Don’t be friends with the monster

Honoring functional leadership above all else creates monsters in today’s over-scienced organizations.

“I’m friends with the monster that’s under my bed”

— Rihanna on “The Monster” by Eminem

Geoff Wilson

Let’s say you’re a leader of a corporate function. Pick one, it doesn’t matter. You may lead supply chain, procurement, human resources, information technology, corporate development, strategy, finance, accounting, or any other.

If I told you, right now, to find me a treasure trove of best practices for your function, you could do so in an instant. Starting with the old standby, Harvard Business Review, you could extend and expand your Google hunt to a dizzying plethora of functional associations, business school publications, case studies, consulting publications, and puff pieces that would provide you with more best practices than you could ever digest. Ever.

And that’s the kicker. Functional leaders now have access to more best practices than ever before, and that abundance has the potential to create a monster. How? In our pursuit of functional excellence within organizations, it’s easy to lose collective sight of business excellence. That’s right. Compliance with functional mandates can have monstrous consequences for business performance and productivity.

Consider an organization with a well-meaning leadership team that empowers several functions to demand compliance from line leaders on their own functional initiatives—all at once. To functional leaders, this is nirvana. They get to install “world-class HR approaches,” or “sector-leading procurement approaches,” or “outstanding business planning,” or “structured strategic planning.” But to the line leader, such initiatives manifest themselves as barbarians at the gate. They are monstrous.

Why? Consider the line leader who suddenly has to spend hours in meetings with functional teams. For some leaders, a specific functional team will hit the spot. The meeting or new approach will be extremely valuable. For others—say, a leader without real talent gaps, who is forced to sit through days of talent reviews and plans—they’re a waste of time. But they’re mandatory. They are “the way we do things now.” And they are, quite often, entirely wrong.

They sap productive selling and organizational-development time from line leaders who usually know they are wasting time. In the worst cases (“Hey, Bob, just fill out these talent templates and we’ll see you next Tuesday.”) they simultaneously kill morale and productivity while adding no value.

How do you avoid creating a functional monster in your organization?

The answer is hard because all the management scientists and consultants peddling best practices will find holes throughout an organization that adheres to it. But it’s simple: Have the guts to empower line managers, provide them with great tools, and get out of their way.

Let there be a rational discussion and rule set for allowing business leaders to spend time with customers vs. internal functional teams. Set the menu of initiatives and manage opting out closely, but allow it. Allow the gal whose business team has no credit-and-collections issues to skip the “best-practice contracting” seminar. Allow the guy whose team has high productivity and zero turnover to avoid the talent and recruiting review.

It’s OK. Really. And I say this as someone who has perpetrated plenty of broad-based, high-value corporate initiatives. Outside of obvious risk and legal areas, “compliance” to one-size-fits-all approaches to functional “excellence” results in a distribution of gains from that excellence that very clearly hurts some players who comply.

This isn’t to say that no functional initiative is applicable to all, but rather that you should know whether or not it is.

Don’t be friends with the monster. Don’t allow honor and appreciation for good functional practices to kill productivity and morale in your line organization. Know when to let your business leaders opt out of frightful functional initiatives.

What do you think? 

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