the blog Synergy

Monday, April 17, 2006

Ronni Bennett on Leadership

I had a wonderful conversation recently with Ronni Bennett of Time Goes By. The conversation kept on task but moved around and wow; did the time just fly by. Little did we know that our allotted time was up? She needed to get to plan her packing process and I needed to take my daughter to for a second visit to one of her college choices.

While this was supposed to be an interview, I did learn a few things about interviewing. One, I probably should have recorded it. Two, I need to write more carefully when taking notes. I took quite a few notes (seven single sided pages worth) but some of them are now challenging my deciphering skills (and I knew what we were talking about!).

So what I will attempt here is to recap the salient points of our conversation. I will try to keep as much of Ronni’s voice (and phrasing) as I can. That probably was the third learning I had, after having blogged (and exchanged comments and emails) with Ronni for over a year, to actually talk with her for the first time was a joy. As Ronni and I reviewed what was written here, I did take the opportunity to add some direct quotes from what Ronni sent back via email.

I framed our discussion with what Team Synergy had discussed during March and how women did not participate in the discussion, looking for her thoughts on this issue. Ronni thinks with leadership is a male topic. Someone, somewhere said, “What does leadership matter?” “It is how we keep score” was the response. She talked of the comparison to the BlogHer group and the problems they had when setting up the corporation. They met with the lawyers and the lawyers wanted to know who the leader was. Was it Elisa, Jory, or Lisa? The ladies wanted to do BlogHer differently. They wanted to divide the roles equally. They structured BlogHer with each as a President with an area of responsibility. The lawyers could work with that.

Ronni said
the tight, top-down command structure of the military is unassailable, necessary to be workable in a combat situation. It's the most extreme kind of leadership and probably the easiest to implement: "I say. You do." But it's not flexible enough for most business situations and certainly not knowledge work”.

For example, in her TV production experience, everyone had a role and responsibilities. The show had a deadline. It did not move, it was not postponed, there were no excuses, the show went on or there was a black screen. There never was a black screen.
“That is not an option -ever. So with that kind of a drop dead deadline, there is a different kind of pressure to deliver on time. You meet the deadline - period.”

Everyone focused on the task at hand and helped each other as required. There was no consideration of not helping. It was part of the culture. You helped them when they needed it. They would in turn help you when you needed it. An executive producer could step out into the hall and shout out “You have the interview with Katharine Hepburn at her house on the 29th.” And retreat to their office. They all knew what to do. They did not have to have meetings on what to do, they just did it.

When she worked in the “corporate” world for a time, it was completely different. There were meetings, meetings that folks put on her calendar without consulting with her. Meetings that would last for hours with folks just pontificating, not accomplishing a lot, talk, and heads nodding, let’s do this, so and so do that. They would resume the next week and some things were not completed and no one cared. It did not matter. It was not like the TV deadline. Not like the women’s role raising a family. The kinds of things you could not avoid doing (diapers to change, food shopping, preparing meals, etc.). Women are focused more on the doing. Doing what needs to be done.

We talked of the difference between an assembly line and knowledge work. Things on the assembly line needed to arrive on time. Heaven forbid the car could arrive at the end of the line and not have tires available to be mounted so it could roll off. Where in a knowledge world, it was not so obvious what the workflow was, or where the hold up might be. Six Sigma makes sense in the assembly line. She is not sure that Six Sigma makes sense in the knowledge world.

In her TV production experience, she did not quantify how many hours it took to deliver the show. It was just done, whatever was needed to do it. Again the cooperation was there amongst the team. Even though roles and responsibilities were clearly defined, the overall team had a commitment to make it happen. They would work hard, pull it off, then figure out how to accommodate the schedule to allow folks to take time off after the event so it would be fair and still allow for preparation for the next one. When she worked on the first web site for TV, they all worked in one room. The espirit de corp was wonderful. They were all figuring it out at the same time. They could call across the room to get a graphic for an article and get the research to back it up. They organized it like the TV show and it worked. Everyone pitched in.

Brain storming sessions in the TV world were different than in the corporate world. Egos were not married to ideas in TV. You did not own the idea. You tossed it out. It may spark another that built on it, you went with the flow, truly brain storming, freely sharing and collaborating.
It's not that egos didn't exist in TV brainstorming sessions, but that within the cooperation, there was a clear line of "command." After all the discussion, one person, usually the executive producer, made the decision on how to proceed. The overall goal then couldn't change (or we'd miss the deadline), but each staff member made the smaller decisions within his or her domain to reach the goal by deadline. It was assumed and 99 percent so that each production staff member would meet their various interim deadlines so others could move forward with theirs, and it was possible because the main goal never shifted.”

Ronni said:
“In that sense, I don't believe business should be a democracy. There needs be someone steering the ship who, after all the ideas have been put forth, makes the final call so each person on the team can proceed with their part of the project.”

Ronni thinks that the biggest thing is corporate leaders are not focused enough to get things done. It seems to be a simple thing. Even artists, as creative as they are, know which tool to use as their approach their work. It is not very difficult to define what is required for you to do so that you can get your paycheck. If certain things are not required, it would be good to know what others are.

Ronni said:
“That's what drove me nuts in the "business" place I worked. There were too many chiefs who had equal say, so confusion reigned. Final calls were not necessarily “final” and any number of people could switch direction of the project even after it was well on its way to completion, requiring weeks - and sometimes months - of starting over. Further confusing and probably contributing to people's lackadaisical attitude toward delivering what they'd promised in the last meeting, was that everyone knew the goal would change at some point, so why bother working at it too hard.”

The importance of respect for the individual and for appropriate working conditions comes from the top. The leader needs to set the standard. The environment needs to be functional or it will be painful to get up to go to work. The roles and responsibilities need to be defined and followed through. Deadlines honored. Commitments kept. Do something. Lend the helping hand.

There were other threads to the conversation that will likely appear in other posts over time but this pretty much summarized the key parts of the leadership conversation.

Ronni, I want to thank you for taking time to share your thoughts on leadership with us. You should see some of there effects as we (Team Synergy) go forward. Good luck on your move preparations!

The ‘takeaways’ for Team Synergy I think are
  • to spend more time doing rather than talking.

  • to be careful of what words we use (particularly buzzwords)

  • to walk the talk

What do you think?

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  • At 7:50 PM, Blogger Phil Gerbyshak said…

    I agree that we need to focus on doing rather than talking. I think we're doing this by reaching out to various leaders we've been inspired by.

    I think it's good to use buzzwords sparingly, and measure our words before we stick them out there for all to read. Again, this is something I take seriously, and I know the rest of the Synergy team does as well. It'd be REALLY great if everyone did, but we have to start with US!

    And of course, "to walk the talk" really goes without saying. If you're not doing what you say you are, you're not much good to anybody.

    Great takeaways Steve, and excellent interview!


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