Wednesday, November 3, 2010

It doesn't need to be this way

The last little while has seen the full spectrum of management and leadership. I would like to explore these two words that seem to be abused of late in an effort to assist the young executive, manager or supervisor.

I had the recent joy of having a few drinks with colleagues and the discussion invariably turned to leadership and management. The other parties knew this was like throwing fuel on an open fire with me.

As stated in earlier blogs, I have a very strong opinion on leadership and management. My basic position is this. Management ensures the work is done. Leadership ensures the work that is done has purpose. Managers inspect and leaders motivate. This may seem simple but trust me it is not. Leaders can be taught to be better leaders. I firmly believe you cannot make leaders, you can only make them better. Managers can be created, taught and guided. Being a manager does NOT make you a leader. Being a leader does not make you a manager. Hence the dichotomy of the words.

I would like to use two recent major incidents to emphasize my position.

The first incident is the BP oil spill and the second is the Chilean mine incident. Both topics are overused but I believe my use of them may be different. BP is an example of excellent management, truly. The mining incident is an example of excellent leadership based management. Let me explain.



The media has covered this story to death and I will not go into all the details but some serious backdrop is needed before the press makes some lazy engineer's email into a hero story.

Background on the management decisions without leadership that were made.

Drilling into the deep trough instead of the shelf. This was purely done due to cost saving. It is easier to drill water than rock. Yes, it is sad but true. This is why it took so long to dig relief wells. This also added to the extreme complexities due to depth and going too deep. Leadership management would have drilled on the shelf with a relief well being deployed in the trough. The accountants won the first round and the engineers too enamoured with the cool toys won until the disaster happened. Further evidence that engineers and accountants are just really high profile score keepers.

Management when the accident happens

Focus becomes on saving the well and not stopping the oil. Stopping the oil is a risk issue. By now we have competing management objectives on how best to save the well and mitigate the risk of the oil. Scientists, engineers and accountants are working the numbers and not the problem. The result is that some very bad remediation occurs. Plans become asynchronous and not synchronous. The fact that they never had more than one plan on the move is pure management. Leaders work as many options as possible to get the most out of the people, the resources and the situation.

Layers of abstraction

BP creates a condition of abstracting the business units to defer risk and to manage the bottom line and NOT the long term. By creating distance between the executive branch, the operations group and the consultants the firm is insulated from financial and litigation exposure. This is an excellent fund management strategy but a very poor business execution strategy. In times of crisis an organization needs to gel and be cohesive not fragmented and dysfunctional.

The overall effect here is to have as many layers as possible between risk elements and decision makers. So anyone complaining about a problem cannot get directly to the person who created the condition or who can remedy the situation.

Defer the risk (blame game)

Management decides to spread the risk and share some of the monies with contractors. The contractors as explained to the shareholders are lower cost and are NOT burden by our restrictions. This is the first red flag for poor accountability but a great management strategy. In most cases this strategy works. BP projects have a very poor safety record but BP as a corporation has a good safety record.


To this I have to tip my hat to management. In the midst of this chaos they were able to prevent the US government from intervening, and for technology to be deployed to demonstrate the gravity of the issue. This was mind boggling to me.

The US government has the largest navy in the world and not a single one of its massive assets was sent to act as a barge to stop the oil and to assess the damage. The was Obama's time to shine and he blew it. Millions upon millions of Americans were put in harm's way by this and he sat there neutered. It was painful to watch. All the talk in the world will not stop the oil from spreading. This was classic analysis paralysis. His country is being crushed by banks taking over his country and when his country is being attacked by a runaway oil spill he trusts the "company" that created the problem to own up to its mess. The really sad part of this, is that it was allowed to happen. His only feint moment of truth was when he was going to stop BP from paying its dividends. That almost worked till he found out that too many of his starving pensioners have BP stock and depend on those dividends. How very sad for the young president. He cannot blame anyone for his complete lack of leadership during his watch. He did, however, do a fair job managing it though.

Most times, action will trump inaction. The Obama administration so failed on this one. It was his country at stake with its shoreline and its livelihood.

The second containment issue that was too bizarre to believe was the "live spill cam" showing the oil spill. Ok, this is another sign of the apocalypse. They can get a camera down there and get it on the web but somehow they can't get a good camera down there. Much has been said about James Cameron offering his camera and technology to the cause. He was serious and it would have been very effective if BP was actually trying to do what they said they were trying to do. Here is the deal, grainy pictures give the illusion of action but they also knew the risk if good quality pictures where broadcasted to the world. Their quess-timates of the volume being poured out would have been challenged by sharper minds then whom they had on staff. Trust me, this was by design and not by accident.

"who is in charge"

The BP incident and Katrina both suffered from this greatly. Who really was in charge. You have groups dropping oil containment socks and another spaying dispersants to dilute the oil. One counter acts the other. But we are doing something, please be patient, trust us. Then they only had one plan at a time. This wasn't some lab exercise it was suppose to be real. Even when they were able to pump the oil they didn't bring enough ships to hold it. But they did manage to save the oil.

The winners

BP and all its shareholders won on this one. The company survived, maybe a little bruised but functional. They will pay their billions and marketing companies will make a fortune spinning the new BP.

The losers

The poor souls who lost their lives and their families. For BP has and will not change their ways and other workers are still at risk. They just don't happen to work for BP directly.

The American people have lost their coast line and their ocean based economy.

Obama lost a real time to lead. Kennedy had his "Cuban Crisis", and NASA had its Apollo 13. Obama had the resources, the timing, and the will of the people but he lacked the execution. People do want to be managed they want to be lead. The sad part is that his bid for election was about leadership and he did show signs of actually understanding that. However, never confuse "the sell" with "the install".


A Chilean deep hard rock mine that has seen its share of turmoil and ownership changes. The mine suffers a major rock burst and it is shut down from access. The emergency procedure are followed and they determine 33 miners are unaccounted for. The search for survivors commences. It was this natural use of the emergency procedures and its execution that would lead to the most dramatic rescue in recent mining history.

Leadership management before the incident

The leadership of the company, had emergency shelters, food, ventilation and more importantly emergency protocols. These protocols were not just pieces of paper but regularly checked and validated procedures. Workers were trained and practiced on the procedures. This was considered a cost of doing business and the right thing to do.

Leadership at the time of the incident

On the surface the emergency response teams started to execute a prepared emergency plan. All elements of the plan were put in motion. There was no one waiting to see who was in charge. The plan had factored this in, the mine management engaged the resources and drew from internal and external resources. It was not about saving the mine it was about saving the miners. Immediate action trumped any naval gazing. Teams were devised to search for survivors and to drill ventilation tubes into underground emergency shelters in the event miners had made it to the safe houses.

After days of executing the plan without deviation and doubt, the first real miracle occurred. The miracle was a note stuck to the drill rod of the vent shaft. The note was simple, there are 33 of us and we are fine.

From underground the miners had already rationed the supplies, natural leaders emerged to execute the plan and to assess the situation. Work was broken down and each member had something to do to ease the stress and to improve the situation. These men just did not sit down and blame an external force on their misfortune. They started to work the problem and were coming up with plans and options on their own.

Leadership when the miners where found

Once the trapped miners were found, the country stepped in and released the full power of resources and not the ego. The broke the problem down and had several teams working several options. All the time there were communicating with the miners and their families. They took the approach "Success is all 33 are coming home", failure and the associated risks were understood but not the focus. Leaders have doubts after decisions are made and not before.

The extraction

Once the true realization of the facts were known, the rescue was broken down into major parallel tasks. All factors were considered, health, hygiene, body sizes, mental health, extreme exposure to no natural light, geological issues, access to equipment, food, shelter, extraction bullet, physics, engineering, emergency services, etc. Each area had a lead and each lead reported back the executive. The key here is that they worked on many issues at the same time but with a solid communications and control mechanism.

The celebration

Here was another part that showed the true leadership of the event. The celebration was about the miners and NOT the company or the rescuers. Their reward was seeing the 33 happy faces not the padding of their paychecks (the latter occurred naturally for doing a good job, not by demanding it).

The president of Chile and Bolivia (one miner was from Bolivia) were there not for the glory but real leaders, lead by example. The photo ops happened of course they do, but for the right reasons.

The winners

The family and miners, the Chilean government for it showed the world how to deal with a crisis, the mine for it has been able to maintain its reputation of taking care of their own and lastly the people of Chile, for they have a restored hope in hope.

The losers

The media that played to the drama of the one miner who had a mistress. This was noise for the west and irrelevant to the event. Big mining companies who freely admitted prior to the extraction that it could not be done and they would never take the risks. The only risks they wouldn't take was to their back accounts. It was a sad statement from some of the largest mining companies and the some of the larger mining labour groups.

In conclusion

The Chilean leadership based approach pre, during and after the incident if applied to the BP incident would have had a better ending for all parties. If the BP management approach had been applied to the Chilean incident, families would have been given compensation payments in front of the media and a tombstone at the base of the mine to lay claim to 33 dead miners.

We as a society need to promote and demand leadership. Our people in leadership positions today are so concerned with management of numbers, expectation and the next poll or quarter that they have missed the bigger opportunities.

This is being echoed by governments and what the media is trying to call national debates. We need real discourse and engaged communities not people who are being managed (read manipulated) by 30 second sound bites.

In the technology field this is such an easy trap to fall into. Groups will hide behind management decisions and chase the new shiny tool instead of making the current ones work effectively and with purpose.

You lead from the front and with you head held high. Build a strong team that is armed to execute plans and to be creative to gain a better end result. The more we allow basic management to prevail, the softer and less competitive we all become.

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