an outstanding memory is essential. And never hesitate to get your hands dirty.
The gearbox design made the organization flat. The assigned ranks were no longer important. The PL, for instance, had to lead CEO’s of other factories. Hence, what a PL needed was first and foremost the character of a true leader and expertise. No command and control. Instead, building mutual trust and respect. No territory for assigned and wannabe leaders.
Problem Handling
Problems are handled by people communicating with each other. The moment a problem was on the table, the leader gets involved. Involved means the leader takes an active part in solving the issue. That’s why expertise is so important. A leader needs expertise to understand the problem. Also, problems are not solved in video conferences. The leader solves problems by going personally to where the problem is rooted. And if you have to fly around the globe to get there, then do it! And immediately. I promise you that your presence makes a huge impact.
The People You Need
You must have A-players. In leadership as well as in specialist positions. People, understanding and able to solve problems. People able to communicate clear and precise. People able to deal with different cultures. People able to think critically. People with the mentality of unconditional success. People that have a clear understanding of how to work together and the importance of teamwork. People who consistently work to improve their and the teams performance.
What else
Training is essential. Ongoing training. and the people need to work hard in training, work like there is no tomorrow. A-players do that because they are passionate about what they do. A-players want to excel.
Ongoing training for the leaders and their teams is where greatness becomes art. Then excellence is spread like a wildfire.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Leaders We Deserve - A Reality Check

Many articles and blog posts are written on leadership. Often interesting articles. And I read them and the embedded advice. Articles focused on an ideal world. Articles mostly aimed at businesses. Well meant articles, yet, in my opinion, jumping too short.
Also, and daily, I hear that we are all connected. It’s true. The connected world of virtual social networks. Information available at our fingertips. Cocreation and Cooperation on a global scale. And information is happily shared, even personal, private details. Ecstasy about the perceived limitless possibilities of the connectedness through social networks. And it culminates in “Everyone can now lead”. Can it get any more naive?
Beautiful new world, or is it? … emotion goes up, intelligence goes down.
A reality check:
When you are on virtual social networks, you are the product. Meanwhile some people at least understand that concept. Yet, you are not just the product. You are shamelessly exploited. Every piece of your data gets scrutinized. You are under permanent surveillance of the service provider (fill in any name of these tech companies). And of course you are under permanent surveillance of the governments. You are the victim. You are a data slave. And you are definitely not a player. If you believe you and the other victims can lead anything, start critical thinking please.
Remember the “Arab Spring”? The so-called “Facebook Revolution”? That doesn’t do justice to the people. If anything it was a revolution of people and for people. Unfortunately, people naively using facebook and twitter, easy targets for surveillance. People, who admirably fought for their rights. Yet, they never had a chance.
We cannot just ignore the reality and pretend it doesn’t exist. It’s a different game being played by our assigned leaders.
How does it look like:
It’s a complex environment. And complex environments are by their nature fragile, ambiguous, uncertain, and volatile. And we experience this every day. Yet, only few people seem to understand what that means. The rest seems to be in a neverending dream.
We are in a world where states and state leaders play geopolitics. We are still in a world where the name of the game is world domination. We are still in a world of aggressive behavior and winner takes all. A zero sum game. Technology is used as means of power. We are still in the world of the “old guard of leadership”. Leaders in charge in Governments and corporations with no character. If necessary they walk over dead bodies. It's nothing personal they say.  And it’s not going to change anytime soon.
Unless the game is changed.  
This game is played at different levels.
The big players are the US, Russia, China. They play in a different league than the rest. And it’s about using power. Power to secure resources. Power to control the access choke points. Power to control the strategic positions. There can be only one … meanwhile these three are creating precedents. The world is divided into spheres of influence. Of course, there are some runner-ups eager to play a role as well. Those are still kept in check.
Example Ukraine: This game started already a longer time ago. It began with Ukraine becoming an independent country. Something Russia never liked. They accepted it grinding their teeth. And it was clear that Russia would never accept Ukraine one day becoming a NATO member. Russia would never give up control of the Krim peninsula. That would be a major strategic mistake. After all it used to be part of Russia.
The western leaders didn’t seem to understand the situation. Or they couldn’t care less. Russia was no longer a superpower. Whatever Russia said in the past was dismissed. Until now when Russia acted upon their interest in that power game. And no one really cares about the people. They are just used. In this case and in all other cases. Like Syria. Pieces on the game board.
Take a look into corporate world. Look at the big players. What’s different? Nothing. It’s part of that domination game. Just have a look at the wording used. Very similar and often the same like in the military. Or what did you think for instance “strategy” comes from? Dominating the market. Being the undisputed market leader. Conquering markets and market share. Hostile takeover. Does it ring a bell already? The patent wars. Seed patenting, GMO, to effectively taking control of the food chain. Whatever could be used to destroy the competitor will be used. Whatever could be used to control the masses, mass media for instance, ... you get the picture.
It’s an economic system condemned to growth. Businesses must create a steady growing profit. Hence, businesses must grow. Market share must be conquered. You must outsell your competitor. Hence, reach the overall  growth and profit goal of the company. It cannot be done with just the friendly approach of the savvy and helpful salespeople. Your competitors do the same. There are many out there. They want to win the same prize. The real game in sales is between you and your competitors. And the goal is to knock out your competitors. Frontline sales gets quite another meaning, doesn’t it?
That’s reality. That’s the game being played. A massively multi level multiplayer role playing game. The question now is for how long more this game can be played.
The most important question is however to you: Is that the world you want? Is that the world you want your kids to grow up? A world where leaders don't give a damn about sustainability. A purposeful system where a few are having it all. And meanwhile millions of newborns and kids die starving. That tells you what the priorities of the existing leadership are.
Mankind got always the leaders it deserves. Always. Check history. Yet, I think there is no need for history repeating itself again. I think there is another way.  And for that we need a different breed of leaders, true leaders, people with character and the courage to lead. Leaders taking responsibility for others serious. I think these potential leaders are already out there waiting.
It’s up to you. You can either accept the status quo of our world, or, you can do something about it. Emphasis on do, an action verb. The question is whether the pain is already big enough.
Leadership is a choice, albeit a tough one. And you choose.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

The Leadership We Need - A Wake-up Call

And suddenly we had a major crisis in Ukraine. Suddenly? Or was it foreseeable? Could it be expected to happen?

When you analyze the situation you’ll find that this wasn’t surprising at all. Dissecting the facts of just about let’s say the last 10 years will open your eyes. Its’ about knowing and understanding the game being played. Yes, I know that this sounds harsh and cold calling it a game. People are dying, people are held hostage, an economy is destroyed. Yet in essence it is nothing else but a game. John Nash (Nobel Prize Laureate in Economic Sciences), a pioneer in game theory, understood this.

To gain a better understanding one must understand geopolitics and geostrategic imperatives. One also must know the players in that game. Who are they? In the case of Ukraine there is first Russia. Then there is the European Union. There is NATO. Also, of course, the US. And don’t forget Turkey. Now, the question is what is in the best interest of each one?

Let’s do a quick analysis of each player to get a better understanding of the context:


  • After the implosion of the former Soviet Union Russia lost its status as a global superpower. Coming with it it lost the former soviet republics being part of the USSR. Ukraine is one of them. Thus Russia’s influence is depleting. Imagine what that meant to the ego of some of their leaders. And don’t underestimate what it means to the Russian soul at large.
  • Then the Berlin Wall came down and Germany became reunited. Russia accepted this only with conditions. The conditions that neither NATO, nor the EU would extend its influence towards east. Hence, agreements were signed, And then NATO and the EU began anyway to extend their “territory”. Without consulting with the Russia about it. And there was not much what Russia could do about it. It was busy with itself.
  • Russia of today will not and cannot allow being surrounded by countries out of their control. It would be a strategic mistake. They want at least a belt of countries between their border and NATO / EU to feel safe.


  • The EU is economically the strongest block around. Yet, politically not really on the map. Within the EU are some strong players with different interests at stake. And getting 28 opinions / interests aligned is next to impossible.
  • The EU, led by the strong players France, Germany, and also Poland, has strong geopolitical / geostrategic interests when it comes to Ukraine. The goal is to integrate Ukraine somehow into the EU thus controlling it. It could have some economic advantages for Ukraine though in the longer run.


  • The US have of course generally strong geopolitical interests. It’s, at least still, the only remaining superpower. Hence, it’s the strategic imperative for the US to extend their influence and control all over the world. Politically and economically. And they do have a plan.
  • Russia is too strong of an opponent in this worldwide game. It has shown no interest whatsoever to work together with the US as “junior partner”. And in their point of view there is no reason why they should do that. Hence, the idea is containment of Russia. Ukraine is just one piece of the puzzle.

Sure, there is so much more to it. And one must also take into account all other conflicts brewing, like Syria. Yet, I hope this quick analysis gives at least a rough idea where we are at and what’s at stake.

It’s already a complex situation. Uncertainty, volatility, ambiguity determine this game. Now add to that the human beings, the leaders of these players. One has to take into account their personalities, their character (or lack thereof), their egos. And, most important, the way they feel. Could it get any more complex?

Sure it can. There are the “official, assigned leaders”. And there are the hidden leaders pulling the strings, making the calls. Sometimes the official leaders may be part of the real leadership, sometimes they are just puppets on a string.

One thing becomes clear: Russia and the US are the main players. Yet, there is also China. And they do know what they want. If you take their overall moves into account, worldwide of course, you can see that there is a strategy behind it. Sure, they have their blunders as well. Yet, they maintain their course.

The EU is by far too busy with itself determining things like the “curvature a banana must have to be accepted as such”. The main players within the EU have a hard time to agree upon where the EU should go. And more often than not the “government actors” are unbelievable naive. The question is not whether you like the game. You have to be a player. Bystanding / fence-sitting doesn’t work. You’re either in, or you’re out. Period.

Check out all the different conflicts and how those developed / were created on purpose. You cannot understand the Ukraine crises giving it an isolated look. You must see the big picture of the world. And trying to understand it requires, here I go again, thinking for yourself, critical thinking. Just listening to the biased news in the media will keep you dumb and numbed. You must inform yourself in any way you can to get to a somewhat educated conclusion. Ukraine, like all the others, is just a piece on the game board. Tools like game theory provide a more profound understanding of the game.

What’s the name of the game that’s being played? It’s called world domination. And it’s a power game. And it influences every bit of your life. Get real people.

Why am I writing about all this in this post? And why did I call the post “The Leadership We Need”?

Thousands of years have past. Yet, mankind has not reached a higher level of development, a higher level of consciousness. Only the methods and tools of killing each other, destroying the environment human beings can survive in, became more sophisticated. Would you call that “the leadership we want”? Call that leadership at all? It’s the leadership we deserve, I am afraid. Until we change … until we, the human race, develop ourselves.

We need new leaders. These new leaders must know and understand all that mentioned above and in depth. Without understanding where you are at and where you came from you cannot lead. These leaders must have the ability to lead in these complex environments. These leaders must thrive in a world of complexity, uncertainty, ambiguity, and volatility. These leaders must transcend boundaries, literally. And those are just the basics.

These leaders must create a new world of mutual respect, freedom, and collaboration. These leaders must understand technology and beyond that the impact technological advancements will have. These leaders must have integrity, trustworthiness, and ethical behavior. No ‘minority report’ kind of things. No spying on and monitoring every move of people. People have human rights and privacy is one of them.

We need leaders who understand that it’s no longer good enough to be busy with your daily trivia at work. Leaders, who understand that we cannot continue creating more uninformed, numbed consumers making irrational decisions. We need leaders who no longer support the creation of products and services with no value added to society. Useless stuff no one needs and has asked for. We need leaders capable of speaking the language in a way people can understand. We need leaders creating education for people that deserves its name. We need leaders teaching people how to think and think critically.

I am talking about new leaders we need everywhere. In Government as well as in organizations and companies. In society.

The leaders we need, where are they? They are right here: it's you! Those of you able to recognize that we need to change now. Those of you accepting such a responsibility and are willing and able to lead. Those of you willing to learn and train to become such a leader. Those of you no longer accepting that everything is set in stone. Those of you defying the status quo. Those of you taking the risk of leading. It’s tough. It’s hard. It’s worthwhile.

It’s you, the younger generation, I have in mind. I hear you, you want to make a difference, make this world a better place. Just do it then. Yet, be warned: it's not easy.

The question is: Who of you is up to that task? Who of you is made of the material a true leader is made of?

I sincerely hope I get your thinking in gear, which was my aim.

Google+ Walter H Groth

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