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April 05, 2019 Friday 11:58:29 AM IST

Inverting leadership pyramid


After the advent of reverse innovation, the next big trend to watch out for is reverse leadership. Reverse leadership is the idea that leadership can work its way from the bottom, up, in a firm, not just from the top down. You’ve likely seen reverse leadership in action. It occurs when someone not in a formal leadership role exhibits great leadership ability: for instance, when a field service agent comes up with a solution to a persistent problem; when a customer service representative motivates her colleagues through her extraordinary customer-centric behaviour; when someone on an account team improves radically after being fruitfully coached by a fellow team member.

In the words of Scott Edinger, founder of Edinger Consulting Group, reverse leadership doesn’t substitute regular leadership. Nor is it an indication that the official leaders in an organization are not performing well. On the contrary, strong leadership ability will be displayed at lower levels in the hierarchy very rarely if senior leaders aren’t very effective in their roles. Even though it is easy to identify reverse leaders, it is tough to narrow down firms that distinguish them or nurture their talents to gain a competitive advantage. Here are the key characteristics that firms should be looking for to spot their reverse leaders.

Focus on results

It is easy to follow the process, but only a strong leader knows when to break from it. Reverse leaders don’t break or tweak rules just to be rebellious. They do it because they concentrate on the results rather than the process. In this regard, reverse leaders can be predominantly helpful to savvy leaders in formal positions who are prudent enough to inspire their reverse leaders to highlight when means are being preferred over ends - and then to pay attention to them when they recommend ways to solve the issue. For example, Ritz-Carlton Hotels used to give each employee a two thousand dollar budget that he or she could use, without checking with management, to solve a customer problem. By employing this programme, Ritz-Carlton was displaying the crucial sign of respect for and trust in employees. It is this type of employee empowerment that makes inverted leadership pyramids so outstandingly successful.

Strong interpersonal skills

Reverse leaders use influence, not authority to lead, and they gain it by creating strong interpersonal connections. For making this happen, they must be self-aware enough to realize the impact that their words and actions have on other individuals. As more and more knowledge work demands individuals to work successfully with peers, the example of the way these leaders treat their team members becomes increasingly significant to organizational effectiveness for all leaders, formal and informal. At a time when the concept of ‘business blogging’ was brand new (and usually feared), IBM motivated their 330,000 employees to start organizational blogs. IBM leadership designed a corporate blogging policy that stimulated employees to be themselves, speak in the first person and respect their colleagues. The result? A marketing jackpot for IBM. Their company blogs are some of the most trusted technology blogs and resulted in tonnes of page views and links back to IBM. Instead of dreading the new technology, IBM embraced it, making their customers and employees very happy.

Integrity of character

To lead by example demands integrity of character. Individuals who have a choice would prefer to follow those who say the same thing up the chain as they do with their peers. In short, they appreciate people who are consistent in their approach in handling problems in various situations. While this is indispensable to reverse leaders, it’s an essential model for all leaders, irrespective of where their authority comes from. Jim Sinegal was known for steering his firm Costco to remarkable returns. But still, Sinegal is better known as a man of the people at Costco. His name tag simply says ‘Jim’, he answers his own phone, and his ordinary office at the firm’s headquarters doesn't even have walls. While other CEOs are squandering tens of thousands of dollars just beautifying their offices, Sinegal pays himself an annual paycheck of $350,00. He believed that he shouldn't be paid more than the payment for 12 employees working on the floor. His modest contract is only a page long, and even consists of a section that summarises how he can be terminated for not doing his work. Employee turnover rate of Costco is the lowest in the retail industry, over six times less than rival Wal-Mart. In times where CEOs are paid in the millions and would never be seen in the ‘trenches’, Jim Sinegal is an outlier. And his workforce loves him for it.

360 degree learning

Reverse leaders show readiness to learn from every stakeholder of the firm regardless of their position in the hierarchy. Jack Welch, the tough, former CEO of General Electric (GE), popularized the idea of reverse mentoring in 1999. In his experimental project, he paired 600 senior and junior employees and found that the latter showed inclination in teaching the former about technological updates and tools.  After his revolutionary effort, many organizations - including industry leaders such as Fidelity, Cisco, UnitedHealthcare, and Target - have created their own reverse mentoring initiatives. Even though they differ in scale and scope, they share a common methodology of harmonizing shared learning between co-workers of different backgrounds to build an interdependent corporate learning. Apart from reversing the hierarchy and activating non-traditional teams, it can also enable firms in accomplishing strategic objectives such as enhancing millennial retention, nurturing inclusivity, and sustaining competitive advantage through technological innovations.

Many reverse leaders will go up the corporate ladder and advance, as we would anticipate. Others may have to wait until they cultivate extra skills. And others will be happy to contribute right where they are. But organizations that can identify them, nurture them, and learn from their example will always have an edge over those competitors that don’t and instead waste the services of the unrecognized talent in their midst.

Dr. Manu Melwin Joy

The writer is an Assistant Professor at School of Management Studies, CUSAT

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