Archive: April, 2014

Playing a different tune

My recent engagement has required a wide variety of procurement skills: strategy development, capability improvement, policy drafting and sourcing. With each of these skills the client also demanded leadership.

You don’t have to look far to realise that opinion differs greatly on how to define leadership and the attributes of a good leader. My favourite quotes include:

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” Lao Tzu

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”  Peter Drucker

“Good leadership consists of showing average people how to do the work of superior people.” John D. Rockefeller

As entertaining as these quotes are, they don’t help me understand leadership in the modern workplace. I was, therefore, interested in an article and video from INSEAD Business School that takes the example of a conductor in an orchestra. The conductor recognises that he can’t play the instruments as well as the musicians. He does, however, recognise that for the musicians to play harmoniously they need to share a single vision about how the piece should sound. He starts by explaining his vision and diagnoses which sections of the orchestra need the most attention. He quickly starts to delegate leadership to the lead musicians and encourages them to provide guidance to the musicians around them. It is not long before the orchestra is working together with the conductor keeping everyone focused on “serving the interests of the piece”. He avoids creating an expectation that “pleasing the boss” is the key performance indicator.

The conductor explains some of the guiding principles of his leadership:

  • He assumes that everyone’s intention is to do a good job, to perform to a standard that qualified them to be part of the orchestra in the first place. So often our opinions of people are coloured by some previous experience or gossip. It would be naive to completely ignore this but we should recognise that people change over time and we all want to be given a fair chance to succeed
  • He works to create a safe environment, where everyone is important and has a role to play. He gets the whole orchestra to share his vision for how the piece will sound. In procurement that may mean describing the outcome of a complex negotiation or improving a strategic supplier relationship
  • He gives responsibility away, trusting the musicians to be competent and inspire others. He therefore harnesses their desire to do well. All too often accountability and responsibility are separated making the task of succeeding all the more difficult

The parallels between a conductor in an orchestra and a leader in the modern workplace are clear. I am not pretending that the comparison is exact, for example, in large corporations where competing agendas are a regular feature it is often difficult to get agreement on the vision. Furthermore, some people may be in the team because they are available rather than having the right skills and experience. These guiding principles do, however, provide us with a robust methodology which we can adapt and refine. As procurement’s profile continues to rise and procurement professionals are given more opportunity to lead, applying these steps is becoming increasing important.