New Role Challenge

Someone taking on a new leadership role emailed me with this question:

I have interesting challenge in this new role. I have to take the leadership role of a troubled account. In my view, in order to get the account back on track there should only be one leader. In our company culture that will be a problem as the leader that failed will want to keep control. Thus, I have interesting challenge in this new role. Have you any thoughts on how to handle it?

This is not a lot of information to go on so in the first instance I would like the questioner to tell me a bit more about:

1. The history of the 'troubled account' in order to get some feel of what constitutes 'troubled' and what the symptoms and expressions of it are. (A good tool to use here is the standard, who, when, what, where, how, why).

2. Next I'd like more information on the issues that are really important to the questioner, as well as his understanding of the priorities and circumstances that are motivating the beliefs and actions of the other leader to want to keep control.

In an ideal situation I'd like to meet with the other leader and get his perspectives on these two aspects, and might also like to meet with some other stakeholders e.g. the managers of these two people and some of their peers.

There are all sorts of possible reasons why someone might want to keep control of a situation: among others, the reward processes encourage it, the organizational politics demand it, and/or the individual motivations make it necessary, and from doing the assessment outlined above I'd hope to get a picture of these.

From this, I would discuss my assessment with the questioner – using as a framework the GROW model – what is the goal, what is the reality, what are the options, and what will you do. If the relationship with the other leader allowed it then both parties could participate in the discussion, and arrive at an agreed way forward. (For example, outlining and agreeing accountabilities which effectively allow for two complementary roles).

On the other hand, if the relationship precluded this in discussing the goals, realities, and options even with just the questioner some ways forward would emerge. In my experience people tend to see a situation like this in only one dimension – for example as a power play, or as a conflict of interests, or as a confrontation, or as a control of resources.

I came across a phrase yesterday that was unfamiliar to me 'man is an animal trapped in webs of significance he himself has spun'. If the questioner is trapped in a way of seeing the situation then offering alternate ways of seeing may open up courses of action beyond those he has already considered.

Reading between the lines, the situation outlined has the hallmarks of an existing or potential conflict which, as an article on Beyond Intractability suggests "may therefore be colored by a backlog of animosities, historical grievances, mistrust, alliances, and structural power imbalances." In this instance Beyond Intractability has a range of checklists aimed at intermediaries and adversaries who are struggling with difficult conflicts. The checklists "highlight conflict dynamics that are helpful to understand, as well as options for dealing with common problems", and are a useful starting point to re-frame the situation.

However, sometimes these types of organizational 'two leader' situations are not resolvable by mediation or consensus. In this case the only option may be for the questioner to exert enough power to get the existing leader moved to a different role where he/she has no influence on the 'troubled account'.