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leadership gap: signs, symptoms, and solutions

The Leadership Gap: Signs, Symptoms, and Solutions

By Ori Schibi
August 2, 2022

The area of leadership may be the most studied and elaborate of all organizations and management areas; and yet, it is possible that we know the least about it. When you ask people what it takes to be a good leader, they start reciting all sorts of qualities and behavioral attributes. Things like influencing, inspiring, motivating, supporting, caring, trustworthiness, credibility, active listening, empathy, compassion, decision making, effective communication, and relationship management. This is a partial list. While the items on this list are probably correct— there is still no “recipe” or any type of “mix” of attributes and qualities that would make one person into a good leader.

Furthermore, when people, even corporate leaders and managers, ask to name a good leader— they struggle. And once they collect their thoughts, they name various heads of states, current or from the past and often good speakers and narrators but mostly from the political arena. But come to think of it, we live in a time where few if any of the heads of states we so commonly refer to as “leaders” would “qualify” to be called leaders in the classic sense or common sense of the word. That is, leading: taking care of the best interests of their people, acting with integrity, and demonstrating transparency.

But we are here not to discuss what would make a good leader; but rather, to ponder about the gap, or rather gaping hole, we experience in corporate leadership.

It appears that many organizations promote people into middle and upper management, as well as into corporate leadership positions, with little to no merit, or relevant skills. This observation is made based on a few indicators:

  1. Observations from several projects
  2. Conversations with project management practitioners and with sponsors
  3. The bottom line and experiences with various service providers

The criteria for the observations is based on a variety of factors, both visible in their conduct, as well as with the result of their actions:

  1. Decision-making: both the quality and the timeliness.
  2. Decisiveness: fearing any type of decision, stalling and “taking a step back” in the face of looming deadlines.
  3. Hiring and promotions: criteria for bringing in new talent and for promoting existing resources is often disconnected with actual needs, as well as demonstrating disconnect between the skills and experience of the candidates and what is required of their roles.
  4. Consistency and lack of transparency: actions and decisions are not part of any logical path and lack consistent criteria. Similar situations are handled differently based on the person and/or the timing of the event, and the lack of transparency in decision-making casts doubts, leads to confusion, and leads to demoralization among direct reports
  5. Accountability: there is consistent lack of accountability and ownership. Senior stakeholders are not held accountable for their actions or decisions, and the term, two-tiered justice, that is used in the political context, is also applicable in organizations.
  6. Focus on profits and on appearances trumps customer needs and substance. Companies “do not see” their customers, but rather they constantly seek for ways to save a buck even at the expense of customer services or customer satisfaction. Even the threat of customers leaving and moving to do business with the competition does not deter many organizations, as they commonly refer to most customers as revolving doors: one customer leaves, while another one joins. Other organizations bank on the fact that many customers would prefer to avoid the hassle of moving to another provider. This is even more applicable in situations when customers have no choice (when served by a monopoly, when the customer needs something from the provider, or when it comes to government services).
  7. Related to the item above: cost savings. Many organizations knowingly reduce costs in areas that significantly hurt customer experience. They do it knowing that many customers have no choice (for example, when it comes to service departments or call centers). It appears that the majority of customers’ experiences these days involve aggravation for the customer, extensive delays, lack of care by staff, and often no resolution to problems. Leading the pack are airlines, financial institutions, and telecom providers; but it would be unfair to not mention other industries.
  8. And finally, a disconnect between managerial and leadership levels, from organizations’ operations. Most of us remember the TV show Undercover Boss, where senior leaders connected back with the working level. That disconnect often leads to waste and to gaps in delivering on customer needs.

It is important to note that the leadership gap is not present in all organizations. There are many companies out there that focus on the customer and invest a lot in ensuring the customer’s journey is positive, and they show genuine care to customers’ needs.

The main problem with the leadership gap is that many organizations have come to realize along the years that they can get away with providing a negative experience to their customers, and on a consistent basis. For example, how is it possible that for a few years running, there are companies that every time you dial to their call center you get the message, “We are experiencing higher than normal volume of calls“? If every time it is higher than normal; then normal is a high volume of calls.

Another important part of the problem is that corporations look at governments and learn from them. If a politician can run for office, make all sorts of promises to win votes, then breaks them one by one – only to stay in office for full term and then get re-elected – then corporate leadership gets “inspired” by this model to charge customers and yet fail to deliver on the very basic service levels by which the customer chose to do business with them to begin with.

The leadership gap is not about criticizing the politicians; nor does it come to point at specific organizations. In addition, we live in an era of being politically correct, with diversity inclusion and openness. But having said that and with full support for these important notions, it is time to look at the elephant in the room and start ensuring that the person performing any given job is the most suitable one, with the right skills, experience, and training – providing the best possible experience for the customer; whoever this customer is – internal or external.

The main symptom of the problems mentioned here and the gross misalignment between organizations’ objectives and their customers’ needs, is that so many customers genuinely do not like their service providers, and they would leave them to go to the competition as soon as they get a chance and the minute they realize that the competition can provide them with better services.

The solution is simple: back to basics. In the couple of years leading to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was an uptick in many organizations’ interests in areas related to the voice of the customer. But then came COVID-19, priorities changed, and throughout, many organizations learned that they can get away with a severely diminished set of service offerings and customer experience, and at the same time, even increase their profits.

It is time to look back into areas related to customer journeys, the voice of the customer and customer experience. Aligning organizations’ objectives and customer needs can only happen when there is full awareness at the various leadership layers of the need to improve customer satisfaction. And the awareness will come by overhauling the way we hire and promote leaders to ensure merits, substance, and relevant skills are in place and by putting more thought into finding a good fit between the candidates’ skills and their roles and responsibilities.

It is time to realize that we can increase diversity in organizations and ensure inclusion, by better channeling people to the right roles. This will not only improve customer satisfaction, but it will also improve the working conditions of our teams. Having people who like what they do and who have the relevant skills, will make them good at it, and with it will come their own, as well as the customers’, satisfaction.

Ensuring fit, putting more thoughts into the job descriptions and providing the right training, coaching and support – at all levels of the organization – will deliver results at a minimal cost and within a short period of time.

The crisis mentioned here is not going to go away on its own, and organizations that want to stand out from the rest of the pack will need to make the necessary adjustments, because as W. Edwards Deming said, “It is Not Necessary to Change. Survival is not Mandatory”.

Consultant and Trainer, International Institute for Learning

Ori Schibi, has over 25 years of experience providing practical new ways of leading sustainable change through ambiguous conditions, managing projects and programs, and helping organizations maximize the benefits from agile. Large to mid-sized organizations (including Telecoms, Financial Services, Pharmaceuticals, Entertainment and Aerospace) have benefited from Ori’s innovative approach to value creation, efficiencies, collaboration, and focusing on customer satisfaction (including Disney, Marriott, Phillips, Pfizer and Amex). Ori also has extensive international public service experience at multiple levels (all levels of government in Canada, NYS-DMV, Social Security Administration, and UNHCR).

Visit Ori’s website at https://pmkonnectors.com/.

Disclaimer: The ideas, views, and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of International Institute for Learning or any entities they represent.

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