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"Small Ball" Leadership

| April 16, 2013

by Jim Bruce

It’s the job of the leader to keep the team “on point,” heading with a laser-like focus on getting the results the team committed to deliver to its sponsor.  This good reminder for all of us comes from Robert O’Malley, Director Electronic Research Administration, University Information Systems, University of Colorado.

Is it time for you to sharpen your focus today?

. . . jim

“Small Ball” Leadership
by Robert O’Malley, Director Electronic Research Administration, University Information Systems, University of Colorado

We have all read and learned about the leadership and vision of Steve Jobs and Jack Welch and others. This kind of leadership can change industries and even society.  However, there is also another kind of leadership; “small ball” leadership, that is exhibited in small teams with smaller but still significant projects and missions.  That’s what I am looking for today and that’s why I am standing atop the starting tower for the finals of the varsity eight-seat shells at a major rowing regatta on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia.

As I look down river from this vantage point, I can see all of the shells heading up in my direction.  Each crew is made up of 8 rowers and one coxswain.  And it is the coxswain that I want to focus on in our leadership study.  It is this small team with the coxswain as leader that epitomizes how leaders affect their teams in changing or unpredictable conditions.  Not all leaders are sitting in a corner office.  In this case, our leader is sitting in a small, cramped seat in the back of a 65 foot long boat; a boat not much wider than your hips.

Rowing is the one sport in which competitors never see where they are going; they can only see where they have been.  It is only the coxswain who can clearly see the finish line.  Like a good leader, the coxswain is responsible for looking forward, planning a strategy that will take into account the course, the conditions, the crew and the competition.  One of the main jobs of the coxswain is to keep the team focused.  It is easy to lose focus as your boat moves down the course.  It’s important not to worry about competitors on your port or starboard side, just keep listening to the coxswain’s instructions.  She has a plan and vision but the team needs to “keep their head in the boat”.

In our business, our team may not be aware of the long term goals or implications across units, it is the role of the leader to understand all of this and convey, where possible, that vision to the team members.  The team members may only know the projects they have been on, seeing only where they have been, but the leader understands where we have been but also where we need to go.  Once that vision has been established, the team must focus like a laser on that project and keep their respective “heads in the boat” at all times.

As I watch the shells approach the starting tower, I can usually predict who will be successful. It is the team where the seat lineup, stroke rate and race strategy and all of the other decisions have been made.  These decisions are made before the team launches their boat because it is when the boat is sitting still in the water when it is most unstable.  Another tip off to success is how the coxswain and crew interact.  Is the coxswain providing clear, concise vision and directions in the cramped turnaround space above the race course or is the leadership always changing direction on the water?  For both projects and rowing, each course correction slows the project down.

For the IT leader, making these decisions early on is essential for success; the big decisions such as technology, scope, time and cost must be made before project launch.  Major ad hoc decision-making as a project moves forward is a recipe for failure and the leader must be aware of factors that will lead to instability for both projects and rowing shells.  Once the project decisions are made and progress can be marked, momentum starts to build and decisions are increasingly difficult to change as we build our speed.  Mid-course corrections need to be avoided at all costs for they only slow us down.

As the eights back into position, getting ready for the start, they face one of the most vulnerable times, waiting for the start of the race.  Everything has been decided.  The crew is in place, each knows their jobs.  The vision has been worked over and over, but now a sudden wind or change in current may cause the project team to lose their “point”; exactly where they need to head when they come off the starting line.  Now is the time when the coxswain may need to make minor adjustments due to some unforeseen conditions as seen from the dock.

It is the job of the leader to keep the team “on point”, heading in the direction that was originally planned by project owners.  Failure to do that will result in mid-course collisions or even going completely off the course.

Everyone is ready.  Heads down and in the boat. Watch your point.  The starter is raising the flag indicating the project can begin.

“Rowers! ……Attention!………..Go!”