The not the election post (well almost)

As the Federal Election has been largely a leadership-free zone the blog has been visiting, and re-visiting, some important new reports on leadership in other areas – particularly in the areas of technology and the public sector.

The blog has referred before to the rich resources to be found on Brian Donovan’s leadership website and the series of Big Kahuna leadership survey reports he has produced. The latest survey is on digital disruption as a leadership challenge. It’s based on in depth interviews with influential leaders about digital disruption and the need for “game-changing digital and technology strategies”. But, as the report says, the big question is whether organisations have the leadership capability to respond and turn digital and technology strategies into opportunities for business growth.

The interviews focussed on the twin issues of how boards and C-level executives could “become activists for technology-driven strategic transformation”; and, how to “build greater leadership capability in technology leaders – our CIOs, CTOs, CDOs and other similar positions.”

While the large majority of respondents believed technology has a significant impact on organisation’s strategic success (they probably also believe safe sex is a good thing) just why and how are more complex problems. Keywords about the influence to emerge from the responses were integral, fundamental, tremendous, enormous, significant, considerable, massive, huge and critical.

However, the extent to which CIOs and Boards are contributing to organisational strategic success is seen as a ‘mixed bag’. There was much talk about IT as a cost overhead along with rueful reflections on the failure of large technology projects in the past – projects which took up years of financial and people resources.

Equally there was lack of IT knowledge or lack of market and customer knowledge in different sections of a business and “significant confusion as to the role of CIOs – both from CIOs themselves, and at the CEO and board levels. Is the role of CIOs strategic in nature, operational or both?”

Some of the solutions suggested include: separating operational and strategic IT roles; better leadership development for IT people; exposing IT staff to broader sections of the business; and exposing boards to more information about IT strategy and best practice.

In terms of leadership training respondents were rather vague about what was needed – falling back on generalisations such as ‘training.’ Donovan Leadership has pioneered some innovative training and coaching programs for IT (and other) people but the report highlights the need for organisations to be intellectually rigorous about what they are training for; who should undertake it; and, how they should be trained. Of course this problem is also part of the broader issue of digital and IT training; the shortage of STEM graduates; and a generation gap in digital awareness. More STEM graduates would be a great start for many reasons but the blog is always reminded that its son (CTO with a number of successful US companies and author of a number of books on IT security and programming) majored in political philosophy and that various approaches will be needed to solve the problems.

What is certain is that if we are to encourage ‘innovation’ and ‘agility’ in organisations we need more than tax concessions and more than Goldman Sachs inspired policies on investment and share schemes.

We might also need to think about where we look for best practice. As the blog reported a few blogs ago, The University of Melbourne Centre for Workplace Leadership has recently released its report, Leadership at Work: Do Australian leaders have what it takes? The study interviewed 8000 people (CEOs, executives and employees of more than 2700 public and private sector organisations. Professor Peter Gahan, Centre Director, said: “We have modelled the linkages between leadership, performance and innovation in Australian business, and our findings reveal a pattern of mediocrity.”

The report finds low productivity; systemic underperformance; under-investment in leadership; systematic failure to reflect wider social diversity especially in terms of gender; and, a sizeable gap between managers’ perceptions of their skill level and how employees see them. And where does it suggest we look for best practice – the public sector which is, according to the research, considerably more innovative than the private sector.

And when we talk about innovation and digital disruption we almost inevitably turn to the US as an exemplar. But of what? Jeff Madrick, in a New York Review of Books (7 April 2016) essay on Lee Drutman’s book, The Business of America is Lobbying, and some other books cited a number of academic studies which show that: the companies that spent the most on lobbying as a proportion of their assets saw their share price do better than market averages; “the more firms lobby , the lower their tax rates”; lobbying has a positive effect on return on equity compared to the market as a whole; the most active lobbyists are the least likely to be detected for fraud; and, politically connected board members achieve higher stock market returns.

So, to improve your leadership and business performance address the ‘mixed bag’ of problems in IT and digital disruption; define what you are training for; look to the public sector to find innovative ideas; and, keep up your lobbying. The last might seem cynical but effective lobbying is based on understanding both governments and the wider economic and social environments in which they operate. It is as good as any way to understand the wider social diversity organisations operate in, and thus to address many organisations’ systematic failure to address the problem.

…and speaking of lobbying the blog can’t resist a prediction even though the late surge in enrolments in the Brexit campaign had it wrongly leaning towards Remain. The best election prediction the blog knows of is J.K.Galbraith’s response to persistent questions from reporters about an election outcome – “ask me on Wednesday” (US elections being held on Tuesdays of course). Nevertheless, on the basis of the polls the probability of an LNP win is between 60% and 70% and the blog still holds the view it has held during the campaign that the LNP will win and perhaps more comfortably than predicted. But there is that niggling doubt about the depths of anger out there. Plus, as J.K.Galbraith said, the conventional wisdom is always wrong. So given the conventional commentariat wisdom on the July 2 outcome it might be a lot closer than the blog thinks.