Cultivating New Leaders / All aboard

Changing customer expectations mean corporations must bring more employees into the decision-making process

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When it comes to leadership in the 21st century, the person who decides shouldn't always be the person in charge.

A number of forces -- technology, heightened competition, companies grown lean in the shaky economy, skepticism of top-down hierarchies among the young -- have converged to reconfigure and redefine what leadership in the workplace means, say two local experts.

In no small manner, customer demand is forcing decision making to come down from the executive suite, said John Delaney, dean of the

University of Pittsburgh's Katz Graduate School of Business in Oakland.

"With social media, people have an expectation that an organization will respond to them almost immediately," he said. "People have come to the point that they expect instantaneous responses.

Even if organizations are hierarchical, you have to deal with that preference on the part of people."

Hotel giants such as Ritz Carlton and Four Seasons are telling desk clerks they have the authority to act on a customer complaint up to a certain amount of money, he said, "in order to make a guest's stay more pleasant or to solve a problem."

And some big banks are giving call center workers similar decision making authority to waive a fee, for example. "If you have to go up the chain of command, you would move much too slowly."

While there will be a calculation of how much such a strategy will cost the company against providing a higher level of customer service, customer service usually wins out in a highly competitive sector.

"Dispersed leadership" has also taken hold in the nonprofit sector, said Peggy Outon, executive director of the Bayer Center

for Nonprofit Management at Robert Morris University, Downtown.

Because nonprofits rely on any number of dedicated volunteers, it is critical that the executives and boards of nonprofit organizations "appeal to their [volunteers'] hearts, because that's how we keep them."

She also has noticed a change among younger adults, who haven't been indoctrinated in the old-school hierarchical model.

"People in their 20s have a radically different sense of how power works in the global world," she said. "They don't live in that top-down world where it's a 'We'll-let-you-know-when-we-want-you-to-do-something' type of place. I think young people are not going to accept being told how to live their lives."

She sees a community-wide parallel as well. Where larger-than-life figures such as David L. Lawrence once personified leadership here, that role has evolved and is now spread out to a number of agencies and entities, such as the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.

Interestingly, Mr. Delaney said the idea of giving underlings some leadership responsibilities has taken hold the past 25 years or so in the most hierarchical of organizations -- the U.S. military.

After a number of "friendly fire" deaths during Operation Desert Storm, military leaders saw the need to train and prepare soldiers to make quick decisions "especially when you are in a battlefield kind of environment." So while the general will voice an overall goal, the frontline soldiers have some flexibility in how to achieve that goal.

Are there down sides to dispersing leadership throughout an organization? Of course.

"It takes longer to make decisions if people can't reach a consensus, and that's not good," said Ms. Outon. "Somebody still has to lead, that's the dicey part of it."

Also, noted Mr. Delaney, an established company may find that changing from a top-down culture to one of shared responsibility and decision making may run into some rough patches.

"If you talk to anyone in a big organization, they will always say they want employees who are resourceful and show leadership. The real challenge is how companies with a corporate culture respond. What do you do to prepare people for it and how do you go about changing the culture?"

It's all well and good to post signs encouraging staff to show initiative, but "organizations have to change their normal operation process to make this structure work. You have to make people see that you mean it when you say you want others to make decisions," said Mr. Delaney.

If someone gets punished for making a bad decision, staff members will be reluctant to step up in the future. A better approach, he said, is to work with the person who makes a bad decision in an nonpunitive manner, so that individual will get it right next time.

As for employees who feel stuck in an entrenched top-down firm, but don't want to change jobs, Ms. Outon advises them to "seek to understand the culture and work within the culture."

Find a mentor, she said, someone "who is successful at being themselves. Ask them out for coffee once a month and talk about your work challenges -- and listen to them."

-- Steve Twedt: or 412-263-1963


First Published May 3, 2013 4:00 AM


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